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Story     Winter 2017





By Rosemary Cacolice Brown



Ellen was almost there as she drove the winding silvery ribbons of County Line Road.  Returning to Sweetwater was like balm when her weary spirit needed a boost.  But this trip was far different from other anticipated weekends, terribly confused as she was about the turn of events she should have detoured from long before now.  Needing solitude to clear her mind, she hadn’t even informed Hank of her whereabouts. 


No way did he deserve her vanishing act—except for the teetering brink he had placed her on just last evening.  Was she at fault?  Perhaps, but hadn’t she been crystal clear that what they had together must simply be enough?


Still, it weighed heavily.  Reaching for her cell phone, she hesitated.  Caution had become her byword—both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing because she had deemed it so, shielding her well through her day-to-day while pouring herself into her clients at Hayden and Dean, the upscale firm of interior design.  A curse because it sapped her of all spontaneity, blinding her completely to all new discovery beyond her briefcase of paint chips and fabric swatches—and all because of one overwhelming mistake from her past that still invaded her soul, leaving her emotionally paralyzed. 


Rounding the last curve, she justified her swift disappearance by dredging up the toxic script that began five years back when she married Johnny Forbis, heir-apparent to the Forbis fortune.  As a client he seemed well adjusted, unaffected by his stellar society-page lineage, convincing her completely that he was man with his head on straight. 


He wasn’t.  In due time she realized his compulsion for absolute control of her life, which included profound jealousy—the incidents too numerous to mention, especially in her line of work.  But it was even worse when he drank, when his tirades turned physical with a slap or a shove.  Always he’d apologize and she foolishly forgave, until the night he accused her of having an affair with a newly minted male employee.  With clenched fist he blackened her eyes and split her lip.


It was the defining episode, thank God.  As she gazed at her bruised mirror-faced image she came to her senses.  After two nightmare years of walking on eggs to appease him, enough was enough before he killed her.    


With a smidgen of clarity clinging by slender thread, opportunity arrived one morning as she bade him farewell with a smile and obligatory kiss.   Four glorious days he’d be away on some business trip. As he pulled from the driveway she called her office feigning the flu.  Next, the selfie for proof, then the drive thirty miles out to the arms of Tim, her protective brother, and the search for an attorney to begin divorce proceedings. In the end, since Johnny Boy was very high profile she would offer him one crumb.  She would ask nothing of him, threatening him only with full disclosure to the media if he stalked her and contested the split-up.  Unbelievably, his response was shocking.  Though he apparently felt fine about battering women, he agreed to her dictum much like a sniveling child, utterly fearful of smearing his pristine old-money pedigree. 


Thus was the painful summary of a horrendous experience that left her irretrievably shaken.  Yet, seeming outwardly unscathed, she poured herself into Hayden and Dean with driving focus—all the while shielding herself with a carved-in-stone credo:  No way, no how, would she ever marry again!


That is, until Hank came along to mess things up....     


After the last bend and short jaunt over Little Creek Bridge, Ellen saw it in the distance—the old homestead.  Inhaling deeply, she willed this place of simple serenity to wash over her—always the perfect antidote to dismantle the pace of her frenetically patterned life.  The towering willow still stood proudly in the front yard, almost hiding the modestly framed home peeking from behind it.  The tall white gable still gleamed brightly in the early afternoon sun.  Even the rickety porch swing prompted sweet reverie.  It was all hers now, bequeathed by her dear parents, and although she first toyed with selling out, she simply could not.   It had become her sweet refuge for some time now.


