Authors: S.R. Grey
Punishment or absolution, I ended up confessing to my mother what had
happened the night Sarah died. She was the only one I told, but I soon discovered going to her was a colossal mistake. I received nothing remotely close to absolution from my mother. She did, though, mete out a punishment, thick and heavy as tar, one that still sticks today.
Upon first hearing my confession, my mother stared vacantly at me for what felt like a small eternity, and then she stepped toward me and slapped me hard. Twice, once on each cheek. My face stung and my ears rang, I wore her marks for days.
After a verbal lashing, she disowned me on the spot and kicked me out of the house. “You were supposed to protect her, Kay,” she scream-sobbed, pushing me away when I tried to go to her. “It should’ve been you.” I was too stunned to respond to that lovely comment.
“You don’t really mean that, Ruth,” my father said, rushing into the room, catching only the tail end of our discussion.
To this day, he remains blissfully unaware of what I was really doing the night Sarah died. My mother has never told him, and neither have I.
mean every word she said that day, just as I knew she had. Sarah had brought my mother a joy I never could—despite repeatedly trying—and my poor judgment led to it being taken away. Someone had to pay, and that someone was me.
When my father realized my mother truly wanted me out of the house he gave me some money and told me to stay at a motel for a few nights until things cooled down. Only two days had passed since the funeral and my father said it was my mother’s grief talking; he said she’d come around.
That was four years ago and my mother still hasn’t spoken to me. Not. One. Word. To say her silence hurts would be an understatement. It doesn’t hurt, it shatters. But I’ve accepted, at twenty-three years of age, that I am truly alone in this world.
The rain pounds at the roof of the shelter and I cover my ears. With my present surroundings muted, I continue to remember the past.
Back then, when everything happened, I was nineteen. I was home for summer break, in between my freshman and sophomore years of college. That few days’ stay at the motel turned into four weeks, and then I returned to school—lost, broken, and forgotten.
My parents moved back to Columbus, Ohio, where we had once lived, back when I was a child, back before Sarah was born. To his credit, my dad secretly funneled money to me. He continued to pay for tuition and room and board.
But the day I graduated he cut me off. I skipped commencement. There was no one in attendance to watch me walk across the stage and receive my degree, so it seemed a little pointless. Not to mention embarrassing, seeing as all the other students had their families gathered.
That afternoon, hours after commencement ended, Dad drove in from Columbus—alone—to take me out to lunch. That’s when he told me I was on my own financially. To me, it felt like a clean break.
I haven’t seen my dad since that day last summer, but he calls once in a while. I’ve noticed, though, his calls have diminished as the months have passed. I think my dad just feels guilty about all that has happened, how the daughter that still lives and breathes remains cast aside. But, like me, he fears my mother and the wrath she can deliver. I’m sure it’s just easier for him to pretend I don’t exist. My eyes water thinking about it, but it’s yet another thing I’ve come to accept.
All I can say is thank God for Father Maridale; he’s been my unexpected savior. He must have heard through the church grapevine that my new degree was in elementary education, as he offered me a job teaching first grade the very week I graduated, two days after the lunch with my father.
I suspect Father Maridale felt bad for me, seeing as I was on my own, with no job, no sister, and—for all intents and purposes—no family. Born of pity or not, I jumped at the opportunity. The only problem at the time was that school didn’t start until September. Didn’t matter. I found a job waiting tables at a placed called Pizza House within twenty-four hours.
Pizza House is a restaurant in town that everyone loves. It’s big, cheery, and bright, located in an old yellow and green frame house that’s considered a Harmony Creek landmark.
I loved the place right from the start. All the employees were friendly and welcoming and made me feel like I was a part of something. I even stayed on for a little while after school started in the fall. But juggling two jobs became a bit too much. I was tired all the time and losing focus. The kids deserved a fully functioning teacher, so I gave up Pizza House.
Money grew tight, but it was the right decision. Though I sometimes consider picking up a shift or two, particularly during the holidays when there are no classes. The manager, Nick, told me the day I left that I could come back at any time. In fact, just last week he reiterated that very same offer. I had stopped in to pick up a pizza to take home and Nick rang me up on the register.
