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Autumn Leaves

By Robert J. Oliver All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Drama

Chapter 1

The autumn leaves were falling slowly across the Common. It was a perfect contrast to the animation of the hurried runners who took to the newly arrived chilly air for a brisk run that early September morn. They scurried about across the many pathways, tracing a route through the park and around the pond. Cold statues, faces void of life but replete with the determination of their honorees, stared blankly, as more and more people filtered into the park.

The morning was fresh and new, despite being nestled in the center of Boston, with the old hill staring down from a position of heralded and antiquated grandeur. Park benches were slowly occupied by older couples dressed in darkening shades, their attire harbingers of the coming winter. A soft breeze blew the willows along the shore of the pond. The air was always thick with scents drifting up from the city. On this morning- before the city fully shook off its slumber- the air was sharp and cold, frozen even, and seemed to cause a shiver to everything it touched.

Ryan James sat on a bench by a willow, his eyes not turned upon the pond or the dainty little swan boats anchored on the far side, but rather on the path and the joggers who passed. Bright colors, some autumnal, danced past, creating a sort of athletic fashion show for the park bench viewers. Ryan was resting, or looking like he was, but in reality, he was searching. He came here every morning for the past few weeks since he first happened by chance to see her. To his eye, she was the most beautiful creature to ever prance across the fabled ether of Avalon, and at the thought of her, he felt a sensation long lost in his heart.

Ryan was a man in his thirties, a culinary master by trade, and one-time owner of “The Singing Duck Gastropub” and “Gillian’s Bakery.” Before these, and after cutting his teeth with the likes of Daniel Boulud in New York, he opened RJ in his native Boston. Of the three restaurants, RJ was the only one still in operation, and brilliantly managed, freeing much of Ryan’s time to explore new and exciting possibilities. That was Ryan’s nature: an aggressive, business-minded restaurateur who was seldom happy with just one project. At the present moment, he was eying a space in the North End.

Ryan leaned back against the bench and examined one runner moving past. Her shape was similar and gait about the same, but it was not her. He sighed and continued searching.

With a reddish brown trimmed beard and brown eyes, Ryan was a handsome and modern man. His oval face seemed to wear the beard magnificently, and his build, toned and muscular, showed his attention to his physique. He wore shorts that morning, thinking a slight warming trend would make the run more pleasant. He was wrong. He did, however, have the foresight to grab a light jacket before leaving his apartment. The North End, where he lived, was a distance from the park, but because that was where she ran, he made the trek every morning, his body moving happily through the ritualistic procession.

Ryan ran his plan over one more time, fearing any lack of preparedness would make him look foolish. When she ran, she would always stop by the monument on the bridge and check her time. Ryan, when he saw her run past, would follow and stop when she stopped, starting a conversation with her. This girl was all he thought about the past few weeks, and he knew he simply had to meet her. For too long, his days were dark and gloomy, and no pretty face could pull him from the deep, morose agony which was his life. When she died, a piece of him went, too. But now, there was a new animation in Ryan, a new life bequeathed to him by the beautiful runner in the Common. Above him, the autumn leaves were changing.

“Ryan, my friend,” he began, aloud to himself, “you are a nut. Yes, you really are,” and he chuckled. Sitting on a bench waiting for a perfect stranger to run past was not what he thought he would be doing that morning, but somewhere in the middle of the night, courage came to him, and so, at around 7 a.m., he was waiting.

What fear Ryan felt, what confusion and trepidation he harbored in his mind, seemed to be hiding from his thoughts, or at least dulled into submission by the chill. Ryan was nervous, but he was propelled by his desire, a desire emanating from new life. He could taste the sun again, and through the surrounding gloom, see a bright future. His life, so dark, was about to be bright once more, and memories of the past, cherished and relished, would be stepping stones into a new tomorrow.

A lone man walked up to the anchored swan boats and was looking at them. Ryan watched him, inhaling the icy air into his lungs and feeling the vivacity of the morning. The man was taking a picture. The image of the photographer and the boats captivated Ryan and he narrowed his gaze. Behind Ryan, a few joggers and one walker moved past. She was among them.

Ryan allowed his mind to wander over the fabricated history of the man with the camera when he happened to look at the path. He saw the electric blue jacket, the hair in a ponytail, and the familiar gait.

“Shit!” he said aloud, springing from the bench at the same instant.

The woman passed him and was closing in on the bridge. If Ryan did not get there in time, she would move on and not stop again. He flew past the walker, and running more than jogging, pushed himself forcibly through the frozen air, the wind chilling his face. He was glad he had his beard.

Come on, come on, he thought, I gotta get up there. Hurry. Keep moving. Ryan sprinted among the growing maze of runners who came in from different points, navigating like a ship amidst an ice field. With frustration mounting, Ryan feared he would not meet her.

The bridge was coming closer, and the color of her jacket acted like a beacon to Ryan’s peering eyes. He would never succeed in the Boston Marathon, but at that moment he rushed with haste that was uncanny, swerving and dodging all those around him. The cold air attacked him, but Ryan cared little for the discomfort. There was a goal set before him, and he was busy obtaining it.

Before the delicate runner the bridge emerged, large and seemingly issuing forth all the chilliness of the park. The stonework looked bleak amidst the autumn day, resembling more the dead statues who kept guard throughout the park. She gracefully moved through the throng of people like a deer of the field.

Ryan was gaining on her, yet winded as he was, he allowed himself no reprieve from the strain of this hunt. He saw the woman cross the bridge and stop by the monument. She always obeyed her schedule, he thought to himself as he pressed forward, the thudding of his feet sounding like drums calling soldiers to arms.

The woman, staring at her phone’s timer and stretching her legs, did not see the winded man come jogging up to her, his pace much slower than it was before. There was an attempt at coolness on his part, as if this short reprieve was scheduled.

There was beauty in her flushed face, flushed from the exertion of the run and from the temperature. Her hair, of auburn strands, swayed slowly as she continued her stretching. She was young, athletic, with a figure that spoke of an attentiveness to fitness. Her face, so radiant, seemed chiseled by the greatest sculptures of the ancient world, using no model short of the Caryatides of old.

Ryan slowed to a stop near her and started doing his own stretches, though his familiarity with that sort of athletic preparation was dismal at best. He bent and touched his toes, grimacing at the pain he felt in his legs. Casually, he watched the woman as she continued her routine. Other joggers ran past, sometimes obscuring his view completely. Ryan was waiting for the opportune time to make his move. His nerves, growing exited and anxious, stirred inside him as he viewed the woman. Thoughts of failure, rejection and simple fatuity flashed before him and he cringed, fearing he would not gain the success he so desired.

It looked to Ryan that she was concluding her routine, so he casually jogged over. He was almost there, when a group of runners came through, their colors blazing past him. The flurry of excitement sent Ryan dodging one way, then skipping another, trying not to be trampled. He thought quickly of Mufasa in the midst of the herd, then laughed dryly to himself.

Ryan raced through the crowd as best he could, his speed increasing when he saw the woman looking again at her watch. Damn, she’s going to move again, he thought, and angrily threw himself through the river of runners racing past.

One person, an older man in tight running pants and a jacket, nearly crashed into Ryan as he plunged forward, and with a curse, skipped around the man as he cleared the stream, lunging out of the running path and into the open. To his surprise, the woman was right before him, concealed behind the last older runner. Ryan had speed, but no stopping power; she barely looked up as he pummeled her down.

“Shit,” Ryan said out loud as he crashed into the woman.

The woman, barely able to register surprise on her face, and even more so unable to let out the appropriate scream that should follow, simply felt the forceful impact of the man. Together, they both toppled over onto the cold cement, falling hard and landing even harder.

Ryan was first to jump up, what pain he endured quickly subdued by his eagerness to correct the mishap. The woman, he saw, looked angry, but her features quickly softened as the realization of the moment came to her. Staring up at Ryan, she felt his apologetic expression warming her.

“I am so, so sorry,” Ryan began, extending two hands to her. “I totally did not see you behind that group of runners.”

The woman, still looking up at him, smiled pleasantly, her visage striking. Ryan was struck deeply by her beauty, by the curvature of her face, her blue eyes, so ice-like that they immediately made him think of stars on a cool winter’s night. His thoughts were lost to him, his mind numbed by her appearance. Seldom had a woman so inspired him with the harmony of creation as she did. From afar he always viewed her; now, with eyes turned upon her, he beheld not just her own loveliness, but the essential form of beauty, as if she alone were the express image of all that was lovely in the world.

“It’s alright,” she replied.

“Again, I bulldozed you. I am so sorry,” Ryan replied. “Here, let me.”

Ryan took her hands in his. Her flesh was soft and warm, welcoming and tender to his cold hands. He lifted her lithe form as gentlemanly as possible, then was quick to release her, though he could have held her hand all morning.

“It’s okay,” she reiterated strongly.

The woman dusted herself off and did a quick survey of her person. Ryan watched her, unaware of the little bits of dirt and gravel that clung to parts of his body. He was consumed by her form, her essence, and dared not remove his eyes.

“Are you alright? Talk about a blind spot,” Ryan said, a bit of laughter in his voice.

“I’m fine,” she replied, rotating an ankle. “Actually, this kind of hurts.”

“Your ankle?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah. I bet I can just walk it off.”

“Crap. I bet I did that.”

“Nah, it’s been like that for some time. Every so often, it acts up. Today must be its day.”

“Can I help you to a bench?” asked Ryan.

“I think I’m cool, but thanks. I’ll just run it out now. No pain, no gain, right?” and she laughed, a laughter so light and joyful.

At the mention of her leaving, Ryan panicked. He made contact with her in the most awkward of manners, but contact was established nonetheless. This was his moment, and awkwardness aside, he was going to conquer it.

“I’m sorry. I’m Ryan. Guess you should at least know the guy who tackled you in the Common.”

She laughed again, looking into his nervous face. Sensing something in him, she allowed her eyes to mingle with his for a moment longer than usual, looking at his brown hues and his beard. She liked beards. She accepted his extended hand in hers.

“I’m Claire, Claire Bedard” she replied, smiling.

“Well, hello, Claire. It’s a pleasure to both meet and clobber you. Ryan James.”

Ryan and Claire both laughed, the giddiness of the moment overwhelming them. Inside each heart beat an uneasy teenager on their first date, the attractiveness of their companion adding to their nervousness. For Ryan, he felt a sensation tingling inside his heart, and relished it. For Claire, it was the mystery of this new person, the man behind the cuteness standing before her.

“And a pleasure to be tackled by you, Ryan.”

Ryan quickly detected a certain emphasis placed on his name as she spoke it, something delightful and happy in its pronunciation. That made him more nervous and happy and shy, but he managed to control each.

“Um, are you sure your ankle is okay? Can I help you back to your car? I mean, it’s the least I can do.”

“Actually, it feels a little stiff, that’s all. And I walk here. I used to drive till I saw that meme with the kid. You know, the ‘you mean to tell me you drive to the gym to run on a treadmill,’ one. Yeah, that kind of put things in perspective.”

Claire laughed at the reference, the memory so clear in her mind. Ryan laughed too, though he expressed simple joy over her playful nature and the melodious tones she made.

“I love that meme,” he said. “And, I do confess, I’m a grumpy cat fan still.”

“Grumpy Cat? I love him!” she exclaimed.

“He’s the best.”

Claire brought her clasped hands to her chest and smiled, turning her head up to look at the sky in great excitement.

“He’s simply the cutest little thing in all his grumpiness. He’s just so adorable.”

“He is, he really is,” Ryan replied.

“Oh,” Claire began with a sort of sigh in her voice, “I guess I should finish up. Got to get to work soon.”

Panic resumed its place in Ryan’s heart. He felt it grip him tightly and strangle the joy he was experiencing. He had to think quickly, or else it would be adieu and nothing more. He thought, then remembered the totality of his plan: coffee.

“Oh, um, hey, since I disrupted your run, can I buy you a cup of coffee when you’re finished? There’s a great bistro just around the block.”

Claire thought for a moment, then remembered an important meeting she had in the office. Time and expeditiousness were necessary, and she had only enough of the early morning left to get home, shower and prepare for it. She hated to decline, but she had to. After all, as giddy as she was, she did not know the man standing before her. Coffee was a great way to open doors, but in a city such as Boston, or anywhere for that matter, one had always to be careful. The giddiness she felt subsided, and the cool and collected woman reemerged.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get going. I’ve an important meeting later in the morning, and I need to be ready for it.”

Claire saw the desperate attempt to hide the disappointment on Ryan’s face as he boldly put forth a smile. Inside, she felt her own disappointment.

“Hey, no worries. Maybe some other time. I run here every morning, so maybe later.”

Ryan’s voice was dampened by the blow, but he still managed some confident tones to his words.

“Yeah,” Claire replied, and after saying goodbye, she walked off briskly.

“Goodbye,” Ryan said, watching her walk out of his life.

He followed her across the bridge with his eyes, watching her carry off the happiness he was feeling. It was a somber and sobering moment for him, and despite the animation surrounding him, he felt alone.

A sigh escaped him, and he was about to turn when he saw Claire stop, turn around and look back to where they had just stood. After a moment of searching for Ryan’s athletic attire among an emerging collection of runners, Claire spotted him and started back, holding one hand up until he spotted it. She felt something, almost sensed something, and as prudent as she normally was, her curiosity enticed her.

Ryan held his breath as she approached, not fully knowing what was going to happen. Was she going to ask him to keep away? Was she going to ask him out? He did not know, and his heart fluttered with both excitement and fear.

“Ryan. Of course, nothing changed for this morning, but I did remember that tomorrow is free for me, if that coffee offer still is good?”

Ryan froze. He heard her, but in his mind, he failed to completely comprehend what was spoken. Ryan was in the sheer disbelief of the event, the simple question resonating in his mind so powerfully that he could not fathom such a thing actually just occurred. Finally, in what felt like an age, Ryan gave his response.

“Sure! I mean, no expiration date on that one. After all, I do owe you at least that much. Um, tomorrow, after your run? Have you ever been to the Littlest Bean? It’s on Charles Street.”

“Oohh, I have, and I love it. That sounds wonderful, Ryan. Meet there at what time?”

“After your run, whenever you are finished. I know some of the people there, so I hang there sometimes. Maybe eight?”

“That sounds perfect,” she said, nearly gushing in her delight.

“Alright, I guess eight it is, then.”

“Yeah. Well, have a good run, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You, too, Claire. See you tomorrow.”

And with that, Claire turned and sprinted away, this time leaving more joy with Ryan than he could manage to understand. His heart was light and fluttery, and was unable to even think properly. All he sensed was excitement and wonder; excitement at his success, and wonder that he actually pulled it off…with a little assistance from gravity, that is.

“When have the laws of physics ever dabbled in love?” Ryan asked out loud, laughing.

As he turned, he saw his park bench, some leaves falling over it. No longer would he need to sit there and linger. The times, they were changing, and for the better. Amber leaves fell at his feet and swished with his steps until he was gone and out of the Common.

* * * * * * * * * *

The coffee house was a brilliant concept and design for the area, and when it opened a few months ago, it was the rage all through the Hill. With brick walls covered in famous Bostonian sons and daughters, an indie music list that couldn’t be topped, and drinks that were fantastic, it was the place to hang in the afternoon, after work, or to grab a drink on the morning commute.

Ryan was lounging on an old leather sofa, the material faded but soft and comfortable. He was sipping a double shot and nibbling on a fresh baked scone, his mind seemingly occupied with the thoughts of the day, though he watched the door attentively. Every movement in its vicinity he caught eagerly, hoping to see his new friend.

The early morning moved swiftly for Ryan, as his heart danced around the new prospect and renewed hope of love and happiness. In the morning, he followed his usual routine, this time remembering a jacket. He thought he spotted her in the park once, but with the distance, he could not be certain.

Sipping his espresso, Ryan could not help but marvel at his situation. Here, on the old couch, he was waiting for a woman he had sought for so long. He envisioned what the moment would be like when she acquiesced, but it was nothing like what transpired. Somehow, though, that pleased him. His version was the picture perfect resemblance, the serialized moment on every Hallmark card. The moment that actually happened, that was reality, and he laughed at it all night and well into the next morning.

Ryan, like most anxious men on a first date, ran through a pre-ordained script in his mind, trying to find all the coolest things about him to mention first, the things he knew women would like. In his mind, he saw with clarity how suave and collected he would be, reclining on the couch with his beverage, looking like a modern bohemian. But what if she wasn’t not into that level of modernity? He promptly sat up and put the espresso on the table, shifting so as to look more studious. Geeky guys, he thought, maybe she likes the geeks. How to be geeky, though, troubled him.

Thinking about his first real encounter with her, Ryan tried to digest what he thought her preferences were, based on what he knew of her. She was athletic and stylish. She always had a kept appearance, and ran like a professional. Ryan put together a mental picture of her life; whether he was right or not, he would soon find out.

Outside, Claire was making her way down the street. She could see the sign swinging lazily in the autumn breeze, as a few stray leaves fell to her feet. Claire loved autumn; it was her favorite season. When she was a child, she remembered playing in the large leaf piles her father would rake, scattering them all across the yard again. Her father never seemed to mind, and at times would join in the fun. Those memories christened the season for her, endearing themselves to her heart.

Claire stopped outside the shop, wondering very quickly how exciting, strange and even a little frightening this was. She was not one to just jump into a situation like this. Claire was meticulous and thorough, “researching,” as she called it, prospective men before she ever engaged with them. But, she reminded herself, this was a neutral location, and it was only coffee. After all, he could be gay, she thought, only wanting to make amends for the incident. At the thought, though, she felt a twinge of disappointment. Smiling, she went inside.

The lighting was dim, but the picture windows flanking the door threw in an abundance of light. The scene before Claire was what she had seen before, the typical rush at the Littlest Bean, with suit clad women and men standing in line with care-free loafers, and trendy- or not so trendy- Bostonians waiting for the morning brew. Charles Street was the bastion of commerce on Beacon Hill, the place everyone frequented for wine, boutiques, restaurants, and coffee. This little shop, tucked away in the nook of a larger building, was a favorite hangout for Claire, her best friend, Brett, and his partner Dylan.

Claire looked around for the bearded man she only met yesterday, not knowing where he was sitting, but certainly not forgetting his features. She scanned the room, then saw a man in the back, sitting upright on the couch. It was him.

Ryan saw Claire enter and stiffened his appearance, trying to meet the fabricated expectation he had set in his mind. She was not dressed in her sports attire – he certainly didn’t expect it – but was groomed and clothed in her business attire. She walked slowly across the floor, her hair parted to one side and styled neatly. She wore black slacks with a royal blue blouse, collar ruffled, and a long coat stretching down her tight figure. Her stride was bold and confident, something that immediately caught Ryan’s attention. Looking at her made his heart pound uncontrollably. If the woman in the park stole his heart, how much more did this rendition further imprison it within her grasp?

As she strolled up to him, Ryan suddenly became aware of his own clothing, and feeling a burst of shame, wished he had the foresight she already mastered to come looking his best. Ryan rose from the couch and greeted her.

“Hey Claire,” he said, staring into her brilliant blue eyes.

Claire smiled at him and admired his firm body beneath his sporting attire.

“Hi Ryan,” she said, feeling she should say more, but not knowing what.

“I already got an espresso, but I’m game for something more. Can I get you anything?” he asked.

Claire set her leather case down on a chair and took off her jacket. Ryan tried not to stare, but her disrobing stirred him profoundly. Around her neck, she wore a large necklace with a gold disk and several blue beads.

“Yeah, I’m thinking of a latte. I’ll go up with you.”

“Cool. Shall we?” he asked.


“I guess you’re off to work after this?” Ryan asked.

Ryan waved his hand at her clothing, and smiled at her. She understood the question, but knew it meant more than it asked. She knew Ryan was asking if that she deliberately changed for their meeting, since it would have made more sense to simply stop by immediately after her run. She was caught and she knew it, for she had indeed risen earlier than usual to get her run in before making a hasty return to her apartment to shower and change. She did not dare meet him again in her running clothes; that was just something Claire was not going to do. Her attire was chosen deliberately. Playfully, she nodded her head in affirmation and replied yes, then turned away to hide her blushing face.

Together, they moved through the bustling scene and entered the line. Fortune smiled on them, as the line was short and they quickly reached the counter. A dreadlocked man with black-rimmed glasses stood before them, his shirt displaying a vintage photo of Darth Vader. Ryan smiled to himself.

“Hey Carter,” Ryan began, “I’ll get hers and mine together.”

“No prob, Ryan.”

“Um, oh, let me get a hot soy chai with vanilla. Oh, no, let me do the green tea latte instead,” Claire said lightly.

“Regular, 2 percent, Skim or Soy?” Carter said flatly.

“With that? Skim.”

“Hot or iced,” he asked again, just as flat.


“16 or 20 ounce?”

“Oh, the 16.”

“And you, Ryan.”

“Carter, let me get a medium hot soy latte with one pump of vanilla. And not whipped.”

“Concise order. Thank you,” Carter said under his breath.

Claire was smiling at something on the wall while Ryan paid for the drinks. He watched her order, and to his horror, found she was just like the masses who had no clue how to properly order a beverage, despite buying one every morning. It was a food services thing only those in the field understood, and he chuckled to himself, knowing he would have to work on that if the fates allowed a chance with her.

“Shall we sit?” Ryan asked Claire.

“Sure. But the drinks?”

“They know me here and will run them out.”

“Table service? Nice,” Claire replied, nodding her head.

“Yeah, I’m good friends with the owner and most of the staff. Right, Carter?”

“Bro,” Carter replied, nodding at Ryan.

Ryan stepped to the side and allowed Claire to move past. Once they reached the couch, Claire took a corner, and Ryan retrieved his original seat. The coffee house was loud with music and chatter, so there was no awkward silence between them, though both Claire and Ryan could feel it approaching. In his heart, Ryan wanted to know so much about Claire - about her past, her present, her friends and job, what she did for fun, all of it. Every aspect of her interested him, and he waited patiently for the moment when he could stomach beginning the conversation.

Claire, looking at Ryan, found him so mysterious and fun. He knew the park, she reasoned, knew her area of the Hill, and now, was intimate with one of her favorite joints. He was a true man of mystery, and that intrigued her. And she thought he was really cute.

“So,” Ryan began, cringing at his opening, “how long have you run in the Common?”

Claire smiled. “I’ve been at it since I moved here, about two years ago. It’s such a beautiful place to run. I mean, when the leaves are changing, and the crisp air chills you. It’s just amazing. How about you?”

“To be honest, I do it off and on. I’ve had a lot more free time lately, so I have been getting there a little more frequently.”

“Do you live close by?” she asked him.

Ryan shook his head no.

“I’m in the North End. I take it you live around here?”

Claire adjusted in her seat and crossed her legs. She was enjoying the sound of his voice over the murmur in the background. It was strong and powerful, yet soft. She didn’t know how it functioned in that manner, but it did, and to her ears, it was so pleasant.

“I do. I actually live up the way.”

“That’s cool. This is such an awesome area. I used to own the Singing Duck Gastro Pub here.”

“Oh my gosh, no way! I loved that place. You owned it?” asked Claire with shock.

“Yeah, I’m a chef by trade. I used to have that, and Gillian’s Bakery, and I still have RJ, downtown.”

“That’s too cool, Ryan. We used to eat there a lot on our lunch breaks. I’d always get that, um, what was it, the lamb stew, and something else.”

Claire stumbled through a list of mental ingredients, realizing how foolish she was quickly becoming to the man who made the dish nightly. With a cute grin on her face, she confessed that she was no culinary aficionado.

“I’m sorry, I know I just butchered that lovely dish.”

“Hey, no worries. And it was duck, not lamb. But it’s cool.”

Ryan waved off her clumsiness and started to laugh. It was cute to him, so he took no offence, though he closely guarded the reputation of all his culinary efforts.

“So, you’re a chef then?”

“I am. I graduated a few years back, cut my teeth with Boulud in New York, then came here and started. RJ was my first, and still my flagship. The gastro pub was fun, and the bakery awesome, but, well, let’s just say it was time to let those go.”

“Why’s that?” Claire asked innocently.

“Um, that’s kind of a long story,” Ryan replied with hesitancy.

Carter strolled over and gently set the two drinks down on the table. The steam from the beverages whirled with the atmosphere and seemed to lure each set of eyes to their frothy caps. Ryan was grateful for the distraction.

“Oohh, that looks yummy,” Claire purred.

“They have awesome drinks here, and all of it is free trade and organic. Awesome stuff. You know, small batch roasts they do themselves, giving the kind of flavor we should be demanding.”

Claire sipped her drink, and pulling the cup away after savoring the green tea, she heard Ryan snicker. She looked at him puzzled, then felt the froth on her upper lip. Quickly, she wiped it away, then threw a playful warning glance at Ryan, who was still chuckling.

“I saw nothing,” he said to her.


They both laughed. It was playful and fun, and the moment seemed to grow in intimacy. Each could feel its warming presence, like standing beside a low burning fire. The feeling felt good against the coldness of Ryan’s beaten heart, and it slowly sank into the old, frozen ground of his being, sowing new life.

“Claire, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I work in marketing. I’m the director of marketing for Waterton, downtown. It’s a great place to work and I love what I do.”

“You said you came here two years ago. Was that for the job?”

Claire shook her head yes, then carefully took another sip, this time acting more dexterous with her cup.

“It was,” she began. “Thanks to my dad, he hooked me up with one of his old frat buddies, and they hired me on. One year later, I got the promotion to director. I work with some really cool people; it’s busy, and crazy and so awesome.”

“That sounds really nice. I think I’ve heard of Waterton. They, well, do marketing, of course, and other things, right?”

“Yes, we are like a one stop center for large corporations. We come in and handle all internal issues. We started with just marketing, then branched into Human Resources, and all that. I don’t know much more about it.”

“Corporate America at its best, right?”

“You got it.”

“I’ve only ever dealt with small business issues. Payroll can be a beast, but now that I’m back to just one restaurant, it’s not too bad. And I have help. Like you, I have worked with some very special people.”

Ryan became drifty for a moment as his mind wandered to another place and time. He could see her, surrounded by bakers, all clad in white aprons and covered in flour. She was instructing them, watching them, and occasionally telling a light joke to keep things fun. He smiled.

“Yeah, you said you had three and are now back to one. Lost interest in them?”

Ryan reflected for a moment, relishing in the pain that was attacking his heart. For so long, it haunted him and frightened him, causing so much agony. But, after a time, the pain became his lover, and his eyes turned to darkness. All the world around him vanished into a morbid existence, and before him, he saw only endless plains of desolation. Now, however, a sun was cresting over those plains, and newness was reborn.

“It’s a long story. And it would only bore you,” he said, making a joke.

“I’ll listen,” Claire replied.

Ryan sipped his coffee. He knew she would have to find out sooner or later, and now was as good a time as any. Something, however, was different. With so many, Ryan restrained both the pain and the story, fearing to tell it; with Claire, he felt he could finally open up and share freely, of his own volition. It was a moment of realization for Ryan, a moment when he actually felt safe in his vulnerability.

“Well, here goes. I’m going to warn you, it’s sad. After I opened RJ, I worked that for a time, when I met Gillian. She was fresh out of culinary and came to work for me. She was that apprentice that just rocked, you know? We fell in love, moved in together, and started our life together. It was fun. We opened the gastro pub together, then Gillian’s Bakery. She loved baking; that was definitely her thing. We ran the three of them together like a well-oiled machine, pardon the cliché. Then she died. Sorry for the bluntness, but I don’t know how else to say it. That was over a year ago. She was caught in the cross fire of a midnight gang hit, coming home from RJ’s. I had left earlier and went to the pub to help out with the last of the night’s routine. She never made it to the hospital. After that, well, I fell apart, and so did everything we built. I sold the bakery because it was just too hard to be there. Then I unloaded the pub to a former chef employee. I kept RJ only because the staff swore they would work for no one else, and they managed it for me. I didn’t crawl into a bottle, but I did crawl into darkness.”

Ryan stopped and took a breath, releasing some of the pain with his exhalation. He turned his somber eyes upon Claire, who was embracing his pain with her eyes, her face expressing the grief she was feeling at his agony. She ran the story through her mind, knowing it probably haunted him every day. To have plans for the future, then to lose them so abruptly, she did not know how he managed it. The story was so new to her, but in his telling, she felt it all, as if she were the one to lose her lover. She never felt such a connection before.

“Ryan,” she started, “I am so very sorry. I should not have asked, and I do apologize.”

“Oh, Claire, no, it’s not a problem. Actually, I’m sorry. Here I am, hogging the whole conversation with all this stuff. I just…you…I…you just seemed like you would listen. That means a lot.”

“I bet she was a magnificent woman.”

“She was.”

There was a moment between them, steeped in awkward silence, when they both pondered the narrative again. Ryan needed a minute to collect himself, and Claire wanted a transition from darker to lighter conversation. The silence was good and it allowed Ryan the time he needed to turn the conversation.

“But time stands still for no person. That was the lesson I learned, among other things. I see new and brilliant horizons again, and I want to chase them. I’m actually eying a new location in the northeast. I have an idea for a gothic themed restaurant.”

“Oh, wow. Something creepy, maybe?” Claire asked, happy to move to something less deep.

“Yep! You got it!” he replied.

“Well, you’ll have to let me know when you open it. I have a really fun witch’s costume from last Halloween. Maybe I’ll wear it.”

Claire snickered happily, and Ryan’s eyes lit up at the thought. His heart was racing, partly from her interest in him, and partly from telling the story and her receiving it. It was a moment of trial, and he passed through it well enough. Every time he told the story, he felt an old part of him ignite and the same old part die again. His only thought was how she truly received the story.

“Only if I can dress as the mummy.”

“What, a mummy? Ryan, honey, you need to be a sexy vampire, or, maybe a fireman. Yes, that would suit you.”

Claire was an expert at flirtation, and she exhibited her prowess, not only catching Ryan’s attention even more than previously, but also dropping a hint about a certain interest she might have for him, and possibility for a future meeting. Her smile was delightfully wicked, playful and almost naughty. Claire seldom revealed this aspect of her nature so quickly, but with Ryan, she felt a certain peace that allowed her to open up. And she did.

“A vampire, eh? Not one of those glittery ones, I hope?”

Ryan tried to sound not amused, but he was a poor actor. His face failed in concealing his delight and enthusiasm.

“No, one of those really cool ones.”

“Okay, I could do that.”

Ryan was glad the conversation became light again. He did not want to frighten her away with his morbidity, and he was surprised he actually said as much as he did. He seldom felt open with people.

“Well,” Claire began, looking at her watch, “I hate to run, but I do need to get to work.”

“I figured it was about that time. Hey, thanks for coming by today.”

“No, thank you for the coffee. This was fun.”

Ryan stood with her and admired her as she gathered her jacket and bag, and took one last cold sip of her latte. She was perfect, he thought, perfect in every way. And it was not his mind telling him that, but his heart, a heart that had not spoken in over a year.

“Um, maybe we can get together for dinner one night, say, Friday? I know this awesome Vietnamese fusion bistro that is amazing. Or we can do Americana?”

Claire smiled. His boyish enthusiasm was so charming, and his zeal and general excitement was just so cute. She could not help but be stirred by the invitation, though she felt she should play it cool.

“Ryan, that sounds lovely. Friday it is. And you can choose. As you might have figured out by now, I’m no chef. So, I’ll let you pick.”

Claire then handed him a business card with her contact information, smiling as she did so.

“Work email and personal cell,” she said.

“Alright, sounds great. Oh, and here, this is my card. The email is business, but the cell is personal. Shoot me a line later in the week and we’ll make the definite plans. And Claire, thanks for listening.”

Claire smiled at him, thanked him again, and throwing her jacket on, walked out of the building, her steps lighter and her heart racing. Ryan watched her go, but did not feel her leave. Her presence was still with him, still warming him gently. For the first time in months, he thought it was going to be a good day.

Chapter 2

The street was busy with morning activity as fashionable, and some not so fashionable, people hurried along the dirty sidewalk, escaping the morning cold for the warmth of the work place. Claire moved briskly over the cement, sometimes feeling like a salmon swimming upstream, but she was carefree and happy, the breeze blowing softly through her hair. She came to Boston about two years ago, after working a few underpaid jobs, when her father cashed in a few favors to get her on board with Waterton. Like most people in their late twenties, she had to suffer through a dismal economy at first, laboring in coffee shops and picking up marketing jobs where she could before this panned out. Her love life was much the same, with boyfriends coming and going, her heart choosing to retain affection as long as it did not hamper her career growth. Now, she was making a name for herself, her career was more than launched, and a new ‘companion’ was on the radar. That morning, all the world smiled upon Claire as she drew closer to her building.

Claire’s office was bustling with Tuesday morning activities. Open-spaced desk areas looked into each other, and large windows peered into the skyline of the inner city. Claire made her way through, answering questions from some, signing a form and listening to her assistant chatter on about the decisions made at a dinner last evening, something above their leagues. Claire knew it was all gossip, but she attentively listened, enjoying the little bit of ‘dirt’ she received.

“Alright, let’s push back the 10 a.m. meeting to 11. That will give Kyle enough time to get his group together for their presentation. We need that scheme ready for Friday’s briefing. Oh, and no coffee today. Thanks,” said Claire to her assistant.

“No coffee? Did I hear you correctly?”

The woman was genuinely confused, and she seemingly clutched the folders in her crossed arms like one would a buoy in the ocean: the tighter the clutching, the better she felt in her predicament. She watched as Claire entered her office and turned on her computer.

“Yeah, I had some coming in this morning.”

“But you chain drink coffee, Claire,” replied the assistant.

“I’m good, but thanks,” said Claire.

“Oh,” said the assistant.

With a curt smile, the lady turned on her heel and headed off. Claire was too preoccupied with some papers on her desk and an email that just popped up to hear the softly spoken chatter down the hall in the larger working space. The assistant, knowing full well that something transpired, was fueling the rumor mill with her high-octane assumptions. Some women, eager for any news, listened along with a few men, while others began their morning rituals.

Claire’s life was no mystery to the office, and she tried to display a level of transparence in all things, even her personal life. But, being their immediate superior, they always took delight in what exploits she had. They were a very fun, friendly and comfortable office, and if they had as many clients as they did laughs, they all would be royalty on a secluded island.

Sitting at her desk, Claire thought briefly about the morning’s foray, then, by a skill she developed long ago, set her personal demeanor aside and focused diligently on the email before her. There was a new acquisition, and their marketing was coming down the pipes. Claire knew already that it would fall to Brett and his team to get it done. She nodded to herself in approval, selected the email, and dropped it into a folder. She would re-approach it later.

Claire was tapping out a response to another email when she heard someone clearing their throat in the doorway. Looking up, she saw Brett standing there, modern fitting slacks of shiny black, Calvin Klein shirt with an open collar and a tight vest around his body. Brett was tall, about 5’11, and very handsome, with close cropped stubble on his face and styled hair, short on the sides and whimsically combed on top. Sometimes he wore contacts, but today he had his hipster black rimmed glasses adorning his hazel eyes.

Brett Mueller was an early college friend of Claire’s and he followed her to Boston for the job she opened for him. In just a year, he made a name for himself, and his work was superb. Claire was happy to work with him, and even happier to have him as her closest friend. He was that one friend every person needs, and she loved him and his life partner, Dylan. Too many nights she sacked out on their couch, and would awake to find herself underneath a rich duvet cover smelling fresh brewed chai wafting across the room. Their friendship was intimate and special.

Brett stared at her over his glasses, the line forming an odd slice across his eyeballs. Leaning against the door, arms folded, he was waiting, and not for any guidance or instruction from the department head. No, he was waiting for something more.

Claire smiled as she looked at him, her coyness bordering on cockiness, as a smirk followed the tender smile on her face. She knew his reason for standing in the doorway, and was determined to have a bit of fun before indulging his appetite.

“Oh, my God, really, Claire?” he asked, exasperated.

“What?” she asked.

“Come on. You know what,” Brett replied, his words playful.

“Oh, new acquisition coming to a Brett near you!”

Brett glared at her and stuffed his hands into his vest pockets. One thing could always be said of their boss: she was stubborn. Brett refused to remove his gaze from her, and she refused to avert her eyes. It was a funny staring contest, a battle of the wits, to see who would yield first.

“Alright, obviously, you are not going to tell me anything of your free volition, so I will ask. Coffee?”

Claire smiled and bit her lip. It was her way of saying that it was fantastic, the boy was cute and she really liked him. All of that, in one gesture. Brett’s eyes widened and he rushed into her office, throwing himself into one of her two leather chairs. The office, smelling of lavender, did little to soothe his excitement.

“How was it?”

“Brett, he is soooo cute!” Claire exclaimed.

“Tell me,” he demanded.

“Tall, not as tall as you, but taller than me, with a reddish brown beard and beautiful eyes. He’s a chef. Oh, he used to run the Singing Duck. Remember it?”

“Claire, remember it? Dylan wrote about that place several times. You mean Ryan James? Ryan James was your coffee date?”

“Yeah,” Claire replied enthusiastically.

Claire grew excited that Ryan was immediately recognized, and did not know what to make of it. Boston was such a large city, and for a single name to stand out like that made her realize he was more prominent than she thought.

“Dylan was saying he’s the next hot thing in the Boston food scene. He’s like a celebrity.”

“Oh,” Claire said a little louder.

“No, not Hollywood celebrity. I mean, ‘hipster gonna know’ celebrity. Foodies and such, like Dylan. He’s written a few reviews of RJ and the Duck, and both were favorable. He does some awesome stuff. I can’t believe it’s Ryan James. I have to text Dylan.”

“And he’s so cute.”

“You said that. Say something new. How is he? Any chemistry?”

“Brett, it’s too early for that. We had a nice time and spoke for a while. He seems very deep,” said Claire, becoming reflective.

“How so?”

Claire reclined in her seat and crossed one leg under her. The little bell on her email inbox chimed, and with a slow movement, she re-opened her box and looked at it. The statement she just made was sitting in her mind, though she perused the email. He was deep, deeper than any other man she ever was interested in. How deep, Claire did not know, though her heart desired to find out.

“I don’t know. He told me a story about his girlfriend. It was sad.”

“Oh, I think I remember that. I had only been up here a few months when I heard about it. Dylan filled me in a lot.”

“Tragic. They seemed like a Romeo and Juliette,” Claire said, a soft sigh escaping.

“Hey, that can be you guys,” Brett said optimistically.

Claire smiled and tried to conceal her thoughts in her head.

“Brett! It’s way too young for that. Let’s give the relationship time, please.”

Claire then threw a stray paper clip at him, laughing like a little girl who just pulled off a good prank. Brett tried to find where it fell, but was not successful.

Behind Claire, the large windows of her office let in the city, as the sun rose higher over the skyscrapers, the glittering of the windows like dew drops on the morning petals. The day was starting off nicely, and all the freshness of the morning could not mirror the freshness she saw before her, a newness to life and destiny. Unfolding before her was a plan, maybe wrought in the heartache of her own existence and agony of her trials, or maybe thought eons before she ever existed. Claire could feel it, sense it deep within her, that her life was changing, and for the better.

“Alright,” Brett began, “I’m out of here. Dinner tonight?”

“Cool. Where?”

“Any place where you can give me the remaining details,” Brett laughed.

“Okay. You pick the place and let me know when we leave,” Claire replied.

“Will do. I was thinking something pub-esque. Or, Greek. I think that is our baby.”

“Sounds good, Brett. Oh, and the meeting at 1:30 - don’t be late.”

Claire winked at him and he smiled as he casually moved out of the room. She watched him, still smiling, partially from their interaction, and partly from the singular event that made her heart so happy. In her stomach, she felt the proverbial butterflies, and for a moment, she was in the 8th grade again, staring across the homeroom at Bobby Flannigan, his dreamy eyes melting her heart.

An email sounded in her inbox, and Claire was pulled from her reverie. Looking at the message, she began to remove all of those personal thoughts from her mind again, focusing rather on what was before her. One remained, however, of an image of a man in running shorts and a jacket.

* * * * * * * * * *

The morning moved quickly for Ryan as he hurried from the coffee shop back to his apartment and changed for a meeting. When Ryan said he had his eye on a place for a new restaurant, what he really meant was that he was in the process of securing the property and was in the final stages of negotiations. As business minded as Ryan was, sometimes he spoke in subtleties, and peppered his speech with vagueness. He often did not know he was doing it, and when confronted, he knew the whole scenario was already played out in his mind. If others could not follow along, it was not worth keeping them in the proverbial loop. The one thing he demanded of his sous chefs, above all things, was that they learn to anticipate his movements, and ultimately, master reading his mind.

He sat at a popular little lunch spot downtown, a little before noon, and watched as the place quickly filled to capacity. He was eating slowly and thinking thoughts unrelated to work, something he seldom did. His gyro was nearly finished, and staring out the window, Ryan allowed a moment for his mind to just simply wander. It made a direct path to Claire.

Licking off the tzatziki sauce from his fingers, Ryan smiled when he thought of her. It was exciting to feel again, and know he could finally move into the future. But at the thought, he was suddenly overcome by a pang of sorrow, as the memory of his Gillian, so poignant and still so fresh, flashed before him. They lived and loved together for so long, she a very real part of him and vice versa, that he suddenly felt like a betrayer at his own happiness. Shame came over him, and guilt hammered away at his heart. Ryan was a loyal man, and Gillian was so easy to be loyal to, as she was what he always called his sweet cream. He believed they were meant for one another, and if he ever regarded the concept of soul mates with any real merit, he believed they were it.

A slim waitress hastened by and quickly filled Ryan’s glass, breaking his momentary pattern of thought. She smiled, said thanks in a rich Bostonian accent and left the ticket on the table. He glanced at it, then looked back out of the far window, over the tables filled with corporate lunch goers.

Memories seemed to pass before his eyes all at once. Ryan so clearly remembered meeting her, dating her, their first kiss, first love making, even the first time he totally messed up a meal for them both and swore madly, only to laugh it off when she soothed him. The memory of her touch was still so vibrant, and the sensation of his skin against hers he could still feel. He could even still smell the lotion she used after she showered, and the scent of her hair mingled with her body spray. All of these sensations stirred him, his feelings of love and longing, and further plunged the dagger of guilt into his heart.

What manner of man was he, Ryan thought, that he could so easily set aside so much history? How could he simply walk away from something that once was his life? How could he say goodbye?

Ryan sipped his water, then set the glass back in the water ring on the table. The water, momentarily drawing him away from his reverie, seemed to cool his mind. But the reprieve was momentary, and he dove back into his thoughts.

Ryan could see Gillian again, some images in a chef’s frock, some in an apron, and some without anything on at all, her body laced across the bed. Their love was a special love, a unique experience that seldom comes twice in a generation, or at least they both thought. They were so in love with one another, but that love, newly born, eventually died, though its reverberation still lingered in the cosmos of Ryan’s existence.

After the shooting, Ryan’s friends went on a sort of ‘death watch’ for him, many of them camping out nights on end in his apartment, trying to ward off the suicide they thought lurked around the corner. Ryan was a wreck and could not see any future without Gillian. He simply saw no life remaining. Over time, however, he managed to grasp a hold of life again and turn his eyes to the future, though grudgingly and with little hope. Without Gillian, Ryan believed there was nothing.

As all things go, however, time slowly passed for Ryan, and each day carefully snuck some of its newness into Ryan’s own morbid existence. He had to purge the restaurants from his life, for they were too painful for him. His friends and relations all banded together and made RJ work, with or without Ryan. But as each day passed, he came to realize that Gillian would not be back, and he would have to make sense of this new and foreign world without her. That he did, slowly and cautiously.

Every day he longed for Gillian, but after so much time, he found his heart looking elsewhere for comfort, searching among the tiny streets and large avenues for a new face. He chided himself for so long, feeling she was his only, but soon he came to realize that it was no sin to love another. What happened was a tragedy and nothing could have stopped it. What happened changed his life, but life is often like that, ever changing and reshaping itself. Ryan came to embrace his new change, and with her memory ever beside him, he trudged forward to a new horizon. It was surprising to him that he should falter now, sitting at a table amidst the hectic restaurant, with garlic on his breath. He had come so far and managed to gain so much mental ground, only to stumble in the end.

Ryan thought about the past year, over the long months of pain and recovery. He lingered on his process, that of managing to exist without her, and realized what was true all along, that Gillian was always with him. Her memory would always be a source of comfort for him, and in some sort of metaphysical way, her essence would always surround him. Ryan smiled to himself at the thought of her nearness, then threw a glance at his watch.

“Should probably clear the table so they can sit others,” he said softly, though he did not move.

Ryan thought again of Claire. She made him smile, laugh and even feel a little jittery, just like Gillian used to do. He confessed to himself that it would be a long process, tainted by his own misgivings and his own faltering, but he wanted to know her more, to see her and hold her to him. For so many weeks she was nearly his only thought, and now, all of his plans were unraveling as they were meant to, and that enlivened his spirits.

Ryan stood up from the table and quickly piled his remaining debris into his glass, then moved away. No sooner had he left then the busboy, who was stalking the floor like a wolf, rushed to clear the table for the next guests. Ryan paid and left, stepping out of the warm restaurant and into the cool city streets of Boston.

Standing outside, feeling the chilliness of the early autumn season, Ryan looked around him at the hectic pace of the sidewalk. The cacophony created by the honking of car horns, the murmuring of engines and the hissing of buses as they stopped all buzzed loudly in his ears. One had to stop and actually listen, for any length of time in the city caused one to grow numb to the sounds. Ryan enjoyed the city and the crazy pace it had, and standing among the towering forest of skyscrapers, he believed he was where he was meant to be, both geographically and mentally.

Casually, Ryan started to walk up the sidewalk, his sauntering pace foreign to the people rushing past him. For the moment, Ryan had few financial concerns, and those he did have worked out nicely so as to help create his sauntering pace. He moved in and among the crowd, walking down the street, thinking as he went. More memories of Gillian came to mind, more of the same, and a few new ones, memories left hidden for the direst moments.

As he walked, his mind would not allow him reprieve from the previous mental conversation, distracted as he could be by the business of the city streets. He staved off his feelings of guilt and shame, only to replace them with remorse and angst. Ryan turned down a side avenue and found vacant bench in a small park, seemingly waiting for him. Fear came over him as he sat roughly upon it, fear of loss and of more pain.

Ryan slouched at first, then threw his weight upon his knees and supported his head with his hands. The fear, it was growing and gnawing his insides, like some beast who had determined its liberation was nigh. He thought of all the pain he endured when Gillian died. He remembered the nights of agony, of screaming at nothing just to release the emotions he contained. Painful images of all his hurt attacked him. The cool breeze blowing across the park did nothing to assuage him. He scarcely felt it.

Ryan knew he could not endure such pain again. What, he wondered, if he was setting himself up again? What if something happened to Claire? What if something tragic happened? Would he survive again? Ryan shook as the old terror returned, darkness mingled with sorrow.

I can’t go through that again, not again, he thought. It was too much, and I hurt for so long. Hell, I didn’t think I would last. Sometimes, I think I shouldn’t have. But I made it, made it out alive, and for what, to endure it again? Alright, I confess: I’m afraid of the hurt, afraid of it so much. I don’t want to travel that road again. Please, not again.

Ryan opened his eyes and looked around. The park was shaded, quiet, though heavily occupied with people enjoying an alfresco lunch in the nice weather. A tear formed in his eye, welling and then slowly descending his cheek. It was then he remembered his mother.

With new energy, the hurt and pain resurged and forced Ryan into a mental submission that was uncanny. He fought back tears as he recalled her death, so many years ago, and the pain it caused him. He was but a child, and a sour relationship with his father only further endeared his mother to him. She was a doting woman, kind and gentle, despite what evil befell her. And ever did she protect Ryan, her own body a shield for the blows. Ryan saw her face again, that beautiful face, ever smiling and benevolent. Then, he sobbed.

I can’t! I just can’t go through it all again, he thought, still crying. The pain was rushing and gushing now, flowing freely through his mind. Gillian, his mother, the two combined to weigh him down, anchoring him in crimson despair. And thinking of Claire, he quickly associated her with the beginning of that sorrow once again. He just couldn’t do it; he simply couldn’t go forward any more.

With the aid of a napkin he took from the restaurant, Ryan dried his eyes, now swollen with grief. His spell was over and the hurt subsided. He could feel it cascading down his frame and disappearing into some dark gulf within his mind, waiting there for his next episode.

Ryan’s life was a life of pain and loss, from his earliest days until recently. All too acquainted with grief and sorrow, he knew the face of death intimately, and it shaped him much as a glacier does the surrounding landscape, carving deep crevices that will never heal.

The breeze picked up and Ryan looked as some leaves blew past. The oranges and yellows of the color blur before his eyes entertained him, and looking in the direction from which they came, he saw the trees slowly disrobing their summer garments. Green leaves were shedding their verdant hues and replacing them with the dying autumnal garb. Ryan loved autumn; it was his favorite season, and being outdoors during this time was his greatest joy. There was something about the slowly approaching slumber of the land that enthralled him. And much like his own slumber, he knew it would come to an end in the spring, when life flourished again. Though he sat in autumn, he believed his heart was preparing for a spring revolution of life and energy, whether he was ready for it or not. Claire was the brilliant ray of light shining on his desolate, bare limbs, awakening them to new life.

Ryan thought about life a lot in the past few weeks, and even more about death in the past few months, and how they both seemed to interact with each other. From death came life, and from life came death. Only fear of loss impeded that cycle, and sometimes halted it, much to the chagrin of the cosmos. But Ryan had ample time to come to terms, and now, sitting on his park bench, he felt ready again to live, and love, and simply exist. And as he stood, he smiled, watching a mother with two small children walk along a path in the park. He thought of Claire, and the sneaky concept of loss entered his mind again. Like a shadow, it covered him and everything around him, allowing no light to enter. Would he lose her and return to his darkness? Would he have to hurt again?

Ryan pulled out his phone and looked at her number. In a nervousness he had not felt previously, a nervousness grounded in his hatred of loss, he thought of texting her. Something in him, however, halted his action, and he instantly saw how foolish that would be. Her number, though, already in his phone, glowed in its electronic luminescence, seemingly taunting him and reminding him that loss was very real.

Shaking off the fearful syndrome, Ryan plunged his phone back into his pocket and forced a big smile to his face, inhaling the beautiful Boston air. I will be happy today, and tomorrow. And I will date Claire, he said to himself. I fear losing her and returning to my pain, but it is a risk I must take. Yes, I fear losing her, but why? That’s easy: I care for her. Right now, though, I need to get moving to the bank. They need copies of some papers, and I want that done today. The rest came come later.

Ryan set his course down the street, the leaves cascading over him as he moved beneath the trees.

* * * * * * * * * *

The remainder of the week passed as it normally would when two hearts were eager for a certain day: slowly. It seemed the hours dripped past until Friday finally arrived. Claire waited eagerly, excited to be dating once again, and even more excited to get to spend time with Ryan. Ryan, for his part, checked and re-checked his phone constantly, hoping the hours would melt away like butter in a hot pan. Finally, the awaited day arrived.

Claire had indeed reached out to Ryan and they set a time and place, with Ryan choosing something trendy, but also quiet, where they could receive an fantastic meal while speaking in audible tones. He changed his mind several times, worrying over what she might like to eat. Thinking Italian, he was going to do Giacomo’s, then changed his mind. Then, he thought about wine and tapas, and decided on Barcelona Wine Bar. Again, though, he changed his mind. It would be cliché to use his own restaurant, RJ, for the meal, and decided against that. Finally, he thought of a Vietnamese restaurant, then opted for something more conservative and went with French. They agreed that Ryan would pick her up at 7:15. They had a reservation for 7:45, and even with passing through the park, they would have more than enough time to reach the restaurant.

Ryan was waiting outside of her building, pacing slowly in the shadows created by street lamps. The lane was only slightly busy, given the time and location. He always like the Hill, especially the quant feel it gave to all those who strolled its streets. The old buildings, rising like brick monuments to a bygone era, towered until they disappeared into the night sky. Cars lined the lane, and a few passersby strolled lazily past the cozy setting, dim lights streaming from the apartment windows painting the scene with a serenity so soothing. Trees, standing like dark sentries along the road, swayed slowly in the night breeze, their dying limbs harkening to the coming god of winter.

Ryan fretted over his wardrobe, and in some anger was glad he had chosen a profession where only a frock and checkered pants were required. He was no fashion plate, yet, he managed to put together jeans, a collared shirt of dark plum, un-tucked with a black velvet sport jacket. He liked the modern fit of clothing, though he found the jacket restricting. Around his neck, he wore a black leather cord with a small medallion of St. Rita. It belonged to his mother, and now he wore it. Though not as devout a Catholic as she was, he still managed to retain some spiritual significance with it, along with the notion that it was his mother’s.

Okay, boy, just breathe and enjoy tonight. Remember, this is not wrong. You loved Gillian, but it is okay to move forward. Now, just have fun, he coached himself, stopping his pacing to look up at the door. It opened and he held his breath, but a dog, followed by its chubby owner, emerged. Ryan let out a loud sigh and resumed his pacing. He felt nervous, and like the previous few days, he still retained elements of his guilt, plaguing himself daily by their reminder. It was a fight he was determined to win, but for the moment, he was battling.

“Okay,” he began aloud, watching the dog walker move away, “almost time. I hope she hurries.”

Just then, the door opened again, the light pouring forth as a pretty face protruded and looked around through the darkness. It was Claire, and she was slowly stepping out onto the stoop, her eyes peering through the light of the street lamps for any sign of Ryan. She tried to be prompt, but her last minute details slowed the process. Brett’s text messages were a source of strength for her, and a playful annoyance, as she stopped to answer each of them. But now, she was ready and dressed to kill, or be killed, as Brett morbidly joked in one text.

Ryan looked up at her, though she did not see him immediately. He wanted just one moment to take in the sight before him, the beautiful girl in a cocktail dress, heels and a coat. Her face was shimmering in the light, the very essence of grace and beauty. Her long strands of auburn hair were given body and shape, and styled so seductively with a devilish swipe falling across half of her face.

It was a breathtaking scene for Ryan, and his stomach immediately clenched. For all his romancing and his experience, he still felt like a schoolboy on a prom date. With one, then two carefully placed steps, he emerged from the darkness and stood in the light. Immediately, Claire saw him and smiled, fully emerging from the door.

“Hey you,” she said happily.

“Hey!” replied Ryan.

“I’m a little late,” Claire began with her best pouty face. “Sorry.”

“No problem. It’s cool,” Ryan replied, then added, “wow. I mean, you look very nice.”

Ryan wanted to say beautiful or gorgeous, but thought both were too forward for a first date. Like Ryan, Claire heavily critiqued her wardrobe, oscillating between casual conservative to outright dangerous. She settled for something she thought would walk the tightrope between sultry and professional, and in her sleeveless dress, Claire made for a stunning image. Her dress was a shimmering midnight blue, a color like the sky above. She had chosen one of her favorite coats, a long and slenderizing frock falling down her petite body, to encase her on the walk over to the restaurant. Once they reached their destination, however, the coat would be gone.

“Thanks, and you, too. I love the jacket.”

“It’s a favorite of mine. Shall we?” Ryan asked, directing Claire down the sidewalk.

Together, they started slowly down the row of old houses, then shops, each treading lightly on the brick sidewalk, a timey relic but in some places unsettled and uneven. Ryan examined the shops as they passed, trying to think of where to bring the conversation next. He was about to speak when Claire chimed in.

“I love living up here. It’s just so quaint and old feeling, almost like its own little town. I was fortunate to even get an apartment here.”

“Oh really?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah. My dad helped me with that, too.”

“You have an awesome family,” he said.

“I totally do. I’m so fortunate. I wish they lived closer.”

They stopped at the end of the street, which intersected with Charles Street. Ryan had the route mapped out and mentally memorized, remembering that Charles Street would take them through the Common, then down to Boylston Street, where the restaurant was located. He prided himself on using the path that led through the Common and past the Swan Lake. If they had enough time, they would walk through the park. At the moment, though, Ryan thought it best to take the most direct route. They turned down Charles and began to move with the night crowd over the brick walkways, past illuminated shops throwing their lights on the sidewalk and window boxes filled with autumn plants.

“They don’t live nearby?” Ryan asked.

“No, they don’t,” Claire started. “They are not even in the state. They’re in upstate New York. I get up there whenever I can. How about you?”

Ryan was silent for a moment. Up to that point, he enjoyed the walk beside her, with the cars steadily moving past them in the road, and the sidewalk growing more crowded with people as they moved out of the Hill. But the mention of his family, meaning his father, the only parent he had left, soured his mindset. He tried to think of a polite way to frame his response without divulging too much animosity or bitterness.

“We’re not really that close,” he stated flatly.

Charles Street entered the arena of the Common, and the ebb and flow of the one-way traffic created a sort of energy for the whole scene, animating the darkened avenue the two were walking on. Street lamps dropped their light onto the cement in succession, and the trees lining the road seem to filter the light, shaking and tossing it amongst the paved lane. Ryan was faring well on the walk, but Claire’s heels proved to be an issue, and an oversight, given the distance, though she dared not make a point of it.

“Hey, the Public Garden,” Claire said happily, pointing to the lake.

“Yeah,” returned Ryan, then in his best narrative voice, he said “and if you look to your right, you will see where one clumsy jogger trampled a lithe little runner just the other day.”

Claire burst into a fit of laughter at his joke, remembering all too well how they first met. She could see the scene playing out in her mind, and stopping to place her hands on the railing, she seemed to be searching for the location.

“They should erect a monument to that one,” Ryan said, stopping beside her.

Claire laughed some more, then turned to him and leaned against the metalworking. A bus pulled up not far from them, and some passengers exited. Traffic was pretty busy, and the blaring of horns seemed to mimic some ancestral mode of communication, echoing in the alleys rising over the city.

Smiling at him, she said “You’re not going to let yourself live that one down, are you?”

“How can I?” he began, playfully protesting. “I nearly pulverized you!”

“It’s okay, really.”

They both laughed lightly and looked out into the darkness of the park, a land illuminated by lamps that resembled the twinkling of fireflies on a summer’s eve. The scene, with the flow of traffic, was busy, but in that moment, it was just Claire and Ryan, two souls seemingly lost to the world, forgotten momentarily and sheltered by the old metal grating upon which they leaned, the yellowish light coating them like a blanket.

“I guess we should get to the restaurant,” Ryan finally said.

Claire was enjoying the night breeze and view across the pond. In her heart, she hated to leave, but her excitement over all that transpired so far stimulated her to explore the rest of the evening.

“You’re right. To the restaurant?”

“Let’s do it,” Ryan said.

They arrived in a timely fashion, and by that, late. The Bistro du Midi, off of Boylston, was a trendy little French dive with an awesome brunch and fantastic menu. Ryan knew the owners – in fact, Ryan knew most of the chefs in the greater Boston area – and this location was a favorite of his, and Gillian’s. They used to frequent it on their rare nights off together.

Standing just inside the door, Claire was taking in the whole restaurant while Ryan notified the hostess they arrived, albeit late. He knew he would receive flack for it later, but he managed to push that thought away. Below the vaulted ceilings, the walls were adorned by frames, and trendy, aesthetic seating arrangements with modern styled, sleek patterned chairs spread across the floor. Dim lighting, dim as the lamps they passed under to get to the restaurant, created a cool, mysterious atmosphere as aromas from the multitude of plates already on the floor and in the kitchen in the back wafted over the crowded scene. The noise was sophisticated and not boisterous; one had not to be either a gourmand or a hipster to enjoy the scene, but one had to at least appreciate good cuisine before they could take a seat. Anything less was an affront to the chef.

The hostess, a young girl whose tall, elegant frame reminded Claire more of a French model than wait staff, showed them to a table in the corner, a table set just for two.

“This is nice,” Claire said, taking the seat pulled out for her.

“It’s a fave. I used to come here a lot. They have awesome oysters. And the salmon - good stuff.”

Claire took her menu, but was distracted by the multiple frames on the wall. She looked around, so delighted by his choice, then, turning her eyes to him, she grew even more content seeing him sitting opposite her, his eyes already devouring the menu. A server came up and introduced himself as Jerome, filling their glasses with Perrier.

“Could I start either of you off with a cocktail?”

“Would you care for anything?” Ryan asked Claire.

Turning to the server, she requested a Pomegranate Martini. Ryan smiled, making a note of the drink, and also requested a martini, though a dirty martini with gin. Claire glanced lightly over the menu, her mind debating between some of the items she knew she would like, and something she thought would truly impress Ryan. Being with a chef was difficult, since they had such a critical palate, and she wanted more than anything to make an impression on him.

“They make awesome martinis,” Ryan said, glancing at Claire.

“I like fruity drinks, I confess. The pomegranate is one of my favorites. I got that one from Brett.”

Ryan immediately looked at Claire upon the mention of another man’s name, hoping to see some revelation in her eyes. Claire had returned to her menu, and did not feel the piercing gaze. Worry started to seep into his heart as he thought of a possible ‘other’ in her life, maybe someone she was seeing. Ryan wanted to have a clear understanding of who Brett was, and waited eagerly to ask.

“Brett has good taste in beverages,” Ryan said casually.

“Oh, he does. He and his partner are both total foodies. Oh, and his partner, Dylan Jacobs, is a food and culture writer. I think he’s written on some of your restaurants.”

Immediate relief came over Ryan as he learned the true identity of that mysterious man. He was gay, and Ryan had no issue with that. In fact, he was delighted, since that eliminated Brett entirely from the competition pool. And he remembered the name of Dylan Jacobs. He thought quickly, then decided to have a little fun with Claire.

“Um, Dylan Jacobs; I think he wrote the first real trash review I ever received.”

Claire held her poker face, but inside, she was trembling with nervousness. She swore Dylan was complimentary to Ryan’s work, and was excited to make that connection. Was she wrong, or had she misunderstood? She did not know and had no idea what to say, or even think. What she needed was her martini.

Ryan was enjoying his moment, but it ended suddenly when he realized how quiet she had become, and how she just stared across the table at him. The joke was a complete miss, he thought, and his own nerves began to act.

“I’m totally joking,” Ryan began, “Yes, I remember the name, and he gave a really wonderful review of RJ. I remember his of The Singing Duck, and that was pretty good, too. I like him. I mean, I don’t know him personally, but hey, he liked my restaurants, so he’s a friend of mine!”

Claire smiled brightly while exhaling deeply. Feeling as if she just ran a gauntlet, she eagerly eyed the tray of martinis that was approaching their table. Then, as the drinks were set and she regained what composure she lost, she threw another of her playful glares at Ryan.

“Not funny!” she giggled.

Okay, it all turned out well. Score one for me, luckily, Ryan thought to himself. A tray of breads had been set before them, with herb butter and olive oil for dipping. Claire picked up a piece and slowly dipped it in the oil.

“Are you both ready to order?” the server asked.

“Jerome, I believe we are,” Ryan said.

“Alright,” began Jerome, “ma’am, I’ll begin with you?”

It was Claire’s moment to impress, and she nearly held her breath as she ordered the Roasted Monkfish. She looked instantly at Ryan. Her fear was that it was not fancy enough, or that it was too expensive. When it came to price, that was something Ryan cared little for. He paid for excellent food, no matter the amount. He wanted a good meal and a good time, and if it cost a lot, so be it.

Ryan heard her choice and his eyes lit up.

“Ohh, the monkfish. I was almost going to get that. Good choice,” Ryan said.

A sigh of relief. I have chosen wisely, Claire thought, mimicking the line from the Indiana Jones movie and smiling to herself.

“Jerome, I’m going to do the duck, prepared however Casey recommends it.”

“Excellent choices. Any appetizers?”

“Oh, yeah. The oysters. Again, see how Casey would really serve it. And tell him Ryan James sends his regards. He’ll know who you mean.”

“Certainly, Mr. James. He actually mentioned you earlier. He said you were a, oh, how did he put it, a washed up old hag of a chef. Yes, I think that was it.”

Ryan burst into laughter almost too loud for the decorum of the restaurant; but the remark, so characteristic of his friend, made his laugh all the more hearty, and for a moment he deliberately disobeyed the social norm and let himself loose.

“Tell Casey I’ll kick his ass later, and that I love him like a brother.”

Jerome smiled and laughed lightly, saying he would pass it along, and left the table. Claire was smiling at the scene, the hilarity of the moment not escaping her. She was most certainly shocked, but she recognized the interplay between the two chefs, and seeing that Ryan could do nothing but laugh, she knew all was well.

“Interesting relationship you have here,” Claire said, smirking.

Ryan was still chuckling at the event, but slowly reached for his drink.

