Ahead of the Curve
rom nosex

From the imagination of Chase Shivers

January 11, 2017

Please read my Explicit Disclaimer before you read my work.

To read the Author's Introduction to this series, click here.

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Chapter 9: Strain

Chapter Cast:

Darren, Male, 53
- Narrator, retired, father of Gwen and Victoria (Vic)
- 5'11, beige skin, 195lbs, cropped greying brown hair
Audrey, Female, 15
- High school student, daughter of Duncan and Theresa
- 5'9, pale skin, 135lbs, light-green eyes, straight auburn hair over her shoulders
Gwen, Female, 15
- High school student, daughter of Darren, sister of Victoria
- 5'5, beige skin, 130lbs, shoulder-length wavy black hair
Victoria (Vic), Female, 14
- Eighth-grade student, daughter of Darren, sister of Gwen
- 5'3, beige skin, 115lbs, wavy neck-length light-brown hair
Duncan, Male, late-60s
- Father of Audrey, husband of Theresa
- 5'7, pale skin, 175lbs, dark-brown cropped hair
Theresa, Female, mid-50s
- Mother of Audrey, wife of Duncan
- 5'7, pale skin, 150lbs, shoulder-length auburn hair


The next couple of weeks passed like warm lava slowly flowing down a mild slope. I still hurt deeply for the loss of Audrey. I missed her texts. I hated not waking to see a message from her. I felt the hole in my world each afternoon no call came around the time she'd have been leaving school and before her softball practice. I heard nothing from her, and it slowly sank in that things were going to be that way forever.

I suppose I recovered somewhat. I didn't sleep on the couch after the first few days. I ate regularly, if without much appetite. I went back to my afternoon scotch and cigarettes. My daughters and I had normal conversations. Audrey didn't come up again, and I suppose that's what I wanted given that I had no way to change things back to how they'd been.

How had one week with Audrey been such a big impact on my life? How had I, so quickly, come to want to see her, to hear her, to hold her in my arms? How could such a short period of time make me miss her so strongly? Maybe, I reckoned, it was the loneliness I'd integrated as part of what was normal in my life. I had my daughters, that had been more than enough before. Audrey had given me hope that there could be more. So much more. Being without it made the old normal feel empty and cold.

I knew things would get difficult again soon enough. I still hadn't made a decision about going to Buffalo when the time came. And beyond that, just a month and a half away, I knew Audrey was still going to be moving in next door with her grandparents, and I couldn't imagine how difficult it would be to see her from my porch without being able to rush up and hold her in my arms.

I don't know where I found the strength, but one afternoon during the second week of May I found myself by the pool making a phone call. Vickie had been cleared to go back to school the previous week, and both my daughters were there around lunch time as I pulled out my cell and called Theresa.

“Hello?” The woman answered.

“Theresa, hello. This is... this is Darren.”

“Darren. Oh, Darren. It is wonderful to hear from you...”

“You as well...”

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“As well as can be, I suppose.”

“Yeah... I understand.”

“How are you doing?” I enquired.

She was silent a moment then answered, “As well as can be...”

“I'm so sorry, Theresa. How, uh... how is Duncan doing?”

“Not well... He's starting to get to that point, Darren. He's pushing us away.” I could hear the anguish in Theresa's voice.

Duncan had been serious when he'd said he didn't want his wife and daughter to see him in his final days, that he didn't want them to see him dying like that. I could not imagine how harsh that must seem when all you want to do is bring comfort to the one who is suffering. Duncan, of course, understood that. To him, the suffering was for those who had to watch. I admired the man's strength in doing something which must be frightening and lonely in order to spare those he loved.

“Is there, uh... is there anything I can do, Theresa?”

She breathed heavily into the mic. I wondered if she was trying to keep from crying. “Are you planning to come visit?”

I let out a long breath. “I... I hadn't made any plans...”

“Oh... oh,” the disappointment was clear in the woman's tone.

“Theresa, this is... this is really hard, right now.”

“Believe me... I know,” she replied.

“Yeah...”

“She really could use your support, Darren.” There was no need for Theresa to tell me who 'she' was.

“We're not together anymore—”

“But she still cares about you!” Theresa's voice grew stronger and she sounded somewhat angry. “And I damn sure know you still care about her!”

“Yes... yes, I care about her.”

“Then, dammit, show her! Show me!”

“It's not that easy—”

“No, it is not! But you didn't let that stop you from falling in love with her, Darren. What is stopping you from supporting her when she really needs you now?”

I swallowed my emotions and was honest. “I still love her, Theresa. I still love her. And if I see her again... I can't risk hurting my daughters again. I can't risk hurting Audrey. I won't do that to her. I can't do that to them.”

Theresa was quiet. I imagined she was chewing her lip trying to formulate the right response. Instead, she said simply, “Do what you think best, Darren. I must go.” Theresa hung up the phone.

I sat back on the chair and swam in distress and fears and my love for Audrey. Gwen had given me her blessing. Vic, too. And Joyce. And Theresa. What was holding me back? Was it really so simple? That I could just go to Buffalo and be Audrey's friend? That all the hurt from the previous weeks could just be swallowed and ignored while her father died? That I wouldn't feel the loss of my lover all over again?

