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Inspirational Reads

The Photograph - Part Ten

June 20, 2012

Sorry. I had to go out of town last weekend, and I'm also trying to wrap up a bunch of stuff before I go on vacation this week. I hope to have the next part up tomorrow, whether I'm traveling or not. It will probably be the last section of the story, or at least the next-to-last (penultimate, if you're dorkly like me and like to use big words).

Anyway, in case you've forgotten what's been going on, here's a refresher course: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine

The moment I spoke them, I wanted the words back.

From the moment I had decided that I was going to visit Tori--that she was going to be the first person that I talked to about the grim news--I had formulated the best way to tell her. The words and the conversations and the discussion had tumbled through my head since I had left Bar Harbor. Whenever I doubted myself, the reflection on the windshield--or the image of the two of us together, younger, happier--had driven me forward.

The emotional roller coaster that I had subjected myself to over the past few hours, however, had forced me to blurt out the comment rather than break into the news gently.


For a second, Tori sat with a look that hovered somewhere between annoyance and amusement. The corner of one side of her mouth was lifted in a disbelieving smile, while the other side was painted with a mixture of grief and shock. The amused side was winning when I felt everything inside of me--every reserve I had, every bit of emotional integrity that I clung to preventing the breakdown that I knew was coming--crumbled. A single tear fell from my eye, streaking down my cheek and landing on the table.

"Oh, Jesus," she said, raising a hand to her mouth to hide her shock.

"I'm sorry, Tori," I said, the tears--now unleashed--flowing freely.

"What the hell?" she said, leaning back from me. I felt my lower lip tremble. Closing my eyes, I felt them leak down the sides of my face. The tears splattered on the table. Despite all that, I forced myself to keep my emotions in check.

"I'm sorry, Tori," I repeated, my voice barely above a whisper. "That came out all wrong. I'm just...I'm scared and I'm sad and I thought I could do this and put a brave face on it all..." I opened my eyes and looked at her, shaking my head. "I didn't mean to dump it on you like that. It's just..."

"Rob," she said, her voice calm and soothing. "Tell me what's wrong."

I paused for a second, collecting my thoughts and taking a deep breath. "About a month ago, I went in for a check-up. I had been having trouble breathing, a tightness in my chest, and this cough I couldn't shake. I figured the doctor would give me the same talk I always get: stop smoking, lose some weight, eat more oatmeal. You know, the same old shit.

"Then, last week, I went in for my follow up. The doctor told me he had some bad news, that the cigarettes were catching up with me." I looked away because I did not want her to see the tears in my eyes. "He said it was aggressive, but if I had come in earlier, they might have caught it and helped slow it down. They took some chest x-rays and saw a couple of spots, and he said the outlook was 'not so good.'

"I went home wondering what 'not so good' meant. When I checked out lung cancer survival numbers on the American Cancer Society's website, 'not so good' suddenly became 'you're going to die.'" I shook my head; a tear rolled down my cheek. Tori held a hand over her mouth; tears ran down her cheeks.

"The doctor told me I should try to relax, cut some stress out of my life. He said to take it easy, but I couldn't stay at my townhome any longer. I needed to get out, to get away somewhere that I could clear my mind. Stupidly, I kept smoking..."

"Rob--" Tori said, but I pushed forward, not letting her bother me.

"I figured I didn't have much time left, anyway, I might as well go out enjoying myself. So, I ended up driving up to Maine, just for the hell of it. I always wanted to go, I figured I should go while I still could.

"While I was up there, something happened. I don't know what it was or why, but something shifted inside of me, and I stopped smoking. I was going to just roll over and die, and then suddenly my mind changed. I decided to quit with the smokes and to try and fight this, no matter how futile it might be."

Though her eyes were now drier, the emeralds in them shone brighter. I remembered as I looked over at her why I fell in love with her in the first place. I wanted nothing more than to grab her up in my arms and hold her and feel the safety and comfort of my body in her grasp once more.

"The doctor offered me a chance to get in on some clinical trial, so I called him from the road and said I'd do it. The problem is, the trial doesn't start until August, so I have some time to kill. When I was digging through some papers and such, that's when I found that picture of us from my graduation." I let my voice trail off as I struggled to find the right words. "You are the first person I've talked to about this," I admitted. "When I saw that picture, all the memories of you I had been trying to bury suddenly came back. I knew then that you were the person I should talk to. You would at least understand what was wrong with me, and you know me the best of anyone around, even though it's been so long."

"Robbie, I...I don't know what to say," she said, trying to force a smile onto features wracked with sadness and empathy. "I'm...I'm honored,'s just so much."

"I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dump it all on you like this."

"No, that's what friends are for," she said. Carefully, she reached out her hand and laid it on top of mine. Her fingers were cool, but the warmth that flowed through them energized me. My insides jumped alive at her touch. I closed my eyes to try and stop the flow of tears, and then I did something stupid.

I moved my hand and took hers in mine, interlacing our fingers like we had done when we were still together. She did not resist me, and I squeezed her hand softly while it was locked with mine. For the first time in weeks, I felt content.

"So..." I finally said after we sat in silence for a time, "why were you looking me up online?"

"I missed you," she said plainly, waiting for the waitress to come and refill our coffee cups before she responded. "I've looked you up several times over the years, I've just..."

"Never sent me an email or called." I offered a half smile. "I know. I've done the same." I pressed my lips together into a sort of frowning grimace. "I just did not know what to say."

"I did send Christmas cards," she said, smiling.

"I know. That's how I knew your address." We both laughed for a moment.

"You're such a good stalker," she said.

"Except when I'm getting punched in the face by my target's significant other," I said, working my jaw back and forth. We laughed again.

"Yeah, Drew has some anger and jealousy issues," she said, her voice quieter than it had been. "I thought he would mellow with age and the more time we spent together."

"But it hasn't?"

She shook her head.

"He takes it out--"

"I don't want to talk about it," she said flatly.

I hesitated before nodding. I squeezed her hand; she squeezed back. A tear rolled down her cheek. "He's still a good man," she said softly. "Despite everything, I still love him. I just wish that I knew that he loved me."

I wanted to pull her into my arms again, but this time it was a selfless desire. I wanted to let her know that I was there for her, that she could count on me as much as she needed or that I could provide. Instead, I squeezed her hand. She pulled her fingers away from mine and wiped her eyes. My heart deflated until she reached for me once more.

"I'm sure he does, Tori," I said. "He'd be an idiot not to."

