Gwen Spencer scanned her cheery living room and sighed. The place had lost its appeal. All the time she’d spent decorating in her favorite southwestern motif now seemed a waste. Snuggled in her sandstone-colored easy chair, with knees bent and feet tucked beneath her, she stared at the telephone. If wishes came true, it would ring at any second and she’d hear Brad’s voice.
She raised her gaze and peered through the window. An overcast sky hid the sun, and gray shrouded the fall-colored trees in the front yard. A few leaves drifted to the ground, carried by a light breeze. Within weeks, the branches would be bare—as empty as her heart felt at the moment. The visual hint of the late October chill made her shiver. Where was Brad? Was he warm and safe? The fire she’d started earlier flickered bright beyond the hearth and kept the room toasty. She hoped her husband had a coat. Tennessee nights were cold this time of the year.
The silence overwhelmed her and, with a sigh, she stretched out her legs, stood, slipped her feet into her fuzzy slippers, and shuffled to the stereo. She flipped through the plastic CD covers housing her music collection, the ones she and Brad had selected together. She paused and let them fall back into a neat row. The songs held recollections of happier times. Today marked ten years since she and Brad had married, and she’d never expected to spend such a special occasion alone. Favorite tunes would only enhance her pain. She forced a smile, remembering what someone once told her. “If you play country music backwards, you get your dog back, your house back, your man back, your life back.”
If only retrieval was that simple. Her heart clenched with fear, and the momentary glee faded. This time Brad wasn’t coming home. He’d been gone for over a month. The personal time she’d requested from work had almost expired, and it was time to get on with life. Time to get back to the job that financially sustained her.
With a shrug, she wandered into the kitchen and opened the bottle of wine she’d purchased a few months ago for their special day. She filled a glass and went back to her favorite spot in the living room. Carefully plopping down, she took a long, slow draw from her goblet, favoring the light, fruity taste she favored over the more bitter offerings.
“Happy friggin’ anniversary,” she muttered and raised her glass into the air. Her gaze drifted back to the phone. Did he even know what day it was?
Deciding to watch television, she reached for the remote. The TV screen flashed to life with the evening report and more bad news: Floods, murders, rapes. Was there no end to life’s disappointments? Her mind wandered, and the anchor’s voice became only a murmur in the background.
Visions of her wedding flashed before her. She’d been the happiest bride in the world. Brad stepped into her life to fill a void left by another man. She never dreamed of finding love a second time, let alone discovering someone who treated her like a queen. Although divorced for two years between weddings, saying vows to Brad felt like the first time. She recalled how her heart fluttered with excitement.
What had gone wrong? Somehow during the years, drugs became the “other woman” and held more appeal than Gwen did. When had he started taking them, and why hadn’t she noticed? The first five years were blissful, but afterwards, telltale signs were there. She obviously chose to ignore them.
Because Brad always came home, she continually accepted his pitiful excuses for any short disappearances. Relieved to see him, she never questioned his sincerity until the truth became crystal clear...the day a packet of pills fell from his pants pocket on laundry day.
When questioned, Brad at first denied the pills were his, but then relented. He swore he only used methamphetamines to get through a stressful time at work and promised his problem had nothing to do with her. Funny. Then why did it his drug addiction spill over and make her life miserable? Eventually, he couldn’t hold a job...or didn’t want to. His excuses always made him the victim.
Gwen lowered her head and grasped the back of her neck to ease the growing tension. All this time and no word, when would she get a clue and move on? His dependency had a far bigger hold on him than she ever could. If he gave a damn about her, he would have at least called to let her know he was okay.
She reached for her wine glass and took another gulp. The smooth sweetness passed through her lips with ease, but struck a sour cord. She clenched the slender stem and gazed into what remained of the rosy liquid. A grimace tightened her mouth. Was drinking pink Chablis to ease her pain that much different than Brad taking pills? She stood, marched back into the kitchen in bare feet, and emptied the wineglass and bottle contents down the drain. Faith in God would be her strength, not alcohol or drugs.
She started upstairs for a hot shower. The phone rang. Her heart seized, but she patted her chest and took a deep breath. If she answered, she’d probably find it was her mom. She called every day, but not usually this early. Still, Mom knew Gwen wasn’t working right now.
“Mrs. Spencer?” The man’s voice on the other end wasn’t familiar.
“Yes.” She held her breath.
“This is Officer Gilliam from the Dickson police department. I believe we have a vehicle in our impound lot that is registered to you.”
Gwen exhaled. “Is…is it a white pickup?” The words stuck in her throat, but she pushed them out. Brad drove the Toyota she’d purchased before they married. She’d never bothered to re-register it in both their names.
