Picking up the Pieces cover

Picking up the Pieces by Kristin Rodgers

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For a lucky few, life goes as planned…

Claire Thomas knows all about complications. Not long ago, she relished her successful military career, engaged to the man of her dreams. Abruptly, everything in her life went wrong. Having served her enlistment in the Air Force, she returns home with a broken heart from a severed engagement. The last thing she expects is to meet a sexy, laidback Texas native. Levi Houston manages to erode enough of Claire’s defenses to give her a glimpse of reality: Not all men or relationships lead to heartbreak. Caught in a tug-of war between what the heart wants against reason but needs in order to remain whole, ultimately her growing feelings for Levi or her fear of heartache will decide the path her future will take.

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GENRE: Contemporary Romance ISBN: 978-1-925574-63-0    ASIN: B07YL7W1HF     Word Count: 58, 791

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Chapter 1

 

Scranton

Population 8,300

 

Sighing, I made my way down the all too familiar main street. It seemed like only yesterday when I’d left town without a backward glance, my car radio blaring Goodbye To You by Michelle Branch. My future had seemed bright and promising and I recalled too keenly the elation I’d felt, a stark contrast to the leaden knot that had since taken up residence in the pit of my stomach.

Five birthdays, a few deepening lines around my eyes, two gray hairs recently discovered, and one broken heart later, I was home. Back to the place I thought I’d left behind for a good long while, if ever to return at all.

I stopped at the red light in front of Econo Foods, which five years ago had been More 4, and looked dismally around. Not much had changed, except the names of a few local businesses. But overall, it was the same. Too bad I couldn’t say that about myself.

The light turned green. I followed the 25 mph traffic past The Angus and Kountry Korner, past Krueger’s, Amoco, and a new McDonalds; past the two story quaint buildings that housed lawyers offices and small businesses, and a couple of unfamiliar faces strolling the sidewalks. Upon seeing the library, set back off Main Street and tucked into a few ancient oak trees, a rush of memories sent me spiraling back into my childhood…rows of books towering around me, the aged paper between my fingers as I flipped through pages, playing hide and seek with Anna Mae down the less visited isles that smelled musty and forgotten…fragmented pieces of a time that had been so much easier and simpler. A time I’d dreamed big and strove even bigger.

For most of my childhood I’d wanted to be a best-selling author. Sometime later I wanted to be an international entrepreneur, which was short lived. As a teenager, I wanted to fly commercial airplanes, but then I met an Air Force recruiter and naively fell for the ploy that I could be an F-15 pilot in the military.

I shook my head, exhaling sharply. Those expectations hadn’t panned out the way I’d hoped. Here I was, twenty-three and running home with my tail tucked between my legs, all because those big dreams had fallen flat. And I wasn’t even remotely successful by anyone’s standards. I still only had half a manuscript stored in a file on my laptop, long since forgotten. There was a framed certificate in my parents’ attic from passing my pilot ground school exam when I was thirteen. And while I had a Bachelor in Business, completed while on active duty in the Air Force, I certainly had no forthcoming plans to be an international debonair anytime soon. What I did have was an honorable discharge after serving four years in Financial Management in the Air Force, and a job as a loan officer waiting for me at my hometown bank. I was so ordinary it hurt.

With downtown behind me, I put on my blinker to turn onto County Road GG. I’d be home in a few minutes, my car loaded to bursting point with my past five years of life. Clothes, framed pictures of military friends I’d more than likely never see again, a carton of various awards and certificates, a bunch of random stuff I’d collected over the years, decorations I’d acquired for my dorm room…and The Box. My mind zoomed in on it like a laser, tucked in amongst all the junk behind me. The Box filled up with memories of him. And just like that, my hand drifted to my thin gold necklace and the ring that now occupied it. 

Sighing, I gazed out my window at the stretches of cornfields that blurred by. It was as though they were locked in a passage of time, no different today than they had been yesterday. The sun still shone brightly as it did in my memories, the fields still swayed in the breeze, the trees still towered off in the distance. And it was still just as beautiful, I thought, as far away memories once again resurfaced, though bits and pieces were all that remained of them. Riding my bike in the gravel shoulder and slipping, cutting up my bare feet…my dad pulling me in a wagon in the cool afternoon breeze…fishing off the bridge with my cousins…playing hide and seek in the corn stalks…walking home from school with my best friend, Anna Mae, and laughing till we cried…

I decided being home wasn’t so bad; it was the circumstances I came that were less than desirable. And although Scranton looked the same to me, it was anything but. I’d lost a piece of myself out there in the big, wide world, and one of my best friends with it.

