Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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Hope can be an insidious infection in a wounded soul, always coming back.

Tank showered and changed at the training center, then drove straight to Galveston. The rush hour traffic was terrible on the Friday before Christmas, it seemed like everyone was trying to leave the city. He barely got to T.J.’s school in time to find Irene and sit down for the Winter Holiday Musical. He had been so excited to come since she had called him Monday evening and said his son wanted him there. She had even said T.J. could stay a few days at his house since Thomas didn’t have a game the weekend after the Wednesday, Christmas Day game. He had called his real estate agent, Yvonne, and had her get a new boy’s bedroom set in place of the show furniture the house was ‘dressed’ with to entice buyers. He also bought a flatscreen, two bean bag chairs, and Sony Playstation game console for T.J.’s room.

Irene looked so beautiful, Tank had to make himself stop looking at her. He was constantly reminding himself of what she told Isaac, so he wouldn’t have any hope. After the play, they walked around the school together. T.J. dragged his father to meet his teacher, and the woman had stared up at Tank with something like awe. Several other fathers and a few of the mothers recognized him from the Texans football team and he ended up signing several autographs. It made Irene scowl, but T.J. was proud to introduce his dad, the football player, to everyone. Afterward, he had walked her to her car, like a gentleman and promised to have T.J. back for church on Sunday.

That night they played video games until T.J. was falling asleep with the controller in his hand. Tank put him to bed and went to work out. Tonight, the alcohol remained untouched in the small refrigerator he had put in his closet. He would be the perfect father for the weekend, and his son would never know how weak he was when he was alone. T.J. was happy to hang out with dad at the training center on Saturday and then go Go-Kart racing. Sunday morning found Tank making waffles and wishing for more time. When he dropped T.J. off at the church, Irene was surprised he was on time. T.J. ran to the playground to be with his friends, leaving his parents behind.

“Thank you for getting here early.” Irene almost yawned as she said it.

“You look tired, long night?” He asked, concerned.

“The usual. So, when are you flying out?”

He did his best not to scowl, answering in a calm tone. “It’s a home game, starts at noon. You and T.J. could come, he hasn’t been to a game all season, then I could just take him after.”

“Sorry, I’m tired, I forgot.” She looked toward the playground where T.J. was throwing a football with another boy. “We’ll see. I’m... uh... working Christmas eve.”

He tried not to let his hope grow as he said casually, “Well, I’ll leave your names at the Will Call Gate. Just in case, you’re not too tired. Maybe, I’ll see you both and if not, T.J. can always catch the game broadcast and I’ll pick him up when you want me to.”

She just nodded, staring at his hand for a moment before responding quietly, “Thanks, Thomas. You’re a good father.”

The bell for the church services began to ring and she turned away, then back with an almost shy smile. “Maybe we’ll see you there.” Then she walked into the church after T.J.and his friends.

Tank resisted the urge to follow, he didn’t want to intrude on her life. But he found himself sitting down the road, waiting for the service to end just to see her again. Listening to the radio, the pre-game broadcast began. He shook his head and made himself drive away. He wasn’t going to be that ex-husband, the one who stalked the love he lost. Irene was giving him a chance to be a father, if he was very careful, his hope believed he could turn it back into the chance to be a husband again.

Tank stopped at the training center for a workout and a look at the film of the team they were facing on Christmas day. After an hour, he knew he was going to have to stay close to the punt returner. The other team’s had a player who specialized in stripping kick returners and wide receivers. When he stopped to pick up his usual Sunday steak and potatoes, he noticed a jewelry store having a sale. He didn’t want to buy her diamonds because he was afraid she would find it too forward. The lady suggested a personalized bracelet with beads that told a story of who she was. As he left, the clerk said that his wife was a lucky woman and he realized why Irene had looked at his hand. He had forgotten to take off his wedding ring which he always wore except when he saw her.

As he drove home, he thought about the way she smiled at him and wondered if she would like the bracelet. It was almost the same smile she gave him the day he had helped her with her broken down car in the blinding snow. It was Christmas Eve their sophomore year.