“Yes, we both go way back. Actually worked together for a time in New York. He’s an awesome guy, and a really good friend. He was there for me when, well, you heard the story already.”

“Friends like that are hard to come by,” Claire returned.

“But tonight,” Ryan began, holding aloft his martini, “is for us. Here’s to you.”

“And to you,” returned Claire.

They each sipped their drinks, savoring what they enjoyed in the beverage: Claire, the sweetness, and Ryan, the bitter olive flavor. Claire returned to her bread and dipped a second piece into the oil.

“That does remind me,” Ryan began, “I do appreciate you listening to my, well, story, at the coffee shop on Tuesday. I’m sorry. That was probably a lot for a first meeting.”

“Hey,” Claire said, setting down her bread, “it’s okay. It’s who you are, and a part of your own story. Any time you need to talk, just call. Something like that is not easily forgotten.”

Ryan smiled. Claire was sympathetic in what she said, and meant the words that were shared across the table. She had no plan to remove the other woman from his memory, and no plan to supplant her position. Claire understood that Ryan cared for Gillian, and losing her was so traumatic for him. If she could help him through it, help him to love again, then maybe that was the reason for their meeting.

“I appreciate that. I really do. But anyway, how is your drink?”

“It’s good. Here,” and she extended her glass to him.

Ryan sipped it, relishing more the comfort between them than the beverage itself. He thought the drink too sweet; Casey’s place crafted drinks too sweet, but Ryan did not care at the moment.

“That is good,” he said, referring more to her gesture than the drink.

“I know. So, how has your week been?”

“Honestly, crazy. We’ve just locked into a space on Hanover Street for our next endeavor.”

“A new restaurant? I remember you saying you were kind of looking,” Claire said.

“Yeah. Our bid was accepted and we are moving ahead. Sorry. I sort of gloss over details at times. We’ve been looking at that space for a while. It’s just down from Melrose’s Flowers. That awesome little space? Have you seen it?”

“Yes. Oh, that is going to be a cool little dive,” Claire said.

Claire was trying to remember all the vocabulary she learned from Dylan and Brett, in an effort to again impress Ryan and make it sound like she knew what she was talking about. It would be a lie, but right now, all bets were off, and it was time to impress.

“It is. I’m so excited. Anyway, I’ve been crazy busy with that process. Once we close, we get to start putting it together. It needs little work, since it used to be the old Korean place, um, what was it called?”

“Shoot. I remember the one, but can’t think of it. I ate there several times. It was good.”

“They were. Since it was a restaurant previously, we don’t have to do as much to convert the space.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“There was a huge uproar when we closed the gastro pub, so I’m going to do another. They are fun, you know, real simple dishes that can be spiked with flavor, and I also want locally brewed beers. I’m thinking of limiting it to just Massachusetts. I don’t know for certain, yet.”

“Wow. That sounds so cool.”

“Thanks. And how about you? How are things at Waterton?”

Claire took another sip of her drink and set it down. She looked at Ryan, and in the glow of the lights and the little candle on the table, he suddenly looked so sexy, so handsome, as he reclined in his seat and rested his hand on the base of his martini glass. His open collar fell to one side, revealing a nice neckline with some definition. She momentarily lost herself to what she deemed his sexiness.

“Oh, um, yeah,” Claire started, fumbling. “It’s well. Busy, as usual. We received a few new clients, so we are getting things rolling for them.”

“Maybe I could get you guys to help with our marketing,” Ryan said.

“Sure. Just let us know and we can take care of it for you. I might even handle that one myself,” she said, slyly.

Alright, there is chemistry here, Ryan thought. I like this. It’s going well.

The two chatted lightly, savoring the oysters when they arrived and making small talk about interests, hobbies, travels and the like. And, like two earnest hearts, they probed mercilessly for any information that might shed light on each other’s character, all the while glazing their words in bright smiles and soft laughs. They ordered a bottle of wine, something Ryan selected, and they each enjoyed a glass as their entrees arrived.

The aroma wafted to their nostrils in savory delight. Ryan eyed his meal carefully, as if judging it critically. Claire, not nearly so critical, simply looked on in delight at the beautiful presentation set before her. As she looked back up, she saw Ryan snapping a photo on his phone.

“Going to post that to Facebook?” she asked playfully.

“I’m a food geek,” was all Ryan replied.

They ate their entrees with delight, and the conversation grew in intimacy. They spoke of Claire’s family, of some of her dreams for the future, then turned to Ryan and his hopes for his culinary career. They did not touch upon Gillian or any of his immediate past, save for his culinary exploits. And his family was not mentioned. It was a ‘no man’s land’ topic for Ryan, something that sat by itself in the silence of aggression.

Their dinner was finally finished, dessert was shared, and the bill paid. Ryan met briefly with Casey, introducing Claire. She was delighted to meet the chef, feeling that he was a very intimate part of Ryan, and upon greeting him, she believed she saw a part of Ryan’s own soul.

When they exited the restaurant, the noise of the city attacked them, and the chill surrounded them. Standing on the sidewalk, both sensed the excitement of the city mingling with their own. The dinner was a success, and the chemistry between them was growing marvelously. And, each a little intoxicated, they slowly started the trek back to Charles Street.

Ryan walked close to Claire, sometimes touching her with his arm. She strolled along lazily, her heart telling her she had a delightful time and she did not want it to end. Ryan also fought back the pangs of the ending evening, the dark sky with its twinkling stars reminding him of the nothingness from which he came.

Claire pulled her jacket around her to guard against the cold, and Ryan stuffed his hands into his pockets. Talking casually, they crossed through the Common and began their gradual ascent up to the Hill, crossing before the same antiquated shops and over the same bricked walkway.

“This has been a lot of fun, Ryan. Thank you so much for dinner. You didn’t have to do that.”

“It was my pleasure. Least I could do after tackling -” and he was cut off by Claire,

“Will you stop!”

Claire playfully pushed him, and he moved with her effort, both laughing.

“But I -”

“Ryan, sweetie, stop. If that’s what it took for out paths to collide…” Claire did not finish her thought.

Claire touched upon a central tenant of her ideology, and though she believed it, she thought the celestial nature of their meeting was something too personal for a first date. Ryan guessed the same, and an awkward silence fell over them.

Their feet made soft thuds on the old brick work as they walked a few feet in silence, each realizing to a slight degree the depth of the moment. Ryan tried to think of something to say, but his thoughts escaped him. Claire ran the evening through her head, relishing the memories of laughter with him.

Finally, the conversation started up again, and they cordially spoke until they reached Clair’s entrance. Bathed in the light, they both stood awkwardly before her door, Ryan feeling like her father would appear any minute, and Claire debating if she should kiss his cheek.

“This was a pleasant evening,” Ryan said.

The trees swayed slowly, and a passing car illuminated them in its harsh beams, obscuring the romanticism of the dimly lit area.

“Yes, it was. Thanks again.”

Ryan wanted a romantic send off, and had rehearsed something for several hours before they met. It was time to institute it, regardless of how nervous he felt. He looked Claire in the face, that beautiful face that showered him with its grace all evening, and spoke slowly.

“There was an old custom in France, that, at the end of a meal, the chef had the distinct honor of kissing the noblewoman’s hand.”

Ryan extended his hand to take Claire’s, and she smirked.

“You’re bullshitting me. But kiss my hand anyway,” she replied brazenly.

Ryan raised the soft hand in his own, smelling first the last of her perfume and body spray, then pressing the soft flesh to his lips. The sensation, how it stirred him to feel her against him, her tenderness emanating through her limb to his mind, exciting it to its limits. He could have remained all night with that delicate hand to his face, but he slowly released her, and allowed her hand to resume its place by her side.

“You are a gentleman,” she said. “Goodnight, Ryan.”

“Goodnight, Claire.” Ryan replied, in a hushed whisper.

“Oh, if you are free any night next week, let me know. My calendar can be cleared.” Claire said.

Ryan smiled at the invitation and said he would love to see her again. His words wafted up to Claire’s ears like the scent of wild roses coming through a cool forest. Her heart skipped and she smiled back at him, the chill of the night no longer affecting her. With a graceful spin, she turned and entered her building, Ryan watching as she disappeared up a staircase.

In the darkness of the street, Ryan was so delighted he could barely understand his amusement or his happiness, both only so recently returning to his heart. He started to walk, but stopped, fearing he would lose her presence if he moved any further. Standing there, he could feel her and sense her, like she had yet to leave. It comforted him, for he knew the loneliness of his own apartment was awaiting him, loneliness that often found him during the night when the dark shades of the sky fell like a funeral shroud over his heart. For the moment, however, he felt no such pang, and basking in Claire’s glow, he remained, simply existing like the trees around him.

Upstairs, Claire managed to enter her apartment before she succumbed to the giddiness of their first date. Holding up her hand as if it were a sacred relic, she pressed it to her cheek, sensing his lips there. Leaning against her door, she savored the scent of his cologne on her hand.

The date was everything she wanted it to be: romantic, charming, fun and informative. And Ryan was everything she wanted him to be: romantic, charming and fun. Could she have imagined a perfect date, it would have looked just like theirs. Moving to the couch and kicking off her heels, she lounged back, wondering what it would be like to lounge in his arms, the couch cushion a poor example of the manly chest she knew existed beneath his shirt.

Claire was lost in her thoughts and dreams of happiness and bliss, her eyes staring not at the ceiling at which they gazed, but back into the memories of the restaurant, of him sitting across the table from her, looking so sophisticated and sexy. Those were her visions in that hour, those dreams and memories wrapped together into a newly emerging fantasy that was blazing in her mind.

The apartment was quiet, small and comfortable, and in the silence, Claire could dream. Her thoughts wandered for a little, but then she remembered a certain call she had to make, knowing a certain friend would be waiting to hear all the news.

“I’d better call, or I’ll never hear the end of it,” Claire said out loud.

Claire took her phone, and giggling at her comment, started through the living room, past the kitchen and into her bedroom, selecting Brett’s number as she went. The phone rang only once when he picked up.

“How did it go?” Brett asked hastily.

Claire laughed at his haste, and unzipping her dress, allowed it to fall to the floor before she fell on her bed, the soft duvet supporting her frame.

“No ‘hello’? No, ‘how are you?’”

“Come on, Claire, spill it!”

“Oh, Brett, he is a dream.”

“Do tell!”

“We had such a fantastic time. He picked me up and we walked to the restaurant, oh, um, the Bistro du Midi. He is so perfect, Brett.”

“That place is amazing. So, how was he dressed?”

“Like the sexy stud he is,” Claire replied.

“Sweetie, that doesn’t tell me much. You know you can tell a lot about a man by how he dresses himself. Was he casual, sleek, modern or classic?”

“Oh, definitely modern and sleek. Open collar, velvet jacket. He looked so sharp, and smelled so lovely. He is so hot.”

“How was he to talk to?”

“He’s a good conversationalist and a good listener. I like that in a guy, you know.”

“God, I have been wondering about you all night. I am so happy you had such a good time. Do you think there will be a second date? What vibe did you get from him? Any chemistry?”

Brett rattled off his questions with a fiery tongue, his eagerness to share in his friend’s date trumping even his speech abilities. He had indeed been wondering about Claire’s all night, hoping for the best for his friend. Now, having her at his disposal, Brett situated himself on his futon and listened to all she had to say, his heart swelling with joy. He loved nothing more than to see his best of friends have a good time. Brett cared for Claire, loved her even, and would do anything for her.

“Brett,” Claire began, more slowly and deliberately, “there is definite chemistry. I felt it all night. It’s, well, just the way he looked at me, and the way he spoke, and all of our interactions, they were fun and energized. It felt like we knew one another already. And I love that he’s a chef. That’s just too cool.”

“I know. Dylan has not stopped talking about all the fabulous parties we will have at your place now.”

“What! My parties aren’t fabulous now?”

“Sweetie, I mean, he’s a chef and all. Come on, you know what I meant.”

“I’m ragging you, baby,” Claire said, playfully.

“I’m glad for you. It sounds like it was amazing.”

“Oh, it was.”

The conversation continued long into the night. He critiqued her attire, and approved, much to Claire’s delight. With every detail divulged, Claire felt like she was present again, with Ryan sitting across from her, looking deep into her eyes. She could lose herself in those eyes, deep and mysterious as they were. And she wanted to.

Across town in the North End, Ryan sat alone in his apartment, a single lamp illuminating his glass of vodka. He sipped easily, staring at the distant wall. The solitude of the apartment used to feel like a tomb, but now it felt different. To Ryan, the solitude felt like the park on a chilly day, when most pedestrians remained inside. It felt open, but not lonely. His thoughts were far from the loneliness he often had as his only companion. His mind, once so haggard, turned now to a new joy in his life, and tasting the smooth vodka, he allowed his mind to wander freely.

“Ryan, things are looking up,” he said out loud.

Chapter 3

The weekend passed steadily enough for both Ryan and Claire, though they only shot a few random texts at one another. Each did not desire to pester the other too much, so they approached communication in a conservative fashion, each playing it cool, in regards to one another.

When the sun rose on Monday morning, Claire knew the week would hold another date with Ryan, and she eagerly started her Monday with that anticipation. She ran in the park, keeping an ever watchful eye out for a certain man, then changed and readied for work. When she arrived at the office, she traveled up with a few of the other employees, some of them asking politely, but intimately, about her Friday date. Others were brazen and demanded she tell them. Over a morning cup of coffee, she acquiesced, and to their hungry ears she divulged all they desired.

The morning labors grew heavy quite quickly, and Claire was forced from her playful manner into work mode, where all things personal were set aside. Meetings popped up, and calls were made. She reviewed several schemes and submitted the approved ones to upper management. She also was growing concerned that her budgetary work was not yet complete.

Brett was busy with his team, trying to figure how best to illustrate a newly emerging office supply retailer as the best option for small businesses.

“Claire,” Brett said as she passed through the office, “we need help on this one.”

“What?” she asked.

“It’s this company. They are in a shit part of town, their prices are exorbitant and their products not that diverse. How the hell do we make them look good?”

Brett fretted over this all weekend, knowing Monday would bring the decisive moment of compilation. For long hours on both Saturday and Sunday, he worked out several schemes, hoping for a burst of inspiration. It did not come, and now he and his team were struggling to make something of the “little shop of horrors.”

“Let me see,” Claire said.

Claire moved into their work space and Brett’s team gathered around his computer as he began uploading all of the images he and his team drafted. He pointed out the positive and negative of each, then slumped back in his chair, staring at the screen as if it were an adversary.

“Okay,” began Claire, “what we know of this, um, Office Express, is that they want to drive a good bargain. They are high priced, but the notes suggest they can match any retailer’s price. Focus on that. Also, down grade the color scheme. Don’t do pastel, maybe something like, oh, I don’t know, a flat tone. Stay basic.”

“Like this?”

Brett started to change the coloring format, highlighting some items and shading others. He also had another idea, and completely changed the font. One of his teammates suggested a type of script, and they worked that in. Claire watched them, pointing out some things that needed work and urging them on politely, until she felt they had the scheme up and running.

“That looks good, guys. Remember, the sooner we get it done, the better off we’ll all be. I’ll need that by this afternoon for the first submission.”

“You got it,” said Brett. “Okay guys, I need to have this coloring finalized and the layout finished by lunch.”

Claire listened for a moment, then started back down the hall, the ominous door of her office like a mouth ready to devour her. On her desk, the work piled and seemed to encompass all her mind, forcing out any other thoughts. She loved what she did, and was happy she could use both her talents and her degrees in her occupation, but sometimes the stress of the deadlines squeezed all the joy it held. She was grateful for such awesome coworkers, and especially Brett, who nearly seemed to read her mind. It made the total environment even better to have them all around.

Claire just entered her office when the elevator door opened and a man with a bouquet of flowers emerged, his eyes glancing from the paperwork to the name panels on the wall. He saw the name he needed and started in that direction, walking past all the cubicles filled with gazing eyes at the beautiful array of autumn colors passing them.

Some whispered and others simply smiled, wondering who the lucky recipient would be. Completely forgetting her date, it was with some amazement they watched the flowers pass them all and head toward the director’s office. Claire had been a bit of a hermit as of late, and her intimate dealings were all relegated to dates with Brett and Dylan. So, when the flowers stopped at her door, everyone watched.

“Excuse me, are you Ms. Claire Bedard?” the man asked.

Claire had just taken her seat and willingly condemned her soul to another hour’s worth of work on her desktop when she heard the man announce her name. Looking up, she saw only a bouquet of flowers, with legs sprouting from the vase.

Flowers? she thought. Who is sending me flowers? Daddy, maybe?

“Yes, that’s me,” Claire replied.

“Here you go,” the man said, stepping into her office and planting the vase, with a card, on her desk.

Claire admired the beautiful arrangement, the colors all mingling in a harmony that was almost foreign to her hectic day. She smiled and felt warm looking at them, and curious to know the sender, she snatched up the card and opened it.

The letter read simply: Here’s to our ‘first’ meeting, and a fun Friday night. Thanks, Ryan.

Claire melted in her seat, her heart pounding to escape her chest and prance around the room. She leaned back and all the labors of her morning quickly blew away; but one thought resounded with clarity in her heart: Ryan. Glancing out the window, she half expected to see a field of flowers stretching out from her vantage point. The steel buildings, their gray tones capable of dampening any spirit, did nothing to touch Claire’s enthusiasm.

Oh my gosh, he’s so perfect, Claire thought, holding the card to her heart and feeling her mind flooded by her affections. She was drifting mentally, wandering in some far off happy place filled with rose petals, holding hands with Ryan, when suddenly her phone chimed loudly. Looking up at it, she saw several faces peering over her threshold.

“Um, deadlines!” she playfully snapped.

The faces all scurried away, smiling and laughing, knowing from her response that the sender was a man of interest. Then, turning her gaze to her cell again, she picked it up to check the text that just came in.

Claire read aloud what was written: “Every Monday should start with flowers.”

“Oh my god, he is so freakin’ perfect,” Claire mistakenly said out loud.

With a rapid glance, she checked to make certain no one heard her. She enjoyed sharing her private details with her friends at work, but she shared what she desired, and nothing more. A private message needed to stay private, and only Brett would later be told, most likely over lunch.

Sealing up the card and placing it in her desk, Claire rearranged the flowers and stared at them for a moment, her mind completely lost to all around her. She sighed and silently embraced the feeling growing inside of her, that novel fascination with a man so handsome, so pleasant and now so romantic. Was he really going to belong to her? Were they really meant to be together? Was it going to actually happen? Claire asked herself these questions, hoping there was a resounding affirmation. With a playful shift in her seat, she responded to the text with a thank you and several hearts.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Claire was bundled up against the cold as she ran through the park. The wind coming off the pond was especially chilly, and she noticed there were not as many casual runners were present. Only the determined were still keeping their times on the trail, and she was among them, running despite the cold. She sometimes wondered why she ventured out in such weather, but nights like Friday made it worthwhile.

With some speed behind her, Claire was approaching the bridge. Since their destined meeting, Claire had a fondness for the location, and every time she crossed it, she thought of him. That made her smile.

There were some runners around Claire, but her speed was propelling her past them with ease, and soon she was on the bridge. She saw a man leaning against the railing, looking into the water. It was not uncustomary to see people gazing in the depths of the pond; many strollers often looked into its watery bed, making some forlorn wish about their futures. But this man, his style and physique, looked familiar to Claire, and she slowed, hoping fortune would reward her.

She jogged near the person, who was clearly a man, and suddenly she recognized the red beard and the smiling face. Dressed warmly himself, Ryan was in sweats, a hoodie and skull cap. Still breathing heavily, he had just stopped from his run to regain his breath.

“Oh my gosh, hey!” said Claire, her breath short.

“Hey, you!” returned Ryan. “How’s your run?”

Claire leaned against the stonework of the railing and tried to look into his face, but she had to lower her head a moment to catch herself. Ryan waited patiently, happy just to see her and stand before her. She looked so cute in her running clothes, he thought to himself. She always looked pulled together, whether running or dining. Every aspect of her exhibited a sort of control that was amazing, like she planned each step of her day. Ryan marveled at her, smiling, as he waited for her to breathe once more.

“Good,” she finally answered.

“Looks like it,” Ryan replied.

Ryan’s breathing had finally come under his control once again, and as he cooled, he felt the impact of his sweaty body against the cold of the park. A chill, both severe and unending, ran up his body and forced him to shake slightly.

“Man!” he exclaimed, “it’s chilly!”

“I know,” Claire said, her own body experiencing the same. “Run was good. I’m almost finished now. How have you been?”

“Doing well. We’re moving ahead with the space on Hanover Street. I should be in there in a few weeks. It’s all coming along nicely. You?”

“Well, the office is crazy, but there are these lovely flowers that seem to brighten and cheer the atmosphere. Thank you for those. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Whatever it takes to get you through the day, right?”

Ryan laughed, relishing how much she enjoyed the flowers, and seeing how successful they were. It felt good to feel affection once more, and doing for her made Ryan happy, like he had a real purpose again. From his darkened stupor, he could feel the warmth of her radiance melting his icy core. If this is how good it feels to shower love over her, he thought, then he would most certainly create a deluge to rain upon her.

“They are quite lovely.”

“I was thinking,” Ryan began, changing the subject, “maybe this Friday we could get together again?”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” Claire replied, smiling shyly.

“Anything you’d care to have? If not, I was thinking of a place.”

“I’m fine with whatever. If you choose it, I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

“Okay. If that’s the case, I was thinking total casual and a pop-up? I have a standing reservation, if we want it.”

Claire tried to give the impression she understood what a pop-up was, but in her mind, all she saw were two pop tarts leaping from a warm toaster. It made her giggle uncontrollably, and Ryan, sensing something was amiss, asked what was funny.

“I’m sorry, but a pop-up. You said that, and all I could think of were pop tarts.”

“Hah!” he shouted in laughter.

“I’m sorry. Oh, and now embarrassed.”

“Don’t be. That’s a good one. No, a pop-up is a temporary restaurant. I did one, once, very early on, when I was just starting out. I used an old factory and social media to pass the word. I know of an awesome one downtown that would be fun. They have a gig going Friday night. There’s also an awesome lounge around the corner where we could get drinks afterward.”

“Oohh, sounds fun. I’ve never been to a ‘pop-up’ before. Exciting!”

“Cool. I think it will be a good time. Oh, and how were those new clients you picked up? Did you get them squared away?”

“We did, thankfully. Their stuff is under way now. I’m thankful I could pawn one of them off on Brett and his guys.”

He remembered. I must admit, Claire thought, that is pretty amazing. He catches the details. Nice.

“I’m glad. I was wondering how that was going. I meant to text, but didn’t want to bother you.”

“Hey, no worries.”

“Well, I could talk with you all day, but I don’t want to keep you. I know you keep a tight schedule in the morning. So, I’ll touch bases with you tonight or tomorrow about times and such.”

“Yeah, okay. Tonight or tomorrow would work.”

“Alright, you can finish your run, and I am going to pass out in the grass. If I’m still here when you run past, throw a rock or something and get me up.”

“Ryan! I will not throw a rock at you,” Claire said, jokingly.

They laughed together, their expressions mingling together in a union of harmony and delight. Claire jokingly pushed his arm at the comment and he playfully tried to block it. It was flirtatious and joyful, something they both needed. Neither wanted to leave, but the words Ryan spoke were true, and time was passing, the schedule ever present to of the obedient souls who keep to its dictates.

“Alright. Well, it was great seeing you. I’ll talk to you later,” Claire said.

“Have a good day, Claire. I’ll text you later.”

“’K,” she said, and jogged off.


Ryan watched her cross the bridge much as he did the past two days. His schedule was busy, but he found time to run in the park, or more accurately, watch for her to come by. It was a joy to see her, and today he knew he wanted to speak to her again, to keep engaged with her without prying too deeply into her personal sphere.

As Claire moved through the chilly landscape, the leaves fell slowly around her, and above, stark limbs probed the sky. Ryan eyed her casually, watching every move she made. She was growing closer, he felt it. And he was opening to her, his heart warming more and more to her each day. He was a new man with her, new man from the old. With her, he would be amazing again. But in his heart, a little nagging fear emerged: the fear of her loss. As she ran, he vowed to himself he would not lose her. He simply would not.

Chapter 4

Claire stepped out the smelly cab after paying the man, then breathed the fresh air as her lungs desperately tried to expel the horrid stench of the vehicle from her body. She was accustomed to such rides across town, when infrequently she would select, by some evil whim of fate, a puke bucket of a vehicle that was previously used to haul the graveyard shift’s inebriated derelicts back to the squalors they called home. The cab sped off, and Claire looked up at the building, an old relic of a structure no doubt hosting the likes of some old tri-corned-hat-wearing diplomat. For all her time in the city, Claire explored little of its history, and now, standing before the building having just passed the old Copp’s burying ground, she felt the weight of antiquity falling upon her. In her own area, she quickly grew accustomed to the antiquated appearances that fell before her eyes every day, considering them the sights of her daily routine. But here, having passed the Paul Revere house on Hanover and somehow coming to the church, then the graveyard, Claire felt overwhelmed by her senses.

The night was chilly and, standing just opposite one of Boston’s oldest cemeteries, Claire would normally feel a chill colder than any created by the wind; but not on this night. Throughout the week, she kept an active correspondence with Ryan. She was delighted with the frequency of his texts, and the rapidity of his return when she answered. Ryan was unlike any of her previous boyfriends, who would answer with laxity. In their texting, Ryan outlined the plan for the evening, and Claire offered to drive alone to his place in the North End, rather than have Ryan come all the way mid-town just to return with her.

Tall streetlamps cast their hues on the sidewalk, and some of the lower apartments were liberal with their illumination, so from these two sources, Claire walked slowly over the sidewalk and up the steps to the building entrance. One large door stood over her, its old, wooden glass frame proudly exhibiting the remodeled features of the interior, from its marble flooring to its mahogany staircase. The building, Claire thought, looked rich.

Sliding her finger along the list of names, she found Ryan’s and rang the little bell. An ashtray and canister stood beside the door, not reeking of the scent of some, but somehow having a crest-like design pushed into the bud-less gravel pit on top. The building was three stories, all brick, and looked out over the cemetery with new paned windows, each lit in some manner. Claire remembered Ryan telling her briefly about all of the renovations that took place, and how he was excited to see them finally concluded.

Claire was still examining some of the brick work when a voice came over the little speaker, not crackling like some of the devices she had previously used, but crisp and clear, like a new one-hundred-dollar bill. She laughed to herself, thinking of the money that was spent on the building and its amenities.

“Hey Claire,” said Ryan, “I’m running behind. Come on up, if you don’t mind. Third floor, 310.”

“’K’,” Claire replied, smiling.

Now who’s running late, she thought to herself, and smiled.

The door made a loud click, and Claire pulled it open, allowing a gust of fresh cold air to escape. She entered the building, stepping from the ancient street to the modern reflections of some designer’s ideology. The building, while still retaining some of its architectural fascinations, was replete with a modernist’s design, from the low leather chairs near the door, to the European table cut with tight, sharp corners and a plate of glass for its top. The air was scented, though Claire could not distinguish the smell, and the foyer silent, much like the foyer in a funeral home. Claire’s steps were lightly placed for fear of making an echoing sound against the polished wooden floor and aqua colored walls.

An elevator was down the hall beside the mailboxes, but Claire opted for the grand staircase, with its circling, hand carved banister of rich mahogany. She climbed the carpeted steps, the thick new carpet beneath her feet making a soft crunching sound as she ascended. The building felt new to her, but it also had a sentiment of age. Claire could not explain it, but it felt like it had weathered many storms before and survived. She was no architect, and had no major interest in history, but she appreciated the notion of something enduring, something like this building, that could withstand the changes of society, culture, even the external influences of the weather, and the internal influences of its tenants, to remain a living embodiment of steadfastness. Each step further planted the idea in her head.

When Claire reached the third floor, she expected to hear the ruckus of living beings behind each of the doors, but it was strangely silent. There was movement, indeed, but it was muffled. How nice it was to be in a building with such noise reduction, she thought as she walked down the brightly lit hall. Each door was a darkened shade of blue, and the walls were the same aqua as in the foyer. The contrast of light and dark pleased Claire, and she found Ryan’s door, 310. She knocked softly.

Claire waited patiently, though she was excited and eager for an evening with Ryan. Their correspondence all week was pleasant and fun, but it was this night that held her in anticipation. She wondered how he would be dressed, how much fun they would have, and what new little pieces of himself he would reveal. As the day progressed, her excitement grew; now, standing before his door, she could hardly contain herself. She knew she had to play it cool, though, and so tried to focus. It was not easy, but she managed to push her zeal into submission.

The door knob rattled lightly, then the door swung open. Ryan, in jeans and a sleeveless undershirt, stood in the doorway. A hand towel was hastily thrown over his shoulder, and his neck was still damp, but freshly shaven.

“Hey,” Ryan said, greeting her warmly.

“Hey,” Claire replied happily.

“Look, I am so sorry. Things fell through today, and I was stuck at my new place for far too long. Ten minutes, and I’ll be ready to go.”

Ryan stepped aside as he spoke, his voice of mix of joy and pleading sorrow. He knew he was in the wrong, and it was with the greatest of haste that he sped around his apartment, changing and refreshing himself before she arrived. He hoped to have all the necessities completed by the set time, but when she buzzed, he knew the sound of that alarm meant failure.

“No worries,” Claire said, stepping inside.

Claire took in the apartment with one turn of her head. It was just as she had imagined, very modern, as if the building dictated his preferences. She stepped onto the wooden floor, and it creaked, a resounding sign of the building’s age.

“This is nice!” Claire exclaimed.

“Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything?”

Ryan closed the door and began migrating back to the bedroom. He was beside the kitchen and about to enter the hall. Turning, he saw Claire still staring around the space, looking at the color arrangement, the elevated dining space with a rich stained cedar table, the black leather couch and sofa by the fireplace, and the view from his windows.

“Really, make yourself at home,” he said. “I’ll be right out.”

Claire looked the apartment over, the design drawing her attention. All of the furniture was box-like and contained by sharp angles. The living space, sitting before the picturesque windows open to the city, and a fireplace, whose hearth was set in some type of light marble, looked essentially like a geometry exam, with near perfect measurements mimicking the leather furniture in the apartment.

The open space was pleasant, though certainly a style Claire had never imagined liking, or affording. She looked through a vacancy in the wall into the kitchen and noticed a lot of appliances she did not recognize, a faucet not attached to the sink basin and a back splash of tiny royal blue and hazel tiles that was amazing. Walking around a little more, she felt excited to finally see Ryan’s place, and through its design, she eagerly picked up items of his personality.

The tables were relatively free of clutter and debris, and matching lamps adorned those of the living space. A buffet beside the dining room table had upon it a tray with a glass decanter and two glasses. There was a substance contained within: maybe whiskey, Claire thought.

What pictures adorned the walls were simple landscapes picked more for their color arrangement than for the scene depicted, but they all had a common theme of agrarian and antiquated countryside. The place was neat and tidy, with nothing sitting out that should not be out. She smiled. Claire was also tidy, and had little tolerance for a cluttered room, or personality, for that matter. She liked things neat and in order, though this place seemed a little too ordered, and what soul it contained had to measure up to the infinite lines and geometrical exactness used to create it.

From the bedroom, sounds emerged that indicated Ryan was almost ready, though Claire had no clue as to their definite meaning. The running water ceased, and all the scurrying seemed to halt. She moved to the living room and sat upon the couch, the furniture not soft or even inviting. Quickly, Claire got the impression she was sitting in the old living room of her grandmother’s house, the room used only on special occasions, when young children were welcome to enter its hallowed precinct. She moved little, seeing the couch would offer her little comfort or satisfaction. Staring at the empty fireplace, she saw gas logs and a dial to the side. How she yearned to light that fireplace and snuggle up with Ryan. Maybe later, she thought.

Quick steps signaled Ryan’s entrance. Claire turned around to see him, his jeans hugging him tantalizingly. With a jacket in his hands, he stood past the kitchen, seemingly standing for an inspection. Ryan looked cool and casual, with a pulled out long sleeve shirt, merlot in color with an open collar, and faded jeans. Casual leather shoes accented his dress and made for a splash of sophistication. Claire stood, her eyes feasting as she rose.

“Okay, I’m ready,” Ryan said. “Again, sorry.”

“I’ll wait as long as you want to see you look like this,” replied Claire.

There was instantly between them the greatest degree of awkwardness, as a sly smile came across Ryan’s face and Claire fully heard what her mouth just spoke. Seldom did she blurt out the contents of her heart, but in this case, it got the better of her. Feeling the blood rising to her face, Claire could sense the intensity of her blush and the uneasiness of the moment playfully taunting her.

Ryan did not miss a beat. With his own sense of humor enticed, and his pride bolstered, he moved to the door.

“Well, since I am the hotness, why not take me out and show me off?”

Claire blushed more severely, threw her coat on and moved past Ryan into the hall. Ryan could not help admiring Claire as she strolled past, and certainly managed a glance at her backside, encased as it was in a pair of jeans made to enhance worship of it. She was fashionable, he thought, with her jeans tucked into a pair of black boots, her hair tossed beautifully to one side, and her blouse - the loud and flamboyant accent her otherwise dark attire needed with its folds hanging nicely off the neck - revealed her soft neckline and delicate collar bone.

Out in the hall, Claire was smirking to herself about her comment, while Ryan closed the door and locked it. She still couldn’t believe what she had said, but now that the moment was passing, she was finding humor and a little spunk in the issue, and knew it would enliven the evening.


“Let’s,” Claire replied.

“Yeah,” Ryan began, both of them taking the stairs, “things took a turn today. Nothing major, but one of those issues that shouldn’t have taken as long as it did, but it did. Know what I mean?”

“Sorry to hear it. What happened?”

“Just city zoning crap.”

“Oohh, sounds like fun.”

“Yeah, fun, if you like a root canal,” Ryan said, the sarcasm evident.

They both laughed and made their way out of the building and into the cold, the animation of city life juxtaposing with the solitude of the cemetery across the street. They walked quickly, as the pop-up was about to serve, and through the crowded sidewalks, filled with revelers, sight seers, and late night strollers, they managed to reached the threshold of an otherwise derelict old wharf. Age robbed the once grand building of its beauty and elegance, but what remained was still a solid structure, the brick and mortar telling hundreds of stories of old fishing and whaling vessels anchored nearby. The splash of the bay could be heard against the docks as Claire and Ryan moved down the old lane, followed by a few couples. The building had but one open entrance, and there the event stationed a lone sentry whose duty it was to bring the guests in, a type of culinary Jesus welcoming all to the table.

Claire looked around as they followed the old yellow lamps down the cobblestone road. There was little noise here, and the dark sky seemed to shower the scene with all of its darkest hues, hiding from sight any sign of the stars and shielding all eyes from anything save its own presence.

“This is it,” Ryan whispered.

They neared the door, and the light over it illuminated just the entryway, and nothing else. The rays cast the sentry in a glow that seem both dirty and old, the light not near as crisp and bright as Claire would have preferred. Something moved in the darkness beside a collection of old cans, and one of them fell, resounding along the building with a loud clatter.

Claire started, but quickly regrouped and looked at the hipster man before the door. Ryan spoke to him in hushed tones, as if the building were a temple, and the experience a god to worship. The man smiled and opened the door, a large and rusty metal barrier that seemed eternally locked by its own decay until he jolted it loose.

“This is going to be awesome,” Ryan whispered.

Claire nodded and followed Ryan into the building. The scent of age was prevalent, and there was also a hint of mustiness lingering in the chilly section of the building. As they progressed through a long hallway lit by battery operated lanterns, the liveliness of the crowd already hidden in the recesses of the building, and the scents of the menu that dared to escape from their confines, filled both their ears and nostrils.

Claire looked at the building, seeing some signs of its former existence as a wharf and store building. Old papers were scattered on the floor, and some placards hung from the wall, the kind reminding employees of caution and detailing basic rules. The building, Claire thought, looked like an excellent hobo motel, and she wondered if they would be dining on the floor with Mutt and Jeff for the evening.

Ryan led the way through the hall as his anticipation grew, hastening his pace. He said a few words about the chefs working on the menu, and how it was going to be the greatest thing ever. Claire did not share his enthusiasm, but followed nonetheless, figuring Ryan was still a much better selector of culinary delights than she, though she had doubts about their location.

The boisterous sounds of a crowd grew louder as they finally moved out of the long hallway and into a large space, the main section of the old building. The ceiling shot twenty feet above them, latticed with steel beams where some pigeons were housed. The floor, cemented and running nearly the span of a football field, was dotted on one end with about fifty tables, all large for family style dining, and clothed in an eccentric array of tablecloths purchased at second hand stores. The tables were each crowned with a candle, and burning above their heads were several strings of lights, all dim and casting a soft glow onto the floor.

People moved freely in and among the tables, many of them sitting, all others chatting and socializing. It was a party, a large party for hipsters, and those present were part of a community in Boston that sought out the funkiest, trendiest and most spectacular restaurant dives in town. Claire was amazed that, in place of shabby attire, she saw sport coats, cocktail dresses, jeans and all sorts of modern fashion, all worn by trendy men and beautiful women.

A man and a guitar were playing in the corner, his voice bellowing out a folksy version of Highwayman in the manner of the Man in Black.

“Highwaymen,” Ryan said. “That’s odd. But hey, why not, right?”

Claire looked into Ryan’s eyes and she could see him feeding off of the excitement of the event: the noise, the smells, the clamor of the crowd, and in the distance, the clattering of plates. It all worked to arouse in him an energy she had yet to see.

“This is pretty awesome,” she said in response.

“Yes!” Ryan shouted.

Claire’s seeming approval of the evening made Ryan so much more excited. He looked over the scene and found a table that was still empty, like an oasis in the midst of a desert.

“There,” he said, pointing.

Together, they moved through the room until they reached the table, where Claire took her seat. Ryan was still standing, half engaged in the event and half engaged with Claire. He recognized people present, some he had served and others with whom he had worked. For Ryan, it was a bit of a reunion.

“We’d better secure our seats,” Ryan said, “or we can kiss them goodbye.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Claire began. “I mean, everything looks so cool, yet it’s in a warehouse. And the smells are so delicious. I can’t wait to try what comes out.”

Ryan pulled out a chair and sat beside Claire, tossing two tickets on the table to reserve their chairs. The floor was interesting, but he wanted more to talk with Claire and watch as she experienced something that he knew was going to be fantastic.

“Just wait,” he said. “I know the chef here, and Jeremy does some amazing stuff. It’s kind of like neo-Sicilian, ocean focused and funky; so imaginative. Nothing like what you’d get at your typical chain restaurant. It’s just amazing. Like the time he did those Italian tacos!”

“Italian tacos?”

“Yeah, Italian tacos. They were freakin’ amazing. Tortillas with pulled chicken picata, heavy on the capers and with the addition of cilantro. Oh, and red onions. God, it was good.”

“Interesting,” Claire replied.

“It was. Anyway, I could talk food all night. Let’s get a drink and I want to hear how your new clients are doing.”

Claire smiled at him. She loved the way he took an interest in her. It always made her smile when he brought up details from previous conversations. Ryan had such a way of listening that it felt as if he were not only hearing the conversation, but also ingesting it. Whatever she said, Claire knew he would remember.

“Bobby Brody is making the drinks tonight,” Ryan said as they walked, “and this stuff is good.”

“You know everybody, don’t you,” Claire stated, laughing.

“Not as many as I should,” he replied.

As they walked, Ryan greeted some people, stopped to talk a few words with another, and all together looked as if he were the center of this party. He moved with energy and zeal, the smile on his face brightening the path to the beverages. Claire felt so cool and trendy being with him.

They approached the bar, or the large, elevated table that was to be the bar, and waited in line behind the other couples. Ryan and Claire chatted lightly about their days, and Ryan took special note of how Claire’s day progressed. Priding himself on his ability to remember the small details, Ryan listened keenly, knowing he could draw from them later.

“Wow, that really sucks,” Ryan said in response to a lecture Claire received from a client.

“Tell me about it. But, it is what it is,” she replied.

“But to call you out like that? I mean, really?”

“The joys of being in charge. You know what it’s like,” Claire said.

“That I do,” Ryan answered.

“What can I get rolling for you both?” asked Bobby from behind the bar.

Ryan looked over the stock of liquors behind the bartender on a smaller table, and glanced quickly at the bowls of fresh lemons and limes, cubed sugar, absinth and some of the other details most people would probably not notice. This is good, Ryan thought with enthusiasm.

“Let me get a Pomegranate Martini for this pretty lady, and a Pisco Fizz.”

Claire was deciding what she was going to order when she heard her favorite drink mentioned, and in reference to her. God, he remembered, she thought, thinking of their previous date when she ordered it. Did I say I liked it, or did he just read me? He is so amazing, she thought to herself.

“That’s good?” Ryan asked, looking at Claire.

“Perfect,” she replied.

“If not, we can get something else,”

“No, it’s just what I wanted. You remembered.”

“Of course I did,” Ryan began with a wink to her. “You’re not easily forgotten.”

Ryan paid the man, and they watched as he crafted their drinks. Claire’s was simple, but Ryan’s had a bit of science to it, as it included an egg white. Claire was amazed to see the inclusion of a breakfast food in Ryan’s drink, and marveled when she tried a sip of it.

“That’s really good!” she exclaimed.

“Isn’t it? I told you Bobby does awesome stuff.”

Bobby just laughed and pocketed the money, then handed over Claire’s drink as well, after quickly tasting the sample he pulled out with a cocktail straw. It was good and to his liking, so out it went.

Back at their seats, Ryan turned so as to face Claire, and rested an elbow on the table. Together they chatted happily with all of the noise clamoring around them. The conversation drifted lazily from one topic to another, their lives unfolding evenly as the evening wore on. Ryan learned of Claire’s first cheerleading game, and Claire heard of the time Ryan and his friends were chased by a bull after sneaking across a barbed wire fence. They laughed in their own little world in the corner, and their only thoughts were of each other. For the time, Ryan totally forgot the menu, the food and even his drink. Claire’s words were his food, his nourishment, and that was all he desired.

The meal progressed in culinary splendor, with each course more amazing than the previous. Claire could not believe what the chefs could do with such simple ingredients. A soup, an old recipe Italian salad, pork cutlets with a sauce - it was all amazing. Each bite brought about a little transcendence, and the more Claire delighted in the event, the more Ryan grew excited. She recognized that he had the anticipation of a little boy, and excitement at watching her enjoy the night. As for Ryan, her approval of his choice made him feel strong and satisfied, and comfortable. He did not need approval from Claire, but he sought it; her approval meant she was happy, and for him, making her happy was a true delight. It felt good to feel good again, and to watch Claire’s face glow with enthusiasm.

When the crowd began to disperse, stomachs full and minds completely blown asunder by the amazing and delectable feat, Claire and Ryan followed, their pace slower than the rest. Retracing their steps, they found themselves back outside the building, though this time, the dark and morose surroundings did not stir Claire quite like it did earlier. She was too enthralled by the night to feel anything other than the joy. Looking into Ryan’s eyes, through the light of the last lantern, she saw the same.

“This was so much fun!” she exclaimed in delight.

“It was. I’m glad you liked it. I confess now, I was a little apprehensive when I saw the building. I wasn’t sure how you’d like it. I mean, I know these gigs are usually in out of the way places, but this was a bit much,” replied Ryan.

“I thought it added to the whole night. Who gets to have dinner in an old, creepy warehouse, right? Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm, “I’ll buy us some drinks. I know you had a place in mind, but so do I,” Claire said, winking at him.

“I’m game for whatever.”

Together, with Claire interlocking her arm through his, they walked the streets of the old wharf, then turned onto Salem, where Claire had a destination in mind. She planned, or rather strategized, with Brett about a really trendy bar to go to afterwards, and he recommended a place that would fit them just fine. It was eclectic, funky, served really great New England craft beers, and had a plastic dinosaur collection on one it its shelves in the corner. Claire thought it would be the perfect location to take Ryan, and arm in arm, she set their steps toward it.

“So, what is this place?” Ryan asked.

“You’ll see,” was all Claire replied.

At the door, or rather, the recycled old barn doors with metal piping for handles, Claire stopped and looked at Ryan.

“Here we are,” she said.

Clair lightly threw her head around, indicating the termination of the walk, but certainly not of their evening. Ryan looked at the old brick structure and the glowing, glaring neon light of a giant fish emerging from a tiny little pond, and laughed.

“What is this place?” he asked.

The excitement in his voice was evident, and his eyes roved the windows and the little neon signs hung up to display brands Ryan knew all too well.

“You’ll like it. It’s your sort of place. Come on,” she said, again taking him by the arm.

“I’m at your disposal,” Ryan replied.

The noise so craftily contained behind the old barn doors erupted in their faces, as a funky blend of rock and jazz that carried on the vocals of a gorgeous female vocalist met their ears. The room, smaller than would be supposed, had a bar spanning the length of the wall, packed with several refrigerators labeled with different beers. Several couches, of all different patterns and styles, sat opposite to the bar, and all manner of chairs and ottomans graced the space in between. The crowning jewel, however, were the erratic and schizophrenic items on display anywhere the eye could imagine something existing. On top of bookcases, on random spots on the bar, nailed to the walls and hung from curtains, all manner of little trinkets and dolls hung and sat and stood, each peering lifelessly into the room of joviality. Barbie dolls sat on sphinxes while a Sponge Bob rode a T-Rex. Posters of local rock concerts, and stickers of many of the local and regional craft breweries decorated the remaining spaces. It was a fun atmosphere, but not one for any person with OCD.

Ryan nearly spun in place trying to absorb the totality of the room. He laughed at many of the things he saw. He loved the atmosphere, but knew he could never open a place like it. Few were the bars of this nature, and even fewer were the select people who could run them.

“What do you think?” Claire asked.

“Wicked,” he replied.

“Wait till you see what they have,” she said.

Ryan nodded, engrossed momentarily in a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles played by a geeky looking twenty something sitting on the floor before a Nintendo. Ryan immediately remembered his childhood, and the electronic babysitter that kept him occupied for hours on end.

They moved through the gathering crowd and found two stools, both common looking and recycled from two different businesses, and sat down. The bar was of wood, a specimen not of this generation, or even half a century. It had the appearance of something that might have had the likes of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp sitting there, if it ever lived out west. Ryan ran his hands along its contours like he was communicating with it.

“Old furniture is awesome. It always has a story to tell,” Ryan said.

Claire picked up one of the printed menus in a plastic holder, and looked it over, leaning toward Ryan to share. He glanced at it briefly, and knowing immediately what he was going to order, went back to his visual inspection of his surroundings. Several old notebooks were tossed on the bar, some acting like coasters. Each had a title, ranging from ‘Religion’ to ‘Comfort Foods.’ He picked up the one that said ‘Love’ and leafed through the pages of drawings and poems, sonnets and proverbial phrases.

“Look at this,” he said, nudging Claire.

“What’s that?” she asked inquisitively.

“A book,” he said in feigned dryness.

Claire laughed and pushed him playfully, relishing the gentle interplay between them. She equally enjoyed Ryan’s subtle approach to sarcasm, his intonations having just enough bite to be fun, but not stinging enough to be hurtful.

“I can see that!” Claire replied. “What’s in it?”

“People’s thoughts on love. Every one of these books has a different topic. This is interesting, I must say.”

Claire used the occasion to nudge closer to Ryan and casually lean over his shoulder, her hand holding his arm for stability. Touching him was electrifying for her, and being so close to him, feeling him and hearing his soft breaths was meaningful on a level she had not encountered. Few were the men who entered so deeply into Claire’s heart, and so quickly. When it came to men, she learned early to be careful and not open herself too hastily. With Ryan, however, she felt a strength in her vulnerability, and knew she was safe in her weakness because she believed Ryan would never hurt her.

“What are they saying?” she asked, lowering her chin to his shoulder.

Ryan felt her rest against him, and try as he did to focus on the myriad of writing styles on the page, he could think of nothing else save her touch. Like Claire, he opened quickly to her, in his own mind seeing one who would be caring and loving, one who seemed to understand his situation, and one who would help him through the losses he carried with him. Looking at the scribble on the page, he smiled.

“Love is an awkward poem, apparently, and a picture of bigfoot with roses. Oh,” he paused, flipping a page, “and the ‘sentiment of our existence.’”

Claire chuckled at the comically stoic voice he used to read the line. She wanted to know, almost had to know, and so ventured the question:

“What do you think love is?”

Ryan put the book down as the barmaid came and stood before them. Agitation erupted in Claire’s mind as the conversation came to an abrupt cessation. The girl, a young, quirky ginger with a graphic tank top of Iron Man and matching mask tattooed on her arm, stood before them, unknowingly defiant of the humble nature reserved for more professional servers. She smiled at them and flippantly asked for their orders, winking at Ryan.

“Oh, um, Audacity for me, and Claire, did you want another mixed drink, or a beer?”

Claire was not thinking beer at the moment; her concentration was focused on the playful bar maid who was making eyes at Ryan, smiling at him and leaning partially over the counter to get closer to his cropped beard.

“I’ll have what you’re having,” she said, looking directly at the girl with a glare.

The girl fluttered away, and Claire watched at the lithe little sprite kept glancing back at Ryan. Jealously was powerful in a heart piqued by love, and it was simmering in Claire at that moment. No amount of alcohol would quench the thirst of that demon.

“So,” Claire began, attempting to mask the bitch in her voice, “what were you going to say?”

“What?” he asked her.

Ryan had been watching the girl move around the bar area, getting their drinks, and when she brought them back over, she did not condescend to look at Claire, but placed both beverages before Ryan, calling him ‘cutie.’

Claire looked at Ryan sharply, wondering what he was thinking about the exposed flesh of the little fawn behind the bar. At that moment, she realized how deep her interest was for Ryan, since she was a cauldron of animosity boiling uncontrollably.

“You were going to enlighten me on the subject of that book?”

“I wouldn’t hire her,” he said flatly, sipping his beer.

Ryan slid Claire’s drink to her, and the cold glass chilled her hand. She watched as Ryan’s eyes returned to the girl behind the bar, whose attention was now on two young gentlemen. With her scripted and well-rehearsed routine, she flirted with them unabashedly.

Claire was a little annoyed he paid so much attention to the girl. They were about to start upon a meaningful conversation, and it was interrupted. Then, when she thought they could return to it, Ryan lusted for the ginger. Claire took a gulp of the beer, the powerful taste shocking her out of her stupor, and the alcohol content further emboldening her aggravated frame of mind.

“Why?” Claire asked him.

“I wouldn’t hire her? She’s not professional. She flirts with everyone, which I detest in a server. And she flirted with me while you were sitting right here. As a server, you need to have fun with your job, and help create a lively and enjoyable experience for your customers, but not like that. Her tip will reflect my displeasure.”

Like water to a fire, Claire felt the disarming words cool her temperament until it was all but extinguished. She marveled at his response, his words speaking more loudly and profoundly than he anticipated. A feeling of relaxation came over Claire, and she sat back in her chair, pulling her beer closer, though she did not know how she could consume another drop.

“So, the book?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. What do I think of love? Hmmm,” he began. “I don’t know. I guess it’s finding that person who allows you to see the future.”

“Your lover should be a psychic?” she asked, confused.


“But what do you mean?”

“I mean,” Ryan started, “that in life, I have certain things that allow me to see into the future, like my businesses. I start a restaurant, and I can see me carrying it into a half, then a full decade. Now, I can’t actually see the future, but I have a goal, a course, and it leads forward. The same is with love. I’ve dated people and I could see nothing. I saw the relationship going nowhere. I could see no kids with the white picket fence, all that stuff. But, with others, I could see a future, and could almost feel it. The right person will open up the heavens for you.”

At that last line, he was staring into Claire’s eyes, his own orbs conveying the true sentiment he was sharing more than the words he was uttering. He waited for a response from her, but none came. She opened her mouth to speak, but she could not formulate anything to stay. He took from her every breath in her body and held it, as if to fragrance them in passion and return them to her chest.

Ryan’s words, so flavored with a sentimental sincerity, were words Claire had never heard spoken before, not even by her father, whom she considered one of the best men she ever knew.

“Ryan,” she finally breathed, “that’s beautiful.”

Claire’s words were a whisper barely audible over the clamor of the music. Ryan gave her a soft but powerful smile, a face that showed her the depth of his emotions. Then, turning his eyes down to his glass, he thumbed through the book again. There was a tinge of awkwardness in him, and averting his eyes helped him to seemingly hide from Claire’s penetrating gaze.

“Well, how about you?”

Ryan’s tone was not as inquisitive as it was subdued, like the thought he just expressed sapped him of so much strength. He looked at her while resting his elbows on the bar.

Claire leaned forward and, fortunately, had her thoughts ready. Love was a topic that had been present in her mind for the past few days, and she was able to draw from the myriad of thoughts she had to hopefully amaze him as much as he did her.

“Well, I think love is being able to be vulnerable with that person, and knowing they will not hurt you. It allows you to open yourself in an aura of safety and respect, and expose your inner self to them without fear. And it is loyalty, you know, each partner committing to the other no matter the circumstances. Devotion and loyalty, not just in faithfulness, but in everything. It’s just always being there for the other person, come what may.”

“Wow,” Ryan said. “That’s pretty profound.”

There was a lot of truth in what Claire just said, and Ryan knew it. He carried pain with him, but with Claire, he felt he did not have to hide. After a while, he concealed his agony from his friends, fearing they would tire of his presence if he continued his mourning. With Claire, he felt no need to be anything other than himself, happy or sad. He liked that about her.

“That’s, um, yeah. That’s really interesting. I mean,” he began, slowly and awkwardly, “that’s kind of how I feel with you. It’s no lie I carry a lot with me. Good friends are always there for you, yet it seems society puts a time limit on the amount of time one can mourn. But I feel I can be myself with you. And that’s awesome.”

Claire tried to sip again, but the beer was a boxer she did not feel like fighting, and she set it back down. What interested her more were the words she just heard, emanating from a heart she had only just met, but a heart she felt strongly attached to and a heart for which she was learning to care.

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

It was all Claire could say, all she really needed to say. They both knew how each other felt, or were at least able to accurately guess within a notion or two. Ryan and Claire both shared much of themselves in that moment, and each knew it was the beginning of something more, an invitation to explore deeper and search harder. Doors were unlocking and opening, and an entrance was being offered to both.

The bartender returned to see if they – or more accurately, Ryan – needed anything, and he quietly dismissed her. He had no thought for the girl, as his interest was placed in the one beside him.

The conversation turned more than cordial once again, leaving behind the philosophical candles that burned brightly with their definitions. They laughed and poked fun at one another, the things young and blossoming couples do when flirting. Claire managed to consume her beer, with a little coaxing from Ryan and a little additional help. Her second selection was something light and fruity. Ryan called it a Hefeweisen, but Claire knew she would never remember that name.

When the inevitable end of the evening came, they stood outside of the bar in the night air. Ryan hailed a cab for Claire and tossed the driver a fifty to ensure she got home safely. Claire argued, but he was insistent. Before she got in, they made hasty plans for the following night. Nothing fancy, and Claire wanted to walk through the Common.

Ryan agreed, and closed the door to the car. As it drove off, he watched until the red taillights blurred with the menagerie of the white and red lights of the road, vanishing into a brilliant patchwork of illumination.

* * * * * * * * * *

Their weekend was over, and Claire longing to be beside Ryan again, she contented herself with admiring the beautiful bouquet on her desk Monday morning. She knew its origin, and smiled contentedly as the aromas filled her office. They were texting playfully, his returning faster than she could send them.

Claire felt special, loved even, and she relished it. The feeling swept her away in a wave of pleasure and excitement. She cared little for the buzz of the office, and when Brett emerged, grinning, all she could utter was that Ryan was too good to be true.

Sitting across from the building, his phone still in his gloved hand, he waited for a response that did not come. It did not bother Ryan, but concealed in the shadows, he watched the delivery and what movement he could discern from her window. Being there made him feel her, and his proximity to her gave great comfort to his heart. He looked at his phone once more, checking to see if she replied, then slowly put it away, irked and jaded by the missing reply. But he smiled, feeling her and feeling his own love for her growing. He would stay a little longer, waiting, the flower delivery vehicle passing him as it turned down a side street. There, he would sit. And watch.

Chapter 5

The days turned into weeks, and as each setting sun ushered in a new night, and each rising sun brought a new day, the hearts of Ryan and Claire grew closer. They chatted over the phone, kept a rigorous correspondence over texting, messaged one another and sent silly Facebook posts at random hours. Soon their spare moments were shared together, sometimes in planned outings or impromptu dinners or get-togethers. Occasionally, Claire would find Ryan waiting for her outside and, cheerfully huddled together, they would brace against the cold as he walked her home. Claire even had the audacity to cook for Ryan, and though it was simple, Ryan treated the meal as if it were prepared by James Beard himself, although they shared a few jokes at her expense.

It wasn’t long before they were an “item.” Both hearts were sealed from the rest of the world, saved for each other only. Ryan blessed the moment they confessed their mutual affection for one another, and remembered well that special glimmer in Claire’s eye when they had their “talk.”

They saw their first month together and started on their second, when the even chillier October winds came rushing in, and the Common became a field of North Face-wearing joggers. Claire and Ryan went running together, when Ryan had time. His new restaurant was close to being ready, as he and his crew worked furiously on it. Ryan had the benefit of experience in opening restaurants, and had all the connections he needed to streamline the process. They were approaching the opening date, and Claire could not have been more excited or proud of him.

The more time they spent together, the more they fell in love, and Claire enjoyed his frequent texting. Ryan was constantly checking in with her, following her and charting her whereabouts. She thought it cute and caring; he thought it a “need-to-know.” Ryan’s phone was his lifeline. He was able to secretly install the ‘Find My Friends’ app on her phone and followed her every step without her knowledge, from mid-town to the south and north. He knew her location down to the street corner, though he did not dare make it known. Ryan wanted to protect her, to keep her safe from harm and safe for him. To do so, he needed to know where she was and where she was going. It was all for her safety, because he loved her. That’s what he told himself, justifying why he did what he did. Constantly.

It was just before Halloween when the restaurant was about to open. It was set for a Wednesday night, a good night to do a soft opening, but given the hype throughout Boston, Ryan knew it would not be quiet. Every reviewer in the city mentioned the new gig as something to be anticipated, and the word on the food scene was that the new restaurant was going to be something to behold. Ryan was seductively secretive about it, divulging little to keep anticipation high. He also swore Claire to silence since she was intimate with the planning phase and had even tasted some of the menu. She picked the name, calling it Lady Burwell’s, after the infamous ‘ghost’ of the Creighton plantation she visited on a work related trip to Richmond, Virginia.

On the day of the opening, Claire was busy in the office, handling new clients and deadlines. She had staff meetings in the morning, client consultations and proposal meetings in the early afternoon, and a final budgetary meeting before leaving to meet Ryan at Lady Burwell’s. Patience was thin that day for everyone, and though she tried to respond to Ryan as quickly as possible, she found some of his texts snippy and short.

It’s just the stress. That’s all. It’s opening day, and I need to try and make more time for him. He’s so busy and under a lot of pressure right now, she thought as she typed out a message, while walking briskly down the rows of cubicles.

“Claire!” shouted one person.

“What?” she asked, stopping short.

“I have a question,” he asked.

Claire did not look up from her phone, but hastily finished her message before going over to the cubicle. That was how her mornings always went, with her proceeding to do one thing and getting sidetracked into something else. She entered the cubicle when her phone chimed.

Just five minutes, baby, she said to herself with a soft sigh.


The designer laid out the situation and showed the issues he was having on a particular spread. Claire looked it over, made a few comments, and set him on his way. As she was moving away, two other people also called to her. She could be late for her meeting, and again, her phone chimed.

Her whole morning, Claire felt as if she were running, with everything around her seemingly a blur. It was hectic and fast paced, and any spare moment she had she either texted Ryan or answered his calls, sometimes returning them if she couldn’t get to her phone in time. He oscillated between cordial, worried and reticent with Claire, and she endeavored to maintain a cheerful demeanor, hoping to persuade him to settle in a friendlier vein.

Sitting at her desk for a moment, she was taking what athletes would call a ‘breather.’ God, what a day, she thought. This is just crazy shit. So much, and why today with the opening? Like I really need this now. I need to get this spread finished, so I can scurry out of here when it’s time. I don’t want to be late for Ryan. I know he’ll be, well, he’s under stress right now, so it’s natural to be uptight. Another text? Claire thought, picking up her phone. It was Ryan.

‘Where are you?’ the text read.

Claire replied she was in her office taking a few minutes to organize her notes before a meeting. She had the notes sitting before her, all her marginalia cluttering the pages. She glanced at them, but they looked too frustrating, so she turned away. She was in no mood.

‘Why didn’t you call if you had a minute?’ Ryan texted back.

‘I’m sorry baby,’ she began in her text. ‘I needed a moment to catch my breath, then look over these god-awful notes,’ she texted back.

‘If I text you, you text back!’ Ryan replied, followed by ‘And if you have a minute, call.’ That was all.

Claire looked at the screen, the little bubble cloud appearing so friendly, but the words so menacing and mean. Her heart sank. For all her efforts to keep him happy on this day, and all the energy she put into replying with haste to his texts, she failed, and blamed herself for his bad mood. She came into the day with a purpose, and now that purpose fell.

Claire texted him she was sorry, but there came no response. The phone, its harsh light thrown onto her downtrodden face, did not flash any indication of a message. It was silent, seemingly mournful and sharing Claire’s grief. She grabbed her notes and went to her next meeting, distraught and somber.

Throughout the remainder of the day, Claire kept up a gentle barrage of encouraging texts to Ryan, and slowly, he emerged from his isolationist cavity. She knew that if she was to be present for him, he was going to have to be more prominent in her life. She was understanding that, and changed herself and her schedule to meet that demand.

When the workday finally ended, Claire felt both a sense of relief that such a day had passed, and excitement over the opening of the restaurant, which was in an hour. She bade Brett goodbye, knowing she would probably see him again that evening, and hastened across town to get to the restaurant.

Ryan brought Claire to the location a few times prior to the opening, so she was familiar with the old block and the Italian feel of the neighborhood. When she exited the cab, cooking tomato sauce wafted in the air, and garlic seemed to permeate the softest breeze. This is it, she thought to herself, looking up at the sign and shining glass windows of the restaurant façade.

Claire could not have been more nervous, excited and anxious for this moment as she moved past the building, strolling over the old sidewalk to the rear of the block. In the alley, aged by many years of retail and culinary use, she found blatant signs of modernity. Large crates and boxes were discarded beside a new dumpster. Some large speed racks and a table were pulled out, and one lone worker, a young man dressed in checkered pants and a black frock, hosed off the metal items with a hot hose, the steam fogging his glasses and making him sweat.

Claire smiled at him, but did not know who he was. In the past few weeks, Ryan hired the majority of the crew, borrowing some from RJ. Now, crossing over the door jam, she heard the noise of a kitchen roaring to life. Black frocked cooks scurried about the kitchen as smells of soups and fresh cut herbs attacked her senses. Servers, their meticulous uniforms all matching and worn by a staff carefully selected by an over-critical chef, scurried around in a ballet of chaos and organization, each person learning their place and the workings of the restaurant all on the same night.

With her phone in hand, Claire snapped a few pictures of the scene, though she appeared to be the only one smiling. She heard Ryan speaking from some distance in a loud voice, but could not see him. He must be on the floor, she thought, utilizing some of the language she was picking up from her chef boyfriend.

“Oh my,” Claire said aloud, watching the ebb and flow of the kitchen; it breathed, like a living entity, thriving on the adrenaline of its culinary priesthood who hastened through the final preparations. For Claire, it was a whole new world she viewed, a world she formally had never seen, but now was exposed to in its fullest glory. Butterflies in her stomach, she stepped into the kitchen.

“Hi,” she began, speaking to a cook who was leaning over a large pot, “can you tell me where Ryan is?”

The girl, a short, pretty, petite woman of about twenty-five, looked up in astonishment at Claire. The smell of the soup was enveloping the girl’s senses, and for a moment she was in a delirium of delight and ecstasy. Claire’s question brought her back to the very harsh reality of her moment.

“What?” she asked.

“Ryan, where is he?”

“Oh, Chef. He’s in the front of the house,” she replied in a soft Bostonian voice.

“Thanks,” Claire said.

“You Claire?” the girl asked.

“I am, hi,” Claire said, extending a hand.

“Sorry. Gloves. It’s nice to meet you,” the girl replied, smiling. “He’s talked about you.”

“Hope it was good,” Claire laughed.

