I know it hurts now, and it feels like the pain will never end, but it will fade in time. That’s what countless people had told her in one form or another on the day she had buried her husband, but they had lied to her. Every single one of them had lied. The pain today was no less than it had been two years ago, when Alex Crawford had been laid to rest. How much longer did she have to wait before this hole in her heart began to heal and the pain she lived with on a daily basis lessened in its severity?
Maureen Crawford sat at the kitchen table and flipped through a photo album, watching the years pass with each turn of the page. It wasn’t healthy dwelling in the past—she knew that—but it helped to alleviate the guilt she felt at wanting to move on with her life. To long for the time when she could wake up and not feel like a big part of her was missing felt like a betrayal to the memory of her husband. She had tried expressing her feelings to her friends, to Mitch, Aaron, and Collin, and only Mitch had reassured her that what she was going through was normal. “Everybody grieves in their own way,” he had said to her, “and when it was time to let go of the past, you’ll know it.” Aaron. . . Well, Aaron was Aaron. He hadn’t offered any support or condemnation, and that was typical for him. Ever since she could remember, Aaron had never voiced an opinion on anything that mattered to other people. The man had issues of his own, the biggest being his weight, and he refused to burden himself with the guilt if things went awry because of something he had said. Collin, on the other hand, had an opinion on everything. He was of the mind that Maureen was clinging to her memories of Alex because she was afraid to face a future without him, and by locking herself away in the past, she was shutting herself off to other possibilities. “Alex wouldn’t want you pining away like this,” he had told her last year. “He would want you to move on with your life.” Of them all, Maureen valued Mitch’s input over Collin’s because Mitch didn’t have any ulterior motives. Collin did.
Coming to the end of the album, Maureen flipped to the beginning and started to go through it again, more slowly this time. The earlier pictures were beginning to fade, their colors not as vibrant as they had been when they were first placed in the album. It was almost as if they were fading away instead of her actual memories, and their residual images existed only because she refused to let them go. Those first couple of pages were from her first days on campus: her dorm room, her roommate, the campus itself. She turned the page and stared through the window into the past. . .
Being homesick sucked, and it was something she never thought she would experience, but the excitement of being out on her own had died a quick death after her second week on campus. She was worried about her father; who was going to look after him and cook his meals. Who was going to pick up his clothes from the dry cleaners, do the laundry, clean the house. . . In short, who was going to do everything she had been doing since she turned sixteen? He hadn’t asked her to take on those responsibilities; it was a role she had assumed after her mother had committed suicide. Those worries on top of a course load she had thought she could handle but seemed to be barely staying afloat with had her spiraling into a deep depression.
There was also that book up in the attic, she one her mother left her on the day she had killed herself. Not that her father ever ventured up there, but there was always the off chance, and he couldn’t be allowed to find it. She had thought about bringing it with her, but the temptation to use it might be too great for her to withstand. It was best left at home. Locked away.
But the fear of her father finding it continued to prey on her mind.
“So that’s what you’re going to be doing all weekend?”
She looked up at her roommate. “Yeah. Gotta have these finished by Monday.”
Sue cleared a space on the bed, shoving Maureen’s notebooks and folders aside before flopping. “Girlfriend, you know there’s more to life than studyin’, dontcha?”
Great, Maureen thought, guilt on top of everything else. She closed the book she was reading and put it aside. With a toss of her head to clear the hair from of her eyes, she gave her roommate “The Look.”
“Don’t you be lookin’ at me like that. You know I’m right.”
“I know,” Maureen said with a sigh. “But it’s just so overwhelming.”
“That’s because you don’t take time to smell the roses, as my mom always says.”
Not knowing how to respond, Maureen averted her gaze, staring instead at the books and papers scattered all over her bed. Sue, however, was not about to let it rest.
“You know that old saying about all work and no play making Jack a dull boy?”
“Yeah,” Maureen said, risking a glance in her roommate’s direction, but not long enough to catch her gaze.
“Well, the same applies to Jill.”
“And what are you trying to imply?”
“Take a good long look in the mirror, girl.”
“I’m not dull,” Maureen cried indignantly, but her voice lacked the conviction she meant to relay. She was dull. She knew it, but was hoping nobody else would notice.
“Any duller and you’d be in the morgue.”
With an incredulous look at her friend, Maureen protested, “I’m not that bad.”