The snow was beginning to really blow and Thomas was just pulling into to the dorm. He had gotten halfway home when the radio announced the passes in the high mountains were closed so he turned around and headed back to campus. He had managed to get Christmas eve and Christmas day off from work, but the blizzard meant he wouldn’t be going home this winter break. As he parked he noticed a woman bundled up until she looked like the Michelin Man. He watched her, moving back and forth between the raised hood of her car and the driver’s seat. She obviously didn’t know what was wrong with her car. He walked over to help, in only a few minutes, he knew she was going to need a new alternator and she had also managed to ruin her starter. She looked like she was going to cry, so he offered to drive her to her mother’s house in Aurora.

Her name was Irene and she had driven all the way back to the campus in a blizzard to get a gift she had left in the dorms. They shared hot cocoa and ginger cookies from a Colorado Perks Kiosk. Thomas was enthralled by her. He ate dinner with her and her mother, Luellen, but politely declined the invitation to stay the night, and her mother seemed impressed that Irene, who evidently had notoriously bad taste in men had found a gentleman on Christmas Eve and declared it a Christmas Miracle. The next afternoon, he had slid out from under her car after replacing the defective parts to find Irene and Luellen staring at him in shock.

Thomas had explained that he had nothing better to do and it was a simple fix. Mrs. Bauman had declared right then and there that Irene needed to marry this nice upstanding young man much to both of their mortification. It was almost a year before she kissed him, under the mistletoe at the student commons entrance on the last day of classes. That kiss had kept him warm all the way to Pagosa Cliffs and he told his Pappy that he was going to marry this girl. He went back to campus early just to see her on New Year’s Eve to get another one.

After a late dinner and while dancing, he had waited impatiently for midnight. She had been shocked that a farm boy from the mountains could dance as well as he could until he explained that his grandmother had loved to dance and it helped him with his on-field agility so he took classes after her death. At midnight, she had given him a quick peck, suddenly shy with everyone around them. But when he dropped her off at her apartment, she had kissed him like she meant it. Waking up spooning her had been the best New Year’s morning of his life.

Suddenly, a memory that Tank didn’t know he had surfaced. He was laying in the bed in his room on Mike’s boat. He was was spooning a woman whose braided hair smelled like Irene’s, he thought she was Irene. He pulled into his drive putting the truck in park with shaking hands. He couldn’t remember her face, just her hair, her body, and her rich chocolate skin. Vague, drunken memories of her screaming his name with a strange island accent as he treated her with the sexual adoration he meant only for Irene. He didn’t remember going inside, or getting a bottle of whiskey from the refrigerator in his closet. He only remembered loathing himself as he opened one bottle after another.

His phone was ringing. He rolled over and vomited on the carpet. There were three empty whiskey pints and a fifth of tequila bottle scattered around the bedroom. He was on the floor, halfway between the bathroom and the bed. His phone started ringing again so he crawled over to it. He looked at it. He had sixteen missed calls and it was 12:38PM. He called the head trainer and claimed to have food poisoning. The man had laughed, taunting Tank for his love of food trucks. He had just hung up when the phone rang with Irene’s ringtone.

“Thomas, are you okay? The team called looking for you.” Irene sounded worried and his hope fluttered happily until his mind slapped him with what he remembered.

“I’m... uh... really sick, Irene. I-I’m sorry they bothered you.” He apologized quickly as he scrubbed at the carpet with a towel, he needed to open a window. The smell was awful.

“Ohmigawd, you’re never sick. What’s wrong?” She demanded.

“I... uh... I got food poisoning.... I think... Look, babe. I gotta go throw up again,” he lied and hung up on her.

Looking at the empty bottles, he hated himself even more. He took tossed the empties in the recycle bin in the shed with enough force to break them. Back inside, he lit a few coconut-vanilla candles, and took a burning hot shower. His body wash covered the stink of his alcohol poisoned sweat. He was burning and shivering at the same time when he got out, but at least the house smelled like Irene now instead of his drunken sickness. He threw the wet towels on top of his closet cooler before he passed out on the bed after sipping a half bottle of Gatorade.

Irene was standing in front of the the big bay window next to the Christmas tree in his Pappy’s home. Her mother and his grandfather were laughing about something while she watched him split wood in the falling snow. The house had central heat, but then fireplace was a nice touch for the holiday. She smiled at him through the glass with a mug of cocoa resting on her baby bump. She opened the door for him, and as he knelt to stack the wood by the fireplace, she pressed a warm kiss onto his temple...