Ryan emerged in the kitchen like a bulldog patrolling his yard, and instantly an additional level of haste entered into each worker, and silence fell like the night sky over a cemetery. His scowl scanned the space for any mishap or infringement of the rules of his order. All seemed organized and operating well enough, so he moved slowly around a table and past the ovens.

The girl quickly grew silent and looked back to her soup, stirring and seasoning it a little more. Ryan walked up to her and looked in the large pot. Claire had not moved, and from her position, she seemed invisible to the piercing eyes of the master chef.

“More seasoning?” Ryan asked.

The young girl tried to conceal a tremble in her tiny frame. Ryan caught it, but said nothing. He was not a bully, but his persona at the moment, so domineering and stringent, came across as aggressive and challenging, like he was looking for a fight. The girl just looked up at him, not saying a word.

“Well?” Ryan demanded of her.

“Um, I was just putting a little extra in,” she replied meekly.

Ryan looked at her with his piercing gaze, as if he were deciding her fate for eternity. She could stand the pressure of his gaze no longer and looked back at the soup. This was her first culinary job out of school, her break, and she just knew she was about to lose it.

Ryan picked up small plastic spoon and tasted the soup. Tossing the spoon in the trash, he said:

“Katie. It’s good.”

Katie’s head snapped up, and she peered into Ryan’s eyes, trying to ascertain the level of truth in them.

“Is it really?”

“Katie, when I asked, you needed to say simply, ‘yes.’ If you don’t believe in your cooking, no one else will. You’re a chef, not a cook. Lose the meekness and become the leader I see in you. Now, this is done. Let’s get it to the warmers up front. Awesome work.”

Katie breathed heavily, but smiled uncontrollable as she carefully moved the large pot to a cart and began to push it off. It was a small triumph, but it meant the world.

Ryan watched her leave, then, as he turned, he saw the two most beautiful eyes staring at him, a proud smile on her face.

“Baby,” he said.

“Hello Mr. Chef,” Claire replied. “How is it going?”

“Oh, lord,” Ryan replied. “It’s been an opening, alright. And the worst has not even started.”

“I think you’ll do fine,” Claire said confidently.

“Let’s hope,” he replied demurely.

“Hope nothing. You’re good at what you do.”

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Ryan replied.

The kitchen continued to clamor around them as everyone brought the restaurant to its moment of destiny, that single moment when the music comes on, the lights turn go up and the doors unlock.

“Alright,” Ryan said, “I’d better get back to it. You can hang tight back here or on the floor.”

“I’ll be rootin’ for ya,’” Claire said, with a smile.

Ryan winked at her and moved off, shouting something to an employee across the space. Claire moved a little further into the kitchen but tried to stay to the peripheries as much as possible. She could tell the kitchen was no place for spectators, so she kept her wandering to a minimum. Those who saw her smiled weakly at her as they moved past, while some greeted hastily, throwing their ‘hello’ in a voice both breathless and subdued.

An hour passed, and suddenly it was time to open. The clock, mocking the crew all day with its maddening rotations, finally reached the hour, and looking scornfully at them all, struck the time of 6 p.m. It was time, and as was once said by Caesar, the ‘die is cast.’ Ryan felt the time in his body, the hour weighing on him so heavily. He had to lead, to direct, to instruct as they moved through the night. What victory they would pull from the evening depended on him seeing the vessel through the tumultuous storm of the opening. But it would not be his alone. His crew also felt the hour, knowing they would be tried every moment until the lights finally dimmed. Some had experience with openings, and some, like Katie, were cutting their teeth. From the busboys to the sous-chef, they all felt the weight upon them; victory or defeat, the night would tell.

On the floor, the servers took one last moment to run through the evening. Their lead server, staring through the sea of furniture and over the dimly lit table candles, saw the crowd gathered before the sealed doors. The room was so tranquil, set in its deep and dark hues, with oil paintings upon the walls and teardrop lighting shining through royal blue orbs. The moment, however, was over. It was time.

The lead server moved steadily through the tables, and smiling, took a deep breath and opened the door. The hostess looked over at him, and smiled herself, her heart racing. Ryan stood in the back, his apron covering his own black frock. Only his embroidered name differentiated him from the remainder of the kitchen staff. He stroked his beard as the guests arrived, immediately pushing the tranquility from the space.

The servers were divided and each rushed to their spaces in an organized fashion. Having a rush like this would be difficult, Ryan knew, since all the entrees would be prepared at once, instead of the usual ebb and flow of the restaurant floor; but, Ryan knew, they were prepared for it. At least he hoped.

The night did not go smoothly, but no one expected it to do so. The staff was rushed and stressed, the cooks were allowed no moment’s rest, and Ryan was on his feet the entire night, racing from one proverbial fire to another. One moment, he was chopping carrots for the risotto, another, he was stirring a sauce. At one point, Claire saw him on the line, cooking in three pans at once, the wide-eyed line cooks watching in awe at the lesson. The aromas of the kitchen mingled with one another, competing with the senses for attention. The sounds were surprisingly hushed, as Ryan had a strict policy of limited speech. Those who did dare to venture their voice across the soundless void did so at the peril of their careers. It was an emergency only that sent vocals across the kitchen; even then, they were reverent in tone.

Like machines, the women and men of the staff labored fruitfully all evening. Ryan watched everything hawk-like, his piercing gaze enough to correct any issue. Always engaged in an activity while surveying, Ryan let no detail miss his attention.

The noise of the floor floated into the kitchen. The revelers were rejoicing in the entrees appearing on their tables, and savoring not only the food on their plates, but the return of one of Boston’s favorites. Ryan made a few cameo appearances on the floor to the applause of the tables. He would play the political role for a moment, then politely and quietly excuse himself. A chef’s place was in the kitchen.

Claire listened keenly to the sounds to the kitchen; the sliding of the pans against the range, the sizzling of the cooking items, the gentle bubbling of the soup. She was close enough to hear them all, given the lack of speech. To Claire it was so exciting, and the sights, the sounds and smells of the kitchen did little to assuage the hunger she had boiling in her stomach.

Ryan appeared from the floor, and scouring the kitchen for the bread that was to be presented to table 13, he saw the server grab it and move off. Claire watched him in excitement, and for a moment, Ryan did not move. In his sedentary position, Claire thought she would quietly, and quickly, steal across the kitchen to visit him.

Servers were rushing in and out with hands full of either entrees or dirty plates. There was a sort of rhythm to the scene, like the wake of a boat on the shore. Claire watched, hoping to time her sprint properly to ford the stream. One server was garnishing a four top, and was about to spin off with two plates when Claire moved swiftly behind him. She saw the server and hurried to get past. Success was nigh, but not enough. Claire had barely passed when the served spun and stopped short, the halt sending one plate balanced on the arm to the floor. It fell gracefully, but shattered, signaling a momentary cessation of all labor, like the chiming of a final death bell. The sound, so foreign in the kitchen, echoed in each mind, shaking eardrums and bones.

The server froze, looking at Ryan. Ryan heard the noise and turned around, his senses too well acquainted with the disastrous sound. His eyes were blazing when he saw the mess, the shards of the plate mingled with the entrée. The image, once so beautiful, was marred and destroyed, its shredded body splattered on the red tile floor.

Ryan rushed over to the scene. He quietly demanded another plate of the sous-chef and glared at the server for his failure, sending him onto the floor with the remaining dishes; then turned his attention to Claire.

The scene unfolded so quickly that Claire had no time to process what occurred. One moment, she was going to see Ryan, the next, he was before her, his face red and thriving off a vein of hate that pulsated tumultuously. His eyes, she saw, were ablaze with energy, and his look was menacing and awful.

Claire did not know what to say. The server rushed away, and she was left with Ryan, whose silence was more frightening than any yelling he could do. The cooks all looked back at their labors, and any server that reemerged in the kitchen came and went as fast as they possibly could.

“I’m sorry,” Claire said meekly.

It was the only thing Claire could think to say, but her words, sounding so bizarre in the clamor of the kitchen, were received with a coldness that all the stainless steel surrounding them could not mimic.

“Out,” Ryan said in a hushed tone.

Claire nodded and started to turn. She took a step, but felt a firm hand gripping her arm. She half turned and saw Ryan, but could not respond before he forcefully pushed her through the kitchen, bringing her back to the door. He let her go swiftly and with a light push.

“You stay here and do not dare come back into the kitchen! You fucked up enough already,” Ryan barked.

His distance from the floor gave new energy to his voice, and in the relative solitude of that portion of the kitchen, he allowed his anger to fully vent.

“Baby, I’m so sor-“

“Save it!” Ryan interrupted. “For those of us trying to work, we have shit to do.”

Ryan turned sharply and rushed off, his eyes daring anyone to look into them. Claire teared up, the pain of the moment manifesting itself in the sorrowful little droplets in the corners of her eyes. She wanted so much to see him and stand by him, if even for a moment; but she failed in her endeavor, and now she drew his wrath. What he said stung, the rebuke both hurtful and alarming.

The remainder of the night went uneventfully, with the staff moving through the courses, and all shying from Claire, as if she had the worst plague to ever befall humanity. She felt the isolation and the pain, and in her little world beside the door, she felt so alone. She debated leaving, staying or going for a walk. She knew Ryan would be annoyed if she left, but her heart wanted so much to leave the scene of her pain. She was torn, but that portion of her that made her loyal, the minute portion that gave to her the ability to set herself aside and be for others, strengthened her resolve to remain for Ryan.

Claire sat in the little hallway by the door, her phone her only companion. She was reading a romance on her e-reader, and one particular scene described the man in the woman’s life. She read it, then read it again, her heart swelling. She longed not for the fictitious individual, but for the man to whom she compared the character: Ryan. The way he was described on the pages reminded Claire so much of her boyfriend, from his manly shoulders to his gentle face. She thought of him, and smiled to herself.

The night wore on, and after some time, the kitchen began to slow. Fewer plates made the great journey from the kitchen to the table, and softer noises emanated from the floor. Claire was lost in her book when she felt a nudge against her arm. She looked up to a glass of bubbling wine.

Ryan was standing there, holding out a glass to her and looking weary but content. She wondered if he would erupt again, but the presence of the wine, which appeared to her as a sort of peace offering, told otherwise.

In his eyes there was a sentiment of sorrow. Claire could see it, read it, almost sense it, but she did not call it out. Claire was still learning how Ryan functioned, so she remained silent.

“Hey,” he said.

Claire took the flute by the stem. It had been chilled, and the perspiration moistened the stem, though it still felt cold to her touch.

“Hey,” she replied.

“I’m sorry about before,” Ryan said.

Claire listened, the wound on her heart forcibly reopened. She felt the pain and saw his expression, all fresh before her once again. But she listened, hoping for a balm to put on her wound.

“Look, it was just so stressful, and I was so wound up. When the plate, when it happened, I just went off. I was so eager for everything to go off without a hitch, that I lost sight of, well, everything, I guess.”

Claire was still silent, but absolutely actively listening. The words he spoke were seeping into her heart, warming and soothing it like a good ointment. She felt more relaxed and tranquil. Her nervous feelings were abating slowly with each word he uttered. Even his presence calmed her.

“You know you mean so much to me, and I should not have done that. I mean, I’m really sorry. I could have handled it better.”

Claire heard enough. What soothing she needed she received, and her heart, over flowing with a radiant love for him, made her stand and put her arms around his neck. She looked into those pitiful and sorrowful eyes and smiled for him, the joy of her heart expressing itself through her own beautiful orbs.

“Baby,” she finally began, “it’s okay. And I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have come in there. I thought I could sneak over to see you. I know for next time.”

“No baby. You should be allowed to enter here. You’re welcome anywhere I go, and that includes this place.”

Claire did not reply, but nudged her face closer to his, until their noses were touching. Closing her eyes, she pressed her lips to his.

“Hey, Chef,” said one of the servers, “we’re closed.”

Ryan hesitantly pulled away from Claire’s lips, and, still holding her, told the server to get everyone into the kitchen. The server smiled and slowly walked off, relieved the onslaught was concluded.

“Now, we party,” Ryan said to Claire.

Ryan pulled back from Claire, then, taking his little finger, dipped it in his own glass of wine and ran it over Claire’s lips. Slowly, he pressed his lips to hers again, kissing until all the liquid was gone.

“Mmmm,” Claire said.

Ryan, winking at Claire, took her by the hand and pulled her into the kitchen. The entire crew was gathering slowly, some trudging in from the front of the house, and others stepping away from dirty pans or the prepping for tomorrow’s dinner. They leaned against the tables from their fatigue, but a fatigue worthy of praise. Hard won smiles were the reward for a marvelous job, and Ryan, standing before them all, with one arm around Claire’s waist, wanted to share the moment with them.

“Katie, grab a few bottles of that sparkling I showed you earlier, and Jorge, get some classes. This calls for a toast!”

Everybody laughed, cheered, and clapped so greatly. Seeing Ryan excited lifted every soul in the kitchen. They were all soiled, all smelled of the meals, but they were exuberant. The night was a complete success, their success, and the joking and toying around only added to the fun. When the corks were popped, and the wine poured to the rim of every glass, Ryan gave a toast:

“Tonight’s yours. Here’s to you all.”

The wine was chilled and so bubbly on their parched palates, but everyone savored the drink not as a beverage, but as a thank you from a very hard chef, giving a hearty pat on the back.

Immediately, stories from the night erupted in a fervor of speech, and the kitchen, once so tomb-like, was a cauldron of bubbling and boiling noise, laughter and general silliness. There were stories of minor complaints, of hard customers, of happy customers, and wrong plates at wrong tables. Ryan frowned occasionally, but in all, everything he heard was a good report.

“Quiet down now,” Ryan started. “Guys, this was an awesome night. Everyone did fantastic. Katie, loads of compliments on the soups. Jorge and Kyle, you rocked. And all of you guys, I saw each of you on the floor. You were disciplined and organized. Right on! You all rocked it tonight. Thanks.”

The crew cheered again, and Claire’s heart swelled with pride for the man holding her. She was so proud of him, and seeing him as a strong leader to the crew only made her more excited about their love. It also turned her on.

“No, really. I mean, I have been through some openings before, and with the exception of the few hiccups, tonight went really well. That’s ’cause of you guys. I really appreciate it. It was rough, but we did it.”

One of the servers, who had nearly consumed their beverage, laughed loudly and shook his head. He smiled, remembering something from his former job. He waited for the clamor to die down, then spoke.

“Hey, Chef,” he said.


“At my former job, my supervisor used to say, and forgive me for this, but, ‘Serving is a lot like sex. If it’s not rough, it’s not fun.’”

Ryan burst into a fit of laughter, his hearty noise echoing through the steel-clad atmosphere. The servers and the kitchen staff all shared in the merriment. The comparison was a bit off, but it made sense, and given the night through which they all passed, they were happy to see that their work could be joyful in the end.

“Well, here’s to rough...serving!” Ryan shouted, holding aloft his glass.

Everyone drank a second toast, cheering and chuckling at the allusion. Ryan smiled warmly, relishing in the glory of his crew. It was a rough night, but these people pulled through and made it happen. He knew then he had a great crew, and he silently cheered at the new beginning. Briefly, his mind turned to Gillian and how she would have loved to be here. He could almost see her with her glass held high, laughing along with the ruckus. But, then his mind turned to the girl in his arms. He felt her, pulling her closer to him. All night he felt her, the power of her presence a comfort through this trial. And he was glad he had her.

Ryan, amidst the turmoil of the laughter and jokes, turned to Claire and looked at her. She was following along to a story told by the supervisor, but felt eyes upon her. When she looked at Ryan, she saw his face, placid and content.

“What?” she asked coyly.

“Nothing,” Ryan replied, his response as tranquil as his expression.

The little impromptu party lasted a short time longer, then it broke up, all hands recognizing both their duty to the restaurant and their earnest desire to return home. Plates and pans were cleared and cleaned, and mops emerged where servers once raced through the little aisles of the kitchen.

As the crew tore down and reset, Ryan gathered together his and Claire’s belongings. Slowly, like a man who had just run ten miles, he went to help Claire with her coat, but she refused, saying she was going to use the restroom.

Claire went to the small bathroom in the back of the kitchen. She was washing her hands, and happened to turn just a certain way, causing her upper arm to hurt. That’s odd, she thought, slowly raising her hand to feel it. I don’t remember hitting it on anything tonight. Touching it, she felt a surge of subtle pain, and rolling up her sleeve to investigate, she saw the soft flesh of her arm exhibiting dark colors of blue and purple in small, contained areas. What? She thought.

Then, there emerged in her mind the cause of the bruising, and how the wound seemed to nearly resemble a handprint. Oh, she said to herself, remembering what occurred and the response it hastened. She could see his eyes, how they blazed with a hatred she did not know he had in him. She could feel those same bitter emotions surging once more. But, then she saw his face during the party, those loving eyes so tender and surreal. She thought of his touch and the way he looked at her, as if she were the sole person of purpose in the room, and nothing else mattered. She basked in his love, feeling his touch upon her skin once more.

The wound, certainly in the shape of fingers, was gradually turning darker. Claire looked at it, poking at it tenderly. It hurt, but the pain was subtle at best. She learned her lesson: stay away from the kitchen during working hours.

As Claire turned to leave, she thought, it won’t hurt for long. Call it a learning curve. She could feel his gaze upon her, those large eyes gently edging into her soul, and warmed by that sensation, she left the bathroom. Besides, she thought, I did mess up, and got what I deserved. I know he cares for me.

And after all, it’s not like he did it on purpose.

Chapter 6

The first week of Lady Burwell’s did exceptionally well, and Ryan was elated with its success. Through texts and calls, he shared the glory with Claire, who rejoiced in the happiness it brought him. Every night found her in a chair in the hall or the still unpacked office, watching as the crew guided Burwell’s – as the crew called it – to more and more success. While there, Claire got to know Jorge, the sous chef, and Katie as well. They all became a new group of friends for her, and though they all had little time to socialize freely, they shared laughs when time permitted.

Claire noticed how relaxed Ryan was in the restaurant. Whether under pressure or in the down time, he seemed to be placid and focused, and completely in control of himself, as if his business were a vessel sailing the straights of Gibraltar and he its captain. Working the kitchen and the floor as he did seemed to give him purpose again, a focus that she previously did not see in him. RJ was nearly self-sufficient and it needed little attention from Ryan; with Burwell’s, it was a new baby to him, a chance for something new, something exciting. And Claire was excited to be a part of it.

Every evening that first week, Claire would round the corner of the alley way and see Ryan leaning in the doorway, phone tucked into a pocket and a glass of Sparkling in his hand. He would pour the drink especially for her, sometimes a wine, sometimes a cocktail, depending on how her day went. Ryan knew the harder the day, the stronger the drink. And he always had her text him before leaving, so he could time it appropriately. Claire loved the pampering, and the look in his eyes when he gave it to her. She also adored the ‘little boy’ expression he had when he would steal hors d’oeuvres from a platter and sneak them to her. She thought it funny, knowing he owned the restaurant and the food, and had all the salaries of his employees under his control. Yet, he would still hold a finger to his lips as if silencing Claire, pull a few from the pan when Jorge wasn’t looking, and give them to her.

What Claire loved the most, however, was the feeling of his touch when she first saw him. Standing in the late autumn cold, with the chilly breeze blowing down the alley, he would wrap his arms around her little frame. He would feel warm from the heat of the kitchen, and to her body, it was a delight. But it was more than just sensory; Ryan’s touch gave her a feeling of belonging and knowing she was where she was meant to be. She felt it whenever he held her or kissed her, and knew that of all the times and places in existence, this little time and space was theirs.

Claire was slowly sipping her wine and leaning against the hallway watching the kitchen work. It was nothing like the opening night, and Katie was off for the evening. There was a definite rhythm, and the dishes that returned gave birth to more dishes leaving for different tables. The aromas were plentiful, and the chill of the open door to the alley and the heat of the kitchen put Claire in a bit of a lull where she reposed against the wall, her mind drifting to lovely places she wanted to visit with Ryan.

Ryan came up to Claire and slid his arm around her waist, pulling her to him and out of her reverie. Claire smiled lazily as she fell into his arms. There was a pause between them when no words were exchanged, but they felt one another, their hearts seemingly recharging in each other’s grasp.

“You look tired, baby,” Ryan whispered.

“Mmhmmm. But I’m okay,” Claire replied.

“No. Let’s get you home. I know this week has been crazy for you.”

“I’m okay, baby,” she pleaded.

Ryan pulled out his phone and dialed a cab. Claire did not protest, as she was fatigued, and the kitchen was far less relaxing than the comfort of her couch. But she did not want to abandon Ryan either. She lived for times like these, when they could steal a few moments together.

“I want to get you home. It’s late, anyway, and there is still stuff to do.”

“Baby, I wanna stay with you,” Claire whined.

“I know you do, but I want you to get some rest. You’re so tired, and this is no place to hang out. Hell, we barely have seats back here. Go home and rest for the evening.”

Ryan raised the phone to his ear and answered when the operator came on. He called for a cab, and was told it would be a few minutes. Giving the address, he hung up and plunged the phone back into his pocket.

“Be here in a minute,” Ryan said, pulling Claire back to him.

Claire snuggled up against Ryan, smelling all of the aromas on his frock. His beard tickled her cheek, but she didn’t mind the feeling. It was him, all of him, and for the moment, she was happy.

“When are you gonna leave here?” she asked sleepily.

“I’m here ’til closing. It will be a little bit before I feel comfortable leaving early.”

Claire sighed. She was indeed tired, but she hated to part with him now. He was so cozy, so warm and his arms fit around her just right. What she wanted was for him to leave with her and come home. Then, she could have both his arms and her couch, and a bottle of red. Then, she thought about Friday night. Would they be able to be together on the weekends, or would she be stuck watching him manage the rush from her seat by the door?

“Baby,” Claire began, “are you gonna be here Friday night?”

Ryan had thought it was understood he would be a part of the restaurant for some time, so when the question was asked, he found it odd. When one took on an endeavor such as a restaurant opening, it was like having a new child. It needed constant care and attention, and he had to be devoted to it nightly.

“I’m here, you know that. I can’t just leave it, not yet.”

“Oh,” Claire said.

Claire opened her eyes into a mass of reddish brown facial hair. The night sky above the alley twinkled with a few brazen stars that dared to compete with the excessive amount of light pollution. The noise of the city hummed constantly in the short distance, with honking horns filling the air. But Claire heard none of it, wanted to hear none of it. Her mind, though dulled by fatigue, was stirring from his response. She was not angry, or even concerned. She just wondered about the future, when she would see Ryan again, and if they could have a normal life outside of the restaurant. When she first started with Ryan, he was ‘single,’ meaning he had no other love in his life save her. RJ tended to itself, much to her delight, and his time was hers. Now, she had to share him with another lover, and though she supported him greatly and wanted him to succeed, she equally wanted a life where she could grow closer to her mate, not watch him from afar as he labored.

Ryan was also thinking and reflecting; he heard her syllabic reply, and at first was discontent with Claire. But, reminding himself that Claire was an outsider to the field of food and beverage, and she had no experience with the restaurant lifestyle, he softened his opinion. The fact that she wanted to be with him also added to his reevaluation. He wanted his restaurant to succeed; no one goes into business to fail. This aspect of his life was his life. He was a chef, a magician of culinary arts. He loved the late nights, the steam of the plates, the smell of entrées and heat of the ovens. It was who he was and what he was. But, he thought, was that all he was? For the first time, Ryan looked at his career choice through another’s eyes, those of Claire’s. It was a rough life, a thankless life, and one that kept the chef employed when others were playing. When she got up to go to work, he would no doubt be just turning in for bed. When she went out to party at night, she could visit restaurants because of men and woman like him who ran them, keeping them open for the revelers. Holding her in the back alley entrance, Ryan saw the dilemma of their relationship.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said, looking at a pair of headlights coming down the alley.

“Hey, no worries,” Claire returned sleepily. “We’ll get together sometime this weekend. Just let me know when. Maybe I’ll head out with Brett and Dylan Friday night. Might even come see you,” she said.

Ryan paused mid-thought. There was something in her sentence that was malicious, something evil, and it stirred him. Claire’s voice was tender and soft, but to Ryan’s ears, he heard only an evil reproach. His heart began to beat faster as his anxiety rose.

“Going out?”

“What, baby?” Claire asked.

“Friday night, you’re going out?”

“Oh, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know if they have any plans. I’d have to find out.”

Claire watched as a yellow cab pulled up to them. Ryan slowly raised his hand, then let it fall to his side. Claire pulled away and through the light above the door, she looked into Ryan’s face, now tense with agitation.

“Baby, you okay?” Claire asked.

Ryan did not answer, but pulled back from her and shot a glance into the kitchen. He feared her seeing the agitation in his eyes and opted to hide them with his feigned glance. All ran smoothly in the kitchen, though he looked at nothing in particular.

“Fine,” he replied curtly.

Claire looked longer at him, sensing something was amiss. She ran the previous conversation through her mind, but found nothing wanting. His mood, his demeanor, even his facial expression, took on a new mode of being, and Claire grew anxious.

“Ryan, what?” she asked, placing her hands on his chest.

Ryan pulled back hastily.

“I gotta run. Have a good night.”

Ryan turned to go back in, but Claire quickly grabbed him by the arm, softly restraining him from leaving. She had to know what happened, what she did to draw his anger. She was no master of his emotional range, but she knew enough to recognize a change had occurred.

“Baby, talk to me.”

“Talk to you? About what? About your incessant need to be entertained? About how I can so easily be replaced?”


“Look, you fell in love with a chef. I’m sorry, but this is my life, what I do. I work when you play. If you don’t like it, well, that’s your problem. I expect a little respect for the sacrifices I make for us, and I equally expect a little support. I’m sorry I can’t be there to entertain you Friday night, but having you running around all over town is something I won’t tolerate.”

“What?” Claire repeated, shocked. “Where did this come from? Because I said I might go out with my friends? Is that it?”

“Would it kill you to stay home for a night?”

“Why are you saying this? I don’t need to go out. I just thought, that since you’d be here, I’d catch up with Brett. Is that so horrible?”

Ryan, who was still being held by the arm, finally recognized the embrace that restrained him, and pulled away violently, as if her touch would rob him of his anger. Claire still held her hand out to him, the extension of her arm a symbolic pleading for him to return.

“I’ve got work to do,” Ryan said, and moved back into the kitchen.

Claire did not know what to think, and certainly did not know if she should remain or leave. Standing between what she thought were certainly two worlds, the world of her previous delight and the current world of dismay, Claire watched as he disappeared into the sea of servers moving around. He did not look back at her.

What the hell? Claire thought. Where? What? Why did he? Oh my god, what just happened? Did he really get mad at me for suggesting I would go out Friday night? I mean, it’s not that big of a deal. Oh god. Now he’s pissed again. What the hell do I do? If I stay, it will only piss him off even more, but if I leave, will he be pissed over that? Why? Why can’t we just have fun? Why?

All the way back to her apartment, Claire’s mind was jumbled over what occurred. She tried to make sense of it, but the images and the words seemed to fly past her, much as the city did, crossing her vision in blurred streaks of color. She felt the pain of the moment and the agony of having unsettled Ryan. She felt disappointment at her failure and confusion over his reaction. None of it made sense to her, and by the time she climbed from the taxi, surmounted the staircase and finally opened her apartment door, she was more confused than when her route first began.

Tossing her jacket over a chair and kicking off her heels, Claire had no mind for tidiness at the moment. She flopped onto her sofa and kicked her legs up on the table. The weariness of the day ached within her, and all the troubles she faced at her job were present, mingling with the new bit of confusion in her heart. Her apartment was dark, save for the few lamps within reach of her trek to the sofa. The room, normally so cozy, just seemed cold to her. Outside of her window, the city buzzed with activity, even in its night attire. She thought each of the lights were a sign of happiness, as each seemed to represent an abode where people were gathered over a warm meal or a bedtime story. She thought of the happiness apart from her world, then thought of her own situation, her own apartment. There was so much missing, so much joy lacking in the moment. Then, she remembered the last incident, the event in the kitchen on opening night.

Claire shut her eyes to the thought and laid back on the couch, every mental fiber engaged in thwarting the resurgence of the memory. She could feel the pain seeping through the mental barrier she erected, stinging her as it crept into her heart. Taking a throw she kept on the sofa, she pulled it over her body. The cloth was a shield of comfort against all invasive memories, and with it, Claire felt a degree of placidity come over her.

Then, it occurred to her to call Brett. He was wise, or so Claire believed, and he would be able to help.

Checking the time, Claire saw that he would still be up – he was always a night owl – and so dialed his number. Waiting through the ringing cycle, Claire’s mind wandered to some past relationships she had. Nothing she could remember resembled this.

“’Sup!” came the voice on the other end.

“Hey,” replied Claire.

The sound of Brett’s voice, with the joy she was temporarily lacking, made her glad she called. She sat up on the sofa and pulled her legs beneath her.

“How have things been? I feel like I haven’t had a chance to get with you this week. Everything cool?” Brett asked.

Brett was excited to a degree of light chatter, and his words, as machine gun-like as they were, cheered Claire and made her giggle.

“You are so crazy,” Claire said, still giggling.

“Why? Because I speak fast? Up yours!”


“Oh please, like you don’t ramble along at times? Really?”

“Oh, you are too much sometimes. But I love you.”

“You’d better, asshole,” replied Brett, still jesting with her.

“It is good to hear your voice. It has been so crazy this week, with all the shit at work, and those damned clients, and then the opening on top of it. It’s just been, well, something else.”

“How has all that been? And how is Ryan? You guys still walking in the clouds?”

Claire hesitated momentarily. She thought of what occurred, but felt ill telling him only that portion of the relationship even though that was the reason for the call. All the happy moments, all their laughter and joy, that needed to be shared as well. Claire would be sick if she painted only a horrible picture of her lover; yet, she still felt that heavy weight upon her heart.

“It’s been crazy. I already told you about the opening, but this week has just been a madhouse. I mean, business is great. Oh, what did Dylan think of it?”

“He loved it! His review is coming out in Sunday’s paper. I thought it was great, too. Presentation was awesome and so stylish. The décor was also nice. Not really my thing, but it was nice.”

“It’s dark, but I like it. That might just be his vibe right now,” Claire replied.

“Yeah. So, tell me, how are things?”

“They are,” and Claire gave the briefest pause, “good. Really good.”

Brett knew Claire for a long time, and considered her his greatest friend. He knew her little quarks and oddities, could read her feelings by the expression in her eyes, and understood what her slumped shoulders meant. In that pause, Brett knew there was something else present. Her pause was a silent request to ask deeper questions, and an allowance for him to enter the sacredness of her deepest thoughts.

“Claire, are things really okay?”

The stage was set and the question asked. Claire could not run from it, nor did she really want to face it, though she desired to vocalize her sentiments. Pulling the blanket around her again, Claire prepared for what would no doubt be a monologue.

“Brett, I, I just don’t know. Everything has been great, but tonight something, oh, it just might be nothing. I don’t know. But it just struck me the wrong way. You know how something just doesn’t sit right with you, and you can recognize it, though you don’t know why? That’s kind of where I am now.”

“Like what, sweetie? What do ya’ mean?”

“We were talking, and he was holding me and being real cuddly. He’s always good like that. But anyway, I was asking him about this weekend, if we could get together. He got kinda weird at first, and then when I said I might go out on Friday night, he just totally went crazy on me. I mean, he was controlled, of course, but I hadn’t seen that in him. Brett, isn’t that weird? Why would he get mad if I went out? I said it would be with you and Dylan, so I couldn’t see him being jealous or suspicious. I mean, I’m trustworthy, right? I care for him a lot. Things have moved fast for us both, but honestly, Brett, I think I love him. I just feel like I am meant to be his other half, and he mine. So, why would he act like that?”

Brett leaned back in his chair. Dylan was across the room, typing furiously on the keyboard, writing up one of his projects. Brett watched as their cat, Oswald, stole across the floor in his patented stealth mode. But Brett was not focusing on the cat. He was thinking and remembering.

“You know, sweetie,” Brett began, swiveling in the chair so his legs hung over the armrest, “I remember when we were in college. Remember that god-awful catering job I had on campus? I was seeing Josh at the time. I really cared for him, I did. And how many Friday and Saturday nights would I spend cursing on my way into the kitchen to work some friggin’ buffet line, or some shit-ass dinner at the President’s house? I hated it, but needed the money. Anyway, when you all texted me and told me how much fun you were having, you little shits, I was jealous. It’s no fun to be working when everyone else is partying, especially when I knew Josh was going to be there. Maybe it’s the same for Ryan. Maybe he wants to be with you, but can’t, and that’s how he expressed it. It’s not right, but maybe that’s what went on. And, he is under a lot of stress right now.”

“We did text you a lot, didn’t we?” Claire said, laughing.

“God, yes! You texted me all the time, you ass hat.”

“Hah! Those were good times. We did miss you, though.”

“I would hope so. I still don’t know how you had any fun without me.”

“We managed. But anyway, do you think that’s it? It was just so weird. It was almost like, I don’t know, if he couldn’t have fun, I couldn’t have fun. That sort of thing. But I see what you’re saying. Maybe that is it. He wants to be with me, but how can he leave his new restaurant now? Maybe I was wrong for even asking. Maybe I should have just kept quiet about it –“

“Whoa, hold on there,” Brett interrupted hastily. “You have a right to have a voice in the relationship, too. It’s not just him calling the shots.”

“Yeah, and that’s not what I’m saying. Maybe, sometimes, I need to learn when to ask certain things, you know?”

Brett reflected for a moment, and switched back to his original position in the chair. The floor lamp was throwing harsh rays upon him, so he clicked it down a little, decreasing the brilliancy to a dim glow. His little corner of the apartment had a cozier feel now.

“Do you want me to come over?” Brett asked.

Claire smiled warmly, but shook her head, as if that was noticeable through the phone.

“Thanks, sweetie, but I think I’m good.”

“You’re well. Good is an adjective, well is an adverb –“

“Shut up, you dork!” Claire blurted out with laughter.

Brett sighed deeply and loudly into the phone, smiling to himself.

“Alright, if you think you’re well. But if you need me, I’m only a call away, day or night. Okay?”

“Okay. And thanks. I appreciate your perspective.”

“Anytime, sweetie.”

“Alright, well, I need to be an adult and get myself to bed. We have all those meetings tomorrow. Ugghh.”

“Oh, lord. We do, don’t we. Shit. Alright, off to bed then. See ya!”

“See ya,” and Claire hung up.

Brett put the phone on the antique table stand beside the chair and looked across the room. Nothing caught his attention, but he was not focusing on any particular item; what caught his attention were some of the statements Claire made. He thought on them for a bit, weighing them cautiously. Something seemed amiss, but he simply wasn’t sure. He would watch, however, and if Claire needed him, he would be there for her.

Still on her couch, Claire was laughing to herself about the old days and how much fun college was. She was glad she called Brett, and now she felt more at ease in regards to the earlier issue. Maybe Ryan’s just stressed and that was him lashing out. It’s probably just the stress. I mean, he just opened a restaurant a few days ago, and it’s been crazy. It’ll pass.

Across town, and back in the kitchen, Ryan was furiously sliding halved zucchini under the moving blade of his knife. At present, he was a robot, his masculine identity seemingly abandoned to the mechanical movements of the knife. He watched as the cubes formed behind the blade, and with care, pushed them to the side.

The kitchen was busy again, and the team was furiously working to get the orders out. Jorge labored over soup, and Ryan moved to a range top, where several pans were awaiting his dictates. Heat rose volcanically from the burners and the warmth covered his front. A large cauldron was boiling nearby, and steam filled that space, adding to the heat. He threw the zucchini in the pans and swished them with olive oil. There was a sizzling noise, a sound Ryan normally loved; however, he found no joy in what he was doing.

Seasonings fell like a gentle rain on the vegetables, and within a few moments, Ryan scooped the items onto waiting plates. With a glance, he told the server all she needed to know: they were ready. She hastily grabbed them and moved away. Ryan took a remaining scrap and tossed it into his mouth after blowing on it. It was good, he thought, but it needed something else. He would think on it later.

The screen flashed up new orders, and Ryan set to work on them, Jorge picking up what he could and where he could. The two of them steadily worked for an hour, until the pace slackened again, and Ryan finally had a chance to check to the time. It was ten minutes after ten.

She’s asleep by now, Ryan thought, his eyes falling to the back door. All night he was thankful for the mechanical movements of his job that seamlessly brought him through the evening. When so engaged, he had little time for any other thoughts, and in this case, for thoughts he knew would haunt him. He thought of Claire again, his heart burning in his chest.

“Jorge, I’ll be back,” Ryan said quietly.

Jorge nodded and Ryan moved to the back of the kitchen, to the bathroom where he locked the door and just stood there. With the dim light and scent of the evening’s meals filling the small space, he relished the moment of silence. Then, his thoughts surged to the front of his mind from the cavernous enclave where they were imprisoned all evening. He saw the look of dismay in her eyes, the wild rage he knew was present in his own, and the final parting, where she drove off in the dark. Ryan saw, and felt it all, his own sorrow growing wildly as each memory bade him hello.

The sink beside Ryan was beckoning him, and turning on the faucet, Ryan splashed water on his face, allowing the droplets to fall into the basin while he turned off the water. Though the light was dim, it sat above the mirror much as Poe’s Raven sat above his door, staring at Ryan and seemingly mocking him by illuminating not just his own appearance, but the essence of his very soul. In the reflection, Ryan saw his wet face, dripping with running streaks of water. They looked like trails of tears falling down his cheeks. Then, he remembered what it was to cry, the pain pushing the liquid to the surface much as a geyser does its heated charge. He thought of his childhood, and his father.

In agony, Ryan remembered the fights and the ‘roughing,’ as he called it, his mother screaming and crying. He heard the noise, felt the vibrations against the wall, and the coldness when all became silent after the slamming of the door. Ryan closed his eyes, his shaking hands gripping the sides of the basin for support. In his heart was a weight he never wanted to carry, but one that was his until he breathed his last. It was heavy, and seemed to enlarge the older he became. He sometimes wondered how heavy it would become, and if he would ever be able to surrender it to an unmarked grave.

Opening his eyes again, Ryan saw his face, but through his blurry eyes, the face staring at him was not his own, but a face he knew too well to be mistaken. The eyes, the chin, that sneering looked of contempt, it stared back at him, sitting squarely where his own image should have rested. Ryan pushed himself away from the sink and mirror, then looked desperately into the mirror again. Only his face, shocked in appearance, looked back at him.

Oh, God, Ryan began, what did I do? What did I do to her? And why that face? What am I being told? What?

Ryan’s heart raced as a dark thought came to his mind. It was so menacing that Ryan pushed it from his mind, securing it in the darkest recesses where it belonged. But the thought, not so easily forced from existence, haunted his heart. Was it true? he asked. Was that what was occurring? Ryan sighed deeply and opened the door, flipping off the light and letting the door close behind him.

* * * * * * * * * *

The mid-morning sun sliced its way through Ryan’s unclothed windows, filling his room with an ethereal glow that announced the time of his rousing. Ryan felt the warming sun on his face and pulled the blankets over his head. He did not arrive home until after midnight, and the liquor he consumed was now not friendly to him. After tossing once, then twice, trying to find the best means of returning to sleep, he finally surrendered to the glaring sun and sat up in bed.

Shit. What a night. I gotta remember not to do that again. But, oh. I remember now. Shit! What was I thinking? he asked himself. Staring out of the window, he saw the city alive with activity. Cars and cabs filled the crazy lanes that crises-crossed the metropolis; sidewalks were rampant with city-goers scurrying to some unseen destination.

Ryan looked at the clock. In bold red numbers it told the time of 9:58 a.m. He shook his head and got up. Alcohol that still lingered in his body suddenly made its presence known, and he felt a dizzy spell come over him. Staggering into the kitchen, he felt his head aching and a certain queasiness in his stomach. He was hung over.

How much did I have last night? He questioned. The empty bottle of Sherry, toppled over in the sink, told him. That bottle was unopened, he said to himself.

Ryan managed to prepare a cup of coffee, and as he sat upon a bar stool, listening to the sound of the Keurig hissing and gurgling, he ran the memories of the previous night through his head. What he said and what he did all came back to him, even in his stupor of intoxication. Heightened by the prior night from his drinking, he saw them anew, though still they were painful and agonizing. He didn’t know what to think, and did not really know how he went from tenderly holding her to walking away. It was baffling to him, something that was more mysterious than awful. He knew he needed to speak with Claire; his heart, aching now in his chest, would allow him no rest until he did.

Ryan was still dressed in last night’s attire, and feeling something in his pocket, he realized his phone was still there, nearly drained of power. With what little life it held, he opened up his text messages and went to Claire’s last. The screen waited for his thoughts, the bright light shining brilliantly amidst the subdued graying shadows of his apartment.

“What do I say?” Ryan spoke to his empty kitchen. “What can I say? Will sorry even cover it?”

No, he thought, putting the phone down. He would need to send something asking to talk, maybe something like ‘Hey, about last night, I want to speak to you about that,’ or maybe, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you.’ Both sounded good to him, and pressing his tired fingers to the smudged screen, he typed out through blurry eyes what his heart was dictating.

After hitting send, Ryan went for his cup of coffee, thinking he should have at least waited until caffeine had run a course through his system. He sipped eagerly from the heated cup, trying not to watch his phone. The morning slowly gave way to afternoon, and Ryan figured her workload was increasing. But watch he did, waiting for the little green indicator to announce her reply.

The morning passed, and the phone, now charging, announced no reply. Ryan was annoyed, then frustrated, then nervous. Setting aside his ill emotions, he began to fear he had actually pushed Claire away. His antics of the night before had actually caused this severance, and at that thought, he fretted. What would he do without her? How would he manage? She pulled him from the darkness. How could he again walk in the light without her to guide him? At the thought of all the agony awaiting him, all the darkness that her light chased to the peripheries, all of it returning, he shivered and slumped onto his couch.

Occasionally, the thought of life without Claire would cross Ryan’s tortured mind, but he was always quick to dismiss the notion, throwing it as far from him as possible. He was smart enough to realize that life actually would continue without her, but he knew in his heart that it would be a life he would not find worth living. He cared so deeply for Claire, and in her he found a new being. To think that she was gone shook him to his core.

I can’t lose her. I can’t lose her, not without a fight. I have to hear from her, talk to her, even if I have to go to her office. I need a chance to make this all right again. I have to at least be given that, right? Please, let me have that chance. Please, Ryan thought.

Ryan was staring at the ceiling when he heard his phone sound off. That little green light, so silent all morning, suddenly flashed its glorious hue. A text had arrived. Ryan shot his hand out to the device and grabbed it quickly, retracting it from the table and snatching the cord out of its bottom.

“Please,” he said aloud, his hands shaking.

Turning on the phone, he saw it was indeed a text from Claire, but what would it say? Would he find horrible words that spoke only the truth? Would she be unsympathetic? He had to admit to himself that he was impressed she responded at all.

When he opened the text, her words sat there in digital format, spelling out a message he did not expect. It read: ‘Hey. Surprised to see you up so early. How did it go last night? If you’re available for lunch, I’m heading out soon, if you want to meet? Let me know.’

Ryan stared at the message, so simple yet so direct, and carrying so many emotions in its short little structure. He felt genuine remorse over what happened, and especially after seeing how forgiving she was. Her words, shaped not by any form of anger, were pointed lovingly at his heart, piercing into the thick crust he shaped onto his spirit. What manner of woman was she, he mused, that she could forgive so easily and readily? And if it were some type of ploy, it most certainly succeeded, as her seemingly forgiving nature only worked to increase the hurt in his own mind.

Ryan quickly texted back that he would love to meet with her and would be there by noon. Then, putting the phone back on charge, he ran to change and try to do something with his face and hair. It would take a miracle, he laughed to himself, but he would try. The idea of him laughing made him smile, because he felt his spirits soaring again. He would have a chance to make things right.

Stopping in front of the mirror, Ryan looked deep into his eyes. What he saw last night was not present now. His face was the only image in the reflection. But in his eyes, he saw the worry and fear encased there, like frightened fawns cowering in the dark forest. He knew what he saw last night, and because he would have another chance at their relationship, that image would not return. He would not allow it.

Chapter 7

The overcast sky amidst the gray buildings gave a rather somber appearance to city landscape. Ryan waited on the sidewalk, his body leaning against the marble façade of Claire’s building. It was chilly and the wind was gusting through the street, scattering the last of autumn’s leaves across the dirty pavement. Ryan watched them as they tripped along, jostled by the force of the wind. Looking at the sky, Ryan thought it would snow if it were colder.

As Ryan hastily traveled across the city to reach her place of employment, he felt good about the meeting and about what he would say; but now, as the clock slowly and agonizingly approached noon, he grew worried again. His mind, sometimes so devilish in nature, tortured him with fictitious plots and ill-natured thoughts. And, standing outside of the tall structure, he convinced himself she was meeting to break up with him.

Ryan’s heart swelled with poisonous emotions that were like a cancer to him. He tried to fight them back, but he lacked both the mental power and desire. Part of him relished in the torture, the pain of the thought. It was like a flogging he deserved, his back laid bare and his flesh torn. He saw it as his penance. In his heartsick mind, he both detested it and loved it.

Noon erupted with crowds of people seeking escape from their laborious cages. In freedom, they rushed down the streets in groups and singly, searching for their favorite eating establishments. Ryan watched as the building emptied. He searched for Claire among the throngs, but did not see her. Already, the visions that plagued him were beginning to materialize.

Where is she? Ryan asked himself. We said noon. Maybe she’s late. Or, she’s on her way down. I know she wouldn’t stand me up like this. She’ll be here.

Ryan pulled away from the wall and lost his collected and casual look. He searched quietly, as a certain amount of fear began to mount in his facial features. The idea of loss frightened him severely, and now that its reality was being played out, he felt the fear of his isolation, of the darkness returning.

There was still hope, he knew, and he pulled out his phone to call her. But, before he dialed her number, his eye caught a certain figure emerging from the glass doors, her shaded eyes looking around as she paused before the building.

Good, Ryan said silently, breathing a loud sigh.

Ryan watched her momentarily, his attempts to read her thwarted by his own agitated and frightened state. She seemed placid and happy, a light smile on her face. With her purse slung over her shoulder and both arms crossed across her frame, she seemed only concerned with fighting the cold that was blowing past. Ryan could not tell if her casual demeanor meant demise for their relationship or not.

Mustering his energy and courage, Ryan approached slowly, as one would the hangman. He straightened himself and held his chest out. If this was it, he reasoned, he would face it as a man. That’s what his father always told him, before he beat him unconscious.

Ryan walked up as Claire was scanning the area. She turned around and found Ryan beside her. Surprised, she flashed a brilliant smile and flung herself into his arms.

“Baby!” Claire shouted.

Throwing her arms around his neck, Claire hugged Ryan tightly. His body was warm, but she could feel the chill of the weather on him. She did not care, though. Embracing him was like embracing a dream. She felt him against her, his body touching hers, and everything suddenly seemed right once more, like a piece of her existence returned from its prodigal journey.

Ryan, shocked and stunned by the jovial greeting, took a second to comprehend what transpired, still questioning if this was a ploy to further ensnare him. Feeling her around his neck, however, convinced him that her sentimental expressions were truthful. Throwing his own hands around her waist, he spontaneously lifted her and together, they spun on the sidewalk, Claire giggling in delight.

When Ryan set her down, Claire’s eyes gleamed with enthusiasm and happiness. Her smile, so contagious and glowing with such joy, measured out the extreme elation with which she received him. What troubles Ryan fought while awaiting her were now dissipated by that radiating beacon of hope.

“Hey, baby,” Ryan said, staring long into her face.

“Hey,” Claire replied.

“How’s everything been this morning?” Ryan asked.

Claire still roped her arms around his neck and kept herself close. She looked at him, as if expecting something. When it did not come, she made her cutest pouty face and stared at him. Ryan knew the face; he’d seen it before, but he didn’t know if it was in reference to the previous night, or something he just did.

“What?” he asked, nervously.

Ryan figured it was time to delve into the issue, and he remembered all he wanted to say. But Claire was not concerned with what had transpired the night prior. She had something more pressing on her mind.

“Baby!” she began, still pouting. “Kiss me.”

Ryan felt his second surge of relief as he gazed into the expression painted on her face, an expression that wanted more intimacy than he was giving, and an expression that desired to taste him passionately.

“Oh, pray forgive me,” Ryan joked.

Moving in, Ryan pressed his lips to hers as Claire closed her eyes. It was what she wanted, what she needed, and by that kiss, both felt that the world was right once more. It was passionate, extending for a length of time natural for two young lovers.

“That’s better,” Claire said, finally releasing Ryan’s lips from her own.

“Good,” Ryan whispered.

“Now, I’m hungry! Feed me!” she exclaimed, twisting back and forth in his arms.

“Okay. Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care. Anywhere with you.”

Claire let loose of Ryan’s neck and allowed one hand to slide down to his, slowly taking his palm in hers. She smiled coyly, but happily, and together, they turned to start off to a place Ryan knew. He started to explain the menu to her, but gave up when he realized all she wanted was to snuggle next to him as they walked. Silence, he learned instantly, was sometimes more therapeutic than any vocalized sentiment.

When they got to the restaurant and were seated by a window, they took their seats and ordered wine. It was cold, so Ryan selected a red from Sicily. Nero d’ Avola was a favorite of his. Claire couldn’t decide, so he chose a high altitude Pinot Noir from Australia. Claire believed him when Ryan said they were the new, vogue ‘thing.’

The restaurant was crowded with diners, some scurrying against the ticking of the clock, while others lounged over their meals, the prestige in their places of employment allowing for a lengthier sojourn. The noise was what one would expect, but in the little corner by the window, Ryan and Claire had a relatively quiet atmosphere. Claire looked over the farm to table menu, trying to decide between a sandwich or an entrée. Ryan, already knowing what his friend did best, did not bother to even pick up the single sided placard. Instead, he looked over the new renovations, marveling that his friend made it look modern while still holding firmly onto its old antiquity for a large splash of flare and nostalgia.

“Um, I can’t decide,” Claire said absentmindedly.

“What are you debating between?”

“This chicken curry thingy, and this pasta thingy.”

Ryan raised an eyebrow at her, and slowly picked up his placard to discern what ‘thingies’ to which she was alluding.

“Um, Claire, I’m not seeing any ‘thingies’ on here.”

Claire shot him a glare over the menu, then looked back at the list before her. He smiled at her playfulness.

“Okay. I got it. I’m going to do the curry. That sounds awesome.”

“It’s good,” Ryan replied.

“So, that out of the way, how did the rest of last night go? Was it busy ’til closing?”

Claire had a genuine interest in how the business worked, and how his night played out, considering how hectic it was previously. Ryan, however, wanted nothing more than to move away from any thought of the previous night, and instead remain in this lighthearted moment. But, he knew he had to speak, and directly about what transpired. His soul would allow him no quarter if he didn’t.

“About last night, listen, I was a total jerk and I’m sorry for the way it ended,” Ryan confessed.

Claire had a unique ability to completely move past some infringement in the relationship, putting before her the love they shared, and behind her whatever incident gave rise to disquietude. She understood what he was saying, but it was as if the event had previously been settled, and they were re-approaching it. His apology was greatly appreciated, though, and it warmed Claire. Before she responded, their wine was set before them.

“Baby,” Claire began, touching her glass stem, “it’s been a long and rough week. I know you’re under a lot of stress with Burwell’s. It’s okay. I totally got it.”

“Sweetie, thanks, but, but, it’s more than that. I really appreciate your understanding, but I was a jerk. I mean, if you want to go out, that’s cool –“

Claire held a finger to his lips and smiled, her own delicate mouth gently whispering a hushing sound to quiet him. She smiled, her eyes conveying a peace that settled Ryan’s mind. For her to forgive and forget was totally unexpected, only adding to her many attributes that were simply astounding. She was most certainly unlike any woman he had ever known, including Gillian.

“Well, okay,” Ryan said.

“How’s your Caesar Nero wine?”

Ryan laughed out loud, a hearty laugh that helped extinguish some of the guilt he still retained. Once he stopped, he swirled his wine and savored the Sicilian creation.

“Caesar Nero. Wrong name, but certainly an A for historical reference. And, it’s pretty good. Balanced, with dark fruit. Oh, and nice finish.”

“Good,” she replied, leaning forward to be closer to him.

“Oh, I was thinking, about tomorrow night, um, I can’t totally get out of working, but I think I can skip out early. It should be cool. Maybe we can have a romantic dinner at my place. Fireside and a bottle of Cava? I mean, if you’re not going out.”

“Baby, that sounds delightful. Can I bring anything?”

“Nope. Just you. That’s all I need.”

They ordered their entrees and enjoyed a lovely conversation while awaiting their food. Ryan finally felt totally relaxed, and Claire infused his person with her own special equilibrium. Dining together, laughing and finally closing the meal, left the restaurant better than when they entered. Walking back in the direction from which they originally came, they held one another, savoring the last moments of tenderness before she returned to her building. Ryan told Claire not to come by Burwell’s that evening because he knew she would be tired, but Claire protested. He finally left it up to her, though secretly, he would be disappointed if she did not appear.

Standing at the door, they kissed again, and seemed to hold each other a little longer and a little tighter. Neither wanted to part, but necessity dictated such a rupture. Finally Claire pulled away, but not before Ryan raised her hands to his lips, kissing them tenderly.

“Tomorrow night?” Ryan asked.

“Indeed. Tomorrow night.”

“And baby?”



“For what?”

“For being an amazing woman.”

“You make it easy.”

Claire then winked at him and turned away. Ryan watched her go through the glass doors and vanish in the depths of the building. He felt the loneliness of his position, but his heart swelled. The poison that previously tormented him was washed away by the magic that was Claire. Her smile, her giggle, the way she approached life, it manifested in him a sense of delight he never felt before, and in that delight he now basked.

Already, he started planning Friday night. It needed to be special, because Claire was special, and Ryan would settle for nothing less.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ryan fumbled with a book of matches, the unlit candle taunting him maliciously. Ryan could run a first rate kitchen with ease; he could successfully operate two restaurants and a bakery with little problem; the book of matches, however, was giving him the greatest difficulty of his life, and it angered him.

Stupid fucking matches, Ryan grumbled to himself as he threw them on the counter and moved over to the only junk drawer he allowed in his kitchen. After searching vainly for several minutes, and throwing the excavated debris back into its drawer, he snatched up the matches to make a second attempt, now more annoyed and less collected.

“Of all the things in the world to piss me off…” Ryan started out loud, but did not finish his thought.

Ryan’s apartment was brilliantly decorated for the evening. The table was not only meticulously set, but it had a centerpiece of flora and fauna arrangements all intertwined, accented with three candles. Those, Ryan lit with ease. It was the remaining candles in the living room that tripped him. Surveying the room with an attentive eye to detail and attention, Ryan made certain the space was just as he desired it. Appetizers would be consumed on the sofa with the fire roaring as a rustic but elegant backdrop. Sparkling wine would also be consumed there, and the chiller was in place, with the wine in the refrigerator. Cocktail napkins were set out and tongs were in place. One last glance told Ryan the table was as it should be.

Since the opening of Lady Burwell’s, Ryan and Claire spent little time in either of their apartments, usually awaiting the other, or sometimes just relaxing in what free time Ryan had to share. Tonight, however, would be theirs alone, their night to spend together.

The match finally took, and the little flame seemed to giggle as it flickered in the breath Ryan exhaled. He lit the candles and threw the book away, looking at the clock as he did so. From the kitchen he smelled his entrée cooking, a delicious blend of meat and herbs filling the space. Dinner would be late in the evening, but that was customary in the city.

The kitchen was cleaned and repaired after a hasty cooking spree, and Ryan, leaning against the counter, seemed to inspect its appearance, although his mind did not actually travel any further than the vodka in his glass. The scents rising from the range top were magnificent, and he knew Claire would love them. He chose something funky and new - both to her palate and his: Palestinian Chicken, a traditional Middle Eastern dish of chicken with spices, including cinnamon. Ryan had little experience cooking Middle Eastern, so he enjoyed the adventurous nature of the entrée and the surprising simplicity of the meal. The pitas were warming in the oven, and the chicken sizzled in the pan. Rice with saffron was cooking, as well as a few other vegetable dishes Ryan thought appropriate.

Only a few minutes remaining, Ryan thought, still leaning against the counter. The apartment was ready, so he allowed himself a moment longer to remain where he was. He was excited for the evening, not only to share an evening with Claire, but also about the prospect of the entire relationship. Things, he reasoned, were going really well. Their love was the proverbial ship on placid seas, sailing with wind-filled sails. Through all the trials of the new restaurant, and what trials life brought, the idea of this relationship always pulled Ryan to happier moments, Claire’s memory something that ever helped him see better days. He hoped this evening would show her that.

Steam steadily rose from the pot of rice on the range. Ryan watched, but did not move to check it. It was fine, he knew. Taking another sip, he heard the door buzzer.

“Oh,” Ryan said, glancing at the clock. He raced to the box and buzzed her into the building.

After ascending the stairs, Claire was rewarded with the delicious scents that dared to trespass into the neutral space of the hallway. She was bundled against the cold night air, and though fatigued by the late night and the activities of the week, her heart was racing in her chest. She ran through their past few meetings in her mind, and she realized it had indeed been a while since they spent any real quality time together. They saw one another frequently and communicated constantly, but to sit and stare into his eyes, smell his cologne or even touch his hand, those moments had not occurred for quite some time.

Claire heard the door unlocking, and previously satisfied with her attire, she subtly arranged her posture to flaunt her plumage. The door opened, and a gush of far eastern market scents greeted her forcefully.

“Hey!” Ryan greeted.

“Hey baby,” Claire replied, pushing past the threshold and into his arms.

Ryan could feel the multiple layers of clothing she had on and around her, especially the scarf that now brushed against his neck. With her arms about him, Claire hugged him tightly, brushing her own cheek against his.

Claire pulled away to face him, but kept her arms around his neck. She looked into his eyes, not searching for anything in particular, but merely watching, and flowing, as it were, with the gentle rhythm that now emanated from them.

“What?” Ryan asked, playfully.

Claire smiled at him but did not reply. His eyes were enough for her at the moment.

“Well,” she finally said, “are we going to stand here all night?”

“Might have to think about it,” Ryan replied, laughing.

Claire made a snarky face at him as he stepped aside and she entered, throwing her coat off her shoulders. Ryan took it from her and awaited the unraveling of her slender, delicate neck from the anaconda-like scarf.

“How cold was it outside?” Ryan asked mockingly.

“Hush!” Claire replied, hitting him with the scarf.

“I’ll take these eleven layers and put them in the closet here.”

“It’s cold outside!” Claire protested.


“Well, I could leave,” said Claire jokingly.

Ryan laid the items in the closet but retained the scarf. As he turned around, he quickly threw it around Claire and used it to pull her closer to him, and said: “You can’t leave me.”

Pulled closer to his body, Claire gazed once more into those beautiful eyes and lost herself to the moment. Transfixed as she was, Ryan’s jesting had no effect on her. All she heard was his protest about her leaving, and knew she never could abandon a love so unique and so amazing. She could not, and did not dare harbor the sentiment of separation, knowing she was his alone, and always would be.

“I don’t plan to,” she replied, kissing him passionately.

Ryan savored the kiss as a testament of his power over her, and her power over him, a mutual submission that was beginning the process of forging them into one unit. He tasted her, relished her like a fine wine long harbored in the depths of some long forgotten Bordeaux villa.

The wave of their passion cresting and subsiding, Claire pulled away from Ryan’s face, but not his arms, which encircled her waist.

“I’ve missed you,” she said to him.

“I know. But tonight, late as it is, I am yours, and tonight is for us.”

Ryan took Claire by the hand and pulled her over by the fire. The room was dim and the candles flickered lazily. Claire admired the romantic setting and she began to swoon, seeing the shadows moving slowly across the floor and walls. Ryan led her to the sofa and gently sat her down.

“Be right back,” he said.

Back in the kitchen, Ryan checked the meal and grabbed the bottle of sparkling, a fruity Spumante, and returned to the sofa, glasses in hand. He set a glass before her, chilled and elongated, like an elegant duchess at the ball, and began to unwrap the cage.

“Oohh, I know you’re not supposed to, but can you make it pop? I love that,” asked Claire.

Ryan always thought it a product of lowbrow proletarians to allow a bottle of sparkling to ‘pop.’ It was crude and distasteful, and something he regarded as an affront to the brilliancy of the house that produced it. But, for Claire, he smiled, tossed the cage on the table, and allowed to the bottle to enrapture her with its explosion. Fortunately, it did not spill over onto his floor. Ryan was relieved.

“Squeeee!” she exclaimed, as he poured the glass.

“Spumante,” Ryan said.

“Yum,” replied Claire.

“And a Middle Eastern flare for this evening.”

“Oh, that sounds good. How was everything tonight? Everything go well?”

Ryan topped off the glasses and handed one to Claire with finesse, then plunged the bottle into the ice. The hissing of the gas fireplace was still audible, but a few well-placed wood wicked candles helped to give the semblance of a real and rugged fire.

“Busy as usual, but good. We had a few issues early on, but nothing major. Katie is doing really well. I’m impressed with her.”

“She’s a sweetie.”

“Yes,” Ryan began, taking a seat beside Claire, “and a good worker. This may be dreaming too big right now, but if I start a third project, she just might be heading it up.”

“You think so?”

“I do,” Ryan replied.

“That would be awesome for her. You’re very good to your employees.”

“They’re good to me. The Lady won’t run without them.”

Ryan reclined against the sofa and Claire rotated so as to face him, her legs pulled up beneath her. In the light of the fire, they each had a certain appearance that other admired. For Claire, Ryan looked like a rugged mountain man, fresh from a day in the forest, his close-cropped beard testifying to his manly appearance. For Ryan, the glow seductively illuminated Claire in an erotic aura, kissing the tender flesh with fiery beams of light.

“How was work?” Ryan asked.

“Well, it’s work.”

“That good, eh?”

“Oh lord. Sometimes, it’s just so busy. Now is one of those times. We always get through them, but damn, it’s just nuts now.”

Claire took a sip of her wine and a thought of her day brushed past her mind. She saw the hectic pace she maintained, moving from work to meetings and back again. She heard the multitude of questions asked, and remembered only a few of the hasty answers she gave. The weeks preceding the holiday season always seemed to be busy; perhaps it had to do with the holiday rush and last minute marketing campaigns. She didn’t know, but surrendering to her desire, she rotated and sank back into the waiting arms of her man.

“Tell me about it. The holiday season is going to be crazy for the Lady as well.”

“But it’s nothing you can’t handle,” Claire said with a smile.

So much confidence in me. God, I love her, Ryan thought, and he returned her smile. Then raising his glass, he proposed a toast.

“Baby, to us,” Ryan said.

Claire echoed his sentiment and the lips of their glasses touched. In silence they sat, the fire lighting two passionate hearts that found their cuddling as the greatest expression of their love.

“Oh, I need to check on the dinner. Are you hungry?” Ryan asked, pulling away.

“Yes. Starving.”


Ryan excused himself to the kitchen and began pulling the pots and pans off the range. The platters and bowls were awaiting their contents. Ryan quickly arranged them and, with a little bit of artistic flare, gave them each a fine aesthetic appearance.

“Dinner time,” he announced as he exited with two platters in his hands.

Claire got up from the sofa and carried her glass to the table, though it lacked any contents. Ryan set the platters down and returned for the bowl of saffron rice.

“Baby, can I help?”

“Nope. Got it.”

Claire took her seat, savoring the many and varied smells that escaped from the items before her. Each was a delicacy to behold and enjoy, and the smells, arising from the creative genius of centuries, enticed her to sneak a bite, hoping Ryan would not catch her.

“I saw that,” he said, smirking.

“Hah!” Claire returned, defiantly putting a second piece of chicken in her mouth.

“Ooooh, that’s it. You’re going to get it now!”

“I mock your threat!”

They both chuckled happily, the sound filling Ryan’s apartment with mirth. Laughter had been absent from the confines of his space for so long, and it was welcomed by the cold corners and dark recesses of the abode. Prodigal as it was, it now returned, and was joyfully received.

Ryan sat, and together they filled their pitas with chicken and scooped the dishes onto their plates. Wine glasses were filled and consumed. For over an hour, they dined and talked, the conversation having no real destination, but seemingly flowing with the energy the two emitted. The meal slowly moved to second chair as the conversation took first, the symphony of their voices echoing an excitement each desired to share with the other.

