Continuing my short story from New Love Stories Magazine from the Nov/Dec 2009 issue.
Gwen’s hands felt clammy on the steering wheel. Traffic was light on the back country road to Dickson. Now that everything had sunk in, she wondered how her truck ended up in such a rural community. Her stomach clenched and rumbled. Nerves and breakfast weren’t a good mix so she’d passed on her morning meal.
When a city limits sign proclaimed she’d arrived in Dickson, she scanned both sides of the street, looking for the police department. She parked in front of an old brick building that looked more like a library. Her brief conversation with Sergeant Calhoun didn’t provide any new leads. The pickup had been found on the side of the road with a flat tire and towed to the impound lot. She was given directions to where the Toyota was kept and allowed to view it before paying her fines. Pain stabbed at her disappointed heart as she drove the two blocks to an old gas station where more than a dozen vehicles were parked. She used the code the sergeant had given her to open the lock on the gate. In the far corner, she spied her truck. She walked to it on leaden legs.
Tears filled blurred her eyes as she opened the driver’s door and gazed inside. The seats and floor were dirty—littered with trash and remnants of how he’d lived for the past month. His scent lingered in the air. The fence surrounding the impound lot gave her an eerie feeling. She shivered and summoned memories of happier times to fill her mind. This wasn't how things were supposed to end. For years he’d been her caretaker when she was ill, her partner, her lover, her best friend. Why couldn’t she save him? Why couldn’t her love be his salvation?
Gwen reflected on all she had left of their relationship—the collection of teddy bears he’d bought her over the years: one holding a Valentine Heart, one wearing a St. Patrick’s Day vest, and the big white panda he'd brought back after he’d disappeared for three days the last time. That one had been the harbinger of what was yet to come, with its furry paw raised in a farewell wave. But the clue went unnoticed in her joy to have Brad home.
Shaking the negative image from her mind, she returned to picking through the rubbish on the floorboard. She fingered a tiny ring, cheap and discolored, but engraved with the letter “G”—her initial. Her throat burned with restrained sobs as she tossed it back, wondering where it came from and why he’d had it. She didn't need one more thing to remind her of him. What she needed was to forget.
Stoically, she forced herself to continue the inspection, hoping for, yet knowing there would be no clues to answer her many questions. She heaved a deep sigh and pulled the seat forward. Beneath more refuse, she saw a small bear. Its fur was dirty, its tiny face contorted from being smashed beneath weight heavier than its own. She picked it up and cuddled it, hoping that in some way her embrace would transcend the atmosphere and let her husband know she still cared about what happened to him. A tear trickled down her cheek.
Should she throw the bear away? What use was it? Each time she looked at it, she would only remember no matter how close you hold someone and love them, there is always something stronger that can pull them away. This tiny stuffed creature was like Brad in many ways. Once it was clean and bright and brought a smile to a face. But burdened by a weight heavier than it could manage, it became dirty, unrecognizable and not quite so loveable. She could launder it, but that would only take care of the surface. She had washed his clothes and kept his home clean, yet his problems were so deeply imbedded she couldn’t fix them.
There was nothing in the truck she wanted. Gwen put the bear back where she found it and gently closed the door. She didn’t need one more piece of memorabilia, one more link to heartache and bad memories. Instead, she resolved to hold onto images of a healthier and happier man and know she had truly tried to make things work.
A momentary feeling of defeat washed over her, and then a realization dawned. She hadn’t lost. He had loved her as much as a troubled man could love, and she’d cherished him in return. The agony was in knowing the drugs had won the battle, but strength came in realizing she won the war. She could finally let him go, praying he found himself and happiness again…somewhere, someday. Surely the pain would linger for a time, but a weight lifted from her burdened shoulders as she walked through the gate, leaving behind the truck and all it represented. The City of Dickson could donate the vehicle to charity for all she cared. She wiped away the last tear she planned to shed over Brad and, squaring her shoulders, walked back to her car.
Gwen hung the last piece of tinsel on the Christmas tree. Although not much in the mood, she forced herself to drag out the decorations and focus on the spirit of the holiday. In an attempt to move ahead, she’d invited co-workers and neighbors over for a party. Maybe she couldn’t face her family with the truth, but she’d confided to a few friends that she and Brad were finished. The reasons why weren’t important… and actually, she didn’t know herself what drove Brad to drugs. She still struggled to close the chapter in that book.
The log in the fireplace crackled and popped as fiery fingers stretched up the chimney. Gwen lit the pine-scented candles on the mantle to provide the smell missing from her fake tree. She’d spent all of Saturday preparing food and getting things ready for tonight. She stood back and surveyed the room. The tree shone in radiant beauty and the garland around the doors and windows added the perfect festive touch.
She glanced at her wristwatch and realized the guests would be arriving in less than an hour. She’d already showered, so all she needed was to change clothes and fix her hair and makeup. As she turned to go upstairs, someone knocked at the door.