The kiss began to burn and his whole face felt hot. He managed to make it to the bathroom before he vomited until he was dry heaving; he had nothing left in him. Laying on the bathroom floor, he covered himself with the comforter he didn’t remember dragging with him and fell asleep again.

When he woke again, a cool cloth was being pressed to his forehead. Opening his eyes, Irene was kneeling next to him with a worried frown.

“Welcome back to the land of the living. I tried to call you back, but you didn’t answer so I thought I should pop in and check on you.”

He stared at her with bleary eyes, then whispered, “You’re here. You’re not a dream.”

“You’re very sick, Thomas. You’re running a high fever and you’re throwing up bile in your sleep. I called a doctor friend of mine and got you some medicine, I’m going to give you a shot, then we’ll get you showered and back to bed. He said there is a bad stomach flu going around so it might not be food poisoning.” Her voice was the most soothing sound he had ever heard. Soon she had him medicated, cleaned up, and tucked into bed in a very professional manner, but to him, it was the most care and affection anyone had shown him in a long time. He was asleep in moments.

“Where’s T.J.?” he mumbled as he woke again, trying to remember if he had cleaned up his bottles, then he remembered he had. His throat burned, he wanted water but he doubted he could keep it down. It was getting dark outside, he could hear that it was raining.

“In his room, playing that video game you got him. Thomas, when did you get all this furniture?” She didn’t seemed pleased with the contemporary style which he knew she hated.

“None of it's mine. The realtor rented it to dress up the house, there’s another open house after Christmas.” He tried to sit up but dizziness had him barely making it up on one elbow. “She says it will sell better.”

“So that’s why you have a giant fake tree with fake presents?” She laughed. “It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw.”

He chuckled then groaned, “I know it.”

Suddenly, he gagged and tried to get up to the bathroom, but she held him in place with a firm hand and held a basin for him. Secretly, he was glad his vomit no longer smelled like tequila and whiskey. She gave him another shot and his stomach finally settled. While she was down making dinner, he double checked to make make sure the bottle cooler in his closet was covered with the wicker hamper he used to hide it from potential house buyers. He switched the wet towels for folded towels on top so Irene wouldn’t think he needed laundry done and find his secret.

In the kitchen, T.J. was eating almost burnt grilled cheese and tomato soup from a can. He smiled at his dad.

“Want some soup?”

“No, thanks, son,” Tank smiled.

“Thomas, haven’t you had any offers?” Irene asked concerned.

“A few but they are all below the mortgage.” He sipped the gingerale she poured him.

She sighed, “Why did you buy this house?”

He looked at her with the sadness of his failure in his eyes and admitted his pathetic truth. “I wanted to give you what we didn’t have as kids. I wanted you to have the best I could buy.”

She chewed her lip and then turned back to the grilled cheese sandwiches. “Thomas, I never wanted any of this. I was happy with our little rental, and our paid off cars and... and... I liked our simple life.” Turning, she put his overdone sandwich on a plate.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, Irene. I thought this would make you happy.”

She looked at him so sadly, her brow furrowed. Finally she took, T.J.’s plate and bowl, rinsing them and putting them in the dishwasher. “We need to go. You’ll be fine by tomorrow. Make sure the team doctor gives you a flu shot.”

“Wait,” Tank got up and went out to his truck. He came back and gave the bracelet box to Irene. “When I dropped off T.J.’s gifts last week, I forgot to give you your Christmas present.”

“Open it, mom,” T.J. encouraged.

Irene looked at Tank skeptically then opened the box. Her chin trembled as she traced the different beads. Tank felt like he needed to say something, “I know it’s not much by the lady at the store said these kind of story bracelets were going to be all the rage. I hope you like it.”

“Thomas, it’s wonderful,” She said breathlessly. He clipped it around her wrist and she starred glittering beads, then looked at him guiltily. “I didn’t get you anything.”

“I don’t need anything, just come to the game. Who knows I might finally get that touchdown T.J. wants.” He joked but his son whooped.

“Dibs on the ball!”

“You got it, kiddo.” Tank promised as he watched them hurry out to her car in the rain, and drive away. He felt hopeful, in spite of his hangover. Inside, he stretched out on the couch and looked at the fake tree. His hope whispered to him. Next year, he would have a real tree again in a house she wanted. Next year, he would have his family back.

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