I pulled into my parents’ driveway, embracing the familiarity of it. Some of my earlier trepidation dissipated as I took stock of how much larger the trees seemed to have grown in my absence. Mom’s number of garden gnomes appeared to have grown, too, as I began noticing one after another peering out from amongst her peonies and marigolds that colored the flowerbeds with their rainbow mirth. I smiled despite myself and climbed out of my car, stretching as I shut the door with a slam. Simultaneously, my parents’ front door opened, and they emerged with happy–but bewildered–smiles.

“Claire!” Mom gushed as she wrapped me in a hug.

“Hi, Mom,” I replied, my voice muffled in her shoulder. Then my dad took his turn and embraced me tightly. “Hey, Dad,” I said, giving him a kiss on his rough cheek.

He held me out at arms’ length and there was a moment of silence as we all observed one another. Theirs was of concern, mine out of awe that my parents had aged without me even noticing. My dad’s brown hair, cut short and tight as always since his military days, was peppered with gray. There were fine lines feathering across his face that hadn’t been there the last I’d seen him…or had they? I struggled to remember if I’d paid that close attention six months ago when they’d come to Colorado. And my mom, pretty as ever with her blonde hair gracing her shoulders and her green eyes bright, donned the same beginnings of wrinkles; only hers were showcased on her chest where they appeared to gather together in the shape of a vee and disappear into her cleavage. There was also evidence of her neck softening, drooping slightly where it once had been graceful and sleek.

Though my observations were moot, I could imagine what was going on behind my parents’ intense stares. Certainly, they noticed my limp hair that was in desperate need of a wash and color, neglected from weeks, if not months, of heartache. My face was oily, and makeup smudged from the fifteen-hour drive I’d just endured. Not to mention the ten pounds I’d lost since Adam.

I felt my mom’s hand on my back. “It was time to get out of there,” she said quietly, sympathetically.

Biting my lip to keep from crying, I nodded.

Dad slid an arm around my shoulders and led me toward the house. “Saves me a trip,” he said, attempting to joke.

I managed to smile and allowed my parents to shuffle me down the sidewalk and into the front door. Upon entering, I felt my pain ease. I was home and for the first time in months I felt safe from my personal tribulation.

The sunlight poured in through the windows and illuminated the dark wooden floors adorned with Mom’s thick tufted weave area rugs. Her preference for wrought iron décor coincided beautifully with the textured beige walls, and the numerous framed photos from their travels made the atmosphere homey and comfortable. It was how I remembered it, only updated here and there to accommodate their lifestyle as empty nesters.

“You must be exhausted and starving,” Mom said, entering the kitchen that was right off the foyer. She began extracting food from the refrigerator.

“Mm,” I said thoughtfully, fingering a framed photo of Mom, Dad, and I on Pensacola beach. “I am tired.” Not so much hungry, I thought, recalling that Adam had been the one taking the photo.

“Well after you eat you can go take a nap. So how was the drive?” she asked, pans clanging now.

Dad had leaned against the kitchen counter, his arms and ankles crossed as he took stock of what Mom had laid out.

“Long. Very long,” I said, joining them. I grabbed a knife and helped slice vegetables. “I had to stop in South Dakota last night.”

“Well I’m glad you didn’t tell us your plans,” Mom said, cutting her eyes at me with disapproval. “We would’ve been out of our minds with worry. What happened to your friend that was going to ride with you?”

“Jorge. He wasn’t on leave until Friday, and I didn’t want to wait.”

It hadn’t been one of my smartest ideas, but the thought of sitting in my apartment for another few days had seemed worse than attempting the long drive alone. My good friend Jorge had agreed to take the first two days of his leave to help me get home, and then he was going to catch a flight to Puerto Rico, where he was from. But I’d called him; thankful he hadn’t answered to deter me, and left a message, then jumped in my car and left town for good.

“And how did you know this Jorge again?” Dad asked, having donned a knife, too, and was now busy slicing a red pepper.

“We were stationed with him in Florida. He’s the one that got Adam his job when we got out,” I explained, attempting not to choke on the name.

