When the sky begins to brighten and starts to chase away the stars, Berjes drives me home from the park, getting me there just as dawn breaks. He surprises me when he gets out of the car and after our “good nights” he surprises me even more. It’s sudden and totally unexpected, the thrill that shoots through me as his lips meet mine. It feels, in all honesty, like my first kiss, even though it’s not even our first kiss. It’s all too brief and when it ends I’m still half a-swoon. “I’ll call you later today.” He promises, and then heads home, leaving me happy and dazed on my front lawn.
I’m not out of bed for ten minutes before my phone rings; Berjes arranging out ‘first date’ as he cheekily puts it. I’m pretty sure that we had that more than a couple of years ago and I would certainly count last night at the wedding as a date, even if it was unplanned. One date turns into two, into three, into four, we’re taking it slow at his request and every day we’re learning more and more about each other. Dinner at the diner, walks through the park, a movie at the theatre or just hanging out at one of our two homes… It’s so easy to be with him, so relaxed, so enjoyable. I feel myself falling head over heels for him and I’m not even trying to stop it.
As much as I would very much like to spend all day, every day with my boyfriend, I don’t have that option. I have my own life outside of him that requires my attention as well and at this stage… The two can’t mix. Hard as I may try, right now I can’t play a note in front of anyone. I get the shakes and my fingers won’t obey my orders yet when I’m alone, I know I’m good. I can hear the improvement in my guitar skills and I know that I can play just as well, if not better, than my co-workers. It’s insane, I know it is, but I can hardly idly strum an out of tune guitar with no thought to performance without the feeling of being watched and judged creeping up my spine.
The music room mom built for me is my safe haven, a place where I can be alone and away from prying ears. A place where I feel at peace, a place that is more ‘mine’ than the bedroom I’ve been in since I was a baby. This is where I come to read, to write, to think, to play… to breathe. It’s the best gift I’ve ever received and I won’t share it with anyone, not if it means the end of me being able to play what’s in my heart and soul. I can’t give my music to my family, my friends or strangers, but I can send it out to the universe and hopefully the universe will send back some strength for me.
For a while after the wedding, Laurie and Conrad stayed here waiting for their house to be built. As soon as the walls were painted and some furniture was moved in, they packed up the old truck and said their goodbyes. It was quite a scene really, one that Adam and Kaitlin never got, all of us out on the lawn hugging and promising house warming gifts. Then Troy left, all it took was a phone call from the happy couple stating that their new mansion is too big for just the two of them and would he like a floor – yes, a whole floor – to himself? Of course Troy jumped at the opportunity, but now it’s only me, mom and dad at home and there are more empty bedrooms than there are people, if you still count Lily and Connor’s boarded up room as a bedroom.
A sporting event is supposed to be a grand old time, right? Especially when you’re out with an especially handsome gentleman and are in VIP seating due to your father being well, the home team’s VIP. Watered down beers, shady hotdogs and lots of cheering, that’s what I was in the mood for when we arrived this afternoon but by the time the game ended I was filled with nerves. Midway through the game dad got hit by a guy from the other team and down he went… Penalties were called and all that but I couldn’t get any one to let me into the locker room to make sure he was OK! I have no idea how the game ended, I just know that I’m still waiting outside for dad and even Berjes has to run off to work.
Pacing back and forward across the empty pavement in front of the stadium, it’s a strange clicking sound that perks my ears up. “Lee?” It’s dad’s voice, but it’s shaky and uncertain. I whirl around and there he is, coming towards me with his head held high, cane in hand and a sad gleam in his eyes. I want to rush over and offer support, but I know my father and he’s too proud to accept my help. Too vain to want me to fuss over him so I suck up all my concern into one nonchalant question: “How are you doing?”
