Sunday, November 23

Chapter 9: It Gets Worse

I managed to squeak through the week without any major blowouts, just some minor barbs, and texted and talked to Jacob every day and Kate every few days. I didn’t have any friends here, since this wasn’t the town I grew up in, and most of my high school friends had moved on to other places anyway. So I pretty much hung around the house, reading, and listening to the constant droll of Christmas CDs my mother played on the stereo. No i-pod for them. I did manage to borrow the car and escape to the grocery store on occasion, and the local bookstore with my brother once. But that was about it.

Christmas day finally rolled around, and we packed up the car and headed up to Bayonne, to my grandmother’s house, where all of the aunts, uncles and cousins were converging from around the tri state area.  We would spend the majority of the day with my mother’s family, then head over in the evening to my father’s family in Jersey City. All went well, and I was able to chat with my cousins and compare the lack of progress in our lives toward our goals, and revel in the memories of when we were kids:  running wild and free in the streets and alleyways between the close quartered houses. We were all children of suburbia, so the city had always felt like a wild, fun, and sometimes dangerous place to us.

On the car ride home, my brother and I lounged in the back of the Suburban, where we were drugged out on the effects of too much apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat pie, while my father drove and my mother rode shotgun.

My mother broke into the sugar stupor with a snide comment about my aunt. “Did you see Aunt Marcie, all that woman does is sit on her ass, while the rest of us are helping out in the kitchen, cleaning up and putting away the dishes for Grandma. Grandma’s the one who needs the rest, after cooking such a big meal, not Aunt Marcie.” Aunt Marcie was my mother’s sister in-law who my mother has never been particularly fond of.

“Well, mom, I don’t think there was any more room in the kitchen.” I said.

“What?” My mother said back.

I had done it again. Found my way to an argument with her, when I was off guard.

“Well, all of us, including Aunt Marcie, helped clear the table and put away the leftovers. I mean, how many people can fit at the sink washing and drying the dishes?”

“Well she could have helped put them away.”

“I thought Uncle James did that, along with dad. Besides, Aunt Marcie was keeping Grandma company.”

“Well I could have used the rest, too. I mean, my fibromyalgia has been flaring up again and I need to be careful. And I always do for Marcie but she never does back in return. Remember when I gave her those red Chinese slippers.”

“I thought you gave her those because it was easier than returning them to the store.”

“That’s besides the point, Rowan.”

By now, my brother had sat up and taken notice and was shaking his head at me, to stop talking. But I couldn’t let it go. I was fed up with hearing about how everyone in the family was slacking except for her, and that no one was ever giving her her due. I had been hearing this mantra in one form or another for ten plus years and I was tired of listening to it.

“Well mom, if you could just stop being a martyr for once, maybe you’d realize that everyone else isn’t always thinking of things the same way you are.”

“You mother is not a martyr,” my father blasted front seat. “How dare you accuse her of such a thing, after everything she’s done for you, and everyone else in the family.”

“Is that what you think of me as, Rowan, a martyr? Because if you do, maybe it’s time I stop doing things for you. I’m tired of everyone always asking everything of me. Between you, your brother, and your father, and my mother, I’ve got more than I can take.”

“What have I asked you to do for me, mom?”

“Well where do you want to start? How about paying for and sending you to college, and paying for all your flights back home. How about me digging out your old high school yearbooks and sending them to you for a project for one of your classes.”

“That’s all normal parent stuff, mom.”

“How about sending you some money every few months just to help you slurge on yourself a little bit. And being ready to come to the hospital in case you needed me last month.”

“Mom I never asked you to send me money and I told you not to come to the hospital, that I was fine.”

“Well, fine then, Rowan. I won’t need to send you any more money. And you probably don’t really need the Christmas presents I lovingly and personally picked out for you. And you can be sure the next time you’re in the hospital I won’t be asking you if you need me to come visit.”

“That’s fine, Mom.” I was pissed off at this point and time and started to raise my voice. “I don’t need you to send me any money. I…”

“Rowan, shut up,” my brother said to me, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Rowan, stop yelling now,” my father boomed at me from the driver’s seat. “You have no right to yell at your mother, and if you keep at it, I don’t care how old you are; I’m going to slap your face when we get home.”

I lowered the volume on my voice. “I don’t need the Christmas presents and I don’t need you to come and visit me in the hospital,” I finished.

“Are you even my daughter anymore?” my mother asked me. “You come home, do nothing but mope around the house, and talk on the phone, and then yell at me on Christmas Day! I don’t deserve this. For all that I’ve put up with, with your father and his outbursts, I really don’t need this from you, too. You are too much like him.”

I think I just sat there with my mouth hanging open for a minute. What the hell had just happened? How was it that my mother started complaining about my Aunt Marcie for the hundred and tenth time and I became the bad guy, all in the span of about five minutes. “Great mom. I’m just like dad.”

“Well you are nothing like me. There’s so much anger and hate in you, Rowan. Where’s the love and giving?”

“What are you talking about? Because I’m tired of listening to you complain about Aunt Marcie, I’m the bad guy?”

“Well, it’s your job to listen to me now, Rowan. I listened to all your love life woes in high school and college. You can listen to me now. Is it really that hard?”

“Well, it would be nice if you could talk about more positive things.”

“Did you always talk about positive things to me Rowan?”

“No Mom, but I was a teenager full of angst. What did you expect?”

“Well now it’s payback time.”

By this time, my brother had given up trying to convince me to shut up and I realized as long as I had one foot in it, I might as well put both feet in and go for a swim.

“I thought payback was when I had my own kids.”

“Well at the rate you’re going, you won’t have any kids. So you have to get your paybacks from me.”

“Wow, Mom, just wow.”

My mother started crying at this point, probably out of frustration in her inability to convince me that she was a martyr, but I was never ever actually allowed to call her that, but needed to treat her like one anyone.  

My father interjected before the conversation could go on, “That’s it! That’s it! Rowan, when we get home you are calling the airline and seeing if you can get a flight out of here tomorrow. I think you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

“Fine.” I said. I wanted to get the hell out of crazy town anyway. I wasn't going to wait until I got home, I turned on my phone and started checking the airlines. 

“And I don’t think you should come back for the holidays anymore,” my mother added. “I can’t handle this kind of stress. I will probably have a flare up from all of this and will be in bed all day tomorrow. Thanks Rowan, what a horrible Christmas present to give to me.”

But this point I was ready to jump out the window, but I stayed belted into my seat and didn’t say a word. When we got back to the house, I went into the bedroom where I was staying, locked the door and called Kate.

“Hey Kate.”

“Hey Rowan, Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too. Hey, can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Can you pick me up from the airport tomorrow?”

“What happened?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, even if I told you.”

“Sure thing, honey, I’ll be there.”

“Thanks, I’ll forward you the reservation email.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow.”


Everyone else was still downstairs, for which I was very thankful. I went across the hall into the bathroom, took an extra long shower, until I heard my father yell to not use up all the hot water, then got out, dried off and put my sweats on again. I went downstairs and asked if Paul could borrow the car tomorrow to take me to the airport.

My mother asked me, “Are you really leaving tomorrow Rowan? You know you don’t have to.” My father just sat on the sofa with his fuck you face on. He looked like he was ready to pounce on me and punch me in the face. The same man who picked me up from the airport just shy of a week ago, and gave the biggest bear hug of my life. That pretty much summed him up in a nutshell. My family was full of love/hate contradictions.

“Yeah, Mom, I am.”

“Okay. Well, I am sorry to see you go. Yes, Paul can borrow the car.”

