Mike drove me home. I was ticked off at him, though I knew I had no reason to be. He had never offered anything but friendship, and I had told him that I wasn’t interested in anything other than that as well. Why was I trying to make it into something more? Maybe I was just setting myself up to get hurt again, but spending time with him made me feel alive. That was something I hadn’t felt in quite a while.
The month was quickly rushing by. I was still working on my novel – every day but Saturday. It had become a ritual. The story was coming along. I was determined to hit that 50,000 word mark if it killed me. On some days, I was convinced that it just might. Some days the words just flowed and I was convinced that I was born to be a writer. Other days, every word was a painful struggle and the word count barely seemed to budge. I knew I was one of the lucky ones in the sense that there was very little to distract me from writing. After all, I lived alone. I really only had to answer to Lady at home, Rachel at work, and my mother on the phone. Lady only asked that I feed her and walk her and let her sleep next to me. As long as I showed up for work when I was supposed to, Rachel didn’t care what I did with my free time (although she was still sure something was going on between Mike and me.) My mother cared, but I hadn’t told her about the novel project, or about Mike for that matter. I wasn’t ready for disapproval on either front. I love my mom and we get along well, but, she is my mom and her opinion matters, especially when it is critical of me. I just didn’t need that right now. She was still trying to get over the fact that I had picked up and moved 300 miles away. I was going home for Thanksgiving. Perhaps I would tell her then.
In the meantime, I kept myself busy, which not only helped the pages of my novel to take shape, but also helped to keep my mind off both Mike and Alan. Well, at least I was trying. There were still a lot of things I was attempting to sort out.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two years since my last confession.” I knelt in the darkness of the confessional, ready to bare my soul. There was the option of going face-to-face, but I preferred the anonymity of being behind the grille. It didn’t hurt that this priest had never seen me before, and wouldn’t recognize my voice. I never enjoyed going to confession. It was always painful. It is tough to be honest with yourself – tougher to be honest with someone else, whether they are sitting in the place of God or not. It was totally humiliating, but the odd thing was, afterwards, I always felt better, like the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. There is something to be said for hearing the words, “I absolve you from all your sins.”
“Father, I need some help.”
“How can I help you?”
“I’m mad at God. I’ve tried not to be, but I just can’t stop,” I reluctantly admitted.
“Anger can be healthy. God knows how we feel. We can’t hide from Him, no matter how hard we try. What happened?”
I told him the condensed version of all that had happened.
“I think that your anger is normal,” Father said, “But you need to try to put it behind you. When you feel angry with God, tell him. Offer it up, but try not to dwell on it. Try to concentrate on the good that is in your life now. God will show you the path your life should take. You need to trust that He has your best interests at heart. I don’t know why all this has happened to you, but there is nothing so bad that God can’t bring some good out of it.”
I thought about his words as I prayed in the quiet of the church. I felt like a little girl again when my mother would take me to our local church to light a candle and pray. There was something so comforting about the candle’s gentle glow in the darkness. My mother used to say it would burn all day, carrying our prayers up to heaven long after we left the church. I missed my faith. I suppose Mike was right, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. The priest was right, too, God hadn’t left me, no matter how much I felt like He had. He was just an easy target for my anger, because the only other person to blame was dead and being angry at him didn’t seem to do much good. If Mike had done nothing else for me, he had convinced me to come back to Church. It felt good to be back.
I went back to the children’s mass Sunday morning, although this time I sat in the last pew. I could see Mike, Sara and the boys sitting in the front row. I wasn’t there for them, though. I was there for me. Despite that fact, I caught myself staring at the back of Mike’s head much more than I cared to admit. Why was it whenever he was near I could think of little else? He hadn’t called or stopped by the library to see me all week. It bothered me, no matter how much I tried to pretend that it didn’t. This had to stop. When mass was ended, I hurried out of the church before he could see me.
The next day, I was sick as a dog. That’s a strange expression, isn’t it? After all, as far as I could tell, Lady almost never got sick. In any case, I could barely get out of bed. My head pounded, my throat was burning, and every muscle in my body was sore. I wanted my mommy! This was one thing that stunk about living alone. There was no one to take care of me when I was sick. Alan had always taken good care of me when I was ill. He would read to me while I lay in bed, and make me chicken soup, and even take care of the laundry. As badly as things ended for us, I had actually enjoyed being married, and I had loved Alan. I had loved him more than I had ever loved anyone else. I didn’t like being alone. Lady was great, but she couldn’t take the place of a real live person.