While dad may be proud, he’s never too proud to dramatically whine about how life has done him wrong, and he launches into it. I have to admit, he has a valid gripe. A moderate knee injury has put him out of the game for at least the rest of season, and at his age the coaches have already been trying to bench him as much as possible. He’s heartbroken, it’s the end of his career as he knows it and there was none of the fanfare he deserved. The stadium should have been full of his fans wanting to see his last game and instead his leg gives out against one of the lowest ranked teams in the league. That’s it that’s all.
One nice thing about both Berjes and I working nights is that we can spend out days together before I rush off to the theatre and he hurries off to the diner for his shift. He hates his job, hates it a lot, but can’t think of anything he’d rather do than cook. It’s a tough situation for him but for me it means many a delicious lunch and this picnic is no different. As usual, it’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the fish are leaping, there’s hardly a cloud in the sky and I think that there are even some tourists up in the hot air balloon.
We finish lunch and Berjes curls into my lap, looking up at me with those breathtaking blue eyes and smiling in a way that makes me want to melt on the spot. Butterflies flitter around in my stomach as we gaze happily into one another’s eyes. I’m thrilled with the progress that we’re making together. I feel stronger because of him, more capable and confident.
“Lee? Would you…” he laughs nervously and I brush a strand of hair from his forehead. “This sounds so… Dated… Would you go steady with me? I know we are already pretty much… I think we are already… I just wanna… I wanna be with you and no one else and I… Would you?”
It’s all I can do not to laugh, but I know that’s not the right reaction so I beam and agree. I’ll give him hassle later about him even thinking he needs to ask. “Of course, hon!” I have no ulterior motives in agreeing, I do hope that I might get more than just knee-buckling-amazing kisses from him from now on though. Truth be told, Berjes IS a little bit dated. He’s concerned with being a gentleman and taking things slowly and he’s a little shy as well… I’ve been trying to get into his pants for months now (longer if you count all my high-school frustrations) but to no avail. Just. Kisses and hugs and this girl is getting hungry for more. He won’t stay the night, he won’t take his shirt off in front of me and when I try to rush him, he insists that he doesn’t want to rush me! I’ll be patient, he’s worth it, but I want more.
As much as dad is moping around the house, it’s really nice having him around. Training for games and studying plays have kept him pretty distant from us kids for most of our lives and he’s so head-over-heels for mom that his free time was spent with her. (Ew.) Now it’s practically a chore to keep him away from me, he wants to play chess and chat and catch up and get to know me. It’s wonderful to catch that look of pride on his face when he’s looking at me since he spent so much of my youth disappointed in me.
He hasn’t stopped missing work though, or missing his mentor position on the team. I work three times as hard at home now as I did at work, and it’s doing me some good… I guess. I can’t bring myself to play guitar or piano for him, my palms get sweaty and my vision blurs, but he convinced me to sit down at the drumkit – which I’ve never touched before – and I guess the not having anything to put on display calms me. Dad, does not. He seems to think that the only way to teach is to yell. It may be encouraging yelling but I don’t need to drum ’til I feel the burn.
“C’mon babe, one more time… Try? For me?”
“I-I can’t! You don’t understand I can’t do this I can’t!”
“Shh… Yes you can. It’s just ‘Yes Ma’am I Do.’ You’ve played it a million times. I won’t look, I won’t laugh… I’ll play along and then you can laugh at me, K?”
“I-” We’ve had a version of this conversation hundreds of times, and he’s right about one thing, I will laugh at his piano playing. Now’s about the point where I usually give in, it’s ’cause he’s giving me those puppy dog eyes. I’ve dropped the guitar before, I’ve been shaking so badly but last week I played a couple of notes before I nearly passed out. Since then Berjes has been prodding at me to get past my performance anxiety and despite really not wanting to do this… “OK.”
I take a deep breath and place my fingers on the frets. The ridged metal feels sharp and slippy on my fingertips but I just squidge my eyes shut as tightly as I can bite my lip, wait for the nausea and dizziness to wash through me and then… I’m… I’m… I’m doing it… I’m playing for someone else!