Paul piped in, “What time do you need to leave?”

“The flight leaves at noon, so we need to leave here by 8:30. Sorry brother, no sleeping in tomorrow for you.”

Paul half laughed, “That’s okay. I’ll take you up there.”

“Goodnight, everyone,” I said, then headed upstairs to pull everything out of the dresser to pack up and get ready to head back to Tacoma, back to my real home.

Right before I crawled into bed I texted Jacob.

“I’ll be home sooner than you think. Merry Christmas. Goodnight. xoxo.”

I pulled the covers up and tried to get to sleep, but I had a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach, that I was now alone in the universe. Not that the family I was stepping away from was healthy for me, but it was still my family. I didn’t know when or even if I would be back. I was tired of this tightrope dance. I wondered what moods my parents would be in when I woke up in the morning.

***

Morning came, faster than I expected. Everyone was on their best behavior. After breakfast and getting dressed, we all met in the entry way, instead of going through the garage door, like we had when my father first brought me here. There were hugs and kisses all around.

“Goodbye, Mom and Dad,” I said and I wondered what it really meant and for how long. I felt like my body was on the ground with them, but I was  up in the air looking down on the whole thing.

Paul and I got in the car, and we drove, uneventfully up to Newark. He got my bag out of the trunk and gave it to the porter. We quickly hugged and kissed goodbye.

“I’ll call you,” he said to me.

“I’ll answer,” I said back to him. And he laughed. We hugged again. And then I was gone, through the automatic doors heading back to people who really knew me. And he was gone, driving back down south, toward my parents’ home.



Chapter 8: Home Isn't Always Where The Heart Is

As soon as I saw my father waiting for me at the end of the terminal, I started to tear up. He reached out to me and gave me one of his famous bear hugs.

“Hi, Stink,” He said to me, with wet eyes, too. Stink had been his pet name for me ever since I was a baby in diapers. I’m sure you can imagine why.

“Hi, Dad.” I muffled into his neck.

“Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand, “Let’s go find your luggage. How was the flight?”

“Fine,” I replied. I didn’t tell him that I had felt sick to my stomach as we took off from the ground, not because of the liftoff, but because I could feel myself being physically pulled away from Jacob. Landing in the Newark Airport, and walking through Terminal A, I had felt like an alien arriving on a strange planet which felt familiar, and yet completely foreign at the same time.

We stood by the conveyor belt and watched as suitcase after suitcase was dumped onto the carousel, that went around and around. At last I saw a flash of hot pink, and then my duffle bag came cascading down. My dad reached out, grabbed it, and muscled it onto his shoulder before I could even say, “That’s mine.”

“Come on, Stink,” he said, “Mom’s waiting for us back home. She was going to try to stay up for us to get home, but she might be asleep by the time we get there.” Speaking of…..I better call her and let her know you arrived safe and sound.” With his free hand, he fished a flip phone out of his pocket and speed dialed number 1. My parents were not ones to have the latest in technology.

“Hey Wife, I’ve got her. We’re heading to the parking lot now.” He snapped the phone shut, as we walked through the automatic doors like two little engines that could. The air was chilly and sharp, and I inhaled quickly and zipped up my fleece anorak to my neck.

We drove the hour and a half to the house, making small talk. This is not the house I grew up in. In fact, I had never lived there at all. My parents moved three times in the last five years. Once into a rental, while they were waiting to find the “perfect” house. According to my mother, this one was it. It was ironic because it had probably twice as much square footage as the house she raised two kids in. But at this point in time, it was only her and my father. Still, she felt like she had moved up in the world and was living in the “right” neighborhood. I guess smaller homes weren’t allowed. I hadn’t seen it before.

“Nice.” I said, as we pulled into the garage. The first house they lived in with a garage. “I bet this saves on having to sweep off the cars when it snows.”

“And having to run it to warm up, too.” My dad replied. We got out of the car. My dad grabbed my bag out of the trunk, and we went inside.

My mother was on the phone. I imagined the only person she could be talking to this late at night, was her sister, who also had a gift for gab.

“Bill just walked in with her right now, so I better go. Love you.” She folded her phone, as my dad dropped my bag onto the floor and swept my mother up in an impassioned kiss. They always kissed like this, even if he was just getting back from the grocery store. It was sometimes embarrassing, even at this age, when I an experienced young woman.

After they concluded their embrace, my mother came over and hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Oh Rowan, it’s so good to have you home, I’ve been so worried about you. With the murder and all.”

“I’m fine mom.” I said. There was no point in getting into it.

“There’s lasanga in the fridge, sugar cookies in the freezer, and chocolate cake on the counter.  In case you’re hungry,” she said.

I laughed, leave it to my mom, she was always ready with about three times more food than anyone needed. With my brother in the house, it would be gone in a couple of days.

I could here my brother, Paul,  come down the stairs, taking them two at a time, “Is Rowan home?” he asked as he bounded into the kitchen. He scooped me up in his big bear like arms, and squeezed all the air out of my lungs. My brother had flown in two days earlier.

“Hi, to you, too.” I said, laughing as he let me go, my feet touching the floor once again.

“So, how’s life in Washington?”

“It’s good,” I said. “How’s college life in Louisiana?”

“It’s one big party,” he said, then glanced at my father, as he gave him a stern look, and amended, “Well, except for all the studying. But it’s going well. You find a teaching job yet?”

“Nope, but I have hope for next school year, now that I’ve subbed a lot and have gotten my name and face known.”

“Yeah, as long as it’s not on a wanted poster,” he said and laughed.

“Rowan, why don’t you take your bag upstairs and get things put away. The dresser is empty, so there’s lots of space. And the bed’s been freshly made. There’s shampoo and soap and a new toothbrush and toothpaste for you in the hallway bathroom.” My mother chimed in.

Paul rolled his eyes at me. I smiled and said, “Okay, Mom. I’m going to take a shower, too. To get the travel grime off of me.”


After changing into soft comfy sweats for bed, and was towel drying my hair, my phone beeped at me. I checked it. A text from Jacob. “Did u get there ?”

I texted back, “Yup.”

A few seconds passed. “Good, I was worried the plane was going to crash.”

“Thx” I texted back.

The phone rang. I answered it, “Hey.”
“Hey. I didn’t mean it that way, I mean, you know. Now that I found you, I didn’t want to lose you.”

“I thought we were taking this thing slowly?”

“I think I changed my mind.”

“You want to fly in tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but I can’t. I’m working a lot this week.”

“Okay. Hey lover boy, I need to get to bed, it’s after midnight here.”

“That’s right. Can I call you tomorrow?”

“Definitely.”

“Okay. Goodnight, Rowan.”

“Sweet dreams, Jacob.”

I unpacked my suitcase, filling part of the dresser, and crawled into bed. I switched the bedside lamp off, and pulled the covers up to my chin. The moonlight filter through the blinds, and played against the opposite wall. I watched it dance and thought of Jacob and smiled to myself, happy to know he was hooked as badly as I was.

***
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen, my mother and my father were sitting in conference at the table.

“Well she’s home for one day, and she’s already being rude.” My mother said.

I looked at her, ready to laugh, thinking this was some kind of weird joke. But I could tell by the jut of her chin and the flash in her eyes, that she was serious.  I hated to do it, to play into her game, but I had to, if I was going to survive two weeks here. “What are you talking about?”

My father answered for her, with venom in his voice, “You went to bed without saying goodnight.”

My mouth hung open. “What?” I said, incredulous.

“You heard your father,” said my mother.

“Wait, you sent me upstairs to unpack and shower, and now you’re upset because I didn’t come back downstairs to say goodnight?”