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
A cry of frustration ripped from Maureen’s throat and she collapsed backwards onto the bed, sending books and papers sliding to the floor.
“See, this is what I’m talking about. You need to get out. Relax a little bit.”
“But. . .”
“No ‘Buts’. Today officially marks the day that you are going to learn to balance work and play.”
With a dark look at Sue, Maureen said, “Yes, mother.”
After a mandatory shower and change of clothes, they were ready to leave. “So, where are we going,” Maureen asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
They hadn’t gone far. Sue led her to the Quad, which was set up with a bunch of booths sponsored by various campus organizations. Looking at the over-crowded campus, Maureen tried backing out. “I can’t do this,” she told Sue. “I don’t do crowds.”
And before she had a chance to head back to the dorm, Sue grabbed her by the hand and pulled her into the crowd. She tensed up almost immediately and had trouble catching her breath. Sue, who had a death grip on her hand, was oblivious to her discomfort, so she forced herself to calm down. Breath, she told herself. Breath and relax. You can do this.
By the time she get her anxiety under control about twenty minutes later and was willing to admit she was having a good time, she had already made of fool of herself by attempting to play the games at some of the booths. She hadn’t been able to concentrate enough to shoot the water in the clown’s mouth, and she had missed the stacked milk bottles with the three balls the dollar had bought her. She had proven that she sucked at basketball and had lousy aim when it came to popping the balloons with darts. Sue did her share of embarrassing Maureen by trying to fix her up with any remotely cute guy who happened to have the misfortune if manning the booths, and even some of the not so cute ones. They would leave the booths red-faced and laughing. It wasn’t until Maureen saw the sign for “HOT CIDER” that she took the lead, pulling Sue through the crowd.
Maureen stopped short as she broke through the wall of flesh pressing against her, then stumbled as Sue, bringing up the rear, ran into her. If it hadn’t been for the counter Maureen would have found herself very up close and personal with one of the most handsome men she had yet to see on campus. All she could do was stare open mouthed at this fine specimen of manhood. He was just over six foot, with light brown hair parted down the center his head.. Nature golden highlights glistened in the afternoon sun. He face was hard-edged, square jawed and an equally squared chin, without being harsh, as they were softened by deep-set green eyes that sparkled mischievously and a bright smile that exposed a perfect set if white teeth. He was oblivious to her gawking as he waited on and joked with a customer. When the guy he was joking with left, he turned his attention to Maureen.
“And what can I get for you?”
Maureen found herself at a loss for words as the rich timbres of his voice sent a jolt of electricity to the pit of her stomach, then branched off to set her nerves to tingling. If there was ever a thing as love at first sight, this must surely be it. It not love, then most definitely a deep-seated lust. She felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush. When he waved his hand in front of her face and said, “Hello”, she could feel the heat rise up in her cheeks, and she was unable to bring herself to say anything. Her mouth had suddenly gone dry. She felt herself being jostled as people tried to get by, and then Sue pushed past her to stand at the counter.
“As soon as she wipes the drool from her chin,” Sue said, “she’ll have a large cider, and I’ll have the same.”
At the mention of drool, the heat in Maureen’s face intensified. I must be beet read, she thought as her hand automatically came up to wipe at her chin. The fact that she actually thought she might have been drooling caused her face to turn a deeper shade of crimson. She fumbled with her purse as he poured the drinks.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told her as he set the drinks on the counter. When she opened her mouth the protest, he held up his hand.
“Thank you,” she stammered, feeling even worse—if that was at all possible. She watched as Sue shamelessly flirted with him, which bolstered her courage slightly. After all, she had seen him first, and she wasn’t about to let Sue, friend or no friend, cut in. Shouldering her bag, she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Perhaps you’d let me return the favor. Maybe coffee when you’re through here.”
Sue and the handsome stranger fell silent and exchanged glances before they broke out in a fit of laughter, which confused Maureen. She didn’t think it was that funny, so she couldn’t understand why they were laughing. She could see that the guy was trying to get control of himself, but was having a hard time doing so. Maureen felt awkward, but she waited for whatever the joke was between these two to die down, shifting her weight from foot to foot, an obvious display of her discomfort.
Finally, the guy, still laughing but not nearly as hard, managed to say, “I’d love to, but I’ll have to check with my boyfriend first.” Then he indicated the banner hanging behind him: G.A.L.A. (Gay and Lesbian Alliance).