Theresa was right. They were all right. I had to go. I cared about Audrey and she needed me. Whatever else happened in my life, whatever I'd lost from what the two of us had before, I didn't want to lose Audrey's friendship. I might always feel the pang of heartache to have lost her intimacy, the deep personal connection to her, but I couldn't, no, I wouldn't, let our friendship die.

I reached for my cell and pulled up the contacts. Audrey's smile lightened me just a touch as I pulled her up. I tapped the call button and waited while it rang.

It went straight to voice mail. It felt anti-climactic. I don't know what I expected. It was just past noon on a school day. I couldn't bring myself to leave a message, so I hung up.

It was a surprise to see my phone light up thirty seconds later. Audrey's smile, captured in a happier moment, was on my screen. I answered and said, “Audrey?”

“Yes...”

“Audrey,” I repeated. Just hearing her voice was such a relief I couldn't get past it a moment.

“Yeah... it's me.” She waited for me to speak, but I was unable, so she prompted me, “You, uh... you called me just now...”

“I did. I did. Audrey... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. For everything. But I didn't call about... the past.” My voice grew softer. “I talked to your mom, just a bit ago... I understand your dad is... not well...”

“Yeah. It won't be long...”

“God, Audrey... I'm so sorry.”

“Thanks.”

“I need to ask you something,” I said carefully, “and, please, be honest...”

“Okay...”

“I'd, uh... I'd like to come up... soon, I think. Just to help out, if I can... If that's what you want. Do you want that, Audrey? Do you want me to come visit?”

She didn't reply and the longer the silence went on the more I was sure she was going to tell me not to bother.

“Yes,” she said finally. “Please...”

“Okay. Okay,” I replied, “good.”

“What does this mean for us, Darren?”

“It means I really care about you and I want to be your friend. I never want to lose that, Audrey. Your friendship means the world to me.”

“Just that?” She didn't exactly sound hurt, but it wasn't hard to understand that it might have been a sting to hear it.

“It's all I can offer... I'm sorry.”

She was quiet again, then replied, “Okay. I'll take it...”

“Good. I, uh... I'll let you know when I can be there. This week okay if things work out?”

“Yes. Next week, he might be...”

“Yeah,” I said, knowing how close Duncan was getting to his death. “I'll let you know.”

“Thanks,” Audrey said quietly. “Darren?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you still love me?”

“I still love you, Audrey.”

“Okay.” She hung up.

It stung again to not hear her tell me she loved me. I thought I could read between the lines and infer that she did, but she hadn't said it, and once more, even though I should have been moving past that need, it hurt like rejection to profess my love and not have it returned in kind.

- - -

“We fly up Friday night. You two come back on Monday. You can miss one day of school only. Deal?” I told my daughters after we ate dinner Thursday evening.

I'd booked tickets for all of us to fly up to Buffalo the next afternoon, and return flights for my daughters to come back on their own. I didn't know when I'd be back, so I left my return itinerary undeclared. It was first class or nothing on the flights up, so I booked us all in the front. We often flew first since I could afford it, but it wasn't a guarantee on the shorter flights. This one was long enough to care about comfort, especially with Vickie's leg still in a cast.

I'd sent Theresa and Audrey a message asking if Friday was a good day to come. Audrey never replied, but her mother made it clear that it was fine.

“Deal,” Gwen said and her sister nodded, “I'll go pack!”

Vickie hung back and said quietly, “Audrey is glad you are coming.”

“I hope so.”

“I talked to her after school. She's scared, though.”

“Scared?”

Vic nodded and said, “About seeing you again.”

“That makes two of us.”

Vickie offered me a small smile, “You'll do fine, Daddy.”

“Thanks, Sugar. Need some help packing?”

“Nah, I can get it. Plus, Gwen will help.”

I eyed Vic. “Your sister Gwen?”

“Yeah,” Vickie said, smiling again, “she's been helping me some around school. Carrying my stuff when she can.” Even though Vic was in eighth grade, she and her sister attended a combined middle and high school which made it possible for them to interact during the day. Usually, it meant Gwen tormenting Vickie in some way.

“Is she feeling okay?”

Vickie laughed, “I dunno. I don't mind her when she's nice to me. Can you make her stay that way?”

“You know better than to think I can make your sister do anything she doesn't want to do.”

“Yeah. Worth a try!” Vickie shuffled on her crutches out of the dining room.

Gwen was helping her sister? That was new. I wondered what had brought that on. Maybe she had taken to heart some of the things I'd said to her by the pool that night a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe it was just coincidence. Maybe Gwen had been replaced by a robot programmed to be nice to her sister. That made me chuckle, the first laugh I'd had in weeks. Maybe there was hope for me yet.

- - -

I drove the van down the highway after leaving the airport moments earlier. Gwen was beside me in the passenger's seat, Vickie in the back with her leg propped up. We'd said little on the flight, and in the darkness on the road, it was still quiet.