She looked up at me, sad, sparkling green eyes locking with mine. She looked so vulnerable, so beautiful. I tried to hide my feelings, but I could sense her probing me, seeing into me. My emotions were not simply on my sleeve; they were displayed around me, glowing like a neon sign. Though I wanted to keep them in check, I knew that I could not. Frankly, at this point, I did not care.

"At least I know someone still does," she said softly and squeezed my hand. My throat tightened, yet my lips curled involuntarily into a smile.

"I should probably get you home," I said. I wanted to sit with her there forever, but I knew it was getting late. I had already been pummeled once that evening; I was not looking forward to another beating.

"I'm in no rush. I want to spend time with you."

"Maybe we should go for a walk," I said. I had been moving too much over the past few days. Despite the company and my personal desires, I did not feel completely comfortable sitting in one place too long.

"At ten thirty at night? Here? You're insane!" She laughed. She grabbed the check and slid out of the booth. "But, if you want to get out of here that quickly, then let's go. We can talk in the car."

We ducked outside into the night where the air was close and hot. Despite the summer temperatures, she pressed up next to me slipping her arm through mine. Everything felt right and whole once more. We walked through the parking lot slowly; I savored the feel of her on my arm again while she seemed content to lean her head against my shoulder. When we got to the car, she broke away as I reached to open her door. Before my fingers could pull back on the handle, she stepped in front of me. Her cheeks were wet with fresh tears.

"I'm so sorry, Robbie," she said. "Thank you for finding me. Thank you for telling me." She wrapped her arms around my chest, burying her face in my shirt. My hands instinctively embraced her. The weight of her in my arms once more was reassuring, calming. Suddenly, I felt like I could make it through whatever journey lay ahead of me...if only she would be there with me. I knew it was too much to ask.

I did not care, however. I wanted to remember this moment for the rest of my life. I needed this, to be reminded what it felt like to be with her. It was almost better than feeling alive.

"I don't know what else I can do for you, Robbie," she said. "Just know that I'm here for you. I know it's tough. I wish I could help more." She looked up into my eyes, and for a moment we hung as if on a precipice. And then I did something else very stupid.

I kissed her.

At first, there was the slightest hint of resistance. When my lips met hers, I could feel that she wanted to pull away, but suddenly she flowed into the kiss, pressing her mouth back against mine. My arms suddenly held her tighter, and she gripped my shirt front. My heart hammered within my chest as I kissed her again and again and again. I felt her fingers tangle within the fabric of my shirt, her other hand running up my back to the nape of my neck. Her fingernails scratched my scalp as her fingers went through my hair. One of my hands slid down her back to cup her ass. I felt twenty years younger suddenly. My entire body burned and pulsed with desire.

Finally, she pulled away from me, holding my face with both of her hands so that she could stare into my eyes.

"There's a hotel down the street. Let's go before I change my mind," she instructed.

My keys were already in my hand.

The Photograph - Part Nine

June 14, 2012

"Just put the kids to bed, Drew. You're a big boy. I'm pretty sure you can handle it." I heard her yelling into the house while I sat in my car with the windows rolled down. Hearing her angry tore at my heart, but I sat silently, staring through the windshield down the long, straight, silent street. No one else drove through the neighborhood, save for a few cars I could see flickering into view at the intersection at the end of the street.

"I'll be back in a little bit. We can talk about it then." A second later, Tori was sliding into the passenger side of my car.

"Ready?" I asked, raising my eyebrows. "You know, if it's a problem, we don't have to--"

"No, he's got his panties in a twist. He saw me looking you up the other day online." She shook her head as I started the car and pulled away from the curb. "He's jealous of everything."

"Do you blame him? You're quite a catch."

She smiled at my awkward compliment. We drove on in silence, punctuated only by her pointing and giving directions. An emotional wall was slowly erected in the space between us in the car.

"You still smoke?" she asked as we drove down a wide avenue lined with strip malls and shopping plazas. The glaring, bright lights were blinding compared to the dim, quiet street on which Tori lived.

"No," I said, coughing as I did so. "I quit a few days ago."

She shot me a look but said nothing more. We continued on in silence before she directed me into a plaza. A sleepy restaurant sat at the junction of two rows of shops. The inside hummed with fluorescent lights and a the scent of decades of fried food laid a heavy pall of different aromas throughout the restaurant, varying from the freshly delicious to the agedly rancid scent of old grease.

"It's not the finest dining," Tori said, sliding into a booth opposite me and setting her purse down beside her, "but the coffee's good and the waitresses do a good job of not letting your cup go empty."

"You do know how much I love coffee," I said with a half smile. My stomach growled as I inspected the menu. "Excuse me," I said, "I haven't eaten anything today. Are you hungry? My treat, for, you know, not going to your wedding."

There was a moment of silence and I felt her eyes upon me. The years that stretched between us far outweighed the years we were together, and despite that, I could tell that something heavy was on her mind. With so many things left unsaid, I simply continued thumbing through the menu until the waitress came to take our orders. A moment later, we both had full cups of coffee before us.

"Here's to old times," I said, raising the cup up before us in a mock salute. Tori watched me over the brim of my cup while I took a sip. Her eyes, which always carried at least a hint of smile, were the saddest I had ever seen them. I lowered the cup and set it on the table.

"Why didn't you ever call?" she asked, her voice soft and distant. "Or send an email or write a letter or something?"

It was difficult to look at her, so I didn't. I looked everywhere but at those sad, crystalline green eyes. If she started crying, I knew I would lose it. I was halfway there already.

"I drove home that night," I said, still not looking at her. My fingers twitched and twiddled with the flatware on the table. I desperately wanted a smoke. Quitting cold turkey might have been the dumbest thing I had ever attempted. "I drove straight through. I stopped for gas and snacks and smokes. I fell into my bed exhausted, but I could only think of you and how happy you must have been and how happy I was for you--truthfully, I was simply happy that you were happy.

"And yet, I was fucking miserable, Tori." I closed my eyes and tried to compose myself for a moment. "I'm pretty sure you can guess why. As tired as I was, I just could not stop thinking about you. I wanted to. I wanted to sleep, but my mind wouldn't shut down.

"It was like this for the next...twelve years." I finally looked at her. Unshed tears stood in her eyes. I kept quiet while the waitress set our orders down on the table and checked our coffees. She sauntered away and I began to retell my story. "Rob..." she offered, but my name died on her lips.

"You were my everything, Tori," I said softly. "You were my life and the reason for living it."

She lowered her eyes and pushed some food around on her plate with a fork. I took another swallow of coffee. "Surely, there were other girls."

I laughed, a sardonic, bitter note. "Of course there were other girls. Bunches of them. Hundreds of them. But, they all shared one thing in common, Tori: they weren't you."