“Oh my God,” Maureen gasped. “You must think I’m a complete spaz.” She turned to go. The good mood that had claimed her had fled, and she wanted nothing more than to return to her room and bury herself in her studies.
“It’s alright,” he said. “Wait. Don’t. . . Don’t go.”
Maureen hesitated, totally flustered. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay. Really.” The guy smiled and offered his hand. “Name’s Mitch. Mitchell Ryan.”
Maureen accepted his hand. “Maureen O’Connell. And again, I’m truly very sorry. I feel so stupid.”
“Don’t worry about it. And I’d be happy to meet you for coffee later. Leaf and Bean ‘bout eight-ish?”
“She’ll be there,” Sue answered for her. Then to Maureen, “Now, let’s let the nice young man get back work.” She led them back into the bustling crowd.
By the time they finished making the rounds and got back to the dorm, it was almost six thirty. Sue practically pushed her into the shower, telling her she needed to hurry. Maureen couldn’t understand what the rush was, or the need to get all gussied up—he’s gay, for Christ’s sake—but Sue had insisted she look her best because “you never know who else is going to be there on a Friday night.” The entire time she was getting ready, Sue fussed over her to the point where she felt more like she was getting ready to talk a walk down the aisle instead of meeting a potential new friend for coffee.
When she arrived a few minutes before eight, she looked through the plate-glass window at the crowded interior. She saw Mitch had already arrived and had taken a table near to the window. He was seated with another guy who had his back to the window. Maureen was tempted to turn around and leave; she had thought it was just going to be the two of them. She hadn’t expected him to bring his boyfriend. If she had known that, she would have asked Sue to come along. Actually, she had asked her roommate to tag along, but Sue had begged off, claiming to have other plans. Maureen stood there, trying to decide what she should do when the decision was made for her. Mitch looked up and saw her standing there with her face practically pressed to the glass. He face lit up with a smile as he waved at her. Nothing to do now but go in. Taking a deep breath, Maureen headed for the door.
Mitch and his friend stood up as she approached the table. She shook Mitch’s hand, and stiffened when he pulled her into a hug, greeting her like he hadn’t seen her in ages. “I’m glad you showed up,” he said to her as he pulled away. “I’d like you to meet Collin.” He indicated his friend. “Collin Stewart, meet Maureen. . .” He fell silent, snapping his fingers as he tried to recall her last name.
“O’Connell,” Maureen said, coming to his rescue. She held out her hand to Collin, finally looking at the man, and she felt like it was this afternoon all over again. If she had thought Mitch was good looking, Collin was hot.
Collin accepted her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.
Maureen, for the second time that day, was speechless.
As Collin moved around the table to get her chair, Mitch joked, “You know, we’re really going to have to do something about this drooling. It’s not very becoming.”
Flustered, feeling her cheeks flush, Maureen managed to say, “Nice to meet you as well.” She was grateful she was able to get the words out without stumbling over them.
When they were all seated, Maureen looked from Mitch to Collin. She couldn’t believe that she was sitting here with two handsome men and thought the other girls in the place were green with envy at her fortune. Never mind the fact that one was gay; they didn’t need to know that.. “Is this your. . .”
“No,” Mitch said hastily. “He’s just a friend. I didn’t think you’d mind if he came along.”
Once Maureen got over her initial embarrassment, the conversation fell into a comfortable rhythm. It felt more like they were three friends catching up after not having seen each other in a long time rather than three strangers coming together and getting to know each other. Before too long, Mitch was looking at his watch and pushed away from the table. He slugged down the last of his coffee before getting to his feet.
“Well, kiddies, it’s getting late, and I’ve got an elsewhere to be.”
“I guess that’s my cue, too,” Maureen said, pushing back her chair. She thought for a moment that Collin looked panicked.
“You don’t have to leave on my account,” Mitch said quickly. “You two seem to be having such a great time. Don’t let me spoil it.”
Maureen settled back in her chair. She looked at Collin, who seemed to have relaxed some now that it was clear she wasn’t leaving just yet. “I guess I could stay a little longer.”
“And I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Collin said with a smile that had Maureen feeling all giddy.