I was anxious. I was driving to the hotel where I'd gotten a room for me and the girls, declining to stay with Audrey and her parents, mostly out of fear of being that close to Audrey and the intense emotions we'd shared there. I'd called Theresa to let her know we had arrived safely, and we agreed that my daughters and I would come for breakfast at their home in the morning. I'd called Audrey, as well, but she didn't answer and hadn't called me back.

I had no idea how that meeting would go. I'd have to see Audrey in person. I'd have to meet her eyes and see the harm I'd caused. It wasn't Audrey's fault. I'd been the one who should have seen what was to come. I'd let things happen and ignored how it would all come crumbling down.

Throw on top of that the fact that Duncan was nearing the moment when he would go to hospice and his wife and daughter would not see or talk to him again. That had to be a surreal wait, one full of despair and fear and regrets. I hoped both women were taking the time to tell the man how much they loved him. It would soon be too late.

The hotel looked brand new on the outside and I pulled up to the valet. The attendent was out of sight for the moment, so I started to help Vickie get out of the van. Gwen opened the back door and started pulling out our luggage. Unlike usual, she was even careful in setting her sister's suitcase on the curb. Usually it was flung with a dramatic 'oops' cried out.

The attendant came back and took the van away. I checked in and soon the girls and I were in our room. Two queen beds were separated by a night stand. It was a prime suite, so it had a second partially-separated room with a big couch, two leather chairs, a desk, and a huge television. The girls jumped onto one bed, and I reclined on the other.

We ordered room service and while the girls ate burgers and fries, I picked over a salad with seared tuna. I was exhausted. I dreaded the following morning. I hadn't felt so unprepared for something so important since I was a young man in college. I felt unbalanced, like I could tip over into paralysis at the slightest touch. The girls got into bed and we said good night as I flicked off the last light still burning.

- - -

“Dad?” Gwen's voice called me out of my light doze. I think I'd just fallen asleep.

“Huh?”

“Are you scared? About tomorrow?”

I didn't respond at first, then let out my breath, resigned. “Yes.”

“It will be okay. I know it will,” Gwen told me. “Don't be scared.”

“I wish it was that easy,” I replied, my voice muted by drowsiness and numbness.

“I know... I love you, Dad.”

I smiled. “Love you, Gwen.”

- - -

The girls ate toast from the continental breakfast line set up in the dining room of the hotel. I'd made them promise not to eat much since we were going to have breakfast with Audrey and her parents soon. I sipped my coffee and tried to calm down. Sleep had helped a bit, but I'd been restless. It was usually like that for me, the night before some big event. My mind wanted to keep cranking, turning over what-ifs and doubts and hopes and other such mental frivolity. I felt a step off from normal as I downed my first cup and filled my second.

I took it with me and gathered up my daughters, then had the valet bring the van around. I'd gotten the biggest passenger vehicle they had. I figured it would help with Vic's leg, plus it would be nice to offer rides to everyone when they wished to go anywhere.

I drove the five miles or so to the house and pulled into the driveway. We were about five minutes early, so I had the girls wait with me until it was nine. I told myself the lie that it was courtesy, not cowardice, which made me wait.

The front door opened, and I saw Theresa stick her head out. She spotted the van immediately and waved. It was still three minutes until nine, but it would have been silly to keep sitting. I stepped out and closed the door.

“Oh, Darren,” the woman exclaimed, meeting me on the top step. Theresa looked like she'd aged five years in the couple of weeks since I'd left. I hugged her and she squeezed me tight. “It is so, so nice to see you!”

“You as well, Theresa. I wish it was under better circumstances,” I offered.

She glanced at me with sadness then tightened her lips, looking past me. “Is this your girls?”

I let go of Theresa and said, “Yes. I'm sure you remember Gwendolyn. She goes by Gwen now.”

“Hi,” Gwen said politely.

“Give me a hug, dear,” Theresa told her.

They shared a brief embrace, then I said, “and this one on crutches is Victoria. Bit bigger than the last time you saw her.”

“Hello!” Vickie smiled.

Theresa stepped down and gave my youngest daughter a quick hug. “Well, no reason to stand out here, please come in.”

The woman led the way while I went down to help Vickie up the stairs. To my surprise, Gwen stopped me and said, “I'll get her. You go on.”

I stopped in my tracks, not fully trusting Gwen to honor her pledge, but she helped Vickie to maneuver up the first couple of steps, so I went on ahead and stepped into the house.

My heart was pounding, in my throat, and my eyes darted quickly around the entrance. I could see into the living room and kitchen, but there was no sign of Audrey. I smelled coffee and something meaty, and I wondered if my former girlfriend had made breakfast that morning. A pang of loss hit me, not the first time that day. I knew it wouldn't be the last, either.

I stepped into the living room and motioned my daughters to sit down. I did the same. Theresa returned a moment later, crouching down to look at me, and then at my daughters. She looked very sad. “Duncan is sleeping, still. He doesn't rouse much these days. We try to keep it quiet for him so he can rest.”

I nodded and rested my hand on the woman's shoulder as a show of support. Her hand slid over mine and trapped it as if she needed that touch desperately.

“Where's Audrey?” Vickie asked.

