Authors: Barry Chaison
It was odd to hear him mention how my parents met because that was an unknown story to me. I’d never really thought much about it either, mostly because they were so tight lipped and conservative about their past. If people lived on through their loved ones memories, mine wouldn’t have been much help. With each new piece of information, it started to feel like Professor Woodward knew more about them than I ever did.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said slowly, trying to find the right words. “You and my father were best friends at school, you guys joined a frat, and that’s how he met my mom?”
“In so few words, yes,” he nodded. “Your mother was such a great influence on him during school. Although they spent a lot of time together, she always held him accountable to his friends. There was a group of us, both men and women, who spent all our time together. We went off the premise that we were an unofficial campus club. Our group went out frequently, and Reyna was by far the most beloved member. She was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him, outside of you of course.”
My eyes started to water at the sentimentality of the whole situation. Outside of the Johnsons, I’d never heard anything about my parents’ friends. The thought of my parents being members of a large group solidified the ever growing curiosity inside of me that wondered how much of the world they truly kept hidden from me.
“To make a long story short, school went by very fast, and before we knew it, we were both going for our PhD’s and getting ready to become professors of our respective fields. It was around this time that Eli started talking about marriage. It was that decision that ultimately started our falling out,” he said remorsefully.
“Wait, I don’t get it. How could getting married cause you guys to stop being friends? Isn’t getting married supposed to be a happy occasion?” I asked.
“You see, Zoe, there are certain things about your parents that you don’t know about. Trust me when I say that getting married was one of the most dangerous things they could have done. At first, all of us thought that it was just a crush, something that would fizzle out once we graduated. There didn’t seem to be much harm in what they were doing. But, the marriage would ultimately have consequences for everyone around them, placing us all in a danger you couldn’t possibly imagine. When they decided to get married, a lot of people, myself included, were vehemently against it.” he finished gravely.
Any curiosity or sentimentality was quickly replaced with an unknown anger. Something didn’t seem right and it all sounded like nonsense.
“But why? It doesn’t make any sense! What danger could possibly come from getting married? I argued.
“It’s not that Zoe,” he said sensitively. He sat there for a moment, rubbing his chin, looking deep in thought.
“I adored your mother and father; you couldn’t help but love them. But explaining why is another, longer story than this. There is a time and place for that discussion and this isn’t it. To be honest, I wasn’t even expecting to tell you any of this today, but you asked and I obliged. When the time is right, I’ll tell you everything you want to know about that part of the story,” he said faintly as his voice sounded sluggish and tired.
There was an extreme change in his body language. Both shoulders had slouched lazily and a narrow frown spread across his lips. His eyelids looked rather heavy as each blink of an eye lingered longer than the last. Each word he spoke appeared to drain his energy more than running a marathon.
“Your parents ultimately got married, which resulted in a lot of our friends turning their backs on them. They had broken the most unbreakable of rules to our group. I was the only one who attended the wedding and stood by them. Life went on for a while uneventfully, which gave me some hope that maybe their union wouldn’t be as bad as any of us expected. But, we did slowly start to drift apart. Your father was family oriented, and I was more professionally driven. We spoke less and less frequently and saw each other even less than that. I guess you could say we went from best friends to old acquaintances. Then, about nineteen years ago, I got an offer from the University of Las Vegas to come and take over their new Religious Studies department. It was a great opportunity, but I had a life and family established in Seattle, and didn’t want to leave it. Around the same time, something happened that forced me to leave my friends and my old life,” he trailed off, his voice hardly louder than a whisper.
He stood up and walked over to one of the massive windows that looked out of the Quad. Both of his hands rested on the window sill as he bowed his head in defeat.
“What, Professor? What was it?” I asked. He turned and looked at me with the most sympathetic look I’d ever seen.
“It was you.”
Chapter 6: Makeover
The silence seemed to last a lifetime. So many questions had been coursing through my head before, but now I only had one.
“Why me?” I asked guiltily, looking up at Professor Woodward.
“Zoe, I know this won’t seem fair, but that’s going to have to be enough for today,” he sighed, gazing back out towards campus.
Maybe it was enough for him, but not me. First, I find out all those things about my parents and then he tells me that I’m the reason they lost their best friend? That just wasn’t acceptable.
“That’s not fair Professor,” I argued, jumping out of my seat. “You can’t just turn my world upside down in a matter of twenty minutes and then leave me hanging without an explanation.”
“Trust me, Zoe,” he reassured, still not looking at me. It wasn’t working and I could feel the heat building inside. “There will be a time to discuss the details of your family’s history, it just isn’t now. You asked how I knew your parents and I’ve told you, but it’s been completely draining to relive old memories. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to wait.”
“But Professor, why me? What was it about having me that made you leave my parents all alone? It doesn’t make any sense.” I pleaded in one last ditch effort for a reasonable explanation. A final speck of hope flickered inside, desperately seeking answers.