Mitch smiled a smug smile as he said, “And my work here is done.” He looked at Maureen. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other.” To Collin, he said, “I’ll be seeing you at the house later.” He took out his wallet, dropped a twenty on the table, and took his sweatshirt off the back of the chair. “And with that, I will be ye all adieu.”
After he was gone, Maureen looked across the table at Collin. “You guys share a house?”
“Are you sure you’re not. . .”
He laughed. “Positive. We share the house with two other friends. After last year, we figured it would be better for us to rent a house than stay in the dorms. Quieter. Better for studying. And safer.”
“Safer in that we’re all friends and know we get along. Better than running the risk of getting an incompatible roommate.”
“I guess I lucked out with my roommate. Although at times she acts more like a mother than a friend.”
The conversation turned from school to more personal topics, and before they knew it, they were being told the place was closing and they would need to leave. They walked back to campus holding hands, and he escorted her back to her dorm. She was about to ask him up when he placed a gentle kiss on her lips. “Lunch tomorrow?” he asked.
“I’m not. . .” she started, thinking of all the reading she had to catch up on, but the look in his eyes, like a puppy that had been kicked to the curb by its trusted master, had her changing course. “I’d love to.” She’d have to pull an all-nighter to catch up on her class work, but the smile that spread across his face was worth it.
Before he walked away, he pulled a pen and a receipt from his pants pocket, quickly jotted down his phone number, and handed it to her. He bent for another innocent kiss. “Sweet dreams.” And then he was gone.
Back in her room, Sue was waiting up and wanted to know. . .
The slamming of the front door broke the hold the past had on Maureen. She jumped at the gunshot-like sound, and she hastily closed the photo album as if it were something she shouldn’t be looking at. Is it that late already? A glance at the clock told her it was twenty minutes after three.
“Joey, is that you?”
“Yeah, Mom.” There was a sarcastic edge to his voice, an implied Who else would it be that he would never say out loud. At least not to her face.
Maureen sighed. Over the past few months, dealing with him had become impossible. Arguments erupted over the silliest things; temper tantrums, the whole nine yards. She had no idea what had gotten into him, and she didn’t know how much more she could take before she lost all patience with him.
Pushing away from the table, the legs squealing as they scraped along the tiled floor, Maureen got wearily to her feet. She picked up the album from the table and looked around the brightly painted kitchen, wondering where she could hide it. It wasn’t like she had been doing anything wrong, but she wasn’t sure how Joey would react if he flipped through the album. He had taken Alex’s death frighteningly hard, to the point where Maureen had thought she had lost him, too. He had withdrawn into himself. She had taken him for counseling, therapy, anything she could think of to try to break through, to let him know that she loved him and would never leave him. One therapist diagnosed him as being autistic, while others said it was a normal grieving process for a child and he would eventually come around. He had, but Maureen had had to remove any pictures of Alex from every room in the house except her bedroom. Just the sight of his father’s image was enough to trigger a relapse. It was little wonder then that Joey had attached himself to Mitch. The man still bore an uncanny resemblance to her dead husband. In college, Collin had kidded that maybe they were related, that some addle-brained nurse had made a mistake and separated them at birth.
Joey’s footsteps could be heard coming down the hall. Panicked, she hurried across the room and slid the album on top of the refrigerator, sliding it far enough back so it wouldn’t be visible to her son. She moved to the sink just as Joey came strolling into the kitchen.
“Hi, Mom.” He bypassed her without so much as a hug or kiss on his way to the refrigerator. He took out the gallon container of milk and carried it to the table. He then went to the sink and reached behind Maureen for a glass, which he carried back to the table. Everything about his actions was systematic, like he was checking things off in his head as he gathered the things he wanted. He then went to the pantry to retrieve a pack of strawberry Pop-tarts, returned to the table to pour his milk. After returning the milk to the refrigerator, he carried his snack out of the room.
Before he was even out of the room, Maureen grabbed the sponge from the back of the sink and wiped up some of the milk her son had spilled. She tossed the soggy sponge into the sink, then followed Joey as far as the doorway, where she watched him walk down the hall and disappear into the living room. The moment he vanished from view she started a slow count. By the time she reached ten, the nasally annoying sounds of Alvin and the Chipmunks drifted down the hall to grate on her ears, worse than fingernails on a blackboard.