Theresa looked at my face, then down, “She'll be around later.”

I don't know if I felt relieved or more anxious to know our meeting would be postponed.

Theresa let out a breath. “Anyone hungry?”

The girls nodded, so Theresa led us to the dining room. She scraped out seared ham and a rich gravy along with biscuits, bananas, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The girls ate heartily while Theresa and I picked around the edges of our food.

“What can I do to help out, Theresa,” I asked. “We'll do anything. Laundry, dishes, make dinner. Anything.”

She nodded. “That would all be a help, thank you. It can be... difficult... to find the strength to do the simple things.”

“Which one of you is doing laundry?” I asked the girls.

“I will,” Gwen offered.

“And you'll do dishes?” I nodded to Vic. She agreed, even with her crutches, so I said, “And I'll be glad to make lunch and dinner, or at least go get it if you prefer. Anything else you want done, please tell us.”

“I will, thank you,” Theresa replied, “I should go check on Duncan.” She rose and left the table, her breakfast only a third eaten. I stared at the plate. This was going to be a hard few days.

I set the girls in motion once we found the laundry room. Vic and I left Gwen to start on that task while we returned to the kitchen. Vickie started stacking dishes to rinse, and I put Theresa's plate in the microwave, in case she wanted it later.

A half-hour later, Theresa had not come back out, and there was still no sign of Audrey. I was tempted to send one of the girls down the hall to tap on her door. I really wanted to get that first meeting over with. It was tearing me up inside to have to wait.

I started to look for busy work. I had Vic dusting and straightening what she could reach on her crutches while Gwen swept and gathered trash. I wiped up a spill in the living room, then spent some time putting away spices and other supplies in the kitchen.

I found a notebook in a drawer. My eyes were drawn to where it read Audrey's Secret Recipes in one corner. I picked it up, and started thumbing through it.

There were hundreds of hand-written formulas for everything from drunken meatballs to from-scratch ice cream. I saw a recipe for thai curry which featured Audrey's comment that it was “one of Dad's favorites!”

“No one's suppose to look at those. They're secret.”

I froze. I knew that voice. Slowly I turned and Audrey stood in the entrance to the kitchen. Her eyes were dark and sunken. Her hair was tangled and somewhat matted. She wore loose pajamas, two large stains down the front, another on a leg.

“Audrey,” I breathed, unable to look away from the young woman I'd once loved. Still loved. It felt like it had been years since I'd seen her. It took all my strength to stop myself from rushing to kiss her.

“Darren,” she said evenly. Her lip quivered. I didn't know how to read that tick.

“How, uh... how are you?” I sounded and felt like a dumbstruck imbecile.

Audrey nodded slowly, looking down, “You know...”

“Yeah,” I said, looking away from her, “I know...”

Audrey looked up at me and I saw the depth of her sadness. I knew in that instant that she felt what I felt. She was barely restraining herself from closing the spare distance between us.

Whether on cue or not, Gwen walked up behind Audrey and said, “Hey.”

Audrey didn't acknowledge her a few seconds, just staring at me. Her lip continued to tremble. I'm not so sure mine didn't do the same. Audrey blinked and sucked in her breath, then turned and said, “Hi Gwen... thanks for coming to help.”

“Glad to,” Gwen said, looking at me. “Tell me what to do. I'll help with anything.”

Audrey looked down a moment, “I don't know, maybe... laundry?”

Gwen replied, “Already working on that.”

“I'll go change then,” Audrey said softly, then she looked in my general direction, “I haven't washed these pjs in days.”

Audrey walked back towards her room and I felt like I could breathe again even as it came only with effort.

Gwen looked at me with a thin smile, “You okay?”

I tilted my head and shrugged to indicate that I didn't know but didn't think so. Gwen nodded, tried to smile at me, then headed back into the living room.

It hadn't gone like I'd expected. Not like the hundred scenarios I'd played out in my head for days. Even in that brief moment where we were in the same room, all the old emotions boiled up. My heart pounded with love for Audrey, and it wasn't just the context or the distance. I knew it was real, and that made it so much more painful to keep myself from giving in to it. I couldn't. I just couldn't.

I was feeling some tears threatening to come up so I took a deep breath and sat Audrey's recipes back in the drawer.

Theresa came from the bedroom hallway just as I started to head for the living room. I turned to see that she was in tears. Before I could react, she said in cut syllables, “My husband is awake. He wishes to speak with you, Darren.” The woman wiped her eyes.

“Of course,” I replied, following as she turned back and led me to their bedroom.

I stepped inside. The room was lit by a single dim lamp near the bed. I saw Duncan on his back, thick blankets pulled over his body, only his head visible. Even with so little showing, I could see he had lost twenty or thirty pounds. His flesh hung loose from his face, his hair looked long and unkempt. He looked like he was about to die.

I glanced at Theresa as she stepped to the side. She nodded towards her husband, clearly trying to stifle her tears while she was in the room. “Duncan?” she said.

“Hmm?” The man's scratchy voice answered, his lips not moving.

“Darren has come to see you.”

“Ah. Good. Darren.”