When they were finally finished with the meal, and the time was pressing half past midnight, the two returned to the sofa content and relaxed, as if they had completed a great journey through time and memory, and returned to their point of origin. Ryan propped his feet on the table and Claire snuggled beside him, her glass filled.

“Baby, this was wonderful. Everything was delicious.”

“It did turn out well. Thanks,” and he kissed the top of her head.

Ryan sipped his wine, a soft and elegant Pinot from Oregon. It was aged, and very tasteful. It reminded him of their relationship, balanced but strong, with equal components all buttressing the ideal of wine, and thus displaying it.

Claire rested against Ryan. The gentle rising and falling of his chest rocked her soothingly, much as a boat does to its passengers. The feel of him against her, of his chest, his strong legs, awakened a yearning she had hidden within her. She felt it growing in her heart, then between her thighs. Her heart raced, and like an animal on the prowl, she fancied herself a huntress prowling through a forest of delight and pleasure. Her demeanor changed from lackadaisical repose to that of arousal. She slowly began to run her fingers up and down Ryan’s leg seductively.

Ryan was lost in his own thoughts when he felt her touch. It was not the touch she had previously, but something that carried an esoteric message. It was an awakening, an arousal and a beckoning to him, a touch so singular he could not mistake it for anything else. And like Claire, he felt his mind transformed, yielding to the arousal growing in him.

Claire shifted and sat up. Gone was her desire to cuddle. Other options presented themselves, options that promised far more pleasure. She looked at Ryan, glared almost, as her feline prowess transformed into unadulterated energy.

The look was not lost on Ryan, who had seen it before, but never with such ferocity. He saw passion, eagerness, love. The former two may have driven her, but it was the latter that controlled all. That look, like a lightning storm on the horizon, made Ryan tremble with an awe and anticipation.

Claire did not speak; she did not have to. With her eyes, she communicated her desire, and with them, her authority. The reigns of the relationship were firmly in her hands, and pushing her stallion forward, she pursued her end.

Pressing her lips to his, Claire kissed Ryan, but not in the way she had previously. Each kiss they shared was in greeting or parting, signaling their brief union of moments. This kiss, so profound, was signaling something more, something deeper, showing each of them a new understanding of their places together.

The energy between them grew instantly as wandering hands actively sought the bare flesh of the other. Words were whispered in the dark silence, where only secrets dare break the soundless void. The fire, mimicking their fervor, burned brightly and magnificently for its audience of two.

“Baby, I want you,” Claire whispered into his ear.

Ryan pulled off her blouse, and his shirt followed suit. Flesh against flesh, the sensation electrified their bodies to even greater levels of motion. They were energized and ready, their bodies speeding to an end neither wanted to deny. They kissed and groped, and in the darkness, they shed all they had between them, until finally they were two souls exposed to one another, two bodies so intimate, so shy, so ready to embrace a power greater than themselves.

Ryan kissed Claire’s neck, moving down her form. She sprawled on the couch and gave soft commands to her lover in the darkness. The candles burned, but their light was soft and barely able to pierce the night; yet, by this romantic illumination, they gave themselves to each other.

Upon the couch, they explored the deeper recesses of their bodies and souls, yielding everything to each other in mutual trust and love. There was no fear, no distrust, or vain ambition. It was but their two souls, wandering in each other’s love. Their hands felt and caressed, their lips touched, and they entered one another, mind and spirit, until the wax of the candles had all but melted into oblivion and the dying light of the fires saw the two lovers panting heavily on the sofa, their forms twisted, but embracing.

Claire looked into Ryan’s eyes and searched for some affirmation of their love, of their union. She wanted to know that she had not given herself wrongly, that her love was accepted and returned. In her heart, she had to know that what she offered was not in vain. She could not open her heart without the threat of vulnerability; she had to know that he was equally as vulnerable and open. When she found it residing in his eyes, she smiled weakly and laid her head on his chest.

The night waned, but Ryan was more alive than he had ever been. He had made love to many women, but to Gillian he had given his heart. With Claire, however, there passed between them something unique and special, an intense eagerness to please that he never felt before, and a bonding foreign to his conceptions of romance and couple-hood. He sought not his own enjoyment, but the furtherance of her enraptured mind. Every moan spurred him to greater exertions, for her pleasure was paramount to his own experience. That was novel for Ryan, novel indeed.

Claire’s weight on Ryan’s chest felt soothing to him as she gently rose and fell with his breathing. There was comfort and contentment in his heart. Slowly, he shifted so as not to wake his sleeping beauty. He looked over her body, but not lustfully. He saw the form of the woman he truly loved, cherished even. She was soft, weak, vulnerable. So was he. Naked as they both were, they could hide only in their minds, and even that Ryan knew he could open to her.

Beyond his windows, the city was settling into its late routine. Ryan could feel the ebb and flow, based upon his work in the culinary field. Right now, restaurants were closing, and kitchens were being cleaned. Bars and lounges were picking up in business, including a few late, late night eateries, the kind chefs frequent when they close their own places. He loved the late nights, the feel of the quiet floor and the clean kitchen. It was a feeling few can imagine, when one completely triumphs over a hectic evening, then walks home, feeling invigorated and alive from their hard work, and success. Tonight, Ryan did not miss that. He was where he wanted to be, and he knew Claire was, as well. They were together, truly a couple now, and she had no other place to be than by his side. That’s where she belonged, and he knew that’s where she would remain.

Ryan gathered Claire in his arms and carried her to his bed. Sleepily, she managed to wrap her arms around his neck, then dozed off again. Once Ryan closed down his apartment, he snuggled up beside her, her little warm body quietly conforming to his. Then, they both were asleep.

Chapter 8

Claire opened her eyes. Something on her neck was tickling her. It felt rough and coarse. Then, she felt breathing on her neck, and she smiled. Ryan was nudging her awake, kissing her slowly and tenderly.

“Baby, it’s early,” she whined.

“Early? It’s 8:30. Time for this little kitten to wake up.”

“This kitten wants to sleep in,” she whined further.

“Hey, I only got in a few hours ago. If anybody should be sleeping, it’s me.”

“But you’re a man. I’m, I’m, I’m just a kitten,” she said, in her whiniest voice.

Ryan further kissed her neck, treating her soft flesh with a reverence relegated to relics alone. Considering her the Helene of old, he held her in sacred worship, his own idol.

Claire spent every night with Ryan since they first made love two weeks ago, taking his apartment as her own. Ryan loved it, though he noticed quickly the territorial acquisitions she was making in his closet. He mockingly bemoaned his lost space, but did not hold it a secret that he loved having her home when he arrived. After his long shifts, he left the back of the kitchen knowing she would be there, seated by the fire, reading one of Robert Perry’s horrors, scaring herself until he arrived to soothe her.

Claire equally loved being an active part of his life. Previously, they caught ‘sightings’ of each other – as they called them – but now, she could see him in the morning, after hours in the late evening, and sometimes earlier if things were slow. Just being around his home, his items, his books and cooking utensils made Claire feel all the more closer to him. His apartment was quickly becoming her own.

“Come on, baby,” Ryan began, coaxing her along, “it’s time to get up. It’s farmer’s market time!”

“Only you would get excited over a farmer’s market,” replied Claire.

Throwing the covers over her head, Claire tried to hide from the intruder who was robbing her of sleep. She remembered promising to visit the market with him, and even committed to such an early time, though the time to which she originally acquiesced had come and gone, and out of mercy, Ryan allowed her an additional hour.

Ryan rolled over and looked at the lump in the bed. He smiled warmly and happily, but also had a devilish grin that bespoke of torment. Carefully, he crept his hand close to her head, and with a snap, pulled off the covers. Claire screamed and covered her face.

“Hah!” he shouted, laughing.

“You jerk,” she said, squinting.

The windows were open and the light streamed in blissfully, showering Claire with the morning blessing. With still squinted eyes, she tried to find Ryan to smack him, but he leapt from the bed and snatched a pillow. He was prepared.

“You, sir, are a first class ass. And I mean that,” Claire said, sitting up finally.

Ryan stood at a distance, pillow at the ready. He played this game before, and learned wisely from his previous mistakes. He watched as she casually turned to face him, her legs folding beneath her. She smiled gaily at him, the sleep still present in her face. Ryan admired her, with the streams of light cascading over her, the brilliancy of the glow creating an aura around her. She was beautiful, and not only in appearance; her beauty stemmed, emanated, from her heart that was nothing but goodness. Above all things Ryan admired, it was her nature that he cherished the most.

“Aww,” mocked Ryan.

With a deep sigh, Claire turned again and threw her legs over the bed. It was time to rise and accompany her man to the market. She was excited to venture forth to the world of culinary fetish, where she was told the local chefs all gathered to feast on the latest produce entering the city. She would have loved it much more in another hour or so.

“You know, this is showing a level of dedication and commitment. I hope you appreciate it,” Claire said, grinning.

“Oh, I do. Believe me.”

Slowly, and carefully, Claire slid her hand along the bed, until she felt her pillow hit her fingertips. It was time for revenge, and she was forming a plan. With a soft and whiny voice, Claire asked Ryan to come and help her out of bed. Ryan, letting down his guard and thinking the threat of ambush over, tossed his pillow onto the bed and walked over. As he neared, the last image he saw was a white blur striking him across the face. The fight was on.

Claire hastily rose to her knees and struck the falling man as quickly as she could, the soft thuds of the pillow striking lamely against Ryan’s chest. She laughed maniacally, and Ryan did the giggle Claire loved most, both falling back onto the bed. Claire seized the opportunity and sprung onto his chest, still hitting him. Ryan tried to block the blows, but he laughed too much for his arms to render any aide to his cause.

“Hah, hah,” Ryan began, trying to speak. “Stop, I surrender!”

“Next time, you’ll let me sleep!”

“Okay, sleep!”

Ryan threw his arms up in defeat and quickly wrapped them around Claire. She willingly fell on him as he pulled her down, her hair falling around his face. Chin to chin, they stared at one another.

“Baby,” Ryan said.

“Yes,” Claire replied.

“I love you,” he said.

Claire smiled, remembering the first time he spoke those words and the whispered voice he utilized, as if speaking to a goddess. She had never found such reverence in a lover, and in that moment, she knew she not only heard the confession of his mind, but of his innermost recesses, where her lover held his secrets. At that moment, she knew she had all of him.

“Baby, I love you, too.”

They kissed passionately, their emotions fueling their passion. The sun rose higher and higher, until finally it crested the sky. Ryan and Claire did not show at the market. This was how they lived, their love drafting episode after episode of hilarity and fun, romance and passion. Each day was a delight, and whether together or separated, they always felt a connection.

Their first few weeks in the new situation were amazing for them both, with Ryan sharing his apartment with his love. It strongly pressed the idea of living together into his head. He wanted as much time with Claire as possible, and, on a deeper level, thought it necessary to keep her as close to him as he could. His fear of loss propelled him intensely to act, and he instigated the conversation casually. Claire had no objections, save for her lease, which would be up at the first of the year.

Business was picking up for both Ryan and Claire as they drew near to the Thanksgiving season. They were stressed at work, but each knew there was solace at home. They communicated daily, texting and calling, with Ryan ever leading the proverbial charge. At first, Claire delighted in the constant attention, but his moody occurrences if she lacked promptness, or if she tried to calmly ask for a reprieve to get work done, were getting to her. She persistently rationalized it away, seeing nothing but love as the sole purpose and instigator, and thought herself lucky to have a man who took such a keen interest in her daily doings.

The holidays were approaching, but what concerned Claire most was the advent of Christmas, and what she would get for Ryan. She knew she wanted something special, and once Thanksgiving was over and she returned from visiting her family, she was going to drag Brett all throughout Boston for the right gift. She had already planned this with Brett, so he was prepared.

It was a week before Thanksgiving when Claire came by the restaurant one evening. It had been a few days since she was last there, as she was often tired after long days at the office and short nights of sleep, but she missed Ryan and thought she would surprise him.

Standing in the doorway, she gave a brilliant smile to Katie, Jorge, and the rest of the staff as they scurried about. She found Ryan’s office empty – which was customary – as he was on the floor, talking with some guests.

Claire stayed back a little, still thoughtful of the last time she tried an excursion into the kitchen, and that awful, disastrous result. The kitchen bustled with activity, but by now, Claire was beginning to realize what was truly hectic and what was manageable. The servers did not hasten as they had previously, but with steady steps they managed the plates they carried. Claire enjoyed the culinary education she was receiving. This was an aspect of life she had never met previously, and now understood what Ryan said about culinary workers being invisible.

The door swung open and Ryan walked in, a broad smile on his face. The crew knew what that meant, and in each heart, there was a small amount of delight. He walked over to a notebook and leafed through it. Steam wafted up from the kettle beside him, giving him a mystical appearance, like some sage of old, or, as Claire thought, Gandalf in the Misty Mountains.

Ryan thumbed through a few pages, looking over the recipes contained therein, smiling as he went. What compliments he received on the floor cheered him, since the day started out roughly. All seemed well, and as the crew moved around him, quietly discharging their duties, and as the kitchen hissed and bubbled, he knew it was going to be a good night.

From the corner of Ryan’s eye, he saw someone in the hall, and turning his head, beheld what he knew had to be an angel leaning against the wall, his smile broadening still further as he saw his angel through the vapory steam filling the space.

Ryan strolled over to where Claire was standing, dodging one server and quickly eyeing a four top before letting it pass. Claire watched him come over, moving casually but powerfully through the kitchen. She never realized just how much of a turn-on his chef’s frock was, but watching him cascade through the maze of space, directing with finesse, she became exceptionally aroused.

”Baby?” Ryan asked, surprised but delighted.

“Hiya!” Claire replied, happily.

“This is such a nice surprise! What brings you down here?”

With a smile, then folded arms around his neck, Claire did not speak, but pressed her body against his, and kissed him. Ryan felt a flush of mild embarrassment at the scene, but the warmth of her lips quickly dissuaded his notion. His arms folded around her waist, squeezing her tightly. The sensation reverberated through them both, and their happy reunion lasted for a good 30 seconds.

Katie, still with her soups, smiled at the two lovers. It was a sight not often seen in the kitchen, where serenity tried to reign and silence was master of all. She laughed to herself, pondering the magnificence of being the boss. If my girlfriend came in here and we kissed, I’d be fired, or, given a raise! Katie thought to herself.

“I missed you,” Claire finally replied.

With gentle ease, Claire pulled away from Ryan, but still kept her arms around his neck, holding him.

“Here,” Ryan began, pulling away, “let me get some dinner for you.”

“Oh baby, don’t worry about it.”

“No, it’s cool. I’ll have it right up.”

Claire grabbed Ryan by the hand and pulled him back. She was hungry, yes, but she desired more to have him in her arms and be held by him. That was nourishment enough for her.

“Baby, I’m good. I’d rather have you,” she said.

“Babe, I can –“

Claire hushed him with her finger, gently pressing it to his lips.

“Just be with me.”

“Okay,” Ryan acquiesced.

“It’s nice to see you. I missed you,” Claire said.

Claire peered into his eyes, seeing them glimmer with a happiness the past few weeks drained. Yet, she could see something else, hidden deep. She tried see what emotions lurked there behind those illustrious veils, but she could not penetrate through the thickness. To read him was to read in a language foreign and old, fumbling though antiquated lines across dusty old parchment. Ryan was a mysterious and secretive man with his emotions, sometimes revealing his deeper thoughts, but mostly harboring them in the cavernous vault of his mind.

“I miss you, too. I hate waking up without you beside me,” Ryan replied.

“We do have our nights, though,” she said.

“True. And my cocktail waiting for me,” Ryan added, smiling.

“Always,” Claire said with a wink.

Just then, Jorge came around the corner and asked Ryan a question, to which Ryan nodded, and the chef disappeared stealthily, like the vapor over the kitchen kettle.

Ryan shook his head and closed his eyes, as if the news was a heavy burden he now had to carry upon his shoulders. Claire brushed his cheek, feeling the rich stubble of his beard against her fingers.

“Trouble?” Claire asked.

“Just junk. Nothing big.” Ryan replied.


“Hey, let’s step outside and get some of that good Boston fresh air,” Ryan said, laughing.

They walked out into the cold air, the night-lights of the city acting as stars in the sky. Ryan inhaled deeply, like one would in the spruce forests of Montana. Claire bundled up again, and she would have cautioned Ryan to do the same, but she knew the chill of the air felt good against his warm skin, as that kitchen was insanely hot.

“Oh, peaceful bliss of this alleyway,” Ryan said, holding aloft his arms.

“Rough night, baby?”

“Yes and no. It started off rough, but got better. Sometimes, though, it’s just the petty crap that bothers me. I love running a kitchen, but the pettiness drives me out of my mind.”

“I know what you mean,” replied Claire.

“I don’t think so. We run two different operations. This is a kitchen, not a marketing building. The crap that goes on in here irritates me to no end.”

The rebuke, subtle and soft-spoken, had a stinging nature Claire could not miss. Bundled as she was against the cold, she felt a chill seep through her clothing, and sensed it did not emanate from the weather. Shaking it off, she listened as he continued to rant.

“And some people want this, and others that. ‘I need Thursday off.’ I give them Thursday off, and then they want to work Thursday after I reschedule the night. They get mad when I can’t fit them in. ‘You wanted Thursday off,’ I say. It doesn’t make sense to them, though. Everybody wants to work, but nobody wants to work. God, it’s like herding cats!”

“Sounds like you could use a drink right now,” Claire said.

“I totally could. But, anyway, how was your day?”

Claire told him briefly about her day, the labors, frustrations and annoyances that filled her working hours. Ryan listened intently, though one ear was also attuned to the workings of his kitchen. He nodded to her statements, and brushed her arm once when he sensed frustration.

As she was talking, Claire’s phone peeped a little chime. She recognized the sound as Brett’s and pulled out her cell to check it, excusing herself. Ryan watched her keenly, and felt annoyance growing quickly. She took that text while talking to me, he thought, watching her type out a reply. That’s fucking rude. How, how could she? I’m standing right here, and she totally blew me off.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she began. “Brett. Had to send a quick response. But, like I was saying, that shipping firm is driving us crazy. Sometimes, I want to pull my hair out.”

Ryan was silent. Claire finished, and noticed a degree of moodiness in him. She returned her hands to her pockets to warm them, and, inadvertently, to bolster her body against the changing of moods. She mentally questioned his reticence, but could not deduce an answer.

“Baby?” Claire asked of him.

Ryan was silently fuming over her lack of attention to him, but he held himself in reserve, momentarily controlling the anger that was boiling. Finally, he knew the silence should be broken, and spoke.

“Everything cool with Brett?”

Ryan’s voice was dry and void of emotion, but he managed to give it an intonation that at least told Claire he was better than disastrous.

“Yeah. Just asking about post-Thanksgiving shopping when I get back from my folks.”

In his mind, Ryan remembered something about her travels over the holiday. He already said he would not be able to travel with her, given that the Lady would be open for business that day, and though disappointed, Claire understood. But, somehow, he believed she would be remaining with him since he couldn’t go, and hearing now that she was leaving confused him, and agitated him greatly.

“Get back from your folks? What do you mean?” Ryan asked.

Now it was Claire’s turn to be confused. She remembered telling him she would be returning home for the holiday, and thought Ryan was content with her decision. She held that understanding all through making her plans.

“Remember me telling you,” she started off gently, “I’d be going home for the holiday? I’ll be back over the weekend.”

Ryan was silent again. He brooded, his hands on the verge of shaking with repressed frustration. She’s leaving? She’s leaving, he repeated to himself in disbelief. I can’t go, and she’s leaving me for the holiday? No, I don’t fucking think so!

“I don’t remember you saying you were going. The way I understood it, you were remaining here. That’s the decision we came to.”

A nervousness in Claire’s stomach flared up, throwing off her calm demeanor. Instantly, she felt her body become warm, despite the night air. Her heart began to race. The alley, dimly lit as it was, shielded Claire from what she knew was the hard, harsh stare of Ryan’s, and stepping away from the light over the door only added additional protection for her eyes.

“Don’t remember? Baby, we discussed it. You knew I was going.”

“You’re leaving me for the holiday? I can’t go, so you’re ditching me? I mean, really?”

“Baby, it’s my family,” Claire protested.

“No, no we didn’t. The last thing I heard was that you were staying. Guess I was wrong. Hey, no, it’s cool. I’ll just stay here like a dog and slave in the kitchen. Have fun!” Ryan shouted.

The darkness in the alley and the sounds of the city, bursting with joviality, did nothing to mask the meanness in Ryan’s voice. Claire did not speak, for shock and surprise silenced her. She stood still, like a Grecian statue in repose, her only purpose to exist as a sounding board for Ryan’s fury. He continued.

“I mean, Claire, really? We’re a couple now, an item. You know, two lovers. At least I thought we were, right? Am I wrong? How can you leave me on the holiday? How would you feel if I just up and went? How would it feel?”

“Baby, please,” Claire said quietly, “I’m sorry. It’s just a misunderstanding. Calm down.”

“Oh, so now I’m out of control? Is that what you fucking think? Calm down? Since when do you tell me to calm down? I can manage well on my own, alright.”

“Baby, people might hear,” she pleaded.

“I don’t give a fuck who hears. They can blow it out their asses!”

“Ryan, I’m only gone for a few days. It won’t be long. Maybe, maybe you could even fly out after work or something. I’ll buy the ticket.”

“A little late for alternatives now, isn’t it? A little fucking late! No, I’m telling you, baby, you are here with me! We are together now, and your place is here, in Boston, by my side. Got it?”

“Baby, how can you say that? You make it sound like I don’t love you or want to be with you. I love you, you know that. It’s just that I haven’t seen my family in months. I always go home for the holidays. They’re looking forward to it, and so am I. I’ll be back –“

“No,” Ryan said, interrupting her, “and that is all. You are here, or we are finished. Can you, with all your marketing genius, understand that? I know I’m just a stupid fucking chef, but I understand it.”

Claire did not know what to think, or feel or believe. For all her strength and independence, she had not the will to challenge him, or the desire to test the resolve he just put forth. Her heart ached on many levels, burning with pain, passion and an unsettling feeling she did not recognize. Foreign to her, this unnamed pain dominated all, and stirred her uneasily. Maybe it was a conviction that things were only going to get worse. Maybe it was the proverbial Raven giving her an ill omen. She did not know, but she could not shake it, try as she did.

There were quarrels between them in the span of their relationship, but nothing of this level of anger. To both hearts, it was shocking to see how quickly the situation dissolved into a putrid substance, dangerous to savor and noxious to the senses.

“Baby, please, don’t be angry,” Claire pleaded still.

Claire hoped her soothing tone would quell the animosity of his nature, but the stiffness of his frame told her otherwise. Twice, some of the staff passed before the door, as if to ask something of Ryan, and quickly disappeared when they discovered the vengeful spirit lurking just beyond the threshold.

“Oh, I’m not angry,” Ryan began, arrogantly, “I’m cool. You’re remaining, and it’s settled. Now, I’m back to my little slave job.”

Ryan rushed back into the kitchen despite the petitions and affectionate grasps of Claire. In the darkness, once his form disappeared, she stood alone, her eyes tearing and chilling her face as they fell. The pain in her heart throbbed greatly like an open wound, bleeding and uncontrollable. She felt the pain, nauseating and sickening to her, but had no remedy to calm it. What transpired before her was a melee of insanity, a whirlwind of a fight that escalated into such confusion that it shocked her to see the sudden degeneration of his temperament. Alone with just her thoughts, Claire did not know what to think, or how to comprehend the situation. Ryan became a totally different person, someone she felt she did not know, and it shocked her that such a personality could reside inside someone she cared for so greatly. What she saw was a Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll she loved so much.

Turning away from the light of the kitchen, Claire wiped away the tears from her eyes, and dragging her sorrow like a beaten fighter, she slowly walked home, her heart so downtrodden and her mind sorry she ever deigned to show up that evening. Above her, the city was still alive, but she did not feel it. All she could sense was an agony imparted from tender lips she still loved and cherished, though scarcely recognized.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ryan rushed back into the kitchen, storming and venting his wrath in his mind. The storm that raged in his heart and soul was tremendous and violent, the darkness of it visible in his eyes. The crew knew immediately something was wrong, and Jorge, the first to behold him, lowered his eyes and went back to work, focusing more on what he could change instead of what he couldn’t.

Ryan looked around him, though he truly saw nothing but the anger in his heart. He was furious at Claire’s indiscretion, at what he was already terming her disloyalty, her treachery. In his heart he felt equal measures of pain and hatred, pain at her willingness to leave him, and hatred because she was going to do it.

How dare she. How DARE she! Ryan fumed to himself. How can she leave me? How can she just turn away like that? Like I’m nothing at all, nothing she wants in her life. To just up and go? Was she even going to ask me, or just tell me when she got on the plane? No! I thought we were closer than that. What are we? Two fucking strangers! What? Am I just a free ride for her? Something to do when she has excess time? And that bastard Brett, he knew about this. I bet he even planned it. That motherfucker, he planned it to get her away from me. That little fucker is jealous of our relationship. He’s jealous that he lost his little playmate. Fuck him! And fuck her! That bitch thinks it’s easy to leave me? She thinks she can just come and go? Oh, fuck no. Nope. Not this guy. I’m not a bobo doll; I’m not going to roll with the punches. No, not me. I’m in fucking charge here, and what I say goes.

Ryan suddenly stopped thinking for a moment, the last thought lingering poignantly in his mind like a sharp barb piercing the surface of the skin. That line he shouted mentally, the stinging pain it brought, he remembered it powerfully, and hearing it once more, he was silenced immediately.

Standing in the kitchen like a silent lord, everyone moved around him, hoping desperately not to draw his attention. Though in the way of the operation, everyone dared not speak to him, and felt compelled to leave the silent sentry in his spot.

Ryan looked over at Jorge, thinking he had asked a question, but the man labored furiously, a line cook working just as diligently beside him; they were garnishing the plates. Ryan watched them, though he did not know why. It was as if he was in a fog, in some distant and foggy field where visibility was so limited one had to dream to see anything at all.

The line haunted Ryan as he watched the workings of the kitchen around him. When he uttered it, he said it not with his own fury and intonation, but mimicked how it originally sounded, when a drunken voice shouted it through his childhood home. In that instant, Ryan was a little boy again, shivering in his bedroom as the cyclonic fury of his father belted away at the lower level of the house.

“Sir?” asked a server meekly.

Ryan lowered his eyes to her, but did not speak. His fear was of actually vociferating that voice. Looking at the young girl, she seemed nervous, but he did not know why.

“Table sends it compliments,” she stated.

Like a good sentry, she discharged her duty, and quickly made haste for the floor, not so expeditious in her work as she was in leaving Ryan’s presence. All could see his dark eyes, fueled by something troubling, and word no doubt spread quickly of the fight in the alley.

“Thanks,” Ryan uttered to an empty space.

Mindful now of his presence in the kitchen, Ryan gave a quick look over everything, then retreated to his office, where he could sit and think, and hide.

Ryan’s office was the antithesis of his house, his kitchen and his personality. Stacks of papers seemingly grew from the cluttered workspace, as the trash bin, already exceeding its capacity, yelled to be emptied. Files, some stacked and others just carelessly tossed about, were not filed in any proper folder, but squatted on what parcel of office they could obtain, calling it their new home. A picture frame, sitting beside the computer, glared at Ryan; it was a picture of him and Claire together. They smiled in it, both looking happy. Another, hanging on the wall, was of the opening night. In both, he and Claire looked genuinely content.

“What the fuck?” he slowly asked out loud.

Great fear swelled in Ryan, though he dared not confess it. To utter the origin of that fear was to acknowledge what had to be a lie. Ryan knew he had self control, and he knew that with that control, he could master anything, even the presence of his father lurking and stalking within him.

Reclining in his chair, Ryan allowed the relative solitude of the little office space to speak to him. He felt unusually collected at the moment, especially after such a violent eruption. Usually Ryan simmered longer, but that disquieting fear in him awakened his sentiments, and returned him to a placidity that was sorely needed.

The gentle hum of the air conditioning unit became a soothing sound to Ryan, and he remembered sitting behind the couch playing with the return vent as a child, sometimes out of pure pleasure, and other times out of sheer fear of his father. In his house, it was one of the few places where he could go to feel like he escaped. The cool air would blow over his body, and he would dream of far off places, where things weren’t like what he saw every day.

The argument began to creep into Ryan’s mind again, piece by piece, each episode, every word spoken. He still felt the hurt, and added to it now was the fear of Claire’s leaving. As he calmed, he became disquieted, as each memory slowly surfaced in the wreck that was his mind, little memories poking their heads up from the ruins.

Ryan looked down at his desk, and the debris field only laughingly stared back. Open letters and bills were tossed on top of the nearest stack, and he grabbed one, opening the contents and looking it over. His mind was distraught and taxed; Ryan did not know what the paper actually said.

Sighing, Ryan tossed the envelope and sheet back onto the desk. He would excavate it later. The trouble of the evening weighed on him so heavily that he almost felt physical weight on his shoulders, like he had carried a bag of dirt several blocks. Ryan felt the emotions as they surfaced, and though he did not deign to explore them, he knew them all, and remembered them well. He could hear his own screaming, see Claire crying and hear the choking sob in her throat. He could even feel the total loss of control, the blackening feeling he received when he slipped into a sort of madness.

What happened? Ryan asked himself. The question made him ponder, truthfully ponder, the incidents that occurred. His anger was abating, and the pain was growing in strength. His heart turned to Claire and how she was doing. Ryan felt his phone in his pocket, but foolish pride allowed it to remain unused. He was still too hurt, though by what he wasn’t actually sure.

I mean, Ryan began, it’s a holiday. Of course she should want to spend it with me. But, she’d also want to spend it with family. That’s the sort of thing families do, I guess. Shit.

Soft voices were heard in the kitchen. Ryan knew he needed to reappear, but still he felt compelled to remain in his office. He tried not to think of it as a hiding location, but the thought did not elude him. He was hiding, but from what? Ryan did not know.

Thinking of the last line, how he said it, Ryan felt a shiver run through him. I’m in fucking charge here, and what I say goes. God, really? I sound just like - but Ryan did not finish his thought. In fact, he trapped the thought and pushed it to the periphery of his mind. He would not think it or say it; nor would he believe it. He was nothing like anyone or anything save his own life. He was his own man, he knew, and he shaped his own destiny. His world would not be dictated by the voice of the damned. Awful memories haunted him, but he had control over them, control over his life.

Ryan breathed heavily as he finished his mental monologue. Moving back into the kitchen, Ryan left the safety of his office. He believed he did not need to sit in there any longer.

Chapter 9

Claire sat in what was becoming her favorite chair in Ryan’s apartment. The fire was dead, the room was dark and she had on only her silken bathrobe and a shawl covering her legs. The shower was warm, but the heat from the water did nothing to alleviate the hurt that emanated from her bruised heart. Her eyes were swollen from crying.

In her hands, Claire held a cup of tea. She hoped to find the soothing scent of rosemary green tea a balm to her heart, but it was not so. The liquid was merely hot, and succeeded in warming her hands alone.

The evening’s memories rampaged through her mind. Claire clearly heard Ryan’s words, saw the anger, the hatred, in his face, and felt the mental gnashing over and over. She was so shocked by the episode, she actually did not remember getting home. Perhaps she wandered, or perhaps she made a direct line for her lover’s door. She did not know.

“What angered him so much?” Claire asked out loud.

The darkness was her only companion, seldom speaking and never comforting. The twinkling of the North End glistened like little rubies in the sky. Claire would have admired the lights, thinking them stars, but her mind and her heart were so absorbed in the pain she suffered that, for the first time, she failed to see the beauty of the city.

In the darkness, Claire thought long about calling Brett. He was her constant, and he would have either wise words of instruction or an ear for listening. Either way, his voice would soothe her. But she did not call him. She simply did not know what she would say. How could one explain the situation? How could Claire try to make it understandable for Brett? She feared giving Brett a bad impression of Ryan, and so, with anguish, she refrained.

Claire sat for a long time in the chair, sipping her tea until it grew luke-warm, then cold. One would think she was the very picture of Boston tranquility, her slender frame wrapped against the winter cold in a stylish throw with a cup of tea to flavor the night air. But Claire was much too shaken and unsettled.

The leather of the chair was cold, but Claire touched it anyway, the shock jolting her mind away from one train of thought to another. She thought of Ryan, of what she knew about him, his life, his personality and love. She saw him as he was tonight, a man unmasked; but, then she also saw the man who made love to her, the one who texted her little balloons when she was stressed, and the man who instantly became enraptured when she appeared at the kitchen. It was like he was two people warring in the same body, two minds trying to control one figure.

Exhausted, Claire conjured every memory they made together, searching each for clues, information, anything that could help make sense of the situation. She remembered back to their first meeting in the park, to their dates, the lunches, all the excitement, everything they did together. In so many cases, he was the perfect man, charming and funny. He was, she knew, everything she ever dreamed of in a man.

But, she thought, what pissed him off so much? What? I know I told him, and it wasn’t like I was just jerking off with friends. I was going to visit my family. Now, can I? Will he be even more pissed if I go? Or, do I stay? What do I tell them? I can’t go? They’ll ask questions. Maybe I’ll just come up with a lame work excuse. Maybe, yes, I can blame work. I mean, Ryan is so wonderful, and he’s so good to me. What would they think of him if I said he wouldn’t let me go? And it’s not like he’s keeping me here. He just wants to spend our first holiday together; what’s wrong with that? I mean, how many of my friends have had to spend their holidays away from their lovers? Who can complain about a man wanting to be with his girl? Right? No, I need to stay here. I don’t want to upset him like that again. I know he’s under a lot of stress with the restaurant. I can’t abandon him now. One holiday won’t make that much of a difference. Besides, we could visit together later on.

Claire found some comfort in her decision to remain, but instantly, there was a certain uneasiness that gnawed at her mind. She was nervous, but the reason was a mystery. She detested the thought that she was nervous at Ryan’s return. It was the fight, she figured, that unsettled her so. The screaming and anger. It had nothing to do with Ryan or his underlying behavior. Claire found the argument convincing.

The night was waning and fatigue was pressing on Claire. Still in her same position, she stared blindly at the vacant fireplace and wondered what would happen when Ryan arrived. She wanted to sleep, but something in her did not allow her to seek the sublime refuge of the bed. Was she afraid to sleep, to let her guard down? Was that level of vulnerability unacceptable? Claire hated that thought as much as she did the previous one. She knew she should feel safe with Ryan, that she had nothing to fear. Staring into the darkness, she wondered briefly, then pushed from her mind those very same thoughts.

In the hall outside, Ryan moved like a man who worked a full day and knows the heaviness he feels is not from his labors, but the stupidity of his own behavior. All that evening, he carried with him the weight of the incident, and by the time he closed the restaurant, he was overcome with a sense of grief that manipulated his mind into a pool of agony. Twice, he managed to retrieve his phone to text, but his foolish pride prevented him. Twice, the phone returned to his pocket. Now, he touched the knob of his door, the cold steel startling.

Ryan fumbled through his overcoat for his keys, and tossing his bag further up on his shoulder, he dove his hand into the recesses of his pocket to find them, hidden at the corner. He sighed and slid the key into the lock, not knowing into what he was walking. He didn’t even know if she would be there. Maybe she went to her apartment, maybe she didn’t. If she was present, he knew there was still a chance. If she was not – something he admitted he deserved – he wondered if she would ever come back. Nervously, Ryan unlocked the door and entered.

The darkness of the room was thick and seemed to pour out into the hallway as Ryan slowly and quietly moved inside. Returning home always allowed a chance to savor the relief of a familiar abode and the comfort of one’s own hearth, giving the weary tenant a chance to shed the grief of the day. That, however, was denied Ryan when he trudged through his apartment to the kitchen. He felt the intensity of his own misgivings, the extreme weight of his anguish and the nervousness in his heart.

Ryan was nearing the kitchen when a sound from the living room caught his attention. He stopped and looked through the darkness to see a form in the chair. For an absurd moment, he envisioned one of the ghosts from Dickens’ tale, but quickly shook the idea.

Ryan knew who it was who occupied his chair, and though instantly relieved, he felt all the more nervous by her presence. Did she remain to tell him off, and goodbye? Was that her intent? Ryan did not know, but moving to the kitchen, he switched on one of the lights, the beam illuminating some of the distant living room area. There, he could see her, a frail and weak specimen sitting on the seat, and it disturbed him to see her like that.

Shedding his coat, Ryan was stalling for time as confusion set in, jumbling his thoughts. Did he speak, or remain silent? Should he punish her disloyalty with more speech, or with silence? Should he punish her at all? Or, would she seek revenge once she was ready? Ryan waited, the silence seemingly growing in intensity.

Claire was motionless in her seat. Ryan’s entrance did nothing to shake the feelings she had rattling in her, but seemed only to intensify them. She thought, naively, that if she remained silent and still, the storm would pass and leave her untouched. It was a silly and vain hope, since the light of the kitchen now illuminated her, at least dimly, and her exposure made her all the more frightened. What she feared was another explosion, that savage and uncontained fury spurting from the mouth of her lover like volcanic ash. Such unbridled feelings did more than just shock for the moment; they lasted for hours, even days, and Claire could not totally comprehend just how long she would suffer under the guillotine of the memories.

Claire didn’t know what she would do if Ryan startled yelling again, or how she would act. She was not prepared to fly, as she was scarcely dressed, and the amount of time it would take would render her under siege far longer than she desired. She was not prepared to remain, either, as her strength gave her the ability to leave. She told herself she would not put up with any disturbances; in her heart, however, she doubted her ability to go. Old sentiments ran deep, and the love that she allowed to chain her heart also enslaved her to this man.

Trying to read Ryan was like trying to read a brick wall; his expressions gave insight, but what boiled underneath, that was a mystery. Claire tried to gain an idea of how he felt, but his stoic appearance gave little indication. She saw him move into the kitchen and fix a snack. Normally, she would have his drink ready for him, but tonight she didn’t. She then heard ice cubes rattling in the tray. He was fixing it himself.

Ryan looked down at his drink. How strange it was to despise the beverage. He favored it above all other drinks, but that night, it was a symbol of a downturn for them. This beverage, always made by her diligent hand, now only had his marks to bare. He felt lonely and cold, as if the cave that was now his home had just witnessed the extinguishing of the last fire, and the chill returned to inhabit the old space.

Even sipping the beverage did nothing to soothe Ryan’s heart. Over the tilted glass, he could see her, sitting and silently staring at nothing. Ryan knew he had to do something, to say something, but apologies were harder to utter than expressions of forgiveness. And he wasn’t entirely convinced he was to blame for all this.

Why should I, Ryan started to himself, take the blame for this fight? Hell, I’m not the one leaving. No, I’m the one staying here, making a living, and a life for us. It’s not my fault. Well, not entirely. Yeah, I acted like a stupid jerk, but it was with good reason. I was prompted.

Claire looked into her cup and found it empty, the tea ball sitting in a drying pool of residue. It had been empty for some time, but she hoped for a last drop of her beverage, more to momentarily distract her than to actually consume.

Ryan put his glass on the counter top and looked at Claire. Claire, raising her eyes from her cup, felt a gaze upon her and, slowly turning her head, she caught two brown orbs staring at her. Quickly, she turned back and returned her stare to the cup.

Alright, she looked up. I guess that’s a good sign, Ryan thought. I have to do something. Okay, get going.

Moving carefully and slowly, Ryan walked out of the kitchen and into the living space, all the while feeling as if he were walking the last stretch to his own demise. He tried to steady his nerves, but his strength was sapped. Not knowing what to expect only heightened his emotions.

Ryan came and sat on the coffee table opposite to the couch and chair. Claire did not look at him, and dared not move. She thought he looked humble, and his movements elicited penance. Even his proximity told her he was more tender than their previous meeting, but Claire was learning his moods would always be questionable.

The silence between them was stronger than either expected, and Ryan wished for a diversion, but found nothing save the fringes of the throw to occupy his attention. Claire was rigid, and had yet to look at him since he sat down. With some courage, she remained as stoic; she was, after all, still an independent woman, and it was her decision to remain linked to his heart. She had to keep telling herself that, over and over. She had to believe it.

“Hey,” Ryan finally said.

Ryan’s voice, penetrating the silence between them, sounded so loud, though it was only more than a whisper. Claire knew the first move had been made, and now she supposed, she had to make the next.

“How’d it go?” Claire asked softly.

“Not bad. Same shit.”

Then, the silence crept into the space, and it was quiet once more. Only an icy shell of the conversation remained, not the enthusiastic reception they normally shared upon Ryan’s nightly return.

“About before,” Ryan began, “I was outta line. For my part, I’m sorry.”

For his part? Claire thought, feeling confused.

“What did I do wrong?” she asked.

Ryan did not want to revisit the previous fight. It was enough to endure it once, and all he desired was to move past it and reestablish peace. But, as sometimes happens, the conversation itself needed some definition.

“That came as a total surprise to me. I know you said you told me, but I don’t think you did.”

“Ryan, I know I told you. And even if it slipped my mind, it’s my family. What’s the harm in one holiday?”

“One holiday?” Ryan began. “One holiday? That’s our first together. Does it mean anything to you? I’ll tell you it does to me. Yeah, maybe I should have said something, but I had stuff planned for us. I was going to leave early and have a romantic dinner for you. All your favs.”

“I didn’t know that,” she replied.

“Yes, I was going to do that. Does it mean nothing to you?”

“No, it’s special.”

“Babe, look, my outburst, it was totally out of line,” Ryan said, taking Claire’s hand in his. “Baby, I’m sorry.”

Claire’s fingers felt so cold against his, but Ryan’s warmed them, and it felt good. She sensed the soothing nature of her palm in his, and even marveled at how little her hand was compared to his, although the sight was not uncommon to them both.

“But Ryan, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

“Baby, it’s okay. You didn’t know how much it meant to me, and that’s okay. I didn’t tell you. But now you do. All I want is you, baby. You’re my everything. You know that, right?”

Ryan’s eyes were pleading in appearance. Claire looked into them, seeing nothing else of his face, the area, or the situation. All she could see were his eyes that were searching her, searching deep for the recognition he so desired. Staring into them, Claire felt her senses melting away, and in her heart, love was pouring forth.

“I do,” she softly said.

“It’s cool, right? These little ‘bumps’ will help to make us better, even better than we could ever have imagined.”

Claire loved greatly and felt the warming balm of her love pouring through her body. It soothed, excited and animated her. Ryan’s touch further enhanced the sensations, fueling them maddeningly.

“Baby, I’m sorry, too” Claire said, falling into his arms.

Ryan embraced her warmly, strongly, and pulled her body closer to his. Their embrace lasted a long while, the silence finally mending their brokenness from earlier. In his heart, Ryan was glad to put the event behind them; but deeper still, he felt the haunting effect of that line, that powerful collection of syllables that now stalked him. Opening his eyes, he stared into the distance, seeing nothing.

Claire held Ryan tightly, believing the worst was behind them. In the relief of the moment, she surrendered her heart to his embrace and forgot about her confusion over the fight, seeing in it nothing to worry over any longer. Ryan, after all, was right, she thought. Those little bumps would make them better. Delighted to have it out of the way, she thought of their first holiday together, and wondered how she never saw it as he did.

It’s almost as if I’ve become selfish, Claire thought.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and Claire was sitting at her desk, her door partially closed, the cloudy sky outside mimicking what rumbled in her mind. After their argument a few days ago, everything for Claire and Ryan returned to a state of normalcy. He was gentle and loving, and each night she had his drink ready. Sipping it and laying his head in her lap, Ryan would rattle on about his day and listen to hers. It was the life Claire wanted, everything of which she always dreamed. But something still seemed amiss. She could not place it, but something felt out of sorts.

With anticipation, Claire awaited their romantic Thanksgiving night. Few were the times they could spend long hours together, so the prospect of sitting with Ryan for another meal enlivened her greatly, though her family was saddened she wouldn’t be visiting.

Oscillating between excitement over time with Ryan, and the pain of not seeing her family, Claire pressed forward through the days, until she found herself at her desk that morning, not knowing what was truly transpiring inside her head and sensing doubts in her heart.

The computer screen gave a vibrant glow to the surface of her desk, but did nothing to chase away the incessant gloom from the outside sky. Claire had on few lights, and sitting in the silence of the room, she had a moment to ponder, to question and probe the doubts formulating from within.

I love Ryan, she mused, but I still can’t grasp this Thanksgiving thing. Am I really selfish? I kind of feel that way. He wanted time with me. What girl wouldn’t want a man like that? Hell, even Brett complains at times about Dylan. I hope I’m not taking too much for granted. But, it sometimes still seems weird, the way he acted. That hurt, deeply. I know he didn’t mean it. He said so, several times afterwards. But, it was still just weird.

Claire could not shake her feeling. Neither could she share it, the thing becoming a burden she harbored. Looking down at her cluttered desk, she thought instantly of Ryan’s desk at Lady Burwell’s, and smiled to herself. She knew he would jokingly be proud of her desk.

Brett knocked lightly on the door, and it slowly opened under the weight of his hand. He saw Claire at the other end, sitting, and almost staring into an invisible hole in her desk. For weeks, he had seen her happy, but as of late, Brett knew something was wrong. He hinted a few times about it, but her reluctance to share with him only further generated concern.

“Heya,” Brett said, entering.

“Howdy,” Claire replied.

“We’re about finished with the improvements. You wanted to see them?”

“Yep. You can just leave them and I’ll look them over in a little bit.”

Brett strolled over to her desk and casually tossed a flash drive onto the cluttered surface, smiling as it seemingly disappeared. He was sharply dressed in a lavender shirt and tie, with a zippered woolen sweater on. Claire smiled at him, admiring his outfit.

“Sharp,” she said.

“Thanks. Hey, think you’ll be able to excavate that drive by this afternoon?”

“Shut up, dork,” Claire replied, laughing.

Brett took a seat and crossed his legs. Of all the men Claire ever had in her life, aside from family, Brett knew her the best. That was something she never shared with anyone, including Ryan, but Brett could view her as if she were transparent. It was their closeness that enabled him to read her so well, and Claire always knew she had a friend in him.

“So, how have things been?” Brett asked.

Claire smiled at him, a smile genuine and pure, but still acting as a veil over something greater. It was a mask, Brett thought, but over what he couldn’t tell.

“Fine. I get my dinner Thursday night,” she said, very girly-like.

“Nice. That’ll be nice for you both. I know you don’t get to hang much together.”

“He’s so busy with the Lady right now. Once it cools off a little, he’ll have more time, I hope. That’s what he says, at least.”

“That’s a hard line of work,” he replied.

“It is. Some nights, he comes home like he’s master of the world, and other nights, he just drags in, like he’s the slave of it. You know? It’s either one or the other.”

“I remember those days,” Brett said.

“I bet. How have things been with you? Oh, are we still on for Saturday?

“Yes, we are. What time was it?”

“Oh, I don’t care when. Maybe 11? How’s that?”

“Claire, that sounds fine. It’ll be nice to hang with you. We’ve not seen one another in what seems like so long.”

“I know,” Claire began. “It’s just been so crazy busy. I’m looking forward to it. We need to find something nice for Ryan. That’s our mission. We can’t stop until we do.”

Brett laughed and re-crossed his legs as Claire shifted more comfortably in her own seat. He watched her laugh, watched her smile and move, and everything almost seemed in order to him, but Brett still knew something was wrong, something deep. The thought of asking her again came to mind, but he had a respect for her privacy and refrained.

A cloud passed from the sun, and briefly, a glimmering of sunbeams entered the otherwise dark office, illuminating it magnificently. Claire turned to see the rays of light entering.

“Wow. Behold!” she exclaimed.

Brett snickered. The light passed quickly enough, though, and the darkness and gloom slithered back into place.

“This is a pretty view,” Brett said.

“Yeah. Sometimes, though, these clients make me want to jump out the window.”

Claire tapped a few files on her desk and laughed dryly at her comment. Brett did also, knowing just how trying the job could be. Claire held up a file, then tossed it back, a look of disgust replacing her smile.

“I know that feeling, too. But, at least you have me, right?”

“I’ll always have you, love,” Claire said.

“Thanks, and you will. In all seriousness, if you ever want to talk, you know you can come to me. I’ll listen.”

Brett looked at Claire through the darkened atmosphere with eyes glistening and radiating a certain truth they both shared, that they would always be present to help one another. Brett peered at her, looking deep into her eyes for the recognition of that truth, but what he saw alarmed him. It seemed to him that she was wrestling, and before she cast her eyes back to her computer screen, he saw a desire to say something, but marked restraint pushed the desire back.

The thoughts she had she was not yet ready to discuss. It was not a lack of trust in Brett, but rather a lack of understanding that prevented her from talking to him, even though the dictates of her heart demanded she verbalize their sentiments. She wanted so much to talk to Brett, but Claire simply didn’t know what to say.

“I know,” Claire replied.

“Alright, I’d better get my ass back to work, before the old lady fires me.”

Now it was Claire’s turn to smirk. Brett stood and walked out, but not before winking at her. Claire thought herself fortunate, indeed, to have such a friend as Brett. If only she had a better grasp of the issue, she could discuss it with him and feel better, but she didn’t. Perhaps, it was nothing at all, just worry with the usual issues of relationships. Yet, something was still ‘off.’

The week passed quickly enough, and Thanksgiving night was finally upon Ryan and Claire. All day, Claire waited in anticipation for the event. She watched the parade alone, cheered like a little girl when Santa entered Herald Square, and counted the hours until they could spend a very romantic evening together. Ryan slept in, since his previous night was late, and when he got up, they ate lunch together and cuddled on the couch before he left for the Lady.

Claire cleaned the apartment, dusting and vacuuming diligently. She did the little tasks Ryan left for her, tasks that would speed up the cooking process, and when the hour drew near, she prepared the table, and finally herself, for his arrival.

Claire wanted to be finished in the bathroom by the time Ryan arrived, and she was touching up her eye shadow when she heard a sound. She waited, listening for any noise in the apartment. Nothing. Thinking she misheard his arrival, she went back to her work, gently passing the tiny brush over her eyelids, casting them in a midnight blue hue.

A second noise came from outside of the bedroom, and Claire pulled away from the mirror to look out. The bedroom was neatly tucked into its day décor, and everything seemed in order. She listened, moving slowly through the room, nearly thinking herself crazy.

I know I heard something that time, she thought, and believing he was in the kitchen, she moved around the bed and excitedly out of the room. As she exited, she heard the loudest shout. She screamed and fell back, hitting the wall.

Ryan quickly grabbed Claire before she fell over, and Claire, scared so horridly, did not immediately recognize Ryan’s face. With his arms embracing her, though, she felt his touch, and saw the concealed smirk on his face. Like the prankster he was, Ryan wanted to scare her, and succeed he did.

“Baby, baby!” he said to her.

Claire looked at him coldly, knowing two things had just happened: one, he bested her, and two, the game was on. She narrowed her eyes at him, like a sniper does a target.

“Just wait,” she said coolly.

“For what, me to scare you again?”

“Jerk. Go cook dinner.”

Laughing heartily, Ryan looked so happy, and it overjoyed Claire’s heart to see him so rambunctious and child-like. He kissed her enthusiastically, pulling her against him tightly but tenderly.

“Sorry, babe. I didn’t realize you would have a heart attack.”

“You scared the shit out of me, you big jerk,” she said, playfully slapping him.

Ryan tossed off his coat as he moved into the bedroom and took off his shoes. Claire followed him, snatching up his coat and putting away his shoes. He smiled at this, thinking her a little too ‘OCD’ about where he left his belongings. But Claire equally knew Ryan, and knew he would be upset to find things lying about.

“How was your day?” Ryan asked.

Claire did not answer, but watched as he undressed. She considered it her treat for the day, and leaning against the wall, she treated her eyes to the sight before her.

“Good,” she replied.

Claire was too engrossed in what she saw to care about the petty details of her day. She was occupied, mind, body and soul, in what was before her.

“Oh. Just good? Did you start that new book? You know, the one you were mentioning yesterday?”

“Oh. Good,” Claire returned, absentmindedly.

Ryan turned around, his form now stripped of clothing. Claire was looking him over seductively, the hunger of her passion ruling her mind. She smiled tantalizingly.

“I see,” Ryan said slyly.

Ryan strolled casually over to Claire, and taking her in his arms, pulled her against his body, the heat of his figure warming her against the soft chill of the apartment.

“Are we distracted?” he asked.

“Mmhm,” she said.

“And what happens to distracted girls?”

“They’re punished for being naughty.”

Claire could feel her passion rising as he spoke to her, and the cords of his voice seductive and cool, like ice sliding down her body. She felt herself lowered onto the bed, and against her flesh, she felt his lips kissing her neck.

The fatigue that followed Ryan home now seemed to vanish as he explored the body beneath, the flesh of his girl, his lover. He knew how rough she wanted it, how her body begged for the pleasure he would give. He thought of being gentle, but knew her instruction would prompt him otherwise.

Claire ran her fingers through his thick hair, feeling the strands brush over her fingertips. Ryan explored deeply, kissing and caressing slowly, waiting for the command to escape from her whimpering lips. Her own strands, falling over the soft covers, spread out like an erotic net, a trap awaiting Ryan.

The command was whispered. They made love aggressively, forgetting etiquette and satisfying only their hungry appetites. Into their hearts and souls they each entered, diving deeper than before, exploring and embracing the familiar while sensing the new.

Later, after the passion subsided, Ryan took his shower and Claire repaired her hair. They spoke happily in the bathroom over the sound of the water’s spray, and Claire stole a glance or two of his frame covered in soap. Had it not been for the care and maintenance she gave herself just before his arrival, she would have joined him.

Once Ryan was clean, he dressed in the jeans he knew were Claire’s favorite, and a tight fitting tee - another of her favorites - and started cooking. They finally digested each other’s day in the kitchen over a few glasses of wine. Ryan fed Claire little bits of the meal, and Claire stole more when he wasn’t looking. In this playful vein their whole night transpired. At the table, they fed one another, drank some of Ryan’s reserve bottles, and simply enjoyed the candlelight, soft music and romantic atmosphere.

Claire lost herself to everything that was Ryan, from his chest in the tight shirt to his hands as they lifted the fork to her mouth. His scent, a mix of cologne and herbs from the kitchen, enticed her to remember not only this moment, but also previous moments when their bodies collided in ecstasy.

When the meal was finally finished, and the kitchen left as a disaster, they found themselves in each other’s arms, sitting on the sofa, watching the fire burn slowly. A few wood-wicked candles gave off the feeling of a roaring fire, and Claire felt as if they were snuggled in a cabin in the woods, away from the world save for each other.

Ryan held her tightly, knowing she would not being leaving, but always fearing his life without her. He could feel her gentle breaths, and to him it was such a soothing sound. It was her presence, her being beside him that comforted him so greatly. On their first holiday together, he knew they were both where they needed to be, where they both should want to be.

Claire looked up at Ryan, who was staring into the fire, his hand slowly rubbing her thigh. He was content and happy, his mind at ease. She watched him for a moment until he realized her eyes were upon him. With a kiss, he broken the silence, then uttered a whispered ‘I love you’ to her. Placing her head back down on his chest, she allowed the sleep she fought off for so long to overtake her. Either they would nap there all night, or Ryan would carry her off to bed. Whichever happened, Claire did not care.

In her heart was a happiness she had not felt in so long, and listening to the beating of his heart, Claire was glad they were together, and that Ryan helped her to see the folly of her leaving. She would not pass this night up for anything.

“What a wonderful holiday,” Claire whispered.

Pulled from his reverie, Ryan nodded, remembering the evening and wishing he could return to that moment when he first walked through the door. He smiled a smile that was more than just happiness; it was satisfaction, joy, contentment, and the realization that one’s life was finally taking shape, the future so visible and clear.

“It was,” Ryan replied softly.

Lowering his head to the top of hers, Ryan smelled her hair and the body spray he so loved, the smell of which, although lovely, reminded him more of her than it did of any poppy field of flowers. Sadly, he wished every night could be like this.

“Do you have to work all this weekend?” Claire asked.

“I do tomorrow and Saturday. Sunday, I’m taking off so we can have some fun in the city. I’m tired of not seeing you.”

“Really? We’re going to have Sunday? Oh my gosh, I’m so excited!”

“Yeah. We need a day together. We actually need a lot of days together. I know we’ve only been with each other a short time, but I want us to work, and you deserve more than, than this.”

With a wave of his hand, he motioned not to anything around him, but to himself, as if he were an item of disgust. Claire, confused, started to sit up and turn to face him. Ryan did not take his face off the fire, and to Claire, he seemed to be clenching his jaw.

“Baby, what do you mean?”

Ryan was gathering his thoughts, simple ideas that plagued him for several nights. He tried to order them appropriately, but the anger he felt at each of them was dismantling his peace. What he thought most about, and what haunted him, was that last line he spoke the other night when they fought. Try as he did, he could not shake that line from his mind.

“It’s just, shit, I don’t know. Look at us. I’m out all odd hours of the night, you’re sitting here, wondering when the hell I’m coming back.”

“But baby, it’s okay.”

“How is it?” Ryan asked.

There was animation in his voice, and disconnect, slowly burning like the candles around them. He twisted in his seat slightly, surrendering to the aggravation of his body.

“You’re a chef, and a great and amazing one. It’s what you do. And baby, I’m a chef’s girlfriend. It’s what I do.”

All the heinous thoughts that spun maddeningly around came to a sudden cessation at what Claire said. He knew her not only to be loyal to him, but to the career he chose, and the avenues in which he expressed that career choice. But, in all their late night talks, in all their lovemaking and friendly banter, he never heard expressed something so genuine, so surreal as that which just emanated from her mouth.

Pulling his eyes away from the fire, Ryan turned his face to Claire’s. She was smiling at him, a face that was so precious and delicate, Ryan knew to behold it was like staring into a dream.

“How?” Ryan asked in amazement.

“How what?” she asked.

“Baby, how can one person be so amazing?”

Claire pressed herself back into his arms and pulled them around her. When she was nuzzled up against him, and had regained that level of safety she always sought in his arms, she let out a sigh, a signal that she was finished moving around, and said:

“Baby, we are amazing.”

Ryan said no more. He knew he had a gem in his arms, something special he needed to look after. He also knew she felt the same way, and when he was in doubt of himself, she would be looking after him.

Quietly, Ryan let out his own sigh and closed his eyes. In his mind, though, two forces began to approach one another, as if seeking battle. One was Claire’s line, which just touched him so deeply. The other, that old familiar line, snake-like as it was, coiled and ready to strike, crept into place. Ryan tried to relish the moment, but his mind was preparing for the battle. He closed his eyes.

Chapter 10

Brett sat in his apartment, alone save for the company of his cat. Dylan was out reviewing another restaurant, and Brett did not feel inclined to join him, so he took to his neatly styled and uncluttered abode, relishing in a few hours of personal time. Sitting in his favorite chair, legs cast over the arm, and eyes focused on a book page, he tried to enjoy what he termed ‘light reading,’ – which was actually the unabridged version of Anna Karenina – but he simply could not get into the book that evening. Try as he may, he simply could not enjoy the countryside with Anna and Vronksy. His mind was elsewhere.

Focusing on his friend, Claire, Brett ran the past few months through his mind. It troubled him that she was reticent about what he believed was a major issue in her life. Brett never felt he had a need to know, and always respected her privacy, but he also cared deeply for her, and detested the notion of her enduring something alone.

The apartment was dim, and the lamp beside the chair threw its light on the unread page. Outside, the night sky was covered with dark clouds, obscuring stars that could sometimes be seen overhead. It reminded him of the day he spoke with Claire in her office.

Brett thought of their time shopping after Thanksgiving. They hit a few bargains and lunch was fantastic. It had been some time since they had a day out like that, and Brett understood it was due to the presence of Ryan in her life now. He was fine with that, though he missed the old play dates with his girlfriend.

Since that holiday, everything moved so quickly in the office that neither Brett nor Claire had many chances to meet up, even for lunch, and talk. He could see she was pretty well back to her normal self, and smiled when the job allowed, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling something was different.

Brett, unbeknownst to Claire, always thought her relationship with Ryan was a bit fast, and it was not her fashion to move so hastily. It was Claire’s fashion to take things slower, yet in this case, she was spending her first holiday with Ryan after only two months. He wondered how her family felt about that? It was something he kept to himself, but always felt uneasy about their speed. Nothing was said, but he figured they’d be moving in together soon. Time would tell.

The apartment felt cold, and he lazily got up to check the thermostat. Brett hated the cold, and never knew why he stayed in Boston. After the previous winter, he was ready to sail for Brazil. He walked over the old wooden floors and looked at the little plastic box on the wall. The heat was running just fine, and set to a good temperature.

“Stupid cold,” he muttered to himself.

Grabbing a cardigan, he threw it on and skulked back to his chair, burying himself deeper in it. The sweater was one Claire had purchased for him to use on his first date with Dylan. It was warming, but mostly, it reminded him of a very fun day outing with his friend.

Claire told Brett tall about the details of their holiday, even some of the more intimate details, to which Brett just playfully rolled his eyes. To hear her speak was to know she was happy, but sometimes, perhaps in the corner of her eye, Brett swore he saw something. He did not know if it was doubt, regret, or worry. He hated to attempt to formulate a suspicion, as he liked Ryan, and believed Claire was happy with him. Several times, he simply chalked it up to the stress of Ryan’s career and his absence. Given that, though, Brett knew Claire’s love for him was strong. Brett honored that, and did not doubt it. For her to endure that form of separation, and seemingly take up residence in his apartment just to see him for a few moments at night, that was something to consider amazing.

When they went shopping, he tried to broach the topic, but his reluctance to confrontation made him hesitate. He resigned himself to knowing and believing that if anything was wrong, she would come to him. Brett reopened his book and looked at the page. Anna and Vronksy were happy in their union. He hoped Claire was the same in hers.

It was only a few weeks before Christmas, and outside, snow was falling in Currier and Ives fashion. Brett withdrew from the depths of his closet all of his warmest jackets and kept them on the coat hanger for ease of access, always bundling up before venturing outside. But, he was happy to see the advent of the holiday season, even with the scurrying shopping sprees and hectic nature at work. Claire already decorated her office door, and he saw that a few strands of lights were in the windows of Lady Burwell’s. Maybe Ryan was a Christmas junkie, like Claire, or that was her influence on him. Brett did not know. He thought it was cute, either way.

Slowly, he eased back into his book and tried to push those uneasy thoughts from his mind. All he wanted at the moment was her happiness, and a Russian book that made him sad.

* * * * * * * * * *

Claire was sitting at her desk, reading through some of the reports her company sent her. Outside, it was snowing so beautifully, the kind of snow that is soft and gentle and blankets everything so lightly upon which it lands. She desired to grab her coat and walk in it, but the nature of her work and the stress of her current position prevented it.

Turning away from her desk in frustration, she stared through the cold panes of glass at the snow wafting lazily past her window. Cars moved down the road and people, bundled against the chill, walked briskly along the sidewalks. Claire managed to escape that day during her lunch break and stroll along the streets. The snow was much prettier now than it was earlier in the day, and she regretted not being able to indulge in it at the moment.

Her phone peeped loudly, and picking it up, she saw it was Ryan. He had called her once that morning, and texted throughout the day. She only became bothered when he heavily pushed the issue of her going walking for lunch. It did not bother her at first, but when he grew persistent about a supposed companion and location, she grew annoyed. Claire couldn’t understand either his persistence or his aggravation, and only when she signaled her own frustration did he relent. They did not leave off on troubled terms, but that soured the remainder of her day, and she had to confess she was getting a little irritated by his incessant correspondence. Now, he was texting again.

Claire opened it and looked at the message, smiling lightly at the array of little emoticons that were on her screen. The message was sweet, but the constant barrage of messages was wearing on her, and she was beginning to grow tired of the continual ‘surveillance’ he ran on her. It was, Claire thought, a lack of trust from which he suffered. Claire herself was notorious for her little messages throughout the day, but certainly not on this level.

For the first time, Claire did not respond immediately, even though she knew it would upset him, and instead, set the phone down and brought up a message on her computer from her father concerning the Christmas holiday. She read it through a second time, smiling at his jokes and his awkward use of ‘LOL.’ Claire so desired to journey home, and was counting the days until she could see her family again. She knew it would be delightful to see her parents and relatives under one roof. She had to find out if Ryan would be able to come.

