The Me I Want to Be

Martin, dressed in jeans, a light sweater, and his running shoes, stood on the edge of a gaping hole where his home was supposed to stand and realized that the earth beneath his feet could give way at any time. He stepped back. When the pressure of solid earth penetrated the soles of his feet, he stopped.

Taller than her brother, with long black hair rippling down her back, her body wrapped in a winter coat, yet still shivering, Jacquelyn meandered close and clasped his frozen hand. “You need to forget it. Let it go.”

His snort, bitter and abrupt, left no doubt about his feelings on that score. “It let me go! It left me without a foundation for my house.”

Jacquelyn hugged his arm. Words were of no use now.

With a sigh, he turned away. “There’s nothing to do but abandon the whole thing. Chalk it up as a learning experience, though I can’t say I learned much. What’s a sinkhole supposed to teach me? That my hopes, like my marriage, can drop into the abyss at a moment’s notice?”

Jacquelyn pulled a thick strand of hair from her face. “You’ll find a better place and another—”

Heat flushed Martin’s face as his heartbeat ricocheted through his tense body. “Good God, if you say I’ll find another wife, I may never speak to you again.”

Tears filled Jacquelyn’s eyes.

With an apologetic shake of his head, Martin grabbed her hand and hurried to his truck. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s too cold, and you’re just getting over that ridiculous flu.” He opened the passenger door to his Ford truck and helped her climb in. Then he jogged to the driver’s side, slapping his hands to regain feeling in his fingertips. He slid into place, started the car, and backed out of the makeshift driveway.

A few trees still sported burnt orange and yellow leaves. As dark clouds bundled in the west and the wind picked up, only the hardy oaks held fast. The rest would be stripped bare before the week was out. With a sinking feeling, the image of his wife, soon to be ex-wife, describing the house she wanted and all the fun they’d have filling it with adorable children, stabbed his gut.

He turned the truck onto the freeway. “You feeling okay?”

Jacquelyn shrugged. “Dad didn’t know who I was on my last visit. Jay got laid off, so I’m trying to pick up another online teaching job. Amy hates her biology teacher, and me half the time, but she’s getting through. Our family stubborn streak comes in handy.” She flashed a smile, though her face didn’t reflect it.

His eyes on the road, Martin pressed her arm in a gentle squeeze. “Sorry. I’m not the only one going through stuff.” He sighed. “You’re right. I got the land cheap, and I’ll find another place to build. Sandra only married me for my good looks, charm, and oodles of money. Guess it served her right to discover the frog under her prince, eh?”

Jacquelyn peered out the window, her tears gave way. “She doesn’t know you, or she’d never have left.”

“She knew. She just wanted something else. Someone else.”

“She wants to be someone else.” Jacquelyn shrugged. “Easy mistake to make.”

Martin took the right lane and followed it to the exit. He curved with the road, checked the quiet intersection, and pulled onto Main Street. Going a modest 30 mph felt like crawling.

A group outside the Famished Farmers café waved as they passed.

Martin waved back.

Jacquelyn imitated an Egyptian mummy.

With a tilt of his head, Martin frowned. “Wasn’t that blond with the spike heels your friend from—?”

“She made some comments on my peer review…pretty harsh. I’m staying out of her way.”

“Oh.”

“Her husband had a crush on me and well…”

Martin winced. God, when did life get so bloody complicated?

As he wound his way through town, Martin picked a safe topic. “Still taking your medicine?”

“Only if I have trouble breathing. Been doing well the last few days.” She glanced aside. “And you? Still taking that anti-depressant?”

Martin wanted to slam his head against the steering wheel as he picked up speed along the country road. “No. I had lots of reasons to be depressed, but it isn’t the end of the world. I just need to figure out how to get undepressed.”

A hound chasing a rabbit dashed out in front of the truck.

Martin swerved, hit the brakes, and skidded to abrupt stop inches from a deep ravine.

As they sat there, stunned, Jacquelyn exhaled a long shuddering breath.