“Would it have been that much trouble?” my mother asked.

I could see that this wasn’t going to go anywhere but down, so it was best if I just copped to being guilty instead of pleading the case. “You’re right, sorry mom.” And just like that, all the warm fuzzy feeling from last night was gone. The comfort and love I felt at being with my parents again vanished into thin air. It was back to walking on eggshells around them. I was going to have to watch everything I said and did for the next two weeks, if I was going to survive this, and that was not something I was used to doing anymore.

I asked my father, if I could have some of the coffee that was percolating in the coffeemaker, unsure of what I should and shouldn’t take for granted. “Sure, help yourself to whatever you want.”

I went to the counter, poured myself a cup, added some milk from the fridge, and sat at the table with my parents. Wary.

“So how’d you sleep, baby?” My mom asked me.

“Very well, thank you.  The comforter is nice and warm.”

“I got it on sale. I got one for your brother, and for our bed as well.”

I smiled, but probably just with my mouth, not my eyes.

My phone beeped. I had slipped it into my pocket before I had come downstairs. I really wanted to look at it, but I knew it would be another thing that upset my mother. Technology should never come before people right there. Of course this didn’t apply to her phone if it rang. Then you better watch out, because answering it is her top priority. The coffee was about all I could stomach. I would have to eat breakfast later, after my insides quit churning.

“Let’s go shopping at the little country craft store down the street, when you’ve finished getting dressed. I’ve got some candles I want to get for Christmas dinner, and I want to see if you like any of the knick-knacks they have there.”

“Sure, mom. That sounds nice.”

“And then we can stop at Bradley and Sons and see what their daily markdowns are. There are a couple of sweaters I’ve got my eye on.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I said. I hated shopping. My mother loved it. She felt like she could do some real mother-daughter bonding with me over the sounds of a ringing cash register. Country kitsch was her decorating style, but not mine. And I only ever bought clothes when I actually needed something.

I went upstairs to get dressed. After I pulled off my sweats I sat on my bed naked and checked my phone. I found this message:

“Morning Beautiful.”

I texted back. “My mom is already pissed at me because I didn’t say goodnight.”

“What????”

“Yeah.”

“Get on a plane and get the hell out of there and come back to me.”

“I wish I could.”

“Want me to call you?”

“No, I can’t talk right now. I have to get ready to go shopping.”

“You like shopping?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Oh, I get it now.  Rowan, come back to Washington.”

“I forgot how hard it is here.”

“I’m calling you.”

The phone rang.

“Hi.”

“Rowan, it sounds awful.”

“It is and it isn’t. It’s just really messy and I’m not used to it anymore.”

“Can you leave early? Like right after Christmas?”

“No. That would just piss her off even more. And then she might stop speaking to me for a while. At the very least, she would think I was a spoiled and selfish little girl.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, hey my dad’s coming up the stairs, I need to get dressed and get ready to go.”

“Rowan?”

“Yeah?”

I could feel the three words he wanted to say to me hang in the air. I could almost touch them. “Please take care of yourself and call me as soon as you can talk. Okay?” He knew it was too soon. And I wondered, if he had said them, would I have said them back?

“Okay,” I replied.

I clicked the phone shut as I heard my father’s footsteps in the hallway. “Rowan, you getting dressed? Your mother is ready and waiting downstairs.”

“Yeah Dad, I’m getting ready,” I said. I threw on my jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, a cream wool sweater, and my fuchsia uggs. I pulled my hair back into a long ponytail that swung down my back, with a fuchsia elastic band, applied a little mascara, blush, and lip gloss, grabbed my phone and my purse and bounded down the stairs.

_______________

I think I am forgoing photos completely at this time. I will have to get back into them, but the writing is so much more fun that the photography right now to me. 

Also, I have another obsession: my daily planner and journaling. 

Don't worry, the dolls aren't going anywhere, and they will be back, I'm just in more of a writing phase that a photography phase. 

xoxo


Sunday, November 16

Chapter 7 We Have Communication

He looked up at me, and half smiled, unsure. I stopped dead in my tracks and inhaled sharply, consumed by a feeling of total elation and joy. I could feel the smile stretching across my face, threatening to crack my entire head open. It was a few seconds before I realized Kate was grabbing my arm, pulling me toward her car.

“Hang on,” I said.

“You going with him?” she asked.

“I think I am.” I said.

“I’ll wait for you until I know for sure what you’re doing.”

“Thanks.”

Steve called over from his car, “Hey, you girls coming or what?”

“Just a minute,” Kate replied.

I approached Jacob, “Can we talk,” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Rowan, hurry up!” Milo yelled to me.

“Change of plans, I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I replied.

Zach took a look at Jacob and smiled; he laughed deep and loud, and said, “Have fun, and call me later dancing girl.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow.” I said back to him. I continued to walk toward Jacob. I could here my friends figuring out who was going in who’s car, but I was too focused to the man in front of me to care.

He walked toward the passenger side of the Tundra and unsuccessfully tried to open the door. I could see that his hands were trembling uncontrollably. He fiddled with it and got it open on the second try.

“You cold?” I asked, as I climbed into the bucket seat.

“No,” he said.

“But you’re shaking.”

“Not from the cold.” he responded. I could see the heat creeping up his neck and coloring his cheeks.

“Oh,” I said, understanding. “You want me to drive?”

“That would probably be a good idea.”

I climbed over the gear shift and settled into the driver’s seat while he situated himself in the passenger seat and closed the door. I moved the seat up until my feet could reach the pedals.  He handed me his keys, which rattled to the beat of his trembling.

“Where to, boss?” He asked me.

“How about Pot and Kettle?” Pot and Kettle is a coffee and tea house open 24 hours. A lot of students, professors, and other professionals go there at all hours of the day and night to work, study, or have all night gab sessions.

“Sounds good.” He said.

It was a short, ten minute drive, with Jacob shaking the whole way. I felt so bad for him. I wanted to calm him down but I wasn’t sure what to say or do. I didn’t want to make it any worse.

We walked inside, standing close to each other, but not actually touching. Every hair on my body was standing up, at attention, with the thrill of being so close to him.  I think the hostess must have had a sixth sense, because she sat up in the corner booth, which curved around a small table. We could sit across from each other, which we did, or next to each other. The table was small enough that we would have a hard time not bumping into each other’s hands.

A server came over right away, she was short and young, relatively speaking. Meaning she was probably still in high school. She had hair died black with straight cut bangs.

“What can I get you?” she asked us.

Jacob looked at her and then at me. “I don’t drink coffee.”

“Me either.” I said to him. “How about a pot of mint green tea with lemon on the side please.”

“Cream and sugar?” the server asked me.

I raised my eyebrows and tilted my chin at Jacob. He shook his head. “No thank you,” I said.

The server left and Jacob cleared his throat. “First, I want to apologize for behaving like I did when I saw you in the grocery store. And also when I ran into you on the trail.”

“Thank you,” I replied back. He was still trembling, though it wasn’t as bad as it had been when he tried opening the truck door for me. “Are you going to be okay? You’re still shaking.”

 “It’s just that the last time I was in love……” And he inhaled sharply. I could see the heat rising to his face again. He started again, “Um…what a mean is…. Well…. Okay, it pretty much wrecked me and I’m afraid of it happening again.”

I smiled and flushed a thousand shades of red. Logic was telling me there was no way he could be in love with me, because he didn’t even know me. But given my physical response to him, I knew that wasn’t entirely true.

“You know I didn’t pass out at the hospital because of the Valium, right?”