Momentarily forgetting her inner turmoil she parked along the picket fence cordoning the front yard, taking notice of the occasional missing slat.  Further in she observed the peeling paint along the clapboards, the eroding roof shingles and dandelions now choking the lawn.  Perhaps one fine day she’d address those issues, but for now she saw only a humble abode where innocence once lived.  Settling on the porch swing with its familiar groan that Pop could never silence, she allowed its tempo to sooth her inner cadence, and for a brief unbridled moment she thought of Hank and what he must be thinking by now.  Then, drawing a quick jagged breath, she chastised herself: Let it be,girl!  Y ou don’t want him here…


Their first encounter one year ago was almost nondescript, wasn’t it?  His demeanor, hardhat, work boots, spoke volumes—light years from her world at Hayden and Dean.  He was there simply to add a wing to the building; their first exchange about perfunctory details only.  “I’m afraid we’ll have to bump out from your area…sorry for the mess,” he graciously apologized as he moved her desk and files to a cramped adjacent office.  The banter grew daily until the day they shared a speedy lunch at the corner diner, she too busy for the usual hour-long respite at Gallo’s, he too busy to linger since he was short-crewed that day.  As the construction chaos continued more quick lunches followed, the chitchat between them becoming easier as his warm laughter began penetrating the dark catacomb that engulfed her.


So refreshing, so welcome it was—until he tired of the pretense.  She knew exactly the moment the casual between them turned the corner in the midst of the diner’s lunchtime calamity, and could recall every word:


“Let’s have a real date, Ellen, maybe a movie and dinner?”


Shock.  “Excuse me?”


Unblinking persistence.  “Yes, a real bona fide date.”


Maybe that was it.  In no way was he threatened by her condescending retort, as if he knew what he was in for and could handle it.  Now, far beyond those first edifying discussions about blueprints and city codes, what he clearly envisioned would challenge her indeed.  Although she wasn’t on the same page yet, she accepted.  After all, how menacing to her safely crafted life could one date be with a nice guy like that?


But it wasn’t just one.  Over time one had turned into many, all of them so wonderfully liberating that she almost felt new again.  She found herself waiting like a schoolgirl for his call, at one point even revealing to his attentive ear the black chapter of her life with Johnny Forbis.  Inevitably, when the wing project was finally complete their lives were irrevocably entwined—and she knew.  She was “there” again, admittedly in love and she hadn’t even seen it coming. 


Boy, she slid into that with blinders on, didn’t she?  She had willfully dismissed the cautionary voice within her that kept needling all along:  You better watch it, girl!  You’re heading down the same road you traveled before! 


And now?  It was too late, damn it, because no matter how she tried to sidestep what she knew he hoped for—a real future together—he knew her outward posture as an unreachable woman was simply a façade.  But so be it, for fiery fragments of memory, the visceral pain of it, continued to plunder her and she’d have to find a way to brake this runaway train he was pulling her toward.  If he was disappointed, even perplexed by it all, maybe her vanishing act would help him realize that she was dead-on serious, especially after last night in Georgio’s, their favorite Italian restaurant where he poured wine—and proposed. 


“I love you, Ellen.  I want a life with you.  Will you marry me?”


“We have a great deal now, Hank, and I’ve been there before, remember?”


“But that was then.  This is now—you and me.  Does one mistake dictate a lifetime?”


“One mistake makes one cautious.”


And on it went until he capitulated, paid the check and quietly drove her home.


Ellen stood, bringing the swing to silence.  Strolling the length of the porch, she gazed pensively at the surrounding meadows until an approaching sound brought her to the moment.  Shielding her eyes from sunlight, she squinted at its direction until it was recognizable.


Hank’s truck!  Intently she watched as it rolled to a stop alongside the dilapidated picket fence.


It seemed an interminable wait before he emerged.  Like always, he appeared wonderfully composed; his sure-and-steady stride making him appear taller than he actually was.  Although jeans and running shoes depicted the lifestyle he liked best, rigorous workdays belied his easy manner by the strength of his shoulders.   As she watched, he surveyed the picket fence and shook a cannonball post at the gate. 


“Fence needs fixing,” he quipped, “and a fresh coat of paint wouldn’t hurt either.”


“How’d you know?” she asked, dismissing the appraisal.