Dad paused in mid slice and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Oh yeah, he was the one stationed at Schriever, that had the uncle who worked for the railroad.”

 “Mm hm,” I replied, my lips pressed tightly together. I kept my focus on the tomatoes.

“So, wait,” Dad said, pointing the knife at me. “You were stationed with him in Florida and then…he moved to Colorado, right?”

Nodding, I gathered the tomatoes into a pile. “He moved to Schriever a year before Adam and I got out. He hooked Adam up with the railroad interview because of his uncle and–“

“And that’s why you two moved to Colorado. Because of Adam’s job,” Dad finished, his head bobbing with understanding. “Now I remember Jorge.”

“You should,” I said. “He went out to dinner with us a few times you were visiting, plus you played golf with him and Adam.”

Dad’s face lit up. “Oh yeah! Jorge! Nice guy,” he mused.

“Can we talk about something else?” I muttered, wincing at the hurt swelling in my chest.

A year ago, Adam and I had moved to Colorado, into separate apartments but together in plans and future. He’d been hired as a conductor with the railroad, and I put my financial management experience and military background to good use and secured a job as a civilian contractor in the finance department on Schriever AFB. It hadn’t taken long for life to happen, and now my future seemed as fragile as the skin on the onion I was peeling away, hoping the sudden tears in my eyes would be disguised by it.

I felt Mom and Dad’s eyes on me, only for a second, but long enough to make me uncomfortable. Pity wasn’t what I wanted, just time. Eventually…maybe…it would hurt less, but after spending five years loving him, I couldn’t imagine it ever would.

“It’ll get easier,” Mom said, patting my hand affectionately.

Shaking my head slightly, I looked up at her, tears running down my cheeks. “I don’t think it will,” I said miserably.

With a sad sigh, Mom reached for me and pulled me into her arms. I fought to keep my sorrow at bay, but when I saw my dad’s pained expression, the well inside me broke and I cried. I wanted Adam back desperately. I wanted to go back to a year ago, when we were consumed with one another, madly in love, and planning a wedding. How had it all crumbled so quickly?

Mom and Dad gave me time to cry myself dry. They said all the right things, consoled and comforted me, but even after I mopped my face with a Kleenex, the emptiness didn’t go away. Still, I put on a smile for them and managed to convey that I was fine.

Reluctantly, Dad resumed chopping while Mom began warming the oil to cook the vegetables in. I combined them into one pile and was about to see to the chicken Mom had set aside when my phone rang. Anna Mae’s name lit up my screen.

“Hey,” I said when I answered, mustering up enough cheerfulness to be convincing. I gestured to my parents that I would be right back and stepped out of the kitchen into the dining room for a bit of privacy, knowing their concern would lead to eavesdropping.

“You back yet?” Anna Mae asked, not bothering with pleasantries.

“Yeah, just got home about twenty minutes ago.”

I eyed the framed photos hung on the wall: the opera house in Sydney, a quaint street in Copenhagen, my parents smiling in front of a waterfall in Hawaii. It’d been because of their passion to travel that I hadn’t been home in five years. They’d always insisted on coming to visit Adam and I, which we’d happily agreed to because we’d been saving for a wedding.

Anna Mae squealed into the phone. “I can’t believe you’re back! When can you get away?”

Smiling, I quickly considered trying to escape tonight, but a wave of fatigue washed through me and I doused the thought.

“How about tomorrow? I’m too tired today, and there’s no way my parents would let me leave anyway.”

There was an audible crunch, and I heard Anna Mae chewing. “I figured. I bet they’re glad to have you home. I know I am.”

I pictured her sitting at her white desk, the same one she’d had since childhood, with her bare feet propped up on the top and her cut off jean shorts revealing her slender legs. Anna Mae had always been pretty with her flawless skin, mound of auburn curls, and a confidence that was unmatched. I, on the other hand, was usually in her shadow, which was fine by me. Not one for unwarranted attention, I gladly accepted my station in our friendship.

“They are,” I agreed, peering around the corner at my parents as they worked together preparing dinner. “I’m glad to be home, too.”

Anna Mae’s voice dropped as if we had an audience listening in. “You need this. To start moving on.”