A moment’s reflection told Claire to speak in person with Ryan about the holiday, and she made a note to talk it over with him that evening. Then, turning away from the screen and her phone, she went back to the window, looking at the white world floating past outside. She thought then of Ryan, how he would be trudging down the sidewalk, his beard glistening from the damp flakes that fluttered against his face, and his hands thrust deep in his pockets. He would look not at the ground, but straight ahead, no matter how much snow fell. Then, she saw herself wrapped in his arms, the two of them looking over a nearly frozen pond, crunching in the snow as clumps fell from the branches above. She would be warm in his arms, and he would fight off the cold, his only desire to keep her satisfied and warm. Claire grabbed her phone and texted him back.

That night, Claire did not stop by the restaurant, but went directly to the apartment and started looking for tickets for holiday travel. She sat at the desk, a cup of hot chocolate steaming softly beside her, staring at the list of prices. Bundled as she always was in her tights and a sweater, she scrolled quickly, hoping to find the best time and fare.

Claire sipped the hot chocolate joyfully, thinking of how exciting it would be to introduce Ryan to her family. She thought of the laughs, of her father getting to know him, and of the memories they would make in the old house up in the Adirondacks. She so wanted to walk beside Ryan in their exploration of the forest, and throw stones onto the pond ice, and do all the things she used to do when she would romp and play in the wintery scene. All the sights and smells came back to her, from the chilling scent of the country air to her mother’s fresh eclairs.

The hour was getting close to Ryan’s arrival, and yawning as Claire normally did at that time, she went into the kitchen to get his drink ready and make another hot chocolate. Claire was by the sink, pushing up her sleeves, when she heard the door unlock.

Ryan entered, not smiling, but not frowning. He was tired, hunched a little and walking slowly. Claire could tell it was a rough night, but not the worst he’s had. Slowly, he pulled off his jacket and just tossed it over a chair, not caring how it made the apartment appear.

“I’m home,” Ryan said flatly.

“Hi baby!” Claire said cheerfully.

Claire rushed to him, and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him tenderly. He held her, and slowly felt his bad day wearing off, like dried mud flaking off work boots. With his eyes closed, Ryan allowed himself a moment to be held, and to hold the woman in his arms.

“I missed you,” Ryan finally said.

“I missed you, too, baby.”

“God, what a night,” he began. “Katie called out, said she wasn’t feeling well, and we were down two servers. And it was busy. I mean, really busy. I thought we’d never get out of there.”

“Damn. That bad, eh?”

“Yeah, that bad. It was just one plate after another. One, two, three, each one following after another. I’ve seen it busy before, but this was something special. I guess it’s the holidays.”

“It is,” Claire said, breaking away to get his glass.

“Oh, thanks. I really do look forward to this every night, among other things,” Ryan said as she returned from the kitchen.

Slowly running his hand along her backside, Ryan sipped his drink while Claire happily watched him. He savored the flavor of the vanilla vodka – he was on a vodka kick again – but more the fact that it came from so delicate a little hand as Claire’s.

“Oh, you mentioned the holidays. I’m looking up airline tickets for Christmas.”


“Yeah,” Claire said. “To go see my family.”

“Did we discuss this and I forgot? Or…”

“We’re discussing it now,” Claire smiled brightly.


“What time do you think we can leave out? I’ve found some pretty good flights.”

“Um, when are we leaving?”

Claire moved over to the computer and brought up the screen. She was busy searching through the tickets. With a brush of her hand, she swiped away some loose strands of her disheveled hair and continued her work.

Ryan moved away to the kitchen. He was excited for the holiday, but he did not know they would be leaving town for it. He was a restaurateur and a chef, and both places of business would be open. How could he leave? he thought. Just what Claire was thinking?

“Oh, I was thinking we could leave maybe around the 21st or 22nd? That would give us a few days with my family. Maybe come back a little after Christmas? I know they are so excited to meet you. I’ve said a few things about you,” Claire said, snickering.

Ryan did not share her enthusiasm or joy. He was starting to run the thoughts through his head, and was growing angry.

Again, she’s making plans without me, Ryan thought. This is the second time now, and she’s just off and running with everything we are going to do for the holidays. Did she think to consult me before doing all this? Does she even know if I can leave? I mean, shit, I’m a chef. When are restaurants open? Over the holidays. And where are chefs when restaurants are open? At the stove, cooking! I mean, shit. Here we go again! I’m getting tired of this bullshit.

“Baby?” Claire asked, not realizing she was interrupting an irritated monologue.

Ryan put his glass down and pulled off his sweater. The more irate he became, the warmer the apartment felt to him. He moved to the thermostat and looked at it.

“Damn, what do you have it set to in here?”

“I was cold. So, what do you think? Are those dates good for you? We can adjust them, if needed.”

Claire looked at him and immediately knew by his movements, which were quick and seemingly frustrated, that something was wrong. In her stomach, she felt an uneasiness growing. She hoped it did not show on her face.

Ryan did not answer immediately. He was arranging his thoughts for what he knew was going to be another argument. He did not want to argue; all he wanted was for her to be sensible and listen to him for once. All he desired was to have peace. Claire, however, always brought about the bad in him, and roused his temper.

“Claire,” Ryan started, “what do you think.”

The intonation of Ryan’s voice told Claire it was not a question, but a statement. She hesitated, then looked back at the computer, afraid of what was coming. She tried to think of a way to propitiate his rage, but given his nature, and the menacing tone of his voice, she knew it was inevitable.

“If those dates aren’t good, we can change them?”

“No, Claire,” Ryan began, balling his fists, “No. Those dates are not good. And do you know why? Do you even care to know why, Claire?”

Ryan waited, as if Claire would actually feed into his anger. When she did not, Ryan continued, his fists still balled and his voice rising.

“Claire, what am I? You’re a smart girl, or at least you should be. Shit, you run a department. You’re a marketing manager, a goddess of the marquis. I’m a chef, Claire, a fucking chef! And what does that mean? Can you tell me? A chef cooks, and when does a chef cook? On the fucking holidays!”

Claire shook as his boisterous bellowing filled the dim apartment, resounding off the walls. She turned to face him, like one facing a storm: she hated to see it, but dared not to turn her back upon it.

“And did you ever think to ask me what my plans might be? Did you ever think to ask that, Claire? Maybe I’m working. Maybe I’m working both days, like a dog. And maybe it would be nice to have my pretty little girl here waiting for me when I come home. Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful! But nope, not here, not now. Instead, you just make plans out of thin air, thinking all your little bastard pieces will fall right into place as you want them to. Guess what, sweetheart, it won’t fucking work this time.”

Claire bore the brunt of the storm as bravely as she could, while inwardly, her heart sank to deeper recesses, where in the mire of depression it finally felt safe. The verbal berating was strong, it rattled her mind viciously. The comments, the tone, the sentiment of his own heart, tore at her like shrapnel from a hand grenade, ripping as it passed through her. Claire tried to be bold, and her attempts at not crying were successful, but only because the fear that controlled her prompted a cessation of all other emotions.

“Well, anything to say? You had a lot of shit to say a moment ago. Why are you so quiet now?”

“Baby,” Claire began, slowly, “I just thought you’d like to spend it with us.”

“Whoa, what a minute. Spend it with us? Where the hell are you going to be? Spend it with ‘us’? Are you leaving?”

Claire did not respond immediately. Her mind was swirling violently with sadness and pain, but also a certain amount of anger that slowly crept in from the recesses and made itself known. She listened to all that was said, to all the barrages; but while listening, she realized she was gradually gripping her anger like a mace. As it increased, it forced from her heart the sympathies and the hurt she felt, chasing them to the dark recesses it just abandoned. She felt an incessant urge to speak, and equally knew what she was going to say would only succeed in the furtherance of the fight; however, her voice was her weapon, and she was preparing to use it.

“Ryan, yes, I am going. I want so much for you to be with me. I want us to share our first Christmas together, but I am still going. And if you do not care for that, then, that is an issue you will have to deal with.”

Claire spoke in a calm and collected voice, not violently like Ryan, and certainly not offensively, to both help the situation and bring poignancy to her comments. Her anger turned to courage and when she finished, she stared calmly and defiantly at Ryan, waiting his response, whatever it was.

Ryan was shocked and stunned by the controlled and restrained tone. Though it should have been disarming, it irritated and angered him, seeing that she could approach their argument with so much defiance. He first thought that she actually had little regard for him or the issue, but then realized it was a tactic of hers to bring him into submission. Mentally, he fought that submission, feeling himself more like a prisoner in chains than master of his own life; he wrestled with it until he felt himself fueled by his anger and liberated from his confines. He would not surrender his will, and he would not tolerate her disloyalty.

“That’s the wrong fucking answer, babe,” Ryan said, a little more collected himself, but still just as harsh.

Claire listened, and did not answer him in return. She felt independent again, and like a newly freed woman, she realized she could make her own decisions. That sentiment had been lost on her since they became committed to one another, and often, almost weekly, she yielded her freedom in an effort at pleasing and effecting goodwill and harmony. But now, she demanded of herself – not her lover, not the situation or the mood – her independence and her unshackled soul. She felt them both returned. She did not smile at her triumph, but she did feel comforted.

“No, it’s not,” she replied.

“Oh, you think so?”

Ryan tried to be angry, and though he fed off of it, it did not translate into the fury he felt the situation demanded, and for the wrongs committed. Somehow, either by wit or design, Claire robbed him of his fervor, and now, the content of his heart could not force such antagonism out of his lips.

Claire remained in her chair, and Ryan started to pace around the room. She thought he resembled a caged lion, and grew intensely aware of his movements. The silence was replete with nervous tension, and it hung much as a shroud does over a casket. Claire felt it, and though emboldened by her statement, she secretly trembled.

Ryan made several attempts to run through his mind everything she said, but in his frustration, he could not grasp the totality of her words. She was always so amiable and placid, always the girl who sought his pleasure. What happened? he wondered. Where was the girl who thought only of him? This new person, this strange girl, had such power that Ryan wondered why she stayed. She was so collected he knew she would depart any second; that frightened Ryan. This was not the Claire he knew. Perhaps, he viciously thought, this was the real Claire, and the other mask she wore finally fell from her venomous face, revealing the sinister nature concealed underneath. He smiled wickedly at his revelation and, turning to face her, started in again.

“So, what you’re telling me is that you don’t give a shit about us, our relationship, or anything? You don’t care about us, about me, or anything that we put together! All you think about is your own conniving self and how and who you can manipulate. I can’t believe I didn’t see this before.”

“Ryan, that’s not fair. You know that’s not the truth. I love you. I love us, and I love being with you.”

“No, Claire, I don’t think you do. Since we began, I’ve been the only one who has thought of us. It’s been me making the sacrifices, working the long hours and trying to build something. All you seem to want to do is tear it all down.”

“Ryan!” Claire exclaimed, her voice betraying her dismay and hurt.

“I’ve always had us first. That was always my prerogative. I wish I could say the same for you!” Ryan shouted.

“How can you say that?” Claire demanded.

“How can I?” Ryan began, “Well, it’s easy. Who wanted to betray our first holiday together? Who now wants to do the same with our first Christmas? Who leaves the office every day for locations that are a mystery? Who sits up every night, waiting to see when her boyfriend comes home? Are you seeing if I smell like perfume? Where’s the trust, Claire? If you can’t have it for me, I can’t have it for you!”

“Trust? Ryan, what the hell are you saying? I, I stay up at night to see you. Why? Because I love you and miss you. Are you accusing me of an affair? Is that it?”

At this point, Claire was a thin sheet of ice that was on the verge of breaking. The spirit she found earlier seemed to have retreated under the severity of the accusations directed at her. When Ryan struck her with their mutual love, those were blows she could not survive. She loved Ryan more than he knew, and to hear him convict her of such barbarity, that was something that would surely throw her to the floor. She began to sob, then cry uncontrollably, the tears rolling freely down reddened cheeks.

Ryan turned away, his eyes not bearing the sight before him. It hurt him terribly what he said, but he knew he had to say it, for them, for her. He was quickly seeing that it would take him time to correct her and make her the person she wanted to be. It would take all of his abilities, but he loved Claire and knew he could make her better, perfect.

Hiding her face in her hands, Claire finally succumbed to her defeat. The overwhelming sense of grief tortured her, filling her with the noxious stench of self-doubt and ill self-worth. For all her efforts, all her sacrifices, Ryan noticed none of them, and that nearly destroyed her. Crying furiously, she could not move from her chair. All she heard in her mind was how horrible a person she was. Her mind mocked her, saying that he was the only person who could love someone like her. Ryan suddenly looked so bright and shining, and she seemed cast only in shadows, lurking about like a demoness of old.

Oh, God, Claire thought, oh God, help me. How can it be that I’m so horrible? How is it that I turned out like a monster? I try to love, I try to be the girl he wants, but it’s not possible. I’m a failure, a failure! God, how I hurt. I want it to end, this pain. I want it gone from me. But what will I do with it? I can’t put it anywhere. Ryan doesn’t want it. He doesn’t love me. He can’t love me, not as I am. Oh God, I don’t want to lose him! Don’t go, baby, please don’t go. I need you. I need you so badly. Maybe he still loves me, maybe I can win him back.

Claire managed to stand, and with the cloud of grief obscuring her vision, she stumbled like one intoxicated through a darkened alley, trying to reach Ryan. If she could reach him, she thought, she could thrust herself into his arms and win him back. Her love, as great as it was blinding, propelled her through her sadness to seek him, and finding him, she stood before him as a slave, her sweater wetted by the tears of her agony.

“Baby, please. I’m sorry,” she pleaded.

Ryan bit his lip and balled his fists, but the anger in him dissolved. He could almost see it happening before him, the granitic corpulence of his wrath dismantling under the weight of the woman’s tears. He did not know what to think or feel, but he knew he was not entirely ready for an apology. Still, as he beheld her, Ryan finally acknowledged her and pulled her into his arms.

When Claire felt his embrace, she let fall all of her tears, all of her strife and pain, sensing that he was collecting it for her, keeping it far from her sorrowful heart. She held nothing from him, but in her grief, gave all of herself that was painful and unhappy. Her pain, it was the sacrifice, and the amends that were necessary. She knew it, and so opened her bruises to his scorn, knowing only by his scowl would they be healed.

“Claire,” Ryan said, “baby, I can make us better. You just need to trust me and be there to help me. We’re a team now, you and me. What I do, I do for us.”

“I know. Do you still love me? Ryan, tell me you still love me.”

Ryan looked into those eyes, those blue eyes so reddened by agony, and he knew he did. Who could not love a woman like her, he thought. She was expressing herself in so sincere a fashion, with the genuine nature of her heart on full display before him.

“Baby, I never stopped loving you.”

Claire continued to sob as Ryan led her to the sofa. Together, they sat in silence, the only sounds emanating from the area were sobs and deep sighs. The more she cried, the harder Ryan held her.

As his temper finally cooled from the magma it became, Ryan began to feel the evening move through him. The events unfolded casually before him, and, like an outsider voyeuristically looking through the windows, he could see everything happening. Claire settled down, and was slowly drifting to sleep, but Ryan was still analyzing everything, as if he were completely oblivious to all that transpired. He remembered walking through the door, he remembered getting angry, then he recalled his position on the sofa with Claire. That was all.

Like a puzzle tossed on the floor, he searched mentally for the missing pieces of the fight, trying to figure out what happened. Then, he remembered. His wrath may have partially blinded him, but it did not totally destroy his vision. He saw Claire defying him, blatantly withstanding his demand; and, what’s more, he saw her crumbling before him. Ryan did not know what to make of it all, but he knew now he had to be the strong one. He had to be dominant in the relationship because, though she might have a strength to her character, she would never be the cornerstone of their union. He smiled, not at her weakness, but at his strength and his ability to be strong for them both. Guarding and protecting her would be Ryan’s position now, and he would do so expeditiously.

Ryan leaned over and gently kissed the top of Claire’s head. She was asleep in his arms, where he knew she belonged. Slowly, he gathered her together and brought her to bed, tucking her in and making certain she was warm. He even adjusted the heat, so as to make it more comfortable for her. Slowly, he turned off the few lamps still on in the apartment, then moved to the dimmed screen of the computer. He looked over the prices on the website and with a click, shut the system down.

Chapter 11

The next morning, Ryan awoke to a beam of the sun’s light shining directly on his face. In shutting down the apartment the night before, he neglected to close the window blinds in the bedroom, and now the glorious illumination of the sun not only brightened his morning, it robbed him of extra sleep. Grumbling, he tossed his legs over the side of the bed and landed them on the cold wooden floor. He looked around. Claire was not present.

Sitting on the bed, Ryan tried to awaken himself, but the ill night of sleep he endured kept him in a stupor. He felt between worlds, like a man straddling a fence, neither enjoying the view to either side of it or his position upon it. The sleep he received was wrought with horrible memories of the previous night’s fight. Sleep, perhaps defending the integrity of Claire, forsook Ryan and battled with him all night long. Sitting there now, Ryan’s heart felt heavy.

The images of the previous night came back to him much like a bad dream. He could see them unadulterated, even feel the emotions attached, but he had not the power to change anything. He thought of what was said, of the tears and the yelling, and of how he acted. It then occurred to him that he almost moved through the fight like he was in a fog, acting and speaking but with little self-control. That frightened him.

Good lord, he thought to himself, what happened, and what did I say? Did I really say that? Did I really make her cry like that? And she still forgave me?

Ryan got up and moved to the kitchen, walking slowly over the cool flooring and fumbling in the darkened room for the light switch. On the counter, he saw a little piece of paper.

Picking it up, and with tired eyes, Ryan saw a cute little drawing of two flowers and a note saying “Let’s grow together.” It was signed only ‘love, me.’ A pang was felt in his heart, and in that moment, placing the note back on the counter and looking about the kitchen as if searching for sympathy, Ryan started to cry.

“What the hell am I doing?” Ryan asked out loud. “What the hell!”

Sobbing uncontrollably, he fell against the counter and reached for the note again, believing it was the hand of the woman he loved. He gripped it tightly, not meaning to crumble it, but wrinkling it nonetheless in his agony.

“Oh god, what am I doing to her, to us?”

Ryan waited for a response to his question, but none came. The silence of the dark apartment, so reminiscent of the silence they shared in that decisive moment, absorbed his question and concealed it stealthily.

With the note still in his hand, he sought refuge on the sofa, passing the computer desk where all of their troubles began. He thought over the whole situation, sometimes chiding himself, other times expounding upon what he previously said. Sitting in the dark, the cold of the leather having no effect upon him, Ryan dove mentally into the fight.

She was ready to leave me for the holiday. She was ready to leave last night, I know it. How could I have let her walk out? How could I just sit by and watch our relationship come to an end? What I said, what I did, it had to happen. It’s what needed to be said, right? Am I wrong? Shouldn’t she want to be here with me? After all, it’s our first Christmas together. I don’t want to spend it apart from her, and I don’t think she would want to, either. Why was she willing to go anyway? She doesn’t want to be with me? Or, maybe she just wants to see her family. I can’t fault her for that. Maybe she should go…

But what if she doesn’t return? What if this is just a ploy to leave me? I can’t blame her for it. No, I can. She acted totally different last night. She was bold and, and strong. She’s never done that before. She defied me, and for what? If she would have asked me, if we would have talked about it, I would have been fine with it. It’s just, it looked like trickery, like she was trying to fool me or something. I won’t be fooled and played like some accordion, not by anyone, not by Claire.

There is always a strong person in the relationship. Scientists and shit always say stuff like that. Hell, there’s always an alpha male, right? In this relationship, that needs to be me. I need the ability to love her and protect her. If she doesn’t like it, then she is just going to have to get used to it. I love her too much to see her hurt. And she knows that. She knows how much I love her. Does she? Do I really love her, or do I just want to control her? Does she really need controlling? Yes, she does. I know it. But, do I really?


I don’t even know how the whole thing got out of hand last night. It’s like, I came home, and wham, there it was! Now, I’m feeling horrible for loving her and wanting to make things right. How the hell does that work? Making things right? How am I doing that? Controlling her won’t do that, and you know it. She doesn’t need to be controlled. That’s one of the things you love about her. But, if she’s not controlled, she’ll leave. I saw that last night. That’s why I said the things I did. That’s why I broke her heart…

An image crept into Ryan’s mind when he had finished his momentary monologue. It was Claire, the girl he loved so greatly, crying so horribly, falling into his arms as if he alone decided her fate. The power of that moment hit him severely, and in her, he saw his mother and all the tears she shed. All his thoughts then subsided, and his mind went blank, save for one thought alone: his mother.

Ryan did not move or shift or even breathe heavily. The silence suffocated all of his movements while the memory suffocated all of his thoughts. Previously, he was trying to battle his way to a determination, but he oscillated so frequently that he ended up having more of a conversation with himself than achieving any result. Now, all of that ceased, and he was alone in his apartment with only a painful memory for company.

Thoughts of his childhood rambled through his memory. He remembered the fighting, the screaming, that feeling of uncertainty that always accompanied the friction. All the pain and anger came back to him, as did the fear. He could see his mother under duress, and his sense of helplessness weighed upon him, halting any movement he would have taken in her defense. Then, the first image of his father appeared.

It occurred to Ryan that he did not remember his mother’s family all that well. There were fleeting images from his adolescent years, images of parties and holidays, but that was when he was very young. He remembered his father’s family quite well, but not his mother’s. Taking a moment to analyze that thought, Ryan suddenly stopped short again. He knew why he didn’t see them.

He never let us visit them, Ryan began. He kept us, my mom, from them. That’s why I don’t remember them clearly. Heck, I wouldn’t recognize them now if I saw them. And when mom, well, after that, I never saw them. He kept us from them. He robbed me of their love. Why did he do that?

Ryan seldom thought of his childhood or his father, save for those dire moments in the deep of night, when the heart and mind conspired to torture his soul. On this occasion, he thought of it all, one memory in particular. He saw his father standing in the kitchen, drinking vodka after a long day at work. His father never had facial hair, but in that moment, in that posture, Ryan saw himself standing there, drinking the beverage and looking so menacingly at the world.

I am not my father! No, I am not. We’re different. What he did, he did because he was a mother-fucking bastard. What I do, I do out of…

Ryan could not complete his thought. He knew what the next word was, but somehow, he did not believe the truth of his own statement. It was a lie to his ears, his heart and mind, and to say otherwise would be a complete denial of the truth.

Ryan started to cry again, but the tears fell not from sorrowful eyes, but angry ones. He saw the progenitor of his existence, the person not only responsible for his being, but his state. He saw him, felt him, in his own being, and that made Ryan cry.

Tears always heal, and through his sobbing Ryan could feel the cool droplets quenching the fire in his heart. A weight so corpulent fell on his shoulders, but his tears also helped to dislodge it. Ryan cupped his face in is hands, resting them on his knees. He was glad it was dark in the room; he wanted the solace of darkness for his pain.

My father kept us from them. I am not my father. I am better than he was, I am above what he did. I love Claire, and I want her to go away for Christmas. I trust her and love her, and know she’ll be back. But I also want her to go because if she doesn’t, then I am no better a man than he was. I am above this.

Ryan’s tears stopped as he lifted his head from his hands. Slowly running his palms along his pant legs, he knew he had to tell her. He wouldn’t be able to attend, but he would be waiting for her.

If it was one thing Ryan loved more than Claire, it was not being his father; in this instant, he won a small victory, and by it, he felt good. Slowly standing, he walked into the bedroom and started making the bed.

For Ryan, the whole fight was suddenly summed up in a single line. Ryan admitted he had come close to the behavior of his father, but in the end, he overcame it. There was hope, hope for a better tomorrow free of ill memories and old pains. And he would see that future with Claire, a woman who needed a man only to love her, not control her. He didn’t need to be dominant, and she didn’t, either. They could be strong and weak together, sharing their pains and miseries, joys and elations. They could complement one another, one being strong when the other was weak. But it didn’t always have to be Ryan.

Feeling so much lifted from him, Ryan finally opened the windows of his apartment and allowed the day to greet him. He smiled. Maybe he’d be able to have lunch with Claire today.

* * * * * * * * * *

That afternoon, after Claire got back from lunch with Ryan, she had an array of emotions sourcing through her. Brett came to see her, and after he left, she returned to the feelings she desired to explore. The previous night’s battle was gently handled over lunch and finally put aside, with both of them still licking their wounds. The love Claire had for Ryan allowed her to easily set aside the hurt and the pain she endured, especially when she received his apology and penance. She loved him and could not remain at odds with him, but the pain did linger.

Claire sat at her desk and read through a series of emails from a client. She made a few notes, searched through a file, then two, and began to formulate a response. But then she stopped and leaned back.

The office looked far more cheery than it did previously, and the light of the wintery day streamed through the windows brilliantly. Claire could feel the warmth of the sun on her shoulders and head as she reclined, and it was amazing. She was happy, but in the ways people perpetually lie to themselves for the sake of their own sanity.

Claire helped herself to her memories and the peace making that followed, relishing in the love Ryan showed her, and his own weakness in admitting his wrongs. Still, she knew he harbored some deep secret, something he alluded to when he dined with her, something that made him change his mind. He did not confess it, and that troubled Claire. She believed that in time, it would be revealed.

There was happiness at seeing her family again, though it pained her that so much hurt and agony had to be spilled to gain the ground; but in her happiness, Claire was unsettled by the notion of permission being necessary to do anything. Claire was indeed a strong person; she had to be to run the department. She was also independent, and only chose of her free volition to be with Ryan. She knew she needed no permission to explore life, and seeing that issue arise alarmed her.

Claire was a remarkable woman, one that could look at so frightening a situation and still see a resolution without sacrifice. She believed in Ryan, and knew that he loved her, and that together, they would come through this. Looking at her fright only made her realize the strength she had in her, and her ability to rise above it. Slowly, she took it and cast it aside. She was happy the fight was over, and smiled to herself, thinking of the lingerie she would be wearing when Ryan came home that night.

Chapter 12

The Christmas season for some is too short; for others, it’s too long. Brett was one of the latter. Every morning, he commuted among the hordes of revelers who were either dressed as Santa Claus, wished they were Santa Claus, shopped like Santa Claus or cursed Santa Claus. Every morning, he would come grumbling into work about the cold, the excessive nature of the culture, the vibrancy of materialism replete in society, and the lack of genuine religious experience found in the holiday. And for the past few weeks, everyone in the office had to endure this montage daily.

Claire always laughed at him, and when he turned his back, she would place an elf hat on his manicured hair. Like throwing gasoline on a fire, the hat did little to pacify the heated nature of the man; it did, however, make for a comical moment.

On her last day at work, Claire was in the hall when Brett entered, grumbling and cursing at the freshly fallen snow that alighted like little angels on his shoulders. To those who knew him, he was Brett; to any person who did not, he resembled a walking coat rack, covered in so many expensive layers of designer outerwear.

“What are you, a bell hop?” Claire jokingly asked Brett.

Brett stormed into his cubicle and started the lengthy process of excavating himself from his woolen layers.

“No. A wooly mammoth,” Brett replied.

Everyone in the vicinity of the comment laughed and, as Brett threw off his last layer, it struck a small decorative Christmas tree – the only decoration in his space – throwing it on the floor.

“Scrooge!” shouted one of the ladies.

“Yeah, ol’ Ebenezer over here,” added Claire.

“Oh, please.”

Claire leaned against the wall of his cubicle and smiled gaily at Brett. He straightened his jackets into a nice pile, then turned on his computer and plopped onto his chair. He did not touch the tree.

“Ugh. This has got to stop,” Brett said.

“What is with you and Christmas?”

“Do I need to vent again? You know!”

“Brett, sweetie, it’s just a holiday, and a fun one. You should have seen us putting up our tree. It was so much fun. Ryan made all these delicious little desserts and we ate and drank and decorated. It was wonderful.”

“I bet. Dylan did all that, to the tune of Carpenters and Dolly Parton.”

Claire raised her eyebrows at the comment, smirking.

“Yes. It’s from his childhood, I guess. I had jazz we could have used, but nope; it had to be Dolly.”

“Regular country Christmas. At least you decorated.”

“Hooray,” Brett said dryly.

“Oh, you know you had fun. Well, I did, at least. And when we were finished, we had dinner on the floor in front of the tree. Ryan is such a kid at Christmas. Oh, and he even got me this!”

Claire extended her elegant wrist to reveal a beautiful, diamond studded bracelet. Brett’s eyes widened as he beheld the glittering item, and leaning forward to get a better look, his mouth opened.

“OMG, Claire. Holy shit!”

“Isn’t it gorgeous!” she squealed.

“That’s serious stuff, right there. How many carets?”

“A lot!” she replied.

Brett leaned back in his seat and smiled. When he saw the helpless tree on the floor, he leaned over and begrudgingly picked it up, and with some degree of care, he placed it on the space it vacated.

“And you wear it well, sweetie. He gave it to you that night?”

“Yes. He said it was an early Christmas present. I didn’t know what to say. It was a complete surprise.”

“I think you need to get him something nicer,” said Brett.

“I think I need more lingerie.” Claire winked at Brett, and he just grinned.

“So, how is Ryan? How are you guys?”

Claire pondered for a moment, still relishing the sight of Ryan sitting on the floor beside the tree, cross-legged and eyes gleaming at the menagerie of bulbs.

“We’re really good. Oh, he’s actually been talking about us moving in together.”

Claire lowered her voice so none of the others would hear. The walls always have ears, so caution is essential when speaking in public. Claire knew it, but could not recommend the idea to herself before she spoke.


“Let’s go in my office,” she said.

Together, they both trotted to Claire’s office just down the hall, and took their respective seats after Claire partially closed the door. She flopped in her chair and rested her knee against the desk, reclining to a comfortable position. Brett, knowing professionalism was not necessary for the moment, propped his legs up on the adjacent chair.

“Now, where were we?” Brett asked.

“Yeah, he’s been talking about it a lot lately. My lease is coming up, so we kind of figured, why not?”

Brett looked at her with some caution and trepidation in his eyes. He’d known it was coming, and was honestly a little fearful of so hasty a move. For him, probably for anyone, it would have been a very quick decision, given their total time together, and that’s what worried him so much.

“Claire,” Brett began, but could not finish before Claire cut him off.

“Brett, I know what you’re gonna say. We’ve only been together for a few months, and it’s a very quick and certainly a hasty decision; blah, blah, blah. I know, I know. Yeah, it’s only been a few months, and yes, we’ve only known each other a few months. But you know what?”

“What?” Brett replied flatly.

“It doesn’t bother me. In any other case, I would agree with you. But Ryan is different. You know when you met Dylan, you knew he was the ‘one.’ Am I right?”


“Well, for me, it’s the same thing. I just ‘feel’ for Ryan. I can’t explain it, but when I am with him, I see so much in him, and every day I get to explore more of him. Every day, he opens more and more to me, and I see that he trusts me, and I him. I’ve never moved this fast with any guy before. You know that. I’m always more cautious. But with Ryan, I feel differently. Yes, he has his faults. Yes, we fight. But there is so much potential in him, and I see him trying so hard to better himself. And not just for himself, but for me. I have something every woman desires, a man who will try. Will he fail? Sometimes, yes. And will I be there to pick him up? Yes. This is love for me.”

Brett was smiling. He feared for his friend, but he also trusted her and knew if she made up her mind about something, or someone, she had already thought it through thoroughly. To hear her speak of Ryan in such a poetic, romantic and truthful manner, made him happy. Seeing Claire happy was all he ever desired. Now, it seemed, she was.

“Then, I support your decision. And Dylan and I will help you move. Dylan doesn’t know it yet, but he will help you move.”

“Thank you,” Claire said. “Really, thank you. I love you.”

“Baby, you know I love you. And I’m happy for you. I couldn’t be any happier.”

Claire lost herself momentarily in the memories of her friendship with Brett, and all that he meant to her. In her heart, she did love him deeply, and cherished the connection they both held. Brett, thinking along similar lines, remembered first meeting her and how they automatically connected. The moment was brief, however, and then they struck up a conversation about holiday travel and where they would be spending the snowy Christmas.

It was the last day for Claire to be in the office, so she felt relaxed and allowed herself a little extra time to spend with her friend. They agreed they would all dine together when they returned and do a ‘little Christmas’ for each other. When Brett stood to leave, Claire moved around the office and embraced him. She did not hug him, for a hug was far too impersonal for her; instead, she held him in her arms, feeling the warmth of his body and savoring the comfort she felt with him. Brett held her tightly as well, his arms symbolic of the strength she could always rely upon in times of need.

“You have an awesome Christmas,” Claire said.

“You, too. We’ll get together for dinner. I enjoyed our meal last week. We do need to do that more.”

“Yes, we do. Now that things are slowing some, we will.”

They parted, and Brett exited the office. Claire watched him go, thanking God above that he was her friend.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ryan stood beside his car, the exhaust pumping what looked like steam into the air. Cars moved around him and people pulled luggage from parked vehicles all up and down the unloading lane. Claire was looking hastily at her ticket, the breath she exhaled mimicking the smoke from the cars.

Watching her closely, Ryan tried to appear happy, but inside, he was very sad to see Claire leave. He felt as if a part of him was severing itself from the rest, and leaving forever. It was the first time they had been separated, and he was feeling loneliness stealthily creeping back.

“Okay, that’s where I need to go,” Claire said.

Claire turned and looked at Ryan, his sad face clearly on display through the feigned smile he gave her. She left with both a happy and heavy heart, as seeing her family overjoyed her immensely, but leaving Ryan was so difficult.

“Be safe and keep in touch,” Ryan said softly.

Taking Claire in his arms, he pulled her to him and tenderly held her, as if his embrace was the purpose of his existence. He wished that moment could last for a lifetime. Pressing his forehead to hers, they held one another silently, each shedding tears that the other desired to see. They could feel them rolling down their cheeks, hot droplets against the chill in their flesh; but the sensation was warming, reminding them both that they were alive and loved, and were loving and living.

“I will baby,” Claire said in short sobs.

“And have fun. I want to hear all about it. Take pictures, selfies, whatever.”

Claire smiled as she kissed him. Ryan’s cheek touched hers, and their tears mingled. It was a blending both appreciated, and both wanted.

“I’m going to miss you,” Claire said.

“I’ll be here when you return,” Ryan replied, his voice breaking.

Finally, Ryan let Claire go, and pulled her suitcase up beside her. Claire dried her eyes with a napkin and put it in the pocket of her woolen coat. Ryan looked at her and tried to force every detail of her physique into his memory. He did not harbor any sort of ill feelings at her leaving, and certainly did not believe any misfortune would befall either of them. Still, in his heart, he was growing lonelier by the moment, and her presence, though still before him, was making the transition all the more painful.

“Okay. I guess I should go,” Claire said with reluctance.

“Yeah. Have a safe flight and let me know when you land. Okay?”

“I will baby. Merry Christmas,” said Claire.

“Baby, I will miss you. And Merry Christmas to you.”

Again, the two grasped one another in a lasting embrace that, should the world have dissolved into oblivion at that moment, their two souls would have become amalgamated into one celestial presence. Crying, Claire broke away and walked into the terminal, stopping at the door to wave to her lover.

Ryan watched her go until she blended with the passengers crowding around the ticketing counter. All he loved was now in that building, disappearing into a sea of strangers who did not know that she was perhaps the best woman to trod upon the Earth.

When Ryan got home, his slow cadence bespoke of his gloom at entering his lonely apartment, and when he finally crossed over the dismal threshold, the sorrow of so empty a space overwhelmed him. Around him was the world she only recently inhabited, and he could remember so clearly her jacket draped over the chair, and her suitcase by the door. Her coffee cup was still in the sink, with a little of her lipstick still smudged on the surface. He cried.

“It’s only a few days, bud. Only a few days. And you are doing the right thing. You are. You have to believe that. Please believe it,” Ryan said out loud.

In his hurt, in the pain of their separation, he felt his old presuppositions returning, and slowly, the shadow of his progenitor crept over him. But he fought it; he fought back those evil feelings and tried to focus just on the face of his lover, the woman who held his heart. Reaching for the vodka, he looked at it instead, and retrieved his hand. That was not what he needed. His phone peeped. It was Claire. She was at the gate and missing him. Relief came with that message, and he called her, allowing the melodious tones of her voice to drive away his demons.

* * * * * * * * * *

When Claire landed, her family joyfully greeted her and began their holiday of laughter and memories. They ate, drank and played in the layers of snow that fell on her parent’s rustic upstate home. Old traditions were executed once again, and new ones started. Claire reveled in the happiness she felt, though she missed a certain someone in Boston.

On Christmas day, when the presents were opened and the old wooden flooring of the large home was cluttered with an array of colored paper, Claire sat by the fireside, her bathrobe wrapped about her body, and a cup of her dad’s famous coffee in her hands. She looked up at the antiquated but quaint rock chimney as it towered into the vaulted ceiling latticed by the old, round log beams. Claire did not grow up here, but it was a beautiful summer retreat for them, as her father looked for any excuse to escape the city and head to the forest.

Flames licked the large pieces of split wood that fueled the fire’s blaze, feeding its voracious appetite. On the couch, cuddled in her layers of warmth with the mountain sun streaming through the windows in warming patches, Claire thought it was the perfect setting, and the right moment; only, she wished Ryan could be with her. She was grateful he took a better attitude to her departure, and when she first left, he seemed fine, though lost. She noticed, however, that as the days progressed, his attitude seemingly changed, and the frequency of his texts and calls increased.

Fearing either the annoyance or ill suspicion of her family, Claire tried to conceal the rapidity of his incessant messaging. She appreciated the cute little Christmas trees he sent, and a few pictures of the crew in elf hats, but the barrage was undermining her time with her family and setting her on edge. The last few messages she even found to be cold and lifeless, as if something troubled him, but he wasn’t going to share it.

Claire tried to appease him with pictures of her own, of the house and the family, and even a few of a more naughty nature. She wanted him to see her world and the cabin she loved so much. Above all things, she wanted Ryan to know she had not forgotten him. She was not certain if that sentiment translated or not.

The heated strength of the fire reached out into the room, and Claire could feel the warmth on her, warming her body. Her mother was in the kitchen rummaging around, and the rest of the family was either dispersed upstairs, or tackling the hill with old sled she used to ride. In the living room, it was just Claire and the rustic space.

Claire was savoring the scent of the real fire and the smell of the fir tree in the corner, still so beautiful even after the gift bombardment of the morning. Lost in her thoughts, she did not hear her father steal across the creaky floor, his footfalls padded only by the rug.

Slowly, Claire’s dad slid beside his baby girl and put his arm around her. The movement startled Claire, but she immediately recognized the scent of his cologne and smiled happily.

“Hi, Daddy,” Claire greeted.

“Hi, baby girl,” he replied, softly.

Donald Bedard was a man in his early sixties, tall and quite handsome. Signs of age displayed themselves grandly, from the fading of his dark hair to the wrinkles on his brow. But his smile, that gentle and kind smile, did not falter. Claire always knew him with a moustache, but recently, he shaved it, despite protests from Claire’s mom. Claire, for her part, thought he looked younger, and though Donald never admitted it, that was his goal. He pulled Claire to his pajama-covered body and kissed her head.

“I’ve missed you, you know,” Donald said.

“I know, Daddy. That’s why I’m here.”

“I’m glad you could make it. This old cabin wouldn’t be any fun without everyone here. So many memories.”

Donald’s voice seemed to trail off on the visionary road containing the memories to which he just alluded. Claire remembered many good times in that cabin. Easily, she could recall her older brothers racing through the forests and meadow, and her little legs trying desperately to keep pace with them. She could remember the evening sunsets from the porch, when her dad would drink his cognac and her mother would sip her coffee. There were an abundance of good memories there, and Claire knew it.

“So, how have things been?” Donald asked.

Donald’s voice was soothing and tender, and to speak with him on any subject, whether agreeable or not, one found themselves liking his point of view for the sound of his voice alone. Claire couldn’t see his eyes, as he was beside her, but the old blue eyes – Claire had her father’s eyes – resonated with so much satisfaction and joy.

“Everything is well. I’m doing really well at work, but insanely busy. Brett is still Brett.”

“That’s great, but I wasn’t asking about Brett or work,” Donald said, laughing lightly.

It was Ryan he wished to discuss. Donald was never a possessive father of his daughter, but he was also not one to sit aside and watch his little girl go through unnecessary hardships, either. Heaven help the man who ever dared hurt Claire.

“Daddy!” Claire whined.

“What?” he replied.

“You’re being nosy,” she playfully said.

“No, I’m not. I’m just making small talk.”

“Dad, you make small talk on the weather, not personal issues.”

“Hey, I’m an interested father, and I want to know that this Don Juan is suitable. Anything wrong with that?”

Claire smiled, turning her face to his. She always loved his eyes, and when she was a child, she thought they were precious jewels. Nudging him playfully, she grinned.

“I know. You talk to your mother all the time about him. I get all of my information second hand.”

“Of course. You’re my Daddy!”

Claire tossed her head onto his shoulder, her eyes seeing the great ceiling and the chandelier of old antlers dangling above. She loved teasing her father, and it was true what he said; she did speak often to her mother, but seldom to her father about her ‘personal space,’ as she called it.

“Ai! I just want to know that you are happy, that’s all.”

“Okay, I’ll sing.”


“Ryan is his name, and he’s a chef. I’m sure you know that, and about the second restaurant he just opened. Oh, I got to name it!”

“Lady Godiva, right?” Donald smirked.

“Daddy! Lady Burwell’s. I named it myself. Aren’t you proud of me?” she girlishly asked.

“I’m always proud of you, baby girl.”

“Good. As you should be,” Claire replied.

Donald just smiled at his little girl and hugged her tightly. In his heart, he was happy she was there with them at all.

“Anyway, his businesses are really successful. And he’s super cute. He does a lot of Nuevo Americana, avant-garde stuff. Total food and wine enthusiast. You know, typical chef.”

“He sounds really nice. I saw pictures of you two together. You look happy.”

“Oh, I have pictures that are more recent than the ones Mom showed you. Here,” she said.

Claire picked up her phone and opened her gallery. She had thoughtfully removed any illicit pictures from her general gallery, so it was free to explore. She showed her dad their little Christmas and some of their late night evenings together, when both felt playful. Claire scrolled through the images, more memories to her than physical shots, and she remembered the fun and the laughter. She missed Ryan.

As they were talking through some of the photos, her phone beeped out the text message alert, and she hastily looked at it. It was Ryan, sending her a reply. She smiled, upon receiving yet another message. Her father, looking away for privacy’s sake, knew the sound of her phone rather well by then, since it beeped incessantly. Now, he recognized the beeping alert as a text, and knew just how much Ryan corresponded with his daughter.

Donald harbored thoughts on his daughter’s fascination with the young chef, and most of it dealt not with Ryan personally, but his career choice. Donald, for the most part, liked the chef he never met, but it was that late night obligation, and the lack of personal time, that made him feel uneasy seeing his daughter walking down that path. He knew some chef owners personally, and saw some of the trials and tribulations they endured, and he did not want his daughter to be the one sitting home alone at night, waiting for her husband to return. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

Claire made a face only, briefly, and she thought it was concealed from her father’s turned face, but he just looked back at her in time to see it, and though it lasted but a moment, he knew that face and knew something was wrong, despite her smiling nature as she dropped the phone in her lap.

“That phone gets no rest,” Donald said quietly.

“I’m a modern girl, Daddy. And that was Ryan. He’s doing payroll. He hates payroll.”

“I think I’d hate payroll, too, if I had to do it,” Donald replied.

“Ryan is a chef, not a manager, but in his line you have to be both. He’s good at both, but he just hates anything that takes him out of the kitchen.”

“You like him?” Donald asked pointedly.

Claire did not need to hesitate on her response, as her heart always was prepared to give testimony to the depth of love she had for Ryan. But when the question arose, she could not help but feel the agitation still ringing in her, agitation from the bombardment of texts that always demanded her attention and expeditious response. She certainly did not consider this trip a vacation from Ryan, but she did want uninterrupted time with her family. She never minded when she was in Boston, but just for a few days, she desired to devote her time solely to her siblings and parents.

“I love him, Daddy. It’s different with him, different than any guy I’ve ever been with. He’s romantic and funny, clever and gentle. He thinks of me often and is not afraid to show it. Sometimes, when I stop by the kitchen unexpectedly, it’s like I just made his night. And sometimes, on the weekend, when he wakes me up in the morning – oh, never mind,” and she giggled.

Donald’s scowl was priceless, and made her laugh. Slowly, a smile formed on the protective father’s lips, and he, too, laughed, seizing the joy of Claire’s uncontrollable laughter.

Claire’s mother, hearing the ruckus all the way in the kitchen, came into the room to see what was transpiring. She was dressed very much like everyone else, with a long bathrobe of old, faded flannel covering a very nice silk sleeping gown. Claire loved their trips to the cabin because it always made for such awesome and wonderful juxtapositions in her mother’s nature, a city girl by design who had to learn survival in the forest. In this case, her designer gown was shielded from the wintery forest cold by an old hand-me-down relic of the cabin.

Claire’s mother, Elaine, was mature but still beautiful, with her own set of auburn locks trimmed at the shoulder and, though not receiving the care this morning that they normally would, still pleasant to behold. Claire may have had much of her father in her, but she certainly was her mother made over, from her delicate oval face to her slender build. Claire liked resembling her mother, and always hoped she would look as attractive as Elaine did when she reached that age.

“What is all this?” Elaine asked.

Claire giggled a little more, and still smiling, turned to her father, then shrugged. Donald just grinned.

“She was about to tell me of her Saturday morning ritual,” he said.

Elaine knew. Looking at Claire, she seemed surprised he daughter would be so revealing, then quickly recognized the humor in the situation, when she knew her daughter no doubt hastily stopped the narrative.

“What do you expect, Donald? I was never a nun, remember?”

Claire started giggling again, as her father turned a shade of red that clearly exhibited his intense embarrassment. Elaine just stood, grinning and staring at the two. She knew what Donald was thinking.

“And you’re still not,” replied Donald.

“Oh my gosh,” Claire finally blurted out. “Alright, I’m outta here!”

Claire unfolded herself from her father’s arms and stood, stretching and shaking off the lethargy left from sitting so long by the warm fire. Everyone has their own conceptions of sexual relations, and they are fine, so long as they are one’s own. To hear others,’ however, is a different issue, especially if they belong to one’s parents; and that was something Claire was not going to endure. As she left, the soft sound of her parents chatter carried with her down the hall to her room. Closing the door, she moved to the bed and sat down, looking at her phone again. Something was wrong, or simply ‘off’ with Ryan. He would not say, and she could think of no other way to ask.

Setting the phone beside her, Claire stared at the dresser. She remembered it from when she was a child, and recalled how she used to remove the old drawers and build a fort out of them with her brothers. They withdrew easily and always smelled like an old library. She loved that. Her mind, however, wandered away from those playful days; she was anxious about the situation with Ryan, and what could have possibly happened. Equally, she was wondering how he would be when she returned home.

Sadly, Claire questioned if this was what composed a normal relationship. All of her previous boyfriends were not like this, but they each had shortcomings of their own that eventually brought about the demise of the union. With Ryan, she felt so different, so it was only natural that the relationship as a whole should be different; yet, she could not convince herself this was the kind of ‘different’ for which she was searching.

There was shouting from outside, and she knew the sled was creating an atmosphere to which Claire wanted to belong. Hurriedly, Claire threw on her winter layers, capped her head in a skullcap and ran outside, mimicking the childhood memories so often discussed over the past few days. The weather was bitingly cold, but she neglected to care; the enthusiasm of the moment was just what she needed to take her mind off of other unpleasant thoughts.

* * * * * * * * * *

There was something wrong with Ryan, indeed. For one thing, he missed Claire. Nightly, he returned home to the emptiness of his own apartment, a shell of an abode without his Claire to greet him. He texted her when he missed her, and waited at length for any response what would enable him to feel close to her once more. Sometimes, they were quick and he was satisfied; other times, however, he stared for what felt like a small eternity at the dark screen of the phone, waiting for the little green light to flash a notification. He hated waiting, abhorred it even, and often, in his frustration, he cursed her absence and the holiday that separated them.

In the apartment, Ryan would find himself sitting in her spot on the couch or her seat at night, drinking by himself, thinking of her and wishing she were with him, or he with her. In was in those moments that the real pain, and subsequently the battle, played out, for Ryan was becoming a man haunted by a ghost whose sole intent was the destruction of what happiness Ryan had garnered from the world.

Ryan would sip and think, his mind growing darker than the room around him. He would try to fight off ill-natured thoughts of pain directed at Claire for leaving him, pain at their separation, and occasionally he was successful. Most times, however, he would succumb to the agony and would taste evil in an unadulterated form. He would ponder long the absence that hurt him so deeply and not see in it the innocence of a family visit, the right of an individual to express independence, or the ability to self-govern; instead, he saw it as a deliberate act of transgression, and an attack on their union. He fought these thoughts viciously, but seldom did he win.

Claire was his love, but sitting and stewing in his pain, her will and independence slowly transformed into enemies that had to be subjected to his own will. He hated to do it, but the sake of their relationship was at hand, and he could not have her expressing something contrary to the love they had for one another. Ryan had a firm grasp on their love, and understood it in its totality; Claire, he reasoned, still needed to learn, and it was his responsibility to instruct her as a master does his disciple. He would do it…for them.

These discussions ran long into the night and often included several drinks. More sober moments saw him chiding himself again and longing to be held by Claire’s arms. In his lucidity, he would mentally pour out his undying love to the altar of his goddess like a libation, hoping his propitiation was accepted. He feared his dire and dark moments, for in them, he heard not his own voice in his head, but that of his father, dreaded as it was, commanding him, speaking through him and mocking him when he faltered. In his father’s dark shadow, he would sometimes muse. Other times, he would flee like a child. Ryan knew, however, that no length of distance could ever get him far enough away from that man’s presence.

Ryan was sitting at his desk in the kitchen office, looking over the payroll. It was distracting his customary thoughts, and for that, he felt grateful. Frustrated and tired, he fumbled through the process, hoping the green light would flicker more frequently. He knew Claire was sitting fireside in the cabin, and that they had a wonderful morning, a Christmas morning. He was envious of that experience, of the love their family shared and the comfort she gained by their presence. In his heart, he wanted that, too, though it seemed so foreign and almost unsettling to him. On his own, though, with only the silent and dark kitchen for company, he dejectedly labored on, growing more frustrated and more annoyed at life, love and everything around him.

The restaurant would open in the afternoon for Christmas Day dinner, and the revelers would come to sample the specially crafted tasting menu Ryan drafted for the occasion. He would labor all evening and into the night, with his crew of sous-chefs and cooks, waiters and bussers, and it would be amazing. The menu would be a success and accolades would be heaped upon their laurelled brows. But did it mean anything? Without Claire, he felt like a person divided in two, the half he now composed separated from the joys and happiness of the world. Without her, he felt nothing but pain. And that frightened him, for the pain he felt was split into two fractions: one, the old hurt he carried with him after Gillian’s death, and two, the anger that now seemed to fuel his mind.

Ryan looked up to see a picture of him and Claire together. His heart was dark, and his eyes narrowed. His hurt, his pain, was caused by her. This, he swore, would not happen again. He would not surrender so easily to his own doings, and he would not allow his heart to so easily be bruised. He acquiesced once; it would not happen again, no matter what manner of mental bashing he gave himself. Lesson learned, Ryan knew from that moment on, he would not hurt anymore, no matter what it took.

Chapter 13

Ryan drove slowly past the curbside, looking at each brown-headed girl he saw. The area was packed with travelers either departing or returning home from a trip. He was excited and impatient, wanting so much to see Claire emerge from the sliding doors of the terminal and appear to him. He wanted to go inside and meet her at security, but she insisted he did not have to, and that it would be easier to meet him outside.

One woman emerged, dressed warmly with a new sock hat over her auburn locks. He saw the face, knew that smile, and immediately pulled over, cutting off another driver. All morning, Ryan waited for this moment, but for diverse reasons. For one, he wanted so much to see his Claire again. His arms felt empty without her in them. For another reason, and much darker, he wanted her so he could have her to himself, and make it known that departures would be nonexistent from henceforth. It was his vile desire to look into her eyes as he told her that, hoping to project into her heart some of the pain he endured over the past few days. She would pay, he knew that much.

His heart was oscillating all morning, swaying like a pendulum between the love he felt for her and the anger he had towards her. And Ryan fought himself all morning, trying desperately to conceal the ill feelings he did not want to ruin their happy reunion. Like a prophet, Ryan could almost see the fight that would ensue if he did not master his emotions, and that was not the homecoming he desired for Claire. So, he battled both his own will and that evil voice echoing in his mind into a sort of submission. By the time he drove up to the curb, he was mentally fatigued, but he won a small victory.

Ryan leapt from the car and raced around to the girl, who spotted the vehicle as it pulled closer. Claire was happy to be back, and even more excited to see, via the texts Ryan sent before her travels, that he eagerly anticipated her return. A broad smile erupted across her face when she saw his smile mirroring her own. They raced toward each other, Ryan scooping her up in his arms and twirling her around.

Together at last, they kissed so passionately that one would have thought they had been reunited after a year’s separation. What pent up energies they both had, they poured them into that first kiss, rekindling the affection they left in each other’s hearts.

Ryan pulled away first, but did not let his face leave hers. He chose to keep his eyes closed, as he did not need them to see her; he used his heart instead. Feeling her warm breath against his cold face, amidst the horrid late December winter weather, was the sensation for which he had waited for so many days. It was that single goal that propelled him through each day. Now, he felt it, and in him, all was well again.

“Baby, I missed you,” Ryan said in a whisper.

“I missed you so much,” Claire replied.

In their spinning, Claire’s suitcase toppled on its side. Ryan, when he opened his eyes to gaze upon the blue orbs of his woman, happened to see where it lay. As much as he detested the symbolism of that suitcase previously, he loved it now.

“Let’s get out of here. I thought we could do a late lunch at Baxter’s?” Ryan asked.

“Anything with you,” Claire said.

Ryan helped Claire into the car and loaded her suitcase into the trunk. Before he got it, he saw Claire checking her lipstick in the mirror. It was such a simple task, but something he knew she did, and it warmed him to see her do it again. To watch her was to know she was back with him, back in Boston and back in his life. He could expect nightly drinks again, impromptu lunch dates, and feisty romps on Saturday morning. She would toss and turn in the bed, keeping him awake, and steal all the covers; but, it was her doing it, and if having her back meant all of that, then he would all the more joyfully allow her thievery in bed.

They drove to the restaurant and had a wonderful late and quiet lunch. Claire shared any minor details that might have fallen been neglected during their conversations and texts. Ryan, also, shared with her any of his mishaps in the kitchen, and all that transpired in her absence. He was not reticent about telling her how lonely he was without her, and how the best drinks came from her alone. When they finally arrived home on that late Sunday afternoon, Ryan unloaded Claire’s suitcase while she stood outside the building, looking up at the apartments.

Claire’s apartment contract was up for renewal, and she was thinking of the words Ryan spoke somewhat frequently about joining her life to his and moving in with him. The notion excited her. Living with him for the past month was amazing, and though it had some high and low moments, it was overall a positive and good experience for her, and for them. Standing outside the building now, it suddenly felt like home to her, and the rush thrilled her.

Ryan closed the trunk and stepped onto the sidewalk. A gust of wind blew up the car-lined street, rushing through the maze of buildings. The chill of the air was enough to make even the heartiest of Bostonians seek the shelter of a warm interior. Ryan gripped his coat collar with one hand and pulled her roller with the other.

Stopping beside her and wondering what she was doing, Ryan raised his eyes to whatever spot on the building caught her attention. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, and desiring to move indoors, he looked back at her, but she did not budge.

“Everything good?” Ryan asked.

Claire was smiling playfully, like she alone harbored a secret none would know. She looked at Ryan, but could not bring herself to say anything. She was too lost in the novelty of starting her life with him, and lost in his brown eyes, piercing the cold to reach out to her.

“Claire?” he asked.

“Baby, it feels like home,” she finally said.

Claire’s breath turned into a vapor in the cold of the afternoon. With blotches of snow on the sidewalk and a small trench of it along the curb from the snowplows, Ryan thought it looked nothing like a home, but more like a wintery battlefield, replete with redoubts of ice.

“Home?” he asked.

“Baby, remember us talking about moving me in?”


“I want to do it. I want to live here, with you. It, it just feels like home. You won me over through your persistence, and now I concede.”

Claire laughed lightly as she moved to Ryan to place her arms around his frozen body.

“Really? You want to?”

“Baby, yes,” she whispered, hugging his neck and kissing him.

The suitcase fell again to the ground as Ryan’s arms wrapped around her waist. In the cold of the street, surrounded by the dead tree limbs of winter piously petitioning the sky above for the return of spring, and wrapped by the cold, they embraced so warmly and tenderly that no amount of winter ill could deprive them of the joy they felt in each other’s embrace.

Ryan was all smiles as they crossed over the threshold of their apartment. It was always his abode with Claire as an addition. Now, from that moment onward, it would be their apartment. He felt so happy about the decision, and felt secure having Claire so close. Maybe it was the delirium of the moment, or the ill sentiments lurking in his soul, but he momentarily thought of the amount of control he would then have, and how he could make them such an awesome couple. The feeling quickly departed, but it did not stray far.

Claire, for her part, took so much joy in Ryan’s reaction, nearly forgetting her own enthusiasm over the decision. To see him so elated and happy was a joy to her. It would put her further from work and from the park where she loved to jog, and certainly further from Brett, but none of that really mattered when juxtaposed to Ryan’s happiness. She also knew she would be happy there, as starting her life with Ryan was the intent of her heart. Now, they were taking the first real step.

That evening, Ryan had taken off from work and together, they began to plan out the new decor of the apartment. Ryan gave Claire free reign of the decorating. He listened as she envisioned the new set up. Some items would be moved, some would stay, and some would see new companions sitting beside them. Sometimes, Ryan laughed; other times, he just threw his gaze out of the windows.

“As long as we still have a bed, baby, I’m fine,” he jokingly said throughout the night.

When it came to the apartment, Ryan was seemingly fine with whatever changes she made. He even allowed for the color scheme to change, and offered to sell off everything and buy furniture anew. His only request was his kitchen, that it remained untouched. Claire cared little for the kitchen, so they agreed. They also began the arduous task of logistics. They selected a date in January, just after the first of the year, and started to find a company to assist with the process. Claire wanted to pack and transport all of the items herself, but Ryan was more than willing to pay moving specialists to do the job. He cared little to contend with the staircases in his building.

When the day finally arrived, and a few friends had been shanghaied into assisting, the weather was perhaps the worst it could possibly be for a move. Snow fell, not violently, but certainly abundantly in the city streets, concealing old Boston beneath a white sash of snow. Major roads were plowed and kept clear, but the air was biting, and across the avenues and streets blew a most vicious gust of wintery hell. Ryan stood on the sidewalk outside of Claire’s apartment, awaiting the movers. Brett was with him, a mere shell of a man covered in more clothing than his body could hold.

Ryan did not know Brett all that well, and their casual meetings were social and favorable, but Ryan was not fond of Claire’s closeness with him. Though he did not view Brett as a threat to their relationship, at least from romantic terms, he did fear the influence he thought Brett may have with his girl. He maintained cordial relations whenever around Brett, but Ryan knew he wanted Claire away from him.

“Can it get any colder?” Brett asked.

The muffled sound of his voice made Ryan laugh. He glanced over at the pile of clothes beside him, smiled, then turned back to the old cobblestone street. The trees were bare and shivering in the weather, their leafless branches shaking in frustration against the cold. Fortune smiled upon the little band of movers, as there was a space against the curb a few car lengths wide that would allow the moving truck a place to park. Ryan guarded that slot, with Brett’s assistance.

“Don’t ask. It might,” replied Ryan.

“I mean, what the hell is everyone’s fascination with this season? We sing songs about it; we plant the most holy holiday in the middle of it. Hell, we even live in a place that worships it. I mean, really?”

“Could be worse, I guess,” Ryan began. “We could have this for nine months straight.”

“Oh shit!” Brett blurted.

Just then, a large truck swung around the corner and slowly came down their lane, ascending roughly over the old stones of the street. Ryan moved out to the curb to signal them, and the whitish vehicle pulled up, smoking and creaking. Two men emerged from the truck and shook hands with Ryan. He showed them inside.

Upstairs, Claire was overseeing the last of the boxes, and the apartment was a maze of small and large alleyways, tall towers of soft brown cardboard and hidden corners where darkness and the boxes played. For the past several nights, Claire and Brett packed up her life, with occasional assistance from Dylan and Ryan on the weekends and during the day, before Ryan went to the kitchen.

Claire’s nerves were a little rattled by the end, and she looked forward to the evening when they could sit down in their newly decorated home and breathe a sigh of relief that all of the moving was behind them. For the moment, however, she had several days’ worth of work before her.

Ryan entered with the two roughly clad men behind him, and Brett trailing behind. Like a well-oiled machine, the friends and movers kicked into gear, and boxes started moving out the door in a serpentine fashion, slithering their way down to the elevator. When the first few friends descended, they were relegated to unloading the elevator and getting the boxes to the truck.

Furniture, boxes, expensive and inexpensive items alike all made their way down the elevator or the stairs, and little by little, the truck grew full. When it finally came time to depart, the apartment was all but empty. Claire saved her ‘goodbye’ until another time; for the moment, they had work to do at the new home.

That evening, the truck was unloaded, boxes formed battle lines in the living room, and the dining room table disappeared under a sea of feminine clothing. Claire rushed about, confused and fatigued. Ryan kept up with her, and although experiencing moments of agitation throughout the day, fared pretty well and kept his cool. He considered the mess part of the experience, and was still thankful for it, knowing that it was Claire’s mess, and that she was going to be with him.

The evening was waning, and Ryan was beginning to think of food again. He fed everyone earlier with some pizzas. Now, it was past dinnertime and every stomach spoke its protests yet again. Most had left for the night, and only Dylan and Brett remained.

Claire was busy cleaning some glass shelves, and when she squirted the last of the cleaner, she hastily cleaned the shelf, tossed the bottle into a makeshift garbage can and looked around for another. Brett and Dylan were moving labeled boxes into their respective locations. Ryan was transporting Claire’s clothing into the bedroom, and hanging them up in the space he made available. Claire had just missed him entering the bedroom when she retrieved her purse from under a stack of kitchen towels and hastily told Dylan she was running out for more glass cleaner.

“Okay,” Dylan replied.

Dylan only half heard what Claire said, but knew she was stepping out for a moment. He was under the impression she was getting food, since that was how it played out earlier.

Brett emerged from a back room when Ryan was coming out of the bedroom, the latter looking for Claire.

“Hey, where’s Claire?” Ryan asked.

Brett shrugged, and Dylan spoke up, saying she had just stepped out for a minute, quite possibly for dinner. Ryan looked perplexed, and if anyone present had known him better, they would have noticed a degree of frustration in his eyes.

She could have at least let me know she was going out, he thought.

“What did she say she was going to get?” Ryan asked.

“Don’t know. I couldn’t hear her. Maybe more pizza?”

Idiots, both of them. What she sees in them I don’t know. She needs real friends, not these two clowns. One worse than the other. But why the hell didn’t she tell me she was getting food? Can’t she communicate with me? I don’t recall her even ordering anything. This is insane, totally fucking insane.

“We had pizza for lunch,” Ryan said hotly.

“Maybe Thai?” Brett added.

Moving to another pile of clothing, Ryan snatched it up while asking Brett to call Claire and see where she was. As he moved into the bedroom, he heard Claire’s phone ringing. It was on charge on the nightstand.

What? She doesn’t even have her phone with her? Fucking really? Ryan thought.

“Dammit, she left her phone,” Ryan shouted out to the others.

Brett threw a glance at Dylan, who stopped working for a moment when he realized how irritated Ryan had suddenly become. Brett did not share any of his suppositions with his partner, but he saw by Dylan’s look that he recognized Ryan’s frustration.

“He seems pretty pissed,” Dylan whispered to Brett.

“I know. Guess he’s just worried about her.”

“I don’t know if she’s getting food or not. I didn’t hear. Sorry,” Dylan replied.

“No worries. It’s cool, I hope.”

Ryan was slamming the hangers down onto the rod in the closet, moving quickly out of the frustration and anger that now animated him. He was angry over her leaving without telling him, angry over her negligence, and just generally stirred to meanness by what he saw again as a resurgence of her independent streak. She had only just moved in and already she was acting according to her own will and determination; that, more than anything, aroused Ryan’s darkness to a devilish crescendo.

In his mind, Ryan was screaming out the script he was forming for her return. He hated her insolence, her independence and the flippant attitude she appeared to take to his leadership and control. Her leaving without notifying him was blatantly saying that she did not respect his position, and did not need him. That made Ryan ravenous for his own darkness, hungry to consume it for the fuel it would render him.