“That you’d be here?  I knew.  You described this place so often and Sweetwater’s still on the map.  I just kept driving until I caught the markers—a picket fence and willow tree.”


Of course.  She had described it for how long now?  Whenever the warmth of his smile allowed her resistance to bleed out from her armor.  Funny that she hadn’t brought him here in all that time, but it seemed an affirmation she wasn’t ready for—and may well never be.


“I can see why you love it here,” he observed.  “It’s incredible.”  He gazed at the landscape beyond the fence, the towering willow, the distant tall pines interspersed with white birch.  “It’s quiet…like a slice out of time.”


Ellen stood abruptly, pretending cordiality, as if to a stranger.  “I’m sorry that you had to make the trip.  Perhaps if you’d called…”


“I tried, but your cell was off.  Hell, I didn’t know if you were in harm’s way or lost on purpose.”


“Yes, you did, Hank.  You’re too savvy not to know.”


At that he was bolting the steps now two at a time and cut to the chase.  “You’re right, I did know.  I used the M-word—marriage—and it scared the hell out of you.  Maybe I should have known better, but I’m in for it all, God help me.  So this crossroad we’re at...where do we go from here?”


Ellen shrugged.  “Back to where we were, Hank.  You know me well enough to have figured that on your own.”


He was puzzled now.  “Do you really think that’s possible, Ellen?  Look, the simple truth is that you experienced a despicable man first time out and you can’t let it go, using that damn vow as a crutch to keep you safe.  What you don’t see is that it doesn’t keep you safe.  It keeps you hostage.”


It was Ellen’s turn, sarcastically expressed.  “Hostage?”


He struggled for words.  “Yes, because you can’t move on, even though we’re nuts about each other.  You know it, I know it, so I don’t understand—”


“Then don’t!” she interrupted.  “Obviously, you never will.  Let’s just say we’re far too different, you and I, so maybe we should end it.  You’re a good guy, Hank.  You should be with someone who wants what you want—not to mention that we travel in different circles anyway.”  While it was all she had to push him away she instantly regretted the pathetic insult, but it was out now.


And he caught it.  “When has what you do for a living ever been a concern for me, Ellen?  As I see it, you work from a building like those I create and I’m damn good at it.  I’m quite comfortable with who I am, a successful contractor—who still thinks of himself simply as a carpenter, by the way.  My only “issue” is that my buildings go up straight and stay on spec.”


Indeed, she had hurt him deeply.  Still, peppered with anger, her resistance remained at full tilt.  “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for, but you’re the marrying kind and I’m not—even for you—besides, you tricked me!”


The allegation threw him.  “Tricked?”


“Think about it, Hank.  Until yesterday, you let me believe you were perfectly okay with things as they were.”


“Well, maybe you’re right.  But if you’re taking that tact, you tricked me as well, did you not?


Her eyes widened.  “Oh? And just how did I do that?”


“By allowing it all,” he rolled on, “knowing who I was, that I was serious, that I wanted to stop fooling around on the edges, hoping in time you’d get to the same place.  But until last night I never realized how frightened you really were.”  He shook his head.  “Christ, that bastard really did a number on you.”


The truth hit home like thunder, but she wouldn’t budge even though his words hung there, slamming the protective wall within her.


Hank sighed, ending his appeal.  “I don’t know what else to say…we can’t go back and we can’t move forward, so maybe you’re right.  I guess I’ve wasted my time because we are different, too different, and neither one of us can keep doing this.”  Slowly, he turned and descended the steps, mindlessly pulling a dandelion from the weed-ridden clump at his feet, his usual confident stride seeming different somehow, resigned.


Ellen watched him go, her stubborn will barely hanging in.  As he reached the cannonball gate posts, he turned, his final summation coming raggedly. 


“There’s a gut-truth here, Ellen.  You think you’re free, but you’re not.  The louse you divorced three years ago still owns your soul, and the day you realize that is the day you’ll find peace—and not until then.”  That said, he opened the gate and in a too-soon moment was gone. 