"Rob, it's been, what, fourteen years? You can't keep waiting for me. We're not in college anymore. I've moved on. I'm married...I have three great kids. And even though Drew's a jackass sometimes, deep down, buried in there somewhere is the man that I love."

My emotions were beginning to turn. Instead of allowing myself to get mad at her for lecturing me on how I should have been over her--as if I had not been trying for nearly fourteen years--I picked up the coffee and stared into the bowl of the mug for a long time before drinking it. I pretended like I was deeply in thought, but I was buying time to let the emotion drain from my voice.

"You were my everything, Tori," I stated as flatly as I could. An edge of anger crept into my voice along with a hint of the love and desire that flooded back into me when I saw her once more. "When I was with you, nothing else mattered. I've never been as happy as I was when we were together." I hesitated, unsure of how to put the next parts.

"Rob..." she said, and my throat seized up. The way she shook her head, I knew she was preparing to lecture me some more. "You're acting kind of like a child."

"Yeah," I said, setting the coffee cup back down and pushing some food around on my plate. "Maybe I am. Probably I am." I looked at her and gave her a half smile. "When you broke up with me over the phone, though, I never had the closure, never had the chance to say good-bye." I sighed, feeling a tightening in my chest. "I...was up in Maine. When I was up there, I was trying to find myself, and that's when I found that picture from graduation. It was in with a bunch of papers and such that I had grabbed on my way out the door. That's when I realized, in order to fill what was missing inside of me, I needed to come and see you. I needed to talk with you once more, face to face. So, I got in the car and drove."

"You could have called ahead."

"And say what? 'Hey, Tori, I'm on my way. I've come to finally get over you breaking my heart so many years ago?'"

"That was unfair."

I shrugged. "Exactly. So, I pulled up in front of your house and decided to wing it."

"Yeah, how'd that work out for you?"

I rubbed my jaw where Drew had punched me. "Not so well." I smiled at her. Suddenly her demeanor broke and the smile I had come to love so much finally curled the corners of her mouth.

She laughed and the tension between us faded a little bit. We both picked up our coffee cups and drank simultaneously. Setting hers down, Tori looked up at me and smiled.

"So, that's why you came out here? For a little bit of closure?"

"I thought it was time to see you again," I said, sipping the coffee.

"It's good to see you, Rob. I really have missed you."

"Thanks," I said. "I've missed you, too." I felt my chest tighten again as I stared at her. For a moment, in the low, heavy light of the diner, the years melted away and we were sitting at a truck stop near Saint Alban's again. Some nights, when we'd been up drinking too late, we'd hit the twenty-four-hour eateries that clung to the interstates where we could laugh, talk, joke, smoke and watch the people rolling in and out of the joint. One night, over coffee and omelets, a man bearing an uncanny likeness to all the pictures of William Shakespeare we had ever seen walked into the truck stop, which elicited an impromptu recital of Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy. While we laughed through the end of it, the man was not half as impressed and I had to pay quickly before he could make good on the threats he shouted at us.

"There's something else, isn't there?" She could see through me, no matter how many years we had been apart. Despite whatever face I tried to show her, Tori knew me well enough that it was impossible to hide secrets from her.

"Yeah," I said softly, "I wanted to say good-bye."

"Isn't that what closure is, Robbie?"

"No, Tori," I said, tears involuntarily standing in my eyes. "I'm dying."

The Photograph - Part Eight

June 13, 2012

Wow, midweek, already? Humpday and whatnot. Except, yeah, no humping here.

Anyway, we're pushing along now. This is the next installment of the story. I had some other things to get done this evening...we won't go into that. Maybe later, but for now, let's get back to our friends as they try to sort some stuff out, shall we? It's another shorter one, just because shit's been hectic 'round about Casa del Jenks today.

In case you missed the other installments in this series, you can get your fix here:
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven

"Drew, what the hell?"

I gradually realized there were two figures standing over me as my vision began to clear. If I had been knocked out, it was only for a second or two; I did not remember hitting the sidewalk in front of the house, but my body ached as if I had just been slammed to the grown and half my face felt tender and sore at the same time.

"What the fuck is your ex-boyfriend doing here?"

There was an extended pause, then I heard the scuffle of a bare foot on the stone walkway. Someone was crouching over me, but the porch light was behind her head, hiding her features in shadow. Even though I could not see her, I knew who it was the knelt next to me.

"Tori, what the hell--"

"Drew, just go back inside. Sarah needs her bath and Emmy's probably ready for bed." I had not spoken to her for years, and though she was snapping orders, the familiar sound of her voice carried me back at least two decades.


"Drew! Just go! Take care of the kids. I'll clean your mess up out here."

For a moment he loomed over both of us, a thunderhead ready to crackle lightning down up on us. I watched him, fearful of whom he would go for first. Finally, shaking his head, Drew turned and retreated into the house, slamming the door behind him so hard I thought sure the glass would shatter.

"Robbie," Tori sighed into my ear, her fingers touching the spot where her husband's fist has crushed my face, "Robbie, is it really you?"

"In the flesh," I said, sitting up more. Her arm slipped around my shoulders to support me; my heart skipped a beat within my chest. "The bruised and slightly spongy flesh, but in the flesh."

She gave an abbreviated giggle at my joke and shook her head. "It really is you, isn't it?" Her face was suddenly next to mine, and there was an urge to grab her and kiss her as if the past twelve years had not happened. The ache in my jaw reminded me that it would not be a good idea to follow through on my urges.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, her voice carrying a familiar lilt of both amusement and annoyance. It was a tone I had heard often during our relationship.

"Well, you know," I said, forcing myself to my feet. I grabbed her hand and helped her up, as well. The touch of her skin against mine was electric. Though I was invested in the visit now, part of me was screaming that I should leave, that I had made a mistake coming here. Instead of following that instinct, I offered a half smile and a shrug. "I was in the neighborhood, thought I'd swing by, see how things were, maybe borrow a cup of sugar."

"You are such a smartass," Tori said, lightly slapping me in the chest with the back of her hand. She folded her arms under her breasts and set her jaw, though the barest of smiles still brightened her features. "Come on, Rob. You live in D.C. What's the real reason you're here?"

I tried my best to come up with an answer that was not an answer. Seeing my internal struggle playing out on my features, Tori raised her eyebrows, expecting an answer. Finally I frowned at myself and looked at her. "It's been twelve years," I said plainly. "I thought it was time to clear the air between us."