“I honestly wasn’t sure.”

“I mean, I’m sure it helped, but it was the feeling I had when I looked at you. I felt like like I had a….”

“….Connection to me in some deep way.” He finished the thought for me.

“Yeah.” He reached out his hand to me, and I took it in mine and squeezed it. He squeezed mine back.

The waitress came and brought us two sets of teacups and saucers, a large kettle of mint green tea, and our own personal Bunsen burner to keep the kettle warm. She placed a small white bowl of lemons in between the two sets of saucers. “Would you care for anything else?”

“No thank you,” I said. “This looks good.”

After the waitress left, I poured tea into both Jacob and my cups, set the kettle back down, closed my eyes and inhaled the fresh aroma of mint, while the steam moistened my lips.  I opened my eyes and looked at him.

“There’s so much to tell you, and I don’t want to scare you off. The last girl I was in love with ran off with someone else, and I didn’t feel this connection with her. I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be the big, relaxed guy that everything just slides off of, but I wasn’t expecting you, at all. And now that you’re here, I just don’t know how to respond. For ten years I’ve cultivated my single life, avoided the things that cause me pain, found some meaning for myself. But now, that’s all thrown up in the air. I was trying to avoid it, but then I kept running into you and after tonight I just realized I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I was going to keep seeing you every week somewhere, until I faced you and whatever this is.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, Jacob. When I look into your eyes I see little diamond sparkles in the corners and feel like I’m going to float away. I’ve never felt that before either. I still don’t understand it. But there it is.”

“Really? My grandmother still sees the sparks sometimes when she looks at my grandfather, and they are in their 60’s.”  And then he turned red, realizing he had given something away again. “I really suck at this.”

“You’re doing great.” I told him.

“Can we go slow?” He asked.

“We can try.  I’m leaving in a couple of days for two weeks anyway.”

He frowned, “Oh,” he said with disappointment.  “Not going to see a long distance boyfriend or anything, right?”

I laughed, “Not a chance. I’m going to go visit my long distance parents for Christmas.”

He breathed a noticeable sigh of relief.

I laughed again. “I have to say, I’ve never had a first maybe date that was this intense, ever!”

Jacob caught my mood and laughed, too. “I pretty much haven’t dated, other than that one girl, so I wouldn’t know.”

“So, tell me about yourself. What are you doing in Tacoma, if all your friends and family live in Forks.”

“Well, I didn’t go too far, did I? But I left because it was too small and everyone knew what I had been through with the girl I knew and loved in high school, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So after she left, I came up here. I tried going to the university, but it wasn’t me. So then I started volunteering at the hospital and working odd jobs. I loved it. So I decided to be an EMT. I would be putting my life to good use, helping people in crisis.”

“It seems like a good fit.”

“It is. What about you? What are you doing in Tacoma, and where are you from?”

“Well, I’m from New Jersey, and that’s where my parents still live. But I spent four years at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Then I ditched my college boyfriend after three years, since we weren’t really into each other anymore, and moved here. I just wanted to get out of the heat and the sun, and find a new place to be.”

“Wow, that’s twice that you’ve started a new life away from your family.”

“My family is a fucked up mess, so it’s not like sticking around by them would be a good idea, unless I wanted a one way ticket to the looney bin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but their love only comes with lots of conditions.”

“That sounds rough.”

“It can be, but living away from them helps. Even though they really want me to move back.”

“Will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Move back?”

“No way. Not if I want to have a happy life, I won’t.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. “So you don’t plan on up and leaving Tacoma any time soon, do you?”

“No Jacob, I definitely don’t plan on doing that. I love it here. It’s where my life is now. I have two semi decent jobs while I wait for my real one to come along. I have a great best friend and another very good friend both of whom I trust with my life. Why would I leave?”

“Just checking. Well, you know, I’m part Native, mostly Native I guess, and family is very important to me. I love them and my friends, but it just got to be too painful to be around them all the time. But I still go over to Forks to visit them at least once a month. I can’t imagine not seeing them for longer than that.”

“Well, there’s my mom and my dad. My mom is half Native and half Anglo. I have two sisters, one is older and one is younger. The older one is Rebecca and she’s married with two kids. The younger one is Rachel and she is still in high school. She was my parents’ love child.”

“Oh that is so sweet. I bet she’s spoiled rotten.”

“You know it!”

“Hey Jacob?”

“Yeah?”

“That day we were on the trail…Did you leave a note on my car?”

“What? A note? No. Why?”

“Someone had, and I wasn’t sure if it was you, or if they had left it on before I even got there and just hadn’t noticed it.”

“No, I’m not a big one for leaving notes. I’d rather just tell you face to face.” He smiled.

I smiled back at him, grabbed his hand again and gave it another squeeze. He had stopped trembling awhile ago.

Finally he asked me, “What is the thing you want more than anything else in life?”

I flushed red when I thought of it. I shook my head.

“Whoa, now you’re the one blushing.”

That just made me blush harder.

“Please, tell me, now I’m really curious.”

“No. But I hope to tell you one day.”

We sat there, at that little booth, drinking pot after pot of mint green tea and talking until the sun was starting to peek through the clouds on the horizon. It was time to go home.

He drove this time, with me giving directions until we reached my apartment. This is it I said, squinting a bit against the early morning light.

“Can I walk you to the door?”

“That would be nice.”

He got out of the driver’s seat, opened up the passenger side door for me, and held my hand as we walked up the steps and on to the small porch. He turned to face me. I reached up and gently stoked his cheek. He closed his eyes and let out a little moan.

“You can kiss me good morning.” I said to him.

He reached down and cupped my head in both of his big warm hands. I closed my eyes and felt his lips meet mine; opened them at the slight pressure and lost myself in the warm wetness of his kiss. It was soft and gentle, a perfect first kiss, with enough of an edge to promise something more later. My hands reached up and ran through his hair, which was cut semi short and had some wave to it. He sighed as I touched him. I could feel his hands move from my face to my waist. While I moved mine down to his shoulders and wrapped them around his neck. Our lips parted and I lay my head against his chest, while he rested his chin on the top of my head. At last I opened my eyes and looked up at him. His eyes were wet and threatening to spill over.

“I’ll text you from New Jersey and let you know as soon as I get back.”

“Okay.” I know it seems early, but you should know, I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too.”


***************************************************************************
A note to my readers:
This was the chapter I was dying to write!! I'm so glad I was able to write it tonight for you. I have a very busy week ahead, so it might have to tide you over until next weekend. I'm not sure I have any time to spend on the writing before that. The next chapter is when Rowan goes and visits her family, so it will be a little harder to write (I think).
Thank you all for all the comments and compliments. Each and every one of them really helps to keep me motivated to keep going. It means so much to me that you are enjoying reading the story as much as I am enjoying writing it.
xoxo
Karlie



Chapter 6: Accidents Happen

I pretty much slept through most of the day, waking only when Kate told me it was two in the afternoon.  I slowly unwrapped myself from the covers, surprised I had slept the entire day away, but guessing that I must have needed it with all that was going on. I tottered to the bathroom, and stood under the hot shower for awhile, relaxing and enjoying the fast and hard jet spray of water on my head. It felt like getting a scalp massage and seemed to help me let go of all the things I was worrying about. I shampooed my hair twice and conditioned it, then quickly soaped up and rinsed off my body after Kate knocked on the door saying it was almost time to go to work. I dried off, tied my wet hair up into a bun, with my bangs fringing my face, and threw on my black and gray Wolf moon Brewery tee,  a pair of broken in jeans, and a super pair of gray and black sneakers with all sorts of air cushioning and springs for my feet. I found my black half apron, grabbed my lip gloss out of my shoulder bag, and met Kate at the door.

