The Stuff Legends Aren’t Made Of
The daft elf stood, stark and pompous, like a tree barely bending to the wind. The wood of his bow curved tightly around slender hands that could barely grip a sword let alone a proper weapon. I imagined smashing the bow but not the hands - I’m not that much of a monster.
“We should go north, the trail leads that way.” In some all-knowing voice, as usual. Thinks he knows everything just because his precious ears curl upwards like fancy head ornaments.
“Are you sure?” I always ask, not because he’s not - he always is - but because I enjoy the irritation in his expression from being questioned.
“Of course.” He denies me my pleasure. Asshole.
I grunt in my usual form of communication and pick up my axe - the only true partner I’ll ever have - and heft it over one shoulder. Sure, I’m posturing - but this idiot does that every second he breathes. “Then let’s move out. I don’t look forward to being in the forest after sunset.”
“What, afraid of a big bad wolf?” He smirks and I really, really reconsider smashing some bits of him.
“No, mostly afraid of you being eaten.” I grin with all my teeth - especially the pointed ones I get from my father - and his expression falls a bit. Ha. Take that, toothpick.
I can feel her gaze on my back and I know she’s already judging me. I’m too scrawny, too pale, too adorable. She’s written me off probably a thousand ways in a thousand imaginary death scenes. Gods I hate her.
“We should go north, the trail leads that way.” I never let her ruffle my feathers. I was raised as a ranger, a noble profession, and without my expert guidance her elephantine ass would be lost in these woods.
“Are you sure?” She always questions me. I hate it. It’s like she doesn’t even listen to me the first time I speak. Or else she’s just trying to goad me into anger - a purely infantile emotional response. I’ve fallen for it before, in moments of weakness. But not now.
“Of course.” I keep my face calm and serene, always calm and serene. Don’t let her get to you, I remind myself for probably the hundredth time.
She makes a sound indicative of her upbringing before adding, “Then let’s move out. I don’t look forward to being in the forest after sunset.” Always on the move, that one. Probably outrunning some inner demons from her past. She looks like the brooding type. I should have listened to my father and not gotten invovled with people who carry so much emotional baggage.
“What, afraid of a big bad wolf?” I don’t just smile - I smirk. She can tell the difference. She judges me enough she’s probably catalogued all my expressions. Stupid half-orc.
“No, mostly afraid of you being eaten.” She flashes those teeth - those awful, pointy teeth, the stuff of nightmares - and for a small second I feel a tingle down my spine as I remember exactly what her people are capable of. The people my people helped create, I admit to myself a half-second later, lest I fall victim again to my own bigotry. Her existence is as much my father’s fault as her own.
I still hate her though.
“We should go north, the trail leads that way.” The noble ranger declares, his bow cocked and ready for a fight. His long hair whips in the wind and he strikes a truly noble pose, indicative of his good genes and upbringing. He is the last of the Willowbenders, defenders of the Halls of Eyria. To travel with him is an honor and a delight.
“Are you sure?” Our fearless leader questions. She was born to lead. Her thick armor hides a noble heart, born out of a forbidden love that brought together the humblest salt of the Earth and the harshest of its so-called defenders. Even the Willowbenders are not without sin, after all.
“Of course.” His keen sense of direction can never be wrong.
The daughter of the abhorred makes a deep noise that rumbles in her heavyset frame, her natural strength on display as she shifts her axe over one shoulder with ease. The power in such a motion cannot be understated. “Then let’s move out. I don’t look forward to being in the forest after sunset.”
“What, afraid of a big bad wolf?” The verbal volley is expertly thrown, the companionship between these two respected warriors palpable. I hold my breath, waiting for magic to happen.
“No, mostly afraid of you being eaten.” And there it is! She’s obviously flirting with that expression - such sexual dominance, a Willowbender should be so lucky. I swear I can see a small flush crawl up his ears as they both turn towards the path ahead, the chemistry between them lost to our quest. One day, perhaps, when the world allows them to lay down their weapons, this thing between them might rekindle into the fire that longs to consume them both.
“Hey - bard. Are you coming?” Oh dear - they’ve spoken to me.
I clear my throat nervously, “Oh, right! Just jotting down some inspiration, maybe some ideas for an edda or two. Coming!” I quickly finish my scrawl and leap to my feet.
There is no rest for the stalwart witnesses to history. Someone must chronicle these moments, these hidden thoughts and emotions, lest future generations forget or worse disregard the bonds that draw us all together.
Part One: Carla
Have you ever met someone who is too perfect?
So perfect that you kind of want to hate them but you can’t because they are, in fact, too damn perfect?
Okay, let me take that back, maybe hate is too strong a word. Let’s go with unfairly dislike. I’ll just say that if somehow, someday, I find out that this person was actually not that perfect, like maybe they’re harboring a secret skin condition or something, I would be relieved and admittedly even a little bit elated.
What I’m saying is: I really, really don’t like my brother’s girlfriend Annalise.
I’m not proud of it. I just can’t relate to her.
Don’t get me wrong, she has been nothing but the model potential future sister-in-law to me. She’s polite, she’s funny, she never oversteps her bounds. She even managed to charm my usually ice-cold mother which is an impressive feat in and of itself.
Oh, did I mention she is also drop dead gorgeous? Like, so unnaturally beautiful you want to keep staring at her but you can’t because it would be too creepy after a certain point? She has this really thick dark hair that glints like a freshly shined shoe, and cat-like silver-blue eyes under lashes so long you almost think they’re fake (they’re not). Also, she’s a runner (of course she would be) so she has that really lean runner’s body with hard abs and long legs. Somehow, of course, even with all that cardio, perfect Annalise manages to keep her boobs to balance out her twenty-two inch waist.
With those stats you’re probably thinking she must be an airhead instagram model or some such. Nope. She’s studying to be a clinical psychologist. Her parents are both doctors or something like that. So yeah, she’s smart too.
It’s not fair.
My brother, Jake, is of course head over heels in love with her. So is mother, actually, maybe even more than my brother.
“Annalise!” My mother would coo enthusiastically every time we all got together. “You look stunning! I love that outfit. How come you can eat so much and not gain an ounce? Oh you’re training for a triathlon? How fun! How’s graduate school? Wow, I don’t know how you do it all. My son sure is lucky to have you. Oh you baked us cookies! You shouldn’t have! Oh, oooh. They are delicious!” Eventually my mother would happen to look in my direction and be obligated to give me a perfunctory nod. “Oh, hi Carla.”
You get the point.
I asked my brother right after I first met Annalise: “But seriously, Jake, don’t you think she’s just a little too good to be true?” and he just shook his head in that amused way when he thinks I’m making a joke.
I wasn’t joking. There’s something not right about Annalise. Everything about her is too good, too perfect, almost… rehearsed. Jake just can’t see it because he always assumes the good in people.
Anyway, having said all that, I’m really not looking forward to having dinner with everyone tonight.
Part Two: Annalise
I’ve always hated the phrase “not like other girls.”
It’s one of the things guys always say to me, like they’re giving me some sort of contest prize: you know, Annalise, you’re not like other girls!
Jake likes to say that to me and it gets on my nerves. Oh, I know he means it as a compliment, but of course he’s painfully unaware that it’s low key misogynistic and actually even a little bit insulting, but I digress, it’s beside the point.
The point is, it’s true, I’m actually not like most girls. But not in the way you think.
For one, I’m a little… crazy.
No, not quirky. Not that manic pixie dream girl kind of cute crazy (don’t even get me started on that). No. I’m clinical. My parents even had me committed at one point. It’s the main reason I want to be a psychologist.
Don’t worry, it’s okay, I’ve made my peace with it.
Besides, I’m pretty good at pretending to be normal. It takes a lot of effort, keeping the crazy under wraps, but for the most part, I manage to do it. I probably have no business being in any kind of serious relationship, though.
Jake and I are having dinner with his family at some fancy restaurant tonight and it’s giving me so much anxiety that I ran an extra three miles on top of my usual five. My legs felt like jelly by the time I finished but it did the trick. It calmed me down.
His sister, Carla, is a few minutes early like usual. She is already at the table, with her blonde hair in a ponytail and face completely free of make up. She had on a plain white T-shirt and an old pair of comfortable looking jeans, an outfit which I’m sure she didn’t put any thought into selecting but ended up looking effortlessly attractive and classy. If you look up All-American girl in the dictionary I’m pretty sure you’d see a picture of Carla Marie Donovan.