For the first time, I saw the defiant, friendly smile disappear. She looked at me and then looked down before sighing audibly. "Twelve years is a long time, Robbie." Her voice was soft and quiet, yet the words seemed to echo between us.

"You know why I couldn't be there, right?"

She nodded, avoiding eye contact with me. I never wanted to take her up in my arms so badly I did at that moment. She sighed softly, a sob mostly hidden beneath the heavy breath. "I saw you, you know. At the chapel. I saw you walking away." She looked up at me and I could see in the light from the front porch that tears stood in her eyes. "I called out to you, but you did not stop." She took another heavy breath, her shoulders shaking softly as she did so. "I knew what I did to you then. I knew that I was being selfish and a bitch and everything. I was so blind until I saw you walking away.

"But the thing that broke my heart most was when I found that picture from your graduation weekend at the grotto. I nearly burst into tears when I realized what I had done to you, someone that I cared for so deeply, someone that I really, truly loved. It broke my heart to see it there on the ground, so I picked it up and I was going to keep it. I was going to use it to remind myself what I had done to you. That's when Drew and I had our first fight."

She paused for a moment and I could think of nothing to say in the silence that fell between us. She shook her head and I thought I saw the glittering reflection of a teardrop on her cheek.

"This isn't the place to have this conversation," she said, shaking her head. Looking at me, unshed tears glimmering in her eyes, she asked, "Do you want to get a cup of coffee?"

The Photograph - Part Seven

June 12, 2012

We're getting there, I swear. But, I'm also getting lazy.

"Getting", he says. As if I didn't just go how many months between posts? And that last post really was just an attempt to get someone to buy me a shirt? And now I'm claiming to be just "getting" lazy?

I know, I know...

Anyway, my laziness knows no bounds. Still, I've finished most of the rest of the story, but I'm still going to break it into what I feel are easily-digestible pieces of prose for your perusal.

Damn, I love alliteration.

So, if you need to catch up or anything, here are the links to the previous installments in the story:

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six

We're building toward an ending, I swear. Just bear with. Thanks again for the reading, and I really do enjoy the comments and appreciate them. I'm know...too lazy to respond.

Even though it was late, the front light still shone. For a few moments, I sat in my car, steeling myself. I checked and double-checked the address one more time; the GPS chip in my phone was telling me I was where I wanted to be. Despite this, I took my time checking my hair in the mirror and smiling several times to make sure none of my last meal stuck with me. I grabbed a stick of gum and began chewing it ferociously as I finally forced myself out of the car. For a few seconds, I stood on the sidewalk, staring across the street tow where the porch light burned unwaveringly, a welcoming beacon to drag me toward it. With a sigh, I stepped into the road.

I tucked the photograph in my front pocket, a shield and a charm all in one.

The street was quiet. There were no cars moving along the long, straight avenue. Cars lined the road in either direction, shielded from the night by endless lines of ancient, giant trees. Shaking my head, I focused on the front light and walked across the street.

My heart hammered in my chest and my pulse rang in my ears. I could feel my legs getting weak as I climbed the steps up onto the porch and my hand shook ever so slightly as I reached out to ring the doorbell. The chime sounded, but no one immediately came to the door.

"This is fucking stupid," I told myself, preparing to go when I heard voices squealing inside and the heavy footfalls of someone approaching the door. Instead of running, I straightened myself, trying to fix a smile on my face that I hoped would be charming and friendly all at the same time.

My heart sank when a man answered the door. For a second, he stood behind the storm door before pushing it open quickly.

"Hey," I said, extending my hand, "you must be Drew."

His fist smashed into my face and I remembered falling backward off the porch, but I do not remember landing.

∞ ∞ ∞

I walked over to the student section where the ballroom was located; Tori and her new husband had reserved it for their reception. As I walked up the stairs leading to the second floor landing, a young man--probably a student staying for the summer session or just to work around the college for a summer job--was setting up the bar under the watchful gaze of a college employee. I nodded to both of them as they watched me walking past.

"Is there something I can help you with?" the official asked as I walked over to one of the doors and tried to open it, finding it locked. I frowned at the door that would not open for a moment before turning to them.

"I just wanted to drop off a gift for the new couple," I said, showing him the envelope holding the card. I originally had thought to put the photograph in with the card, as a way of showing Tori that our relationship, friendship and all, was finished. For the merest second, I thought to go back to the grotto and retrieve it, but the desire passed and I was left looking at a surly college employee fold his arms across his chest.

"The wedding should be going now," he stated flatly.

"I didn't want to walk into the church late," I said. "I thought I'd drop the gift and hang out, waiting for the reception to start." I did not recognize the man from my time at the school, but it had been a few years.

"Fine," the man said after a few seconds of me staring at him, "I'll let you in, but you better not be causing trouble."

"I'm dropping a card. It's not like there's much trouble to cause."

"Fine." It seemed to be the man's favorite word. "Just put the card on the table with the other gifts and get out." He unlocked the door and held it open for me.

I shook my head incomprehensively for a moment before walking into the ballroom and finding a table with pastel-colored packages covering it. I wanted to swear at the guy, but instead I tucked the card in between a couple of boxes and slipped back out, nodding to the guy. "Thanks. I guess I'll see you in an hour?"

"Fine." He stared at me with a look that said he would be watching me later.

"Joke's on you, jackass," I said to myself as I left the student center and made for my car. I heard the bells of the chapel ringing as I pulled the door closed. I started toward the main entrance of the campus, but decided to take one of the back ways out so that I could avoid the chapel area altogether.

I tried not to think about Tori's wedding and the reception I was avoiding as I drove home that afternoon. I stopped over somewhere south of Philadelphia for dinner. Checking my messages, I saw that I had one from Tori. Not wanting to listen to her voice right now, I deleted the message and continued driving, arriving home late at night. Too tired to care, I threw myself into my bed and my misery at the same time. Though exhausted, sleep would not come. The glow of my clock had suddenly become the unceasing blaze of the sun's face; the light glowing in the bathroom had transformed into a blue inferno that refused to let me sleep. Together, they colluded to display a tableau on which I could project my memories. As I lay in my bed, trying desperately to sleep--if only to ignore the phantasmagoria flashing before me--my mind continued to churn faster and faster, sifting through every memory of Tori that it could dredge up. I set my mp3-player in the docking station and hit random, hoping that the music would be enough to soothe me to sleep. Instead, every song that it played reminded me of her.

The light outside my window had shifted from black to a pale gray by the time exhaustion won out, and I slept fitfully through a large portion of the morning until I was awakened by the phone.

"Hey," said a familiar voice when I groggily answered it, forgetting for a moment that I was ignoring the phone. "You back from the wedding?"