“Zoe, imagine skipping a stone along the surface of a pond. It creates a few ripples, but the water calms quickly and everything is as it was before. Your parents’ marriage was like that. There were a few objections, a few ripples, but things remained calm and relatively unchanged. Now, imagine throwing a boulder into that pond. The ripples extend out far and wide, and the water remains coarse for a prolonged period of time. Having you created the same effect. We all deduced that the consequences, or heavy ripples, would reach anyone associated with your parents. That decision altered our entire course of life, and ultimately led to your parents’ downfall. Having a family of my own and knowing that, I could no longer stand by them,” he sighed.
“Then it’s all my fault,” I whispered, defeated. “I never knew it was because of me that they had no friends.”
That comment drew Professor Woodward back in. Any exhausted or worn out signs were gone, only to be replaced with a look of disbelief.
“You’re mistaken,” he said sympathetically. “If anything, you brought out everyone’s legitimate feelings. Your parents were able to see who truly loved them and who didn’t. Abandoning your parents was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made, and every day it breaks my heart just thinking about it.”
“Well then they died because of me,” I sniffed.
“The world isn’t that transparent Zoe,” he replied gloomily. “Your parents made a choice, knowing full well what the repercussions were. You had nothing to do with it and trust me when I say that your parents would be telling you the same thing. The past, present and future are formed by choices that we all make, every hour of every day. Remember that.”
I still felt lost and confused and needed more answers. But the conviction in his voice was irrefutable. His glazed over expression and fading voice were enough to tell me he was finished. Even with my sadness and anger eating away at me, I was smart enough to recognize a lost cause.
“Sure,” I mumbled.
“Zoe, this world is far more complex and elaborate than you realize. I apologize it’s taken this long to engage you, but it’s for your own sanity, believe me. There is much that you don’t comprehend and it has to be done at the correct time. I assure you that when the time is right, you’ll find out everything you need to know.”
“But when?” I asked sharply. “I don’t want to wait another month!”
“Soon enough. I want you to continue with your studies. You’ve done admirably so far, but the intensity of your coursework will only continue to increase and you must be prepared. Classes will get much more demanding and you need to be in the right frame of mind.”
I was frustrated. Within a matter of seconds, he transitioned from family friend to advisor.
“Alright,” I surrendered, grabbing my backpack and standing up. “I guess I have no choice.”
“Zoe,” he said as walked back to the front table and placed his rather large briefcase on it. “If you don’t mind, there’s a book here I thought you might enjoy. It’s long, and I don’t anticipate you’ll finish it. But, you wanted a challenge, and I think this book will give you just that.”
His bony hand reached into the briefcase and pulled out a very old and immense brown hardcover book. He strode over and softly placed it, cover down, into my hands. My arms buckled slightly under the heavy weight of the book, which didn’t give me a chance to turn it over. Before I could react, he spoke one last time.
“I want you to read as much of this as you can before our next meeting. If you’re really as curious as you sound, I think you’ll find this book to be quite, helpful...” he said observantly.
I heaved the book into my bag and was barely able to zip it.
“Thank you, Professor,” I said shortly, launching what felt like a bag of boulders over my shoulder. “I can do that.”
“Alright, we’ll be in touch. Have a good afternoon Zoe.”
Everything was spinning as my trembling hands shut the apartment door behind me. My brain felt like a pile of mashed potatoes and if I had had one more emotional talk with someone, there was no doubt in my mind it would explode. An unsettling sensation was brewing deep in my stomach, and I could feel the nausea rising in my throat. The only person I could handle at the moment was Annie, even with all our recent drama. Between my encounters with Liam and Professor Woodward, I needed my best friend more than ever. Since my brain was completely full, I needed another one to help me sort through Professor Woodward’s revelations. Lady luck appeared to have finally reentered my life with the blaring sound that came from the TV room. A refreshing smile spread over my face and I excitedly walked towards Annie.
“Ann? You here?” I said, ignoring the brewing queasiness in my stomach. “You’ll never believe the day I’ve had. Do you have a few minutes?”
As I turned the corner and walked into the living room, I was unpleasantly surprised to see that Annie was not alone. She and Liam were cuddling on the futon, watching some cheap looking zombie movie on the TV which caused my stomach to churn.
“Hey Zoe, what’s up?” Annie said lazily, not even looking up from the TV. She looked like she hadn’t been outside all day and wore a rugged yellow tank top with short black sleeping shorts. Her hair was tied up in a shoulder length ponytail, which fell behind her ears as she laid there staring at the TV. I could clearly see a few red spots around her face and some cracked skin on her lips.
“Hi, um, can I see you in the kitchen for a sec?” I asked shortly, finally dropping the excess weight off my shoulders with a resounding thud.
“Holy crap! Zoe, are you all right?” she yelped sitting up and throwing Liam off of her. “You look terrible!”