Mom’s scream chills me to the bone. No, not a scream, it’s a wail. It pierces through the walls of the house and into the yard where I’m practicing my baton skills with Gnubb and I go running. I’m fearing the absolute worst, but it’s an indistinct, vague ‘worst and I am in no way prepared for the reality of the situation. Mom is standing in the living room, staring into space… No. Not space, there’s a glimmer in the air that shouldn’t be there, as indistinct and vague as my fears yet familiar and terrible. It’s indistinctly dad. I know, in a crushing instant, that my father is dead and that I was too late to say goodbye. Too late to see if I could have helped or prevented it. I can still feel him in the room and that glimmer that is his spirit seems calm and collected. It’s strange, and I wouldn’t admit this to just anyone, but I think it’s his ghost. I think that through this veil of tears, I am watching my father’s ghost.
“Stephen?” Mom sounds so meek and small. Her voice is quivering and she’s shaking her head incredulously. “No… No no no no no…” I wish she would wail again, I wish she would cry but she doesn’t want to admit that her husband has passed on. I don’t want to admit it either, I want to turn back time and continue to improve my relationship with him. We were becoming such good friends and now he’s gone. “Stephen…” The defeat in her voice is too much for me to bear and hot tears stream over my cheeks. I feel her loss as acutely as my own and it overwhelms me, my knees shake and my head swims and it’s mom who keeps me upright, when I should be supporting her. Once I have my wits about me, we hold each other, in the spot where my father last stood my mother and I hold each other upright and we weep together, trying desperately to find consolation from a moment that happened too fast.
“I never meant to fall in love with Stephen. In fact, I tried very hard not to. I was never one for committing, I was hurt by a lot of men when I was young and I was determined never to let another man get close enough to me to break my heart. When he first told me he loved me… I shoved him away, I said some terrible things and… He kept coming back. He kept fighting for me ’cause he was a fighter. Stephen knew he was the love of my life long before I did, maybe that was just his arrogance, but he was right. I never meant to fall in love with him, but I did. Stephen was hardworking, he was a perfectionist who always tried to be the best Stephen he could be. Sometimes I resented it but I knew that it was all for us, all for his family. Everything he did, every second of his day was dedicated to us. He was loving and devoted… The best man I’ve ever known and I’m going to… I… I miss him so much!”
Long after everyone has left, the assorted teammates and friends, my brothers and sisters, mom and I are still standing in the graveyard. Aside from us kids, her whole family is here. Her ‘Mama’ and ‘Daba’ as she used to call them, Auntie Vi and Uncle Micah and now dad, now her husband. She can’t seem to pull herself away from their graves and I won’t be the one to move her. I’ll be here by her side until she’s ready to go home. She turns to be, sniffling and drying her eyes. “Don’t be like me, Little Lee, let your heart lead you – be open to the world. Berjes is a lovely young man, I’ve always liked him. If you plan on marrying him, I’d like to be there… Your father would have liked to be there too… And… I guess I don’t have as much time as I’d like and I want to see you married and with babies, I want to meet my grandchildren, the future heir or heiress to the Legacy. Let’s go home?” No pressure, thanks mom.
