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Author: Teresa Mummert
"Miller needs to be ready by tomorrow."
"I won't be in tomorrow. It's my birthday and the start of my vacation." I sighed inwardly as I thought of what that meant. Another day of broken promises.
"I'll get one of the others to do it. Have a good time."
"You too," I called after the men as I watched them walk toward the elevator, my eyes fixed on Shane's broad shoulders as I wondered where he had come from and who Chelsea was.
March 15, 2010, Monday, 9:00 p.m.
"You wouldn't believe the blood. It was unreal. To this day, a ball slides across it and as soon as it hits the stains, it flies across the table." I laughed, trying to hide the sadness in my voice.
"You see a lot over there? Is this, like, a daily thing?" Jake held up two fingers to the bartender.
"Nah. I mean, you're always on edge." I shrugged as I took a drink from my mug. "No different from living in Detroit." I laughed and grabbed my fresh mug of beer, nodding to the bartender. "It's a job." Joking about the reality of life at war helped me get through it. Only those who saw it over there with me truly understood the toll it took on someone's mind. I pushed my back into the corner as my eyes scanned the other patrons.
"An honorable job." Jake held up his mug and I followed suit, clinking the glasses together.
"Thanks." We both drank in silence. "I think I've lost my tolerance."
"Mine gets stronger every day." Jake took a drink of his beer as his eyes fixed on a neon beer sign behind the bar.
"I'm sorry, man. I know you guys wanted a big family."
"Everything happens for a reason, right?"
I nodded but didn't agree. What was the reason my mother died when I was so young? Why did I lose the woman I planned on spending my life with? I had seen things overseas that would haunt me for the rest of my life and no one would ever understand. There was no great plan in life. Sometimes bad things happened to good people. Life was nothing more than a series of events with no rhyme or reason.
"I know you probably hate Chelsea right now."
"I don't want to talk about her." I glanced over at my cousin, my brother, and narrowed my eyes.
"I don't pretend to understand what you have gone through and I can't even begin to fathom how hard it was for you. But it is hard for all of us here too. It takes a strong person to be able to deal with that. When her sister was diagnosed with cancer, she needed someone. She was all alone down there. It's life."
"I get it. It happens all of the time. No big deal. I'm better off on my own." I sighed and took another drink wishing I could be spared the humiliation of talking about her.
"Don't do that, Shane. You don't have to be the superhero. You can have feelings. No one would blame you if you were hurt or angry."
"I wasn't there for her. I let her down. I don't deserve to be angry." But I was. I was angry at myself. Had I not reenlisted in the Army, I would still be the one holding her at night and chasing away all of her fears."
"No one sees it that way, Shane. Life throws us curve balls and we either dodge them or let them knock us down. This one knocked you down, but you can get back up. The Shane I know is a fighter. What happened to that guy?"
"The same could be said for you." I raised my eyebrow.
March 15, 2010, Monday, 9:00 p.m.
The phone rang again. I reached out to my side, never letting my eyes leave my book as I grabbed my phone and turned the volume all the way down. A text message buzzed through while it was still in my hand.
Answer your phone. It's an emergency. – Mom
I threw my book on my bed and dialed my mother's number. I was sure what constituted an emergency would be my mother finally remembering my birthday. I breathed a sigh of relief, happy someone had remembered.
"What's wrong?" I asked as soon as the call connected.
"Well, isn't this nice," my mother replied.
"Mom, you said it was an emergency. I'm very busy."
"Why haven't you called Eusse?"
"I'm not interested," I replied with my teeth clenched as I lay back onto my bed and clutched my pillow in my arms. I mentally began to count down from twenty as I closed my eyes.
"Oh, I didn't realize you were so picky. It's not like you're getting any younger," my mother snapped angrily.
I didn't need reminding that in only a few hours, I would be another year older and still alone. But that was still no reason to settle for someone like Eusse.
"I'll think about it." I hated the way my voice shook as I spoke to her.
"Jenn, you have embarrassed me enough with this man. You need to grow up and stop acting like a child."
"This is my life and I will see who I chose. Your name is about to be kicked off that list." Anger consumed me as I struggled to keep my composure.
"You watch your tone, young lady."
"I'm tired of you and everyone else in my life telling me what to do and who to see!" I turned off my phone and slipped it into the stand beside my bed. I grabbed the tiny metal cord that dangled from beneath the lampshade and pulled it, drowning myself in darkness. My mind replayed the date I had with Eusse as I drifted off into sleep.
March 13, 2010, Saturday, 5:43 p.m.
"No, thank you." I waved away the wine bottle that Eusse held over my glass. It was our second one and I was more than a little tipsy after barely touching my steak and lobster. I would have been much happier with a cheeseburger and fries. "I don't think I can hold anymore."
Eusse smiled, revealing deep lines around his mouth and eyes. He was much older than I was, but he had aged well. He took his credit card from his wallet and slid it over the bill, nodding once at the waiter who quickly came to remove it.