She’s that generic type of pretty: pleasant enough face with conventional, symmetrical, forgettable features. No, not exotic, like I’ve been told I am (looking vaguely ethnic invites such comments), but pretty. Prom queen of a small town type of pretty. Or a Disney channel series lead. Likable, wholesome, normal. I’m a little jealous, honestly.
“Hey, Annalise.” Carla smiles at me tightly. That was another thing about Carla, I could sense that she really doesn’t like me. To this day I can’t figure out why. I always turn up my efforts to be the perfect friend when I’m around her. I even write down a list of jokes the night before we get together because if there was one thing I noticed Carla appreciates, it’s being funny. Sometimes I do make her laugh, but I could tell she still doesn’t like me. I try to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s probably just being overprotective of her brother.
To be fair, she probably has good reason to.
Jake. Good old Jake. He’s like the dream Midwestern man. Dependable, classically handsome, and emotionally available. Everything is simple and logical to Jake. Unlike my brain, which weaves and turns like an unnecessarily complicated lattice, Jake’s mind seems to operate in straight lines. If he wants something he goes for it, if he doesn’t, he lets it go. If he loves something or someone, he loves them. Fully. I’ve never had a more stable relationship in my life.
I can’t explain it, but lately, it’s been kind of… suffocating.
It’s really not fair to Jake. After all this time, I don’t see why he’s still with me. Maybe he likes broken things.
I shake the thought away, for now I need to focus. I hug Carla. “Hey, Carla, how are --”
“Annalise!” I cringe at the loud gushing voice of Jake’s mother as she saunters ostentatiously towards our table. “How lovely to see you! What a cute dress, and look at your waist! I don’t know how you keep so tiny! How are you, my dear?”
I give her my warmest smile. When I first met Jake’s mother, she mistakenly said some borderline racist things about some local election, and at some point, when I had to casually mention, “actually, I’m half Indian” she apologetically backtracked and she’s been overcompensating ever since.
She meant well, I actually wasn’t even offended. I just wish she would stop trying to make up for it, I could tell it makes Carla uncomfortable.
I see Carla in my peripheral vision fight to roll her eyes. It would be almost comical if it wasn’t pertaining to me.
I sigh inwardly. I shouldn’t have agreed to this dinner in the first place. Not with what I am planning to do.
It’s my fault for putting it off for weeks. I keep chickening out. Tonight. I’ll have to do it tonight. After dinner.
Part Three: Jake
I think it’s fair to say that, like your typical Joe, I don’t understand women. Not at all.
I look at the three women I love most in the world sitting around the dinner table and I fight the urge to scratch my head in confusion like an idiot:
Mom is her usual over-the-top self. Carla is rolling her eyes at everything mom says. And Annalise is a bundle of nerves shaking her right leg under the table not unlike an over-caffeinated squirrel.
I wish I could call a timeout so everyone could just calm down for a bit.
The rundown is this: I am in love with Annalise and tonight I am going to ask her to marry me.
I was running late because I had to coordinate with the servers about when to bring out the champagne. The ring is now burning a hole in my pocket but the right moment just does not seem to come. The atmosphere was too tense.
I really don’t see why. I know my mother loves Annalise, but for some reason she kind of overdoes it when she’s around her and it just makes everything unbearably awkward.
And Carla. I don’t know what’s been up with her lately. Normally she doesn’t have any trouble making friends and getting along with all kinds of people. But around Annalise she’s stiff and even bordering on cold.
And my poor, lovely, Annalise. She’s been more withdrawn lately. She seems to have this idea that my family secretly hates her. Which might be true in Carla’s case, I don’t know. But I’m sure Carla will warm up to her eventually.
“Annalise.” I clear my throat and immediately it gets too quiet. Disconcertingly, I realize I can hear my own heartbeat in my ears. I shake it off. Now or never, Jake. “I just want to say that the last eight months have been the best of my life. You have been an amazing girlfriend and friend.” I move to go down on one knee. My hands sweat as I reach for the little red velvet box in my jacket pocket. “I would be the luckiest guy in the world if you do me the honor of becoming my...”
Annalise starts to have a panicked look in her eyes and the words trail off from my mouth. She looks pained. “Oh, um, Jake… maybe we should…”
I feel a twinge of pain in my chest. No, no, no.
Mom turns pale as a ghost and looks like she is about to be sick. A hush falls over the entire restaurant.
“Oh my god.” Carla cries, looking back and forth at me and Annalise in disbelief. “What is happening?”
I feel lightheaded. Did... did Annalise just say no? I can’t comprehend it. We were so happy, so perfect... weren’t we? I blink my eyes. The walls appear to be moving slightly. The floor looks really close all of a sudden.
I hear Annalise’s worried voice faintly. She sounds far away. “Jake? Are you okay? Jake!”
The A4 Rashomon
- i try to print the summer schedule , baby gets excited. i try to not let her see me work. she jumps on the office chair and goes crazy. but this was urgent. she loved the file i opened with the squares and numbers.
she liked the printer even more. the ‘robot’ takes in paper , makes noise , then doesnt print.
no..i mean yes, always but not this time. today the deamon of the office supply, decided that she will not take the paper by herself. it just took it, if i gave it a nudge. and then most of the time crumpled it up. i had to go crazy fixing it again and again..took year to print a three page article!!! Sophia though, was so happy, she kept saying thankyou’s to the printer and struggled to see what i was doing jumping up after me on thecsofa and running behind the desk... the excitment was high, and i couldnt put her down for naptime... someday i will take the time and enjoy flaying alive the entire design team that came up with the canon E650 i got.
-daddy had to work on the computer today. he seemed worried, squinting his eyes over the shiny screen. i tried to cheer him up by jumping on the sofa and checking on him. he really likes those squares. whole lines of them with numbers. Daddy sometimes looks so unhappy. today he turned on the robot that draws. how can you be sad when you have a robot!!? it eats paper!!
daddy fed the machine paper, but was upset that the robot didn’t barf it out. he opened doors and checked boxes, and took paper out of different places. he usually has fun doing things like this, but i think he doesnt like this robot much.
i tried again, to cheer him up. jumping around, showing an interest in the work he’s doing. i wish he would like the robot again. friends should make up if they have a fight.
in the end , daddy was very happy. the robot drew the squares on paper, and put some numbers too. it wasn’t very beautiful, but daddy was so happy. but why , if he was so happy, did he close up the computer and put it back in the cupboard? why not do more squares with numbers. i showed him a square with my fingers and he was very happy with that. after that i jumped on the bed for a long time.
-the idiot didn’t use me for months, kept me covered, the ungrateful shit. what does he expect? what does he think? that i don’t know he goes out of his way to avoid me? that he miraculously comes home with neat double-sided stacks, as if i couldn’t do it for him? didn’t i print everything he wanted when he was in quarantine?! pictures, games...i ran out of ink, but did i Complain?!
he is such an asshole, the way he treats me. truns me around, opens lids like it’s not fragile. Mutters to himself...shame on him. his girl can hear that, doesn’t he realize?!
she’ll turn out like him the way it’s going. no patiance toward electronics on that guy.
and it wasn’t my fault or anythibg. i stopped maliciously punishing him, the moment the baby grew up. she doesn’t deserve to see that..see our games...
this time it was a genuine problem with the J6 temper wheel. i bet he’ll chuck me out because of it. get vindictive. that’s the kind of person... get all ‘office space’ on me...
its easy to repair.. all he has to do is google some things...
but he won’t...
Apocalypse watch their dead pockets slip,
Call the kids, commentate the politics,
Fallen stars tell us where you are, there, there,
Under vicious hypocrites, far off in
Wonderland stand for something lost one, or
At least tell us your faults, cult classic, past
Static some form of you exists, sick ways
Persist, subsist on attention lost gen.
Old Regime, burning hills, kill no captures,
Right, they’re all bastards, nothing but us left,
Hatful men, legion crawl in ancient debts,
Hellish pigs, colors fly across our ranks,
Open fire before they scorch our capital,
Red eyed brown shirts, race traitors, murderous
Noose makers, nothing new everything old,
Shining city held in place, shut the gates.
Domed afterlife, Historia awake,
One word in the ear and out the other,
Careless Mankind calling Gods, Council takes
Cosmic scepter round and round, tell the town
Our creators live, on and on flames arise,
Begin your wars as walls trap you slowly,
A cruel anaconda choking all of
Reality, madness rings, clash over.
They Think It’s All Over
When the full-time whistle blew, Pollock lifted his eyes from his phone and looked at the TV. Nil-nil meant only one thing; the game would be decided on penalties.
‘Well, that’s us out of the tournament,’ his father said.