I stepped to the side of the bed and I watched as the man struggled to pull an arm from under the blankets. He got it free and reached out to me. I held his hand in mine and let it rest on the bed beside him. “Glad to see you again, Duncan.”

“Hogwash,” the man said in what I took to be an attempted chuckle, “I look like shite!”

“Even so, it is good to see you.”

“You as well.” His eyes tried to fix on me and it took a moment. “I have informed my wife that I will go to hospice tomorrow morning. It is time.”

My stomach turned over and I heard Theresa wail lightly nearby. “I'm so sorry...”

“Don't be sorry for me. Feel sorry for my wife and daughter. My suffering is nothing compared to their own.” He coughed, then coughed again, the sound of stuck phlegm rattling but not clearing in his hacks. Duncan continued when he could speak again, his voice quiet and weak. “My daughter hurts, Darren. Not just for me. She hurts for you. Both of you. Don't make her suffer more than she already does. She needs a friend.”

“I'll do everything I can for her. I promise.”

Duncan eyed me, his breath rattling. “Whatever remains of your relationship, never forget the friendship. I wish I'd have learned that lesson,” he coughed again, “years ago. Don't let that go.”

“I won't forget.”

Duncan struggled to breathe a moment, then said quickly, “You're a good man, Darren. I hope things work out for you and my daughter. Patience... Have patience...”

He seemed to grow limp and I could see that he was breathing roughly but evenly, apparently falling asleep in mid-thought. I was aware that Theresa was still in the room, crying softly. I turned and wrapped her in my arms, just holding the woman and offering my strength as I could.

I saw a shadow and looked past Theresa to see that Audrey had been listening. Her eyes were pools of shimmering tears. Theresa turned and looked at her daughter, bursting forth in another round of anguish. I let her go and she wrapped Audrey in her arms. The two cried together as I tried not to add to the flood of salt and water.

- - -

I sat with my daughters in the living room. I'd left Audrey and Theresa in the bedroom and told my girls what was going on. They were both upset and subdued. “So that's it?” Gwen asked, her face showing sadness.

I nodded. “That's it. He leaves for hospice in the morning. They won't see him again. They'll just hear... when he passes.”

“This sucks,” Gwen said, her eyes glistening, “it really sucks!”

“What can we do?” Vickie asked quietly.

“Keep helping around here. They are going to need a lot of support right now. This is as hard a time as it comes, girls. Just keep helping.”

“Okay.”

- - -

Audrey walked slowly past where I was wiping fingerprints from a computer monitor. I paused and looked at her. She'd changed into a loose grey t-shirt and loose sweatpants. Her hair was still knotted and unkempt. Her red, swollen eyes didn't even twitch in my direction as she passed me and went back towards her bedroom.

Victoria looked at me like I should go to her, but I just shook my head, unable to do anything for Audrey. Or so I told myself.

- - -

That evening was hard. Audrey stayed in her room, and Theresa stayed with Duncan, the last evening and night they'd ever have together. I tapped on the door a couple of times to check on her, but she told me she was fine and that she wasn't hungry. Without asking, Gwen made the three of us sandwiches and another for Audrey. I heard my oldest daughter knock on Audrey's door and offer her something to eat, but whatever the reply, Gwen brought the plate back and set it in the fridge.

We ate in silence, drawn into depression together. I knew we all felt so helpless in those hours.

We tidied up as best we could. I told the girls that we should go soon, but Victoria said, “We can't leave them, Daddy. Not tonight...”

Gwen added, “We have to stay.”

I looked at them, then at the couches. “Okay. There's a queen bed in the room down the hall. Why don't you two take it. I'll sleep out here.”

They agreed and I hugged them each very tight and very long before they shuffled off to bed. I didn't miss that Gwen carried her sister's purse for her as they left.

I grabbed a blanket and stretched out on the couch. I was exhausted but didn't think I could sleep.

- - -

I'd been wrong, apparently. I was awoken some time later by the sound of a cushion being pressed to release air. My eyes opened sleepily to see Audrey curling up in the overstuffed chair near my head. Her eyes didn't meet mine, and she rested her head on a pillow as she closed them tight.

I watched her face. I memorized every detail. Every soft curve. Every strong line. Each of the well-placed freckles on her flesh. I wanted to never forget Audrey's face.

As if she felt me staring at her, Audrey's eyes flickered open and watched me a moment. I felt such a complex mix of things I couldn't think straight. We stared at each other in silence for an unknown time before she closed her eyes again and whispered, “Good night, Darren.”

“Good night, Audrey,” my reply came so easily.

- - -

I woke again to find myself alone in the living room. The clock on the wall showed that it was about five-thirty, so I shouldn't have been surprised to find Audrey no longer sleeping. I heard nothing moving in the house, though, so I just lay there, staring at the wall, trying to figure out a way to make things better. For everyone.

I must have dozed off again because I jumped when I heard something banging in the kitchen. I stretched, both achy and numb, then stood and walked in, expecting to see Audrey making breakfast.

I found Gwen cutting oranges. I watched her a moment. She didn't hear me and continued to slice through each orange, setting aside the halves. “Morning, Gwen,” I said quietly.