At the mention of Adam, my heart clenched. I leaned my back against the wall and crossed my arms over my stomach. The time for everyone to forget couldn’t come soon enough, but I’d known there’d be lots of questions. Especially after having to cancel the wedding. And really, our story wasn’t a fantastic tale fit for any headlines, but in a small town any sort of gossip was good gossip.

“Jorge stopped by to return a few things Adam left,” I told her, wishing I didn’t have to relive the torment of a lost relationship, but needing to get it out at the same time.

Inside the box had been a few items of clothing, a necklace I’d forgotten all about, my Candlebox CD, and rattling around the bottom, lodged under the cardboard flap had been the silver band I’d given him on our five-year anniversary. It’d been a pre-wedding gift of sorts, a promise ring to seal our years together in past and future. Holding it in my hand had put everything into perspective once and for all: Adam and I were over. That had been the moment I really let go, knowing that while I was at the end of one terrible thing, I was at the beginning of another. And so far, healing was proving to be worse than I could have ever imagined.

Anna Mae sighed on the other end, and her crunching resumed. “Do you remember when he was dating Kaitlin Gerald our sophomore year? They were serious like, the whole year and then he just dumped her out of the blue. She showed up the next day balling her eyes out in P.E.”

In the recesses of my mind, the memory of Kaitlin Gerald and Adam Trow resurfaced. It’d been all the talk for a day and a half when they’d gotten together and when they’d broken up. Mainly because Kaitlin had been one of the most popular girls in school while Adam had always been the quiet guy no one could quite recall when all was said and done.

Throughout our relationship I teased him that although we’d grown up together, I had only a vague recollection of his existence. Adam in turn joked that he’d been very well aware of me, but I hadn’t been attainable until I got away from Anna Mae. There was some truth behind it, though. I hadn’t wasted much time on dating back then.

“Yeah, I remember.” 

She hesitated. “Well, a few days before I’d come down to visit the last time, I’d run into Kaitlin at the store. I brought it up the night you, Adam, and I went out to that bar on the beach. You’d gone to the bathroom and Adam and I were just chatting. I asked him about Kaitlin and why he’d broken up with the most popular girl in our class. It was so random, at first he didn’t know what I was talking about.” She chuckled, and I could tell she was lost in the memory. “Then he remembered. He said it was because he wanted a chance with you.”

I swallowed around the lump in my throat. “Always a romantic,” I said weakly.

“You were the best thing he ever had,” she said before crunching down loudly on her snack.

I smiled; thankful I had her even though the rest of my world was crumbling apart.

“Yeah,” I agreed, joining her side in the matter.

“Thatta girl,” Anna Mae giggled. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Be ready for some girl time.”

“Roger that.”

With a laugh, she said, “over and out,” and hung up.

Still smiling, I rejoined my parents in the kitchen. Mom was sautéing the vegetables while Dad chopped chicken into cubes.

“Smells good,” I said, peering over Mom’s shoulder.

Mom pointed to a pot sitting empty by the sink. “Will you get the rice going?”

“Yes ma’am.” Grabbing the box, I skimmed over the preparation instructions.

“Yes ma’am? I owe the Air Force a thank you for teaching my girl some manners,” Dad teased.

Filling the measuring cup with water, I dumped it into the pot. “Believe it or not, I already had the manners. The Air Force just forced me into using them.”

Mom and Dad laughed.

“How’s Anna Mae?” Mom asked, turning the burner on for me. “We see her occasionally around town and she seems well.”

“She is,” I said. “Still working for Dr. McCarthy in Stillwater.”

“I thought her teeth looked whiter last time I saw her,” Dad said.

Sadly, he was serious. I stifled a laugh.

“Anna Mae was onto something with that dental assisting stuff,” Mom said, throwing me a serious look. “You should’ve at least considered it. Doesn’t she only work four days a week?”

I sighed and measured out the rice. At first they’d given me a hard time about leaving Scranton, especially to join the military. And over the years, their subtle comments never relented, despite the fact that they enjoyed having an excuse to travel to visit me. Still, it’d been tough for them to send their only daughter off while most of my class had stayed close to home. But I’d had an itch to see and experience the world, and eventually they’d come to understand.

“Monday to Thursday. She loves it.”

“That’s good.” Mom went over to check Dad’s progress with the chicken. “We’re glad you two stayed friends.”

I reduced the heat on the rice. “She came out to visit more than you guys did.”

“Well I’m sure she was a lot more fun than us, anyway,” Dad said.