“I’m driving,” she said.

“I figured as much,” I said and smiled at her.  Kate was a lousy passenger, so whenever I went anywhere with her, she pretty much drove. I didn’t mind at all. It generally meant she was  the designated driver when we went out. We planned on going to the clubs tonight and dancing the night away. I would probably have a beer or two, but nothing else. I didn’t trust drinking out in public after that incident a few weeks ago. I threw on my double plush, fushia hoodie;  grabbed my tote bag with my change of clothes for after work, and followed Kate to her car, after carefully locking the door behind me.

***
We got to work, did the usual hellos and mild flirting with our co-workers and got to work. It was Friday night, which meant the place would be packed from six to ten, which was great for business and tips, but meant you had to be completely on your game for four hours straight.

I was in the middle of serving a party of 4 their food, watching out of the corner of my eye as the hostess sat me a party of 6 in one of our extra large booths. That’s when I saw him, Jacob. Great, I thought, with some dread. I quickly checked to make sure everyone had their correct food and didn’t need anything else, before I half ran back to the kitchen and grabbed Kate, who was just about to leave with two plates of barbequed beef.

“Kate, help me, Sarah just sat me a party of six and Jacob’s one of the six. What do I do? Can you take it?”

“Oh Rowan honey, I can’t, I’m barely keeping up with my tables right now. I just hope nobody finishes up, because I’m not ready for a new party.”

I’m sure I looked completely panic stricken, because she stopped for a second to say, “You’ll be okay, just breathe and treat him like any customer you don’t know. If that doesn’t work, just ignore him and focus on the other customers.” And she was off, delivering the two burgers to their owners.

I breathed in and out three times, then grabbed a tray, filled and iced six water glasses and put a smile on my face. I walked out to face him. As I approached the booth, he caught my movement, and stopped talking in midsentence to one of his companions.  I watched as his eyes grew wider, he realized his mouth was open and he abruptly shut it. I reached the table and said, “Hello, I’m Rowan and I will be your server tonight.” I carefully and quickly placed a water glass in front of each person in the party, deposited the tray on our serving bar, grabbed my pad and pen and got ready to take their drink order. By this time Jacob had completely recovered or so it seemed. I was hyper aware of him and my body tingled in response to his presence. Luckily, I didn’t see sparks this time, when I met his gaze. He sat very still and rigid, like he was afraid he was going to burst through his skin.

“Can I get you all something to drink?,” I asked. I took down their orders as they told me, one by one. When I got to  Jacob, I smiled a little and he seemed to relax a bit, as he ordered a coke. I thought it my head, “You’re safe. I won’t tell the story of how you helped me or how you met me on the trail.”

I went back into the kitchen, got their drinks, successfully delivered them, and took their food order. Jacob seemed to relax more, knowing that I wasn’t going to say anything that might make him uncomfortable. He actually gave me a smile when he ordered his food. Through their banter back and forth and their conversation with me, I learned that they were all friends at the hospital and were out to celebrate one of them, Lisa, who was celebrating her 32nd birthday. Everyone ordered burgers, which was great! We had a lot of specialty burgers on the menu and it was what we were known for, as well as the handcrafted beer. The burgers where the top sellers on the food menu. They were easy. They didn’t come with a dinner salad or soup, and generally were ordered with french fries or onion rings, so it was a one plate delivery. And the wait time wasn’t too long, even on a busy Friday night. Simple, easy peasy.


Except it wasn’t. I had handed off all of the burgers except for the last one, which belonged to Jacob. As I was reaching to get it off the tray, the plate slipped and the tray tipped. I watched in horror and seemingly slow motion as the plate crashed to the floor, breaking in three, and sending the burger and fries in different directions. I couldn’t speak. I crouched down to pick up the pieces. I could feel tears welling in my eyes and the heat rising in my face. I had dropped plates of food before, two or three times, but never had this kind of reaction. My thoughts were in free fall: he was going to think I did it on purpose. That I was getting him back for his indifference in the grocery store, and his unwillingness to participate in the conversation on the hiking trail. He would ream me out, hate me forever, and it karma had anything to do with it, I would keep running into him, at least once a week.

I started to gather up the food and the pieces of the plate, trying to will myself not to let a tear drop fall. I felt a warm hand on my shoulder and looked up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I will have them make you another one.”

He looked so intensely at me, I felt the world fall away and it was just the two of us. I noticed his eyes seemed a little glassy, too. “Don’t cry,” he said, “Please don’t cry. It’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”

He smiled at me, and suddenly the world was radiant again. I pursed my lips, blinked back the tears, and exhaled. “Thank you,” I said.

Steve had seen what happened and rushed over with the dust pan and broom. “Go put the order in again, Rowan. I’ve got this.”

I smiled at him, “Thanks, Steve.”  I headed to the kitchen, and asked the chef to please put a rush on another Guacamole Burger, explaining that the first one had crashed to the floor.

“Maybe he doesn’t hate me,” I thought. As the new burger cooked I modified the bill to remove that burger completely. I wanted to make sure everyone was happy and it didn’t seem fair to charge him for a late burger, when it was totally my fault.  The chef called me over as soon as the new burger was done. I whisked it out of the window, carried it to the table, uneventfully, to my relief, and set it down in front of him.

“Here you are,” I said, “Thanks for being understanding.” I glanced around the table and noticed that everyone else was only about halfway through their meals. It would have totally sucked if everyone had already been finished. You kind of feel like you get left out of the party, when that happens.

“No problem….Rowan.” he said and smiled again. This time when he looked in my eyes, I could see the sparks in my periphery and feel the lightness in my head and the rest of my body. I smiled back at him, asked if anyone else needed anything, and then went about my business, tending to my other tables.

I delivered deserts, gathered the other wait staff together to sing happy birthday to Lisa, at Jacob’s table, and delivered their bill, uneventfully. I smiled at Jacob a few more times, no more or less than I smiled at any other friendly customer, and was very pleased to find a nice size tip on the table for my efforts.

The night slowly began to wind down as the hour neared ten o’clock.  By eleven we had all finished our side work, had aprons full of cash, and had changed into the clothes we were wearing to the club. For me, that wasn’t much different from what I wore to work: a pair of clean jeans, a cute strappy top with some sequins on it, and a pair of fuchsia Uggs.

Kate, Sarah, and I all took turns at the sink in the restroom, washing our faces off, and applying fresh makeup, I actually put on some mascara and blush, and a tinted lip gloss. I wasn’t a big makeup fan. We met the boys back out in the entry way.

“Okay everyone, where are we going tonight?” Milo asked. “And yay Rowan and Kate for joining us tonight. I’m glad you are both up for it!”

Zach said, “Well lets try the usual. We can start with Plush and go from there.”

“Sounds good,” said Sarah.

The rest of us agreed. I pulled on my fuchsia hoodie, and hooked my bag with my tips and serving clothes over my shoulder, after transferring my driver’s license and two twenties to my back pocket.

We all walked out together, doing through the double doors, with Jeff, one of the owners, locking it behind us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something.


It was him, in his jeans, a long sleeve thermal tee, a thick red, plaid, flannel shirt rolled up at the sleeves, even in the cold air, and a pair of brown motorcycle boots. He was sitting on the rear bumper of his Tundra, hands in his pockets. Jacob.