‘No bloody talent in this country, that’s the problem,’ his grandfather added. ‘We rely too much on all the bloody foreign players.’
‘You can’t say that,’ Pollock admonished, a little too sharply. He loved his grandfather immensely, but the old man had never learned that racism was an outdated concept.
‘Less of your cheek, Po,’ Father chided. ‘You know as well as I do, England’s no good at penalties. Might as well call it a day now.’
‘Not like in my day. 1966 – now that was a match.’
Pollock rolled his eyes. Even his father had not been alive when England last won the World Cup.
‘I don’t know how you can hang on to something from so long ago,’ he said. ‘At some point you need to move on.’
While his grandfather’s face darkened with an emotion Pollock did not recognise, his father said, ‘So long ago? Tell me the last time we got a penalty through.’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘No, you can’t, can you? Now, shut up and let’s watch.’
Po sullenly turned back to the TV to watch the shootout.
When the full-time whistle blew, Allan felt his heart sink.
‘Well, that’s us out of the tournament,’ he said bitterly.
From his slouched position on one of the room’s armchairs, his teenage son whined, ‘You can’t say that.’
Allan loved Po, but the boy had become infuriating of late. Po even refused to look at him, directing his comment elsewhere.
‘Less of your cheek, Po,’ Allan snapped. He immediately felt guilty, knowing he was taking his frustration with the England team out on his son.
‘You know as well as I do,’ Allan added softly, his attempt at peace-making. ‘England’s no good at penalties. Might as well call it a day now.’
‘I don’t know how you can hang on to something from so long ago,’ Po countered. Allan wondered if the boy was deliberately trying to get under his skin. ‘At some point you need to move on.’
If there was one thing a lifelong football fan detested, it was being told by a youngster to forget the past.
‘So long ago?’ he blurted, barely keeping his cool. ‘Tell me the last time we got a penalty through.’ Before Po could mention the record twenty-two penalties scored in the 2018 World Cup, Allan said, ‘No, you can’t, can you? Now, shut up and let’s watch.’
Red-faced, Allan turned back to the TV to watch the shootout.
When the full-time whistle blew, Edgar chuckled to himself. He was more a horse racing man, but he liked to keep up with his son’s passion.
‘Well, that’s us out of the tournament,’ Allan sulked.
Edgar saw an opportunity to tease his grandson. ‘No bloody talent in this country,’ he said. ‘That’s the problem. We rely too much on all the bloody foreign players.’
As expected, young Po bit: ‘You can’t say that.’
Edgar beamed with pride. Po was turning into a fine young man, aware of the social injustices in the world. By feigning ignorance, Edgar was keeping his grandson’s mind sharp.
‘Less of your cheek, Po,’ Allan said curtly. ‘You know as well as I do, England’s no good at penalties. Might as well call it a day now.’
His son took the game too seriously, in Edgar’s opinion. Like most England fans, they glorified the golden days of their last World Cup win.
In mocking tones, Edgar repeated the oft-said lament. ‘Not like in my day. 1966 – now that was a match.’
‘I don’t know how you can hang on to something from so long ago,’ Po argued. Something in his tone cut into Edgar. ‘At some point you need to move on.’
Concern clouded Edgar’s face.
Did Po really want him to do so? Had he outstayed his welcome? As Allan replied to his son, Edgar decided that it was finally time.
Edgar willed his spirit to dissipate and left his living family to watch the shootout.
Shining a Light on the Three Sides of the Truth
There’s something crisp and clean yet strangely mysterious about the snowy evening as Jesse gets in her car and drives towards the steel grey clouds skirting the overstuffed milky moon.
Oh God… what have I done? Those poor kids. Please forgive me God, please.
Her panicky thoughts spin just as out of control as her bald tires on the icy road beneath her.
As she tries not to lose traction amidst all that frozen sleet, the already thrummed up beating of her heart speeds up exponentially, a sound, like the roar of the ocean crashing against rocks, filling her ears.
“Calm down, you’re almost there, it’s only just gone past six, one measly minute, that’s all.”
She repeats these words aloud over the whooshing of the heater set on high to defrost the windows and tries to force a steady flow of air into her lungs.
Just breathe Jesse.
When her rusty old Camry skids to a stop in front of the daycare, she almost breaks her fingers on the door handle as she wrenches it open and then runs like her feet are on fire, into the building, down the hall, to the daycare director’s office, her long blonde hair bouncing along her shoulders, her big tote bag banging against her hip.
The stern look of the matronly woman who manages the childcare and after school program which both of Jesse’s kids, Jordynn her almost four-year-old daughter and Josh, her seven-year-old son, attend, makes the butterflies in her stomach churn into an excruciating cramp.
She knows she’s in big trouble… again.
She’s late because the meeting at the medical research facility where she works had gone past the hour it was meant to have finished, and there was no way in hell she could have just up and left, walked out of the conference room as pretty as you please. Not if she wants to keep the job she so desperately needs. And she needs this job like she needs something, anything, to heal the scars slashed so deeply across her heart.
“I’m so, so very, very sorry Miss Irina,” Jesse stammers, out of breath, and trying to hold the tears that threaten to spill in check. She doesn’t want to give this pious woman the satisfaction of seeing her so weak and fragile. Even though she is. She is weak and fragile, not to mention heartbroken, wounded, sad, devastated and just plain scared, all of that and more, ever since her husband, whom she thought loved her, just up and left a year and a half ago.
The screaming still rings in her ears, vibrates through her mind with real physical pain.
“For once! For God damn once in my life, I’m going to do what I need to do for me! I’m sick of trying to please everyone else, especially you Jesse! I know you think I’m a disappointment and maybe I am. To you. But don’t you dare say I’m a bad father! I love my kids. Hell I love my dog too! I still love everyone in my life. Except you! That’s the fucking truth and you’re gonna have to deal with it, one way or another.”
And with those violent words, Rick was… gone.
And it wasn’t just the fact that he let her down, that he blindsided her, that he completely turned into someone… else… after ten years of what she thought was a happy marriage. The reality that crashed into her heart, like a Boeing 737 into the side of a mountain, was who he left her for.
What’s even worse? Not only did he leave her, in a way, he left their kids too.
Since then, a certain kind of fear has wrapped itself around her heart. She’s scared of something she can’t hear, see, taste or touch. Something to do with her future. She doesn’t have a clue what it is… but she feels it slithering towards her. Something’s coming. Something bad.
Jesse sighs inwardly, clenches her fists, and tries to hide the haunted look in her eyes that has settled itself there since her ordeal began, by looking down at her boots. Her indigo suede boots, getting ruined by tiny snowflakes melting all over them. She didn’t want to wear them today, wanted to find her winter Uggs instead, but the morning rush and the messy coat closet prevented her from locating them. She absolutely must organize it this weekend.
Breathless with yet another shaky sigh, she feels her throat tighten when the usual mournful thoughts creep back into her mind. Thoughts about what Rick has done. And how she never would have believed him capable of doing it.
Because although it may not be one hundred percent heinous to divorce your spouse, to decide you don’t want to be in a marriage, even if it wasn’t all that bad, after a decade – some people even do it without a drop of remorse – there most definitely is something dark and hideous, an inky black shimmer of evil, about just giving up on your children.
About making them your last priority on earth.
But that’s exactly, without one scrap of a doubt, what Rick has done and continues to do. Like a termite working hard and steady gnawing his way through wood, he is working at missing out on Jordynn and Josh’s precious childhood.
Because for the last eight months now, almost every time he is supposed to take them for his weekend, like the court order has stipulated, he cancels those visitations. Weekend after weekend, he declines to show up to take his kids to his swanky newly built home with him for the two days and two nights he is meant to.
And the cold female voice that Jesse dreads listening to, twists her heart.
“Jesse, it’s Friday afternoon and I really hope you get this voice mail because Rick and I aren’t taking your kids this weekend anymore. Bye.”
That’s the frosty monologue she hears at precisely three o’clock each Friday, right before Rick is to get the children, informing her that Rick won’t be, yet again, taking Jordynn and Josh for his allotted time with them. And it snaps her heart in two seeing them in her mind’s eye waiting for daddy - their little backpacks stuffed with toothbrushes, toys, books and their favorite PJs - only to burst into tears when it’s Jesse who shows up at the daycare instead of him.
Rick can’t even be bothered to call her himself, from the day he told her he no longer loved her and yet blatantly avoided looking into her tear-filled green eyes while saying it, he’s been nothing but a weak man, a failure, a coward, an indecent disappointment, his actions much more ruthless than anything he’s ever admitted to.