I went over to him and nudged him with my elbow. “Got that right, old man.”

Mom impatiently reached around him and grabbed the entire cutting board. “Old man is right. Let’s get this chicken on so we can eat.”

Leaning against the counter, I accepted the glass of peach tea Dad offered me. Its sweet tang reminded me of summer, being barefoot and free. It’d been a while since I had a glass of the stuff. Four years in Florida had gotten me accustomed to southern sweet tea. Adam had been addicted to it, I remembered with a pang, recalling the countless times we swung through Chicken Express for a drink to go.

“…They’re not doing good in school. Ben’s barely passing and Sam has talked about dropping out to work for his uncle,” Dad was saying, apparently talking about my cousins I’d grown up with.

Ben and I graduated in the same class while Sam was a year behind. As kids we were thick as thieves, but once in high school we each went our own way, drifting apart until we were virtual strangers, related only because of blood and childhood.

“Really,” I said, eyebrows raised. “Who would’ve ever thought?”

But thinking back, my immediate thoughts were of Ben’s ceaseless teasing and Sam melting chocolate chips together and dropping them in the toilet as a practical joke, and I wasn’t surprised at their unfortunate failure. Then again, I wasn’t exactly returning home on a positive note either, so who was I to judge.

Mom and Dad filled me in on the latest news, relating a few interesting stories of kids I knew from school. Mostly it was my classmates graduating college, getting married, and having babies. It depressed me to think that while most of Scranton was saying goodbye to being single, I was saying hello to it.

I set the table as we chatted, thankful for the distraction. The scent of Mom’s sizzling stir-fry soon permeated the air and at the sound of my growling stomach, I realized I hadn’t eaten a good meal in days. In fact, the past few weeks were somewhat foggy overall. I frowned, dismayed that in the wake of change I hadn’t coped well at all.

“Honey, grab a pot holder and set it on the table, will you?” Mom asked, giving the food a final stir before flicking the burner off.

Obediently, I grabbed one from the drawer and placed it in the center of the table with Mom following behind. She set the pot down just as Dad slid into his seat and clapped his hands together.

“Let’s eat!”

“Hey,” Mom said sharply, slapping Dad’s hand away from the serving spoon. “We pray, then we eat.”

“Right,” Dad replied sheepishly.

I laughed as I took my seat and bowed my head. Dad blessed the meal, and Mom and I responded with our chorus of Amens and took turns scooping the stir-fry onto our plates.

“So maybe you can come to church with us on Sunday,” Mom said, settling into her seat. “It’s been a while. I know you and…I know you were going to that one in Colorado off and on. But maybe getting more of it will help.”

I tipped the soy sauce over and watched as the dark stain spread across the white blanket of rice. Over the past year, I’d grown further and further from God, from church, and every biblical truth I’d grown up believing to be true. Now I feared that I’d stain the threshold of a church just by passing through the doors.

“Yeah, maybe,” I told Mom.

After a beat of silence, Mom began again, but selecting a different topic. “Are you looking forward to your new job at the bank?”

I stabbed a chunk of chicken and nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be a challenge.”

“You’ll learn it fast,” Dad reassured. “Besides, you should have plenty of work cut out for you. Scranton is growing like crazy.”

“Why’s that?” I asked around a mouthful.

Mom glanced at me before taking a bite. “You didn’t see the north end of town yet. There are new houses going up everywhere. Lots of railroaders moving this way.”

“Great,” I mumbled. It seemed I just couldn’t get away from reminders of Adam.

They exchanged looks before resuming eating. After a beat of silence, Dad cleared his throat.

“Remember the forest we used to go camping in? Now it’s a Walmart parking lot.”

My mouth dropped open. “Nuh uh.” Apparently Scranton had changed more than I’d realized.

Clearly relieved to be in safe waters, Dad nodded and continued. “And the pond we used to fish in is in the middle of a neighborhood, now.”

“The one I caught Bessie in?” Referring to the biggest fish I’d ever caught, when I was nine. I’d told everyone it was big as a cow, hence the nickname, Bessie.

Dad chuckled. “That’s the one. Even the airstrip where you and Anna Mae always snuck off to, they’ve fenced it in so you can’t get within a mile of the place. It’s not like the one you and Adam took us to…” He stopped in mid-sentence, realizing his error too late.