"Never really went," I croaked.

"I told you it was a bad idea. Anyway, you need to get out and get your mind of her," Steve told me. "How about we hit the town tonight, do an old-fashioned pub crawl. Start around five and make sure that Happy Hour never dies."

"Yeah," I said and hung up, falling back into my pillows and my shattered, jagged dreams. A few hours later I threw myself into my misery again, drinking and smoking until my mind was clouded enough to let me think that I was happy, that I was over losing Tori. Whenever I would sober up briefly, I would throw myself back into the bottom of a bottle, hoping that when I emerged the next time I would be blissfully unaware of what I had could never have again.

A few weeks after I had strapped the lies on like armor, a card arrived in the mail. It was a thank you card from Tori and her husband. Inside, she had written a form thank you, but there was also a folded piece of paper. On it was written in her flowing, looping handwriting:

"I found this at the grotto when we went to get our pictures taken there. I thought you might want it. I'm sorry that I did not see you at the wedding. I was really looking forward to talking to you again. Drew and I are moving to Saint Louis in the fall. Give me a call in a couple of weeks and I can give you my contact information."

Inside the folded note was the picture from my graduation weekend that I had thrown on the ground.

The memories came rushing back along with the feelings of sadness and despair. I reached for a smoke from the table at the side of me bed, and as I closed my eyes I knew that I would never be able to drown the memories from my mind. I picked up the phone, dialed half of her number but before I could punch the last few buttons, I set the phone back down on the base. Someday I would talk to her again, but it would not be today.

I got up and walked out of the bedroom, out of my townhouse and went out into the night, hoping that some fresh air would do a better job of clearing my head than the alcohol had done. I suspected that it would not, but at that point, I needed any reason to get away...

The Photograph - Part Six

June 11, 2012

Here we are again at the beginning of another week. So little to look forward to, especially while we're still trying to piece together the weekend, huh?

With that in mind, I thought I'd go easy on you today and give you a shorter piece of the story; it's only one section, but I think it's a good one. I don't normally get too emotional when I'm writing things, but I did choke up a little here.

Grab your coffee, nurse your hangovers, curl up in your breakfast nooks. If you need to refamiliarize yourself with the previous parts of the story, you can read them through the following links:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Even though I was expecting it, I was still surprised when the invitation showed up in my mail box.

Despite having my heart broken, I tried to remain friends with Tori. We would still chat at least once or twice a week, and even call one another at least once a month. In truth, we spoke more often after our relationship fell apart than we had in the last few months of our relationship. That was the problem. We fell back into friendship so easily that it almost seemed as if we had not stopped being a couple.

About eighteen months after we broke up, she told me that Drew had asked her to marry him. I had to pretend that I was happy for her, which was easy enough to do over the phone. While the news crushed my heart and brought tears to my eyes, the unbridled joy and happiness in her voice was enough to make at least attempt to be happy for her. I loved her. Despite everything, I loved her. I wanted her to be happy, and she clearly was. Maybe she was happier than she ever could be with me. While I tried not to dwell on that fact, it was difficult not feeling the bitter pangs of jealousy as she described the wedding planning she and Drew were putting together.

After I finished up at Notre Dame, I took a job in D.C. doing the kind of deskwork that sit-coms are made of. It might not have been the most rewarding job in the world, but the pay was good, the benefits great, and the hours were long enough that I could throw myself into the job and almost forget the fact that the woman I loved was lying in the arms of another man. I worked upwards of ten hours a day, breaking long enough to hit the pub with a co-worker named Steve who shared some of my same interests: getting shit-faced drunk and forgetting about the world for a while.

I was not sure which was more shocking: that Tori sent me an invite to her wedding, or that I quickly RSVP'd, saying I was looking forward to celebrating her impending nuptials and that it would be nice to finally meet Drew. As soon as I dropped it into the mailbox, I regretted my answer. I wanted desperately to somehow fish the envelope from the slot where I had just dropped it, but I knew that my answer had been sent and that I was now forced to follow through.

The wedding was being held in the chapel at Saint Alban's about a month after classes let out for the summer. I drove up and got a hotel room in town. I arrived on campus early, but I tried to avoid anywhere that the wedding guests would be. I wandered around, visiting my old dorm and walking over to the fieldhouse sitting next to the football field. Saint Alban's was a small enough campus that they never locked the gate in the chain link fence around the football stadium. I pushed my way in and sat on the aluminum bleachers warmed by the midday sun. An indeterminate amount of time passed while I sat there staring blankly over the field. I had so many memories here, of sitting in the stands and watching my friends and classmates play. We were never any good, but I there were times over the past year and a half that I would have given almost anything in order to be back here in those halcyon days of college life. I would have given anything in order to be with her again.

The bells of the chapel were ringing. With a certain dreadful resignation, I pulled myself off the bleachers and headed back across campus toward the chapel. I watched as people streamed into the church. There were several familiar faces--friends from college, some of her family I had met--and I waited for them to enter the chapel. I did not want to sit with anyone I knew and deal with their questions--both spoken and the unasked--during the ceremony. I was certain that the reception would be awkward and painful enough.

I could hear organ music playing as I approached the wide limestone steps of the chapel. As I began to mount them, I stopped. No matter how hard I tried, I could not force myself to walk into the church; I did not want to see Tori get married, at least not to someone else. For a few seconds I stared into the all-too-familiar church before shaking my head and walking away.

I kept my head down, listening to my own shrieking, screeching emotions and thoughts duel with one another in my head while I walked away from the chapel. I thought I heard someone call my name, but I ignored it. The music coming from the church was too loud; it was a catalyst for the chaos and turmoil spinning in my head. I needed to get away.

Eventually I found myself at the grotto. I stopped, taking in the peaceful serenity. The wind whispered through the trees, the water trickled from one artificial pool to the next. Birds sang. Squirrels chased each other through the trees. I stood and stared at the grotto for a long time before I reached into my pocket and pulled out the photograph that I had carried with me these long years. It was the picture of Tori and me at the grotto, given to me by her mother and which had been my constant companion on all the trips to see her.

A lump formed in my throat as I looked down at the picture. I refused to cry, but my body was not cooperating, despite how many times I scrubbed at my eyes with the back of my hand. I had meant to ask her to marry me that day, before I left for graduation, before we had to go our separate ways for a while. I had meant to get down on one knee, here in a place that was meant for quiet reflection of God's love and proclaim my love for her, forever. Instead, her parents had accompanied us, and I had become too nervous, afraid that I would ruin everything for her.