So Debra-Lynn, his live-in girlfriend rattles off the brief message on his behalf, without a care as to how it’s going to affect Jesse’s poor kids. Not one pang of guilt or compassion in the woman’s monotone comes through at all.
Debra-Lynn doesn’t even bother giving her an explanation.
“Mrs. Kaley!” Miss Irina’s loud voice jolts Jesse from her rumination and she almost jumps out of her skin before forcing herself to focus on the tall woman looming above her.
“You and I need to sit down one of these days for a proper meeting, but in the meantime, I need to tell– “
A loud ringing pierces through the quiet room interrupting Miss Irina’s scolding, it’s the phone on the Director’s desk and Miss Irina, throwing her hands up in the air and scowling, leaves Jesse standing there to go answer it.
As Jesse waits, breathing in the smell of play dough, pencil crayon shavings, and stale coffee, watching her kids play on the carpet in the craft room, both enthralled in a gigantic puzzle, her mind, once again, wanders back to Rick.
Oh God… of all the people for him to hurt her with… why her?
And why does he keep doing these awful things?
There’s no disputing that, after so many months, it’s all begun to pile up: her children’s tears, which she must dry by doing something extra special with them to soothe the sting of their father’s cancellation, the horrible voice mails from Debra-Lynn, and the withdrawn visitations. A big stinging pile of heartache and grief.
And even though Jesse still remembers when Rick was… well… Rick… a good man and father… if she had the power to turn back time and force herself to see the threat that had been there all along, barging towards her but hidden within her blind spot, she would. She would make herself see that she trusted the wrong people with everything she had, all the innocence and naivety in her soul. Trusted them with all her heart.
Until they betrayed her in the worst possible way.
“Mommy are you still talking to Miss Irina?” Jordynn’s question bounces off the walls of the daycare disrupting her thoughts for a second, “because I’m working wif Joshy here to finish this puzzle so wait a few minutes ok?”
Jesse waves and nods her head at her kids, relieved that they really don’t seemed too fazed by her lateness on this dark and wet Friday evening.
Her mind becomes enveloped, once again, by the events that rattled her in the last several months. She wishes that she’d had the ability to stop the anguish in its tracks before it had a chance to sneak up on her, grab her by the throat and squeeze as hard as it could, nearly choking her to death.
Because, for humans and even some animals, what never stops hurting the most, is being deceived by who you trust the most. And it’s been hurting like hell for close to two years now.
Long ago, Jesse sifted through and compared the different kind of pain that her husband Rick doled out, to the pain inflicted from the other person who knocked her to her knees, left Jesse broken and shattered.
Her best friend Debra-Lynn.
Yeah. Her best friend. And not just your average best friend but someone Jesse loved as a person, a confidant… an almost extension of herself… as close to a sister as one could ever have.
A memory surfaces quite suddenly. Catches Jesse off guard and she reels with the sting of it, her thoughts travelling back to when they were still so close to one another…
“Guess what Jesse! Guess what?” Debra-Lynn, practically singing into her ear, was gushing with excitement on the other end of the phone line, “Ashlyn’s coming home today! She’s allowed to come home today! Can you believe it? Len and I are so happy! My dad hired a cleaning company to sanitize our entire house from top to bottom and everything is ready for our little girl!” Jesse remembers feeling the vibration of her friend’s joy distribute itself throughout her entire body like a favorite song, the melody doing its magic.
“I can’t wait to meet her Deb! When can Rick and I come over and don’t make us wait long I mean it! You better say tomorrow or the next day girl! Say tomorrow or the next day, hurry up now.” Jesse teased with a laugh in her voice.
“The next day for sure Jesse! Come in the afternoon just after lunch, my parents will show up in the evening just like I think they will be for the next eighteen years of her life for God’s sake, so if you come in the afternoon, we won’t have to share her with them.”
And when her and Rick arrived, and Debra-Lynn opened the front door with the baby in her arms, Jesse melted. From the minute she laid eyes on the tiny human, she became emotional and filled with tenderness and compassion for her friend’s beautiful newborn daughter Ashlyn. A child only three weeks old and already put through the ringer of two major surgeries, courses of medication and the kind of poking and prodding only those unfortunate enough to endure in the NICU at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, are subjected to. Ashlyn was fragile and little yet so adorable and sweet. So… brand new… just like tiny Jordynn would be when she was born a couple of years later. She was also vulnerable to germs and contamination.
“After washing your hands, you guys have to put these gowns over your clothes,” Debra-Lynn informed Jesse and Rick as she handed them the soft mint green scrubs, “and then you can hold her for a little bit. She’s just not supposed to come in contact with any germs and stuff like that, so the doctors said we have to be careful and take precautions.”
Jesse understood. It was important to be on the safe side and careful not to introduce any bacteria to this waif of a child that had had such a rough start in life.
But Jesse also knew that Debra-Lynn’s house was disinfected to the max; her friend’s favorite word was immaculate and her mad skills of keeping everything tidy and clean were out of this world. It was a given that both Debra-Lynn and Len had done everything in their power to follow the rules and that Ashlyn was safer with them than with anyone else. Ashlyn would be fine as far as that was concerned, what she needed now the most was love. So much love. So… Jesse being Jesse… broke the rules. Holding her close in a loving cuddle, she brought her lips to the baby’s face and planted a big smooch right on her tiny little cheek. She whispered to the gorgeous baby girl that everything would be alright, and she would be loved and cherished forever.
The gesture loosened something in Debra-Lynn’s usual cold stoic nature and Jesse saw a film of tears and a crinkle of a smile in Debra-Lynn’s pastel blue eyes. She could feel her happiness radiate around the room, the pure joy Debra-Lynn felt for that simple snuggle, that simple kiss. She was beyond happy knowing Ashlyn had a Godmother who adored her already.
Startled for the second time that evening, Jesse forces herself to clear the cobwebs of memory from her mind. The distant mirage quickly becomes distorted and irresolute. Wavering and diluted, it disappears like an object under murky water, when Miss Irina ends her phone call and stomps back over to her.
“I am aware, Mrs. Kaley, that you consider yourself a single parent and that you like to play that card quite liberally, I might add. That woe is me card. The card that screams I’m doing it all on my own now and I’ve been wronged beyond comprehension, all those excuses you’ve gotten used to reciting like lines in a school play. However, I cannot let this continue to happen, it is not fair to the other parents, it is not fair to your poor children having to wait here, and it is especially not fair to me and my staff, being forced to work past their normal hours. This has got to stop because if it doesn’t, I will have to ask that you find another childcare option for yourself.”
Those words are practically spat and hissed at her and it’s that tone that crumbles Jesse’s resolve and causes the tears to sneak out of the corners of her eyes and dribble slowly down her cheeks.
Almost immediately, however, mama bear mode takes center stage and tears or no tears, Jesse cannot help giving Miss Irina a piece of her mind.
“I have apologized to you profusely now and despite what you might think of me, Miss Irina, I have, indeed, been going through a very tough time and yes, as much as you don’t like hearing it, I will play that single parent card, you bet I will. Because there is nothing but the truth stamped on it. I bloody well am one person doing the job of two. And no matter how hard I’ve racked my brain to figure out how to clone myself, how to cut myself in half or how to be in two places at once, I just can’t… oddly enough and would you believe … find a way to do any of those things. I am a working single mom trying my best. Furthermore...” Jesse holds up a slim delicate hand – one that’s completely void of her wedding ring now even though the divorce hasn’t been finalized – before Miss Irina has a chance to cut her off “…I got here at exactly five minutes past six. Five minutes. And for those five minutes of your so-called hardship, you are charging me an extra twenty dollars on top of your already exorbitant fees. As well, I can assure you that my kids are loved more than any two youngsters on this planet and I will make it up to them. I always do. Last but not least, if you really want me to find another daycare, I will consider making that change, I have no other family members or any friends that are able to help with this so I am truly on my own, and I need a place that will be understanding of that.”
With those words she collects her kids and throws out one last comment to the uncompromising Miss Irina: “Have a good evening Ma’am.”
On the way home, driving extra cautiously in the snowstorm that has now become a full-fledged blizzard, Jesse thanks God that it’s Friday which means an entire two days spent with her munchkins doing indoor activities in the warmth and sanctuary of her incredibly small but cozy apartment condo.
“Guess what guys? I bought a movie you’ve been wanting to see for a while! You have to guess which one it is though. Are you up for it kiddos?”
But as Jordynn and Josh take turns calling out their guesses, Jesse’s pulled back into the dark world of her soon to be ex-husband and her ex-best friend.