But I’ll never go back. I know the offer was made—then and more recently—only because Nick likes me, even after our failed attempt at dating.
Nick asked me out last fall, a week after I quit. I had suspected he was attracted to me, even before he acted on it. He was always smiling and trying to find things for us to talk about. Heck, he even helped me bus tables. And the managers at Pizza House never did things like that.
The day I went in to pick up my final paycheck was the day Nick finally asked me out. He wanted to know if I’d like to see a movie with him sometime.
“Sure,” I said, “why not.”
Unfortunately, despite my agreeing to go out on a date with him, I wasn’t all that interested in starting up a relationship with Nick Mercurio.
He’s a cute guy; don’t get me wrong. Nick is very nice looking, in fact. Lots of girls like him, I witnessed him getting hit on dozens of times when I was waitressing. And no wonder. He has nice, smooth olive-toned skin, wavy black hair, and soft brown eyes. Not to mention he’s sweet as can be, at least he always was to me. But I just wasn’t feeling it with Nick. I tried and tried to like him, I did. But like many things in life, it just never took.
Nevertheless, Nick and I went out a few times. Dinners and movies, chaste kisses at the doorstep. The last time he took me out we decided to mix it up—we went to the Anchor Inn to have a few drinks. I got a little buzzed, purposely, hoping alcohol might loosen me up, make me like Nick even. Maybe Nick was hoping for the same thing, he bought me one drink after the other.
The alcohol ended up having the desired effect—to a point. I don’t think it made me genuinely like Nick, but it sure made me hang all over him, surely sending the man all sorts of mixed signals. When we left the bar we ended up in the backseat of his car, making out, hidden away in a dark corner of a lot near the bar.
I hadn’t been touched—like, really
—in three years at the time and it felt so
to feel wanted. My need for human touch heightened my senses and made me feel drunker than I was. The more Nick touched me, the more I lost myself to lust. So when Nick’s hands slid over my breasts, I didn’t stop him. When he slowly undid the buttons on my dress until the material gaped open, I didn’t stop him. I let him trail his hands over my bra and down my stomach, watched even. And when he slid the hem of my dress up my thighs, I gasped and nodded my assent.
Everything felt good, but unfortunately nothing about Nick’s hands on me felt right. So when his knuckles brushed back and forth over my panties, waiting for my go-ahead or refusal, I may have pushed into him a little bit, maybe let his fingers linger on damp cotton for a few extra seconds, but then I did what felt right—I made him stop.
My body wanted more, much more, but my heart didn’t. And I’d been in that place before—body wanting something the heart stood indifferent to. I couldn’t go down that road again. I couldn’t continue on with someone I knew I’d never really care all that deeply for. I’d done it once before and, in that case, wrong begat wrong.
Not surprisingly, that night was my last date with Nick Mercurio. Nick drove me home in awkward silence. He knew it was the end, the end of something that never really got started. Even so, he walked me to my door and gave me a hug. He even persevered for a while longer, asking me out a few times more. But I kept making excuses and he finally gave up.
It’s just as well. I’m waiting for a man that leaves me breathless, a man who knocks me off my feet right from the beginning. He’s out there, I know it. And when the time is right our paths will cross, probably when I least expect it. I’ve always heard that’s how these things go.
In the meantime, I have other things to focus on, like saving enough money this summer to finally get out of the hellhole in which I currently live.
Sadly, the only apartment I can afford is on the other side of town—the bad side—across the railroad tracks, not far from the closed-down glass factory. The building that houses my basement efficiency is a dingy yellow brick box of a structure. I pay rent month to month, shell out a meager amount of cash for a less-than-meager living space. A single rectangular room, a few pieces of furniture—left behind by former tenants—that’s what my money buys.