The following day, when I had actually managed to move to the couch, wrapped in my tattered flannel bathrobe, my doorbell rang.
“Go away!” I hollered. Well, hollered might be an exaggeration, seeing that I could barely talk. The doorbell rang again and again. It wouldn’t stop. Lady was barking like a wild banshee. Apparently, whoever it was just wasn’t going to go away. I dragged myself off of the couch, picked up Lady and answered the door. Mike was standing there, holding a bouquet of flowers and a small box.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered.
“I went by the library to see you. Rachel told me that you were sick.”
“Come on in. I need to go sit down before I fall down.” He followed me into the living room.
“This is a nice place that you have here.”
“Yeah, it’s no Victorian mansion, but its home.” I fell back onto the couch. He stood awkwardly over me. “Sit down. You’re making me nervous.” He sat in a chair across from me.
“Man, you look awful.”
“No, I didn’t mean that way. I mean, you look really sick, that’s all.”
“What are you doing here, anyway? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to catch it?”
“Nah, I got my flu shot.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to remember to do that next year.”
“These are for you.” He held out the flowers.
“They’re lovely. Thanks. Unfortunately, I can’t smell them at the moment. Do you want to put them in some water for me? I have a vase in the kitchen.”
“Sure. I’ll go do that.” He got up, leaving the box on the chair.
“What’s in the box?” I asked when he returned. He handed it to me. “Here, take a look.”
“It’s my bowl! Thanks for bringing it to me.”
“Didn’t it come out great? I love the blue color. What are you going to use it for?”
“Umm – I’m not sure. I’ll have to give it some thought. Could you put it up on the shelf for me?” I requested, pointing in the general direction of the bookcase. He took the bowl, and I wrapped my blanket closer around me.
“Are these your parents?” he asked, holding up a photo he found on the shelf.
“Uh- huh,” I nodded.
“And who is this?” He held up another photo.
“That’s my brother and his wife.”
“Is this you as a little girl?”
“Yeah. I had just learned how to ride that bicycle. I wasn’t very coordinated. It took me a long time to learn. My Dad wanted to preserve the moment forever.”
“You were adorable! I love the pigtails.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t dying of the flu then.”
“You do look awful. Is there anything I can get you – maybe some hot tea or something?”
“Would you be willing to make me some chicken soup? I’ve been wanting some, but I haven’t had the energy to actually get up and make it. I have some cans in the cupboard. You can make yourself a bowl, too, if you’d like.”
“That sounds good.” I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember was Mike setting up a tray near me and putting the soup on it. “I’ll help prop you up.” He grabbed some extra pillows and put them behind me.
“Thank you. You are being very kind. You really don’t need to be here.”
“I know. I wanted to be. I knew you lived alone. I figured that you could use the help.”
I nodded weakly. “I’m not very good company today.”
“That’s OK. You don’t need to be.” He smiled as he tucked the blankets around me. “Where’s Lady’s leash? She looks like she could use a walk.”
“I’m sure she could. I’ve been barely able to put her outside. Her leash is over on the counter.” Lady jumped up happily as Mike put on his jacket and picked up her leash. She was ready to go. “Come on, Lady. You can show me the neighborhood. We’ll let Lucy get some sleep.”
I finished my soup and then lay back. It felt good to get some food in my stomach. It was so kind of Mike to come. So kind . . .
When I woke up, it was three hours later. Mike was sitting in the chair, reading a book. Lady was curled up next to him. “You’re still here?” I said groggily. “I didn’t even hear you come back in.”
“You were sound asleep. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“You don’t need to stay. I’m sure that there are a million things you could be doing. I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine. And besides, this gives me a good excuse to procrastinate on my novel.”
“Ugh . . I haven’t worked on mine at all the past two days. I’m going to be way behind in word count.”
“You’re right. You should be working on your story. Suffering from the flu should be no deterrent to writing! I once wrote half of a novel when I was sicker than you are right now.”
“Are you serious?”
“No, I’m just giving you a hard time. Of course you shouldn’t be writing! You’re sick. You need to take care of yourself.”