She trembles at the thought of that strange anonymous call she received two days ago while working on an intricate medical research report at her desk in her office. The voice was one that she hadn’t recognized, and belonged to – in typical old-school horror film fashion – a heavy breather trying to imitate a ridiculous Darth Vader voice. Jesse would have laughed if it wasn’t for the fact that it generated a creepy feeling to climb up her spine. And it wasn’t just how unsettling it’s deep and muffled pitch felt as it reverberated in her ear, it was also how peculiar the things he or she said were. Some of the oddest things Jesse had ever heard.
“You should know that he was done having children after the two of you had your youngest. He did something behind your back. It worked. There is no way there can ever be more. It’s a sham, it’s a total lie.” Then click and the phone went dead. Whoever it was, had hung up.
Jesse stewed over it for several days trying to figure out who would have made such a weird call. She couldn’t think of anyone.
All she could think about, and still thinks about, is the never-ending pain that seems to surround her, brought on by her backstabbing BFF and cheating husband. All she can think about is how they each turned out to be a kind of soul-crushing monster.
Because even though both Rick and Debra-Lynn are equally complicit in hurting her so badly – it really does take two to tango after all – the fact remains that each one did so… in his and her… own way.
Though it is hard to compartmentalize the pain, hammered like a nail into her heart, between the two of them, Jesse does it anyway. Debra-Lynn’s betrayal was one kind of ugliness. And Rick’s was yet… another.
Rick… who she loved so much, who was once a wonderful dad to the kids and a man they adored like apple crumble and rainy-day puddles, snow cones and hugs, watermelon on hot days, pure love and comfort… his is the venomous fang that bites the hardest. It’s HIS poison that runs through her veins, arteries, entire body, burning, scalding, like acid poured on an open wound. She is nowhere near getting over the raw horror of what he did to her with her best friend.
Rick wielded that knife, with the sharpest of blades, more forcibly than Debra-Lynn, and caused more shadows than light… both night and day… to surround her. He couldn’t have pushed her deeper into a corner of dark despair if he tried.
But…where Debra-Lynn is concerned… after combing through the evidence, and several clues later, Jesse’s come to realize that she, her so-called bestie at the time, is the one who started it. She’s the reptile with the snakelike skills. She’s the one who orchestrated it all and made it happen. Rick is a shell of a man she no longer recognizes. He’s a spineless jellyfish, a follower never a leader. He’s not the instigator, he just gave in because he’s a pathetically small man, the worse kind of grubby gold digger, and someone with no integrity at all. It became all too painfully clear to Jesse that from the time Rick met Debra-Lynn, her daddy’s money turned into an obsession for him. Poor – pun most certainly intended – Jesse, had no chance of offering anything like the fringe benefits of a sizeable inheritance to Rick once her parents died. She grew up in a poor neighborhood, her mom scrimping to makes ends meet, her dad miles away and absent from her life. Jesse’s and Debra-Lynn’s families are as opposite of one another as a prince and a pauper. They come from different worlds, divided by the razor-sharp edge of the almighty dollar bill. Not to mention the lifestyle that goes with it. Rick succumbed to his cowardness in a noticeably short matter of time, following a yellow brick road he thought was paved in gold.
Debra-Lynn, on the other hand, is where it all began.
This time Jesse’s reminiscing takes her back to a conversation with Ryan, one of the only people she can count on these days to be in her corner, to have her back and support her throughout this awful time. And the best co-worker a girl could ever hope for. A conversation that they had very recently, just a few days ago, in fact…
“It’s good to learn the truth about the things that happen to us, Jesse, my dear. Especially the crap that traumatizes us, that we didn’t see coming and that’s painful in the worst way, honey. So don’t be afraid to unearth it all, no matter what you find. Knowing is power. Knowing is confidence. Knowing is healing. And knowing what they’ve done, can be a form of closure for you in the end. Trust me, Jesse.”
“So, you’re saying I should just summon up my courage and look under the bed where the monster may be hiding, no matter how scary it is?” Jesse’s soft voice had a touch of forced lightheartedness that she really didn’t feel all that much. She was sitting at her tiny kitchen island, if one could even call it that – it was more like a tall pine TV tray – sipping a glass of perfectly chilled Pinot Grigio, gazing at the flames of the cranberry-orange scented candles on a ceramic tray in front of her. She liked candles because they made everything feel a bit more homey and cheerful somehow. But despite the golden flames burning bright atop the wicks, and casting shimmering shadows in the low light, nothing felt completely safe and welcoming in her world lately. Everything had just felt so heavy since it all began, weighing on her shoulders like the entire earth, made of rock and steel, cripplingly balancing there.
“Yes, good analogy, kid, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Squelch your fear and tally up what you know or even what you simply suspect. You have a touch of the spiritual, something almost transcendent or psychic within you, I noticed that about you a long time ago, and I trust in your intuitions completely.”
This threw Jesse for a loop, she was stunned to hear those words come out of Ryan’s mouth. Ryan the tough guy, all about sports, especially boxing, and always working on those flashy fast cars that Jesse hated, calling them his “thug cars”. What Ryan had just uttered was completely out of the blue. She couldn’t imagine the six-foot five man of muscle saying it to anyone, even her. But, on the other hand, Ryan’s gentle giant nature had always been the heart and soul of him, Jesse could tease him about anything. Like the cars, and the fact that he’s dated and keeps on dating a lot of women and yet none of them mind, even when they know about one another. But it’s because Ryan’s honesty has always been front and center, making it clear to them that he’d never make a commitment until he knew with absolute certainly that the right one had come along. Kind of like George Clooney, he always whispered with a wink.
“Well, I know a lot of things already, Ry, I’ve found out so much in such a short amount of time, even have some proof now. But there are a lot of things that still torment me. A lot. Like the fact that, after all this time, it’s still tough to imagine that my best friend could be so devious, setting her sights on my husband. There’s no denying that Debra-Lynn is the one who launched my nightmare, propelled it into existence, and made certain that I properly suffered the shockwave of it day after day, week after week, month after month.”
“Yeah, that she did, I’m with you on that completely Jess, you’re right on the money there. It’s hard to imagine, unthinkable, but true nevertheless. So… keep going… what else is on your mind? It’s important to talk about it when you can.”
“Well, sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that maybe there’s an even higher evil at play here. That there’s something more to this whole thing… something more that lies under the surface… something more to the relationship between Debra-Lynn and Rick. Something more to the way they quickly destroyed two marriages… to the way Rick quickly surrendered to Debra-Lynn’s advances… to the way he stopped caring about his own wonderful children… to that bizarre phone call and countless other strange occurrences I’ve encountered,” Jesse blinked and quietly wiped her falling tears with the back of her hand, thankful they weren’t Facetiming, just talking through the iPhone speaker, and Ryan couldn’t see her face.
“More to it than meets the eye. As the saying goes, right?” he asked.
“Yeah, Ry... my gut instinct is whispering that Debra-Lynn and Rick are hiding something…”
Jesse’s mind scrambles back to the present lest she get too caught up in these intensely gripping thoughts and the murky depraved world of Debra-Lynn and Rick... though it’s not easy to free herself from the hold they seem to constantly have on her in such an unjustifiable… and maybe even… dangerous… way.
Perhaps that’s why tonight feels so mystifying and disconcerting … a night of moonlight filtering through the fog... and wet snow falling silently one minute and then flying on the moan of the wind the next. An evening full of unexplained feelings, premonitions and thoughtful insights … Jesse wonders if there’s another reason why Rick allowed Debra-Lynn to lead him away, why he followed her like those kids in their trance-induced state marching behind the pied piper. Like maybe … she had something on him…
Because Debra-Lynn wasn’t the devil who simply robbed Rick by stealing his heart or whatever coldness beats in his chest now. She was the devil who cunningly made him want to give it to her. Oh no, Debra-Lynn wasn’t your average wolf in sheep’s clothing run of the mill kind of crook, she was a master manipulator. Debra-Lynn lured Rick from Jesse systematically, cleverly, steadily, using all kinds of weaponry. Especially that imminent inheritance of a whole lot of money someday.
Then, once she had her fish dangling on her hook, she ripped the sharp metal out of his bloody mouth with a yank and stored him away in the deep freeze of her isolation.
She proceeded to dominate Rick by putting an end to his visits with his kids and making him focus on nothing… and no one… else… but her. The visits grinded to a halt slowly but surely and there was nothing but corrosive dust and debris left behind for her children to find. Nothing but the high keening whine and faded sputter of a beat-up old machine refusing to go on working properly.