Heaving a weary sigh, she started down the hall. She stopped in the doorway of the living room, staring in disbelief at her son, who was sprawled on the sofa and staring at the animated action on the television screen, oblivious to her presence. She found it difficult to believe that he was so blatantly defying her, especially after the talk they had had at the start of the week. With the volume turned up, it was as if he was trying to challenge her authority, and that only served to ignite the flames of her anger.
She cleared her throat to get his attention, but he gaze didn’t flicker away from the cartoon, where only minutes into the program the rodents were already getting into some sort of mischief.
“Joseph,” she said. “I thought we had an agreement.”
“Aw, Mom! C’mon!” He still hadn’t looked away from the television. “It’s Friday.”
“I don’t care what day it is, young man.” She folded her arms across her chest and waited patiently for him to get up and turn off the television, because if he made her do it, he was going to be one sorry little boy who would not be allowed to watch TV for the rest of the month.
When he made no move to get up, she said, “Well?”
“C’mon, Mom!” Those two words had recently become his favorite.
“Don’t ‘C’mon, Mom’ me. I’m tired of fighting with you, Joey.” She stepped into the room, arms still folded across her chest, and positioned herself between the boy and the television. “Earlier this week we made an agreement. Do you remember what that agreement was?”
Raising his eyes toward the ceiling, Joey sighed.
Maureen bit her tongue. Within the past few months, she was fast becoming anexpert at reading her son’s body language. Without a single word being uttered, he was telling her, Get off my back.
“Well?” Maureen prompted when there was no answer forthcoming.
He looked at her sullenly. “No TV until homework is done.”
“And is the homework done?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Why not?” he whined.
“Because tomorrow you’ll find some other excuse not to do it. And Sunday you’re supposed to be going to the zoo with ‘Uncle’ Mitch. When you get home, you’ll be too tired to do it. And quite honestly, Joey, I’m tired of receiving notes from your teachers. Tired of writing notes, tired of coming up with excuses as to why you haven’t done your homework.”
“I promise I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Now it was Maureen’s turn to raise her eyes heavenward. God, give me strength. It was obvious the guilt trip wasn’t going to work, so she had no other choice than to resort to threats. “How ‘bout I call Mitch and tell him you can’t go on Sunday.” It was an empty threat; she looked forward to Joey’s Sunday trips with Mitch almost as much as Joey did. At one time she had used the time to clean the house without interruption, and then she had started using that day to pamper herself. Recently, however, it was the only time she had to be alone with Collin. When it became obvious that Maureen was taking her friendship with Collin to the next level, much to the disapproval of her friends, Mitch had volunteered to take Joey for the day. She was grateful for the offer and seized it before Mitch had a chance to retract it. It was something she wasn’t about to give up. But empty threat or not, it had gotten the boy’s attention.
There must have been something in her eyes, or maybe her facial expression, or maybe he just knew how much she looked forward to her “me” time, whatever it was, he wasn’t buying her threat. Instead, he leaned over on the sofa and tried to see around Maureen to the screen.
“How would you like it if I got rid of the television?”
Joey’s head popped up, eyes wide, and Maureen had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing. “You wouldn’t,” he challenged. His voice lacked the conviction his words conveyed. The thought of not having a television to watch was too horrifying for his young mind to imagine.
“Try me,” Maureen said, throwing down the white glove.
“Then you wouldn’t be able to watch it,” he shot back, accepting the challenge.
She returned the volley, putting the ball back in his court. “I’ve got one in my room.”
Joey seemed to think this over a moment. “That would mean no videos, right?”
“That’s right. No TV, no DVD player.”
The boy eyed her suspiciously trying to gauge whether or not she would really throw the TV and DVD player into the trash. He must have decided she wasn’t kidding because he reluctantly slipped from the sofa and sluggishly moved across the floor to turn off the TV set. He looked at her with a venomous glare and an exaggerated pout. “Happy?”
“Very. Now let’s see the homework.” She held out her hand for the assignment pad.
The look at that came over his face at the request, a mixture of horror, disbelief, and feigned indignation, almost made Maureen break out in a fit of laughter.
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Honestly? No. Now let’s see it.”
He retrieved his backpack from the armchair; it was the usual spot for it to be tossed when he came home from school. He shuffled back to the sofa and grudgingly began to empty out its contents onto the coffee table. Without looking at her, he held out his small spiral-bound note pad.