The airstrip…the memory began bubbling to the surface, and I choked on the hurt that preceded it.

“Mike,” my Mom whispered in a breath, shaking her head. Then she turned her attention to me. “What your dad meant to say–“

“I know what he meant,” I said, forcing a smile. “It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t okay. All I could envision was the black, starry canopy above, Adam’s eyes soft in the moonlight, our hands linked and bodies touching side by side…and then he’d said it. Whispered it, really…

“Claire?”

I snapped my head up, lost in the pain of what had been. Of what I lost, what I desperately wanted back. My eyes filled without warning and soon tears cascaded down my cheeks. It seemed all I did was cry lately, I thought, attempting to wipe the tears away, but they just kept coming.

“I’m going upstairs,” I said, picking up my plate. “Thanks for dinner. Leave the dishes, I’ll get them later.” I hastily deposited it in the sink then took the stairs two at a time, eager to curl up in a ball under a blanket and disappear as I’d done most nights since Adam left.

Walking down the hallway to my old bedroom was so familiar I felt as though I could have been in high school again. The door was open and when I stepped in I was surprised to find that it hadn’t changed much in my absence. Luckily, my decorating style was as practical as my mom’s, so I wasn’t surrounded by pink paisleys and teddy bears like Anna Mae was. The only girly thing remaining was a collection of dance trophies from my years in the trade.

The walls were the same creamy beige as the rest of the house. There was a bulletin board above my bed, empty now except for a photo strip of Anna Mae and I with a couple of our other girlfriends at an amusement park. My framed photo collages still filled the other walls with pictures from my past. The curtains were new, I noticed. Mom had replaced my zebra striped valance with long flowery palampore drapes. A much better choice, I thought.

I sat on the edge of my bed. Mom had washed the bedding, I realized as the fresh scent of laundry detergent filled my nose. The comforts of home calmed my eroded nerves as I looked around at my walls of pictures and the girl I used to be. Why had I been so eager to leave? I wondered. Life had been pristine…maybe a little dull according to my standards, but I’d known exactly what to expect from a town like Scranton.

My phone began ringing again, stirring me out of my thoughts. Jorge’s name lit up the screen, and I winced, knowing he probably had a few unkind words for me. Hesitantly I pushed the accept button and put the phone to my ear.

Before I could even say hello, Jorge started in on me.

“What were you thinking? Are you crazy?” He continued his tirade in Spanish, and judging by his tone he wasn’t wishing me well.

Finally he paused long enough for me to speak. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t stay there any longer,” I said weakly, knowing there really wasn’t a good excuse for ditching him to drive alone cross-country.

“You had me worried to death,” he said in his thick accent. “I know it sucked, but you should’ve waited for me. You could’ve turned up missing or dead.”

I managed a smile; relieved he was finished raging at me and touched by his concern. “Well I made it alive. I’m sorry I did that to you, though.”

“Apology accepted, although I didn’t even get to see you off. I’m still pretty upset about that.”

Feeling a sting of regret at my hasty departure, I realized Jorge was right. Unless he came to Wisconsin or I went to Colorado (which at this point would be in a million years), the likelihood of Jorge and I seeing one another again was close to never. And I’d run away without a thought about my close friend, not even to say goodbye.

“Well it’s not goodbye,” I said with resolve. “We’ll still talk. And who knows, maybe when you move to a new base, I’ll go visit you. And you’re always welcome in Wisconsin.”

Jorge chuckled on the other end of the line. “So you’re still being so stubborn that you won’t visit the entire state of Colorado?”

“For now, yes. There’s just too many memories there.” I stared intently at my feet.

“C.C…” Jorge said, referring to me by the nickname he and Adam had come up with because of my love for the song “See See Rider.”

See see rider, see what you have done…the lyrics haunted me.

I sighed. “I know, I know. I’m getting there. Slowly…very slowly…but getting there.”

“It hasn’t been long,” Jorge said gently. “Just remember, mija, you aren’t alone.”

At his admission, my stomach clenched painfully. It was easy to forget everyone else when I hurt so deeply. But Jorge had been in the middle of the ordeal, too, being a close friend to us both.

“I know.” I grasped onto Jorge’s disclosure and regretted leaving him behind without a word.

Tears once again sprung into my eyes, and I had to bite my lip to keep them from spilling. Looking to the ceiling, I held my breath and counted to ten.