Rick refused to do what a good dad should. He gave up his precious time with his children: bedtime stories and bath routines, puzzles and homework, days at the zoo, soccer field or swimming pool, warm summer evenings in the backyard or local park, pillow fights in bed, and then even more cherished and important moments like interactive parent teacher interviews, school plays, church on Sundays, family vacations and… the be all and end all: Father’s Day.
A missed Father’s Day that rocked Jordynn and Josh’s entire world, a shockwave of intense pain filling it. After making him beautiful cards and gifts at daycare and school, when it came time for little Jordynn and Josh to proudly present them to their daddy, he was nowhere to be found. He not only refused to make contact with them, he also then refused to take their calls, return their calls, and acknowledge the tears in his children’s voices he could clearly hear on his answering machine. He spent Father’s Day with Debra-Lynn, her parents, and Ashlyn… his other family… and the impact his sheer cruelty had on his kids was nothing short of sadistic.
That’s how it is to this day, Rick’s absences continue to multiply.
Jesse knows why. His woman, her former best friend, now her enemy and one of the meanest people on the fringes of Jesse’s life, is eight months pregnant with his child.
And he is on call day and night. Whenever Debra-Lynn crooks her finger in his direction, Rick turns into a panting, tail-wagging, ready and willing lap dog, and drops whatever he’s doing to come running. He does everything and anything she demands. It’s almost eerie watching it all unfold, those times Jesse has seen it herself or the odd times when he does take the kids for a whole half an hour to buy them a quick ice cream cone, and they tell her all about it. Uncanny really. The similarity to a puppeteer, in this case Debra-Lynn, pulling invisible strings tied to the top of her puppet’s, in this case Rick’s, cheating head.
Yes… very odd indeed, Jesse thinks and once again wonders… what did she dig up on him that he pasted himself to her side so obediently… so willingly?
“Mommeeeee! Are you listening to us? Joshy says you bought Harry Potter or Monsters Inc. and I say you bought Shrek! Which one mommy, which one?” Jordynn is yelling now because Jesse’s mind drifted for much too long.
“Indoor voice Jordynn sweetie, please. And as a big surprise to you both for being so good most of the time ha ha ha, and also because of the bad weather they’re forecasting for the whole weekend, I bought them all!” Jesse giggles when her response elicits cries of delights from both of her kids.
With the familiar glow of Christmas lights her neighbors have already strung up in her sights now, Jesse gives Debra-Lynn and Rick only one last thought: it may take a long time for her to figure out the mystery behind her best friend and her husband’s betrayal and how they sleep at night knowing what awful things they’ve done. Or she may never find all the answers. But the important thing is that even though she can’t be both mother and father to her little ones, she will always be there for them, heart and soul, with so much love, and in every way she can.
Debra-Lynn sits comfortably in the plush heated leather seat of her Jeep Grand Cherokee, grateful to be out of the howling wind and bitter cold, watching the woman who once upon a time used to be her best friend, brave the elements. Observing Jesse run like a scared little rabbit, Debra-Lynn’s contempt for this fake woman is so complicated, not even her therapist has been able to pull enough threads to unravel the mystery behind it.
She’s aware of how much she half misses and half hates Jesse, but in the past several weeks, the hatred is the emotion that has won out, exploding like fireworks in the night sky, dazzling her with its sparkle.
The disdain Debra-Lynn feels has completely eclipsed any lingering longing she may harbor for her former friend. The friend that now considers Debra-Lynn her enemy, Jesse has basically dumped her and pretty much thrown her… her of all people… the one friend Jesse used to admire… to the damn wolves. Though Jesse never said as much in so many words, deep down inside Debra-Lynn knows she put the brakes on their friendship once it became clear how much of a role Debra-Lynn had actually played in Jesse’s husband Rick leaving her. Jesse simply halted all communication with her, she could no longer carry on with Debra-Lynn being any part of her life.
Not only does this infuriate Debra-Lynn, oddly enough, it also evokes both feelings of revenge, and at the same time, a certain amount of deep-seated self-satisfaction. Smugness for achieving what she set out to do all along: get Rick.
Come hell or high water.
And boy did she get him. She sure she did. He belongs to her … and only her… now... and for years to come.
But there’s even more. The thing she pats herself on the back for the most… the spectacular feat she managed to achieve... like beating the odds at the casino and winning big… was hiding it from Jesse for so long. Debra-Lynn still marvels at how she was able to pretend to comfort the poor pitiful, sniffling, distraught, miserable, dear little Jesse through the ordeal of her husband leaving her… and keep the secret that the other woman was… in fact… her… hidden for several months. Quite the accomplishment she thinks to herself and smiles. In Debra-Lynn’s opinion, Jesse deserved everything she got and then some. She will hate her forever.
With her scorn pasted on her face, she continues to stalk her ex-best friend outside the daycare, eyes straining against the flakes of snow flying at her windshield in the blue-tinged darkness. All the better to see thirty-three-year-old Jesse nearly break her neck slipping on the icy sidewalk. Jesse’s movements are fast and furious, and under the bright outdoor lamplight her fake blonde hair sporting those unnatural gold and copper highlights flows behind her like a wedding veil.
It reminds Debra-Lynn of Jesse and Rick’s romantic wedding on the island of Maui. Jesse’s pearl-studded white lace veil fastened to her hair with an ivory comb, her snow-white mermaid dress bedazzling against her golden bronzed skin. And Rick, handsome and tall, in a white tux with a gorgeous satin teal cummerbund, both of them looking like movie stars in all the wedding photos. Amazing pictures Debra-Lynn will never forget, the images are painfully seared behind her eyelids. Every one of them still alive after all these years with the vivid colors of lush green foliage, buttery yellow sandy beaches, cobalt blue waters, and the romantic evening sunsets of the tropics – the frothy ocean waves catching fire from the crimson sun seemingly sinking into them. All of it and more, serving as stunning backdrops in every single photo.
The thought makes Debra-Lynn’s eye twitch spasmodically and just as abruptly as the vision came to her, she pushes the whole fucking fairytale snapshot away, and focuses on the here and now. Back to Jesse and her stupid flat-ironed tresses spilling down her back. Debra-Lynn can’t help wondering how on earth Jesse’s hair grew so fast all of the sudden. Was it always that long? Probably not, knowing Jesse, it’s the work of some kind of hair extensions, an artificial and ridiculous luxury that she spent money to buy herself. Just like her assortment of citrus and floral perfumes, blush pink gel nails and unnatural tan, it’s all about looks with that girly girl-woman, always has been for as long as she’s known her.
How Rick found that attractive all those years they were married, when it’s clearly so manufactured, Debra-Lynn cannot fathom to this day. No wonder he finally gave in to Debra-Lynn’s advances, she is so much more natural and girl next door than Jesse could ever be. Debra-Lynn does nothing other than clip her fingernails, so they aren’t too long, cut her shiny wavy chestnut brown hair into an easy to manage shoulder-length bob, and keep her makeup to just a hint of cherry Chapstick glossed over her not too full, not too thin, nearly perfect, lips. Only once in her entire life, did Debra-Lynn wear a little more in the way of makeup, some black mascara and eyeliner to enhance her baby blue eyes, and a very soft taupe lipstick. Only once. Once, during those months when she decided that Rick was the one for her and became desperate to find a way to seduce him.
Jeremy spoke in class today!
Pearl Jam’s Jeremy, her ringtone and a song Jesse once told her is so disturbing it gives her the ultimate creeps, suddenly blares through the interior of the Jeep. No wonder it’s Rick and Debra-Lynn’s favorite song, Jesse’s disgust with it is all the more reason for them to adore it.
On the other end of the line, Rick’s voice tells her he’s still at the bank but about to head home. As senior bank manager, his workday ends far later than the typical short banking hours that customers and tellers are used to. Long after all the other employees have left for the day, he remains at Goldman Holding & Trust Inc., working late into the evening hours.
“Hey,” he says and coughs, almost choking on the dregs of coffee he’s trying to swallow while talking at the same time. It’s his fourth cup of the day.
“I’m just about to leave here and head home. Are you still out and about shopping? Did you visit your parents today?”
“Yeah, I dropped Ash off at their house, then went and picked up a few things, and I’m just leaving the shopping mall now,” Debra-Lynn lies smoothly.
“I was also going to pick up something for dinner since you know how much I hate cooking especially when Ashlyn won’t be home, but on second thought, can you do it? I might go back into the store to grab an item I forgot real quick. Daddy says hi by the way.”
