Khalil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
As they walked, Milli scolded Lloyd. “Why can’t you let go, and forgive those who hurt you? Can’t you see how bitter it makes you?”
“It isn’t being bitter, it’s being reasonable. If someone hurts you, you don’t give them a chance to hurt you again and you don’t forget. It’s self-preservation,” he insisted.
Milli snorted, shaking her head. “Potato, poetahtoe! I’m not saying forget that you were hurt, but forgiving them takes the burden of pain away. Lloyd, you’re the bitterest person I know.”
“I am not bitter, I’m cautious.” Lloyd defended himself as he held the door for her.
“Cautious? Ha! I don’t think so. You use what happened with Tim and Tonia to keep everyone at arm’s length or further, and the moment you think someone is getting too close you push them away.” Milli sounded angry as she pulled pies out and set them on wire cooling racks. She turned the ovens up and began pouring something that looked like the inside of a baby diaper into pie shells.
“Why did you change temperature?” Lloyd asked, trying to change the subject.
Milli laughed, “Oh no, you’re not changing the subject. But if you really want to know, a good pumpkin pie is cooked at one temperature to start then the temp is dropped to slow the cooking, so it sets properly.”
“And the metal rings?” He was curious about what she was doing.
“The metal rings are to keep the edges of the crust from overcooking and burning while the temp is higher,” Milli explained. “Kinda like the one you keep around yourself to keep from being burned.”
“Riiiighhhht. You don’t do that, it’s why you have soooo many friends.” Milli retorted snarkily. “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
“I thought you said we were friends,” Lloyd complained.
“We are, barely. And sometimes friends say and do things that are unpleasant when they are worried about each other.” Milli began putting the pies in the top oven.
“Like kissing one friend then screwing another the same night?” Lloyd snarled.
Milli turned staring at him like he had lost his mind. “Ohmigawd. Just who did you think I screwed after we kissed?”
Lloyd said nothing.
“Well?” Milli demanded after a few moments.
Lloyd tipped his head, “Do you really want me to say it?”
“Yes, Deputy Humpy. I really want you to say it.” Milli rolled her eyes, “Pleeeease, enlighten me.”
“I know you’re sleeping with Jackson, the same as Marni did.”
Then she burst out laughing. Laughing so hard, she was shaking as she put the last tray of pies in the lower oven. “Lloyd, you gotta quite believing the gossip vine. Who told you that?”
He retorted smugly. “Jackson told me you squirm in your sleep. Does Mitch know you’re screwing his husband or are you screwing him too, like the rumors claim?”
Milli’s amusement faded instantly, for a moment, her eyes flashed the color of a granny smith apple. Then she gave a frustrated exhale as she threw her ovenmits on the table in front of her. The bright rage in her eyes faded slightly into something almost like pity.
“Marni and Jackson had sex in high school because he was bi-curious. I told you that. The why was because he wanted to be sure of his sexual orientation before coming out, especially after everything that happened to Bill when he came out. And since you asked, Jackson and I have never had sex. Mitchell and I have never had sex. It would be like you and Molly having sex.”
She let that sink in for a few moments before continuing. “Jackson likes to cuddle and he doesn’t sleep well without Mitch. So yes, we ‘sleep’ together, as in sleeping, and yes, Mitch knows. You should have just asked me then, I would have told you the truth.”
He snorted derisively, “Riiiight.”
Milli huffed. “You know not every woman you meet is going to be like Tonia. All insecure and not knowing what she wants. Tonia isn’t even like Tonia, she’s not the person you make her out to be. She’s struggling, she’s made mistakes, but she still cares about you enough to hope you find someone to be happy with.”
“The only person Tonia cares about is Tonia, Milli. She never does or says anything without a reason,” Lloyd insisted. “You need to be careful of her, Milli. She’s one of the ones who started all of the rumors about you, that caused what happened with Colmer.”
“And she apologized, she helped fix what he did. She even left her church. She deserves forgiveness, and so does Mr. Colmer. If you keep holding grudges against everyone you meet for whatever slight you imagine, Lloyd, you’re going to run out of people to be friends with,” Milli snapped viciously. “And that includes me, because I don’t know if I want to continue to be friends with someone so bitter.”