When Claire came back through the door, Ryan heard it. She had a small plastic bag in her hand and her purse was slung over her shoulder, sitting aside her hip, dancing against the thick coat she wore. She greeted the guys warmly and tossed the bag on the kitchen counter. It was evident she did not return with dinner. Brett thought of giving her a gentle warning as to Ryan’s demeanor, but before he could, Ryan appeared from the back room, phone in hand.

“Oh, hey baby. I got more glass cleaner. Now, I can finish the shelves and table tops.”

Ryan did not reply, but just stood in the kitchen entryway, staring. He held the phone up so she could see it, and stood there, as if showing an exhibit to a jury.

“Where’s dinner?” Ryan asked coldly.

“Dinner? Were you going to order something?”

“I was told you went to get dinner. No one knew where you went, and you forgot this? Couldn’t you at least let me know where you were going? Was it too much to ask for a little communication?”

Ryan’s words had in them the worst chill Claire felt in a while. She sensed the sting in his voice and knew the intonation was menacing. Lines spoken without anger are always more fearsome than blurted litanies that fall from an angry mouth. By his words, Claire knew something terrible was transpiring, and her stomach tightened.

“I only just stepped out a moment ago, and went to the corner drug store. I was gone ten minutes, baby.”

Brett and Dylan could hear the argumentative tone in Ryan’s voice, and they heard the pathetic and apologetic tone of Claire’s. Despite trying to continue their labors without listening, they heard all that transpired. Glances exchanged, neither knew just what to do.

Claire was standing beside the sink in the kitchen, her hand still clutching the bottle of glass cleaner. She turned to face Ryan before he took a step into the kitchen. His appearance was so frightening, the level of anger in him unparalleled by anything she had seen previously. But, frightened as she was, she was still all the more confused over the origin of this battle.

“You stepped out without telling me, and you stepped out without your phone. That’s what you did,” he said, angrily.

“But baby,” Claire began, lowering her voice, “I didn’t think it was an issue.”

“An issue. Oh, it’s an issue alright. I’m here slaving away over your clothes while you’re sightseeing in the city.”

“I wasn’t sightseeing –“

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t know where you were. And you left your phone. Do that on purpose? Didn’t want me to follow up with you?”

“I just forgot it, Ryan. It was a simple mistake.”

“I know you, Claire. You don’t forget your phone; at least, you didn’t, until the holiday. You’ve been different since then.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Is that so? Well, the old Claire would have given a fuck about us eating, and instead of doing whatever the hell you were doing, you would have gotten us something for dinner.”

“I can get something now. It’s okay. Please, keep it down.”

“Why, Claire, why? So you can continue to paint the little lie of your perfect self? Why, so they don’t have to see what I put up with every day?”

Ryan was speaking loudly by now, almost shouting to her, though the space between them was no greater than a few feet. He had no concern for the two other people in the apartment, and though Claire tried to temper his anger on their behalf, he paid little heed. He felt justified in his actions, and was not afraid to unmask Claire before them both.

What Claire feared, however, was an outburst so violent that the two men would be forced to intercede and either call the police or engage in violent actions themselves on her account. She trembled at the thought, and so attempted to speak with a calm voice, politely asking him to moderate himself. Her protests and petitions did not work on such an angry mind, or so warped a conscience as Ryan’s.

The temperature of the room seemed to grow heated in accordance with Ryan’s ill temperament. Brett and Dylan tried to conceal themselves behind their labor, but when Ryan’s tone grew fierce, they felt compelled to remain close, should anything transpire that needed their intercession.

“Ryan, please. This is not that big of a deal. Please, keep it down. Brett and Dylan are here.”

“I don’t give a fuck who’s here! Let them hear. Let them see what it is I have to endure every day.”

“What do you live with every day? Ryan, you make me out to be a monster.”

“I make nothing out. I just state what I see, and that’s what I see,” Ryan said.

“No, Ryan, you do. You want me to think I’m the worst person in the world. It’s not fair, and not right.”

“Not right? Fuck, not giving a damn if we eat is not right. And that’s just for starters. How about giving a fuck about me and all the shit I did to organize this move. I nearly packed up your apartment, Claire. How about giving a fuck about that?”

“I told you how much that meant to me, Ryan.”

“It doesn’t mean shit to you. And neither does all the stuff I do. If it did, you would make it known. You would do even the smallest things I asked. That’s how you can say ‘thanks.’ And as much as I’d love to stand here and fight, I have work to do.”

Ryan hastily stormed out of the kitchen, grabbing a pile of clothes before retreating to the bedroom. He was aware of the anger in him, and equally aware of his desire to feed off of it, but he knew Brett and Dylan were still present, and they were her friends, not his. The odds, then, were against him, and he thought it prudent to call off any further argument before they intervened.

Standing in the kitchen, her eyes tearing up, Claire held the counter’s edge almost for support as the overwhelming grief sapped any strength she had remaining. She wanted to be happy this day, to enjoy their first step together. She knew there would be hiccups along the way, and she worked so hard to keep Ryan calm and cool. In the ‘eleventh hour’ she nearly succeeded, and now all of his fury erupted again.

The words Ryan spoke stabbed Claire’s heart, allowing so much grief to pour through her mind and body. Like a sickness, she could almost feel it pulsating through her, tearing at whatever happened to be in its course. Her mind kept chanting the evil and thoughtless words he spoke, almost taunting her and torturing a heart already bruised. She did not k now how to face Brett and Dylan, and could think of nothing to say to draw anger away from Ryan.

It was a disastrous and embarrassing situation for Claire, and one she wished she could have avoided by a five second conversation with Ryan before she left. All would have been well. She chided herself severely, cursing her own foolishness and absorbing the blame for the mishap.

Tears started to fall, and Claire hastily wiped them away. When she brought a napkin to her eyes, Brett appeared in the entryway, his face somber and melancholy. He gave a little smile, but felt it was fruitless. With care, he took the napkin and dried her eyes. That was what Claire needed, not the outpouring of emotions and sympathies, and not a monologue on how life would eventually get better. She needed a gentle touch and a sincere heart to wipe away her sorrows and show her that she was not hated, and was not alone.

Claire didn’t know what to say, and fortunately, Brett asked nothing. He only kept an ear out for Ryan’s approach. Brett rubbed her arm slowly with his free hand, still keeping the napkin at the ready. Claire tried to apologize, but he silenced her. For Brett and Dylan, it was not necessary.

“Sweetie, we’re going to head out now. If you need anything, anything, I’m here. Okay?” Brett said in a whisper.

The ruckus Ryan made in the closet came softly out of the bedroom. It was a reminder of what happened, and of the anger that still seemed to fume in the apartment. There was a subtle curse, then all was quiet back there once again.

“Thanks. And I’m sorry,” replied Claire.

“Don’t be. It’s just the stress of the day, that’s all. Take some space, and all tempers will calm down. K?”

Claire wanted to believe him, wanted so much to trust what Brett was saying, but she knew better. It was only due to their presence that a total explosion did not occur. Once they departed, it was an open guess as to what happened next. She could hope that his anger was abating now, but somehow, Claire knew better.

“Okay. I’ll text you tomorrow,” she said.

“Text me tonight. Love you,” said Brett.

Brett hugged Claire tightly, hoping his embrace would remind her she was not alone in the world, and that one heart in Boston cared for her deeply. Dylan poked his head around the corner into the open space and said his farewell, stretching his hand through the opening to her.

When they left and the door closed, Claire felt as if a prison gate just shut on her life. The happiest moment of her time in Boston was dashed against the rocky shores of affectionate love, sinking in a sea of regret. The day so longed for came, and with it a penitential decree of perpetual imprisonment. She hated to think such, detested the thoughts even, yet she could not help but feel like some solitary rogue condemned to a life of a caged existence, where fear would be her only companion.

Did she make the right decision? Was she too hasty? Could she escape from this decision? These questions raked Claire’s mind as she wiped away the slow rolling tears that still cascaded down her face. What was her life going to be? Would it turn out as she dreamed when she was a child? She would have liked to believe it would, but at the moment, when the world seemed as dark as the night sky above, she thought otherwise. Giving herself up to her own self-pity and despair, she surrendered heart and mind to agony and wept bitterly. Fear was her new friend, her torturous new friend who played an evil game with her, and any moment, he could come to play again.

Ryan hung up the clothes he brought into the bedroom, though they looked so jumbled and out of place, with blouses, skirts, slacks and jeans all intermixed and badly arranged. He breathed deeply, sometimes holding a breath for a moment before releasing it. It was meant to be a relaxing technique, but it failed.

Looking over the closet, his handiwork, Ryan realized just what a mess he created. The clothing was all disheveled and poorly hung, but, the scene before him was only a sign to something more, to the situation from which he just came. As his temper cooled, he began to feel the pain he caused, and the anxiety of her departure once again. He was fearful of finding her gone. If such was the case, he did not know what he would do.

More than just the mess he created, he heard it again, that little voice in his head that mocked him incessantly, calling him names. He heard the voice so clearly, as if the person speaking were right beside him. It was his father’s voice, and it saluted him with no warm greeting, but conjured all of the pain Ryan carried in him. He heard his father’s rough voice telling him he had grown up to be just like him.

No! No, I am not you. I am my own person and am nothing like you. I know what I am, and it is not you! Ryan said to the memory. You were an evil, vile son-of-a-bitch and your son will never turn out like you. No, what I did, I had to do. I have to do this for her and for us. She, she needs it and I have to reprimand her for her ill ways. It’s the only way to make her strong, and strengthen us as a couple. I said I wouldn’t, but I’m seeing now that I simply have to act this way. She left me no choice.

Ryan stared at the clothing on the bar. He did indeed make an effort to better himself, but he also saw his destiny and the future of their relationship. It was in dire shape, and it was up to him to save them both. When she was finally ready, he could be himself again, and they would be happy and content with their lives, and she would thank him for all the instruction. Claire needed it, not a lot of it, but he felt she needed at least some instructions, and he would provide it.

Ryan felt uneasy with his conclusion. He recalled the last major fight they had and how he swore he would do this, only to relent when he realized the primitive approach he was taking. He knew her to be a strong person, and a good person who needed no such training. Ryan agreed with that notion, and so resolved to abstain from it. But now, when again a similar issue of independence arose, he felt threatened and feared losing her. He simply had to take action, for the sake of their love and their happiness. He cringed at the thought, but was willing to do it. After all, what he was doing was for her own good.

A sense of relief came over Ryan, albeit a small sense. He felt, for the first time, the reality of the love he had for Claire, in that he was willing to do more, to go farther and risk everything for their union. He loved her and was willing to make it work, no matter what it cost him or how many tears he had to shed. She meant the world to him, and he was going to make her better, and in the process, make him better. His fear of losing her would be his drive. He cherished her above all things, and like such an item, she had to be cared for in the most meticulous fashion. Losing her would not be an option, not anymore.

Running a tired hand over his brow, Ryan felt his weariness come over him. All day they labored, and his stamina kept him running through the hours. The fatigue finally settled upon him like a heavy rain cloud, dumping all the days’ soreness upon him. He closed his eyes, hoping for a minute’s reprieve, and slid down the wall.

With his eyes closed and the sound of his breathing soothing him, Ryan allowed his mind to wander. It ran through the fight, but he did not want to revisit that episode. It then seemed to wander of its own free will, cascading over a multitude of memories until it finally rested on his childhood again. There, one scene presented itself to him with such clarity he could scarcely believe he was not actually present.

His mother was crying. She was on the floor of their living room. In the next room, the dinner table was set and half eaten meals were on dirty plates. He saw his father over her, his fists balled. Ryan tried to scream, but his voice was muted. All he could do was watch and absorb. His father was speaking, but Ryan could not discern the words. The memory contrasted with the fuzziness of the sounds. But one line stuck out, one line that sounded so familiar and so poignant. Ryan heard it, understood it, but did not want to hear it again. Clearly, for whatever reason he did not know, the only line he heard his father say was, “I’m doing this for your own good.”

Ryan opened his eyes.

An overwhelming sense of dread came over him instantly, and the shock of the memory, mixed with the cursed reality of his situation, shook him so violently he was scarcely able to control himself and restrain his tears. He did not know what he was becoming, or what was happening, and he felt so alone and without a friend. How he wanted to talk to someone, to let off the feelings of angst inside his mind and heart. If he could have found relief in screaming, he would have, but he knew it would be folly to do so.

Am I really my father? Ryan asked. He had no answer for his own question, but he feared his actions already proved his true nature. He battled with his father only moments ago and thought he secured his victory, but now all he believed about himself was in doubt.

How can I be like my father? How can I? I’m not him at all. He was shit, and I’m not. He was a bastard and I’m not. But how do I know I’m not? Would Claire say the same? No. I know I’m not. He was never loving or kind. I am. I love my close friends, I help everybody, and I cherish Claire. Yes! That’s the difference right there. He never loved my mom, and I do love Claire. All I am doing is for us. I want to make us amazing, and he never sought that. I don’t want to control Claire; I just want to make us both stronger partners in our love. That’s all. What I do, yes, what I do, I do for us. I am better than my father, way better. There is no way a comparison can be made between us.

Ryan stood up. He loved, therefore he was a better man for it; and by his love, he would make something wonderful from their state of mediocrity. He would not settle for anything less than stupendous. That was his mission, his goal, the destiny set before him.

The room was a mess, with all of Claire’s belongings thrown about the area. At least the bed was clear of debris, so Ryan could go to sleep. He was slowly turning down the bed when he saw Claire enter. She looked as fatigued as he, with a certain amount of weariness in her eyes. She looked at him cautiously, even nervously, but still had a glimmer of love present in those blue orbs, the same glimmer that rekindled in the kitchen a few moments ago, when she realized her heart still beat for his. That was the energy she needed to approach him, the reminder that told her she would endure not for pride or gain, but for love alone. Now, she stood before him, ashamed and berated but still desirous of a peace that would not only allow them to salvage the evening, but to open once again the newness of their endeavor.

Claire said nothing, but allowed her tears to negotiate the peace. Ryan said nothing, and allowed his open arms to also negotiate. Holding one another, no one spoke but both cried. Why Claire cried was evident, but why Ryan cried was a mystery to her.

Together, they kissed and embraced, each remaining silent. There was no desire to re-approach the topic, and no need for apologies. They were together, holding one another, and that was sufficient.

When they finally the settled into bed, they chatted lightly about the day, the apartment and the new way of things. Nothing was said of the fight. Claire was glad to move beyond it, and Ryan was delighted that he had a new expression of his love for Claire. Sleep finally overtook them both, but not before Claire found herself nestled safely in the arms of the man who loved her more than life itself, a man who would do anything to keep her with him.

Chapter 14

The first couple of weeks felt magical to Claire as she played house with the new apartment, setting and arranging it as she wanted. The dining area took on a new hue, and the living room saw the addition of several little oddities and some new pieces of furniture. Some of the old also saw its last use, and was given away to Hospice. Claire felt so giddy as she set up their new little home.

Ryan took an interest in what Claire was doing but did not restrict her in any way. He wanted her to feel comfortable since it was their mutual home now, not just his. He might have a few words to speak on a certain placement, or abandonment of a chair, but in the end, he yielded to Claire’s discretion.

Ryan also found in Claire a new and amiable nature, one that required little instruction from him. He enjoyed the position he held over her, and as a reward, pampered her whenever he could. He gave freely of his time and finances to appease her, hoping she would recognize the pattern and so moderate her behavior accordingly. Still, however, he had to make use of quick, sharp comments to change a subtle nature now and then. There were no fights, but a simple and hasty correction that allowed Claire to be more than she previously was. Ryan saw these corrections as necessary to their love and gained joy assisting in her growth.

Ryan continued to monitor through texting and calling, making it known that he wanted to be aware of Claire’s location all day. He mentioned it politely, seeking to paint it as simply being cautious. When he had access to her phone, he would search locations, making a note of them and looking at any habits she may be forming.

Through all of this, Ryan still secretly battled against his own misgivings about his similarities to his father and the treatment he thought best for his love and their relationship. At night, often when he was alone and on his way home, he would wage a war between what he knew of his father’s malicious behavior, juxtaposed to how he was treating Claire. Every battle he would win, stating that what he did was for the sake of their love and their happiness; yet, the debate kept arising, and nightly he would face his old demons, the rising stars and harbingers of the feuds approach.

Ryan saw only two possible outcomes for their relationship: one, they succeeded and were forever happy, or two, they failed because he did not take action to make them better. Because of his great love for Claire, and his abhorrence of the darkness from which he emerged, he saw but one option for them: success. He would ‘assist’ Claire, as he called it, to make her what was needed for the survival of the relationship.

Since their last provocation, Claire had her phone nearby at all times, always on silent, but ever within eyesight. She understood it made Ryan feel better to have contact with her, and if it made him happier, then she was more than willing to answer as quickly as possible to whatever text he sent. They chatted from time to time, when her schedule permitted. The love she had for Ryan grew daily, and the moments they shared together were infrequent, but precious and enjoyable. She remembered his temper and the ill moods, but she merely considered them a side note to the greater picture. He was so generous and gentle that those, among other things, made up what Claire knew was Ryan’s heart. To see him only as a possessive and dark monster was misconstruing his character and nature. Seeing into Ryan as she did, Claire knew there was so much in him, so much potential and room for growth. She believed in him, and because she loved and believed in him, she remained with him, tolerating his moods and looking for a new and brighter future together.

Brett was less enthusiastic about the relationship, though he remained reticent from the subject as best as he could. In his own time, however, he and Dylan discussed what they saw that particular evening, further digesting what Brett had divulged from earlier conversations with Claire. He worried for his friend, though he did not know the totality of his own fear or the situation itself. For Brett, the behavior he witnessed during the moving day and the constant pestering of texts and calls was enough to make him alert and cautious. He saw the fervor Claire answered Ryan’s texts, and even remembered her saying that Ryan wanted a quick response. He remembered, also, certain phone calls that Claire took from him when she and Brett were out to lunch, and how she had to give her whereabouts as if she were in protective custody, even having to gently defend her choice to leave work for a meal. It was all enough to set him on edge. Like a good friend, he tried to discuss the issue with Claire, but when the topic was broached, she skirted it, and gave the impression it was not open for discussion. That left Brett with a dilemma: did he respect her privacy and keep to himself, or did he pursue it for the sake of her happiness? Brett did not know, and Dylan could not assist, either. All he could do was sit, watch, and hope things finally settled down into a positive and nurturing routine for Claire and Ryan.

* * * * * * * * * *

Claire was settled in by the fire, watching the twinkling lights of the skyline. She was covered, as usual, by a throw and had a book in her lap. The evening was growing late, but it did not bother her to wait up for Ryan’s arrival. From the texts she received, it was a terrific night, and she wanted to be a part of it when he got home. She was feeling especially cozy and loved at the moment. The fire was burning brightly and Ryan was exceptionally affectionate that day. It was a good day, a memorable day, the kind of day that saw her through some of the rougher occasions. Pondering her situation, she knew it had been a few weeks since they had any real confrontation. She savored the moments of peace as moments for both of them, but she always knew an eruption could be imminent.

The ingredients for Ryan’s drink were displayed on the counter, and she had the lowball ready. All that was needed was the chef and the ice. The clock on the table read half past eleven, and she knew he would be arriving shortly. Slowly, Claire struggled from her comfortable position on the couch and walked into the kitchen to start getting his drink ready. As she was preparing it, she thought of some of the snippy comments he would make about her style of drink making, or the subtle comments when she cooked. Why she dwelled on them she did not know. Perhaps she had a self-hating mechanism that wanted to spoil her good mood; or perhaps the comments were so many that they fluttered in every portion of her memory, from short to long term.

Claire could feel the harshness of the comments and the stinging tone in his voice as he said them, as if he deliberately meant to hurt her. That always hurt more than she even cared to admit to herself. But the pain did linger, and even when smiles fell upon her, those lonely moments found her dwelling on the pain caused by the man she loved. She usually brushed it off successfully, but there were times when the hurt was too great and the wound too deep to be so lightly dismissed. Tonight was one of those nights.

Claire prepared the drink just as she heard a key enter the door lock. Her heart leapt knowing he was just outside, and quickly wiping the glass of any residue and cleaning the counter so he wouldn’t be upset, she rushed to the door to greet him.

“Hey, baby,” Ryan called out happily.

“Hi, baby. How was it?” Claire asked.

“First, this,” he said, kissing her warmly.

Claire, still holding the drink, gingerly wrapped her arms around his neck so as not to spill the beverage. She hugged him, feeling the cold of his jacket enter her own flesh. The February chill clung to Ryan as he pulled away, slowly backing out of all his layers and tossing them over a chair. When he was finished, he took the glass.

Sipping it, he made a face of disagreement.

“Oh, too much on the gin. It’s too hot. I told you, baby, how I like it, and this is not it. Not at all. Better luck next time, I guess,” Ryan said.

Claire smiled through the comment, but inside, she felt it slicing through her. It was not the words he used, or the intonation, as Ryan made his ‘correction’ into a type of light joke and jest on her part. There was deeper meaning to his comment, and the rebuke agitated not only her heart, but also the soul she freely gave to the heart of her lover.

Ryan moved past Claire, sipping the distasteful beverage as he moved into the kitchen. He asked about her day and her evening, but Claire did not utter a response. She was thinking, lost in her own thoughts, dreaded thoughts that she dared not utter.

“Babe? You alright?” Ryan asked.

Claire walked slowly into the kitchen where Ryan was fixing a tray of charcuterie for them. Artfully, he was arranging the meats and cheeses, and dashing splashes of olives and dried fruits upon the artistic canvas.

“Yeah,” she said, moving beside him.

Claire rested her head against his shoulder and listened to his day. The stories were elaborated upon, but it was the outline she heard in multiple texts during her working hours. She nuzzled him, wanting something from him, something even she did not know.

“So, that new bisque, it’s doing so well. Katie has worked it into such a recipe. I’m really pleased with how she’s doing. My thought is she’ll eventually develop her own cult following,” Ryan said.

“She’s really good at what she does,” Claire replied.

“She is. And I’m proud of her.”

Claire suddenly felt a flush of jealousy come over her. The simple beating of her heart pushed the sentiment through her, the sentiment of his admiration. Claire wanted that, she wanted Ryan to be proud of her for something, anything. It seemed that all the others received praise while she received criticism.

“Ah, now that’s a tray,” Ryan said.

The tray of little meats and cheeses, sliced vegetables and olives was Ryan’s handiwork for the evening, and their late night snack. He picked it up and asked Claire to grab a bottle of Carmenere to accompany it. Claire took down two wine glasses and grabbed the bottle, mistakenly forgetting the corkscrew.

Ryan sat the tray down with all the ease and professionalism of a skilled server, then flopped onto the couch, his exhaustion pushing him into the cold leather. The fire was burning brightly and casting shadows over the room. Claire turned off the few lamps that were still on as she came around and gently sat beside Ryan. Taking the bottle from her, he waited patiently for the corkscrew. He looked at Claire, who set the glasses down, then flopped back herself. Finally, when he thought it evident she was not producing the needed tool, he spoke up.

“Corkscrew?” Ryan asked.

Immediately, Claire searched the tabletop, thinking she would find it concealed in the shadows, but it was not present. Recognizing the folly of her mistake, and sensing a bit of irritation in his tone, she hastily pulled herself from the couch.

“Damn,” she said, standing up.

“Way to be prepared,” Ryan joked.

The tone of his joke followed Claire into kitchen as she retrieved the forgotten corkscrew. She heard his light laughter in the living room, and knew he meant nothing malicious by his comment, but it still struck a nerve with her. Being one who normally joked freely, Claire could take the jab, but on this occasion, as with the others, she couldn’t help but feel there was something more to the comment, some cryptic message that proselytes would know in time. With a heavier heart, she slid the corkscrew across the counter, then carried it to Ryan.

“Thanks, babe,” Ryan said.

“Sorry I forgot it.”

Ryan did not reply, but opened the wine and poured two luscious glasses of the Chilean red grape. Setting the bottle down and allowing his wine to breathe, Ryan sat back and took a deep breath. It was now his moment to unwind, his own moment to sit and escape from the tiresome day he endured. With the fire burning and his girl beside him, as well as a good wine and some snacks, Ryan felt the tension escaping from his body. Taking a piece of prosciutto and placing it on a slice of bread, he held it to Claire’s mouth.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, taking a bite.

Ryan exclaimed the same when he tasted some of the Kalamata olives. The salty flavor worked his palate over, and sipping his wine slowly, he savored the splash of berried fruit and good tannins in his mouth. It wasn’t a food frenzy, and certainly unworthy of a food coma, but it was a delicious way to conclude his day.

“That’s good,” Ryan said. “Let it breathe a little more.”

Claire took her glass to sip the wine, but with the instruction from Ryan, she smelled it only and set it back. It had a pleasant bouquet, with berries and spice in the nose. Since meeting Ryan, she gained a much greater respect for wine and food, and the blissful wedding that took place when they were paired properly. She was still learning, and appreciated anything Ryan had to offer on understanding the grape varietals.

“It smells nice. Spice, right?” Claire asked.

Ryan nodded in agreement, and it set him to thinking just what kind of spice it was. He picked up his glass again and swirled it gently, his mind now wandering over the many scents he knew.

“And berries,” Claire added.

“Yeah, the berry scent is strong. Good picking it out.”

Claire smiled, taking the compliment and embracing it as if it were a long lost friend who just returned. Slowly, Claire sank into Ryan, nestling herself in his arms and greedily taking them around her. She needed his touch, the feel of him beside her and supporting her. Wiggling into position, she found it, and breathed a sigh of contentment. Ryan laughed tiredly as he asked if she were comfy.

“I am,” she replied, sniffing her wine again.

“Good,” he said.

“Hey,” Claire said, getting Ryan’s attention.


“We’re in our apartment.”

“Baby, we are,” Ryan replied, kissing her head.

“I love being here with you,” she said.

“And I love having you here with me. I can’t tell you how nice it is to open that door every night and see you standing there. The drink is nice, but just having you there, there for me, it means so much, it really does. I can have the worst night ever, with everything failing – and believe me, I’ve had those – but when I come home and see you, when I see that perpetual smile on your face, it’s like it never happened. You make me forget all the bad in life, all the bad I have in me.”

Ryan stopped immediately.

Claire was listening with a joyful heart, the praises just rolling so freely off his lips. She swelled with equal measures of pride and love, feeling so happy and so overwhelmed by his monologue. If a device were present to measure her elation, it would have found her to be spilling over with joy. The praise, though was not what she wanted, was what she desired: that he relied on her, and she made him happy. Praise could be gotten anywhere. The true joy of her heart was the simple fact that he looked forward to being with her every night.

When Ryan ceased speaking, Claire was too absorbed in his speech to notice how abruptly he ended his soliloquy; and with her head turned, she could not see the panic in his eyes at so deep a revelation. Inside Ryan, the churning mass of panic, fear and embattled pride kept moving about, boiling and bubbling like a cauldron ready to explode. These feelings he forced down deep into himself, suffocating them for the sake of his new role in their relationship; yet, in the shadows, that old fear still prompted him, no matter what he said to dissuade his own mind.

Ryan saw his mother again. Then, he saw Gillian. Loss abounded in his life, but it would abound no more. He had Claire, and she completed him by filling in the darkness of his existence with light. She made him whole again, and he would not lose her.

Holding her tightly, Ryan clutched her as one would a life preserver amidst a violent and churning ocean. Claire reveled in the tightness of his grip, but lost on her was the reason why. She merely thought it was the outward expression of a burst of love that suddenly overcame him at that moment. She did not argue with it, and took it at face value. But Ryan held on tightly, fearing the darkness of loss that seemed to hang just at the periphery of their relationship.

* * * * * * * * * *

The kitchen was quiet. The silence of so busy a locale is often in such contrast to the hectic routine at the end of the day, much like standing in a field just after a most violent rain, when all the world is still concealed and nothing dares to brave the open expanse. Ryan beheld the moment with minimal lights and only the soft, ethereal hum of the heater slowly filling the empty void. The servers already left, and Katie and sous chefs were out. It was only Ryan. Jorge had the night off.

Perspiration still dampened Ryan’s frock, and he smelled of every entrée he created that night, though his apron was a living testament to his skill of preparation, as his apron was relatively stain free. Only the scents lingered as they always do, and he smiled to himself knowing he would walk the streets smelling of free-range chicken in herb butter and always, the ever-present curry powder.

It was this time that Ryan loved best, when all the day’s activities could be garnished with a moment of serenity. In the near darkness, he ran through his mind his list of ‘to do’s’ for the next day, then allowed the list to slowly fade from him. It would be present tomorrow; right now, this was his moment.

Switching off the lights, Ryan locked up and bade farewell to his kitchen. Tomorrow, he would be over at RJ’s mid-afternoon, and would spend the evening there. Jorge had things covered here, and Katie was doing superbly. He was most proud of her, and believed she would be headlining his next gig.

When Ryan arrived home, he was tired, but felt good. It had been a busy day, full of inventories and some early meetings. The staff meeting was especially humorous, and the staff meal actually delightful. Ryan always believed in a staff meal; he also believed in fair pay to the servers and no mandatory tipping, though the industry seemingly frowned on it.

Opening the door, he saw several lights on, and the brightness was momentarily alarming to him. Customarily, he would return to a dimly lit, romantic abode with burning candles in obscure locations and soft lamps lighting the atmosphere. The harshness of the room shocked him.

“Baby?” Ryan asked.

Ryan looked around at the apartment, checking to see if anything was different or out of place. The area seemed put together, which was normal. He spied his drink sitting on the table by the fireplace, which was sometimes normal. He did not see Claire, though, and that was not normal. Then he heard a sound, almost like a sobbing mingled with a brushing noise.

He moved into the apartment a little further and looked down the hall, towards the back of the apartment. There, he found the source of the noise: Claire was on her knees, gently sweeping the floor with a little brush. Beside her were the fragments of something he recognized immediately: a little statue he purchased at his first Food and Wine Classic in Aspen a few years back. It was not only a beautiful Lladro of a song bird, but a memory of his initiation into something greater, something more wonderful than he had ever hoped, his invitation into the upper crust of the culinary world. Now, it seemed to be in pieces.

Claire stopped what she was doing, the little brush still placed against the wood flooring. The pieces were gathered into a neat little pile, nearly circular, with the larger piece lying on its side, wounded and wingless. She looked at Ryan but did not say anything. She knew what would happen, and through the course of the endeavor, she was fueled by the terror of his eruption, terror forcing her speed in the cleaning process.

Ryan was silent, not really knowing what to say or do. He could feel the growing disappointment in his heart, and the sadness at losing such a valued relic, yet the tears that streamed down her face stirred in him such sympathy, leaving him in a quandary as to his reaction. He felt an impulse to scream and vent the frustration and anger growing in him, but still his sympathies clung to his mind, softening his sentiments.

The eerie moment of silence ended between them when Claire suddenly spoke, her voice straining to be heard over the intensity of her sobs.

“Ryan, I’m so sorry,” Claire said.

Her voice was pitiful and remorseful, but upon hearing her, Ryan only felt anger, and the intonation of her voice seemed to decide for him the action he should take. His oscillating over, Ryan replied, his eyes narrowing and his face distorting to a scowl that was worrisome to the woman on the floor.

“Claire, why is my songbird in pieces?” Ryan asked.

Claire could see the entire scenario playing out in her mind. Haste was the culprit causing this accident.

“I, I had dozed off on the couch, and when I heard your text, I jumped up to start getting the house ready for you. I was rushing and came out of the kitchen too fast. I slid a little on the floor and bumped the shelf. Nothing else fell, but your bird, it -” and she stopped.

“You know how much that statue meant to me, Claire. Of all the things to break, why, Claire, was it that one? And why doesn’t anything of yours ever break around here? Why is it only my shit?”

Ryan’s voice reached a vicious and vile crescendo, so piercing and awful, like the screech of a panther whose victim lays at its feet. Claire shook with the intensity of the fear within her, knowing that so much pain was about to be received.

“Ryan, it was an accident,” Claire pleaded.

“Accident? Shit no, it wasn’t an accident! Ever since you moved in, you have been looking for subtle ways of getting to me, little ways to annoy or piss me off. It’s some kind of game with you, isn’t it? You have to have control, and if you lose it, you will do whatever little fucking annoying thing you can to get it back.”

“Baby, that’s not it.”

“Yes, it is, Claire. I’ve been watching you, and I have seen a pattern. That’s exactly what it is. You resent me and everything I’ve given you. You are ungrateful and horrible. Yes, you are. You’re an ungrateful bitch. How many women get to enjoy the amenities you have at your disposal? How many men would be so fiscally liberal? Tell me Claire, how many? You got it so damned good here, and how am I thanked for it? You break anything that means anything to me. Look at this statue. It’s shit now. Absolute shit! Thanks, Claire. Thanks a lot. It was a beautiful memory, Claire, but thanks to you, it’s shit now!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. I love you and don’t want to hurt you. I’m sorry. It was dumb of me, and I’ll be careful next time. Please, Ryan.”

“Please what, Claire? Please excuse the destruction of something I cherished because you were too clumsy or stupid? Just cast it off like it never happened? I can’t do that, Claire. I don’t have an inept brain like you, Claire. I just can’t destroy something and act like it never happened.”

“I’m not asking you to, Ryan. I, I just, you’re just so angry. You’re frightening me.”

Ryan’s tone had menace and malice, and when he spoke, it resembled more the breath of a dragon than the voice of a man. Claire endured for as long as she could, still cowering on the floor like a pup. When she felt she had reached her end, when she had absorbed as much as she could, she slowly stood up. The action sent waves of fear through her, for though she felt weak on the floor, she now felt more vulnerable in a standing position, exposed to all of his incendiary darts.

“So, that’s it? You just stand and now it’s over? I’ll fucking tell you when this is over, do you hear me? I’m in fucking charge here. This is my fucking house, and you are goddamn lucky to be living here!” Ryan screamed

Claire wept uncontrollably, the tears rolling down her face like droplets of acid, stinging her flesh. The remorse she felt sat upon her shoulders in devilesque fashion, taunting her, and the abuse she absorbed attacked her mercilessly. She was but a sack to its beating.

“Ryan, stop, please. You’re not yourself. Please, stop,” Claire pleaded.

“Can’t do that, Claire. You have to learn. You need this. It’s for your own good. I just can’t shut my mind off like you. I may be just a dumb cook, and not some overly magnificent corporate director, but of the two of us, who’s really smarter? The cook or the director? Who?”

Claire did not answer. She hated his accusations, hated the abuse he wielded at her, but mostly, she hated the accusatory tone he used in belittling her, making her feel so horrible for being successful, even though Ryan was himself a successful business person and trend-setter in the Boston culinary world.

“You always compare us, Ryan. Why? I’m no better than you, and I’m not competing against you.”

“Because, Claire, I can see it in your eyes, how you look down on me for being a slob cook. I see how you go sporting off to work in the morning in your pretty little suits, with your heels and accentuating necklaces and scarves. You strut your tight little ass around that office, flirting with god knows who like a slut. Don’t think I miss this.”

“Ryan, how can you say that? I’m not a slut and I don’t flirt with anyone! I’m committed to you, to us.”

“I’m not stupid, Claire. I know how you are. Don’t go around thinking you’re so attractive. You’re just going to fool yourself and look more like an idiot.”

What response Claire had briskly escaped her in the flood of painful accusations that came at her. They were like bullets striking her, each a severe wound of severity that bled incessantly. She cried horribly, her face the expression of the pain she received, the pain she felt. With one hand, she reached out to the cold wall to steady her, and the plaster felt so lifeless to her fingertips. She was not touching their home any longer, but a cage, a shell of devastation and torment. It was lifeless, indeed, lacking the soul that unites and welds two hearts into one.

Claire could endure no more, and weeping, she cautiously turned away from Ryan and started for the bedroom. She managed a step when she felt a rough, callused hand grip her arm with inhuman strength. With force, it spun her around until she was face to face with Ryan. His eyes were flaming an expression of hatred, the looks of which could have easily been produced in the fires of hell.

“I didn’t say you could leave!” Ryan shouted.

“Baby, please, you’re hurting me,” Claire protested weakly.

Ryan shook her arm ferociously, as if he meant to strangle the life that dwelled in it. Claire threw out her arm against the wall for support, but it only vainly slid across the surface. Then, throwing it onto his chest, she tried to push him off, but that also met with no success.

“What the fuck, Claire?” Ryan shouted at her.

“Ryan, stop!”

“You have to learn, Claire! I’m in fucking charge here!”

Claire was being tossed about like bait on a hook, before the eventual plunge into a watery grave. She tried to break free of Ryan’s grip, but he held her so tightly that her efforts were fighting against the impossible. Flinging her as he did, however, Ryan suddenly lost his grip on Claire’s arm, and she, realizing her sudden change of fortune, ran for liberty’s sake to the bedroom and slammed the door, locking it quickly.

The moment of salvation was illusory, as the sudden rushing of the night’s emotions tackled her again. She fell onto the bed, hysterical and downtrodden, her mind unable to even comprehend what occurred, and her heart unwilling to accept what just happened. There was little use in curbing her crying, as her tears were the only things helping her. Ryan pounded on the door, his fists rattling both door and frame. Each thud was a lightning strike, clapping with sudden and ferocious strength to her ears.

When Claire hastened away from Ryan, he felt a sudden and maleficent urge to do more, to engage further in his act of terror. He heard the voice in his head saying she needed this, and he knew it hurt him to resort to such violence, but it was necessary. With each hit upon the door, he sought not to beat down the barrier and terrorize his girl, but to correct her, to strengthen her and make her better. She was erring and it was his duty, his obligation to make her right once more.

Slowly, however, Ryan felt the anger he had slipping from him, the cool demeanor he usually maintained slowly returned. He still hit the door, but his attacks were less powerful. He also felt fatigued, and the mental anguish swirling within sapped him of his wrath. When he finally ceased beating on the door, he placed his head against it, listening carefully to what was going on behind it. All he heard were sobs, uncontrollable sobs that carried with them the agony of a broken heart.

A mild attempt to speak was quickly silenced by some inner surge of aggression. Ryan’s heart now battled once again for direction, as he was oscillating between sympathy and anger. He closed his eyes and his head slipped slightly down the door. Sweat from where his palms struck was still present, and it mingled with the moisture on his brow.

“Claire,” Ryan finally spoke.

Ryan’s voice was weak, like that of a man who just finished chopping wood. His tone was soft and there was unmistakably present an apologetic undulation. No answer came. Ryan tried again, but still he heard nothing but weeping. Her pain, manifested in the form of her excruciating expression, seemed to drown out everything but its own presence. Claire’s eyes were on the door, having heard well the voice that called her name. She stared at the barrier for a long while, not certain if she should open the door or remain concealed behind it. Fear, more than hurt, controlled her now, and she acted not to heal her heart, but to protect it, and her body.

“Claire, baby?” Ryan asked calmly.

The anger that funneled through his body was now abated, and he was left standing amidst the broken pieces of the little statue. In the scuffle, they scattered across the floor, and now, every step he took brought about a crunching sound. Penitence sprung up like a well in Ryan, flowing freely with life-giving water from a source known only to him. It calmed and soothed his nature, until all that was left was the reality of his actions. He tried to tell himself it was his obligation, but he neither believed nor desired to hear it.

Behind the door, he heard walking in the vicinity of the closet. He reasoned she was getting into her pajamas. More steps drew close to the door, stopping just aside the barrier. Ryan was still leaning against the door when he heard the lock snap. Slowly, the door opened as he moved away from it.

Claire appeared haggard, worn and abused, but in her red eyes, swollen as they were, was a degree of strength still present, the reserve that was not shaken from her. She was dressed not in her pajamas, but in layers of clothing, a jacket over her shoulders. She looked at him cautiously, searching his face for any sign of the monster she now knew lived inside of him, but seeing it was not present, she proceeded.

“I’m not staying here tonight.”

The words were flat, but not lifeless; in her resolution and determination, strength shone through in her voice. Claire continued to stare into the surprised face before her, knowing that the anger was no doubt rebuilding, much as a volcano does after an eruption. She cared little at that point. She was leaving, and her decision was final.

“What?” Ryan asked.

“I’m not staying here tonight. I don’t feel safe, and I want to feel secure.”

“Whoa, wait. Just wait. We, we can work on this,” Ryan begged.

“That time is past,” she replied.

Claire had a great degree of self-control in her voice, and she held herself well. What fear she had was subdued by the strength the divine granted to her in that moment, a little leaven for the whole loaf.

Stepping around him, Claire started for the exit. She walked steadily, though having her back to Ryan frightened her.

“Baby, please. Hear me out. Just sit, we can talk.”

Ryan rushed after her, and in his passion, reached for her arm, but a quick turn of Claire’s face, and the solid expression it held, made him stop and realize what he was doing. He would have grabbed her tenderly, lovingly restraining her so they could work it through, but Claire would have none of it. She would not be withheld, she would not be grabbed. And he would not leave another bruise on her.

Ryan pleaded with her all the way to the door, asking for her to stay, for her forgiveness, and for her love. The correction he sought to bestow on her was gone, as was the anger he harbored in him. All he felt now was self-pity and agony at their separation, and above all, fear as she neared the door. He feared losing her, and now the reality of that beast was manifesting itself, rearing its head in his life.

Claire did not listen to the protests, and reaching the door, she opened it after grabbing her keys. He asked numerous questions, wanting to know where she was going and why she wouldn’t stay and talk. There were a multitude of things she wanted to tell him, but speech was not what she found necessary at the moment. Her heart sought refuge, not debate, or worse, resurgence of Ryan’s wrath.

Ryan grabbed the door and held it, his grip a physical protest to her departure. Claire, with a grace so majestic, simply took his hand into hers, pulled it off the door, and with care brought it back to his side. Ryan was amazed and shocked by the simple act, and robbed of his demeanor, he started to cry over what he knew was coming next. Tears fell down his cheeks, and Claire had to turn away, her sympathy nearly rocking her back into his arms. But she couldn’t, she simply couldn’t; what she did, she did for both of them, but especially for her. She needed space and time to recuperate, a place where she could cry and wail and feel safe in her vulnerability. That place was no longer in Ryan’s arms.

Ryan protested more, begging most pitifully for her to stay. He confessed his love for her repeatedly, asking her not to go. His words, however, fell not on deaf ears, but on a determined mind. Claire opened the door wider and stepped through. Before leaving, she turned and looked long into the newly reddened eyes that stared longingly after her. She mustered her strength and spoke.

“I still love you, but I will not live like this.”

Claire closed the door behind her.

The click of the lock was like the sealing of a dungeon. Ryan did not move, but stared at the door, his vision piercing not the barrier, but the memories of the night with hawk-like precision. He saw it all and wept. He heard it all and wept more. In his heart, in his mind, his father mocked him, yelling the same line over and over.

Ryan screamed and groaned, falling to the floor. He pounded the wood planking, yelling out curses only his ears heard. His fury was intoxicating, his pain magnificent, and both were relentless. He not only recognized her absence, but also felt it ripping at his heart. He cried unrestrained tears that fell to the floor, pooling in tiny puddles. What he feared was a new reality, and what he knew as reality was now history. The loneliness of her absence, which propelled his fear, which blinded his mind, now rushed over him as a heavy wave does a swimmer. For a moment, he saw nothing but the darkness of his pain, and in his heart he knew the demons of that darkness would soon return to torment him once again.

Before him, Ryan could feel Gillian and his mother, and before them, Claire. Each absence tore at the flesh of his heart, three predators picking over the dead carcass and fighting for what remained.

Ryan saw through the memories, through the pain and torment, and each vision cast its shadow upon the floor. He tried to argue his points, but failed. He did not believe anything he felt or thought. He was abandoned and alone, and he knew it was all his fault. He was a fool to believe he could escape the shadow of his father, and an even greater fool to believe he had the ability or right to make Claire better. It was he who needed the correction, not Claire, and pounding the floor, he beat his own resolutions into submission, washing them away in his tears.

Claire’s path was not aimless, but direct, and soon she found herself at Brett and Dylan’s doorstep, her eyes once again swollen and cold from the night’s chill, and her body shaking from the experience. She found comfort in their abode, and the warmth of friendship in Brett’s arms. She had called on her way over, and through the course of the night, the story unraveled. Claire needed to talk and share her experience. She needed for someone to listen, and both Brett and Dylan did. When she finally concluded, the stern visages of her friends told her she was no longer alone in this battle. She had friends and companions, and in them she found the safety for which she longed.

In their guest room, when she finally settled into bed, her mind wandered to places of comfort and peace. Surprisingly, she wandered back to the fireplace, with drinks and a cold leather sofa. She found wrapped around her two strong arms, strong but gentle, holding and guarding her frame against the winter’s worst cold. She felt the cropped beard against her cheek. But mostly, she felt love, compassion, sincerity. Before she closed her eyes, she asked God for help; she asked for help for him, for them...and for her. Claire still believed they would get through this together.

Chapter 15

Ryan did not sleep that night, but laid awake, his eyes peering through the ceiling at a space void of life and sympathy for him. Try as he did, the fatigue that overwhelmed him did not translate to rest for his body. Tossing and turning, clutching Claire’s pillow and sobbing, he found no rest, not for his body and not for his heart. It was as if he was abandoned by the world, even the world beyond, and his misery was his only ill companion.

When he finally saw the sun peeking through the forest of skyscrapers on the horizon, Ryan sat up, recognizing his battle with the bed was over. He had lost, but it did not bother him, as either his extreme agony or tiredness stole from him his desire for personal attention.

Walking through his apartment in a dirge-like step, Ryan retraced the physical path of the previous night’s disaster, the scenes playing out before his eyes as he passed the broken statue, the living room and the entryway door. He felt the pain of his isolation, of his loneliness, of the havoc he wreaked and, mostly, of the hurt he rendered. He saw the tears, those awful, beautiful tears of a heart so enchanted by love. He saw them rolling freely, unobstructed, unrestrained, falling, falling, until they left the beautiful face and disappeared into an abyss somewhere between the heart and the cold floor upon which they stood.

What was his world? What was his being now that she was gone? What he feared most, what he tried most to avoid, he brought about himself, by his own hand and his own actions. In his quest to stabilize his life, he only succeeded in tormenting the one he loved and destroying all they built together.

The apartment felt empty, not the emptiness of vacancy, but an emptiness that emanated from and was recognized by the soul. Ryan knew the feeling and lived in the hollowness of it for so long; now, that feeling returned with a mocking grin. Taking a seat on the sofa, he peered into the cold, empty fireplace. Before him, his drink was still untouched where she left it. So many relics remained from the previous night, like the little broom and pan on the floor by the statue, his coat thrown over the chair, his drink. They were reminders, taunting reminders of what happened, and he hated them all.

What he hated most, however, was his own presence and what it now exhibited. In his frame and his mental constitution, he was nothing short of the only thing he ever detested: his progenitor. Through his own fear he traveled, only to surmount it not in victory, but in fear and resemblance. He became that which he hated.

At the thought, Ryan started to cry once more. He made the mistake of conjuring to mind his mother’s face. What would she think of him? What would she say? Ryan slid down until he was lying on the sofa, the memories weighing heavily on his chest. In his mind, she stared at him, her beautiful though battered appearance evoking only more hatred in Ryan’s heart. With great detestation, he abhorred his actions of the previous night, sensing in them attributes of a man who lost control. He thought of his father.

Amidst the morning cacophony of cars and busses, Claire peered out of the window, watching people move from one end of the block to the other. She briefly thought of them, if they carried so much pain in their hearts as well. But she had not the will or energy to think long on the subject. Her fatigue was nearly equal to Ryan’s, as sleep forsook her as well.

When she did slumber, her dreams were a mix of reality eschewed and fantasy enlarged. She hoped for a pleasant dream, something to lull her mind into a deeper and more peaceful repose, but it did not come. Her mind wandered back to the same place, over and over, awake and asleep. She thought of the apartment, and the man inside of it.

Claire did not go to work that morning. Brett opted to remain with her, but at her insistence, he finally left. Alone, she sat in her tee shirt and panties, socks on her cold feet, and a long bathrobe Dylan had, her body leaning against the windowpane. The cold glass did not affect her; the chill only mingled with the coldness she felt inside her hollow frame, filling her completely.

Claire thought of Ryan, but not the way one thinks of another for whom they long. She thought of the night, of the fear leading to the eruption, and the eruption itself. It was volcanic, ferocious, and hateful; yet, she could not believe it actually came from Ryan. She thought of Ryan that morning, as another person and not the man she knew. She teased the notion of his having a twin, evil in nature, who sometimes entered his life for the sake of torment alone. She knew it was foolishness, but separating the man she loved from the man she hated was the only way she would make sense of what happened. It was a Jekyll and Hyde scenario, where the loving, tender, compassionate man died away in the moment of aggression, and the man of hateful speech, tempestuous temper and unbridled anger took his place.

In her hands, Claire held a cup of chai, hot and steaming at it slowly fogged over a small patch of the chilled glass. The city looked dreary, Claire thought, but recognized it could have just been her sentiments reflected onto the ashen gray skyline. The sun was still a fiery orb burning away the morning clouds, and the people below seemed to move with enough joviality in their steps to paint a more pleasant picture, though Claire could not see it. All she could see were dead tree limbs reaching into the frosty air, capped with snow and covered with the agony of winter. They reached out, but no one reached back to take them into their arms.

Claire had Brett and Dylan, and they were to her heart the most awesome of friends. Dylan would defend her, and Brett would die for her; but, they were not her lovers, and they could never hold her at night the way Ryan did. They could never touch her or kiss her or make love to her the way he did. When her day was bad, they could never have that look in their eyes that told of total engagement and commitment. Only Ryan had that.

Claire sighed.

The phone beeped and Claire turned to look at it from across the room. She had no intention of removing herself from the window to see what it was. She had thoughts as to what it could be, but she only desired the window and the dire view. A few minutes later, it beeped again. It crossed Claire’s mind that it could be either Brett or Dylan checking on her, but a second thought also came to her: it might be him.

Looking back to the city, Claire ignored the phone. She sipped her tea and just stared out of the window, her life a dim reflection of what she saw in the glass. She felt isolated and alone, and everything she knew seemed to be destroyed. Separated as she was, Claire felt like a soul in exile.

In the apartment, Ryan stared at his phone, waiting for it to sound off on a text or call. He labored over his first message, typing then erasing, then retyping what his heart was trying to say. He wrote something lengthy, then opted for something short, settling on a simple ‘I love you.’ Once it was sent, he felt it was empty and void of his true expression, and so sent a second one, a petition to return and talk. The phone was still silent, and the minutes slowly passed.

Soon, an hour passed since Ryan last touched the send button. It was agonizing, and he tried to reason away the lapse. It never entered his mind that she was ignoring him, though in his current mental state, he would have accepted it. He thought she was still sleeping, or busy, or at work and in meetings. He convinced himself there was a definite reason, and seemingly felt better, though too much thought on the subject unsettled him.

The morning did not move as slowly for Claire, but it still had a sluggishness to it that could not be mistaken. She finally dressed, returning to the clothes of yesterday, and took a place on the sofa, nibbling at a little bit of leftovers Brett had from a meal a few nights ago. Claire had not thought about any plan for the next few days, only that she would not return to the apartment that night. She would go in the evening to get clothes and makeup, and anything else she thought she needed, and would sequester herself with Brett and Dylan. They generously offered their apartment for as long as she needed it.

For the moment, she knew she felt safe and comfortable in the apartment, and that is what she desired most. She purposely ignored her phone, although she did not want to confess why. To confess was to conjure the pain of the memory and the man, drawing them into her heart again. It was easier to stay away, to hide from what hurt her.

Claire got up from the sofa and threw away the Styrofoam container. She never could remember if they were recyclable or not. Standing in the kitchen, she cast a glance over at her phone. There was a sensation that prompted her, moved her, to consider looking at the phone. Nervously, she ran through her mind the list of people who would text her, thinking of her family, of Brett, of co-workers, anyone. But she knew; in her heart, she knew who it was.

Claire walked over to where the phone lay, sitting on top of an old newspaper on the counter. Beside the paper, Dylan kept his spices, and the area smelled both herby and sweet, the aromas mingling and reminding her of their own little kitchen, and of his cooking.

A small green light flickered repeatedly. Claire took a moment to look at the black screen, then quickly grabbed the phone like she was grabbing a hot coal and turned it on. There were two messages, both from Ryan.

Ryan was showering, or rather, standing under the hot water. It normally felt soothing, the warm jets pounding away the muscle aches of the previous day. Today, he did not receive any enjoyment; he merely stood and allowed the hot water to warm the area. His mind was far from pleasure, and the shower was more of a necessity than anything else.

The water splattered tenderly on the small tiles of the floor. Ryan listened to the rhythm carelessly in the background of his mind as it beat out a cadence that seemed distant and vague. Between the taps, he heard a peep from his phone, a sound much like the pulse of a heart to a doctor listening for it. He spun in the shower and waited, his attention attuned to that sound alone. He waited. No more noise. Opening the door, he looked at his phone, and the light flickered. There was a message.

Dripping and cold, he leapt out of the shower and snatched his phone. He said a silent prayer and a curse if it were anything other than what he wanted. He saw a text, and it was from Claire.

His stomach grew nervous.

Ryan tapped the screen nervously and waited for the message to appear. Four words appeared to his eyes. I love you, too.

Claire could not believe what she just sent. In her shock, she started to tremble and dropped the phone on the kitchen floor. She covered her mouth with her shaking hands. So much pain ran through her, pain that never slept or subsided. It was always there, always in her heart, though it stood idle until the moment she sent the message. Now it flooded her, and she felt she would nearly drown in the waves of agony.

Claire reached out to the man who had so frightened her, this man who was almost an enemy and a stranger to her. She knew that was not Ryan. She knew the man who presented himself to her last night was not the Ryan she cared for, and it was his arms that she desired. She wanted his touch, his strength to protect her from the doppelganger that haunted her mind. Afraid and alone, feeling as if that menace would attack her at any moment, she wanted the compassion of her lover to embrace her and make her feel safe again. She sent a message to speak on her behalf, to breach the gulf between their hearts. And she waited. And she cried.

Ryan held the phone, his mind too flooded with energy, with anger and passion to think of what to reply. He hurt for her, was angry with himself, and was so encumbered with fear that he was afraid to utter so much as a syllable. The screen grew dim, then shut off, the blackness staring gravely at him.

Claire fell to the floor crying and heaving, her fear battling her love in a quest to dominate her. She felt pain at the separation, fear at the reunion, yet in her there glowed brilliantly that same glimmer of passion that struck on their first date, when the world was so rosy in its young autumn attire. She once thought herself her own master and architect of her destiny; now, she was recognizing a much higher engineer at the handles of her life. For good or for ill, she was being propelled, but to what she did not know.

The phone beeped again, and with hands soaked by her tears, Claire picked up the device and opened the message. Through tears, she read his reply, then turned off the phone and put her head back against the cabinet. One deep sigh, and control over herself was slowly reestablished.

Claire thought for a moment. The phone was still in her hand, and shifting it slightly, her bracelet slid down her wrist and struck the phone. She both felt and heard the bracelet move, and when she looked at the diamonds glistening in the light of the kitchen, she started to cry again. Memories were good and evil, she thought as she beheld the first gift he ever gave her. She remembered the moment, the excitement in his face when she opened it, and how tenderly he put it on her delicate wrist. The weight of it was heavy, she thought, and she would have to get used to it. But, God, was it beautiful. Claire remembered it all.

Ryan called her home, their home, to talk. Claire agreed. A little after noon, she was slowly ascending the stairs to their apartment, the same stairs she raced down the previous night in a flight of panic and terror. The memory was poignant and forceful. She tried not to think on it, and rather focused on what was coming.

Claire reached the door and stood before it. She was more than nervous standing before the barrier, the deep blue paint of that door familiar and reminiscent of something unseen, a bruise covered. She reached out a hand to take the knob. It was cold and made her shiver, though the temperature was not the cause.

Before Claire could unlock the door fully, she heard the locks unlatching, and the door swung open. Ryan stood in the darkness of the apartment; the light of their abode was still missing, the darkness a representation of his grief.

They stared at one another. Neither spoke, nor moved, nor looked away. The customary greetings were reserved and an iciness both feigned and abhorred existed as the only connection they now dared to express. Secretly, inwardly, the feelings of old burned brightly, though both did not know how to express them.

Standing before each other, they both had so much to say, so much to hear, but the opening of the conversation seemed far distant. Like two wintery trees in the forest, they stood facing one another, each covered in the snow of their pain and yearning for the spring release, when the bright and cheery sun would grant to the woodland a second chance to live.

Finally, Ryan lowered his eyes and stepped aside, the open space inviting her to enter. His voice was sullen and evoked the deepest despair of his long battle. His tone rattled in Claire’s mind as she crossed the threshold. The mess was not cleaned up from the previous night, and she stopped when she saw it.

Memories were no longer good. They were just evil and adulterous and wicked in their resurgence. Claire looked away and moved to the couch. Ryan’s glass was still sitting on the table, and the ice had long ago melted, diluting the drink. Oddly enough, it had not been touched. Ryan moved beside her and sat down, his movements slow, almost as if he was asking permission with his body to take a place by her side.

Neither knew just how to open a discussion they both feared. Claire feared a return of her enemy, and Ryan feared losing Claire. They knew they had to speak. Claire did not look directly at Ryan, but kept her side facing him. Ryan was completely turned to see her.

Claire’s mind seemed to go blank. All of the ill memories vanished, and she was again on a mechanical “coast” mode, her body simply adhering to the dictates of another power. Ryan, too, felt out of sorts, and try as he did to focus, he simply felt present, and that was all.

Claire had an urge to fall into his arms and feel him holding her, but she restrained herself, knowing that the man she loved still harbored a man she hated. As long as they were wedded in an unholy matrimony, she would feel uneasy all of the time. She slowly turned her head, though, to see him and look into his eyes. Ryan had opened the blinds before sitting, so there was ample light.

Ryan’s eyes were red, as Claire could clearly see. They looked pained and swollen. Ryan did not cry much, or at least Claire had yet to see it. It made her feel good, actually, to see the outward expression of his grief. It was genuine and real, and by it she saw a piece of his soul laid bare. That encouraged her and allowed her a voice to speak first.

“I did mean what I said in the text.” Claire said.

Ryan listened but did not venture a reply. He was still too afraid of saying or doing something to frighten away this beautiful fawn that strayed so far into the open meadow. The guilt he felt made him avert his eyes. He could not understand how she could still feel for him after so disastrous an encounter. Her confession almost hurt him more than any objection she could have given.

“But there is a lot of stuff wrong,” Claire continued.

“I know,” Ryan said at last.

“And I will not live like this,” she stated.

Claire’s voice was calm and soothing, and each syllable encouraged Ryan. He could not detect any hardened animosity in her tone, and if there was any bitterness present, she concealed it so deep within that it would certainly not surface during the conversation.

“I know,” he replied.

“So, what do we do?”

Ryan had the morning to mull over something, and once he was certain Claire was returning, he knew he wanted something to present to her, some thought that showed he cared and was desirous of correcting the situation. More than that, he knew, sensed rather, that something was drastically wrong. He would need help, professional help, and his testament of love would be securing that help.

“There is a lot going on,” Ryan started, “and it’s not work related, or stress, or anything like that. It’s more, something deeper, from, from my childhood. I need to talk to someone.”

Ryan stopped short. A confession of sorts was out, and he felt both relieved to have said it, and ashamed to have brought up such a deep and cavernous weakness; yet, he did not feel vulnerable. It was Claire who was listening, and he knew he could expose his heart to her and it would be safe. Should he have said that to anyone else, he would have died.

“We can find help, Ryan,” Claire said.

“I think we need to. For us.”

“We’ll do whatever it takes.”

“We’ll?” Ryan asked.

Claire was taken back, but realized that with so deep an issue, he probably had problems either accepting help, or believing that someone was willing to help him handle it.

“Yes, Ryan, you and I. We are both in this.”

“But you’ve been through enough,” he replied.

“I want to help,” she said.

The sun cast bizarre shadows over the floor, and, according to the shadow of the table, it should have been half a foot tall. Because Ryan noticed the hilarity of the image, and immediately knew something was transformed, and for the better. He felt a little more at ease over what he said, and felt at peace knowing he would not fight the battle alone. He had someone beside him who would not leave. That comforted him.

“Baby,” he began, “I’m sorry, sorry for everything.”

Claire did not reply. She couldn’t. Nothing he could say would succeed in assuaging their grief, and none of her replies could ever condone what happened. Silence was most therapeutic. She knew how he felt and that was enough.

“My dad,” Ryan seemingly blurted out, “he used to hit -” and he stopped.

Claire understood.

Ryan started to weep, and closing his eyes in a vain attempt to conceal his tears only gave greater urgency to their tumble. Rolling as they did, they moved freely over the contours of his cheeks. Ryan lowered his face, but as he did, he felt two arms embracing him, holding him. Then, he heard sobbing, though it wasn’t his.

Claire embraced her lover, the moment she most desired for herself now transferred to him. She held him as tight as she could, her own pain letting loose and being squeezed from her heart like dirty water from a sponge.

For a long while they both sat in silence, each clinging to the other like castaways to a piece of driftwood. In that silence, sleep, their forlorn friend, finally found them, and with deft steps, stole across the floor to cast its magic upon their brows. Soon, they were both asleep in each other’s arms.

* * * * * * * * * *

Claire was busy at the computer when Ryan came home. For long hours she sat, reading and doing research. When Ryan shed his coat, he strolled over to Claire and kissed the top of her head. She was engrossed in an article and hardly noticed the little bit of affection. He smiled and walked into the kitchen to fix his drink.

For the past few days, both Ryan and Claire were busy on conjoined and separate searches to find a mental health counselor. They talked through it more, and to both of their surprise, and harbored fear, the issue was domestic abuse. Though not inherited, it was certainly learned, as in Ryan’s case. Claire kept a poker face, but she feared for Ryan, and admittedly, herself; however, she was loyal and committed, and ready to do what it took to win back her man from the clutches of another lover whose passion was poison.

Ryan received word from a series of phone calls he made that there was a certain priest who usually helped in these situations. He received information from a helpline, and though he recorded the telephone number, Ryan could not bring himself to make the call. He still thought they could handle this together, and he by himself. Fearing exposure, Ryan wanted to keep this as quiet as possible, and so was reluctant to advance beyond the safety zone he and Claire constructed around themselves.

Claire heard Ryan in the kitchen, and slowly managed to pull herself away from the article she was reading. All that evening, and the past few nights, she read so much about the topic. Articles, Ted Talks, YouTube, all were resources and gave her both plenty of information, and plenty over which to worry. She did not confess her fears openly, and only mildly alluded to them in calls to Brett. In her heart, she saw great similarities between his actions and those of the other men she read about. It was disconcerting, but Claire was strong, and the loved she carried for Ryan helped to stave off her fears and strengthen her against a total collapse.

Walking into the kitchen, Claire saw Ryan standing over the sink, drink in hand, just staring at the backsplash like it was a road map. She smiled somnolently, and leaning against the doorway, she spoke to him in soft words.

“You alright?” she asked.

Ryan turned to face her, the cubes of ice clinking against the class. His face had a look that was questionable, like he was concealing a worry that need not be shared. He smiled, but it was like paint over a rotten wall, and Claire could see he was harboring something from her.

“Just thinking,” Ryan replied.

“That doesn’t look like a ‘just thinking’ face to me, baby. What’s on your mind?”

Ryan tossed himself against the counter and crossed his arms, keeping his drink to the fore. He sipped it easily. He knew what was wrong, but did not have the words to express himself. He feared the ridicule if the news got out, but more than that, he feared not having control over himself. Now that his actions were tagged and labeled, the proverbial monster was given a name and felt more real. He feared he would relapse and chase away the only person he believed would ever be present with him in this storm. He needed Claire, and feared for her.

“What if, what if I don’t succeed? What happens then?” Ryan asked.

“But you will. I mean, you want to do better, so why wouldn’t you?”

“It just seems more complicated than that. Wanting to do good is not the same as actually doing it. I can want to succeed all day long, but actually going through with it, and going to sleep at night knowing that I did succeed, that is different entirely,” he said.

“I know, baby. This is a lot right now, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

“That’s just it,” Ryan began, “What if, what happens when it becomes too much for us, too much for you? I can’t expect you to stay here and wait for me to kill the monsters in me. And what if you reach your breaking point?”

Claire now realized his main concern, and though legitimate, she gave it little thought. She cared for her safety, but equally cared for Ryan, and their future.

“Baby, I love you,” Claire said.