I meant to do it the following year, as well, when I returned for her graduation. I would give anything to have those two days back--those two moments back, to relive them and to correct what I had done wrongly. I would give anything to tell her one more time how I felt, to whisper the words in her ear and to feel her lips curl into a smile against my neck as I had so many times before, so many years ago.

I looked down at the picture one more time, the memories so close and so vivid they could have swirled into life. Her smile was still electric, her eyes were still beautiful.

"I love you," I choked softly, the words catching in my throat. "I always will."

I dropped the photograph on the ground and walked away.

The Photograph - Part Five

June 8, 2012

Here we are again, at the end of the week. Thanks for the patience. It's been a fun few days around here. I'm hoping to get this wrapped up with minimal blood loss and tears next week. If not, I can guarantee that it will be finished before the 20th of June when I leave for some vacation.

Anyway, grab a cup of coffee--maybe two, depending on how satisfying they are--and grab today's installment of the story. In case you missed the previous entries, check here:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Sorry if you read this earlier this morning when everything was all chunked up on the top. I forgot that I need to write in the returns now on the html. It should be fixed now.

The shower had left me feeling completely and utterly cleansed--and exhausted. Crashing into the bed back in the cottage, I slept through the remainder of the morning. Again, the birds and their insistent singing forced me awake sometime around noon. After a quick wash in the sink, I bustled about the cottage. I still had two and a half days on the rental agreement before I had to leave, and I was unsure of how to spend the remaining forty-eight hours. I was close to Canada and I thought briefly about driving up to Mars Hill so that I could actually be the first person to see the sunrise, but decided that the experience I had had this morning would be cheapened, almost ruined if I went chasing after the sunrise along the eastern seaboard. Instead, I decided to maybe tour the wilderness, maybe see the famed Mount Katahdin, and take a drive into Canada.

Luckily, I had grabbed the pack where I keep my passport, extra checks, emergency credit cards and the like before I left the house. My original plans were to maybe tour a few of the states along the eastern seaboard, mainly to escape the dull crush of urban and suburban living. Maybe, if I found my way to upstate New York or over to the urban sprawl around Lake Erie, I would stop off in Canada and hit a few casinos. Mostly, I just wanted to take my mind off the job and the ridiculousness that came with it.

Almost on cue, my phone rang. I looked at the number before tossing it back on the bed. Whatever emergency they were dealing with at work could wait--I was really beginning to enjoy not going in to the office every day.

I sat down on the corner of the bed with the folder, pulling from it those things I deemed most important in my life. As I slid the mass of papers from its home, one loose item fluttered to the ground, tumbling end over end as it fell to the ground. Noticing the odd motion out of the corner of my eye, I turned my attention to it, reaching to pick the object up from the floor. I could see that it was a photograph, the image side lying face down on the floor. For a moment, I tried to remember what picture was so important that I would keep it in here.

Then, I turned it over.

∞ ∞ ∞
Without a doubt, Victoria was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

She had eyes that glittered a thousand shades of green when the sun caught them and burned with a smoky sexiness even in the dark. Her cheeks were made for smiling, and even when she was sad or angry, there was a smile hidden somewhere in her features. Her hair--long and blonde, with just enough curl to it that your hand would get caught while you ran your fingers through it--was like gold spun into silk. Her body was firm yet soft, with curves in all the right places. When she lay in my arms, it felt right. When my fingers interlaced with hers, it felt right. When she put her head on my chest and snuggled against me, it felt right.

The first day she stepped on the campus at Saint Alban's, I fell in love with her. I was a sophomore when she first came to school, and as luck would have it, she lived in the dorm next to mine. When I finally got the nerve to ask her to dinner one night, I was amazed that she said yes. After that day, I had eyes for no other woman on campus.

The weekend of my graduation from Saint Alban's was a bittersweet affair. I would finally be done with college; I would have the degree for which I worked so hard. I had already been accepted to business school at Notre Dame. My future looked bright and promising. Unfortunately, I was leaving Tori behind. She would not graduate for another year, and when she did, she would not be following me to South Bend. She had been accepted to medical school at Indiana, and while she would rotate through their South Bend campus, most of the Hoosier State would remain between us while we tried to wrap up schooling.

She stayed on campus on graduation weekend. The weekend was hectic as both my parents and her parents were on campus to see me get my diploma. It seemed as though, every time we turned around, there was another ceremony to go through, another function for us to attend. The night before graduation, there was a dance for the seniors and their families along with the alumni who came back for graduation.

Naturally, I planned on going to the dance with Tori while our parents went to dinner together. Tori looked absolutely stunning, her long hair framing her beautiful features, her eyes sparkling in the low light of the afternoon and her skin glowing in the sepia-stained sunlight. She wore a black dress and though her skin was pale, it complimented her eyes beautifully and made her hair almost glow with an inner radiance.

Before the dance, we walked around campus one last time before I would graduate in the morning. Her parents came with us, though we walked apart from them, hand-in-hand, enjoying the last few moments we still had together. As we walked through the wooded grotto one of Saint Alban's founding priests had constructed, her mom stopped us so that she could get a picture of us.

It was the photograph that had fluttered to the floor moments before. It was the photograph that I held now, the one at which I stared blankly while I replayed those memories through my head of my graduation weekend. When I would drive to see Tori--either at Saint Alban's or down at Indiana--I would leave this photograph on the dashboard to remind me why I was driving for hours to spend a little time with this woman.

I could not have loved her more.

Life after graduation was going to be tough, and I knew that it would take some adjustments. The first year of school, I would drive back to Saint Alban's on the weekends, and it was almost as if there was no distance between us. We made love passionately, lovingly. We laughed. We enjoyed each other's company, each other's presence.

It was similar when she got to Bloomington. We would fall into each other's arms on Friday night and tearily say our long, lingering good-byes on Sundays. Rarely, she could escape her commitments and come to visit me in South Bend. In between weekend visits, we would talk on the phone until late at night, or chat via computer. Though it was tough, things were working.

When she entered her second year of medical school, and just as I was beginning to finish my final year, Tori began to grow more distant. Often, she would cut our conversations short, telling me that she was exhausted. Sometimes, she would be too busy for our weekend visits. Though I missed her, I understood. I knew medical school was a tremendous commitment, and I was working on finishing up my degree and preparing to look for a job. Things were hectic, to say the least, for both of us. Our calls began to be less frequent; we would go weeks at a time without visiting one another. The long distance in our relationship was finally beginning to show.

I had managed to secure an interview with a firm in Indianapolis, and while that was still a fair distance from Bloomington, it was far closer than South Bend. After my interview, I went back to my hotel room feeling good about the entire day. I dialed Tori, thinking I could surprise her since I was just a short drive away.