The centerpiece of the room I call home is a sagging sofa. It smells of decades-old sweat and stale smoke. It’s disgusting, I know. I’ve emptied innumerable bottles of fabric refresher in attempts to freshen the faded material, but the smells remain, which sucks, since the sofa doubles as my bed. That’s why I cover the flattened cushions with mounds of sheets. Too bad I can’t cover every corner, every nook, every crevice, as the rest of the place is just as bad.
On one side of the room there’s a sorry excuse for a kitchen, complete with an oven that quit working a month ago, a refrigerator that hums and rattles all night, and a sink that backs up regularly. The oven gave out—with a hiss and a dying gasp—the last time I made something for one of Missy’s bake sales. It remains broken, despite my calls to an indifferent property management company. The tiny bath area is a disaster as well. A plunger by the toilet is a must, and it’s a fortunate day indeed when the shower actually runs hot.
But all of those things I could live with, I could and I do. I don’t require fancy accommodations. I am far from high-maintenance. But what scares me, chills me to the bone actually, is the increasing number of junkies hanging out in the apartment parking lot. It’s gone from bad to worse in the past year. There’s no getting around it either; the whole area I live in is just plain bad news.
There used to be a Sparkle Mart grocery store, where I’d buy groceries every week, but it closed down last fall. Too many drug-related robberies, the manager told me the day I stopped in to see why they were moving inventory out instead of in.
That was six months ago.
I mark a steady decay every day I drive by. Someone tagged the side of the building in red and black paint, the name of some gang, I think. Weeds pollute the parking lot, growing right up right through broken cement. Directly next to doors that remain locked shut, a lone shopping cart lies broken on its side. Poison ivy tangles up and around the handle. And signs hang crooked in the few windows that remain unsmashed. Sun-faded and peeling: p
umpkin roll, $4.90, we accept food stamps.
Yeah, right. Not anymore
I need to get out, I know this. Things are getting worse. The number of junkies congregating in the apartment parking lot has reached an all-time high this summer. I figure as long as I keep turning my head when I pass, they’ll continue to ignore me. At least, I hope they do. I just need to hold on a little while longer. Then, I’ll be up and out. By fall I should have enough money to move. I’m working extra this summer to ensure that I do.
The church secretary, Connie, is going on an extended cruise with her recently retired husband. Just last week Father Maridale asked me if I could cover her position this summer. A blessing, for sure, one I’d not expected. I’ll make more money covering for Connie than I ever could waitressing at Pizza House. And I won’t have to see Nick every day, since I always feel bad things didn’t work out for us.
But the best part is the money. The church offers a steady wage, and though it’s not a heck of a lot, it’s more reliable than tips, especially in this shaky economy. I start tomorrow, which is perfect. But it’s perfect for one huge reason besides the money.
That reason is Chase Gartner.
I mean, hell, the guy has had free run of the property for weeks. It’s high time
starts looking into what he’s been up to. I snort as I sit thinking about it. I had hoped to keep tabs on Chase right from the beginning, but it was impossible to do while teaching. Kids require constant supervision; there was no free time. But in my new role as church secretary, I expect things will be far different.
First, the church office is located right inside the entrance to the rectory, centrally located and very convenient. Plus, I’ve noticed Connie always seems to have lots of downtime, I’ve caught her gabbing on the phone and doing her nails on a number of occasions. I expect it’ll be the same for me, but you won’t catch me chatting anyone up, nor will I be doing my nails. Nope, I plan to spend
downtime keeping an eye on bad-news Gartner, making sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. Like screw up…again. Despite Father Maridale’s unwavering belief in him, I am not completely sold on the idea of someone fresh out of prison traipsing around all over the church and school grounds. I mean, really!
Chase Gartner. I shake my head and continue to wait out the rain.
His story sure lit up this town four years ago. The news of his arrest, when it happened, spread like wildfire, along with a lot of
stories about the man. There were accounts of hard partying, illicit use of drugs and alcohol, fighting, and, of course, sexual escapades with women. Everyone in Harmony Creek ate those stories up; they devoured the tales of a once good guy gone horribly wrong. Chase was like some kind of beautiful fallen angel, but one with a far from holy reputation.