THE ROAD WOUND THROUGH a picturesque countryside. The smooth, round hills rose from serpentine valleys with golden grasses and deep green forests, climbing to meet a serene and pure blue sky. It might have been a relaxing drive, but he clenched the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white. It was like a painting, too much like a painting.
And even after years, the scenery was too familiar. Each glance made him sick and afraid as though dreadful specters peeked from behind the trees and rocks. Indeed, there were ghosts along the way, risen from the tomb of the past. The whole idea had been a haunting one, to journey back to a place he would have rather never seen again, to a confrontation he could not imagine.
After the tragedy, he had lived a great life, there was a lot of money to minimize his grief. But some bad investments and some worse habits had whittled it away to nothing, or almost nothing. In the end, the house was all he had left and his return to it seemed strangely inescapable.
His heart began to pound as he turned up the private road. The branches above hung low and reached out from either side, clawing at the car. The world seemed ever smaller, closing in to crush him. He had anticipated this and tried to prepare himself, but a glimpse of the house nearly sent him into panic and fury. It was some time before he could get out of the car and he stood silently as he turned the key over and over in his hand.
As he stood, the feeling that gripped him was so like, and yet so unlike, the feeling that had seized him on that night so long ago. It had taken courage back then and it required it no less now. Desperation played a role, to be sure, in finding the strength to place the key inside the lock and turn it. Things had to be inspected, everything must be in order if he was to be free of the place. He wondered why he hadn’t sold it back then.
It originally belonged to his uncle Joe. It had been the scene of so many happy childhood memories. Countless carefree holidays had been shared with his family beneath its roof. When Joe died, he bought the place, eager to continue the tradition. He had still been a fresh-faced kid, carrying his beautiful bride across the threshold. The same threshold now carried him into a mausoleum, into a crypt, into a slaughterhouse.
He could feel the weight of the pistol in his hand, he could taste the bile driven up and out by fear and rage. His breath came in sharp wheezes, pathetic gasps that humiliated him with their sound. He reached up to wipe tears from his eyes and told himself what the detective had told him on that night.
“It won’t be easy, but everything is going to be alright.”
Miranda was a beautiful girl with a heart and mind to match. He admired her spirit, her fiery passion. She was the kind of girl he would have never even had the courage to speak to, let alone ask out. But she knew what she wanted out of life and, for whatever inconceivable reason, she wanted him.
She was his first romance, his first taste of desire. She taught him how to kiss, how to touch, how to love. Through her, the greatest treasure of life had become his, its greatest mystery was solved. She whispered it into his ear with lips so hot that to kiss her was to taste fire. But it was more than mere lust that bound him to her, it was love.
And why he had loved her so was easy to see. She brought out the best in him, drove him to achieve things he could never even dream of without her. But he had to concede that there was a fatal flaw in their connection, that she was the only girl to ever walk the heart’s path with him. In her was everything. She was happiness, she was the world, she was life.
To lose her would be to lose everything. It would destroy him.
And so it did.
But storm clouds had already formed on the horizon. Business, once booming, had dwindled as the trends in the market changed. His garden of paradise became first an oasis in the desert and slowly its vital waters were drying up. There was nothing he could do to change things. He was forced to see not only his means of living but his very life’s dream become a dull and dreary nightmare.
They had been talking about building a family before things went sour. How could he bring children into the world under such conditions of instability. He could tell it broke Miranda’s heart to find him reluctant, and like a hopeful fool, he failed to realize what it meant when she agreed that they just weren’t ready.
He had encouraged her find something to do with her time. There were classes she could take, hobbies she could adopt. It delighted him immensely when she took up painting. It was more than spousal encouragement he gave at some of the breath-taking pieces she composed. She had talent, her sun was only rising, even as his set.
He struggled every day to minimize his losses and spent exhausted evenings at a local bar. By the time he came staggering in, she had been asleep for hours. The distance between them grew and the space between them became colder.
But there was still hope. His business and marriage were things he was willing to fight for, even if it meant fighting for the rest of his life. He would never give up, how could he? Giving up would be like death, or worse.
There was hope… until she started taking her lessons from a man named Chuck.
story by Joe Stanley