"Hey, guess what," I said when she answered the phone.

"I dunno, what?"

"I'm in Indy. I had an interview, but I'm wrapped up. You up for a late dinner?"

There was a long pause and then finally I heard her say something incomprehensible.

"Hey, are you okay?" I pressed. I heard her sob. My throat began to tighten.

"I'm sorry, Rob," she said, her voice choked with emotion and barely above a whisper, "but I've met someone..."

The Photograph - Part Four

June 5, 2012

This is the fourth part of the story I'm writing for a dear friend of mine. Grab a cup of coffee and get caught up on the first three parts of the tale if you need.
The Photograph Part 1
The Photograph Part 2
The Photograph Part 3

The figures in the photograph have been transformed into strange, inverse images of themselves as they're repeatedly reflected on the inside of my windshield. The night, the amber glow of the sodium lamps and time have colluded to change the shorter one's hair from blonde to brunette. Time itself has rendered the other figure's hair a different shade.

The interstate is behind me now. The illumination brought by the roadside lamps is more constant, but the period of the sweep from the photograph's reflection is short, more stuttering. It is no longer a lengthening and stretching; now it is more of a ghoulish reflection, flashing sporadically on the inside of my windshield. The image's pulsing apparition matches my heartbeat; the rapidity at which the picture appears--reflected, reversed, inversed--mimics the crush of emotions spilling from the depths of my memory. Some happy, some sad, but the entire gamut comes to the forefront as I stare at the photograph itself while waiting for an interminable light to change to green. The blue glow of my phone's screen sheds a differing contrast on the image, making the reflection all the more ghastly.

Finally, the light switches green. I turn to left, the image stretches and follows along.

∞ ∞ ∞

The alarm went off at a disturbingly early time. The night was still dark, and the world was quiet. The rain from the previous day had brought with it a lingering chill that clung to the night air. I did not bother to shower, but my Saint Alban's shirt was hanging in the bathroom of the cottage, drying from the previous day's drizzle that had soaked through the fabric. Though the shirt had dried in the hours between my walk through the emptied streets of Bar Harbor and the insane predawn hour I roused myself, the night's chill saturated the garment like yesterday's rain had. Shrugging it on, I waited for my body to warm the inside of the jacket before leaving the cottage. It was the warmest piece of clothing I had brought with me, and I was not going to leave without it.

There was a road to drive up the mountain, but I opted for the more difficult way of trying to decipher the labyrinthine trails that lead to Cadillac Mountain's summit. The night was cold and the sky was dark--a perfect dome of diamond-encrusted black stretching forever in all directions. Not even the meager light offered by the sleeping town below dimmed the lighted symphony of the night sky. Though the tree cover was thick along the trails, I could see through the canopy enough to keep an eye on where the north star hung in the black tapestry. Like so many mariners before me, I navigated my way through the night by that one unmoving beacon as the rest of the stars danced in slow circles around that singular point of white.

I did my best to keep the North Star before me so that the east was to my right, but the trails wound around and up. The paths were not simple to navigate, and I cursed my stupidity for trying to climb a mountain in the dark. I could hear other cars on the road climbing the mountain, so I knew I would not be alone when I finally made it somewhere that I could clearly look out over the ocean. Cursing the people who took the easy way up, I pushed forward, sweat running down my brow and between my shoulder blades despite the halo of frost hanging before me with each breath.

Finally, I came to one of the areas on the top cleared for people like me--those who mistakenly thought that they would be first thing the sun would touch when it came over the eastern edge of the world. Already, the eastern sky looked bruised along the flat line of the horizon, greens and lighter blues replacing the deep blue and black of night. The moon had set hours ago; the stars were now retreating from the oncoming sun.

The viewing area was already populated, though there were not many people around. As I looked out over the inky spill of ocean forming the distant horizon, I caught slivers of clandestine conversations. People complained that it was cold, that it was early, that they were tired. I tried to push their voices out of my mind. Instead, I watched silently while the eastern half of the world began the gentle move toward morning.

The change was gradual at first. The darkness of the eastern sky faded and the soft hues of dawn climbed slowly into the sky, a reverse rainbow spreading across the horizon from one edge of the world to the next. The waters slowly transformed from liquid black to soft gray to a strange, colorless liquid that seemed to swallow the light from the sky. Shapes slowly began to emerge from the night-dark sea, and I could see the beautifully-folded rocks that comprised the shoreline tumbling away into the waters of the Atlantic.

For lack of anything else to do, I lit a cigarette while the edge of the world faded from pink to orange to the yellow that rides before the sun's actual emergence above the eastern horizon. The waters of the Atlantic flushed with color as the thinnest edge of the sun finally came over the rim of the world. An orange sliver of brilliant light slipped above the perfectly straight line where the water met the sky, and I stood, breathless, as the day slowly spread over the world.

Somewhere farther to the north, they saw this happen a few seconds before I did, but I did not care. There are very few things in the world that are more beautiful than watching the sun rise over the ocean, but to do it from the top of the tallest point for a few miles around goes beyond breathtaking. It was as if the world was coming alive with each drop of sunlight that fell upon it.

Something within me moved, and for a moment I thought I was going to have an emotional breakdown. I felt my mind spinning out of control, all the stresses of the recent weeks suddenly breaking free and jointing the torrent of emotions swirling within my head. Taking a deep breath, I tried to drink in the morning. I felt the sun's warmth finally fall on my face, the chill slowly ebbing away with the night.

I watched as the orange ball slowly began to emerge over the horizon; to my back, the last vestiges of night were being swept away while the earliest moments of dawn seized the sky. For just a second, as I took in my surroundings, trying to look at everything at once as the beauty of the day broke before me, I felt a calmness surge up and through me. The emotional wreck that had threatened to drag me down a moment before was gone; in its place was a serenity that I had not felt in years. At the edges of the warmth that burned within my chest, I could feel something dangerously akin to happiness. Involuntarily, a smile tugged at the edges of my mouth.

Perhaps the old man I met in the diner had been right after all.

The wind changed, switching around and blowing in more from the ocean, carrying the sweetly bitter iodine scent of the water with it. Even the smell of dying and rotting sea weed had a calming effect on me.

"Hey!" someone barked, "You can't smoke that up here. It's state property." He had a kind of hipster smugness in the smirk he shot me after castigating me over my half-smoked cigarette. It was the kind of look that would start a fight in a bar. For half a second, my hand curled into a fist before I reached up to my mouth and plucked the burning stick from my lips.