Wednesday, November 12

Chapter 5: Things Get a Little Messy



Thursday was a long one. I subbed in a Kindergarten classroom, which was exhausting all by itself and then I picked up a shift at the Wolfmoon Brewery, since one of the ditzy twins called in sick. Kate wasn’t working that night, but Zach and Milo were.

“Hey Rowan,” Milo said to me, “It’s nice to see you an extra day!”

“Aw, thanks Milo,” I answered back. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

“Yeah, now Steve won’t have to look at your pics on his cell phone all night. He can see you in person.”

“Whatever, Milo.”

“Hey sweetie, it’s nice to see you tonight. How did we get lucky enough to be graced with your presence on a Thursday?” asked Zach as he came over, and  gave me a hug.

“Hi there, my one true love.” I said, egging him on. This is how we generally bantered back and forth with each other. “Silly Sarah called in sick. So I showed up. How ‘d you like that alliteration?”

“Not bad on the fly,” Steve piped in, as he walked by with a tray full of salads.

“Did the carnivores stay home tonight?”

“Must have,” he said. “This is my third table with salad orders.”

“Must be Ladies’ Night at the bars,” said Zach. “Lover girl, would you like to accompany me for an after-hours drink tonight, when we finish closing this place down?”

Milo piped in, “Hey, I’m in if Rowan’s going.”

“Sorry to disappoint you strapping young lads, but I’ve got a sub job tomorrow, and I’m waitressing again tomorrow night. So as soon as I’m off the clock, I’m out of here.”

Steve walked by, “Sorry to hear the drinks are off, but glad you’ll be working again tomorrow.
Maybe we could all go out again then. And we’ll be on our guard for the drink tamperer.”

And then the crowd began, and kept up all night, which was great for my pocket full of tip money, not so great for my feet and head. We stop taking orders for food at 9:30, so by 10:00 all the food was out of the kitchen and in front of the diners. By 11:00 we had all finished our side jobs and were ready to go. We walked out to our cars in one group, collars turned up against the wind and the rain.

“You sure you can’t come out and play?” Steve asked me.

“Sorry Steve. Tomorrow. I’ve got to get home and catch some zzz’s.”

“Promise?” asked Zach.

“Promise.” I said.

Milo smiled, “And Kate, too. Make her promise when you get home.”
“And Kate, too.”

I got in my trusty little Honda and carefully wove my way through light traffic to my apartment.

***
As I walked in the door, Kate grabbed me by the arm, “Rowan, come here and look at this,” she said as she dragged me over to the laptop.

“Woah, hold on a sec,” I said, taking off my jacket and apron filled with my tip money. “What’s the rush?”

“It’s the news. I watched it on TV tonight, and I had to google it to show you. They found a woman dead in the woods, near the hiking trail where you went hiking this past weekend.”

“What?” I pulled a chair around to sit next to her at the oak kitchen table. On the laptop there was an article along with three relatively gruesome pictures of where it looked like someone or something had raked it’s claws across her body.

“Yeah. It looked like she was hiking alone. They found her in the ravine. They aren’t sure if she fell and was then attacked or if she was attacked first and then fell. They won’t say if they think it’s a bear or a person. I don’t even know if they can tell yet. It looks like it happened on Sunday. They waited to release the story, to follow up on any leads, before letting the public know what happened. Now they are asking for anyone who knows anything to come forward. But you know, it’s not a super popular trail, so I don’t know if they’ll find anyone who knows anything.”

“Jesus, that could have been me.”

“I know it. I mean, imagine if Jacob and Max hadn’t been there that day. If you had kept hiking up there by yourself.”

I suddenly heard someone sobbing and realized it was me. I felt like my chest was caving in on itself and tears poured out of my eyes. Kate grabbed me and held me tightly, I could hear her mantra over my head, “It’s okay; it’s okay; it’s okay.”

After what felt like an hour, but was probably five minutes, I felt like I could breathe again. The sobbing subsided, the tears quit spilling, and I inhaled and exhaled slowly and deeply. I had crossed an abyss and survived. That other woman hadn’t been so lucky. Timing was everything and who or what you mean on the trail can save you or kill you. I felt like I had just missed death by a few inches, and it made the hair all over my body stand up on end. Kate held me a little longer and then went and got me a glass of water.

“Thank you.”

“You’re okay. You’re here.”

“I’m the lucky one. So why is life suddenly getting so screwed up and scary?” I mean, first the drugs in the drink, then the secret admirer, and then the weirdo med tech, Jacob. And now this. Why do I feel like Karma is biting me big time on the ass for something I don’t even know I’ve done?”

“Rowan, it’s not you. I swear. You haven’t done anything. I don’t know what’s going on, but things have got to get better. We’re just two single girls trying to make a living and have some fun while we’re doing it. Neither one of us is hurting anyone. Things will calm down. They have to.”

“I want to run away and hide right now.”

“I understand, completely.”

“Ugh, I don’t know what to do. I feel like I need a time out.”

My phone started ringing, I looked down to see how was calling and it was my mother. I bet she had somehow seen the news. She kept tabs on the news in whatever city I was living in. It could get really annoying. In general I avoid the news, unless it’s through public radio. My mother, on the other hand, lived for the news of murders, kidnappings, and bizarre accidents. It just reaffirmed her view of the world. And of course she always felt the need to share these stories with me. I hated it.

“Hi Mom.”

“Oh Rowan, did you see what happened to that poor woman?”

“Yeah Mom, I did.”

“I think you should leave Tacoma and come back here.”

“It’s not any safer back in New Jersey, Mom.”

“Oh honey, but I wouldn’t have to worry about you as much. I mean, it seems like there is a murderer loose in Tacoma, and I am not there to make sure you are safe.”

“Mom, it might have been a bear.”

“Well still, honey, don’t you ever get tired of being out there on your own.”

“I’m not out here on my own, Mom. I’ve got my friends.”

“You know what I mean. Without your family. You know, your father and I could use some help around the house and yard. We’re both getting older now and things aren’t as easy as they used to be. You could live here, rent free, and do some work for us. You know, until you find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with.”

“I love you, but I really don’t want to ever life in New Jersey again. I like it better out here. Anyway, it’s not like you and dad are that old, you’re only in your early fifties.”

“Rowan, I just worry about you.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I have good friends here and we look out for each other.”

“Can’t you come home, honey. Please?”

“I’ll be flying there in a week. You’ll have me for two weeks. Which will give us plenty of time to get in each other’s hair. And then you’ll be happy to have me gone for awhile.”

“Well, it would be nice if you lived just an hour or two away.”

“Yeah, I know, but that’s not going to happen unless you move out here. And I don’t know that I’m staying here anyway. Well, I better go. I’m supposed to sub in the morning and it’s already past midnight. I might just have to call and cancel that.”

“Okay, get some sleep. I love you.”

“Love you, too, mom.”

I hung up and looked at Kate. “God I hate talking to my mother.”

Kate laughed at me. “Yeah, I know. She’s a piece of work. I’m not sure I ever want to meet her in person.”

“Me either.” I countered and started laughing, a little maniacally. Guess the freak out stage hadn’t quite passed. “Well, I’m going to shower and go to bed.”

***

As I lay in bed, about an hour later, after standing under the hot water for a few twenty minutes, and calling in and cancelling the sub job, I stared at the ceiling. Kate and I left our doors open that night, just in case. I was tempted to ask her to camp out in the living room with me, so we could keep each other company. But I decided I was a big girl and could handle sleeping in my own bed. Still, it wasn’t going to be easy to get to sleep. I half wondered if I should just give up and move back to New Jersey. But I knew that wasn’t an answer. I hated it there…well….except for the beach and the pizza and New York style sub sandwiches. I loved the west and had vowed I would never again live further east than New Mexico, which wasn’t very east at all.