“I’m sorry. I...” Lloyd started.
Milli interrupted him. “You should be sorry. You’re the bitterest, least forgiving person I have ever met, Lloyd. You’re suspicious and judgmental and unfair. You just...” She stopped when a timer beeped, she turned the ovens down and partly opened the doors before turning back to him. “You just need to quit assuming everyone is out to hurt you or take advantage of you. Sometimes people make mistakes and the ones they care about get hurt.” She put a pie on a turntable and got a frosting bag out of the cooler.
“Like your sister the prostitute accidentally sleeping with your husband the philanderer.” Lloyd pointed out, trying to divert the painful truth she was forcing him to see.
Milli blinked at him slowly. “My sister did me a favor.”
Lloyd laughed cruelly, “Betrayal is a favor? You hated her, what changed?”
Milli’s lips pressed into a pretty pout, she turned and slammed the oven doors shut. “Wait here.” Milli left and came back a few minutes later, she handed him a folder.
“What’s this?” Lloyd demanded, flipping open the folder.
“Clarity.” Milli answered. “Read it.”
While he read Marni’s letter, Milli piped a ring of sweetened cream cheese around the edge of the cooled pumpkin pies and pressed cut-out, sugar-sprinkled leaves into cream. There was silence except from the turning of pages and the hum of the exhaust fan. She noticed that he flipped to the beginning and read the letter a second time before closing the folder. She had six pies decorated when he finished. She set a pile of flat pie boxes on the table.
“Wow,” Lloyd said, it was more of an exhale than a spoken word. “That’s... something.”
Milli began boxing the pies. “Hating Marni and Edgar for what they did was eating me alive. I felt like my soul was dying and then I got a call that Marni had a safe deposit box I didn’t know about. That letter was in it. Along with an album of pictures from our childhood, and almost every cent she made since our parents’ murder. She knew Edgar was going to leave me and break my heart. She knew Heith was going to leave her because she wasn’t the type of girl he wanted. She wrote it before we got the divorce papers. She had hope that he would come back, but as you read on the last page....”
Milli stopped to swallow the lump in her throat. “She didn’t think he would and she knew she wouldn’t be around much longer. She was holding on to give me Emily, to make sure we would both be taken care of. Somehow, she knew she was going to die, that I would find out what she had done, and it would hurt me. She apologized, but never asked for forgiveness. Marni just... wanted me to know she loved me and Emily.”
Milli’s hands started to shake and she had to pause pressing leaves in the cheese piping for a moment. “I hate what she did, but I can’t hate her, because hating her only hurts me. Same as you and Tim.”
“It’s not the same.” Lloyd insisted but somehow his tone didn’t carry the conviction it once had.
“You keep telling yourself that.” Milli put another pie on her turntable and rotated it slowly, first white cream then baked leaves dotted the inside edge of the crust with the rapid precision born of years of practice. “And keep holding those same suspicions against every person you meet, and you will never learn to trust or love again. You’ll spend the rest of your life alone and miserable. Bitter, just like your mother.”
“I am nothing like my mother. You’ve never met her. You don’t know her, so you can’t say I am like her,” Lloyd snapped at Milli, he was offended by the accusation.
“From what you’ve told me and what Molly has said, I think you are a lot like her. You were hurt and alone for a long time, now you like being bitter. You like having a reason to be angry all the time and since you are divorced from a woman you obviously still have feelings for, you are trying find someone else to blame and be angry at. But I do not volunteer as tribute. I think you need to try looking back to a time when you were happy, either with or without Tonia, so you can remember how to be that way again someday.”
“I won’t go back to Tonia. Don’t try to psychoanalyze me.” He watched her decorating another pie. He knew Milli didn’t understand that he couldn’t remember a time before Tim and Tonia had betrayed him. She didn’t know the only time he had been truly happy since he thought he had gotten Tonia back, was when they had been skiing in Blackbear.