She jumped and turned, smiling, “Morning. I, uh... I thought I could help make some ooh-jay.”

“Very nice of you. Need a hand?”

“Nah, I can figure it out. The juicer looks pretty simple.”

I walked up behind her and, careful of the knife in her hand, wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight. “Thank you, Gwen.”

“It's nothing.”

“It's not nothing. Thank you.”

I could hear her smile. “You're welcome.”

Victoria was up soon after, and she settled into a chair next to me as Gwen brought us juice. “Is he really going to leave and go to die?” she said in a whisper.

I nodded. It felt surreal, and he wasn't my husband or father. The idea that he would just say goodbye one last time and then be gone to hospice, still alive but no longer receiving his family, was so alien that it almost felt absurd. I couldn't imagine how that felt to Theresa and to Audrey.

I heard movement behind me and turned to see Audrey standing there. Her eyes were dark, her hair tangled. She wore the same pajamas as the day before, but at least they were clean. I tried to smile at her but I think it came out more as a pursing of my lips. Her eyes swept by mine quickly, then she said, “Thanks... I was going to get to that...”

Gwen replied, “Oh, no problem.” She sounded very gentle, especially for Gwen. “Would you like a glass?”

Audrey nodded, then hesitated, eyeing the table. Finally, she decided to sit opposite me, her eyes cast down and unmoving. Gwen brought a glass of juice and sat it in front of Audrey, then my daughter looked at me with as much compassion as I'd ever seen from her. Her lips drew up and she looked very sad, her head tilting as if to say she was sorry for everything.

Vic leaned over from her chair and put an arm around Audrey. My ex-girlfriend held still two or three seconds, and then she hugged my daughter. Audrey didn't cry, but I could see she was close. “This is so hard,” Audrey said, distraught. “I can't believe this is happening.”

None of us knew what to say.

“They're coming in two hours... to pick him up... and then he'll be gone!”

I started to rise, in motion to take the teen into my arms, damn the consequences. She saw me and jerked back from Vic, uncertainty showing through her tears. I paused and Audrey scooted back her chair, her features jiggling as she held back her grief. Audrey picked up her juice, looked at me briefly, then fled to her room.

I sank back in my chair and felt crushed.

Gwen sobbed nearby. I put my arm around her and tried to comfort her as best I could.

- - -

Theresa only appeared five minutes before the medical transport pulled up to the house. She had stopped crying, but I knew that it had been a recent thing. She and Audrey had been in with Duncan the last ninety minutes. Audrey had yet to come back out. “He's not woken since yesterday.” Theresa drew herself up. There was such strength in that woman. I saw where Audrey got it. “It is time.”

The knock on the door was met by my daughter Gwen. She ushered the med techs inside. They brought a gurney, collapsed and carried between two of them. Each of them, two men and two women, offered condolences and lowered eyes as they went back to the bedroom to load Duncan. A grief counsellor followed, a woman in her mid-fifties. She asked after Theresa and Audrey and I directed her to the room.

My daughters and I could do nothing but stand helplessly and wait. A few moment later, I heard the wheels of the gurney tracking over the hallway floor, and the techs wheeled Duncan out, unconscious but breathing. Audrey and Theresa held each other tight as they shuffled behind him, sobbing, the grief counselor slowly following. They stopped at the door as the techs carried the gurney down. We watched as the doors on the vehicle closed and Duncan was gone from our lives.

The counselor stayed for a couple of hours and talked to Audrey and Theresa by themselves while I took my daughters on a walk. We wanted them to have some privacy to discuss things with the woman, and it was such a bizarre feeling to be in that house, after Duncan had been taken, that getting out had become a necessity for me.

We walked silently around the commons with the shops and restaurants and theaters, ensuring our pace was slow enough for Vickie to keep up on her crutches.

Everything seemed so trite. So silly. So pointless. Who cared about 'Yellow Pike, Fresh Today!' or 'Guacamole - Made from Scratch Right Here!'? Who cared what new James Bond flick was coming soon? It was all without value to me.

Slowly we made our way back and met the counselor as she walked to her car. She caught my attention and told me, “I'm glad you are here for those two. This is a really hard time for them. Especially so since they know he is still alive. They both want to be with him when he dies, but he has made it clear that his wish is for this to be goodbye. Please, be gentle and kind and if you can help them make it through until he passes, it would go a long way towards recovery.”

“There's no recovery, though, until he dies,” I replied.

The woman shook her head, frowning, “No... No, this is going to be very hard... emotionally. For everyone.” She gave me a card. “Call me anytime if you need me. I'll stop in each morning to check on them, but if things get really bad, call. If you don't reach me, there's a hotline. Someone can help if you need it.”

“Thank you.”

She nodded as if to say that it was her job, but she seemed sincere when she said, “I wish everyone the best. It will get better.”

I led my girls into the house. I suggested that my daughters give me a moment to see how Theresa and Audrey were doing. Gwen and Vickie went into the kitchen. I saw no sign of Theresa, but Audrey was slumped over on the couch, sobbing.

“Audrey,” I said gently as I crouched down next to her.