“OK. I think I’m going to fall back to sleep now.”
“OK. I’m just going to sit here.”
“OK,” I murmured as I drifted back into my fever-induced sleep.
I awoke to the feeling of a cold compress on my head and the morning light streaming through the window. I could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen. “You’ve been here all night? You must be exhausted.”
“I rested in the chair. Anyway, I wanted to make sure you were OK. You had me scared there for a while. You kept tossing and turning and talking in your sleep.”
“Oh, geez, I don’t remember what I was dreaming about. Did I say anything embarrassing?”
“No, I couldn’t really make out what you were trying to say – just that they were supposed to be words.”
“That’s good. I can’t have you knowing all my secrets!”
“So, how are you feeling this morning?” he asked. “You’re looking a little better – you have a little more color in your cheeks.”
I reached up and pulled off the cold compress. “I do feel better. I’m starting to feel human again.”
“I already called Rachel and told her that you wouldn’t be at work today.”
“She must be so mad at me.”
“No, she understands. She doesn’t want you to come in and share all your germs.”
“Maybe I’ll be able to go in tomorrow.”
“Let’s see how you get through today.” he responded.
“You sound like my mother.”
“Speaking of which, she called last night. She left a message on your machine.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t answer it.”
“No, I figured you’d have a hard time explaining what a man was doing answering your phone at that time of night.”
“Yeah, you’re right. She would’ve had a fit. Thank you for your restraint.”
“No problem. I have parents, too.”
“Do you think we’ll ever turn into our parents?”
“No, it’s just not possible.”
“I bet that’s what everyone says, and then it happens anyway.”
“You might be right about that.”
“I think I’m going to try to get up. I’m feeling ambitious.”
“Here, let me help you.” He came over and supported my arm as I stood up. “How are you doing?”
“My legs feel a little shaky, but I think I’ll be OK. I’m just going to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” I successfully navigated my way there. When I looked in the mirror, I scared myself. I hadn’t showered in over three days. My hair was greasy. I was pale. I looked like walking death. I was surprised Mike hadn’t run from the room screaming.
“Man, I do look bad.” I said as I shuffled my way back to the couch.
“Yes, you do.”
“I need a shower.”
“You don’t always need to agree with me.”
“I don’t. Only when you are right!” I threw one of my pillows at him. It hit him in the head.
“You must be feeling better! Do you think you’ll be all right if I go home for a little while? I’d like to take a shower myself and change my clothes.”
“Sure, I’ll be fine.”
“OK. I’ll get going then. I’ll come back later to check on you and take Lady out for another walk.”
“She’s going to love you forever.”
“Good. Somebody needs to,” he said as he patted her head. He directed his attention back at me. “I know you’re feeling better but don’t try to overdo it. I’ll be back later.”
“OK, thanks,” I said as he headed out the door.
I was feeling better and decided to take advantage of the time he was gone to make myself look somewhat presentable. It took some effort, but I did shower and get dressed. Then, worn out from that activity, I took another nap. I woke up to the phone ringing. It was late afternoon.
“Hi, it’s Mike. You answered the phone. I’ll take that as a sign you are up and functioning.”
“Well, I’m up. Functioning is another matter.”
“How are you feeling? Do you want some company?”
“Sure. Lady has been waiting for you to come back.”
“Great! Do you want me to bring over something to eat? I could grab some take-out on the way.” I briefly considered making him dinner, but decided he probably didn’t want my germs all over his food.
“That would be great.”
“Anything in particular?”
“No, I probably won’t eat that much, so anything you want is fine.”
“Is pizza OK?”
“Alright, I’ll be by in about an hour.”
Lady was looking up at me expectantly as I hung up the phone. “Yes, your friend is coming over.” She wagged her tail happily. I bent down to pet her. “You like him, huh? Yeah, I like him, too. But, we’ll keep that our little secret, OK?” I got her a treat. “Here you go. Good girl.” She took her treat to her favorite spot to eat – right in the middle of the living room.