With light steps, she approached the guarded man who wrapped his arms around his body to shelter him from the reality of the conversation, and she unfolded him, making him vulnerable and weak. She took the glass from his hand and put it on the counter, then pulled his arms around her waist and put hers around his neck, holding him tightly.

Ryan’s head fell onto her shoulder as her grip tightened. It was the power of her touch, of that simple expression of her love that soothed the worried mind of the man in her arms. His breaths were deep, and his chest heaved as he released some of his fear into her, Claire’s body absorbing what he could not handle. She took it from him and sheltered it in her own bosom, knowing full well the tenderness of the pain she just received, and the delicate nature of the fear. His secret was safe with her, and together, they would rise over this as victors. She believed it. She had to believe it.

When Ryan finally felt secure, he pulled away from Claire and returned to the sink, where he leaned against it casually. He smiled brighter and looked more relaxed, his face subsiding into a tenderness Claire loved. She nuzzled against him and raised his drink to him.

“Thanks,” he said, then continued. “Oh, I think I may have found something. There’s this priest up town that might be able to help. He works, well, with this stuff. I heard he was pretty good. He’s a counselor, and he’s helped a lot of guys. I, I kinda feel good about it.”

“Oh, baby, that’s great. What’s his name?”

“Corby, Father William Corby. He’s head rector over at Saint Stephen’s old church. It’s a mission society now, and I guess he does that sort of thing full time, counseling on the side.”

“And you say he’s good? He’s done stuff like this before?” Claire asked.

“Yeah, he has. He’s highly recommended on many sites, and the helpline I spoke with today also gave me his number. I was going to call today, but it just got busy.”

“This may be what we need, baby. I’m sure he’ll be confidential, so no one will know about it. How do you feel about going to him?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Ryan replied with a shrug.

“I know it’s rough, but this is our answer. And if things don’t work out, we have others that I’ve found. Ryan, you want help. That is a major start right there. Not all men see this as you do. Most, well, it’s just a way of life for them, and their partners. Believe me, I’ve read a lot.”

“I know you have, and I appreciate it.”

“Baby, it’s tough, but we, you and me, we are going to get beyond this. I’m here, and I love you.”

Ryan kissed her. No words could suffice to express his heart’s adoration of her, and only his lips upon hers could fully make tangible the sentiment and high esteem by which he regarded her. Their kiss, so passionate yet so symbolic, sealed them in a pact of unity, endearing their hearts to jointly pursue a course that was altogether dark and foreboding. By that kiss, they were bound to embark, and together.

The kiss ended and Ryan looked at Claire’s eyes, those brilliant, blue eyes that were like globes of energy, alive with animation that was simply surreal. Her breath was upon his cheek, warming him and reminding him that he was not alone. Tomorrow, he thought.

“I’m calling him tomorrow, for us.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The wintery chill blasted Ryan as he stood outside the old brick building. Dirty blotches of snow covered the cement and stood tall like little white tombstones in a graveyard. The spire of the old building reared its head high, touching the cloudy sky with a commanding finger.

Throughout his time in Boston, Ryan had learned some history of the area, and picked up a snippet about the old St. Stephen’s. He somehow knew of its architect, Charles Bulfinch, and that fact that is was finished in 1804, but of its history as a Unitarian Church, then being sold to the Catholic Diocese, then its eventual closure as a church, that was all lost to him. What he did know was that the ominous structure seemed to look down on him from the moment he stepped up to its door.

All morning, Ryan battled against his own thoughts and presuppositions regarding his appointment. In his stubbornness, he thought he could handle it himself, in a very masculine fashion. He was still committed to getting the help both he and Claire thought necessary, but sharing what he considered a very private and deeply internal issue was something Ryan did not feel totally comfortable with, and something he was now beginning to regret.

Ryan surveyed the building as if looking for a sign not to enter. He found only the aged brown bricks stacked one upon another, like the agonies of his life piled to the unforgiving sky. He dreaded entering the building, but knew remaining in the cold was also not a desirable option, and he would need to have something to render to Claire over snacks that night. He needed to go, and thinking of her, he slowly ascended the steps.

The church was quiet save for the soft shuffling of feet across the old floor. Boards quietly and reverently creaked as solemn faces moved in and out of sight. Ryan closed the large doors behind him and looked at the spacious expanse, a large and storied church divided into compartments and little office spaces. A lone secretary sat at a large and uncluttered desk, her covered head bowed as she softly mumbled something. Ryan could not hear what was spoken, but when he approached the desk, she looked up at him as if on queue, her brilliant green eyes still so youthful.

“I’m saying my rosary,” the woman said softly, with a bright smile on her face.

She acted as if she were caught stealing cookies from a jar, with a delightful smile masking her act of negligence.

“But, I suppose I should be paying more attention to our visitors. Can I help you, young man?”

Ryan smiled at the good-natured woman whose gentle countenance disarmed the uneasiness he felt as he neared the appointment. She was a nun, and her habit was neatly pressed and certainly old fashioned. Ryan had not seen nuns like that since he was a small child. She raised a set of white rosary beads to sit on the desk and folded her hands over them.

“Yeah, um Yes, ma’am. I’m here to see Father Corby.”

The vibrant green eyes peered at him. Ryan could see them smiling so daintily, like they were searching his soul for the joy he kept in him.

“Father Corby is such a dear. Let me call him now,” she replied.

The woman opened up a small worn book she kept in a drawer and turned to the “Cs” section, running a long slender finger down the page. When she found his name, she slowly extended her hand to the sole item on the desk surface, and took up the receiver of the telephone. Looking at it, she hoped to remember the order of numbers she had to press, but staring long at the pad, she lost all sense of memory for the dialing sequence.

“Oh, I just can’t remember how this thing works. Let’s see, I think you hit nine, no, that is for outside. I don’t make many calls on this pad,” the woman said.

She laughed lightly and looked back at the phone, the memory of it coming back to her. With a bit of animation, she tapped away at the numbers and waited for the Father to pick up. Ryan watched her keenly, his interest in her more than perfunctory. There was something in her mannerisms that was soothing, and in her speech a certain charm that seemingly cast its spell over him, enchanting his mind. It was like she lived a life without concern, not from the rejection of it, but from the absence of care, as if someone else was caring on her behalf. Ryan could have sat and listened to her all day.

“Oh, yes, he’s here now, Father,” the old woman said into the receiver.

Ryan waited patiently, his stomach growing more and more nervous as the moments passed. He had visited few churches since his childhood, and those were only with his mother. He remembered the smell of antiquity when he first entered, and how he had to brace himself for a long hour of rituals he never understood. When he grew older, he forgot about the mystery of the faith, or the myriad stained glass windows and the incense that hung on the breeze. The swishing of the liturgical frocks left his memory, and the sermon, in English, was not so much a novelty as it was to his mother. He fell away from all things religious and took to his heart only what prayers the secular world uttered, prayers for success and fortune. Now, he was amidst an old church building again, and though the usual trappings of a functioning church were long forgotten, he could still hear the ringing of the bells and the chanting of the people. On the breeze from the vents, he could smell the incense. He smiled. He found something of his mother in this building.

“Dear, Father Corby will see you. It’s just down the hall and on the left, next to the crapper.”

At that point, Ryan needed every bit of reserve to mask the giddy smile forming on his face. He thanked her profusely, more for her use of humor to lighten his mood than her actual assistance, and moved down the hall, his smile emerging as he proceeded.

Ryan executed the left turn, and saw the sign for the restroom. He chuckled. The office door was slightly ajar, and he heard someone rustling around inside. Ryan moved to the door and slowly pushed it open as he knocked.

The door opened fully and Ryan could see into a very tidy and mostly renovated space in the back of the church. The room was not large, but cozy and quite functional, and a great attempt was made to mask the malodorous smell of must with soft French lavender. Beside the door was an old leather sofa, and at the far end, the desk of the Father, cluttered with papers and a somewhat dated monitor. Behind the desk was a long case of books, two shelves high, and sitting upon it was an array of pictures and mementos from the man’s career.

Two chairs sat opposite the desk, and with a swift wave of his hand, the Father motioned Ryan into the room. As he entered and passed the door, the library of the man suddenly became visible along the opposite wall. Tall shelves of learned volumes glared haughtily at Ryan as he slowly trespassed into sacred space. The man was still doing something with some books behind his desk and did not turn around.

The carpet was a common, bland office type with dark gray hues showing how boring the mid-1990s could be for office decoration. Ryan stopped just opposite of the chairs and rested his hand on one of the leatherbacks. It was warm in the office, which was welcome, given the horrid wintery condition of the city.

“Let me guess, ‘down the hall, make a left and it’s beside the crapper,’” the man asked Ryan.

Ryan could not withhold his smirk from his face as the man turned to face him. He was tall, about six feet, clean-shaven with a receding hairline and eyes that seemed to smile. He looked gentle and kind, and reminded Ryan of what the typical American grandfather looked like on a picnic, just minus the priestly attire. An old coat was thrown over his desk chair and his long, black sleeves were rolled up only once.

“Yeah, it was something like that,” Ryan replied mildly.

“No, it’s ‘next to the crapper.’ That’s what Sister Mildred always says, despite my best efforts. One time, the mayor paid an unexpected visit, and the dear girl didn’t recognize him. He found my office next to the crapper, thanks to her explicit directions.”

The old man laughed heartily, but in his laugh there was a regal dignity that showed lifetime of service. His wrinkled brow bespoke of his aged commitment to the order, and that tired expression, only made alive by his glimmering eyes, illustrated for Ryan the depth of meaning his duties had for him.

“I’m sorry, but that did take me by surprise, and I thought it was funny as shi-” but Ryan stopped immediately.

The Father smiled and waved off the stifled curse. Standing in his presence for only a moment, Ryan almost immediately felt at peace, calmed not by the demeanor of the man as much as the simplicity of his life, as represented by his office. Like the sister, this man seemed to find joy in things other than his belongings, and that amazed Ryan.

“She’s a dear, though. Oh, my apologies, I’m Father Bill.”

“Ryan James,” Ryan replied.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ryan,” said Father Bill. “Please, have a seat.”

Ryan pulled out one of the wood and leather chairs, painted in an ugly orange hue from the 1980s, and took his seat. Behind Father Bill’s desk was a large painting, and flanking it were two small windows. The painting was odd, since it was a scene of war, with blue clad soldiers marching across a green field while a man on horseback rode down the line, hand raised in the air. Surrounding them was the carnage of war, with dead and dying bodies marring the pretty heath and staining the ground red. Ryan thought the work out of place, and perhaps a holdover or a donation from some years back. He looked it over, then saw Fr. Bill looking at him as he took his seat.

“It’s a Troiani work, of the charge at Antietam in 1862. It’s always been a favorite work, as it depicts the Irish Brigade charging the Bloody Lane. And that man, the one in black, is Fr. William Corby, their chaplain. He’s a distant relative on my father’s side, and my namesake.”

“Nice picture, but kind of odd to find in a church,” Ryan said.

“Not every life is always peaceful, and not every walk is easy.”

Fr. Bill rested his hands on his cluttered desk and looked at the young man. Fr. Bill knew why the man had come, and could almost read the pain of his decision in his eyes. After so many years, the priest knew what it meant for a man to seek him out, recognizing the agony he faced before his final commitment, and the uphill journey he would have from that moment forward.

“True,” Ryan replied.

The uneasiness Ryan felt at the door of the church was returning since he recognized the moment of mental expulsion was at hand. What he fretted over, what concerned him the most, was laying bare his heart on the desk of a stranger, his emotional scars displayed for evaluation. Ryan had no experience with counseling, and so was a foreigner in a strange land. The books, still towering over him, suddenly gave him a rather clinical notion of the experience, and he believed it was going to be more of an experiment than anything helpful.

“Ryan, I know why you are here, and before we move into that, I want to do some housekeeping, if you don’t mind. First, I don’t charge for this. It’s my passion, my service and ministry. Let that fear go now. Second, I’m available when you need me. That will always be. Third, I will be tough on you, and will hold you accountable. Please understand it is out of love that I do so. Fourth, I need your honesty.”

Fr. Bill stopped and allowed Ryan a moment to process what he heard. There was paperwork he would give him, statements of confidentiality that would follow, but for the moment, he wanted Ryan to think on those four principles.

Ryan shifted in his chair, appreciating what the man said but fearing how much he would have to reveal of himself. He looked back at the painting, of one man in particular, a man gripping his head from a wound. His face was not visible, but from the tension in his hands it was recognizable that he was in great agony. Ryan related.

Fr. Bill picked up a coffee mug from behind a stack of folders and took a sip, his face showing just how cold the coffee had become. The scent lingered in his nostrils, still pleasant, but missing that mark of pleasure. He put the mug back, making a note to get a fresh cup later.

“What,” Ryan began, “what exactly are we going to do?”

Fr. Bill did not need time to ponder the question. He knew the answer, had actually known the answer, as that was what brought him into the ministry. Looking sharply at Ryan, but with care in his eyes, he replied,

“God is going to heal you.”

“Theology is fine and everything, but what are we really going to do?”

“Son,” started the priest, “you must realize that what is done is not by me, but by God in and through and beside me. I am but the agent, God is the healer. If you do not choose a religious path from this, that is fine, but you must know that I take a religious road, and will use such in this process.”

“Listen, maybe this isn’t for me. I mean, I want, stuff, but not God thrown at me,” Ryan answered defensively.

“Is God being thrown at you, or are you throwing yourself at God? I think, since you’re here, that you just might be seeking something more.”

Ryan did not think of it like that, but somehow it made sense to him. He shifted nervously again in his chair, the leather squeaking slightly.

“You’re nervous. Can I get you something? Coffee? Water? Rum and coke?”

Ryan laughed uneasily at the joke, and the smile on Fr. Bill’s face told him the man liked to jest. The playfulness of the priest did settle Ryan’s nerves some, and leaning back in his chair, he let loose a deep breath.

“That sounds pretty good right about now,” Ryan said.

“It’s difficult, I know, but you are here because you want help. And I want to help you.”

“It’s just, well, I don’t like talking, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand that pretty well. I hated it when I was in seminary. And frankly, I hate it now. Here, let me get us some waters.”

The priest stood and moved around his desk, but not before stopping and looking up at the painting. He stood beside Ryan, and with his finger, drew his attention to the man on the horse.

“That chaplain, Fr. Corby, he rushed onto that field not because he had to, but because he wanted to. That’s the difference between goodness and greatness.”

Fr. Bill exited the room, leaving Ryan alone with the old Irish chaplain shouting out inaudible absolutions to the soldiers who marched against the fated road. He breathed a little lighter and slowly took in the office. Outside, he heard voices speaking in muted tones, and the heat whirred lazily from the old furnaces. Ryan unzipped his jacket and opened his sweater, allowing a gush of his heat to escape the folds.

Ryan heard the priest reenter and close the door behind him. The click of the door latch sounded final, like the bolt of a gate locking in prisoners, but Ryan just took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Here,” Fr. Bill said.

Ryan accepted the water gladly and opened the bottle. Fr. Bill also opened his and took a drink. The two were silent for a moment, though only Ryan felt the slight awkwardness of the still room. Fr. Bill was waiting, allowing his new patient a few minutes to sit and ponder. In a moment, he would commence with the questioning, but for now, time was at Ryan’s disposal.

“So, Ryan,” Fr. Bill began, “why don’t you tell me about yourself, and the situation. Help me to get to know you a little better.”

It was the moment Ryan dreaded, but a moment he had to face. He parried for an additional moment by taking another drink. He thought of what he could say and how he could present it, but no matter how it was told, he understood his role as that of the villain. He detested that role but did not how to shed it. Thinking of Claire, of her sweet smile and gentleness, he mentally formulated the thoughts he had and put them together.

Ryan started with his relationship with Claire, and all that transpired since they got together. He knew that was inadequate for the story, and so took a step back to speak of Gillian, and finally moved even further back into his childhood, with his mother and father. Fr. Bill listened actively and attentively, nodding when the occasion called for it.

Ryan’s whole life unraveled before the priest as he spoke sometimes flatly, other times passionately, his intonation often raging with the anger of his being. Fr. Bill learned of his horrid childhood, where only maternal love wafted over his heart. He recognized early on the obsessive and controlling behavior Ryan was exposed to, and how that was now playing out in his current relationship. What he thought interesting, however, was that this all was concealed until his current relationship with Claire.

Fr. Bill did not write anything down, though he had pulled from his desk drawer a pad. His memory, powered by his intake of red wine, was as sharp as it could be, and in ‘fighting trim shape,’ as he called it. With every word Ryan spoke, Fr. Bill remembered, making a list mentally of things he would seek out later.

When Ryan finally concluded, he fell silent and waited, though for what recognition he did not know. The office was silent, and through the windows the sun was speedily passing over the frigid cityscape, warming as best as it could the heaps and mountains of snow that had accumulated.

“Thank you for sharing all of that,” Fr. Bill finally said.

The silence returned between them, with only Ryan feeling awkward. Fr. Bill was sitting and watching, his eyes soft but still keen. Ryan looked at them only for a moment. He did not think them piercing or convicting, but they were powerful in that they demanded from him honesty and truthfulness. To Ryan, they seemed to have the ability to search him, drawing from his soul the very truth they sought. He both feared and admired those eyes.

“Well, what now?” Ryan asked.

Fr. Bill did not sit up in his chair, but continued to recline, as if they were casually talking about the Sox’s season. Ryan tried to appreciate the less than stiff approach Fr. Bill took, but it was unnerving him. He could see he was attentive, but his relaxed attitude confused him.

“We’re off to a good start. This is your time. Do you wish to say anything else?”

“Nope. I’m all out,” Ryan replied.

Ryan’s answer was short, as his desire to escape from the confines of the situation was growing stronger. He felt he had shared enough, and with his feelings floating about in open space, he wanted to retreat to a place of safety and escape the dreadful images he released.

“Are you sure?” Fr. Bill asked.

“Yep. Sure.”

The priest looked at him, and Ryan swore he could feel his eyes moving about inside of him. Then, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the desk, the priest looked at Ryan, smiling.

“Alright, time is about up anyways. I have some items for you to look over, and some things I want you to read.”

Fr. Bill pulled open a side drawer and removed from its depths a little stack of papers, neatly stapled and ready for distribution. He also pulled out a manila folder and placed the papers inside. Once it was sealed, he pressed the folder into the empty void, separating them both. Ryan took the folder without looking at it, and placed it in his lap.

“Okay, so what’s the routine now?”

“We can meet three times a week, or more, if you prefer. A schedule is outlined in the paperwork, and my personal cell is also listed. Put it in your own cell. And use it, if you need to. I would not give it if I didn’t want you to use it.”

“Thanks. I guess I’ll see you the day after tomorrow?”

“We can start with that.” Fr. Bill replied.

“Um, okay then. Thanks for your time.”

Ryan’s voice was tense, but it did not come out as nervous as he first thought. Feelings of relief came over him as he stood and began to make his way to the door. The priest also stood, and together, they walked to the entrance where Fr. Bill opened it for Ryan. A sense of freedom, so refreshing and invigorating, came over Ryan as the barrier ceased to exist. He could feel the easing of his mind as he looked into the hallway. It is over, he thought, finished for the day.

“Thanks again, Bill,” Ryan said.

“You should be thanking yourself, Ryan, since you took the first step. I’m here for you. Know that.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said.

The two men shook hands. Then, Ryan exited the office. A piece of him still lingered in the old space, echoing pain and misery in the mind of the old priest. He watched Ryan walk down the hall and disappear around the corner, but he did not vacate the priest’s heart. He could tell the man had issues, and retaking his seat at his desk, began to jot down what was on his mind. He made notes and wrote in the margin. All the young man said was now transcribed onto the little pad.

Fr. Bill looked it over when it was completed, and reclined once more, his mind awash with thoughts. So many young men and women passed over his threshold in the same state: cold, desolate and looking for hope that they could not find within themselves. They each sought control in a manner so unhealthy and unnatural that they became slaves to their own method of control, though they could not see it. In the case of Ryan, the priest thought, he wanted to control not just the woman, but his life. She is actually secondary to his mastery over the darkness that seems to wait at his door.

Father Bill sighed. It was nearing lunch, though he had little appetite. What he needed would not be found in food or drink. He needed something spiritual, something that came from those regions between regions, where the here and now meets the eternity. He bowed and allowed his head to fall gently into his hands.

Outside, Ryan buttoned his jacket against the cold. The wind blew and the freezing air stung his face and hands, which he hastily plunged into this pockets. The numbness that accompanies the cold quickly found him, and his legs were first to succumb to the chill.

Ryan was glad of many things, but mainly that the event was over. He left with mixed emotions about the process and the priest, feelings of anxiety and nervousness, but over all his presuppositions, he felt strangely well about what was transpiring. He could not explain it, but he felt like a new soul exiting a confessional. He embraced the relief of exposure, even if it meant great displeasure for him. The burden he carried was now shouldered by three, one he loved and one he just met.

Ryan equally liked the priest, though he had reservations about him. He could not grasp the priest’s seeming complacency in the office, and really did not understand the amount of happiness that radiated from his eyes. Moreover, he could not get past calling him by his title. That he would not do.

Ryan smiled to himself, not sure what the future held, but believing things were changing, and for the better. He felt pleased with himself for his attendance, and excited he managed to remain the entire time. He only hoped his good attitude lingered longer than the uneasiness he still felt crawling around in his mind. Only time would tell if it would be successful, but for Claire he would do it. Ryan hoped his commitment to the sessions translated to the amount of love he had for her. That was his hope, and his fear.

Chapter 16

Ryan cleared his throat. He just finished detailing his relationship with Gillian and needed a moment to digest the feelings he dredged up from the floor of his soul. Fr. Bill was listening and, as usual, reclining his chair, leaving the pad of paper absent of notes. It puzzled Ryan why the priest neglected to record any thoughts, seeing how much information was divulged.

It was two days later, their second meeting, and already Fr. Bill was growing excited with the amount of reception with which Ryan approached the topic. He answered any question asked, and gave more than adequate information. The priest considered Ryan one of his easiest cases, but experience also told him that it might be a little deceptive. Often, wounded hearts start out on a well-meaning path, only to shy away later. For the moment, however, information was forthcoming, and the priest was pleased.

Ryan sipped hastily from his bottle of water. What he shared had an impact on him, and his actions now were marked by haste, but Ryan did not know why. It seemed the proper action, so he spoke quickly, drank quickly and even shifted quickly in his seat. Fr. Bill read the man accurately, recognizing well the agitation that resonated in his frame. It was simple for some people to open their lives to a total stranger; for others, however, it was no easy task. With every shred of information given, like a wall crumbling before an onslaught, the safety that guarded such people disappeared piece by piece. What was left was the insecurity and vulnerability of exposure, something Ryan detested.

“You shared a lot. Thank you,” said Fr. Bill.

“Oh, I have those papers,” Ryan said.

The papers had no real dealing with the meeting, and he did not need to bring them to every session, but they traveled with Ryan through the cold to the second meeting.

“Oh.” Fr. Bill said. “Any questions concerning what you read?”

“No. It’s all pretty straight forward.”

“Good. Now, you dove deeply into your life with Gillian. Can you speak on her death?”

Ryan hesitated. The death was synonymous with the darkness that followed, and Ryan believed that same darkness hung just out of reach now. He saw it before, feeling as it approached his horizon like a thick fog rolling off the bay. To speak of it, he feared, was to seemingly welcome it back. Like conjuring an elder god, speaking of that darkness was beckoning it to return and reside once more in his heart. He dealt with it as best he could and survived. He never wanted to challenge it again, though, and so remained silent, his eyes locking with the priest’s.

“Ryan?” asked Fr. Bill

“Not much to say on it,” he replied abruptly.

Fr. Bill slowly nodded.

“Not much to say, or not much that you care to say?”

“I spoke about Gillian. That’s hard enough,” Ryan answered defensively.

“You did,” began the priest, “but, your relationship with her is only half of the issue you were discussing.”

“There’s no issue with Gillian. We were fine, awesome, fantastic. I loved her and she did me.”

“Then her death must had impacted you greatly.”

“Hell, yes, it did. What kind of question is that? Of course it affected me. I was torn up. Hell, I wanted to die.”

“What were your feelings at the time?”

“Feelings? What the hell do you think I was feeling? Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“I mean, yeah, I had a ton of things going through me. I lost my best friend, my lover. She was everything to me, and when she was gone, I felt like a part of me went, also.”

Ryan was feeling uncomfortable speaking, and having the silent priest staring at him almost made matters worse. He felt like he was a sideshow, and the man before him paid to witness the agony Ryan carried. He reassured himself it was for the better of him and Claire, and so, with a deep breath, he proceeded.

“It was a rough time.”

“In what ways?”

“Well, I lost two businesses. How’s that for starters? Sorry. Sarcasm just comes naturally sometimes.”

“It’s okay.”

“I sold off my restaurant and bakery, and nearly my life. It was bad. I, I just gave up. Life, it’s like it had no meaning for me. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was darkness. It’s like my own pain was painted all over town. I couldn’t escape it. And I tried. I saw little hope of anything.”

“But you managed to get out of it.”

“I don’t know how. Luck? Good fortune?” Looking at the old cross on the wall, “God? Who knows? But yes, I survived, proof positive because I’m here, right?”

Father Bill smiled weakly. He was unusually tired that day, his previous night being one of personal heartache and sleeplessness. When he took a drink from his own bottle, he couldn’t help but feel some of the pain Ryan just expressed.

“Where is the darkness now?”

“Don’t know and don’t care. It’s not with me, so I’m happy.”

“Do you think it can ever return?”

Ryan was silent. He earnestly believed it could, and knew it had previously. The thought of reentering that darkness scared him. Ryan knew it was always lurking, waiting and biding its time before it could take him once more.

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Actually, Ryan, I think this ‘darkness’ might be part of the problem.”

“How?” Ryan asked.

“This darkness, you fear it’s return?”

“Yes,” Ryan confessed.

“And you would do anything to prevent its return, correct?”

“Of course. It was hell for me.”

For the first time, Fr. Bill leaned forward and starting writing slowly on the pad. He made a few lines of thoughts, and when finished, leaned back, retaking his original position. Ryan could not see what was inscribed on the pad, though he did make an attempt.

“This darkness,” Fr. Bill started, “is the heart of your issue. You fear it and loathe it. And what you fear most is its return. Your period of agony and angst came after your mother’s death and was compounded by Gillian’s death, and remained until you met Claire, or at least started to notice her. She gave you hope and reassurance that everything would be well once again. So, Claire is normalcy for you. And to retain that normalcy, and thus combat the return of your pain, you will do anything to retain her, the only way you learned and know how: by abusively controlling her.”

Fr. Bill finished and looked at Ryan. He needed no affirmation of his thoughts, having diagnosed this sort of issue many times prior. It was very simple, though in a twisted way; Ryan wanted to stave off his pain, so he chose to become the aggressor and control his own destiny, thus controlling Claire’s as well.

For Ryan, it was as if several pieces of the puzzle, pieces he knew and saw, were suddenly put together. The process was now understood, and for the first time, he could actually understand the road upon which he had walked, seeing in it his childhood, his mistakes, his pain and his reaction to it. He did not confess such, but he felt Fr. Bill was correct in his assumption, and had accurately diagnosed him.

“I think, Ryan, if we are going to get you through this, we are going to need to work on your issues with control, and work through your pain. You are going to have to unlearn what you know now and relearn hot to interact with Claire without abuse and control. I hate to say this, but your ‘darkness,’ as you call it, never left you. It’s not an exterior entity that haunts you; it’s very much a part of you, residing in you even now.”

“But, but, if I give up control, it’s coming back,” Ryan blurted out.

“Ryan, it’s in you now.”

“I can’t feel it,” Ryan replied.

“Just because you can’t feel it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s a part of you, something you must work through. I will help you to do it, but only God will get you through it.”

The crucifix on the wall stared down at Ryan, and instinctively, his eyes looked up, as if the plastic and wood creation were the divine itself. He felt suspended, like he was just pinned to a wall and couldn’t move. The thought of that piercing pain still being with him shocked him terribly. He hoped it left when Claire came into his life, but he knew better.

“You will learn to give up control, and surrender. You can’t destroy life for the sake of restraining the advance of your pain. Horror, agony, these things will control you, if they don’t already, which I think they do.”

“I , I don’t know.”

“It’s easy to lose yourself in this, Ryan. I’ve seen it several times. You want control so much, you are willing to surrender your personal autonomy and take the mantel of a slave in order to get it. Ironic, actually.”


“You lose control. Darkness enters. You find normalcy, and darkness seemingly retreats. You fear losing normalcy, so you become controlling of what brought it. In becoming controlling, you become controlled. When you feel you’ve lost control, you lash out and take further control, thus enslaving yourself further. In the process, you are destroying everything you love, and endangering the life of the one you love most.”

“I’d never endanger Claire’s life.”

“Ryan, forgive me, but you don’t know that.”

“Alright, don’t start making me out to be a psychopath. I’ve got it under control.”

“Maybe that’s the problem.”

“No, priest, no. You’re wrong there. I love Claire, and not just because she’s some type of savior. I love her for who she is.”

Ryan’s voice was fierce and aggressive, the old tone of the priest having struck a nerve with him. The office was warm, but to Ryan, the temperature rose substantially. He could feel his aggravation mounting as he glared at the aged countenance of the priest. Though the old man said nothing in his defense, he still retained an air of regality in his frame, his stately and stoic demeanor almost challenging Ryan’s outbursts.

“I don’t doubt you on that, Ryan. I’m certain you love her. After all, that’s the reason you are here.”

Ryan shifted angrily in his seat. He continued to look at the wrinkled brow of the priest until he felt discomfort overtaking him, and he averted his eyes to some cluttered corner of the office. There, stacks of books and some papers formed a little mountain of literature that collected dust as a peak does snow.

“What is control?” Fr. Bill asked.

The father’s voice drew Ryan’s attention, as the silence of the office was dissolved by it. Annoyed and angry, Ryan nonetheless thought through the question, hoping to find a response that could be used to retaliate against the old man.

“It’s being in charge,” Ryan said briskly.

“What else?”

“What else is there? It’s one person having, well, control over everything else. It’s one person making all the decisions. That’s control.”

“True. Why can’t anyone else make decisions?”

“I don’t know! Maybe they can’t because they’d only make the wrong ones, or maybe everything would fall apart if too many people were involved. Control is centralization of power. It’s like that in the military, and nobody gets mad at that, right?”

“Sometimes, control is a necessary thing. I don’t think that is the case here. Listen to yourself and hear what you are saying.”

Ryan blurted out his thoughts so quickly, that he actually didn’t have the time to comprehend what he was saying. He was too consumed by his retaliation to actually give credence to introspection. But, having the moment of reflection offered, he ran his montage through his mind once more. When he saw what he said, even how he said it, he began to realize what control was to him. He always oscillated in his understanding of Claire’s decision making ability, sometimes rendering her free reign to chart her own course, and other times, much darker times, he felt he had to make decisions for her. It was not out of any sort of voluntary assistance that he helped, but out of a desire to consolidate his own powerbase, and for a specific purpose: to stave off his pain.

Ryan’s chain of thought wandered over this, and as it did, his face expressed what he was beginning to feel. The realization that he was controlling Claire for his own purpose, his own inability to face his pain, smacked him roughly. In that moment, she only felt like a pawn to him, and he hated that feeling. The woman he loved was more to him, but he could not maneuver around her subordinate status to think of anything else to the contrary.

Is she just a pawn to me? Ryan thought. No, it can’t be. It isn’t. I love Claire so much. But God, a pawn? She’s like a slave. I’m, I don’t even know what to say. It’s like I just treat her as I wish because she means nothing to me, which is a lie. But, how else do I describe my behavior? How else do I detail my controlling her? Do I control her? I think I know that one. Oh, shit. I don’t even know what to think. I control her as a way to not to deal with my pain? God! But is that all? I mean, I fear my pain, but I think I fear losing her more. I fear losing her.

“I’m afraid I’ll lose her,” Ryan said quickly.

His rapid speech was the result of having an especial confession to render, and his pride was forcing it out as hastily as possible, so the listener might not have the ability to hear it in full detail.

“I know,” replied Fr. Bill.

Fr. Bill clicked his pen against the desk, but found the mechanical behavior annoying, and set the instrument down. He looked at the furrowed brow of the young man, so creased with the fears and worries he carried. A great deal of sympathy for Ryan rested in the old man’s heart. He drew parallels between him and the fictional son he would have had, had he not taken the vow. With Ryan’s reddish brown hair, Fr. Bill knew his fictitious son would look similar, and be about the same age, maybe a little older. The priest was never one to regret anything, especially his sacred vow and occupation, but sometimes he did dream of the children he would never know, and little voices calling him not by his title, but by his name, ‘Daddy.’

“Could you possibly be controlling her to both retain your normalcy and keep her in your life?” Fr. Bill asked.

“Yeah,” Ryan replied thoughtfully.

Ryan looked at his watch. It was nearing one, and he knew he would have to leave soon. He had errands to run, and a meeting with the staff at the restaurant. He also wanted a nap, and an excuse to get out of the office.

“Time?” asked Ryan.

Fr. Bill was oblivious to the time of day when Ryan called his attention to it. He looked over at his clock, a small desk clock, and shook his head.

“Yes, unfortunately. You did well, and I am pleased. I think we are making progress. When we meet again, I want to look further into your issues of loss. I will be gentle, but I think we need to explore that. That, like your pain, is another key source. Ryan, I’m praying for you.”

Ryan stood, feeling relief at the termination of the meeting. He pulled his jacket over him and buttoned it. The layers immediately made him feel warm, but he internally felt that something was wrong. The idea of his treatment of Claire upset him. He had secretly battled his relation to her in his own quiet moments, but now he felt ashamed at someone knowing. It seemed to make it all the more worse. He didn’t expect any condemnation from the priest, but still his shame weighed upon him, and he felt sorry for himself, sorry for Claire and for the heart she had for him. He briefly wished her gone, that she might find happiness elsewhere.

“Oh, I’d like to meet with Claire, as well. If you don’t mind.”

“I saw it in the paperwork and mentioned it to her. Here, I’ll write down her cell,” Ryan said.

Ryan scribbled the number on the pad and left it on the desk. Standing again, he said, “Thanks, priest. I guess I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Ryan, love her. Love her for no other reason than to love her.” Fr. Bill said.

Ryan looked at the priest differently. He appreciated the comment, the advice, and with those words, realized the man cared. It was unnatural for someone to take such an interest in Ryan’s life, but this man seemed to have an active interest and left Ryan puzzled as to why. Shaking the thought, he shook hands with the priest and walked out, his mind thinking of how he could love Claire better.

When Ryan stepped out into the cold, the shock of the temperature mirrored the shock he received inside. The wind blew the falling snow in a gentle but still unpleasant manner. Ryan stood in the middle of the sidewalk, a human barrier to the other occupants whose haste sent them along the freezing walkway in a quick, but careful, speed. Snow gathered on his shoulders and mixed in his styled hair. His first thought was to text Claire and simply tell her ‘I love you,’ but his heart demanded more, so he unpacked the phone from his layers of clothing and looked at the time.

“If I hurry, maybe we can meet up,” he said out loud.

Ryan checked his device to see if Claire was still in her office, and when he found her sitting tight there, he dialed her number. He knew it was last minute, and did not know if she had plans, but he wanted to see her, if for no other reason than to just sit in her presence and behold her.

Claire answered as Ryan was slowly making his way down the street. Cars moved speedily past, but by pressing the phone tightly to his ear, Ryan could hear the melodious tones of her voice.

“Hey baby,” he began, “I know this is totally last minute, so if you have plans, that’s cool, but can we meet for lunch?”

Because Ryan only just planned this on the spree, his question had the energy and nervousness of a boy asking a girl out for the first time. He smiled when she acquiesced, and began to move quickly down the sidewalk like a fish swimming upstream.

“Awesome. I’ll grab a cab and meet you at the office, okay?” he asked.

Ryan was all smiles. Hanging up, he felt the fervor of their first meeting again, when the world was so bright in its autumn hues. His steps were brisk, and when he managed to grab a cab, his mind wandered happily over fond memories as they navigated the thick noon traffic.

There was a newness in Ryan that was easily recognized. He hated to give too much credence to the priest, but he felt that in the first two meetings, so much had been shed from his soul that he almost felt lighter. All the anguish of his mental captivity was dissipated by the vocalization of his problems, something Ryan seldom did. Now, to his eyes, the world seemed brighter, even amidst its wintery gloom. He relished in the absence of pain. When they arrived at the office, he leapt from the car like a man transformed. He could see, feel and understand, and, though he did not want to admit it, the priest was the reason. When he thought of the old man, he acknowledged him with a weak smile, and, a nod of gratitude.

At lunch, Claire chatted gaily about her morning and some zany stuff Brett did for laughs. She complained about clients, some of her staff, and the cold, sometimes echoing verbatim the expressions Brett utilized on his morning trek from the elevator to his cubicle. And through it all, Ryan just listened, sipping his Carmenere but taking delight from her words. His eyes glittered like a man in love, a man who saw his future through prophetic means, and enjoyed what he beheld.

When it came Ryan’s turn to talk, he did not know what to say. His delight was listening to her, not speaking himself, and when she grew quiet and waited for him to answer her question, Ryan felt that pleasant uneasiness of young love. He smiled and just started laughing.

“What?” Claire asked.

Claire set her fork down, choosing not to eat the little fingerling potato with the hollandaise sauce. Ryan didn’t answer. Setting aside his own fork, he folded his arms on the table. A server stopped by the table to check on them, and they both said they were fine.

“Nothing,” Ryan finally said.

“No, you’re laughing. What?” she playfully asked.

“It’s sappy.”

“What? The sauce?”

“No!” Ryan laughed.

“Then what?”

“It’s just, well, I love you.”

Claire smiled brightly at him, the energy emitted warming Ryan’s heart. She stretched her hand across the table and took his, clutching it tightly as if to transmit more than a verbal reply. What feelings she held for him, she wanted to pass through her arm and physically enter into him.

“Baby, I love you,” Claire replied.

“And to answer your question, my morning was well. Had a pretty good session with the priest.”

“How do you like him so far?”

“He’s alright, I guess. Sometimes quiet, sometimes talkative, but sometimes, I feel like he can read my mind. It’s creepy, but I guess it works for him. He still doesn’t write anything down, either.”

“Still? Wow. Maybe he has an amazing memory. Or, maybe you just make such a powerful impression. I mean, I’ve known girls who have gone out on dates with guys they met in the park, just because they thought they were so damned cute.”

“Who would do a crazy thing like that?”

Claire playfully glared at Ryan and gently kicked him under the table.

“Jerk,” she said.

“Aww, come now,” Ryan replied.

“I don’t know. Obviously, some crazy girl!”

“Aww, but you’re the cutest crazy girl I’ve ever met.”

“You’re not helping matters.”

“Should just shut up, right?”

“Might be prudent,” Claire said, pulling back from the table in feigned anger.

Ryan sighed contentedly. This was the life he loved, a life with Claire laughing and smiling, her brightness chasing away his demons and soothing the waves of his mind. He thought again about why she was in his life. He knew, believed, she was more than just a means to an end, and he was going to set that end as his goal, including her and growing with her, until they merged and became one love.

“So, what time are you heading the kitchen tonight?” Claire asked.

“A little earlier. I have some errands to run after lunch, then I’ll probably head over. I’m hoping to skip out early tonight.”

“Gonna see your crazy girlfriend?”

“Oh, lord!”

Claire smiled again, the grin full of playfulness and joviality. Ryan laughed and shook his head. A bottle of wine, he thought, her favorite. He’d pick it up and bring one home. Just a little something, he reasoned, to express his love.

They finished their lunch and new world wine, then paid the bill. On their walk back, they held one another tightly against the temperatures that seemed to be dropping. Sometimes, the most impromptu moments allow for the acquisition of the most memories, and that day, walking briskly through the Boston streets, Claire was cherishing the lunch they shared. She felt so much gratitude for their new situation, for the bravery of her lover to face his demons, and for his willingness to endure hard change for their love. She was nothing but optimistic about their future and Claire committed herself to doing whatever it took to make them work.

They ducked under the awning of the building to escape the snow, though it still blew under and cluttered the open expanse of sidewalk. It was a beautiful snow, one that fell lazily and gusted infrequently. It was equally a beautiful walk they shared, and now both felt the chill and sting on their faces, and saw the dampness of the snow on their coats. For Ryan and Claire, it was more than worth the freezing chill that inhabited their bodies.

“Alright baby, I know you gotta go. I’ll see you tonight when I get in.” Ryan said.

“Have a good afternoon, and be careful in this snow. I’ll see you later. Don’t be late,” Claire said, winking seductively.

“Oh, the priest said he’d be calling you, maybe today. Just a head’s up.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks. I’ll see you later, baby.

“Love you,” Ryan said.

“And I love you,” Claire replied.

They kissed and then departed.

On Claire’s way into the building, she saw Brett standing beside the open elevator. He was waiting for her. With a playful smile, she greeted her nearly frozen friend, who still retained his coat rack appearance when venturing outdoors.

“Hiya!” Claire said.

“Hey,” Brett replied.

Together, they stepped into the empty elevator and Brett pushed the designated floor. He saw Claire and Ryan kissing when he entered, but did not want to bother so romantic a moment. Besides, he was cold and his genuine abhorrence of the weather sent him scurrying for the warmth of the building.

“How was lunch?” she asked.

“Good. And you? Some mid-day baby making?”

“Oh shut up!”

Brett laughed at his own comment, but more at her reply. They proved to be snarky with each other on occasion, or, truth be told, more frequently than either preferred to admit.

“Seriously, how are things?”

Brett looked at Claire, the smile still evident on his face, but slowly fading as they shifted to a more serious note. Brett was never far from Claire, mentally or affectionately, and he chose to take an active role, especially after the last episode. He knew he would get an honest answer from Claire, and would frequently ‘check in’ with her, just to see how things were progressing.

Claire looked at her friend, his face surfacing from under all of the layers he had on his shoulders and around his neck. For a moment, he looked like a floating face amidst a woolen sea. She smiled, but not at the image. It was his friendship and affection that warmed her.

“Things are really good. I think it’s going to be all right.”

“Good. We’ve been thinking of you.”

“I know you have. And I appreciate everything. I really do.”

“I’m glad to hear he’s talking about it. Counseling is totally the way to go.”

“You know to keep that between us.”

“Oh, heck yes. You have my confidence, I promise you that.”

“Thanks. It’s only been two sessions, but I think it’s starting to really work. I’ve seen a change in him, that’s, that’s uncanny. I feel very hopeful.”

“I’m so glad for that. I really am.”

The bell rang and the elevator stopped, the old doors jerking open to reveal the bustling office space. Both Claire and Brett let out a sigh, knowing it was back to work until the proverbial whistle finally released them.

“Here we go,” Claire said.

“Yep, indeed.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Claire sat casually in the coffee shop, watching the nightly routine unfold before her. During the day, most people grabbed their coffee and left. Now, the area had more of a lounge-like atmosphere, with every available space occupied by people on computers and tablets, reading magazines and chatting with friends or playing on their phones. The scent of coffee was rich in the air, and the dim lighting so low it resembled dark fog. The music was catchy, something like French Jazz, and it was only drowned out by the multitude of voices and shouted orders.

In a chair beside the brick wall of the shop, Claire sat and sipped her latte. It was a chocolate mint creation, too late for the holiday season, but still drinkable, given the cold weather. Claire was waiting patiently for Fr. Bill to show up. When she returned from lunch, he texted her and asked to meet. He apologized for the short notice, but given that his weeknights were booked from that day forward, it was now or never.

Claire was told he would be the man dressed like a priest, something she found very comical, though she did not know why. So, she waited for a man who looked like a priest, her coffee in the large mug steaming and filling her immediate area with the delicious aroma of espresso and mint.

The day was long for Claire, and sitting in her chair, she felt the fatigue of her endeavors coming over her, despite the coffee she drank. Watching two men play chess no longer had an interest for her, and the hipster Gandalf look-alike sitting a few seats down totally baffled her, but could not hold her attention. She was tired, and was slowly feeling her body drift into a more comfortable state of relaxation.

As Claire’s eyes lazily sauntered over the coffee house, she saw the door open and, bundled up as he was, could see an older man with a knitted, wrinkled brow, enter the shop and look around.

“I bet that’s him,” Claire said.

When Claire stood, Fr. Bill locked eyes with her and moved, or rather waded, through the mess of people to reach her. It was a maze-like path he took to reach her seat against the wall, and with the lighting so dim, he would have cursed, had he not been a man of the cloth.

“Claire?” Fr. Bill asked.

“Hi, Father,” she replied.

“Again, I’m so sorry for the spontaneity of this meeting, but my week just suddenly filled up, and I wanted a chance to meet with you personally.”

“It’s not a problem, Father.”

“I hope the weather was not too inclement for you,” he said.

“Not at all.”

“Okay. Can I get you a coffee? I think I may indulge.”

“I’m fine, but thank you.”

Claire had a moment to examine the man who sat before her boyfriend twice now, and he was just as Ryan described him. He looked dignified to Claire, his forehead wrought with deep thoughts that seemed to write themselves so visibly on it. He was taller than Claire, and though his eyes looked down on her, she did not sense any haughtiness in his demeanor. His smile she enjoyed the most, that weak and gentle smile that cut through the darkness to reach her.

“Well, let me grab something. Oh, something to eat?”

“I’m fine, but thanks.”

“You sure? They have pretty good scones here, if they’re still making them now, and, oh, those wraps! They’re pretty tasty.”

“I’m not hungry, especially after this large latte.”

“Alright,” Fr. Bill said.

The priest moved back through the tables and couches, and up to the counter, where he placed his order. His mind was set on three different people at that moment, one of which was Ryan. As a young priest, Fr. Bill learned early that your heart would never be allowed to just dwell in one location for long; often, it would have multiple avenues competing for attention. Thinking of Ryan, he ran all he had heard through his mind, finally putting a face with the name of Claire.

To the priest, Claire seemed just how she was described, a testament to the affection Ryan did have for her. But more than just physical appearance, it was a moment of note to meet with the survivor of the abuse. Fr. Bill found no fascination in such a meeting, but considered it a duty to help the person who was under the weight of so heavy a burden. He had a heart for the survivors, and made it his intent to strengthen them as well as work with their lovers. His duty now came to mind when he met Claire, and in a moment, he would begin speaking with her in very much the same way as when he began with Ryan.

Claire needed strength and love, and had to be shown where it resided inside her own heart. That was Fr. Bill’s duty, to help her locate her own source of power. He said a silent prayer and took his order back to the chairs.

“I can never remember what I ordered previously, until after I order it. I wanted a mocha, but got a caramel. Oh, well.”

Claire laughed at the gentle silliness of the priest sitting in the chair beside her. He dropped his items on a little circular table before them, and slowly pulled out a sandwich. With a single bite, he seemed to eat half of it.

“So, Ryan tells me you are in marketing?”

“Yes, I’m in downtown, right in the midst of all the traffic.”

“Sounds lovely,” Fr. Bill said.

“It’s great during rush hour. But yes, I direct the marketing operations at my company, which is a conglomerate resource specialist. I’ve been at it about three years now.”

“Director? That’s probably a job with more leadership responsibilities than you care to admit, right?”

“Sometimes, Father, I want to pull my hair out.”

They both laughed over the joke, each knowing it was more truth than lie. Fr. Bill took another bite, then raised his mug to his lips.

“Too sweet,” he said. “I don’t know what it is with people and their sweetness these days.”

Claire smiled and shifted in her seat, her eyes still watching the older man. He looked priestly, she thought, but also august. That was probably not the first time he’d been called that, she thought.

“How many are you in charge of at work?”

“I run the department. That involves several smaller units that are tasked with different projects. Each unit, or team, has a lead, and I correspond mostly with them. But, overall, it’s about thirty-five.”

“Wow, that’s a lot,” he said.

“Probably not as many as a church,” Claire said.

“Leadership is still leadership, regardless of the numbers.”


“And strength, leading people takes strength.”

“True also,” Claire said.

Claire was following the conversation, but she did not exactly know where it was going. She merely thought it was just basic conversation, mixed with a little philosophy. It was her hope, however, that he wouldn’t get into some of the issues in so open a location. If he did, Claire knew she would ask for more privacy before speaking. She figured he was far more professional than that.

“Ryan says you had a quite an interesting meeting in the park. Sounds rather planned to me.”

Fr. Bill smirked, and Claire smiled at the remembrance. She proceeded to ‘wax poetic’ about their first encounter and then moved casually into their first date. She spoke, needing little prompting with the romantic stories of which she was a leading character.

Claire talked for a while, nearly forgetting the purpose of the meeting; however, she was doing exactly what Fr. Bill wanted: she was talking, her words allowing him an entrance into her mind. He saw by the few questions he asked, and her responses, that she was still a woman of strength, a director in a company and one who was a natural leader. He did not venture into their issues, yet; that, he would leave for another visit, and there would be others. He saw her personality and was happy, but now it was his turn to speak.

Looking at her, and moving closer so as to distance himself from the noise, Fr. Bill spoke slowly but distinctly about what she was facing, while never betraying Ryan’s confidence. He used no names, and in his hushed tone, informed her of her situation, of the evils and pitfalls they will face. The smile on his face faded as he spoke the words no lover ever desired to hear, but out of the heaviness of his heart came the hope of better tomorrows, and success. He shared with her some cases where nameless parties learned to live and love again, without control and abuse.

Though soft-spoken and hushed, Claire heard him clearly, all of the noises of the room fading into silent obscurity as his mouth formed a prophetic message for her soul. She listened intently, absorbing what he said, despite the darkness that seemed to infiltrate her heart.

What remained of Fr. Bill’s coffee was cold by the time he slowly reached to the old, worn table to retrieve it. Claire was holding hers, though the mug was a good indicator of the temperature of the drink. Fr. Bill checked his watch, then looked at Claire’s tense eyes.

“I’m sorry to have kept you so late, Claire.” Fr. Bill said.

“It’s fine. I’ll be up when Ryan gets in anyway.”

“Well, let me let you go. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I’m thankful I could have this time with you. As I told Ryan, so shall I tell you, I am available whenever you need me. And I would like to meet with you as well. What you both are traversing is dangerous, but you are in the right and best spot for it, and by that I mean seeking help. As the other party in this equation, I want to be a presence for you, both for comfort and security. You are strong; that I have already seen. And that is good.”

Fr. Bill looked deeply into Claire’s eyes, her blue hues fading into the darkness of the shop. He could see her following his words like one would the stanzas on an opera screen, and he could almost sense an uneasiness growing after their night together. It was common and customary, but she would grow to withstand that feeling, recognizing her own strength in the matter. It would take time, however; a lot of time.

Claire, for her part, felt the fatigue of her body slip away at the start of the conversation. She knew it was to be discussed when they first met, but the words he spoke shook her, for now it truly felt official, and the reality of their situation alarmed her, as if she were experiencing it for the first time. Having a secret between two lovers was one thing. Having a secret with an additional party, especially one who sought to interject input into an awful situation, was an alarming factor both welcomed and reviled, since it solidified their problem.

“Father, thank you,” Claire said.

Fr. Bill handed Claire his business card, then took her hand into his. He did not speak, but the look in his eyes and the strength of his hand said all Claire needed to know. Claire and Ryan had a dark valley through which to walk, but they would not tread alone, for before them was a beacon that shone upon their path. In her heart, she believed the darker the valley grew, the brighter that beacon would burn. She squeezed Fr. Bill’s hand, the warmth of their mutual affection evident.

“Alright, this old man is going home and going to bed. Again, Claire, thanks for coming out. I’ll be in touch, but if you need me, call.”

“Thanks, Father. We both appreciate everything.”

They chatted lightly as they gathered their belongings and walked into the cold of the night. When they parted, the darkness of the city streets, filtered as it was by the street lamps, seemed to absorb them both. Fr. Bill tucked his scarf into his jacket and stuck his hands in his pockets. The cars rushing past created a gentle hum by which he felt lulled into a stupor. He thought over everything she said. He knew and feared that her love for Ryan would be a stumbling block. Time alone would tell. He would have to work through that with her.

Later that night, Claire sat in her usual spot on the couch, the gaslights of the faux fire the only illumination she had. The flames seemingly licked the same logs over and over, as the reddish glare danced lazily across the room. Her eyes stared into the fire, absorbed in the swaying, rhythmic flames.

Under normal circumstances, Claire would have sipped her way through a glass of white Bordeaux and been eying another, but this night, her first glass sat idle on the table, flames reflecting off the goblet. Her mind was far from the pleasures of the vine; she thought of the reality of her life, of the situation in which she found herself, and of the danger blatantly mentioned by Fr. Bill. Before their conversation, Claire thought it was manageable; but after speaking with the priest, a new reality emerged for her, one that seemed so obtrusive in her life, one that carried such darkness and pain. Gone were her perceptions of their existence; gone were her hopes for an easy, early fix.

The door unlocked and slowly opened. Ryan, still in the hall, hesitated for a moment. He knew she had seen the priest earlier, and through the course of the evening, it weighed on him as much as it did Claire. He felt awkward entering, almost like they had to reconcile after a fight. Like Claire, Ryan felt that his secret, their secret, was now a bold and troubling reality. Gone for him was the luxury of secrecy and security. He did not know what transpired between them, and he burned with mutual passions to either discern or completely retreat from what was spoken.

When Ryan walked in, the orange light of the fire partially illuminated a body on the sofa. He had to allow his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Without speaking, he shed his coat and draped it over a chair. He felt uneasy, though all of the scenes of his home were very natural and normal. The fire burned, the scent of a supper he prepared a few days ago, now used as leftovers, hung in the air, and the muffled sounds of the city traffic, with the twinkling lights of the skyline, all entered through the unclothed windows. It was his home, their home, but he still could not shake that feeling.

Claire lazily turned her head to see the dark image moving across the room. She reached for her wine and sipped, slowly getting off of the sofa. Ryan came to her as she stood and put his arms around her. Claire fell into his strong embrace and allowed her head to rest on his shoulder. He held her tightly, warmly, and without any words, told her by his embrace that he loved her.

“Hi,” he finally said.

“Hi, baby,” she replied.

That was all.

Ryan let her go and, taking her by the hand, led her through the house and into the bedroom, where he proceeded to change. Claire sat on the chair in their room, watching him disrobe and change into his lounging pants. She was silent, more like a piece of furniture herself than a living person, her eyes absorbing his frame, watching the tiredness of his body as he groaned silently under his own weight and fatigue. She wanted to speak, to say something about her night, but it was still too fresh to discuss, so she remained silent.

Ryan tossed his clothes into the basket on their closet floor and stretched his arms upward. Of all the late nights he worked, tonight he felt the most tired. Exiting the closet, he saw Claire balled up in the chair, and moved to her and sat on the edge of the bed.

Beholding her sleepy face was what drove Ryan every night to hasten his steps and get home, where he could look into Claire’s blue eyes, crystalline like the frozen waters of a glacial lake. In them, Ryan found new energy every night, and for his heart, equal measures of comfort and love. Now, he looked deep into them, but the blue hues only convicted him. In them, he saw the monster he was, and he knew by her silence that she saw it, too. What demons he sought to harbor in him were now free, the iron gates unhinged and their movements unrestricted. He felt his pain, his anger, his torment poisoning him. He felt the secret surging through him, unrestrained and free to move. Then, his shame dampened his soul with great remorse, causing his eyes to tear.

Claire watched him take his seat, and though he looked right into her eyes, she felt as if he were not staring at her. He had a look upon his face that told of his wandering mind. What thoughts he had were unknown to her, but she deduced they were of the most unpleasant nature. When she saw him begin to cry, she was immediately awakened. Removing herself from her chair, she moved to kneel before him, her arms like nurturing vines wrapping around him, holding him against what ill thoughts he had.

Ryan sobbed and fell against Claire, her arms sending through his body vibrations of her love. He felt weak, vulnerable and besieged by all the horrors of his mind, but when she touched him, he felt comforted. The world could rail against him, but with her by his side, he knew he would be safe. His tears fell easily from his eyes, dropping onto Claire’s shoulder. She squeezed him tighter.

Neither spoke, nor moved, nor gave any indication that they intended to do so. They remained on the bed, Claire holding the slumping figure in her arms, and Ryan crying against his bastion of strength. What would come, would come, they each knew, but how it was faced, that was the mystery. Each heart had hope, as each believed in the power of change; but lurking in their own personal shadows was the darkness of evil, of the hurt and pain that waited for the opportune time to strike. They knew this, and so held tightly to each other.

They spoke few words that night, but when the lights finally dimmed and they laid in bed, they hungrily sought each other’s embrace. In that embrace, they slept.

Chapter 17

The first night Claire met with Fr. Bill, she returned home feeling the woes of a dark future, but that was not to be in the weeks that came. Much to her joy and surprise, Ryan seemed to be making great strides with the priest, and appeared to be in greater control of himself. They had their arguments and fights, but they lacked the vehemence of their previous battles. Hotheaded tempers flared, but with agitation and subdued anger, not the ferocity Ryan once displayed.

February gave way to March, and on their nights together and days off, Ryan and Claire boldly explored the outdoors again, mocking the demise of winter and waiting for the coming of spring. They enjoined their hearts tighter every day, and their lives began to be a little more commonplace, the space where comfortable and familiarity replace the new and different. They were growing and learning, uniting more and more in love and respect.

Ryan went for his meetings faithfully, and the priest noted several new developments that cheered him and gave him a promising outlook for the future of the couple. Ryan was dealing with his anger, hurt and issues of control. He learned to stare his past boldly in its face, confronting his father with strength. He learned to love was to be willing to lose, to let go for the sake of another. Love was the loss of control, the ability to release that which you desire most.

Claire was also learning. Fr. Bill showed her just how strong she could be, and showed her where she kept her strength. He also allowed her a voice to speak concerns she could not utter elsewhere, and from that she released the burden she kept inside. Sometimes, she would meet the priest after work in his office; other times, they would walk in the Common, if the weather were mild and not too chilly. On these walks, the dead trees rose above them, shaking with energy at the still ashen sky, their protest for winter’s culmination almost successful.

They nearly took the same route every time, Claire’s old jogging route. When they reached the bridge, they always stopped where the fateful event first occurred, and marvel at the man who was emerging from under the shadow of his father.

One Saturday, Fr. Bill and Claire met while Ryan was at the kitchen. The weather was cool, but the snow was melting and the city was shaking off its wintery garb. With such a day, they opted for a stroll in the park. Claire had come to appreciate the priest over the several weeks he shepherded them. She found him a comforter and friend who was unlike anyone she had ever known. Even Brett, for all his love and compassion, could not match Fr. Bill and the way he seemed to view the contents of her soul.

The wind was blowing over the bridge, skating along the frozen pond below and chilling the Common. Claire was bundled against the cold with a rich, royal blue coat and a scarf wrapped around her neck; she chose an accenting skull cap to complete her winter wear. Fr. Bill wore his usual black overcoat, collar upturned and his face cast down to avoid the breeze. They spoke warmly to each other as the wind carried their voices off to some distant land.

The Common was busy with people walking and jogging, some daring to brave a bench for a mid-afternoon sit. The sky was overcast, and Claire wondered if it might snow again. Together, they walked slowly side by side, their eyes taking in the park. For Claire, it felt good to be outside, the bright sun warming her chilled face. The cold, the animation of the park and the chill all invigorated her. Fr. Bill was glad to see Claire so happy.

“Control is always seen as vital to abusers,” Fr. Bill said.

Claire listened as they walked along the path. The pathway was clear, but large patches of snow still clumped on the dead grass and clung to some shadowed tree limbs. Little rivulets of melted snow were pouring over the mashed grass as the weather began its return to spring.

“I can see that,” Claire returned.

“It’s their ability to maintain the situation. They seek to dominate the mind of their victim. It’s all about control. Ryan believed that, to an extent. Like so many others, he thought he needed to control you in order to keep his own peace. And that’s was he was doing.”

Claire nodded slowly. A runner jolted past them. She thought he looked like Ryan, and remembered how cute he was in his running attire. Stepping in a small puddle, the splash made her look down, then she slowly looked up again at the path leading to the docking area for the swan boats, which were still in storage.

“But,” continued Fr. Bill, “he’s seeing things differently now. Our past few visits have been especially challenging, but in a very positive way. He’s growing and learning to face not only himself, but also his father. That, I feel, is the root of the issue. Seldom does one engage in abusive activity without first having witnessed it earlier in life.”

“Learned behavior, I guess,” Claire added.

“Learned behavior, indeed. And, like I said, he’s coming along rather well. He’s finding new joy, and for that I am delighted.”

“I can’t tell you how amazing he’s been at home. It’s not like he’s a new man, because he’s not. He’s just a better man. I don’t know. He’s just different, but in a way that I love. We had a fight the other night…Oh, I think I mentioned that to you already. But, it wasn’t anything like the past. I mean, people will fight, right? Well, we had it, but we made up before that night was out, and even the ‘fight’ was more like a heated argument. He even realized we were getting nowhere with the argument, and called it off to allow us time to calm down.”

“That’s good.”

“And, he’s just so compassionate now, even more than before. I feel like I can take charge of more things, and I can have a larger leadership role in our relationship. Not that I want to be the boss or anything, but, you know, I’m not forced to be so, um, docile. And he respects that. I never realized just how he treated me until we started with you. I don’t think he knew, either. I just feel so good about everything, about us.”

“And, you should. But, Claire, I know there is more to you than just the surface feelings you are displaying now. What’s going on underneath?”

Claire did not look at Fr. Bill as he spoke those words. She stared ahead, at the trees and the snow patches, thinking herself in some little forest away from town. The sounds of the city were still present, but so were the few birds that chose to fly about, and a stray squirrel that dared to brave the snow. She thought about what he asked and knew that in the few short weeks she became acquainted with the priest, he had indeed gained a sort of esoteric knowledge of her emotions.

With a deep sigh, Claire organized her thoughts. What pain she carried was ready to be expressed. Unlike Ryan, she did not approach such confessions timidly, but openly, knowing that the priest was a friend, one willing and able to help them.

“Okay. You’re right. Do I fear? Yeah, sometimes. I’ve had a lot to deal with in accepting this as my life. Every girl dreams of growing up and having this fairytale existence. No one dreams of being abused. Nor do they dream of having to help their partner overcome it. But, I guess I’m one of the few lucky ones. From all I’ve read, it could be worse. I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still far off. He’s done really well, but there’s still so much stuff to do. I worry about him giving up, or worse, thinking he’s mastered it. Ryan, he, he has a tendency of doing that. I sometimes wish, just between you and me, you know, I sometimes wish I’d stayed in my own apartment. I don’t fear, don’t misunderstand me, and I know Ryan would never touch me, but, maybe, having a little space, you know, just for security, would be nice. I thought of mentioning it once or twice, but I know he wouldn’t go for it. Besides, I wouldn’t want to leave him. I’m afraid if I left, he’d just fall back into it. Does that make me a slave? I guess it does, but, I’m not leaving him. I love him and I made a choice, a commitment. I have to, we have to see this through together. If I leave him now, he’ll fall, and it will be my fault.”

Claire stopped. What she felt was now on the chilly wind and off of her heart. She harbored those thoughts for such a long time, and it was a release for her to finally feel she could vocalize them to the priest. He did not respond immediately, but walked slowly beside her. Briskly, a woman with a carriage rushed past, her fitness routine no doubt well under way.

Father Bill was analyzing what she said as they moved. Each step gave him further understanding, and with the sun rising high above them and warming their path, the light seemed to provide additional illumination for his mind. He was fearful of what she just said, fearful of her servitude and the anguish that would come from her self-imposed slavery. Mostly, however, he was fearful that her feelings of loyalty would be used against her.

“Claire, I agree with some of what you are saying. You both love one another, of that I have no doubt. But…” and he paused.

“But what, Father?”

“Ryan is making great strides, yet your loyalty can be a weapon for him. If you feel such commitment, and if you are believing his failure would be your doing, then you are setting yourself up for trouble.”

“I can’t just leave him,” she protested.

“I’m not asking you to. You’re right, he may need support through this. You must realize, however, that if he fails, it is his failure, not yours. You cannot not be responsible for him and his success. His success is his doing alone. And you cannot allow yourself to be trapped like that.”

He’s right, Claire thought. I can’t put myself in that situation. But, what do I do? Do I leave? Do I stay? If I suggest leaving, Ryan will think I’ve given up on him when I haven’t. But, but what? If I continue thinking like this, then I’m snagged and cornered. I do love him and I can’t leave him. I need to stay with him and help him see it through. Ryan would not use me like that. He’s better now, better than he was before. His love for me is better. He would recognize if he was trapping me, and if he didn’t, it’s something we can discuss like sensible people. No, I have to stay. I need to see this through with him.