She didn't move at first.

“Audrey...” I rested my hand on her shoulder. Just that. Only a touch. It made me long to wrap her up in my arms and protect her from all harm.

Audrey all but jumped into my arms, spinning over and wrapping herself around me, pulling me onto the couch beside her. I met her embrace, tight and true. I squeezed her until I felt my muscles spasming. She cried against my shoulder. I held on with everything I had, trying to feed her my strength.

I hated what had brought on that moment. The pain, the loss, the horrible limbo of waiting for her father to die. But I also loved that moment desperately. I held the one I loved in my arms, cradling her against me, letting her sorrow pour out and into me, hoping I filled her back up with something more comforting.

I leaned my head against hers and whispered, “I still love you, Audrey. No matter what else, I love you so much.”

“I know,” she whispered back. “I know.”

I tried to ignore that she hadn't said it back, and then she added, “I love you, too.”

I heard movement behind me but I ignored it. I didn't care about anything but Audrey in that moment. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Audrey needed me and I wasn't letting her go.

“Dad... Audrey?” Gwen's voice. “Can I do anything? A drink?”

“Water,” Audrey said through sobs, “please.”

“Anything, Dad?”

I shook my head, “Nothing now...”

I didn't worry about what was going on in Gwen's head. I wasn't breaking my decision to stop dating Audrey. If it could have even been called dating. But Audrey was my friend before all else. She needed me to hold her, and hold her I did. If Gwen bitched about it later, I'd deal with that. Right then, though, my whole world was soothing Audrey's hurts.

Gwen brought the water back then said quietly, “We checked on your mom. She's okay. She's resting in her room. I'll check on her again later.”

I felt Audrey nod against me and I said, “Thanks, Gwen.”

“You're welcome...”

“Why don't you take you and your sister down to get some breakfast? We passed a couple of places which were open.”

“Okay.”

“Still have money on your card?”

“Yeah, I have enough.”

She left and I held Audrey tight. I heard the door open and Vic's crutches plodded a moment, then the door closed again. With Theresa in her room, Audrey and I were left alone. I soaked in her sadness and tried my best to hang on to the teen and let her know how much I cared about her with every breath I took.

- - -

“Audrey?” I said. We'd been on the couch a couple of hours. The teen hadn't much stirred in my arms, and my daughters had yet to return. My hands were numb and I felt spasms in my hip from staying in one position too long. My bladder strained for release.

“Yeah,” came her small voice.

“I need to stand up a minute and go to the toilet.”

“Me too...”

My joints creaked as I slowly slid from around Audrey and stood up, stretching. I stuck out my hand and Audrey took it. Her fingers felt so comfortable in mine. I helped her to her feet. She went down the hallway towards the bathroom there, and I went to the one near the entranceway.

I returned a moment later to find my daughters coming home. They'd eaten and sat down at the park for a while. “We brought you both sandwiches. And one for her mom, too,” Gwen told me, sitting a paper bag on the counter. “Hungry?”

“Not really,”

Victoria looked at me with compassion. “You should eat something. Audrey too.”

“Yeah, I know. My stomach's upset.”

“I saw some cocoa in the cupboard,” Gwen suggested.

“That might be nice.”

Audrey walked up and nodded towards the girls. She spoke as if in a daze. “I can show you how to make really good hot chocolate from scratch, if you want.” She looked much older than her fifteen years. Audrey had changed out of her pajamas and now wore a black t-shirt with black leggings. I suppose it matched the mood perfectly.

“Sure,” Gwen replied.

The two teens went to the kitchen and I helped settle Vickie in the living room. “How was your breakfast?” I asked.

“Okay,” Vic said. She sounded very tired.

“You alright?”

She shrugged. “Just sad, I guess.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You were holding Audrey earlier,” she stated without inflection.

“She needed someone to hold her.”

“I know.” Vickie turned to me and said, “You needed it too.”

“Maybe...”

“Gwen is upset.”

“We all are, Sweetie,” I replied.

“No, Daddy,” Vic said, shaking her head, “I mean about you and Audrey.”

If I could have felt anything other than anguish, I'd have felt a seed of anger start to rise in me. The idea that Gwen couldn't let go her selfishness in those moments threatened to infuriate me. “And what did she say?”

“That she made a mistake.”

“A mistake?”

“That she didn't really want you to be sad about Audrey and she didn't know how to tell you that. She didn't understand, I think.”

It wasn't quite what I'd expected to hear. My daughter wasn't upset that I'd held Audrey on the couch. She was mad at herself for causing us to break up in the first place.

“Well... that's something.”

“She'll come around, Daddy,” Vickie told me. “You'll see.”

“I can't afford to think about that right now, Vic,” I said to my daughter. “My heart is still shattered from everything.”

“I know,” Vickie said gently, “but you like her. And I can tell she likes you. Gwen is seeing it, too, I think.”