"I hear you live nearby. Your mother said your place is…quaint."
I laughed, knowing that what my mother meant was unlivable. She hated my place, which made me love it even more. It was mine and my decision.
"It is very cozy." Picking up my glass, I drank the last drops of my pinot noir.
"I'd like to see it." He removed a pen from his pocket as the waiter placed the check and card back on the table.
"Have a great evening." The waiter smiled before backing away to tend to his other tables.
"I don't take people back to my place. It's not much for entertaining." The truth was, I didn't know this man and had no desire to extend the date any longer.
"At least let me be a gentleman and walk you home. It wouldn't be right for me to let you wonder the streets in your condition."
There was no polite way to tell him no. He was doing what any gentleman would do, so I simply nodded and stood up. He rounded the table and looped his arm in mine.
It was still early and the blast of sunlight as the left the restaurant was unexpected. I wasn't much of a drinker and the alcohol seemed to affect me tenfold once I was standing.
"That was some really strong wine." My cheeks flushed.
"Aged to perfection. Much like yourself." He grinned down at me. His words didn't seem sweet and caring the way he intended and I cringed.
"This is my place. I should get inside. I have lots of work to do." We came to a stop in front of my building and I pulled my arm from his, taking a step back.
"You live on the second floor?" he asked, his eyes drifting up the length of the building. I nodded.
"At least let me walk you to your door. Those steps look like they could be treacherous even on a good day."
I hesitated but stepped inside as he pulled open the main door to the building. His hand found the small of my back as we made our way up to the second story.
"This is me." I stopped in front of my apartment door and grabbed my keys from my handbag.
"I enjoyed your company very much. It's a shame to end it here."
"I had a lovely time, but I have work to do."
He leaned forward to give me a quick kiss to end the evening, but his hands circled my waist and pulled my body against his. I shoved back against his chest, but that didn't deter him. His tongue forced its way inside my mouth and out of sheer panic, I bit down, my mouth instantly filling with the taste of something metallic. He pulled back immediately, his hand under his chin catching a trickle of blood that seeped out of his lips.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" His tone was sharp and angry.
"I'm sorry. I must have had more to drink than I realized. I'm really not feeling well. I think I need to take a nap." I fumbled with my keys in the lock and pushed open the door, stepping inside and holding it closed so only my face was visible. "Thank you for dinner." I smiled and pushed the door closed, turning the deadbolt. I sighed as I let my back fall against the door, sinking down to my knees as I listened to his footsteps retreat down the wooden staircase.
March 15, 2010, Monday, 9:57 p.m.
May gave me a one-armed hug as I entered their home, flashing her husband, Jake, a stern look.
"The kids have been struggling to keep their eyes open waiting for you." She folded her arms over her chest, her curly red hair hanging haphazardly in her face as she narrowed her charcoal-gray eyes at him.
"I'm sorry, May. We needed some guy time." Jake pulled his wife into his arms and kissed her softly on the forehead. Her stern look softened and gave way to a smile.
"Not sure if it's the alcohol or the suddenly display of affection, but I think I'm going to be sick." I joked as I rubbed a hand over my eyes.
"Go say goodnight to the kids," May called after me as I stumbled toward the kitchen and filled a glass of water from the sink. I nodded and gulped down the cool liquid before wondering back into the hallway. I pushed open the first door on the left that was cracked open with a television illuminating the walls.
"Hey!" I whispered loudly, but no one responded. I smiled as I tiptoed inside and shut off the television before heading back to the living room where Jake and May had settled into the couch in each other's arms.
"They are out." I smiled. "I think it's past my bedtime too."
"I set up the guest room for you. Last door on the right," May replied as she snuggled into Jake's chest.
"Thanks." I stumbled back down the hall and pushed open the guest bedroom door. I felt the wall until my fingers flicked the light switch. It was blinding and took me a moment to be able to look around.
The walls were covered in pictures of the family. A small desk sat in one corner and an old futon against the far wall. A few boxes were stacked neatly beside the door. I flipped the light back off and fell onto the bed, not even bothering to take off my shoes.
March 16, 2010, Tuesday, My Birthday
My birthday began uneventfully. I couldn't bring myself to sleep in past 6:30 a.m., even though I had taken the day off work.
The sun streamed through the sheer curtains, making it impossible to ignore the day. I climbed out of bed, still dressed in my clothes from the night before. As my eyes connected with my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I cringed.
I looked like death, which was fitting for someone who had virtually given up on every aspect of her life. I turned on the sink and splashed cold water on my face, letting it run over my chin and down the length of my throat. Thomas and I had made plans to go on a two-week cruise for my birthday. I had been saving up my vacation days at work all year. That, like everything else in my life, was just another disappointment. I was too embarrassed to cancel my vacation time and give any credibility to the rumors that circulated at work about me.
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