“Gee, thanks,” I jeered. “Good to see you too.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you’re paler than normal and you’re all sweaty. You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“Well, come in the kitchen so I can talk to you,” I scoffed through gritted teeth.
“Wait just a sec,” Liam interjected.
“What?” I barked, turning my burning gaze directly onto him.
“Whoa, Zoe, relax,” Annie warned standing up off the futon. She placed both her hands on my shoulders, trying to calm me down.
“It’s okay Annie,” he reassured her calmly. “All I was going to say was that I can leave. This seems pretty important and I don’t want to get in the way.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” I mocked over Annie’s head, not taking my eyes away from him.
“Ok, good. I’ll go on one condition,” he added.
“Oh, you conniving son of a…!” I started, pushing Annie to the side.
“Zoe!” she said surprisingly, regaining her balance. Liam just looked at me with a victorious look. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It looks like she’s had a rough day,” Liam sneered.
For a moment, I shifted my gaze towards Annie who looked utterly horrified. Her eyes were wide in fear.
“I, I’m sorry I pushed you,” I apologized. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just take a deep breath and relax,” she cautioned.
I reluctantly closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. It didn’t make me feel any better but I put on the most sincere smile possible to placate them.
“There, that’s better,” Liam calmly said. “Annie and I are going out to dinner this Friday night, but my buddy Damien is flying solo. I was thinking that you two would hit it off well, so I’ll leave if you come on a double date with us.”
He didn’t look phased at all by my outburst, but instead sported a malicious smile. For a brief moment, part of me just wanted to reach out and punch the smugness right off his face. But, my desire to see Annie alone pushed those thoughts out of my mind. If it would get rid of him, I’d do almost anything.
“Fine, whatever” I spat, while at the same time pointing a finger towards the door.
“Excellent, I’ll see you later baby,” he exclaimed, jumping up from the couch and vanishing around the corner. A second later the triumphant sound of the front door closing filled the room.
“Wow,” Annie said from behind me.
I turned slowly, instantly regretting the entire scene that had developed. We had just finished fighting over Liam and I had attacked him right in front of Annie. There was no way she would have anything to do with me after that. But the look on her face was of pure astonishment. Her small mouth was gaping open and she was slowly shaking her head.
“You must have some major issues right now, I mean, if you’re willing to go on not just a date, but double date, and not just with any guy, but Liam and one of his friends!” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, I guess all we needed to do this whole time was get me angry,” I laughed uneasily. “Then I’d be going out left and right!”
“Apparently… So, what’s going on?”
“Oh man, wait until you hear this…” I took a deep breath, as I sat her down on the futon and recalled the story Professor Woodward had just told me.
“Unbelievable,” was all she could muster when I finished my tale.
We sat there in silence, as a relatively cool breeze blew in through the open blinds.
“What do you think it all means?” she added.
I considered all the scenarios that had been running through my head since my meeting with Professor Woodward and chose the likeliest.
“My best guess is that maybe my parents were part of the mafia or something. That would explain why a lot of their friends deserted them when they got married. Maybe they were members of rival mob groups, and by getting married, they betrayed their families, similar to Romeo and Juliet,” I proclaimed skeptically.
“I dunno… maybe,” Annie said rubbing her chin. “That’s pretty crazy. Your parents were definitely not the mafia type.”
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but when he told me they were part of a group, and there were some specific unbreakable rules that had potential life-threatening consequences, it was the most logical conclusion.”
“Yeah, but think about it! Could you really see your parents being part of the mafia? I mean really…”
“No,” I surrendered, “but I don’t really know what to believe anymore.”
“Besides, being in the mafia wouldn’t explain why having you was the final straw for Woodward. I mean, the guy stuck with them through the wedding, which was supposed to be this huge deal. But then, when they have you, he packs up and runs away to Vegas? Something just doesn’t add up.”
It pained me to admit it, but she was right. Annie’s argument made too much sense. There was a better chance of me being in the mafia than my parents. I bounced my feet up and down and my mind continued to piece everything together.
“Do you have any better ideas then?”
“Well, I have an idea. Go with me on this…” She sat up next to me and leaned forward. Her eyes were fixated on the TV which was now completely black. I cupped my hands under my chin and listened intently.
“What if your mom and dad were each part of competing cults that worshiped the devil or something, and by being together, they got kicked out? Then, by having a baby, the cult decided they didn’t want another traitor brought into the world, and threatened to kill all of you…” she finished, looking victorious.
“Uh Ann, I think you’ve been watching too many horror movies,” I laughed as we both leaned back against the futon for another intense theorizing session.
In the back of my mind though, I couldn’t discount her theory. At that point, I realized that anything seemed possible, even worshipping the devil or being part of a cult. But I knew my parents enough, and being in a cult or some murderous mafia was not in their nature. Even though my faith in them had been shaken, I knew even that was too outlandish.
“I’ve got an idea!” Annie said with a snap of her finger. “You should call my parents! They were your parents’ best friends, maybe they have some answers?”