She knew better than to expect him to bring the assignment pad to her, so she crossed the room, took the offered up pad, and rifled through it until she found the assignments for that day. Because of previous attempts at getting out of doing homework, Maureen had requested that the teachers sign off on the assignments, and if there was nothing due that day, they were to write a brief not explaining as much. After giving the page a cursory glance, she looked at Joey over the top of the pad. “This isn’t so bad. Shouldn’t take you more than an hour and a half. Two if you play around.”
Joey flopped back on the sofa, his eyes once again going to the ceiling. The frame of time his mother quoted seemed like an eternity. Besides, by the time he finished everything, all the good shows would be over and all that would be on the television when he was done was the News.
Returning the assignment pad to her son, Maureen turned and started out of the room. It was still early, but she figured she might as well start on dinner. At the doorway she stopped. “Oh, and Joey. . .”
The boy looked her way.
“When you’re done with that story, I want the book. I’ll read it tonight and ask you questions on it in the morning.”
“Yes, Mom,” Joey sighed.
Back in the kitchen, Maureen stood at the sink shaking her head, eyes burning with unshed tears. It was at times like this that she missed Alex more than ever. Joey had never given his father a hard time, had always done what the man had asked without question.
In the two years since Alex’s death, Maureen had tried her best to make it on her own. She knew nobody could replace Alex, and she so much wanted so much to stay faithful to his memory. Some of her friends were single mothers and they made it look so easy. Becky, the owner of the bookstore Maureen worked at part time, had never been married, had two children, and she made being a single, working mother seem a breeze. But it wasn’t easy, not for Maureen. Maureen lacked the strength for disciplining her only child. Part of it was guilt. She knew she wasn’t to blame for Alex’s death, but she felt partly responsible. If only she had been stronger in her protestations about that damned trip, maybe Alex would still be alive. But her lack of strength wasn’t something new. Alex had always criticized her about having no backbone when it came to their only child. He had been the one to always lay down the law with Joey. If Joey didn’t like it, he went running to mom to see if the decision could be overturned, and more times than not, she always overrode whatever Alex had set forth. Alex had never known the real reason she catered to her son; it was a secret she had planned on taking to her grave. That secret, she firmly believed, was why Alex had been taken from her, which was another reason why she was more often then not consumed with guilt. At the time she didn’t see anything wrong with being the good cop to Alex’s bad cop, but now she was paying the price.
She had realized, somewhat reluctantly, that she needed a male role model for Joey, someone who could be strict without being overbearing or physically abusive. Which meant she had to rely on people she knew. The only men in her life who could be relied on were Mitch, Collin, and Aaron. While Mitch was great with Joey, and Joey looked up to him like a father, Mitch wasn’t available 24/7, and unless she was able to perform a miracle, she didn’t have the right equipment to entice him into a more permanent relationship.
Aaron was a sweetheart, but until he could deal with his issues, whatever they were, and do something about his weight, she didn’t see him as a viable option. Besides, because of his size, Joey was terrified of the man.
So that left Collin.
Maureen still wasn’t sure how she felt about Collin. When she had first met him, she had found him quite charming and attractive, and he had made his interest in her known even after she had made her decision to go with Alex instead of him. He had done his best to show that he was the better catch, had pursued her with such an intensity that the only thing he had succeeded in doing was making her uncomfortable. At first the battle of her had flattered her; never had she had two men compete for her attentions, but he had taken it to an extreme that scared her. He didn’t come from money, but you would think he had with the way he reacted whenever she rejected his advances. There was an arrogance about him, like he was God’s gift to the world, and he wasn’t used to being denied anything. The man didn’t like being rejected, and he did not know how to handle it. Collin would actually pout when he didn’t get his own way, and if that didn’t work, then he would go out of his way to do something destructive, an adult version of a temper tantrum. He was possessive whenever they were alone together; Maureen couldn’t even go to the bathroom without him asking where she was going. His single-minded obsession with her was frightening, and she soon founded herself looking for excuses not to be around him, which almost cost her her relationship with Alex.