Numbness set in as Hank’s stark analogy pierced her defiance.  Would he return?  Not likely.  He always meant what he said.  She followed the dust trail of his truck until it was out of sight and then sat motionless a long while before going inside. 


With trembling fingers she inserted the key into the tumbler and opened the door, pummeled by the stifling mustiness.  As she lifted every sticky window visions came rushing, overlapping, playing out all that came about after Hank entered her life.  Bone-weary now, she compelled her drummed-in credo to do its work, but this time it had no punch.  In those breakaway moments, nanoseconds of unvarnished truth kept nipping at her firewall until finally, miraculously, it all became abundantly clear!  


She had permitted it all, hadn’t she!  The stranglehold on her horrid experience with Johnny Forbis had imprisoned her completely, serving only to tighten the chains of a crippling manifesto that nailed her to a twisted, tunneled vision of life!  This revelation, unstoppable, kept gushing like water from a tipped-over jug as the sordid entrails of her past began to dissipate.  In truth, if she’d never known Hank she might have gone on with her self-imposed charade. She’d do just fine.  But now?  Oh, how she I did know him, the reality of his love, his goodness, his calming influence on the driven meter of her days! 


Not that it mattered now.  He was already gone. 


Hot stinging tears trickled her cheeks, her mouth, her chin as she slid to the floor against the kitchen sink.  Only a lone meadowlark’s trill somewhere in the distance penetrated the silence as she drifted into exhaustive sleep on the cold, worn linoleum.       


When she woke, for how long she had slept she wasn’t sure.  The sun had shifted, leaving long shadows filtering the room.  Yet, despite a Grande-size headache, she felt blissfully freed from the wretched memory that nearly destroyed her.  But had she destroyed Hank as well?  Rushing to the car for her cell phone, she hoped he wasn’t gone for good until he finally picked up.    


“Hank, Hank, it all makes sense now!” she blurted, too choked up to go on. 


He didn’t respond at first, obviously stunned.  Then, with steadiness he came through.  “I’m in a bit of a tie-up here, but I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


This time she was at the cannonball gate posts when he returned, about two hours later.  This time there was no measured timing as he bolted from the truck.  Merging in exquisite reunion, every fold of their bodies melded completely as the euphoric joy of embrace poured through them like warm honey until they released, his hands now cupping her tear-stained face.


Ellen could barely whisper.  “I can’t believe what I put you through.”


“I understand it all,” he gallantly verified.  “We’ll take it one step at a time.” 


Steeped in wondrous renewal, they strolled arm-in-arm pass the rustling willow to the porch and rickety swing—with only one missing detail to make it perfect.


“Just for the record, Hank, ask me again so I can record the when and where of it.”


He reads her and smiles.  “Will you marry me?”


“Most definitely.”


The where of it pulled his gaze to the weather-beaten sanctuary she so cherished.  “We’ll get the place in shape, too, come back when we feel the need—and you know the first thing I’ll do?”


“Can’t imagine.”


“I’m going to oil this confounded swing!”


His funny quip made her laugh heartily for the first time this day, followed by silence as they rocked a bit longer, quietly celebrating an epiphany that evoked so much promise until the breeze whipped up and Ellen stood.


“Let’s go inside. It’s getting rather chilly out here,” she beckoned, her enticing murmur implying what she didn’t need to say.


“It is,” he replied, his tone warm and husky with anticipation.  Obliging, he rose from the creaking swing and they walked in together for the very first time of many to come.


* * * * * 



  BIO:   Rosemary writes from her Michigan home and is always at the keyboard whenever time allows.   Early on her work was print-published in small-press magazines.   On the Internet, her many stories have been accepted by Long Story Short, Apollo’s Lyre, Green Silk Journal, Houston Literary Review, Fiction on the Web and The Story Shack.