I tried to tidy things up a bit before Mike came over. Yes, I realized he had seen the house a total mess just a few hours before, but I was half-dead at the time and couldn’t do anything about it. I was now only a quarter-dead and my domestic guilt had returned. In living with Alan and seeing the way Mike lived, I had come to the conclusion that most men don’t suffer from that particular ailment. They are perfectly happy to live in a mess. Despite that fact, however, I still felt the need to clean up the dishes that had been piling up in the sink and wipe down the bathroom before his arrival. Mission accomplished, I once again retreated to my couch, Lady by my side, trying desperately to stay awake so that he wouldn’t find me sound asleep once again. I drifted in and out of consciousness.
Alan was with me. We had just started dating. It was summer and he was holding my hand. We were walking down by the brook that ran through my parents’ property. It was one of my favorite places. I went there often when I wanted to think or just relax. I could hear the water babbling over the rocks. I took off my shoes and socks and began to walk through it. Alan did the same. He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me, turning me toward him. He bent down to kiss me. His kisses were always so soft. I was so happy with him. When he pulled away, I looked up into Mike’s face. How did he get there? “I can’t,” I whispered. “I’m married.” But his blue eyes were so crystal clear. I leaned against him. I could hear his heartbeat. The church bells started to chime. It must be noon. I could hear a dog barking. Lady was running to the brook. No, it wasn’t church bells. What was it? Oh, yes, that’s right, I realized as I forced my eyes to open. It’s the doorbell.
I tried to shake the cobwebs from my head as I got up and moved to the door. Lady was barking up a storm and I could smell the pizza before I even got there.
“Hi! Come on in.”
“Were you sleeping?” Mike asked. “I was ringing the doorbell for quite a while. I thought Lady was going to try to jump through it.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I had dozed off. I was having the strangest dream.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?” he asked as he put the pizza box down on the counter.
“No. I can’t really remember what was going on. It didn’t make much sense. The pizza smells good. I’ll get us some plates. There is some soda in the fridge if you want some.
“You’ll get my crusts, I promise,” I said to Lady whose tail was going a mile a minute.
“I like your dog,” Mike said as he bent down to pet her and give her a piece of pepperoni. “She is so good-natured.”
“Yes, she is. I never had a pet before.”
“No, it’s the truth. There were lots of animals on the farm that I helped take care of, but they were there for the food they provided. My parents always told me not to get too attached to them. I couldn’t help it, though. I had my favorites. Still, Lady is my first in-the-house, let-me-share-your-lap, kind of pet. She’s such a faithful companion. I don’t know what I’d do without her. How about you? Did you ever have any pets?”
“Oh yeah, I always had animals when I was a kid. We had cats and dogs and a few fish. The fish never faired particularly well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What was your favorite?”
“I had a mutt named ‘Buster’ who I loved. He followed me home from school one day and my mom let me keep him. He only lived for a couple years after that, but while he was around, he was my best friend. I used to take him to the park and let him swim in the duck pond or go running. He loved it.”
“That sounds like fun. Lady doesn’t like water much, which is odd considering she is part Lab. I tried to take her to the pond over at Heritage Park during the summer. She wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Well, dogs are like people. They each have their own personality.”
“Yeah, I guess you are right. So, how come you don’t have any animals now?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. It just wasn’t something that came up. Sara’s kids have been asking for a dog. She is still considering the idea, but maybe I can talk her into it. I’d like to have an animal around again. In the meantime, I can borrow yours.”
“Are you done with your pizza? I can put your plate in the dishwasher.”
“Thanks. Do you feel up for a walk or do you want me to take Lady out myself?”
“Um, I don’t know. I’m definitely feeling better and it would be good for me to get some air. Do you mind if we just go for a short one?”
“Sure. We can just go around the block. If you start feeling tired, we can come right back.”
“Great. I’ll get my coat.” It felt good to step out into the fresh, cool air. Mike had Lady on the leash. She was happily pulling him along.
“I can’t believe how quickly November is going by,” I remarked.
“I know. This always happens. Every year when November begins, I think I will have so much time to write my novel, and then the weeks just fly by. Right about now, I start to panic, thinking that I am never going to have time to get it done. I have to always take a few deep breaths and remind myself that it will get done. It always gets done, and even if it doesn’t, it isn’t the end of the world.”
“How is your story coming along?”
“It’s doing alright. My stories always seem to be better in my head then they are on paper.”
“I thought you were supposed to shut off your inner critic,” I teased.
“Oh sure, throw my own words at me! I do try. It’s just easier said than done. Every year, I hold out the hope that this year I’m going to write a great work of fiction and it just never happens.”