“You still there?”

“Yeah,” I replied, attempting to say it smoothly. Instead it came out strangled, tipping Jorge off that I was crying.

“Oh mija. It’s bad now, but it’ll get better. Hang in there,” he said gently.

Suddenly I missed Jorge immensely. I wished he were there beside me, convincing me to play dominoes or dragging me out to karaoke, as he usually did when I was down. Leaving behind good friends was the one thing I could never adapt to, despite it being a regular part of life in the military. It never got any easier. And I knew part of the reason I left without Jorge was because I couldn’t handle yet another goodbye to someone I loved.

I nodded as if he were there to see it and wiped my tears away with my fingertips. “I will,” I said, my voice wavering.

There was a pause while Jorge gave me a minute to get it together. All I could muster was a temporary façade, long enough to get through the conversation with him. After a few more minutes of chitchat, we began our goodbyes.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Jorge said. “Give me a call whenever you want to.”

Shuffling my feet on the carpet, I smiled. “Thanks. Call me anytime.”

“Alright, mija. Take care.”

We hung up. The sudden silence weighed heavily, and I felt strangely alone. The life I’d known for so long was over. No more military, no more Jorge or Adam or the life we’d made together, no more Colorado. It felt strange to look into my future and see a blank page.  

 “Knock knock.” My dad was at the door, leaning in as if hesitant to cross the threshold. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” I said warmly, patting the bed beside me. I was thankful for his interruption into my dark thoughts.

Dad sat beside me, the bed sighing under his weight. He looked at me with concern in his brown eyes.

“You okay, Claire? Your mom and I are worried about you.”

I pressed my lips together, debating on giving him the honest truth, or the sugarcoated version. If I ever stood a chance at recovering, I knew, I needed to be open with my loved ones and myself.

Leaning my head on his shoulder, I welcomed the arm he wrapped around me.

“Not yet,” I said quietly.

I felt Dad nod, accepting what he’d already known.

“And everyone keeps telling me it’ll get easier, it’ll get better, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like I’ll always have this hole in my heart where Adam was.”

“I know we all sound redundant, but it’s only because we know it’s true.” Dad paused. “I wasn’t the first man your mom loved, and she wasn’t the first woman I did either, you know.”

I sat up, looking at him with surprise. It’s difficult to see your parents as anything other than Mom and Dad. It’d never crossed my mind that there’d been others in both of their lives at some point.

Dad glanced at me, looking slightly embarrassed. He cleared his throat. “My high school sweetheart was the first girl I fell in love with. We’d discussed marriage even. But when we both applied to go to college in Madison and only I got accepted, it was the first sign we weren’t meant to be. Sure enough, a week after I left I got the Dear John letter.”

I imagined my dad as a young eighteen-year old man, in love as Adam had been with me.

He looked up at the ceiling and sighed deeply, as if remembering a painful part of his past. “I was devastated. I tried to convince my parents to let me go home to see if I could work it out with her. Of course they refused, telling me the same things we’re telling you.” He tipped his head, cutting his gaze over to me. “I muddled through the first couple weeks of college. And I found that as each week passed, I thought of her less and less, and her name didn’t bring heart-wrenching pain anymore. By the end of that semester, I was relieved we’d broken up; that she’d been strong enough to do it. Eventually I met your mom in anatomy…and you know the rest,” he concluded, smiling now.

I returned his smile, appreciating his effort to console me.

He patted my knee. “It doesn’t mean much right now, sweetie. But I promise, time does heal.” He stood and walked toward the door. “Is there anything you need from your car?”

Groaning a little, I realized I’d completely forgotten about that task. Too tired to empty my car at the moment, I waved my hand dismissively. “No, it can wait until tomorrow. I just need to go to bed right now.”

“Alright, then. Get some sleep. We’ll see you in the morning.”

“Dad?”

He stopped in the door and turned inquisitively.

“I’m glad you didn’t marry her…your high school sweetheart. I’m glad she saw you weren’t meant to be.” I felt the need to acknowledge his story; his admission into a part of his life I hadn’t been a part of.

Dad looked at me sadly. We both knew it wasn’t the same, his situation versus mine. It was enough, though, to momentarily shine a light into the blackness that enveloped my heart. For the first time in months, I accepted that even though it’d hurt for a while, there was life beyond Adam.

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