The house is so big, it’s so empty. Every step and every sound echoes throughout our home. No matter how many radios and televisions get turned on, somehow it still seems silent. Mom and I spend as much time as possible in the same room, or close to each other, and I don’t even think it’s a conscious decision. It’s just more comfortable than being alone here. Without dad, without Adam and Kaitlin or Conrad and Troy, this place doesn’t feel like the home it once was. It feels like a big, bright, furnished mausoleum in the least creepy of ways. I’m starting to think about the renovation, starting to consider pulling it all down and making it somewhere that isn’t filled with the ghosts of memories, but I don’t think I can do that while mom and I are both still grieving. No, no I can’t.Mom’s visiting the family graveyard daily. Sometimes on her own, sometimes Troy will take her. She doesn’t say much about it but I know that she’s feeling her age now and I think she’s more comfortable surrounded by the people she loves than working in the eerie silence of our house. She remembers when it was just an empty plot of land, she remembers the first headstone and now there are five. I’m not ready for her to be the sixth… I know dad was much older than her, but he lived a long and healthy life and mom’s looking much more frail. I’m scared to lose her.We spend a lot of time together, mom and I, even when Berjes is around. I think he understands that I’m trying to stay close to her, that I don’t want to one day walk in and just see that shimmer of ghost without her knowing how special she is to me. We cook dinner together, watch TV or play video games and I think we’re both better off for it, and when Berjes is around, we both feel more secure and a little less like we’re alone in the mansion. Today, I’m more than grateful to have him at my side…
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for an important announcement to the citizens of Sunset Valley. Please take a moment to gather your family and friends ’round your television sets or radios and pay close attention. There has been a concerning development regarding the kidnappings and disappearances that have plagued our community. As of this evening, Melissa DeMarc of Sunset Valley has been reported missing and the body of Eric Wolff, has been discovered. We turn to our field reporter Virginia for more details… Virginia?Found by cross-country skiiers yesterday morning, here on this idyllic forest path, we have recently received confirmation that the body – half hidden in the brush – belonged to fifteen-year-old Eric Wolff who was reported missing from his home only two months ago. The witnesses claim that the body was withered and decomposed to a point where they though he had been out here for years. This is the first time there has been any sight of one of the twenty-one people who have gone missing from Sunset Valley in the last five years and police are formally stating that they do believe foul play was involved. Up until now, there have been no leads in the case, and even the officers we have spoken with have claimed to be absolutely stumped. They are hoping that the discovery of Eric Wolff will bring more clues, but they state that little evidence was found on the body and they have no explanation as to the cause of death or what may have advanced the decomposition so drastically… Back to you, Jeff.Thanks Virginia. In reaction to this discovery, as well as the increased rate of abductions, Sunset Valley’s Mayor and Police Chief are declaring a state of emergency and effective immediately, curfew is in place. Due to the fact that all persons have disappeared after nightfall, all citizens are required to be at home before dark. Businesses will be closed and all further night-time events will be cancelled until further notice. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the curfew, information will be available in tomorrow’s newspaper, online at the city website or you can call City Hall. Once again, curfew is in place as of tonight.
Berjes, mom and I sit in stunned silence as we take in what we’ve just been told… Curfew, effective immediately. Can’t be out after dark, businesses closed, events cancelled, looks like I’m out of work for the next… Until they find whoever has been kidnapping men, women and children. It’s mom who breaks the quiet, glancing from the twinkling stars to the man at my side. “I can’t let you go home tonight, Berjes. You’ll have to stay here. I’ll feel safer with you here and I think Lee will too.” Damn right I will, I’m shaking like a leaf.
Arm in arm in arm, Berjes holds me on one side and mom on the other as he leads us all the way upstairs to our respective rooms. He mentions staying in Adam’s old room but I won’t let him. I put up a bit of a fight and offer a bit of an ‘I’m so scared’ guilt trip and manage to coerce him to share my bed this evening. It shouldn’t be this hard, should it? Once we’re ready for bed I snuggle in close to him, luxuriating in his warmth and the comfort I find in his arms. I am scared, I’d be a fool not to be, but with him so near to me and so partially clothed, it’s not long before I’m starting to feel like I could use some form of… Distraction. Something to keep me in his arms and to take my mind off of what’s going on in the city around me.
Our gentle kisses turn into something much more urgent, his grip on me tightens and soon the world around me is forgotten. Instead of fear I feel frisky and I hope that he’ll give up on taking it slow and realize that slow and steady won’t win a race that isn’t being run… I’m his and I’m not going anywhere.
You cheated death once before ’cause I forgot you had that stupid flower in your inventory and went on to live for freakin’ ever. I had hoped you’d be around to walk Lee down the aisle, instead you ruined my plans for this chapter. I’ll miss you.