Martin swiveled out of the truck, not even bothering to slam the door shut. He strode around, stared at the tires peeking over the edge of the gorge, and waved at his sister. “Don’t move!”

He sped to the truck, slipped into place, and slowly edged the car backward. Then he started to sob.

Jacquelyn rubbed his back in a large, slow circle. “Catch your breath, Marty.”

Martin rested his head on the steering wheel. “After the accident, I thought I’d be strong. Mom died so quick. But no matter what I do, Dad’s slipping into senility. Despite the fact that my wife found a guy she likes better, I still planned to build the house, and then the ground sinks from under me, literally. And now, I nearly drive us off a cliff.” Martin lifted his head and stared at his sister. “You think someone got me mixed up with a guy named Job?”

A tired smile ghosted across Jacquelyn’s face. “Life is hellishly hard, but we hang in there anyway.”

Martin’s mind drew a blank. “Why? It’d be so much easier to give up.”

Jacquelyn dug into her purse and pulled out a wallet. She snapped open a small picture album and wiggled out a photo. It was a long-legged, longer-haired Martin, age twelve. She held it up.

Martin leaned forward; his jaw dropped open. “What’re you doing carrying that around? It should be burned! I’m wearing bell-bottoms for Heaven’s sake! It could be used against me in a court of law.”

Jacquelyn snatched it back and pressed it to her chest. “It’s mine. When I have a bad day, I pull it out.”

Martin shook his head, confusion rising like late-summer fog.

“This was the year that guy I loved dumped me for my best friend, I got that awful perm, and I failed algebra. Mom was working evenings, dad started drinking, and I hated everyone.”

“You were fifteen.” He pointed to the picture. “Why are—”

“You took me out for ice cream, and I punched you, splattering chocolate sauce on your good shirt. Made a big stain on the front, you can still see the mark.” She tapped the picture.

A smile spread across his face, reaching his heart. “You were a bully. What’s new?”

“I tried to apologize by ordering you to wear a clean shirt, but you said that you’d know people by what they saw. Either they’d see a stain or they’d see you. Later you gave the shirt to Rosco so he’d sleep in the doghouse without barking all night.”

Martin ran his fingers through his hair. “Color me confused.”

“When I look at the picture, I see the me I want to be. I don’t see a stain. I see possibilities.”

Martin tilted his head, put the car into gear, and pulled onto the road. “You think I could turn a sinkhole into a basement or something?”

Jacquelyn laughed. “Make it a family room, and I’ll help you build it.”

Martin dropped Jacquelyn at home and then headed to the worksite. He was back on solid ground.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter https://amzn.to/3v7w8oI

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings https://amzn.to/3rtAy6S

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cave-hole-landscape-blue-sky-sunny-555727/

You Have No Idea

If electrical tape could talk, Shasta was sure the strip she held her in her hand would scream, “I’m not made for this!”

Shasta batted away the hyper-personified thought and executed a swift fix. Only God and her electrician would ever know…and she wasn’t talking to either of them at the moment.

A second razz from her doorbell told her that someone was getting a tad impatient. She eyed her work critically. Black electrical tape on a clear refrigerator shelf, cracked nearly in half, but oh well… She shoved the shelf back into its slot. It works. That had to be enough.

The bell sounded in two short bursts this time. “I’m coming!”

After running her fingers through her hair, Shasta smoothed down her rumpled sweater and figured that no one would notice that her shoes were broken down at the heel. Besides, the only people who came for a visit were salespeople who blatantly ignored the no soliciting sign posted on the edge of town or a couple of elderly religious ladies from a denomination Shasta kept getting mixed up with the local sport’s team: Vandals or Evangelical—something…

She swung open the door prepared to be polite but firm. The answer was no.

“Hi, Shasta.”

There he stood. Tall. Grey-headed. Heavyset. But still handsome. The train whistle in the distance could have carried the entire train with it, rumbled over her front lawn, heading directly for her, and she wouldn’t have moved.