“I’m sure it can’t be that bad. If you write anywhere near as well as you paint, I bet your words are wonderful.”
“Yeah, there is a reason I paint for a living, instead of write. How about you? How is your story coming?”
“About the same,” I admitted. “I’ve been enjoying the writing, though. It’s been fun to get back to doing something I used to love so much.”
“And do you still love it?”
“When it is going well,” I laughed. “Sometimes the words just flow and it is as easy as breathing and the words come pouring out. Other times, it is so painful and it feels like the words are never going to come again.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” We turned the corner at the end of my street. “Are you feeling OK?” he asked. “I don’t want you to overdo it.”
“I feel a little tired. My legs still aren’t too steady. How about we just go to the next corner and then turn around.”
“OK. If you need to, you can lean on me.”
“Thanks. I just may do that. It does feel good to get some air, though.”
“Oh, before I forget. Sara wanted me to invite you over for Thanksgiving. It’s nothing formal. It will just be her and the kids, and me, of course. My parents won’t be coming to visit until Christmas. We’d love to have you. I wouldn’t want you to be alone for Thanksgiving. You can even bring Lady if you want to. I’m sure the boys would love to play with her.”
“That’s so sweet! Be sure to thank Sara for me, but I won’t be able to make it. I’m going home for Thanksgiving.”
“Are you really? That’s great. When are you leaving?”
“Next Wednesday. I have to work until four that day, but then I’m going to head straight up. I should get there by eight.”
“Are you looking forward to it?” he asked as we turned around to begin heading back home.
“Yeah . . . well, sort of. It’s the first time I will have been back since I moved here. I’m looking forward to seeing my parents, but I’m nervous, too. It will be weird to be back. I’ve been trying so hard to put everything that happened behind me and now I’m going back to where it all happened. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel. I’m not sure how people are going to treat me.”
“I can imagine that will be pretty hard. Are you going to tell your mom about what you found out before Alan died?”
“I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know if I should or not. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“I think you should.”
“Because she is your mom and you love her and I’m sure that she loves you. You should tell her the truth so that she can understand.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. It’s just a hard thing to bring up in conversation.”
“You told me.”
“Yeah, but you’re a relative stranger. You didn’t know Alan.”
“I know enough to know he was stupid for what he did to you. He may have died doing a good thing, but he never should have hurt you like that.”
“Everything happens for a reason. I mean, God can bring good out of something bad, right?”
“Now you sound like me,” he grinned.
“No, I sound like Father O’Malley. I actually broke down and went to confession last Saturday.”
“You did?! That’s great.”
“Yeah, it had been a while. It did me good. I went back to church on Sunday, also.”
“It was you! I thought that I saw you in the parking lot when we were leaving, but you were all the other way on the other side and I wasn’t sure. Why didn’t you come sit with us?”
“I didn’t want to impose. You were so kind to take me the week before. I didn’t want you to think I was trying to put myself into your Sunday routine.”
“Don’t be silly. We’d be happy to have you sit with us. You are always welcome. Next time you come, you come sit with us. OK?”
We walked along in silence for a few steps. We were almost back to my house, but my legs were feeling like lead. “Do you mind if I take you up on your offer to lean against you? I’m feeling so tired.”
“Sure, come here.” He wrapped his arm around me and helped to hold me up. He was so warm to lean against. I could get used to this. At the moment, though, all I wanted to do was lay back down on my couch. “Are you going to make it?” he asked. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“No, I’m glad we walked. I just think I overdid it a bit. I just need to go back to sleep.”
“Alright, we’ll get you back to bed. Just a few more steps.” I somehow managed to make it up the stairs and into the living room where I did not even bother to take off my coat before I fell on the couch.
“Do you want to take your coat off?”
I shook my head “No.”
“Well, at least let me take your shoes off.” He took off my shoes. “Did you make this?” he asked, as he pulled up one of my quilts to cover me. I nodded weakly. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’m going to get going now so you can get some rest.” I saw him start to walk toward the door.
“Mike,” I said.
“Yes?” he turned toward me.
“Thanks so much for today, for taking care of me.”
“No problem,” he smiled. “I’ll call you tomorrow to see how you are doing.” He was such a kind man. I was lucky to have him around.