I had a lot going through my head. For one thing, I felt like I really had a near miss with death. I mean, it could have been me laying out there, dead in a ravine, with gashes from a bear or a crazy person. And then what would have been the meaning of my life? Not much, that’s what it would have meant. And what moron thinks it’s cool to be a secret admirer? It’s not cool, it’s just creepy. And who was it anyway? Jacob? Milo? Steve? Was one of the ditzy twins playing a sick joke on me? Or was it someone I hadn’t even thought of yet or met yet? And what was Jacob’s deal? I must have done something after I passed out that I wasn’t aware of that upset him or really turned him off.

“Hey Kate, you still awake?”

“Yeah. What is it?”

“When I passed out in the ER, did I do anything to embarrass myself, you know, like throw up or pee my pants or something?”

“Nope, nothing like that.”

“Like something else then?”

“Nope, nothing I can think of. Do you want me to come in there so we can talk without shouting through the hallway?”

“No, that’s okay. Go to sleep.”

“Okay.”

So, apparently, I hadn’t done anything embarrassing, so I don’t know any more than I did before. And it really irked me that I was spending time thinking about someone who obviously did not want to think about me. Did not, but all external clues, even like me as a fellow human being. So why was he in my head, and why did I feel euphoric every time we made eye contact? I just didn’t understand it. I’d never felt that way with anyone else before. I mean, I do remember one time, catching the siloette of my high school boyfriend out of the corner of my eye, and wanting to melt into a puddle on the floor. But I had never experienced any of the overwhelming feeling of butterflies in my whole body and sparkles in the perifory of my vision. It was like they were making a frame around his face.

And why did we keep running in to each other? Was it possible he was the creepy secret admirer/stalker and he was following me around? But he was at the grocery store and the hiking trail before I was. Maybe he had been there all along, in the same places I was, but I just hadn’t noticed him before? That seemed like a more reasonable explanation.

And then a small part of me wondered if he and Max had killed that other woman. If they had been there to scope out the trail before hand, so they would know what to do when she happened by them on the trail. Maybe she was pregnant and Jacob didn’t want the child. So he figured he would kill her instead of paying 18 years of child support. Maybe Jacob was married, although I hadn’t noticed a ring, and she was having an affair with him and she threatened to tell his wife. Maybe he was stealing medical supplies at work, and she blew the whistle on him, so he was taking out his revenge. Max had referred to Jacob as “a buddy in need.”

By now I had pretty much convinced myself that Jacob was a killer and that he was going to kill me next, just for constantly showing up in the same places he was. Maybe he would think I was on to him and was going to turn him in.

Whoa, put on the brakes, Rowan, I thought to myself. I’ve gone completely over the edge. Instead I pictured myself diving into the ocean and swimming far out to sea, so far out that the whales came by to sing to me.


I finally found myself awake with the sun streaming in my room, through the cracks in between where the curtains and the window frame don’t quite meet. I must have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of a whale song. I stretched, then reconsidered and curled deeper into the softness of my down comforter. I didn’t have to get up for work this morning, I was going to sleep in and think more about the ocean and the whales.

Tuesday, November 11

Chapter 4: Trying it Single Style

**** Sorry for the lack of pics, I finished this late tonight, and wanted to post it here for you. xoxo ****

“Hey, Kate….you up yet?” I knocked on Kate’s closed bedroom door.

“You can open the door.”

I cracked her door open and peered in at her, she had her hand up to shield her eyes from the light. She said, “I think I drank too much last night. I’m not going to make it today. We can go tomorrow if you want. I should be good by then.”

“That’s okay, I’m dying to get out there in the sun. Do you want me to bring anything back when I head home?”

“Call me when you head back and I’ll let you know. Be safe. See you later.”

“Okay. See you.”

Kate and I had plans to go hiking this morning. It was supposed to be sunny and relatively warm all day, so we made the plans earlier in the week. It would be good to not have to slosh up and down the trail. I had spent four years hiking in the desert on dry compressed dirt, granite slabs, and volcanic rock. I hadn’t quite gotten used to the springiness of the soft dirt trails around here. So I was looking forward to having a day when the trails would be a little drier than usual. I wasn’t going to give that up, since it would probably rain again tomorrow.

I was already set to go, I had tied my hair up into a high ponytail, with just my bangs handing loose, and was wearing a pair of rip stop khaki shorts, a long sleeve tee, layer under a short sleeve tee, and a lightweight fleece jacket in red. I always liked to wear bright colors when I hiked, just so no one could mistake me for a deer.

I grabbed my daypack with raincoat, water, dried fruit and nuts, and an apple in it, the keys to my Honda and headed out the door. I drove through the light early-morning traffic, which slowly petered out as I left the city streets behind me. I pulled into the parking area for the trailhead and noticed that there was only one other vehicle there, a dark blue Toyota Tundra pickup. That surprised me; I had figured more people would be out here today. The trail isn’t one of the more popular ones, but I expected there would be some overflow as the parking areas at the other trailheads filled up. Then I remembered there were also about 5 different festivals, farmer’s markets, and cultural events going on today, too. So it made sense that it wasn’t very populated. People would probably be more likely to be out here in the afternoon. I liked to hike early in the morning.

I parked, climbed out of the Honda, pulled my pack out of the backseat and strapped it on, made sure the car was locked, and headed up the trail. My bear spray can dangled off my backpack, where I could easily reach it, just in case I should stumble into a black bear along the way. Usually they were more startled that I was, on the rare occasion that I saw one, and ended up bolting through the trees as fast as they could. But you never know when you’ll meet one in a cranky mood, and it’s best to be prepared. I breathed deeply and let the smell of pine needles, composting leaves, and fertile earth fill my nose. It was a beautiful day.

I had been hiking for about an hour, and was thinking about where I was going to stop, to have my snack and rest, before heading back down the trail. There are several places along the trail where large trees had fallen, over the course of time, and were in various states of decomposing. As long as they weren’t too buggy, they made great seats. I was keeping my eyes open for one I knew was coming up soon. I knew I was getting close, when I heard voices on the trail. The human voice carries for a mile, so they were still a little bit away from me, but I already started to mentally prepare myself, since the voices sounded male. I made sure my pepper spray was ready to go, just in case. I had spent enough time alone, that I wasn’t going to let my femaleness keep me from doing the things I wanted to, but I also wasn’t going to be one of those women who would go jogging or hiking alone, with ear buds in and a smile on my face.

Luckily, the trail meandered up and down, and I was on the top part, which meant that I would have the advantage, since they would be heading up toward me, and I would be on my way down to them. 

I could just see the color and outline of their clothes through the trees. I was getting ready to let out a, “Hello,” when my mouth fell open in disbelief.  It was him. Jacob. And a friend. He looked at me with a piercing stare. My stomach started with the butterflies again, and the sparks started flying around my periphery. Was there ever going to be a time I didn’t react this way to him, since I seemed to keep running into him. It must have been some kind of negative Karma I didn’t understand. His mouth opened and abruptly shut it again. Then he opened it, and said, “You’re out here alone?”

“Hi to you, too.”

“You two know each other?” his friend asked.

“Sort of,” I said. I jumped off the log, and walked over to his friend. “We met in the ER two weeks ago. I had been drugged. And Jacob’s the one who helped me. My name is Rowan.”

His friend’s eyes widened when I said my name. “Rowan,” he said, “it’s very nice to meet you. I’m Max.” He held his hand out to me, which I took.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Max.”