“Sure,” he replies, the word clipped and abrupt, “do you want the usual? Pizza and pasta from Greco’s?”
“Yeah that sounds fine and get me some of those garlic breadsticks too, I’m having a craving.”
“Ok. Before I let you go though Deb, tell me how it went with your parents. Is your dad still being stubborn?”
“You mean about paying him back for the IVF?”
“Yeah, it’s not fair for me to have to pay him back now after what you did. I’m still pissed off at you for confessing that you used someone else’s donation, some other man’s stuff, damn it, to get pregnant with this baby when everyone else thinks it’s fucking mine! Your parents should have been made to believe it’s mine too! It’s bad enough you told them we had to do IVF because of my vasectomy! If we had kept it a secret, I would have been willing to pay for all of it. But no. You had to spill the beans just like the daddy’s girl you are. Still, even that wouldn’t be so bad, I could understand why you did it and having your parents pay the high cost was a good outcome in the end. What I don’t get is what the hell possessed you to tell them using my sperm wasn’t working! Just because my vasectomy was stopping us from getting pregnant, doesn’t mean we couldn’t have kept trying to use my semen first! After all the hell I went through to get it extracted. We may not have been able to get it done the bloody old fashioned way, but we could have gotten it done in the lab. Like you did using someone else’s junk!”
“Stop yelling at me Richard! You think you’re such a big man on campus when really you’re just a cheater and a huge liar when it comes down to it. I was tired of waiting for your crap to work getting me knocked up. It was taking too long and daddy offered to pay for the IVF ONLY if I found a way to speed it all up because my parents were sick of waiting for me to get pregnant with their second grandchild too. Cut the melodramatic and overly theatrical crap, I chose to use the sperm from a goody two-shoes med student who looks a lot like you. Same brown hair, same height, same stunning sea-green eyes, I was very particular, I did my homework, unlike you would bother to do. So stop frikken worrying about it, the kid will look like you a bit anyway. And if not you, then me. Nobody will know the truth.”
Debra-Lynn’s confidence oozes across the phone line, and she pauses for only a fraction of a second before continuing her rant.
“And daddy’s just being salty about wanting his money back because I told him we can’t go to Puerto Vallarta with him and mom right away when the baby is born. I want some time to enjoy him or her in our new home and especially around Ashlyn for the two of them to bond. We can go to Mexico with my parents – all expenses paid courtesy of my dad of course – a few months after. I’ll soothe daddy’s ruffled feathers, and talk him out of demanding his money back, I’ll buy him a best grandpa in the fucking world mug and once he sees his grand-baby, he’ll melt like ice on a salted sidewalk. Just leave everything to me. Ok?”
“Fine. Ok. I’m sorry babe, you win. But are you sure there’s absolutely no way of anyone finding this out? What about those candystripers at that hospital fertility clinic, are you sure one of those girls won’t gossip about it? You and I both know Jesse’s got plenty of acquaintences and friends who are healthcare workers and volunteers.”
“NO Rick. Nobody will tell on us, our secret is safe, my parents won’t breathe a word to anyone either.”
“Ok Deb, you’re right. And I don’t want to fight. I’ll get going now to pick up our dinner, the storm looks ugly out there and I just want to get home, work has been nonstop since I set foot in here bright and early this morning. God, I can’t wait to retire, I wish I were older already. It’s gonna be great to relax in one of your dad’s luxury villas in Phoenix where its nice and warm once I stop working. Playing golf, swimming, grilling chicken on the barbeque most nights for dinner, I’m so in. Early retirement here I come. Anyway, make sure you drive carefully too. Where are you by the way, which mall?”
A dark shadow suddenly materializes from the cluster of giant pine trees next to her passenger side window, distracting Debra-Lynn for a fraction of a second.
“Umm… Aspen Woods Centre,” she replies absentmindedly while keeping her eyes on the sinister-looking shape which turns out to be the biggest black raven she’s ever seen, emerging from one of the lower branches hidden closer to the tree trunk. Watching it in a fatigue-induced trance, she shudders at the sight, huge birds creep her the hell out.
“Debra-Lynn, Aspen Woods Centre is closed today, they had a big fire early this morning. You’re lying to me. Why’s that? Let me guess. You’re not actually shopping are you? You’re stalking Jesse again, aren’t you? What the fuck do you need to keep doing this for? Are you frikken insane? You’re going to get caught one of these days!”
“Well, well, well, aren’t you the genius smartass of the year Ricky boy? Just an all-around Inspector Clouseau know it all. Whatever. You may be right but it is none of your business what I do with my free time and yes, I just watched her show up late at the daycare again. I think we should talk to Miss Irina once more. Make Jesse pay for her sins properly this time. What do you think? Good idea?”
There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the line as Rick’s reluctance to agree with Debra-Lynn becomes palpable.
Her anger rises like billowing black smoke from an out-of-control forest fire.
“Are you seriously going to argue this with me Rick?” Debra-Lynn seethes, her fury intense, her words coming from behind clenched teeth.
“Honestly Mister Brainiac, after what you did to me, cheating on me with your little volleyball teammate, Miss white teeth and short shorts Andrea Mackie of all people, and that other thing you did that you absolutely don’t want anyone to find out about, you have no right to deny me anything I bloody well want! And your opinion doesn’t count, you lost that privilege when you humiliated me! It’s only fair that I get to take that, as well as your freedom away from you, we both agreed to it. The leash I have snapped around your cheating neck and get to yank on whenever I want, will be there for the rest of your life!”
And with that, she furiously slams her pointer finger down on the end call button to hang up on him.
In his now quiet office, the snowflakes, driven by a cold wind flying at his darkened window, Rick is left feeling like he just received a slap in the face. He feels foolish, like a man who’s been stripped of his masculinity. As embarassing as that may be, however, he also wonders which one of them is more the fool than the other. Debra-Lynn should be ashamed just as much as he should. She knows he’s with her for the money and yet she insists on keeping him. She has her own wretched reasons of course, but still he marvels at her callousness and indifference. She must know he doesn’t love her. After all of the cheating he’s done, and all the women he’s been with, only one has really captured his heart. And that person is neither Jesse nor Debra-Lynn. But for the kind of fringe benefits only true wealth can provide, he will stay with Debra-Lynn and imagine he’s being intimate with the true girl of his dreams when he holds her pregnant body in his arms at night. He can picture another woman’s face and imagine the feel of another woman’s skin. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, he’s dealt with much harsher circumstances in his life.
So, moments later, Rick’s calling her back, begging for forgiveness and telling her he’ll do anything her little heart desires. He’s contrite and submissive and even makes a huge effort of putting a bit of cheer in his voice and telling her how much he misses her. And how he can’t wait to lay next to her in their king size bed tonight, keeping her and the baby warm while the storm rages outside.
Placated and smug once again, Debra-Lynn continues watching out her car window waiting for a glimpse of Jesse and her kids leaving the daycare, all the while thanking her lucky stars that her womanly charms worked on Rick when she needed them to. And not only her charisma and wholesome sexiness but the fact that Rick is all about money, especially inheriting it, and Debra-Lynn’s daddy is beyond wealthy.
Still, deep down in that part of her gut that occasionally forces her conscience to crawl out of its hiding place, Debra-Lynn misses her friend, misses the good times they used to have before Rick left Jesse for her. Before the pregnancy that Debra-Lynn wanted so badly. Before her life depended on it. Before she thought she might go insane if she could not have just one… one… healthy baby… a longing so embedded inside her and growing stronger and more desperate and primal with each passing day. Like some kind of festering sore bulging with pus, pulsating with a feverish rhythm of toxin, threatening to burst at any moment.
Yes, before that, she and Jesse were best friends, always hanging out, doing things together, being there for each other in tough times, and having each other’s backs. But that all changed when Jesse had to go and... one... by... one... acquire everything Debra-Lynn ever wanted for herself. Everything that, no matter how hard she tried, she could not succeed in possessing.
So she needed to take matters into her own hands. She needed to make her daddy proud of her and make sure she was the main beneficiary in her parents will at all costs. Though she was a daddy’s girl, had him wrapped around her entire hand, never mind her little finger, she couldn’t expect him to completely finance her high-end lifestyle. She needed to show him she could get a man who made money too, just like daddy did. And for that to happen, she needed... Rick. Her best friend’s man. The minute she realized her husband, lazy Len, as she called him behind his back, had never really been her prince charming, she set out to seduce Rick in any way she could. Though Len was good in bed and good looking, there wasn’t much more to him than that. He treated work like it was some type of disease, had never strived for a college education or decent career, and his job as a dry cleaning delivery man barely made them enough money to pay for fuel to pump into their two gas-guzzling SUVs. No. Len would no longer do. All they did was fight about money... and really in the end... they bickered over everything. It was imperative that she get what SHE wanted for a change. And she wanted Rick.