Whenever Alex extended an invitation to come over and spend time at the house, she politely refused, which had had him wondering if he hadn’t done something wrong. She was always quick to offer an alternative, a movie or dinner, and Alex had suspected it she didn’t want to be alone with him. She had to explain about Collin, the way he made her feel. He had brushed it off, saying, “Collin’s just being Collin. He takes some getting used to.” Alex had explained that Collin approached everything with that same single mindedness. There was a need to please, a need to succeed, which was the result of being brought up in an abusive household. It was something Collin had only mentioned once. His friends never pushed because it was obvious he wasn’t comfortable talking about it. When Maureen questioned Mitch and Aaron, they backed up Alex’s story. Mitch, who was closest with Collin, having known him since grammar school, said the man was “seriously fucked up.” While he hadn’t known the extent to what Collin had suffered at home, he knew it was bad. He suspected the abuse went beyond the physical, psychological, and verbal, and crossed the line into sexual, but at that time, who would believe a kid when he claimed his friend was being beat up at home. When Maureen had heard this, she had become furious with Mitch, wondering what had been going on in his head when he had tried to play matchmaker between them. She had quickly pulled in her horns when he had pointed out that until she had met Alex, things had been going well between her and Collin. And they had, but as fucked up as Mitch claimed Collin was, how long would it have been before the man snapped? What would it have taken for the man to explode and do harm to her, himself, or somebody else. That bit of information was enough to warn Maureen away from Collin altogether; she had heard said that the abused typically grow up to be abusers, and that was something Maureen had wanted no part of. However, for the Alex’s sake, she had tolerated the man.
After the wedding, Collin had kept his distance. He maintained his friendship with the guys, but he rarely accepted invitations to the house, which suited Maureen just fine. However, after Alex’s funeral, there had been a complete turn around in Collin’s behavior. They say a crisis draws people together, and while the guys had all been there for her, Collin had been the most attentive. He had seemed like a totally different person. He was kind and considerate, a far cry from the overbearing asshole she had come to know him as when they were in college. She found she was warming up to him after all this time, but she wouldn’t commit fully to him, not with the knowledge she had of his childhood.
For a whole year she had put off his advances, claiming she wasn’t emotionally ready to enter into another relationship. The pain of losing Alex was still too fresh. Besides, she had enough to deal with raising a child on her own, she didn’t need an grown man who acted like a child when he didn’t get his own way to add to her problems, although she had never admitted that part to him. To her surprise, he had been understanding, and not once had the old Collin shown his face. When she had needed space, he had given it to her. Granted, when he wasn’t with her, he had called once a day to check in on her and make sure she was okay. While it had irked her at the time, when she had stopped to think about it, she thought it was sweet of him. At the end of her first year of it being just her and her son, she had proven to herself that she could do it; she could be a single mother. But was that fair to Joey?
Shortly after she had buried Alex, she had reluctantly accepted the fact that she needed a man in her life if only for her son, but she wasn’t about to go running to Collin. Years with Alex had taught her what a relationship was all about; what they had had was a partnership, a relationship of equals based on mutual love, understanding, trust, and respect, none of which she believed existed in Collin’s vocabulary despite the changes she had seen in the man. She had never been Alex’s possession. She felt that, based on the way Collin had behaved in college, he would try to own her if she decided to take their relationship in the direction he was hinting. She was still afraid of the man. He was a master of hiding his true emotions. That was something she had experienced first hand in college. He had been one way with her when he felt they were alone, and a totally different way when Alex and the others had been around, and they had been totally blind to it. When she had tried to explain things to the guys, they had told her she was reading too much into things, but she knew what she had witnessed, and nobody was going to tell her differently.
That had been two years ago, and things had changed drastically in that time. After that first year and seeing a totally different Collin, she had agreed that they could start dating. She had kept their relationship on a platonic level for six months after that before taking it to the next level. Now they were sleeping together, but she hadn’t given her heart to Collin, and she didn’t know if she ever could. She knew she wasn’t being fair to Collin, and the guilt of leading him to think things would end up differently than he was hoping they would started eating at her after that first night they had slept together. It had been a mistake she didn’t know how to remedy. Ending things would seem the logical solution, but it wasn’t that easy. She was afraid how Collin would take it if she broke things off, but more than that, old fears had surfaced and she was terrified of what he might do to her and Joey.