“Jasper?”

She blinked to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. Though she’d lived clean and sober all her life—one heard stories of strange events. Carbon Monoxide poisoning? She sniffed the air. Nope.

“Can I come in for a moment?”

Shasta backed up, opening the door wider, ignoring the cold wind rushing into the room. Good Lord, he looks like mom.

It must’ve been twenty years…no…she tried to calculate. She’d been living in Chicago the last time they’d talked. He’d been drunk and said some things he shouldn’t have. She’d hung up on him…

“A long time, eh?”

Shasta dropped her gaze and considered dissolving into the floor. Her heart pounded, and spots swirled before her eyes. Jasper had gone from being a disturbed kid to a dysfunctional adult. When her mom got the police report that his body had been found in the park, she had grieved, but then relief had—

“I figure it was about twenty-six years ago we last spoke.”

Thank God that good manners ruled society with habitual fluency. Shasta gestured to the couch. “Please, sit.” She reached out. “I can take your coat.”

He shrugged the heavy winter coat off his body and smiled as he handed it over. He wore an impeccable blue shirt with dark pants and gorgeous leather shoes.

Heaven, those shoes alone probably cost more than my monthly rent.

“Uh, you want some coffee…tea?” She only had cheap tea, but her coffee was pretty decent. Something to make waking up in the morning worthwhile.

“Only if you’re having something.”

Shoot. Shasta never had coffee in the afternoon since it would keep her up half the night, so she’d have to offer her bland tea. She eyed her brother again. He looked like he was used to having the best. A drug dealer? She shook her head and started for the kitchen.

“I’ll just put the kettle on. My tea’s not that great, but I can make it nice and hot—”

Jasper settled his large frame onto the couch. “Whatever you have is fine. Don’t go out of your way.”

Hmmm…this did not sound like the Jasper she knew. Her brother had always been wild and demanding. Flighty even. Nothing like this composed fifty-something gentleman making himself comfortable on her shabby sofa.

She slapped her cheek as she turned the fire under the kettle. She had patched a worn spot on the couch cushion with black thread, though the fabric was olive green because, well, heck, who has olive green thread?

She pulled two cups out of the cabinet, snatched a couple tea bags, dropped them into her finest mismatching mugs, and placed a jam-smeared creamer pot dead center. Dang, I meant to wipe that—

Jasper ambled into the kitchen, smiling.

Smiling? Certainly never like that. Shasta leaned on the counter. “Sorry, I’m a little befuddled. You’ve kind of taken me by surprise.”

Jasper leaned on the sink and crossed his arms, his expression grave, but not sad. Just serious. A deep thinker? Jasper?

“I thought about calling, but I was afraid you’d hang up on me.”

Shasta had to give him credit. He didn’t say “again” though the word hung heavy in the air.

Shasta shrugged. “I might have. I don’t know. Usually I try to give people a second chance—”

“Oh, but you did. And a third…a forth…God knows how many. You and mom never seemed to give up. Always took me back in.”

“But then you disappeared. We thought you were dead for a while there.”

Jasper nodded. “That was kind of the point. I wanted to appear dead. Got mixed up with the wrong type of people…” He exhaled a long breath, his gaze on a trail she could not follow.

Shasta’s body trembled. This was what was didn’t want to live with…why she’d been so relieved—

“So, I died. Sort of. Actually, I did time in prison, gave testimony, met an amazing teacher, and started going to Mass again. Then I—” He met his sister’s gaze. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The kettle began to hum. “Like one of those reborn things people rave about?”

Jasper tilted his head. “That wouldn’t do it justice. I got into a fight while serving my time and didn’t win…if you know what I mean. I should’ve died. But for some reason, beyond everyone’s hopes and expectations, I lived.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me…or mom?”

“I wasn’t going to drag you guys back into my mess. I never gave anyone your names. I wanted to either die or start over.”

The kettle shrieked.