Jacob butted in, “So, you’re hiking alone?”  His brows were furrowed together and he looked like he would like nothing more than to zap me with a lightening bolt. I really didn’t understand what his problem was. And I didn’t like the feeling that I was actually attracted to a guy who hasn’t even smiled at me yet. I decided that chemical attraction was not logical in the least and completely not to be trusted.

“Yes.”

“You could get killed.”

I showed him my pepper spray.

“You think that’s enough to stop a true predator?”

“You want to try it and see?” I asked him, getting more than a little annoyed at his judgmental attitude.

Max laughed. “Actually, Jacob’s right. It’s kind of a dangerous time right now. The bears are in hyperphasia and the locals are going a little mental, too. Plus there have mountain lion or two spotted in the area, and they aren’t as skittish as the bears are. It’s the time of year. Look, we’re on our way back down, why don’t you walk with us.”

“Thanks, I think I will.” I looked at Jacob, who was frowning, but seemed less agitated when I said I would come along.

We began walking down the trail. I led. “Speaking of mountain lions, when I was living in Tucson, there was one who actually attacked a guy on a bike. I didn’t know there were any up here.”

“Whoa,” said Max, “That’s crazy. Can you imagine! It must be like dogs chasing cars, the cat probably couldn’t stop himself.”

“Yeah, I think I decided then that mountain biking in lion territory was definitely a bad idea.”

“So you mountain bike, too?”

“Sometimes. I used to do it more often when I lived in the desert. Not sure why I haven’t done it much here. I guess I don’t like splashing around in the puddles and getting the mud spray up my butt and back.”

Max laughed again, a deep bellowing laugh that was very contagious, I found myself laughing, too. Even Jacob had to let out a little snicker, although he was playing it cool and quiet in the back.  Too bad, I wasn’t having a chemical reaction to Max, I thought to myself. He seemed a much friendlier catch. I glanced back at him as he was sweeping some of his long, black hair out of his face. He had his hair tied back in a braid, but a few strands had escaped. As his left hand passed across his forehead, I could see a little flash of gold. Married, I thought. That figures. Oh well.

“You live here in Tacoma, Max?” I asked.

“Nope, over in Forks. You know where that is?”

“I hate to say it, but nope. I have no idea where that is.”

“You know where Port Angeles is?” He asked.

“Yeah, my roommate grew up there. “

“Well Forks is just a little further away.”

“And a whole lot smaller,” interjected Jacob.

“Yeah, it’s not exactly a destination, next to tribal land, no real industry. Not exactly on the top ten places to visit in the great state of Washington.”

“Oh. But you like living there?” I asked.

“Yeah, my whole family and most of my good friends are there.” He gave Jacob a pointed look. “Jacob asked me to come up and pay him a visit, so I figured I would. It’s always good to help out a buddy in need.”

I wondered what kind of need Jacob was in.

“You sound like a good friend.” I said to Max.

“Don’t you have people in your life you’d do anything for?” He asked me.

“Sure,” I said, thinking of Kate and Zach. But of course it sounded like Max had a whole bunch of people he would do anything for, and a part of me twisted with a little bit of envy.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

“Yeah, I have three kids, aged 2-10.”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s a nice spread between them.”

“Well the first two we had practically on top on each other, but the third was a little late in coming. So of course he’s spoiled rotten by my wife and I, as well as his two older siblings.”

“Sounds like a nice life.”

“It is. What about you? You have someone special in your life or kids?”

“Nope. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend before I moved here, and I haven’t really met anyone else.” I half turned to look at him, caught a peek at Jacob and promptly felt the fire in my face. I must have been about ten different shades of red. I turned back quickly so maybe neither of them would notice.

“How long have you been here?” Max asked.

“A year,” I said, “A year and two weeks.”

“You like it?”

“Yeah, I do. I spent 4 years in the heat and sun, so the rain and clouds are a great respite. Even though it can get a little depressing sometimes. “

Max and I continued to talk back and forth with an occasional comment from the cranky guy in the back until we got to the parking lot.

“Thanks for coming back down with us,” Max said. “ Neither one of us would have felt right leaving with you up there on your own.”

“Thanks, I understand. I appreciate your concern. And you were good company, too.”

“It was really nice meeting you. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.” Max said.

“Well, probably not if he has anything to do with it,” I said, shooting Jacob a look. But he didn’t catch it since he was already stowing his pack in the extended cab, on the driver’s side. So, he drove the Tacoma. I would have to look for it, and avoid it, if I saw it around town.

Max shook my hand again, and walked toward the truck while I unlocked my car, tossed the pack into the passenger seat and plopped myself into the bucket seat behind the wheel. Just for fun, I waved goodbye as I pulled out, and Jacob actually waved back. Gotcha, I thought.

I was a good mile down the road before I noticed the small white square of paper underneath the windshield wiper. “What the hell?” I said out loud. “Who puts advertisements under the wipers out here?” Then I wondered if it had actually been there this morning before I left town. I doubted it; I would have noticed it, earlier. Not like now, when I was distracted by my own thoughts about Max and Jacob.

I decided to just keep going and not pull it off until I got home. I didn’t want to pull over to the side of the road and have Jacob and Max stop behind me and wonder what was going on. It would be better to just drive normally, so I wouldn’t look like a flaky girl who didn’t notice papers on her car.

***
When I pulled into my driveway, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I grabbed my pack, climbed out of the car, grabbed the paper, which turned out to be an envelope, crumpled it in my hand, and headed into the apartment. Kate was sitting at the kitchen table, holding her head up in one of her hands, and staring into a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

“You need some hot sauce to go with that,” I said. “It helps cut the hangover. I don’t know why. Menudo with hot sauce would be even better.”

“Minus the meat.” I put my pack and the mangled envelope on the table; and went to the fridge to get the hot sauce for Kate.

“What’s this?” Kate asked.

“What?” I asked, closing the fridge door, and handing the hot sauce to Kate. She had the envelope in her hand. She was pressing it flat, and I could see that it had my name scrolled across the front.

“It was on the car when I came down off the trail.” My curiosity was peaked.

“Open it.” Kate said; so I did.

Rowan,

I know you don’t me, but I know you.
We’re made for each other.
I feel it every time I look at you.

Yours Truly,

Your Secret Admirer

“Okay, this is getting really creepy.” Kate said.

“You’ll never believe who was on the trail this morning,” I said.

“Who?”
“Jacob, and his friend Max.”

“Whoa!”

“Yeah, I know. But here’s the thing. They were up the trail before I even pulled in, and we all walked down together. I don’t know how he would have gotten the card on my car without me seeing. And anyway, he seems to be avoiding me as much as he can.”

“Well, who else would it be?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t like the sound of this letter. Should we call the cops?”

“There’s no point. They can’t do anything unless someone is actually threatening you.”

“Well that sucks.”

“No kidding.”

“I want to hang a sign in the window: Stop leaving me stuff and just tell me who you are. Do you think that would work?”

“I wish, but I doubt it. This guy is just creepy.”

I took the envelope and note and put it in on the counter with the note from the roses. “These are evidence. If you find my body dead somewhere, or I go MIA, you’ll need to show them to the police.”

“Seriously. No more going out without someone else. Either Zach or me. To get groceries, or run to the bank, or hiking or whatever. Okay?”

“Okay.” I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach and starting to feel the tickle of a panic attacked working it’s way into my chest. I sat on the sofa and closed my eyes and took slow, deep breaths. I really wanted to call my mom, but what would be the point? She would think it was some romantic notion and would never understand why having a secret admirer is actually a downright scary thing.