And now, her baby is on his or her way to becoming her very own beautiful creation, another chance at motherhood, her lifeline in a stormy world. It doesn’t matter that it’s not biologically Rick’s, all that matters is that people believe he’s the father. This child means so much to her. Because although she loves Ashlyn with all her heart, Debra-Lynn would do almost anything to have a child who isn’t plagued with the devastating trauma of a neural tube defect, one that Ashlyn was born with but one that should have never happened to her poor little daughter. An awful birth defect Ashlyn did not deserve. So, when the doctors assured her that the little one in her womb was perfectly healthy, Debra-Lynn’s elation skyrocketed. This baby will be a wonderful, loving sibling to Ashlyn, and Debra-Lynn has miraculously suceeded in getting exactly what Jesse had. After watching Josh and Jordynn love each other like no other brother and sister she knew did, Debra-Lynn decided long ago that was what she wanted too.
Furthermore, Rick the compliant, will be the perfect father to her son or daughter and giving up Jesse will be worth it tenfold once the baby is born, and she holds it in her arms. She can’t wait. Only a month or so to go.
Cradling her baby bump, Debra-Lynn is once again filled with a loathing like no other for her now nemesis. Watching her, twenty minutes ago, run into the daycare late as usual had filled her with excitement and anticipation… and now, as Jesse, Jordynn and Josh finally emerge from the front door of the building, a kernel of an idea begins to sprout in her brain.
Jesse is not fit to be a mother.
It’s not fair she ended up with those two golden-haired, emerald-green-eyed gorgeous children Jordynn and Josh – a boy AND a girl – one of each no less – and a husband who once upon a time thought Jesse hung the moon for him, was his best friend and soulmate, a person he truly wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Add to that the brand-new custom-built house with the proverbial white picket fence, a blossoming career, and a close relationship with Rick’s parents – Jesse adored her in-laws, Brian and Judy – the scales of undeserved one-sidedness were tipped so heavily in Jesse’s favor, Debra-Lynn wanted to scream into a pillow every single minute of every single day.
It’s excruciating even now after all this time for Debra-Lynn to remember the way Rick looked at Jesse like she was... incandescent. As if he saw her as the brightest, most precious diamond in a sky full of a million shining stars. Like if her’s was the only light that went out, he would mourn that luminescence forever. There was always a certain kind of warmth and honesty to their marriage, something so uplifting, almost therapeutic about their relationship, like the rejuvenating balminess of the island breezes after a cold hard winter, the complete opposite of a night like this. For as long as it lasted, it was disgusting how Jesse bathed in the glory of having those wonderful kids and that loving husband.
After a while, pretending to be Jesse’s friend, hiding the green-eyed-monster lurking inside of her, began to take its toll on Debra-Lynn. It went beyond fucking tedious.
But then, like a gift from God, Jesse began to slip up, make tiny mistakes here and there. And Debra-Lynn pounced. Devising scenerios to make Jesse look bad in Rick’s eyes, she was astounded at how easily it worked and how fluid her diabolical scheming became the more she carried on with it. So brilliant. Jesse’s anxiety and insecurities made it all flow so smoothly in Debra-Lynn’s favor, she had to bite her lip from grinning whenever she succeeded in causing an argument between Jesse and Rick. Pretty soon she hungered for more. More and more of those wonderful fights she adored as much as she revelled in the thought of her taking Jesse’s place in Rick’s life. She was ravenous for it all, envisioning the two of them and her kids FINALLY the ones with the fancy house and picture postcard perfect family, living it up in more luxury than Jesse and Rick ever did, including vacationing with her parents several times a year in the warm Arizona sunshine.
A tingly shiver of ecstasy runs down her spine and all the way back up again when she thinks how finally, after all these years, the pendulum has swung in her direction, and for a goddamn change, she’s the one reaping the benefits, while Jesse has been stripped of everything. Well… almost everything. There’s more work to be done.
As her former best friend drives away from the daycare, the nugget of thought continues to incubate in Debra-Lynn’s mind… until she has it all figured out.
It’s so very simple…
Jesse is an unfit mother. And the authorities need to be informed of that. Debra-Lynn will see to it. See that Jesse is punished for constantly being late, for not looking after her children properly, for putting her nail appointments, her hair appointments, her workouts at the gym, her fucking SELF, ahead of her kids. Like HELL she was at work late as she’s always claiming. Though Debra-Lynn has no proof, her and Rick have talked to Miss Irina a few times. And she knows Jesse was most likely at the Pilates studio working out this evening. She cares more for her looks than anyone Debra-Lynn has ever known.
And for that she needs to pay.
Jordynn and Josh
Remnants of Josh’s baby voice can still be heard there in his inflection, even at seven years of age, he still exhibits that high pitched octave which, like his slight build, kindness and delicate facial features, makes him so adorable.
“Can we make popcorn AND microwave s’mores to watch Shrek with tonight?” Josh yawns and squirms around in his seat, already tired of being constrained and wanting to get home, “and can I skip my bath and just put on my pjs right away before supper? Miss Killorn was teaching us about health and nutrition today and she said it’s ok to have cheat days sometimes when you’re ’loud to skip a bath and eat a bit of junk food. Can we do that tonight? Please mom?”
“Sure buddy, that sounds like an excellent idea, we can do bath time tomorrow night instead.”
“Thanks mom, you’re the best. I’m glad the weather is making everything so cozy today and I’m so excited to watch Shrek with you and even my stinky little sister… ha ha that’s funny, I’m so funny aren’t I Jordy, pordy?“
Josh’s childish giggle reverberates throughout the car making Jesse smile in spite of the white-knuckle terror of, once again, tackling the glistening slick roads underneath her worn out tires.
“Oh brother! You’re not thaaaat funny Joshy Woshy!” Jordynn chimes in now, her full-fledged baby talk on sweet display and once again, Jesse thanks God and her angels for these two wonderful human beings.
Then suddenly, out of the blue, Josh changes the subject.
“But mom? I don’t think I want to go to dad’s house anymore. Both me and Jordynn don’t like it there now.”
“Oh sweetie but you love your dad, why don’t you want to go to his house Josh? Did something happen there when you were there last? Even though it was an awfully long time ago, you still remember, don’t you? Didn’t you like to see your dad and spend time with him?”
“I want to see daddy, mommy, I do but…” Josh’s voice trails off as he struggles to find the right words.
“But daddy don’t want us to boffer him too much,” Jordynn blurts out before Josh can say anything else, “he don’t do homework wif Joshy, he say, kids, go play wif Ashlyn, to me and Joshy, mommy he don’t play puzzles and read bedtimes stories wif us no more, right Joshy?”
“Yeah mom, Jordynn’s right, dad doesn’t even spend time with us alone. We want just the three of us to go to the zoo or to a movie or McDonalds or something but Debra-Lynn and Ashlyn always have to come too. It’s not fair.” Josh’s voice quivers with frustration, on the brink of tears, as he rubs his fists into his eyes.
“Oh kids I’m so sorry. So very sorry Jordynn and Josh, I know it isn’t fair that he doesn’t pay attention to you. Have you asked him to do activities with just you and not Ashlyn and Debra-Lynn sometimes? It’s ok for you to ask, you know?”
“No mommy, Debber-Lynn don’t wanna let us see daddy by ourselfs, she say it would make Ashlyn sad not to play wif her. I don’t wanna make Ashlyn sad mommy so we gotta play wif her. We gotta, daddy says so too, right Joshy?”
“Yeah, right, but I’m a boy mom and older than the girls. I don’t like playing with Ashlyn. Because of her Spina Bifida, she has to wear braces and shoes inside the house and she steps on my fingers whenever we play twister, she stomps really hard on them. I just want to see dad, just me and Jordynn, just the three of us. He’s our dad not anyone else’s and Miss Killorn said we should get to have him all to ourselves whenever we want. But we never get him all to ourselves. I’m not even allowed to talk to him in private. Ashlyn is allowed to whisper secrets in Debra-Lynn’s ear, but if I do that with dad, I get in trouble. They tell me that I should say everything out loud so it’s all fair to everyone. I don’t think anything over there is fair anymore.”
“I love dad but he’s not the same as when he lived with us.”
“So can I just stay home with you on the weekends from now on? Pleeease?”