She made a frustrated noise. “I am not psychoanalyzing you and I’m not saying go back to Tonia or forget what happened. I am just saying you need to quit assuming everyone else is like her and assuming things about her. You need to learn to ask people about things. Happiness is a choice, just like trust, just like love.”
Milli boxed the pie and put another on the turntable. Two pies later when he hadn’t spoken again she asked, “Why did you think I was screwing Jackson?”
To have something to do with his hands, Lloyd unfolded the pie boxes the way he’d seen her do, he knew she was going to need a few hundred more of them. “I came back to get Molly, and Jackson answered your door in a towel. He said you couldn’t sleep after I left, that you kept squirming, that you always squirmed in your sleep. I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I’m sorry I was rude to you when I picked up Molly.”
“So, you just assumed the rumors were true, that I was the creme-filled center of their gay sandwich cookie?” Her voice had a resentful edge.
“Yes. Sorry.” His answer was clipped as he slid a box over to her.
“Why did you stop then drive away last Sunday night?” She asked, and he hesitated in folding a box, then started on another one.
He was silent for several minutes, taking more of the flatten pie boxes and unfolding them. “I thought Jackson had come back with you when I saw the minivan. I assumed wrong.”
“I traded my car for it, it has all-wheel drive. Mitch didn’t like me driving Emily around in that rear-wheel drive car.” She paused for a moment. “He told me what he did the day he left. Sorry about him pressuring you, when you weren’t interested.” There was a self-deprecating tone that cut him like a knife and made him regret every wrong choice and assumption he had made about her. He wanted to tell her she was wrong, but the words were stuck behind his pride.
His silence compelled her to go on and she confessed, “Lloyd, I liked you a lot, more than like. It hurt when you just drove away again. When you threw the money down on the counter, and left like that, I cried. The softball game, the wedding, even when you blamed me for not putting Mr. Colmer in jail, made me feel things I didn’t like... It seems that every time I think we get close to having a chance, it collapses like a bad soufflé. I understand now that you didn’t feel the same, it’s fine. I’d like to still be friends. We are going to be seeing each other around for a long time because I’m not leaving the Anemone any time soon.” The timer in Milli’s pocket beeped and she left to her cottage to check the other pies.
Lloyd’s jaw ticked as he gritted his teeth. He realized he had ruined any chance he might have had with Milli in the future because of Tonia’s betrayal and his own suspicious nature. He sat alone in the Anemone unfolding boxes for the pies, thinking about what she said and knowing she was right. He had turned into his mother. When Milli came back, she went straight back to work decorating the pumpkin pies. Lloyd washed his hands and sat back down sliding the tray of baked leaves toward him. Without a word, Milli slid a pie and he began pressing the leaves into the cream cheese. They worked in silence until there were no more pies cooled enough to decorate.
The sun was just rising when they loaded the first 300 pies into Milli’s delivery van. Lloyd drove them over to First Community Church with a note from Milli letting them know she would have then next 100 finished and boxed by 10AM, then at 2PM, with the last ready by 6PM. Lloyd came back and left the van.
As he gave her back the keys before going to work, he said the only thing he could. “Thanks for giving me another chance, Milli. I’d like to still be friends too.”
“Friends it is.” Milli held out her hand to him and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Deputy Humpy.”
Lloyd laughed tiredly. “Nice to meet you, Princess Trollina.”
An hour later, Molly showed up and was surprised at the organized chaos. Milli quickly explained what happened.
Molly raised an eyebrow, “Lloyd stayed and helped you? My brother Lloyd?”
“Yes, and we had a very long talk about just being friends from now on, followed by a few hours of not talking.” Milli sighed as she said it.
“Lloyd’s an idiot.” Molly growled then looked around the bakery, “Where do I start?”
Milli looked at the pies, then at her friend, “If you can handle the front alone today, and keep the coffee made… All the orders are in the coolers. I got pecan pies going in my house and the pumpkin pies here, so I’ll be back and forth, but call me if you need me.”
“No problem, boss.” Molly grinned. Milli knew it was going to be a long day. She also knew she would not be going to Vegas for Thanksgiving and regretfully she called Jackson’s dad to tell him.