I didn't respond. I wasn't about to play the what-if game around Gwen's giving me 'permission' to date Audrey again. It wasn't that simple. It didn't work that way. When I'd broken things off with Audrey, it had crushed me. Was still crushing me. I couldn't even imagine trying to put those pieces together, nor what Gwen's mind might be spinning up next. Once I'd broken it off, it had taken every bit of emotional strength I had to build up walls around those emotions. Seeing Audrey had dented that wall, but it was sturdy and I wasn't going to go tearing it down just because Gwen had got the feels.

Audrey and Gwen each carried two mugs, Audrey setting one near me on the coffee table, and Gwen giving one to her sister. We sat in silence a while, sipping the sweet, steaming cups of cocoa. “It's pretty easy, Dad,” Gwen said to break the quiet.

“Hmm?”

“Making it from scratch,” Gwen replied. “Audrey showed me how. It doesn't take much time or ingredients. Isn't it good?”

I'd honestly barely registered the flavor, my mouth dull and my tongue thick. But I told her, “Yeah. Nicely done.”

“Audrey said she'd teach me to cook,” Gwen added, “once she moves next door.”

I cringed, trying not to think about how hard that might be, having Audrey so close but out of my reach. I didn't even consider Vic's thoughts about Gwen and Audrey. “Sounds good.”

“I'm going to check on Mom,” Audrey said, setting her cup aside, barely touched. She rose and looked at me. It was a different expression than the first one between us the previous day. It held a warmth, a familiarity. A kindness, despite the despair. It was a warm ember in the middle of an ice storm. I clung to it desperately.

“Do we have to go home tomorrow?” Vickie asked after Audrey had left the room.

“Yes.”

“But, they need us here.” Gwen added.

“They'll get by. Your school year is almost over. You can't miss any more time.”

Gwen didn't pout like normal, but actually looked thoughtful. “Alright.” She looked at me closely. “Are you going to stay a while?”

“I think so. For a few days at least.” I glanced from Gwen to Vic. “I'm sure I don't need to tell you both to behave and stay out of trouble while you have the house alone, right? No staying home from school. I'll get called, you know. They won't let you skip.”

“We'll be good. Promise,” Vickie said.

“Gwen?”

“I promise, Dad. We won't do anything bad.”

“Won't do anything bad, this time, you mean,” I corrected her.

It made both girls grin. The last time I'd left them alone was the previous year. I'd gone on a trip to see an old friend of mine from college in Las Vegas and left my thirteen and fourteen-year olds alone for two nights. When I came back, I found a stack of pizza boxes and three bottles of my scotch had gone 'missing.' I never got the full story of the party they threw, but the evidence was everywhere. They did a ton of chores for months to work off that situation.

I smiled. My girls were growing up, and though they could be a handful, willful and stubborn, I generally trusted them. Sure, they'd make mistakes. They were teenagers, after all, but I had it pretty good with them. That even included Gwen's insistence on me breaking up with Audrey. I couldn't fault the girl for feeling so strongly, though a part of me wanted to hold it against her. She'd done what she thought was right, what was honest. I couldn't expect more than that. I'd called her selfish, and maybe it was selfishness, but it was also quite a big shock to find out your father was sleeping with a fifteen-year old.

I deserved that backlash. But Audrey did not. She was collateral damage. Perhaps seeing her again, seeing how horribly sad the teen was, seeing me holding Audrey, maybe that had made Gwen reconsider the impact of her own view winning out.

“Dad,” Gwen said softly, as if reading my mind, “when you stay... you can stay with Audrey.”

“Gwen...”

“No... I mean... I dunno... I don't want you to hurt. I don't want her to hurt, either. I didn't mean for any of that.”

“I know, Gwen. I know. But it's not that simple. We broke up.”

Gwen looked remorseful. “Sorry, Dad...”

“Don't be sorry. You were honest with me. It's my fault. None of you should have been put in a position to have to deal with this. You and Audrey deserved better. It's my fault.”

“I think I had a say in that, too,” Audrey said as she slowly joined us, sitting on the couch next to me. “It's my fault, too.”

“Audrey, you're just—” I began.

“I swear, Darren, if you say I'm 'just fifteen' I'm going to pinch you.”

I shut up.

“I knew what might happen. But I got caught up,” Audrey said, she looked at Gwen, and then at me, an even, sad-but-serious look in her eyes. “And I have a say in what happens next. I'm not ready to risk being hurt again. I don't want to risk it again.”

Part of me cracked inside.

What glimmer of hope had been lit in me with Gwen's change of heart had just been snuffed out. It made sense, unfortunately. It was her first love, and her first heartbreak. Even in the middle of a time where weakness and vulnerability were completely understandable, her father only that morning being taken from her life, Audrey was still strong enough to not just give in and fall back into my arms in a romantic way. It made sense, but it felt like being rejected all over again.

I nodded, silent.

“So... what now?” Gwen asked. “We leave tomorrow morning... And Dad's gonna stay...”

“I stay and help Audrey and her mother as I can. As a friend.”

Audrey passed me a nice, reserved smile, “I'd like that...”

Even as my heart ripped little-by-little, I tried to buck up and reform that sturdy wall around my emotions, locking away the impulses which might lead me to kiss Audrey again. She didn't want that, no matter how much I wished she did.


End of Chapter 9

Chapter 10 - Coming Soon!




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