“Yes. A 1999 Toyota long bed. You should make arrangements to pick it up as soon as possible as fees are assessed everyday it’s here.”
It was her truck, but fees were the least of her worries. “Why do you have it? Did you arrest…” Her knees wobbled and she sank into her chair.
“I don’t know the particulars, ma’am. I’m just the person in charge of notifying the owners. When you come to claim it, be prepared to pay whatever fines are owed. We don’t accept checks, but will take money orders and credit cards.”
“How could I possibly bring a money order if I don’t know the amount?” She vented her frustration on the wrong person and immediately bit her lip. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”
“No problem. I should have told you each day your truck remains impounded, we charge one hundred dollars. Since it’s taken me some time to track you down, we’ve already had your vehicle for ten days. Are you aware you haven’t changed your address information with DMV and that your registration has expired?”
“Yes, and I’m sorry about that. I guess it slipped my mind.” Her thoughts raced with what might have happened to Brad despite the caller's scripted rhetoric.
“Well, before we can release your property, you’ll have to pay the renewal and accumulated fees when you come in.”
“How do I find out what happened to the person who drove the vehicle?” She balanced the phone on her shoulder and wrung her hands.
“You can either call back tomorrow and ask to speak with Sergeant Calhoun, or come in and see him personally.”
Gwen thanked the man and hung up. Her mind was a whirlwind of worries. If Brad didn’t have a vehicle, how was he getting around? Was he in jail? The hospital? Dead? A cold chill peppered her with goose bumps. Brad couldn’t be dead, but still, she wouldn’t know for certain until tomorrow.
Gwen felt as though she’d been drugged when her alarm sounded. She slapped at the button atop the clock and struggled to open her eyes, wondering how anyone could enjoy a self-induced fog. She hadn’t mentioned anything about Brad to her mother when she called. Everyone in the family assumed they were doing well in their new home state, and Gwen didn’t want anyone to know her second attempt at marriage was another train wreck. She glanced at the empty pillow next to her, wishing her problems with Brad were all a bad dream.
Most of her night had been spent tossing and turning, trying to find answers to all her questions. She didn’t know what time she’d finally fallen asleep, but recalled seeing strands of light creeping through the blinds.
She stood, stretched her hands high over her head and rocked from side to side. Her spine crackled and released some of the pent-up stress. A visit to the police department didn’t count high on her list of favorite things to do, but Sergeant Calhoun was the only ones who could confirm her worst fears. Although she vowed to get on with her life, she wasn’t ready for bad news about a man she still loved. Gwen dropped her arms to her side, and with shoulders slumped, headed for the hot shower she’d planned before last night’s upsetting call.
Afterwards her shower, she dressed, stood in front of the mirror and pulled a hairbrush through her tangled locks. She was barely forty and already strands of gray frosted her brown hair. God, she didn’t want to grow old... and alone. Her eyes misted with tears, and she decided to forgo makeup for sunglasses. As she dried her eyes, her room brightened. Evidently yesterday’s clouds had moved on… at least those in the sky.
Gwen’s hands felt clammy on the steering wheel. Traffic was light on the back country road to Dickson and now that the phone call had sunk in, she wondered how her truck ended up in such a rural community. Nerves and breakfast had never been a good mix so she’d passed on her morning meal. Her stomach clenched and rumbled but most likely not from hunger. What news would she hear today? Was she strong enough to face the truth? Morbid thoughts blurred the trip.
A city limits sign proclaimed she’d arrived in Dickson and, drawn back to clarity, she scanned both sides of the street, looking for the police department. The old brick building marked as her destination looked more like a library. She parked in front and went inside, inhaling the mustiness of years past.
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 jotted down directions to where the Toyota was kept and was 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 the dirty, white Toyota on leaden legs.
Tears filled blurred her eyes as she opened the driver’s door and gazed inside. The seats and floor were filthy—littered with trash and remnants of how Brad had lived for the past month. His scent lingered in the air. The fence surrounding the impound lot gave off an eerie vibe, and Gwen 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 found yet another bear. The fur on its small face was dirty and the body contorted from being smashed beneath weight heavier than its own. She picked up and cuddled the toy, hoping in some way her embrace would transcend the atmosphere and let her husband know she still cared what happened to him. A tear trickled down her cheek. Gwen held the treasure away and stared at it through blurred eyes.
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’d 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, shocked at how quickly Halloween and Thanksgiving had come and gone. Although not much in the mood for festivities, she’d forced herself to drag out the decorations and focus on the spirit of the holiday. In an attempt to move ahead with life, 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. She recalled using almost those exact words to explain her sleepless night. 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 asking that you let me prove 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 to. 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, you know?”
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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