Since that night, she had made regular trips to the attic, sitting there in the darkness and staring at where she knew the locked cedar chest was. The answer to all of her problems was locked away in that chest, in what she had come to call her Pandora’s Box. It contained hope, hope that all things could be set right, hope that she could restore things to the way they had been before the police officers had shown up at her door with the news of Alex’s accident, but it was a malignant hope corrupted by evil. It was the easy way out, and nothing easy ever came cheap. That, and that alone, was what kept her from opening Pandora’s Box. She didn’t know if she could afford to pay the price.
Damn, you, Mitch. Why couldn’t you have been straight?
She wiped the tears from her eyes. Things would have been so much different if Mitch weren’t gay, and it wasn’t just because of the uncanny resemblance he bore to Alex. Joey genuinely liked Mitch. She had noticed the bond developing in the weeks following Alex’s funeral. Joey had taken his father’s death extremely hard. Because of the condition of the body, the casket had been closed, and because Joey had never been allowed to say goodbye, he had a difficult time accepting the man he loved and admired would never be coming home again. Maureen had been unable to reach him, and it was Mitch who had come to the rescue. He had taken Joey aside and explained death using the caterpillar as an analogy, explaining to the boy as best he could that the human body was like a caterpillar, that death was a cocoon, and that Alex, even though his body was gone, was now up in Heaven, beautiful and full of light and love, like a butterfly. He didn’t try to explain death in a manner the boy would understand, but rather in a way that was easier for a child to accept. Alex, the man, was gone, but his spirit was never far away. He continued to explain to Joey how his father was up in Heaven looking down on Joey, watching over him to make sure nothing bad ever happened to him. Or to his mother.
Up to that time, Joey had been withdrawn, had spoken little, if at all, and his eyes had been empty of all emotion. After having listened to Mitch’s words, the boy slowly began to come around. It was a gradual process, but Mitch always made himself available for when Joey wanted to talk. For that Mitch would always hold a special place in Maureen’s heart.
She had tried to show her appreciation in other ways, ways that to anybody else would have made her feel cheap and sleazy, but ways which felt right with Mitch, even though she knew he wouldn’t be interested. A girl could hope, though, couldn’t she? But Mitch, gentleman that he was, had ignored her advances, chalking it up to the stress of losing Alex. After seeing how Mitch handled Joey, she knew the kind of man she wanted as a father figure for her son, but she was not ready to hit the dating scene, and didn’t know if she ever would be.
It was also during this time that she had learned that Collin was somebody Joey tolerated because he was a friend of his parents. He never cared for the man, showing indifference on those rare occasions when he came over to the house, and in the time since his father’s death, the feelings went from indifference to severe dislike. It didn’t help any that she had started dating Collin within the past year. That’s not to say that Collin didn’t try to get along with Joey. He did try, he tried damn hard. There’s was just something about Collin that Joey did not like. Maybe he senses the things Maureen had when she was in college, that Collin was a man on the edge, a walking time bomb waiting for a place to detonate. Or maybe he sensed the man’s interest in his mother and he didn’t like the idea of sharing her, especially with Collin. Whatever the reason, she kept hoping that Joey would eventually warm up to Collin, but she knew now that it was going to be a cold day in Hell before that ever happened.
Which led her back to her dilemma. She needed to break it off with Collin. But she was afraid to do anything that might set him off. Reaching for a paper towel, Maureen tore off a sheet and wiped at her eyes. She tossed the towel in the garbage, then crossed to the refrigerator and started scrounging for something for dinner. Finding nothing there, and nothing in the freezer, she realized she was going to have to make a run to the store. She did a quick inventory, made up a list, and headed for the front door. She paused just outside the living room and peered in, pleased to see Joey working diligently on his homework. “I’ve got to run to the store. You be okay by yourself for a little bit?”
Without looking up, he said, “Yes, mom.”
Joey nodded. Maureen figured he would say or do anything to get her out of his hair. And even though it hadn’t been meant for her to see, she caught the way his eyes flickered to the television across the room.
“Okay. I won’t be long.” She walked to the front door, opened it, then closed it again without stepping outside. She tip-toed to the entrance to the living room and peeked in, not at all surprised to see that Joey was already up and crossing the room.
“And no television until after the homework is done.”
At the sound of her voice, Joey gave a start. He quickly regained his composure, then dropped his head dejectedly so that his chin rested on his chest. He did an about-face and trudged back to the sofa, flinging himself onto the over-stuffed cushions, and went back to work.
A smile played across Maureen’s lips. She lingered a moment longer before turning and leaving the house.