“Oh, brother. Who could that be?” She crossed the room and opened the door.
Her heart seized.
“Hi, Gwen.” Brad flashed a sheepish grin.
She stood rooted to the spot, her breath failing her. She moved her mouth but no words materialized.
“I’m sure you weren’t expecting me.” He stepped forward and pulled her into his arms. “Darling, I have so much to tell you… so much to explain. Please give me one last chance, and I promise you won’t regret it.” His clothes were clean and he smelled of fresh laundry soap.
Her pain from the past months bubbled to the surface and steeled her resolve. She pushed him away. “I’m happy to see you’re alive, but I don’t think you have anything I want to hear.”
He took hold of her hand. “I totally understand how you feel, and I’d act the same way in your shoes. But…”
“No buts.” She jerked free. “You’ve put me through hell. All this time, I’ve had no idea if you were dead or alive. You couldn’t bother to pick up a phone and call me? Now you have the nerve to show up on my doorstep and expect me to act like nothing ever happened?”
He lowered his head and stared at the ground. “I couldn’t call. At least not after I hit rock bottom and accepted help. Before that, everything is a drug-hazed blur.”
The cold air pouring through the open door sent a shiver through her. His statement piqued her curiosity, and she couldn’t turn him away without hearing his explanation. “Come in. It’s freezing out there.”
She perched on the edge of her chair and gazed up at him. “What do you mean bottomed out?”
“May I?” He motioned to the sofa. When she nodded, he removed his jacket, draped it over the couch back, and sat. He took a long breath. “Where should I start? Let’s see….”
Gwen listened in earnest as Brad revealed the whole story. How he’d given in to the drug high until he ran out of money, begged on street corners for a fix, and finally landed in jail. During his incarceration, he suffered a minor stroke and found himself hospitalized. A visiting pastor invited him to accept the Lord and an offer of help through a local drug treatment center. Brad had agreed and spent all this time getting clean and sober. One of the caveats of the program had been the stipulation that there would be no contact with the outside world. He’d passed on the opportunity to phone her beforehand because he didn’t want to get her hopes up until he knew he had defeated his demons. Here he sat, claiming he had.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’ve put you through the wringer. It makes me feel better to know that I’ve apologized. It’s part of my program…to make amends with those I’ve wronged.”
Tears burned the back of Gwen’s eyes. She’d never stopped loving him, just trusting him. How could she get her faith back based on one story and an apology, no matter how convincing? “Like I said, Brad, I’m relieved to see you alive and well. I cried myself to sleep too many nights wondering where you were and how you fared. I appreciate your apology…
“I understand. I’m not asking for another chance. I’m only requesting that you let me prove to you that I’ve changed. Something different happened this time. I realized how much I had to lose: my life, you…” He paused for a moment, his gaze locking with hers. “It dawned on me that without you, life wasn’t worth living.”
Brad’s face looked drawn, and he was much thinner, but he still had that tall, dark and handsome appeal that drew Gwen to him.
His words warmed her heart, but didn’t heal the wound. She wanted to believe him but needed time. She nibbled at her bottom lip and flashed back to all the broken promises, the times she forgave only to be hurt and disappointed again.
He glanced around the room. “Everything looks so nice.” His gaze rested on the dining room table and the festive plates, glasses and bowls of snacks. “Are you expecting someone?”
“Yes, I’ve invited a few people over for a holiday celebration.” Gwen wondered how she’d explain his presence, and hoped maybe she wouldn’t have to. “Would you like to stay?” She held her breath for his response.
“No, thank you. I don’t believe I’m quite ready to face the world yet, but I would like to come by on Christmas Day and bring you a gift.”
A silent whoosh of air fluttered past her lips. “That would be nice.”
Brad stood. “Is one o’clock okay?”
As he slid his muscular arms through his jacket sleeves, Gwen recalled the times he’d held her and how wonderful it felt. Although she wanted to fall into his embrace and forget everything that had happened, she resolved to take baby steps. “One is fine. Would you like to have Christmas dinner with me?”
“I’d love it. I always look forward to your honey-baked ham with mashed potatoes and gravy.” He trailed his hand down her arm and smiled. “Goodnight, Gwen.”
He opened the door and stepped outside, but turned. “I do love you.”
She covered her heart to quell the pounding in her chest.
His eyes shone with unshed tears making her want to soothe him until his hurt went away. She stepped forward yet hesitated.
Brad’s gaze lifted to the mistletoe hanging over her head. He leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on her lips, then stepped back, snuggled into his jacket and zipped it to his chin. “You’ll see. I’m a changed man. From now on, the only drug in my life is going to be the love I feel for you. If I need a fix, I’ll steal a kiss.” He turned and walked toward the street.
Gwen closed the door and slumped against it. She touched her fingertips to her lips and smiled. She hadn’t asked for a gift for Christmas, but it seemed Santa had come early. She had a party to dress for, and now, a real reason to celebrate.
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