"Lucky for me that I just quit, huh?" I said, taking the cigarette and crushing it against the sole of my foot. Ash and unburned tobacco fell to the ground. I took the dead cigarette with me as I turned and began to walk back down the mountain.

The Photograph - Part Three

June 1, 2012

In case you missed the first couple of installations of this story, you can find them here:

Part One
Part Two

I awoke to a cold drizzle dribbling down through the blackened, predawn skies. During the night, rain had moved in from off the coast, chilling the air and cancelling sunrise. I sat in the cottage and watched as the world lightened, but saw no true dawn. The coffee I drank was little compensation for the distance I had driven only to be preempted by the rains.

Truthfully, I had forgotten that I was not as young as I once was. Sitting in the car had taken its toll, and while lying in bed during the predawn darkness and listening to the rain, I felt the aches in my joints and my muscles more than I heard the call of the mountain. Facing the ceiling, I listened to the rain falling outside my open window until the morning light shifted from black to dull gray. I rolled over, conceded defeat, and slept for another couple of hours until I could no longer ignore the birdsong trilling in the bushes outside my windows.

The rain fell, calmly but relentlessly, throughout the morning, bringing with it a chill to the air that seemed out of place in the middle of the summer. I spent much of the morning staring out from the porch of the cottage across the buildings of the town and toward the sliver of the bay afforded by the closeness of the trees and buildings. Where the water was a bright crystalline blue and bustling with sailboats and smaller craft the day before, it was now slate gray and abandoned. The clouds matched the water: a uniform gray that leaked water from the monochromatic dome.

I stood leaning against a support column on the front of the porch, sipping coffee and watching the town sleepily stir, though the bustle from the previous day was gone. I pulled a final drag from a cigarette and tossed the butt on the path leading to the front of the porch. Staring down at it, the spent reminder of a bad habit seemed so out of place in this humble and almost perfectly-manicured town that I stepped into the mist and retrieved it. Crushing the butt against the column, I carried it inside and left it in the sink while I prepared to explore the town anew. Boredom was driving me forward and hunger was forcing me out of lethargic inactivity.

As I had noted from the front porch, the town was still mostly asleep as I wandered through it, my only protection against the elements a hooded sweatshirt from my college days that seemed to absorb more of the rain than deflect it. The shirt still fit and was in mostly good shape, despite the faded "Saint Alban's College" written across the front in what had once been navy blue. It was the most comfortable article of clothing I owned.

I found a small family-run restaurant just off the main part of the renovated downtown that could best be--and probably only be--described as a "dive". It was the sort of place that felt as if the rest of the town had been built up around it, and the aroma of the ghosts of ten thousand hamburgers hung in the air. One could tell right away that it was a place visited by "regulars", but the kind that would welcome anyone new into the fold, as a lost sheep that had wandered away from the herd. Entering the diner, I felt the eyes of strangers weighing on me, deciding I was not a risk, and returning to conversations about the weather, aches and pains, and begonias.

The most convenient available seat was a stool next to the counter, and I sat down next to an old man with hunched shoulders wearing a flannel shirt and a hat pulled down so far over his face it seemed he had no neck. His ears stood out from his head, and the bottom part of the hat pushed them out at ninety-degree angles from his skull. The waitress--a girl probably a decade my junior, pretty, perky and smiling--stepped over to see what I wanted while the cook bellowed relayed orders in the kitchen. Staring through the window at him, I strongly considered finding a new place to eat; my stomach refused to allow my legs to move, so I asked for a coffee and what the menu called "The Breakfast Beast". Against my better judgment, I decided that a burger with a fried egg, sausage patty and two slices of bacon was a good substitute for skipping breakfast. Plus, it would go well with my coffee.

"Where the hell is Saint Alban's?" I turned to find the neckless old man next to me studying my shirt the way I had studied the ass of the waitress as she handed my order through the window.

"What? Oh. It's a little school in a town just west of Pittsburgh. Maybe thirty miles or so out from there."

"So, you from Pissburgh?" At first, I thought the old man was trying to goad me into an argument and then I suddenly realized that it was simply his way of talking. The old Down East accent hung on every abbreviated syllable that came out of his mouth. After a moment or two, it suddenly became endearing.

"Ohio, originally. My parents moved to Pittsburgh when I was high school, so I found a school that wasn't too far from home, but far enough away that I could find an excuse not to drive home on weekends."

"And what did you study there, titties?" It was joke he had obviously been sitting on for a while.

I laughed with a smirk. "Only one pair."

"Ah, a good Catholic boy, huh?" he grinned. Despite the sideways insults, I was beginning to like the old bastard.

"Drinking, smoking and lots of premarital sex with my girlfriend," I said, winking as the waitress topped off my coffee cup and set the massive, heart-stopping cathedral of cholesterol before me. For a second I stared at the monstrosity of the burger and decided to pick at the tater tots added on the side while my neighbor felt talkative.

He pointedly looked at my left hand while I fiddled with the tater tots. I popped one in my mouth expecting the next question, but it never came. Instead, my chatty companion fell silent for a second, nodding his head sagely while a brooding silence seemed to encapsulate us. Looking down at his cup, he swirled his coffee around, the black mud clinging to the sides for a moment before returning to the puddle at the bottom.

"You on vacation up here?" he finally asked, shooting me a quizzical eye.

"I needed to get away for a while is all," I said nodding. I finally taking a bite of my burger. Chewing it, I stared into an untold distance. "I've always wanted to visit Maine. Thought I'd come up and check out Cadillac before exploring the rest of the state a bit more."

"If you want to see the first sunrise, Cadillac ain't the place this time of year," the old man stated with a half-grin. "You'll have to head up to Mars Hill."

"No shit?" I asked, setting the burger down. "How far of a drive is that? Few minutes?"

The old man laughed. "Yep, you're not from around here. Mars Hill's up north, son. Couple of hours, if you don't get lost. If you do, you'll run out of gas before you find the hill."

"Well, damn," I said. I stared down into the depths of my coffee cup, suddenly deflated. I couldn't believe that Gene Forrester had led me astray.

"Still, there's a helluva view up there," the old man said, as if trying to lift my spirits. He finished off his cup of coffee and stood, laying a couple of dollars down on the counter next to his empty mug. "Helluva good place to sort things out, too, where it's you, the mountain and God." He slapped me on the back and headed out the door.

I sat for a while and pushed my tater tots around on my plate before paying the bill and heading back to the cottage where I could wait out the rest of the rain and hope that tomorrow would bring me sunnier skies and a clearer view of everything.

∞ ∞ ∞