Shasta jumped.

Jasper laughed. “You always were sensitive.”

Shasta poured the steaming water into the cups, a blush working up her cheeks.

Jasper stepped closer and leaned in. “I made you cry more than once, and I’m really sorry about that, Shasta.”

Hot tears blurred Shasta’s eyes. Hot water burned her fingers.

Jasper took the kettle and placed it back on the stovetop. He took both her hands and peered at her. “I was a terrible kid and a nasty man. I choose to tackle hell and take everyone who loved me through it too.”

Her tears overflowed, and Shasta dropped her gaze. She wanted to wipe her face, but he still clutched her hands.

“I’ve made a new life, an honest one. Got married to a terrific lady and have three kids.” He let go of her hands and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He flipped the picture section open and four attached photos dangled in the air.

A pretty woman with stylishly cut hair and perky blue eyes stared at Shasta. A handsome teen boy dressed in a basketball uniform smiled, while a preteen girl and an adorable baby made up the rest of the family.

Something hideous stabbed Shasta from the inside. Sarcasm dripped like poison from a keen-edged knife. “Great, Jasper! I’m so happy for you. When mom died, I, like the dutiful daughter, managed everything. I even paid for her funeral and cleaned out the old house. The next year, my prince of a husband left me, saying that he’d rather travel the world than pay bills. So, I’ve been slaving away at a dead-end job for sixteen years, and now—” She squeezed her eyes shut, smacked her hands over her face, and bent double under a nameless agony. Uproarious sobs exploded like lava from an uncapped volcano.

Jasper bundled his sister into his arms and held her close, rocking her ever so gently.

She could hear his heart beating through his fine shirt. A spicy cologne scent wafted into her nose. Her shivering body responded to the sudden warmth.

His voice turned husky. Choking on the words. As if he were crying too. “That’s why I’ve come back.”

Shasta pulled away and stared at her brother. “Why? Because you feel guilty? Because you heard that my life isn’t so great? That you’ve succeeded, and I’m a miserable failure?”

Jasper took his sister’s hand and tugged her back to the couch. They sat side by side. He plopped his family photos on the coffee table, never noticing that she had used a brown marker to color in a water stain.

“Last Christmas, my two oldest kids—” he pointed to the appropriate photos as if she didn’t have a brain in her head. “—got into an argument. Mary said some hard things to Dominic, and it got ugly fast. Everything was patched up after a bit…but the whole thing stirred some unpleasant memories.”

Shasta swallowed and wiped the residue of tears off her cheeks.

“I told them that family is forever. But then, Mary pointed at me and asked where my family was. Dom waited, like he wanted to know too.”

Shasta sighed. “Ouch, eh?”

Jasper threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was convicted all over again. How could I tell my kids to forgive…to love each other through—whatever—when I had cut myself off from my own family?”

Shasta raked her fingers through her hair and straightened her shoulders. “You want to make amends?” She shook her head. “I never hated you or anything. It just hurt…that mom died thinking the worst.”

“I will live with that for the rest of my life. But you—” He swallowed and tears rolled down his face. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I don’t deserve another chance or the happy life I have. But…Shasta—I want to be able to tell my kids the truth. That family can forgive and love does—”

Shasta stood and waved to the kitchen. “Enough. I’ve cried enough for today. If you don’t mind stale tea, I think I have a package of cookies in the fridge.”

Jasper gave his face a quick rub down and followed Shasta into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”

“Well, the cookies are in the crisper…” She put the teacups into the microwave and hit the minute button.

Jasper laid the package of Fig Newtons on the counter and smiled. “By the way, I like the black electrical tape on the shelf. Very chic.”

Shasta grinned. “Oh, you have no idea, brother. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter https://amzn.to/3v7w8oI

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings https://amzn.to/3rtAy6S

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Poetry

Hope’s Embrace & Other Poems https://amzn.to/3cn22X8

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/people-man-woman-coffee-tea-pot-2562352/