“Claire?” asked Fr. Bill.

“I’m here. Just thinking.”

“Mind sharing?”

“I can’t leave him, you know. I just can’t. It’s not in me. And besides, he’s different now. He wouldn’t do that to me. I know he wouldn’t. I trust him. And we both have you.”

“Watch, and be observant. You can be a presence of comfort for him-” he started.

“That’s what I want to be,” Claire interrupted.

But, Fr. Bill continued, “To help him, I must be a mirror to him. Show him what he is doing. You must trust me in this. Remember, we both are seeking to make him better. He wants it; you want it. In order to help him, you must keep me informed, and not be afraid to communicate with me. And you are strong enough to do that. I’ve seen your strength; it’s inside you and all through you. I believe in you and know you can do this.”

“That won’t tear him down, the whole ‘mirror’ thing?”

“It might, but remember, we are not out to destroy him, but to help him make himself anew. The power of God is renewal, every hour, every day.”

“He’s not religious.”

“God is not religious.”

“Oh,” Claire said.

“Being present for him means making hard decisions and holding him accountable. If he stumbles, help him. If he falls, help him up. But always be real with him, and truthful. He wants help. He wants to change.”

“But, how can I do that? What if he gets mean?”

“Claire, sometimes tough love is the best love. He must be made to know what you do is for his best interest. I’ll talk with him first and let him know what I am telling you, and will continue to reinforce this with him. It sets the ground rules, and makes him aware of our intentions, clearly setting the boundaries. And if he gets mean, you know your houses of safety, those locations I gave you. It may be tough and challenging, but God will be with you. You have my prayers daily.”

Claire sighed deeply. Other women dreamed of their wedding day, some even actively planned them. While dreamy eyes turned to the rosy hues of love, Claire looked upon the sullen and morose hues of her relationship, seeing in them the harsh realities of life. Of course, there was brightness and hope, but there was also danger and heartbreak. For Claire, her existence was the bailing out of a sinking ship, all of her efforts engaged in preventing a disaster. This was not what she dreamed of, not her fairy tale ending. At times, when alone with her thoughts, she wondered where her happy ending was.

They walked in silence, slowly moving to an inaudible dirge that marked their steps. Claire tried to reconcile her determination to remain with the threat of Ryan’s failure, believing the two to be conjoined. She could not escape that trap, that pitfall that told her she would be responsible, no matter how hard she tried to understand otherwise. She feared leaving Ryan, and feared remaining with him. She confessed it to the priest, and now felt ashamed for it, but she hid her shame away from the priest and quietly put it away from her own heart. Some things she was not ready to discuss.

“So, how is your afternoon shaping up?” Fr. Bill asked, more casually.

“I’m having dinner with a friend tonight. We thought we’d surprise Ryan and dine with him. Besides, it’s free.”

“Oh, that’s nice. I’m sure he’ll be surprised. And free is always good. Father Maloney invited me to a spaghetti dinner, down, oh dear, where was it? Oh, somewhere outside of town. He’s driving, which I guess is good, since I’m obviously not one to remember locations.”

“I hope you have fun there,” replied Claire.

“They burn the sauce,” he replied flatly.

“Oh. Well, you can always eat with us!”

They both chuckled lightly. The air seemed so heavy around them, like the energy from their conversation saturated their space with sobriety. Each carried a certain amount of heaviness in their hearts, and though they continued at a casual pace, they both secretly felt they were dragging their tired limbs over the asphalt.

When they finally concluded, they hugged. Claire looked at the tired, old eyes of the man before her and smiled. He was like a warm and generous grandfather, so understanding and wise. She loved his furrowed brow, since it made him look estimable.

“As always, if you need anything, call me. And enjoy your dinner tonight,” Fr. Bill said.

“You, too. Hope for unburned sauce. And thanks, Father. Thank you.”

“Be a presence for him, but also make certain you are safe,” he said.

“I will.”

Claire smiled brightly and walked down the sidewalk along Charles Street, her body disappearing among the crowd. Father Bill moved to a bench and sat down. His age and infirmities were getting to him, but what hurt most was his heart. He always invested himself in his people, and now he was watching one stray down a very dark path. She saw it, he knew, but not entirely. It was as if she blinded herself, he thought.

Fr. Bill breathed deeply, taking in as much of the traffic fumes and cold air as he could. Then, he slowly let it out. He would check back with Claire in a day or two, and would meet with her again soon. In the meantime, all he saw was a way for Ryan to retain control.

That worried him.

* * * * * * * * * *

The restaurant was bustling with activity as Claire and Brett took their seats. It was with some humor and feigned joy that the serving staff seated their boss’ girlfriend. The staff all knew her, and gave her a choice table.

Claire was putting her napkin in her lap as Brett lifted the menu, tilting it so the candlelight of the table could reflect off the list. The room was dim, as Ryan liked it, but it made it difficult to view any printed material. Claire knew what she was going to order, that being whatever Ryan felt would be a nice surprise for her.

“It’s funny eating here. Feels like home,” Claire said.

“I bet it does. Oh, how is the coc au vin? That looks good.”

“It’s tasty, he uses a breast of chicken with a cabernet and porcini mushrooms. The flavors are so good together.”

“Hey, listen to you, little food critic,” Brett said, laughing.

“Well, when you date a chef, you pick up a thing or two.”

Cheryl, one of the servers, swept past quickly and gave a courteous but soft greeting to Claire. With her frequent visits to the restaurant, Claire got to know many of them. Watching them as they scurried about the place, Claire knew what they were enduring on the floor, and what manner of ordered chaos was in the back of house.

The soft chatter of the restaurant, with its set lighting and romantic feel, made Claire think of Ryan. She could sense him in every vibe of the place, his spirit infusing all she saw and touched. He had yet to appear, and she wasn’t certain if she would see him at all, but the knowledge of his presence was enough to send an erotic shiver through her body. Every time she saw the operation working properly, Claire felt such pride for her lover, knowing he was in control of the orchestration, and Claire loved to see Ryan prod the kitchen and the restaurant to great heights. It made her proud, and aroused.

Brett was still deciding on his entrée and Claire was lost in erotic thoughts when Cheryl came up to the table. It was a busy night, and her face, though beaming with a feigned smile, showed how arduous it was for the staff. She greeted them again, and set down two waters, her water having both a lemon and a lime. Ryan knew she was present. Claire smiled upon seeing the glass.

“How are you?” Cheryl asked Claire.

“I’m well. How are things tonight? Busy?”

“A little,” Cheryl replied.

Cheryl was one of the older servers, but experienced and knowledgeable. Ryan relied on her a lot of help govern the floor in his absence. Her hair was professionally pulled back, and her red solid silk tie was knotted just loose enough around the neck to make it look trendy without appearing slovenly.

“He’s cooking up a storm back there,” Cheryl began. “A sous called out tonight. It’s just Jorge, your baby and Katie, with a line cook.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, it’s been a busy one. But Chef’s on it. Whole kitchen is on it, in fact.”

“You guys seem to be doing really well out here,” Claire said.

“Thanks. So, what can I get for you both?”

Brett had not lifted his eyes from the menu during the nominal conversation. He was studying the menu as a man who would was about to make a life or death situation. Brett took very seriously his choice of items. He was a man of a critical palate, and he wanted to be certain what he was choosing would not disappoint. He understood every entrée at Lady Burwell’s was delicious, so he was especially carefully to select what he thought would be their absolute best.

“Hmm,” Brett said out loud.

“Tell Ryan to fix me his favorite,” Claire said. “Oh, and two glasses of the pinot.”

Cheryl winked at her and returned her smile. Then, casting a glance to the back of the room, she saw servers moving about with plates from cleared tables. With her eyes, she quietly directed those looking toward her for guidance. Then, she looked back at Brett.

“And for you?” Cheryl asked.

“Okay. I’m ready. Duck,” Brett said.

Brett handed the menu to Cheryl as he took a sip of water. She thanked them and moved away. When she entered the kitchen, she found Ryan working over a prep table, slicing onions and carrots. Jorge was sautéing and the line cook was assembling some items in a pan. The kitchen was void of voices, but the hissing and bubbling, and the aromas of cooking meat and browning onions and mushrooms was simply divine.

“Your girl wants your best,” Claire whispered.

Ryan hastily looked up at the woman and smiled, his knife rocking back and forth as a carrot was sliced into small fragments. He smiled a dangerous grin, his customary grin when he knew he was master of the moment and quite in control.

“Cod,” he said.

Cheryl grinned as well, knowing that was one of his experimental dishes. She moved on and grabbed a bottle of pinot to bring to their table. Ryan finished, and moving with the loaded cutting board, he lowered the heat on a burner and slid the ingredients into the pan. It hissed at him lightly. With a shake, he spread vegetable cuttings around the pan, and threw on an additional drizzle of olive oil.

“Cheryl, who is out there with her?”

“Oh, um, the one who’s partner is the critic, um, Dylan, um, what the hell is his last name?”

“Dylan Jacobs. Then, that’s Brett out there,” Ryan said flatly.

That’s right, Ryan thought. I remember her telling me now. I don’t know why it’s just the two of them. Maybe Dylan was busy. Well, I hope they have fun. Who knows what they’ll talk over? They always seem to ramble on. I hope it’s not about - and Ryan stopped, his eyes on the pan, but his mind wandering to darker places, places he had not visited in some time and which he considered forbidden now. Still, his mind went there, and he felt a certain amount of darkness enter, stealing across stealthily and silently. Ryan shook his head furiously, an attempt to literally shake the thoughts that were fostering there, and he looked back to the pan and other ingredients he had set before him.

Cook, Ryan, get this prepped and ready. Focus, dammit, and do your damned job. Just focus. You can unwind with Claire tonight, and everything will be okay. Everything is okay now. It’s okay.

Ryan watched Cheryl leave with the bottle, and he heard behind him the gentle cursing of the line cook, his words indicating something was wrong. He turned around to see what was happening, and quickly moved to assist the new cook.

On the floor, Cheryl was presenting the bottle to Claire’s table, and following decorum, she asked who would like to sample. Claire allowed Brett to taste, and with a rotation, he swirled the contents in his glass. The aromas escaped, but the wine was only too recently released from the bottle to give any real indication as to the natural scents. When he tasted it, the look of ecstatic pleasure on his face showed he approved, and Cheryl began pouring Claire’s glass.

“This is good,” Brett said.

“It’s actually Canadian. Ryan has a friend of a friend who can get lesser-known vintages down to the States. This is from Prince Edward Island, on Lake Ontario. They’re doing some amazing stuff up there, considering their harsh winters,” Claire said.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, Pinots are good, and Chardonnay, too.”

“Oaked or steel?”

“Oh, you’d have to ask me that. I think both, but don’t quote me on it. The food scene is also coming along. Ryan was talking about us taking a long weekend and heading up there. I hope it happens.”

“I’m gonna have to talk to Dylan, see if he knows anything about the area.”

“Yes, do. I’ll pass it along to Ryan.”

“So, how has business been here?” Brett asked.

“Frankly, it’s slowing some. I guess it’s the first slump it’s had since it opened. The weekends are really good still, as you can see, but the weeks are slowing up. I don’t want to complain, since it puts Ryan home earlier now, something I certainly don’t mind, but I know it’s weighing on him.”

“It’s like that everywhere. Even Cragie on Main is slowing up now. I guess it’s just part of the cycle. He’s still getting good remarks, from what I’ve heard.”

“He would be pleased to hear that,” Claire said.

Cheryl came to the table with two appetizers in her hands. Each was different, and each smelled of lovely earthen notes, reminiscent of a forest on a cool autumn day. Both Claire and Brett were surprised as Cheryl sat the first course before them.

“Um, we didn’t order any appetizers,” Brett said.

“We know,” replied Cheryl. “Before you, sir, is a mushroom bisque with crème fraiche, and yours, Claire, he said you’d recognize as the broiled figs with goat cheese, walnuts and honey.”

Claire remembered him discussing the recipe with her the other night over a bottle of Albirino. She chuckled to herself as the savory notes rose up to greet her. With the two appetizers before them, Claire could almost feel his touch upon her flesh. He felt so near, so close, and she loved the sensation.

“Tell him it looks amazing!” Brett said.

“Tell him I said he’s adorable.”

“I’ll tell him both,” Cheryl said, and moved away.

Brett, ever the connoisseur, first had to photograph the presentation with his phone before he indulged. With each spoonful, he was transported to realms of culinary mastery, where flavor and taste were delightfully surrendered to eager palates. He savored each spoonful, his meal more a pleasure than mere sustenance.

Claire thought of her boyfriend as she also indulged, but she was not as fascinated with the meal as she was with the memory of him, of the two of them sitting on the couch, the Spanish bottle poured into each glass, and an excited Ryan rambling on over some new recipes he wanted to attempt. It made her happy to see him so elated, and now she believed she saw some of that elation, some of that memory, before her in the form of figs and goat cheese.

Claire and Brett finished their appetizers and their glasses, and before they could recognize it, their plates were missing and their glasses refilled. Soon, their entrees were on the table, and their immediate area was filled with aromas too delectable to be understood. They began moving through the entrée and sides, while their conversation turned from other topics to that of the meals before them. Claire loved to hear the praises of Ryan’s culinary skill. Each comment made her feel more and more pride for Ryan, and unbeknownst to Brett, she would prompt him by asking his opinion or mentioning something about a bite she just took.

The meal was nearly over, and the bottle almost consumed, when Claire looked over Brett’s shoulder to see a man in white emerging from the kitchen. He moved slowly through the crowd, stopping to ask certain tables how they enjoyed themselves, but he had one destination in mind. In his hand was an empty wine glass.

Ryan was moving through the floor and was about to direct himself to Claire, when he saw a table with some notable guests, and knew he had to greet them before he took to his own pleasures. Walking opposite from Claire, he moved to the front of the restaurant and spoke cordially with the guests. They toasted Ryan, and he acknowledged their patronage. Brett was watching him and sipping his wine.

“He’s good at what he does,” Brett said.

“He is. He won’t acknowledge it, but he’s a showman for sure, and I think he secretly loves being on the floor like this, though he won’t admit to that, either.”

They laughed together, as both Claire and Brett knew that to be the truth. Ryan spoke of visiting the floor like he would visiting the dentist. It was not a labor of love, nor was it anything too fancy. He detested it, but in his own heart, there was a part of him that longed for that moment when he could don a clean apron and move to the front of the house. When the praises were flowing, he was his happiest.

Ryan finished with the couple, and turned to face Claire’s direction. After a few warm greetings, he walked closer to her table. Brett smiled when he saw Ryan approaching, and he held his smile, though he thought he saw in Ryan’s eye a glimmer of something, some ill passion that spoke of anything save cordiality. It lasted but a moment, and a smile emerged on Ryan’s schooled features, but Brett knew what he saw, and was convinced Ryan glared ever so quickly at him.

“I saw clean plates return, so I’m guessing the meal was a success?” Ryan asked.

“Hi, baby!” Claire said.

Rising from her chair, she fell into Ryan’s embrace and flung her arms around his neck, not caring that the restaurant was watching her kiss the chef. Brett rose also, glass in hand. He smirked as he saw the tables all turn to Ryan and the ‘crazy lady’ who just put her lips to his. Brett knew the restaurant was as confused as it could be, and probably figured she was simply excited over her meal. He laughed.

“Everything was awesome,” Claire finally said. “And the figs were fantastic.”

“You liked them? How were they? Too sweet, not sweet enough?”

“Oh, they were fine. I mean, if you wanted to cook more for me tomorrow, I’d be happy to taste them again.”

“Sly, very sly. Brett, how are things?”

Ryan extended his hand and shook Brett’s, both grips tight in gentlemanly fashion.

“I’m well. This was just amazing, simply amazing. That bisque, oh dear! That’s lethal. When is it hitting the menu?”

Ryan smiled. He did indeed love praise.

“Oh, probably not until the autumn. It’s still experimental. But you thought it was good? Perfect.”

“Yes, it was. And the duck was divine. I don’t use that word too often, so please, consider it a compliment.”

“Oh, I will. You guys having a good time?”

“We are. Lots of chatter and eating. You know, the usual with this rascal,” Claire said, laughing.

“And lots of me fighting to get a glass of wine before Claire finishes it all!” Brett returned.

“Well, we can handle that,” Ryan replied.

Ryan signaled a server to bring another bottle by tapping the empty one on the table and, pulling a chair from a vacant table, sat as Claire and Brett took their seats. He was in the aisle, legs crossed and relaxed in the darker shades of the restaurant, their little corner somewhat secluded and now quiet.

When the new bottle was presented to them, Ryan poured out the glasses, one for each, and gave himself a little extra helping. The restaurant was quieter now, and the storm outside was sending people scurrying back to the safety of their homes. Some of the tables were still full, but most were in the final stages of their dining experience.

“To the chef,” Brett said.

They toasted Ryan and drank their Pinots. Ryan leaned back and enjoyed sitting. He had not sat since earlier in the day, and his body was reminding him of that fact.

“How was it tonight?” Claire asked.

Ryan looked at her and made a face expressing his disgust. With a heavy sigh, he spoke of his displeasure at the night’s events.

“Oh, Lord,” he began, “one called out, and we started off really busy. Two of the servers called out also. Everyone has been running all night. I still need to do payroll.”

“That bad?” Claire asked. “That really sucks.”

“It’s been a long night, for sure.”

“I bet,” Brett added.

“How’s work been?” Ryan asked Brett.

Ryan had to turn his body to face Brett since he slanted his chair to face Claire. He knew when he sat down that he would naturally want to see his baby’s face, but an urge not to see Brett also mounted in him, and though he disguised it, he could not conceal it from his own mind; but, he had to play the part, and so opened a conversation with Brett.

“Busy. I’m sure Claire has filled you in on all the drama of the workplace, and the pesky clients that harass us daily. But, it’s what pays the bills, right?”

“I know the feeling. How’s Dylan? I read his review of Jeanne’s. He’s pretty spot on with that place. He’s good.”

“He loved that place, but for the pitfalls he mentioned. I think it has a lot of promise. It won’t be a Lady, but it will do well.”

Ryan smiled, accepting the compliment. He was convinced it was a fake and hollow compliment, something devised to mask Brett’s own indignation for him, but he accepted it for what it was and raised his glass to the man. The more he looked at Brett, however, the more he felt the darkness entering him. Ryan remembered the animosity he felt towards him, and even believed he received it in return. The feelings he harbored for so long, feelings he was trying to put asunder, were still there, still alive. Ryan felt them, and in his dark moment of weakness, he acknowledged them. What those feelings told him was that he was tired of having Brett around.

The three chatted lightly for a while, Ryan working through his only glass of wine. When a few of the tables became active again, and people entered covered in snow, Ryan stood, recognizing it was time to retreat to the back of the house.

“Baby, I’ll see you tonight, whenever I get home.”

“Okay. Be careful coming home tonight. I’ll be waiting for you,” Claire said passionately, standing as well.

“Hey, thanks for everything. Hope it gets better for ya tonight.” Brett added.

“Thanks. Good seeing you,” Ryan said calmly, but not enthusiastically.

Ryan held Claire tightly, then kissed her and moved back into the kitchen. His seat and glass remained, both now empty and covered by the darkened corner.

“I hope it does get better tonight,” Brett said.

“Me too. Hey, did you want to come back for a drink?” Claire asked.

“I’m up for that. You about ready to leave?”

“Yeah. We probably should so they can clear the table.”

Cheryl came by one last time, leaving not a bill, but a slip of paper with a crudely drawn smiley face on it, and a bottle of wine. Claire smiled and folded the paper to put in her pocket. It was Ryan’s drawing, his little note to her. Brett left the tip, and as he was putting away his wallet and bundling up, Claire darted off to the kitchen for a final kiss.

Brett moved to the front door, past the hostess and looked out of the windows. The snow was letting up, but still it fell. The street lamps cast their eerie glow onto the chilled sidewalk as cars drove past at decreased speeds down the lane. People who were about moved hastily against the falling deluge, their faces covered by scarves.

Watching the world exercise its vibrancy amidst such frigidity, Brett thought not of the things he saw, but of the man in the back, Claire’s lover, and the feeling he had while Ryan sat with them. He remembered the look he received, and the calculated formality of his nature during his glass of wine with them. Brett thought it all fictitious, a farce concocted to bedazzle Brett’s mind into thinking what Ryan wanted him to think, that all was well. For a time, Brett had his doubts, but he restrained them and kept them hidden from Claire. After this meeting, however, he reasoned differently about restraint, and knew he had to share what was on his mind.

Brett exhaled heavily at the thought of upsetting Claire, but he had to do it. By the time she appeared by his side, looping her arm through his, he was ready. They moved out into the cold and began a very miserable trek back to the apartment.

When they arrived at the building, Brett and Claire climbed up the steps and happily rushed inside. The warmth immediately soothed, then began to sting, their chilled flesh. Brett shook the snow off his shoulders and brushed some off of Claire. They climbed the staircase and finally were able to disrobe their winter attire in the apartment.

“I hate winter,” Brett blurted out.

Brett flopped on the couch and watched as Claire turned on some of the lights. He was amused when she turned on the fireplace, but even more amused when he saw her move into the kitchen and pull out a bottle of Sangiovese.

“This will warm you up, you big wimpy baby,” Claire laughed as she spoke.

“Really? It’s freaking snowing outside, and we had to walk fifty miles in it! How does that make me a baby?”

“Yes, it is snowing, and no, it wasn’t fifty miles. Why do you live in Boston?”

“Because I hate myself,” Brett said.

“Why not move to Key West.”

“I wish I could, but what would you do without me?”

Claire laughed as she set a glass before him. They were stemless, but Ryan detested them, so Claire only used them in his absence. She poured our two glasses and took her usual seat on the sofa. The apartment was warm and cozily lit. Claire loved nights in their apartment, especially when it was late and some of the stars could be seen over the buildings.

“This is good!” Brett exclaimed.


Brett was quiet for a moment, as he knew what was to come next. He thought about how to present it, and figured asking her how their situation was evolving would be the best approach. He looked over at Claire, who snuggled under a throw and laid her sleepy head back on the sofa. Her eyes, especially blue that evening, shimmered like crystals in a brilliantly lit cavern. Brett did not want to hurt her, but he loved his friend and knew he had to say something.

“Claire?” Brett asked.

“Yeah?” Claire replied.

“Can I ask you something?”

Claire knew the question was an opening to something more. It was how Brett always dove into deeper topics, even how he came out to her years ago. She figured it dealt with her and Ryan.

“Sure. What’s up?”

“How are you and Ryan doing?”

The question was out. Brett released the breath he was holding, and waited for something to emerge from the silence that filled the room. The flames of the fire cast their bizarre shadows on the walls like dancing spirits. Brett turned his attention away from them and looked at Claire.

“We’re doing well. Really,” she replied.

Brett waited a moment before proceeding further. It was not a scripted response he heard; he knew as much. He believed her to be genuine and truthful, but still had personal reservations he needed to share with Claire.

“Are you?”

Claire could sense the intensity of the conversation and sat up. She sipped her wine casually, her mind thinking of things she could say to quiet his fears without telling too much information. She longed for Fr. Bill to be present.

“Brett, I know you are concerned, and you know I love you for it, but we are okay. It’s been, it’s been a challenge, but we are making it, and together.”

“I know. I’ve seen a difference in you, and I’m glad for that. It’s just -” and he paused.

“You can speak,” Claire said.

“It’s just that I don’t think this will last, this peace.”

Brett said it, the single most haunting thought he carried in him. For so long, the idea stalked around inside his mind, teasing and gnawing at him in intervals; that night, he found it unbearable to keep locked away once he saw Ryan’s behavior. Now, it was free of his secretive interior, and what damage it would do would soon be seen.

“Why is that?” Claire asked.

“I’m sorry, Claire, but I just feel it’s all a charade to keep you. I like Ryan, I do, but I just worry for you. I can’t shake this feeling. I simply can’t.”

“I know what has been said to Ryan, and I know how it impacted him. He’s changing, and for the better. I know it’s scary for you, and frankly, for me, but I’m not quitting now, not after what we’ve been through. If I leave, he’ll never change.”

“That’s just it, Claire. I think he does all this so you won’t leave. If he wanted to change, he could do it with or without you. He doesn’t need someone to give him a reason. He should be his own reason.”

“But he is changing, and for the woman he loves. What better reason is there than that?”

Brett sat up and put his glass on the table. He was heated, but not angry. He loved Claire too much to be angry with her. His love, fear and anxiety were fueling him, not his hate. Claire was on the defensive, he could see, and he needed to open her mind to his thoughts. But how? He couldn’t guess how.

“I’m just worried. Like I said, I had this thought for a while now. I’m glad he’s changing, and I certainly hope the best for you guys, I really do. I don’t want to see this fail. That’s not my joy. I just want you to be happy, and safe. You can have both in a relationship.”

“Sweetie, I do have those. We have a ways to go, but we’re doing so well already. It’s only going to get better.”

“If you’re staying because you have nowhere to go, come with us. My place is yours. We won’t charge you rent or anything. You have a place with us. Just let me know. Leave. I feel that will make things better. I really believe it will.”

Claire made every attempt she could to convince Brett of her safety and genuine concern for her lover, and his new spirit of change that moved him in a new direction. She wanted Brett to know that things were better and their future was bright. Her words, spoken as strongly as she could without coating them with anger, filled the room with stories of hope and resolution, determination not only to see the end, but to remain until that end did come. Yet, in her heart, she, too, longed for a safe place, and knew she could never have it elsewhere. She would have to make a safe place with Ryan, or have nothing at all.

“I’m not leaving him, not now. It’s too soon, and so much has already happened. If I leave, he’ll fall apart. And where will that leave him? If I leave, he’ll never succeed.”

“Yes, he will, if he wants to.”

“I know what you are saying is true, but I can’t just leave. I love him. I made a promise to be with him. He’s making changes for me, for us, and I have to honor that. If I leave, he’ll have nothing left.”

“Maybe that’s what he deserves, Claire. I’m sorry. It’s just, well, I don’t want to see you hurt. I love you, and honestly, I’m afraid he’ll hurt you.”

“Brett, he’s my lover, my everything. How you feel for Dylan, well, that’s how I feel for him. You know I appreciate your thoughts and concern, but I know what I’m doing. He’s doing this for me, and I have to be there for him,” Claire replied.

“That sounds like him talking, Claire.”

Claire restrained her frustration, seeing that animosity at words spoken through love was an ill choice. She took a sip of wine, then set her glass down.

“Brett, I’m in this, for better or worse.”

Brett did not respond. He couldn’t. All he did was stare at Claire and sigh, recognizing that his words fell on deaf ears. He yearned for her acceptance of what he was saying, but it was not coming, not at that hour. He did feel confident that his words were heard, relieved that what he had to say finally emerged.

Claire picked up her glass and swallowed what was left, then she placed it back on the glass top table. The clank sounded like an echo in the quietness of the room. Brett sat back on the couch, taking his glass with him.

“Want more?” Claire asked.

Brett nodded and she passed him the bottle. He filled his glass and set both on the table, resting his face in his hands. Neither spoke. The silence settled on the room and only the hiss of the gas fireplace challenged the solitude for dominance.

They drank in silence, and finally turned to more pleasant conversation, though Brett approached it cautiously. He tried to think of a new argument, but nothing came. All of his fight went into the first discussion, and now he was left with hope alone, hope that what he said made sense to her.

Finally, the bottle gone and sleep drawing near, Brett phoned a taxi and said goodbye to Claire. He hugged her and whispered for her to remember what he said. She kissed him tenderly and rubbed his cheek with her warm hand. She would remember, her eyes told him, and she would carry his words with her.

When Brett left, Claire sat in silence, thinking.

Ryan was the last to leave the restaurant that night. He watched from his office as the last of the crew emptied wash buckets and hung up the mops. With tired farewells, they parted and left Ryan to his payroll. The silence was welcomed as it quickly recaptured the kitchen. He leaned back in his chair and looked at the computer screen. The figures did not appear normal to his fatigued mind; rather like ancient hieroglyphics etched in a mysterious tomb. He squinted, but it made little difference in translating the lines.

“Hopeless,” Ryan said out loud.

The noise of his voice was foreign in the now silent kitchen. Still reclining, he turned his face away from the screen and looked into the stainless steel arena of his workspace, the gleaming metal structures catching the remaining rays of light still illuminated. The beautiful and delicate scents of the area were replaced by the smell of industrial food-safe cleaners.

“Alright,” Ryan said, “time to get back at it.”

Ryan’s determination was roused and he slowly started to pluck away at the keys, working steadily, but cautiously, since his eyes were beginning to mimic the descent of the sun at the end of the day. Finally, he settled the account and all was completed. The time was nearing 1:00 a.m.

I’d better text Claire and let her know I’m heading home. I hope she’s not asleep, Ryan thought as he retrieved his phone from atop of a HACCP binder. He texted her and started putting on his jacket over his chef’s frock. His phone beeped.

Ryan checked it and smiled, putting the phone in his pocket. He checked the doors one last time, looked over the area and finally turned out the lights before stopping in front of the alley door. All was quiet, and only his presence seemed to disturb the peace of the place. He thought of his baby, and of seeing her that night. It was nice, he said to himself, to see her, and to see her happy. Her smile, so joyful, made his night. Seeing Brett, though, had an effect on him, something he could not clearly understand or classify, but something he knew he did not care for. He would have to share it with the priest when he next met with him. Nodding in agreement at his thought, he opened the door and stepped out.

The walk home was slow as he went down a sidewalk illuminated by lamps and streetlights. Frozen patches of snow and ice still lingered on the cement, and snow gathered in the darker spaces where no sunlight struck during the day. The city was alive, breathing the wild exclamations of pedestrians and feeling the coursing traffic through its veins. Ryan was one of many strolling late on the avenues of the city. He remembered his late nights leaving, when he and Gillian would go to one of their favorite dives for midnight sliders and beers, a nightly ritual for those in the culinary field in that part of town.

Ryan speedily walked to keep up with the faceless shapes that passed him briskly on the pavement, but he felt no inclination to move at so fast a pace. His whole evening was one of organized speed, and in that particular moment, though he desired much to fall into Claire’s arms on the couch, he just wanted to exist in a slower fashion and walk in the cold night air.

When he reached his building, he could see the blinds of their windows open, though darkness alone poured out of the black squares along the building façade. Then, he noticed a faint flickering light reflecting off the ceiling. The fire, he thought, and smiled as he went indoors.

Ryan’s first thought, as he pressed into the darkness of their apartment, was that Claire was asleep on the couch. He moved slowly so as to minimize the noise, but when she turned to look at him, one half of her face cast in the orange hues of the fire, he more noisily disrobed and gave a joyful greeting.

“Hey baby, you’re awake. I thought you’d be asleep by now,” Ryan said.

“Hi baby. I’m still up,” Claire said.

Claire’s voice was not tired or dulled by the late hour. It was vibrant and roused, though the customary joviality was lacking. Ryan did not notice it, and moving behind the couch, bent over to kiss her. She felt warm to the touch, compared to the coldness of his flesh. In a moment, Ryan would be warming himself in her arms, but first, he needed his drink in the kitchen; scotch this time.

“How’d it go?” Claire asked.

“Nice. It was wonderful to see you tonight. How was everything? Good?”

“Everything you make is always good,” Claire said.

This time, Ryan noticed the flatness of her voice. Claire spoke as if she were reading a script and had not yet learned the emotions associated with the lines. He looked out from the kitchen and saw her, still half turned, looking not at him but facing the door. Ryan took the bottle and filled his glass, tossing in two sipping stones to chill it.

Walking out of the kitchen, Ryan moved around the furniture and crossed in front of the fire to get on the other side of Claire. When he sat, she casually slumped against him, allowing his arms to embrace her.

Ryan held her and smelled her scent for a moment, remembering the first time her perfume tantalized his nostrils. The memory was clear to him, like it was happening before his eyes all over again.

“Baby, you alright?” Ryan asked.

Ryan did not know what to expect, but her reticence prompted him to think it related to him, so he braced for what was to come, hoping mere fatigue was the culprit and not some lapse on his part. While he waited for what seemed like several intense moments, he tried to recollect what might have transpired to trigger such an attitude change in her.

Claire did not answer immediately. She did not answer after several minutes. And with each passing second, Ryan grew more curious and worried over the ill mood of his girl. He still held her and smelled her, but the memory of her perfume was fading in his mind.

The security of Ryan’s arms made Claire feel comfortable, but only physically. Mentally, she was preparing for what her own presuppositions said would be a heated argument. She waited, hesitated and fixed her eyes on the fire as a distraction. Finally, she spoke.

“Are you just going through the motions?” Claire asked.

The question was so direct and emotionless, and asked in such a calm voice, that Ryan was startled when it emerged from the darkness. The question, like a boat parting water, moved through the air, slicing the silence, then vanished into the dark again.

Ryan did not know what to say, or what to even think. Claire’s question seemed to proverbially come out of the blue. He thought she always believed in him. He trusted that she never doubted his efforts, but now, her question threw all of his assumptions into doubt. In a moment of panic, he felt his darkness flare.

“What? What do you mean?” Ryan asked.

“I just, it’s something I’ve had on my mind, and I just want to know,” she replied.

“Something you had on your mind? Claire, how could you ask that?”

Claire felt the agitated movements of her lover, and sat up so as to face him. She could see his expression and pitied the misery present in his features. He looked at her wanting answers, but she did not reveal anything on the blank slate that was her face.

“I just need to know.”

“Don’t you believe what I tell you? Can’t you believe me when I say I’m making progress, or doing better? Can’t you see it? Is everything I do invisible? I’m working hard at this, for you and me, for us. I really am trying and I thought it was evident. I guess not.”

“No, baby, no. I, I just need to know, that’s all.”

“You keep saying that,” Ryan began, “but what do you mean by it? ‘I just need to know.’ What do you mean by that? How long has this been on your mind?”

The disbelief in Ryan’s voice was unmistakable. He felt in his heart a shock that was tremendous, something that seemed unrecoverable. He breathed heavily, the anxiety of his mind pounding against the chambers of his heart.

“Don’t worry, baby, I still believe you. I’m not doubting you at all. It’s just that I want to know this isn’t a charade put on to keep me. I need to know this, Ryan. People question the authenticity, and I need to know that my defense was not for nothing.”

“Who? Who is questioning? The priest? He knows better. Hell, he can practically see through me. He’s never said anything to me. Who else?”

Ryan stood from the couch in anguish and frustration, and started pacing around the little area. His confusion was great, and his pain was worse. He was glad for the dark shades that hung over the living room, since he felt a level of safety in the darkness. He thought of who it could be, if she might be blaming others for her own misgivings, or if she… Then, it occurred to him: Brett. He felt his anger rise to a tempestuous fervor at the thought of the man who put such doubt into Claire’s mind. He was the instigator, Ryan knew, the wretch behind her reservations. He burned deeply.

“Ryan, I believe you. I just want to hear it is all.”

“No. It’s Brett, isn’t it? He’s done this to you.”

“Ryan, no, I mean, he’s just concerned – “

“What? So he knows? How the hell could you tell him? How could you? Does he know everything? Can’t you keep just one damned secret? You talk to that priest. That should be enough. God, now the whole damned city will know.”

“Baby, he can keep a secret, and I trust him. Sometimes, I need someone to talk to, also. I need a friend. Can’t you understand that?”

Ryan paced feverishly, running through everything he heard. Claire tried to speak with him, but he could not hear her. He was secluded and isolated from the scene, tossed and turned by betrayal and dismay, his heart burning with pain and anger. Ryan hated Brett for his closeness with Claire, and now even more for the secret he, too, carried. It was a point of contention for Brett to know his weakness, and now he fretted it would be exposed.

With his fury starting to control him, Ryan recognized it was time to move away, like the priest said. He stormed out of the room, Claire calling after him to talk. When he reached the kitchen, he spun quickly and faced her. Claire had risen, too, and started after him, but stopped when he turned.

“Claire, if I remain here, I might not have control. I’m leaving, and we can talk later.”

Ryan flew into the bedroom, leaving the door open. Claire remained where she was, the wonder of the moment and exercise of control astounding her. In the bedroom, standing by a window, he peered out into the darkness before closing the blinds. He could not remain still any longer, and moved from window to window, closing them to the night-lights of the city; then, when he finished, he paced again. The room was a nice size, but to a man who felt as a caged animal, it was tight and closing in upon him.

How could she talk so much about it? How? Ryan thought. Am I that horrible that she needs a ‘friend’ to confide in? He’s going to talk, I know he will, and I will be ruined. Why didn’t Claire see that? Why? Is she blind, or does she not care? No, don’t go there. Remember what the priest said. Claire loves you and is there for you. She is strength. I, I trust her and believe her. I believe her. I need to trust her, but I need her to trust me. Why doesn’t she? I’m in this for real, not some pretend crap. I’m committed to this all the way. She has to believe that. I need to make her believe that, show her that I’m in for the change. That’s what the priest says. I’m in for the change.

Ryan stopped his pacing and looked at the closed window. He felt contained, restricted. With a sharp thrust, threw his hand to the blinds and opened them again. The twinkling lights of Boston winked at him like sultry girls at a bar. But with the city before him in nighttime splendor, with a rich and silky moon casting bright rays while dark shadows fell gracefully on the lanes and avenues, Ryan did not see it. His mind wandered over thoughts of good nature and ill, fighting for the proper and right course to take, waging a war with the words of his darkness and the words of the priest. He could hear Fr. Bill’s voice so clearly telling him to control himself, to choose right, and to restrain his anger. He could almost see him slowly moving his hand up and down, as if patting down his temper. He needed the priest, and glanced at his phone.

No, I can do this, Ryan thought. I need to do this. I can’t be hanging on him forever. I, we, need to do this. I need Claire, and she needs to see me making a change. But she spoke, she broke a seal of secrecy. I, I can’t just move beyond that. And why? Just to talk? Talk. Talk. I, I guess she needed that. I have needs, things that are necessary for me to function. She has them, too, her own needs. Talking is one of them. She, the priest is not enough for her. She needs a friend, and I guess that’s Brett. She needs to confess and share, talk about what’s on her mind. She can talk to me, but sometimes it helps to have someone else. I had Jay once. We talked a lot. Then, I had Gillian. It’s different, she used to say, when you hooked up. Nothing beats a good friend for some things. Not in all situations, but in some, when your partner was the issue. Gillian used to say that. She held my secrets and I hers, and we confided so much in one another because we loved one another, but she still said that.

Ryan paced some more, still treading not upon the carpet of the room, but the thoughts in his mind. He wished he could trample them into dust, but he could only trod, and lightly, for fear of flare ups.

The anger he felt did not diminish, but was redirected. He could not arouse his temper against Claire; she loved him and he knew it. What she requested was nothing short of his own affirmation that he was, indeed, giving not only his mind to their mutual love, but his heart and the very essence of his being. He faulted her not for that; however, thinking long on her friend, the repository of their secret, he felt his anger bubbling in him.

Brett, that bastard, he thought, he’s the reason, the issue, the notorious infidel who is trying to turn Claire against me. And she’s believing him! No, no, we can’t have this. I need Claire and she needs to be present for me. I can’t do this alone. And we, as a couple, can’t have interference. We can’t. We need to be unified and committed to this change. If he persists in his witchcraftery, he could ruin us. I need to show her this, show her what he’s up to. I know he means ill to us, to me. That’s his design.

The pleading words of Fr. Bill in Ryan’s mind fell silent as he slowly and deliberately hushed them. Protests did not avail over such reckless hate, and Ryan, sensing his courage rousing along with his love, he knew he had to share his thoughts with Claire. She was being misled and would be harmed; they both would be harmed, if this persisted. Ryan felt anguish over the choice he made, but felt a duty to share it, feeling honor-bound by his love for her and his desire to preserve their intimacy.

“I know what I have to say,” Ryan said softly.

Ryan was about to move down the hall when he saw Claire appear in the doorway, her face an angelic essence of the caryatid. She was concerned, but her features were placid and strong, like the marble of the famed Grecian pillars, strong pillars that supported so much. Ryan stopped and watched as she approached the threshold.

There was a pause between them, neither knowing what to say to begin the new conversation or fight. Neither also knew if an eruption would take place, though both hearts eagerly sought its rebuff.

“Baby,” Claire began, “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I, this is just so much for me –“

“No,” Ryan interrupted, moving toward her, “I need to apologize, and for many things. I did not see your need, or understand it at the time, and I did not see you question for what it was. Baby, I’m in this all the way, I truly am. I want you to know that. You must trust me on that. I’m in for us. But, I need you to be with me, to stand by me. I need your strength. If I falter, I know you’ll catch me and help me to stand. I can’t do this without you. You’re why I change, what I fight for. You’re making me better, and if I lose you now, it’s all over. I’m in for us, and I need you in for us as well.”

“Baby, I am,” Claire said.

Ryan squeezed her hands, feeling them clutching his in return. Claire looked into his eyes, her face radiating love and passion. She perceived in his words the answer she sought to the question she hated to ask, and she received so much more. She found a level of equality in his words, as well as his affirmation of his reliance on her. She was his strength, his support. What concerns the priest had vanished as Ryan poured his weakness into her strength, melding the two into a strong union.

“I know you are,” Ryan said.

Claire looked longingly into his face, cherishing not the trouble she found in his eyes, but the solace he took from hers. Yet, there was still something he was not saying, some thought that was still hidden deep in his mind, anchored in his inner harbor.

“What else?” she asked boldly.

“Baby,” he began reluctantly at first, “you must hear me out on this one. I love you, first and foremost. And I need you. I need you through this whole thing. If you leave, I’ll never make it to the end. I feel that things are coming between us, things that will prevent us from succeeding. We need to stay strong, united. I’m sorry, but your friend, I feel he’s trying to break us up. I’m sure he means no harm, and he’s only out for your protection, but he’s trying to come between us. We can’t have that.”

“Ryan, he’s not. I know that. Yes, he’s looking out for me, but tearing us apart is not his agenda.”

“Baby, I disagree. I can’t move without you; we need each other. Nothing can separate us, not now, not ever. I love you too much, but you have to stand by me. If anything comes between us, you need to see it as well as I.”

“Brett is my friend. He loves me. I can’t just toss him away.”

“But baby, look at tonight. Where did you get that thought? If it was yours alone, fine. I can understand that. If the idea entered from another source, I believe you would recognize it and battle against it.”

Claire did not speak. Her conversation with Brett earlier came back to her, and she remembered the frustration she felt. Now, confusion entered into her own heart. She loved both men, trusted both, but did not know where she now stood. Turning away from Ryan’s gaze, she looked at the carpeted bedroom floor, hoping his penetrating gaze could not read her thoughts.

“Baby, if I knew something was coming between us, I would change it,” Ryan said.

“I, I don’t know. He’s my friend. I don’t believe he would harm us.”

“But he made you believe I was not committed.”

Claire felt tears coming to her eyes, and her very breath seemed pulled from her lungs. She saw Brett’s smiling face before her, laughing and looking so lovingly at her. She fought her tears ferociously, denying admission to the acidic little droplets.

“I, I don’t know,” Claire replied.

“Baby, just watch out. I’m afraid he’s up to no good. He doesn’t like me, and he doesn’t like us. He wants you away, and is going to use this to do it.”

“No, he wouldn’t do that,” she protested weakly.

“I’m not asking you to decide tonight. I just had to share what was on my mind. I need you with me on this. I need you, baby. But you have to choose to be with me, and with whom you will stand. Will it be me?”

Claire looked up at him, her sense of determination growing, but her spirit weakening as the powerful words fell heavily on her heart. She was committed and fully engaged, but the sacrifice of her friend was a lot to bear. Brett was her confidant, her companion, and she needed him as much as Ryan needed her. Brett was her bedrock, her shoulder upon which to cry. Now, hearing and feeling all that was said, she simply did not know. With so much confusion falling on her, she limply fell into the strength of Ryan’s solid arms.

“Baby, I’m with you, I am. Trust me. We will get through this,” Claire said, softly weeping.

Ryan did not speak, but kissed her, sealing not only his destiny to hers, but his very heart to her confession. Nothing would separate them, he knew, nothing at all.

Chapter 18

The night was slow, unusually slow, and some of the servers were lounging in the kitchen, the younger girls flirting with the line cooks. Katie eyed them with amusement, her sole task that night to keep warm a single pot of wild mushroom bisque. The evening saw a lot of people standing around; some, the more seasoned, were trying to find work to do, while the lesser experienced were idling. Ryan was in the office going through mail, looking over records and dreaming up a new summer menu. On his mind, however, was the slack in business; more importantly, he thought about Claire.

Several days passed since they had their discussion about Brett, and from what he observed, their communication slowed. He told himself he would not pry into her personal affairs, and he didn’t, save on one occasion when he checked her phone. To his amazement, her calls to him lessened, and the texts were not as steady. He could not account for her behavior at work, but at least her spare time was not spent entertaining his queries.

Ryan pondered the situation, and did not feel bad over the distance he put between Claire and Brett or tell the priest what happened. He figured it was best left between him and Claire. Maybe, once they were stronger, Claire could pick up where she left off with Brett. At least that’s what Ryan told himself.

Sitting at his desk, Ryan’s mind began to wander. Normally, he would be quietly yelling at the staff to busy themselves with something, anything, so as not to stand around, but Cheryl was doing a pretty good job keeping them moving, and he was content to just sit and think of Claire and the beautiful future they would share. He even entertained the notion of weaning himself from the visits with the priest. The past few months were amazing for Ryan, and he felt himself excelling substantially thanks to that man, but he knew it would not last forever, and the time would come when they would eventually part ways, like any good student. It would not be right away, Ryan knew, but perhaps in the next few months. He was better, their relationship was better, and life was promising once again.

Claire, strengthened by Ryan’s confession of his reliance upon her, did not think she could find greater love for the man with whom she shared her life; but after the night they discussed Brett, she did in the role of his resolve and his bastion. In her strength for him, she learned to love even deeper, to open herself more fully, and by the instruction of the priest, give herself totally to being a strong and powerful presence for him. Their nights were wonderful, and the days he took off – he now closed the restaurant on Mondays – were of such an amazing caliber, Claire sometimes thought she was dating a new man. Ryan loved deeper and sought her happiness more than before, and relied on her. Of all things, that meant the most to Claire.

In their new and deeper affection, though, Claire felt some confusion and frustration with the issue over Brett. She still did not completely understand the situation and could not view Brett as one determined to disrupt her happiness, though she wrestled with that notion. She was committed to Ryan, and so did not question either his resolve or what he said. She had to believe him and stand by him, and to that commitment she pledged.

At work, Claire and Brett were still more than cordial, but Brett noticed early on that she did not confide in him as much, and their after-hours communication slackened. He tried to approach her with it, but was still reticent after their last discussion about Ryan. Claire was also distant when it came to approaching the topic, and stayed on more jovial and social matters. She had no feelings of animosity for Brett and still loved him, but felt it was best to help Ryan first.

Ryan walked to the front of the house to see how things were transpiring. When he saw it was still slow and the hour was growing later, he sent home some of the wait staff, and decided he would leave, as well. When he said goodbye to Katie, Jorge and the staff, he called Claire as he moved down the back alley to the street.

“Hey, baby,” Ryan said into the phone.

Claire was washing a load of clothes while a late night pan of diced tomatoes simmered, and a sliced baguette toasted in the oven. Scents of fresh herbs and garlic hung in the air.

“Hi, baby! What’s up?” Claire asked.

“Guess who’s coming home?”

“Are you coming home to me? Yay!”

“On my way now.”

Claire propped the phone on her shoulder and supported it while she raced to the kitchen to stir the tomatoes and check the bread. Pulling the tray out of the oven, she gave another happy exclamation, and began thinking of an Italian red to pull from the bin.

“Yay,” she replied.

“What are you doing?” Ryan asked.

“Am I making noise?” she joked.

“I can hear you’re in the kitchen.”

“I was making a snack, but now you can join me. How fun! I warmed some tomatoes with spices and am making bruschetta. It smells yummy.”

“I bet it does. I’ll taste it in a minute!”

“Hurry home to me! Oh, and don’t be late.”

Claire winked, even though the movement would not be passed through the phone. But still she did, laughing and smiling at the thought of a fuller evening with Ryan. When they said goodbye and hung up, she went to their ‘wine cellar,’ a few racks in a refurbished linen closet where Ryan kept all of his best vintages. She searched through the old labels, dusting off some of the oldest ones. With equal amounts of timidity and uncertainty she perused the wines, looking for something Italian, something dry and something she thought would impress Ryan, since she was pairing it with her snack.

One bottle seemed to catch her eye, a newer vintage, but one that had a funky image on its label. She sat down on the floor and pulled out the bottle. The only word she recognized was the word “Nero,” and only from history class. It was a Nero d’Avola, a nice red from Sicily, something she had tasted before, and remembered what Ryan called peppery notes. She thought it would be good to have, and got up off the floor.

Claire walked into the kitchen and set the bottle on the counter. Glancing at the baguettes and the tomatoes, she reached up in the cabinets to get down two, everyday wine glasses. She then shut off the heat on the tomatoes, pushed the pan to another burner and allowed it to sit for a moment while she uncorked the bottle. When she poured out two glasses, the sound of the devilish grapes gently splashing against the glass filled her with delight. Soft aromas started to rise out of the large bulbs, aromas she could not classify clearly, but ones that rather conjured up memories of her first wine experiences with Ryan. She smiled to herself, knowing he would be home soon.

Claire left the bottle beside the edge of the counter and moved to the opposite counter, pulling out a cutting board and retrieving one of the box graters. She exercised great caution using it, since she shaved some of her finger the last time she worked with it. With a genuine love of salty cheeses, it was an easy decision to utilize Pecorino Romano for the shavings on top. She pulled out the bag and removed the thick chunk of hard cheese, carefully slicing off a little piece as an offering to the cheese god who lived in her stomach.

Claire sliced the block freely, the large pieces coming off easily. She checked the door and, seeing it still closed, thrust a few pieces into her mouth, smiling and laughing, knowing Ryan would be watching her if he were present.

“You know what goes good with cheese?” Claire asked out loud.

“Wine,” she replied to herself.

Turning, she anxiously eyed the two glasses of wine sitting on the counter, their red liquid a beacon for her desire. Taking a glass in her hand, Claire raised it to her lips and both tasted and smelled it, as Ryan had shown her. The aroma was strong, and the taste was spicy. She sipped and savored, looking at the half-crafted meal on the counter. She thought it looked like a real chef’s mess, but she wasn’t entirely sure. Still, she was proud of her creation.

When she leaned slightly to the side, Claire hit the bottle. Given its proximity to the edge, it fell off the counter. Claire felt it shift and knew she had struck it, but could not turn fast enough to catch the bottle before it crashed against the tile floor, shattering into intoxicated shards of glass.

“Shit!” she exclaimed loudly.

Pieces slid across the floor, some striking against her bare feet. The liquid, free of the confines, spread across the tile like shed blood, forming in the little grout lines. Claire cursed again at her own stupidity and started to grab a roll of paper towels. The mess was across the floor, and on her knees, she wanted to mop it up and have it concealed before Ryan returned. So much had changed for them both, but she still remembered the old anxiety and nervousness, and felt it return at that moment. Her pulse raced as she frantically tried to clean the floor. What would he say, she wondered? Would he yell, would he scream, would he strike?

Claire worked quickly, but she could not clean the floor before she heard the door unlocking. All at once, all her frustrations turned to panic, and she worked furiously, sweat mingling with tiny tear drops in her eyes. She cringed as she heard his happy voice calling out for her, and with a sob, she gave vent to her agony, agony she thought dead but still very much alive, just waiting.

“Baby? You hiding?” Ryan joked, moving into the apartment and closing the door.

Ryan could hear the noise of furious cleaning from the kitchen, and moved that way, again calling Claire’s name. When he walked around the entry way into the kitchen, he saw Claire on the floor, both hands holding stained paper towels. From her movements, he saw the panic that seemed to furnish her zeal. She did not speak, but swiped back and forth, not realizing he was standing over her.

“Baby, what happened?” Ryan asked.

Hearing his voice startled Claire, as she was so intensely focused on cleaning the mess. She could not hear the concern in his tone, or the inherent sympathy that underlined what he said. All she heard was his voice, and she shuddered under the weight of the onslaught that was to follow.

Ryan quickly knelt beside her and grabbed her hands, restraining her movement. It was then that she looked up at him, her makeup streaked from the tears that fell. She still did not speak, but the emotions present in her face told him all he needed to know.

“Baby, baby, stop,” Ryan said.

Though Ryan held her arms, she still attempted to break free to clean the floor. Tears fell awfully down her face, the only outlet for her pain. Ryan at first did not know what to think; he thought it silly, but after seeing her, only one thought dared to rise above all others: he was the cause of this.

“Baby, I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad,” Claire finally pleaded.

Claire’s boldness was only pushed by her fear, and she spoke, not daring to defy him in his anger, but to plead with him to allow it to cease and not simmer. Ryan just stared at her.

“Claire, I’m, I’m not mad. Why would I, why be mad?” Ryan asked.

Claire could not answer, but she gripped the stained towels as if they contained her own blood. And she cried, staring into the somber eyes that stared back at her.

“Baby, here,” Ryan said.

Slowly, he lifted her off the floor and took the soaked cloths from her saturated hands. He looked at her feet and saw the glass, then carefully moved her around it so he could get in there and clean up the mess.

Claire stepped to the side, her fear subsiding but her nervousness still present. She watched with red eyes as Ryan knelt down and mopped up the remainder of the spill and collected the shards of glass; they made a scratching noise as he gathered them. When the floor was clear, he retrieved the broom and swept while Claire stared, watching his movements. As he cleaned, he seemingly made things right again, but some things would never be made right. Claire was smart enough to see that, despite all the efforts put into their relationship, some things would always endure, just like scars that never fully heal. She continued to weep.

The kitchen was made whole once more, and the mess was gone. Ryan, leaning a mop against the doorway, looked up at Claire, who was now leaning against the wall, arms wrapped tightly around her body, seemingly shielded.

“There,” Ryan said. “All done. Now, we still have two glasses, and some delicious appetizers.”

Claire looked down in shame and anguish, the hurt from her heart still poisoning her body. She felt tired, a fatigue that was seemingly endless. Ryan smiled and reached for one of the glasses, but when he handed it to her, she did not take it. It was not wine she needed, or laughter, or Ryan’s smile. It was reassurance that their life would be different, that she would not always live in the shadow of anger and aggression like a slave. She thought they were past that phase of the darkness, but she realized it was still part of her, a living, breathing part of her existence.

Ryan set the glass back down, and moved closer to her. She looked scared and timid, and he felt the blame in his heart. He reached out to her and pulled her to him, folding his arms around her little body.

“Baby, it’s okay. It will all be okay,” Ryan said.

Claire cried in his arms.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Ryan sat silently in the foyer of the church, waiting for the priest. The old church was quiet, though a few aids moved about, and one person seemed to be having an issue with a copier machine in a room Ryan could not see. He breathed slowly, but deeply. He was worried, as he knew what lay before him, and he couldn’t shake the feeling of being a child outside of the principal’s office.

An older woman, not Mildred, put down the phone that just rang and said the Father was ready to see him. Ryan thanked her and stood, moving slowly down the aisle. The stained glass windows were brilliantly illuminated by the backlight of the sun, and beautiful hues of reds, blues, oranges and yellows flittered down onto the floor like rays of the rainbow.

Ryan rounded the corner and saw the door open. He heard the priest’s voice, and figured he was on the phone, so he waited in the hall outside. A nun walked past, smiling at him as she went.

Ryan thought about what he would say. He was past the point of trying to defend himself and lightening the impact of his behavior to the priest. He wanted to share, and share deliberately, so real healing could begin. Seeing Claire as she was last night convinced him of the necessity. He felt uncomfortable, but he was willing.

“Ryan, you may come in,” Fr. Bill said.

Ryan emerged from the hall and stood in the doorway before entering the office. Fr. Bill was situated at his desk, phone still to his ear, and reclining, as was his custom. When he saw Ryan, he waved him in and motioned to a seat. A raised finger told Ryan he would only be another minute on the phone.

Fr. Bill talked cordially into the receiver, and threw around a few names. It was a social call of sorts, Ryan figured. When it ended, Fr. Bill hung up the phone and sat up in his chair, one hand reaching for his coffee.

“Sorry, an old Rabbi friend of mine.”

“No worries,” replied Ryan.

“So, how are things?” the priest asked.

Ryan thought for a moment about what he wanted to say, but still had no real introduction for his thoughts. He wanted to just blurt them out, but did not have the strength to reveal so much so quickly.

“Okay, I guess.”

“Any issues you care to discuss?” the priest asked.

That was how Fr. Bill always opened each session, with questions and a time to speak freely. If there was nothing, he would move forward. If there was something to speak about, he allowed as much time as was necessary. Reading Ryan as he could, the priest knew something definite and purposeful agitated the young man opposite of him. To the priest, Ryan looked downtrodden and anxious.

“Just the usual. Business is getting slower, and money is getting tighter. The Lady is still doing well, but not like it was, so I’m cutting shifts, and that’s making things harder for the employees. It’s stressful.”

“Is that what’s on your mind?”

“It is, and some other stuff. Things are not like they were there. Problems with staff, shortages, finances, increases in insurance, it’s all getting rougher. And I try not to let it, but I carry it home with me. I try to hide it from Claire, but I’m not always successful. She knows.”

“I think it’s okay if you share it with her. Remember, she is your partner. Let her help.”

“I’ve gotten better, though. I mean, the fights, when we have them, I’m not like I was before. We had a fight a few weeks ago, and I actually left the room so as not to explode, like you said to do.”

The priest nodded in agreement, and sipped his coffee. It was cold, but he seemed not to notice. Fr. Bill then stood when he realized the door was open, and he moved to close it, but Ryan, seeing his intent, beat him to it.

“Thanks,” the priest said.

Ryan retook his seat, the sudden and unexpected movement somehow loosening him mentally. He thought about what was said, then decided to move back to Claire. Fr. Bill eyed him easily, by now knowing that Ryan’s expression meant something more was about to emerge.

“There is something else, though, besides all the crap at work. Last night, when I came home early, Claire was in tears over a broken bottle of wine. I mean, I’d cry over a broken bottle of wine. Well, kidding of course. But anyway, I found her in tears, and what’s more, she seemed so scared and nervous. I think she was even trembling. And she was cleaning the floor like a mad woman. I, I didn’t know what the heck was going on.”

Fr. Bill listened carefully to what was said, but did not reply. He knew Ryan had more to say, so sat in silence to allow Ryan the chance to open himself up again.

“I wasn’t sure what to think at first, but priest, after seeing her and hearing what she said to me, I knew. I knew that I was the cause of it.”

“What did she say to you, Ryan?”

Ryan waited a moment, as if he were reliving the previous night and waiting himself to hear her line. Then, he looked up at the priest and told him what Claire said, how she pleaded with him not to be angry.

“It’s like she was begging me. Priest, it’s like she was scared of me.”

Fr. Bill knew Claire’s side of the issue well by then, and he easily recognized what Ryan was saying as the sole truth. Many a visit entailed her fear of him, juxtaposed with the intensity of her love for him. He trembled inwardly to think of the dear girl having those feelings inside, and having to endure them the previous night.

“Do you think she was?”

“Yes, I do. I truly believe she was horrified of me, of how I would act.”

“Do you blame her?”

“No, not in the least. But when will she see the change in me?”

“Ryan, she has been through a lot at your hands. It will take time, and as she is patient with you, so you must be with her. You can’t expect one happy month to lead to years of bliss. You must continually show her that her old fear is dying away.”

“I try, and, and succeed. I mean, I walk away so as not to fight. I’m more understanding and sympathetic.”

“And that is all very good. I am proud of you. But you must remember what she has seen. It’s learned behavior for her to act that way.”

“I know, priest, but when will she see all that I have accomplished? I felt horrible last night. I comforted her extensively and held her while she cried. I did what I could, but I did not actively hurt her. Why am I being made to feel guilty?”

Fr. Bill wrote a little note on his pad, and slid it to the side. Then, he cleared his throat and looked back at Ryan, his eager eyes watching the priest.

“Are you mad at her?”

“I don’t want to be, but yes, I am a little upset, to be frank.”


“Why? Because I was made to feel like a villain.”

“You are not a villain, but you must remember, you are reaping now what was once sown. What you saw last night was the response you instilled in her. She reacted in accordance with the very way you trained her. Now, one more time, are you mad at her?”

Ryan pondered the question again, knowing well for what the priest was aiming. Besides the inquiry of the priest, he felt it himself, the immensity of his guilt welling in him, and not guilt from his selfishness, but genuine guilt over the situation.

“No, priest, I am not mad at her. I’m mad because of what I have done, of what I have shown her, and I’m redirecting my anger at her, anger that should be aimed at me. Is that it?”

“You tell me,” replied the priest softly.

“No, that’s it. I feel it. I know it. She is my handiwork, isn’t she?”

“Yes, Ryan. She is your handiwork.”

Ryan could not reply to the comment, the strong affirmation that he had created a wretched existence for the woman he loved. When he sought happiness for her, he in fact only gave hate, anger, and fear. Now, when he was truly seeking to sow love, he had to plant in a desolate field, a field he destroyed himself.

“I did this,” Ryan said at last.

Ryan cupped his hands over his face and breathed through them. In the darkness he wanted to hide, but his pain and anger were already there, awaiting his arrival, so he knew there would be no escaping. There was no refuge for him, no bastion of safety. He thought of Claire.

She is still my strength and my refuge, Ryan thought. She is still my bastion. I still have hope. Yes, I have hope.

“Priest,” he blurted, pulling his hands from his face, “I still have Claire, right? There’s still hope, right?”

Fr. Bill was watching Ryan the whole time, wondering and fearing, and hoping and praying for him. When Ryan cupped his hands over his face, Fr. Bill thought of all the masks people wear, every day, everywhere. Abuse, he knew, was not limited to a certain geographic space, it was not limited to ethnicity, economic status or even gender. Any person could be an abuser, even the nicest man or woman. It was the mask of kindness that fooled everyone, the mask they put on daily to hide their behavior. Getting the mask to fall and break, that was the difficult part.

“With God, Ryan, there is always hope.”

God? God, Ryan thought.

“Claire still loves you. We both know that. She is still with you, but you must remember that it will take her time, as well. You are not healing alone, but together.”

“But what can I do to make things better?”

“Ryan, you are already doing it. Keep trying, every hour, every day. Commit yourself to change daily, and recognize that failure only comes when you try. But keep trying. Just as failure only comes when you try, so does success. Remember that she is moving along this path with you. As she heals, so will you.”

Ryan nodded in agreement. The words were true. He just needed to believe in them, and in himself. When Ryan finally said goodbye, he stepped out of the church and looked around at the noon sky. The weather, not so chilly anymore and carrying the glory of newly arrived spring, was still brisk, but pleasant. On the bare limbs, new life was emerging from the old, new growth coming out of what looked like death and decay a few weeks prior. Ryan admired the beauty, and saw that the newness was good.

Ryan hurt, but it was a necessary hurt, something he needed. With the cool breeze, he almost felt his sores being soothed. In his own mind, he had come to terms with the priest, and almost enjoyed his company. He knew him to be a good man, and he certainly was helping. Maybe soon, he reasoned, he could wean himself off of the meetings, and like a new bird, take flight amidst the blossoming spring of his life.

Ryan walked home under the branches of new growth.

Chapter 19

Claire hung up the phone. She was busy when the call came in, but for Fr. Bill, she always made time. Her desk was the usual cluttered disaster, with organization trumped by necessity. What started out as a morning with a master plan turned into a bit of a triage, with the greatest near-disasters being battled first.

Fr. Bill called after Ryan left and asked to meet with Claire that afternoon after work. In an effort to maximize time, he offered to meet her at her office and walk through a nearby city park, so she agreed. Claire thought about what she would tell him, and certainly wanted to offer praise of Ryan’s progress. She knew she would have a moment to address the issue with Brett, and she wanted to talk about it. Maybe, she reasoned, the Father would be able to offer some insight into the situation or approach it from a different aspect. She was hoping for closure, hoping desperately to put it behind her once and for all.

When the day was finally finished, Claire felt like waving a white flag of surrender to her desk. She was happy to stand, close down her computer and leave behind the mess and hectic nature of her business. It would be waiting for her the next day, but for the moment, she was free.

The weather changed daily, and the new growth was slowly emerging from the frigid sleep of winter. Birds took to the skies and squirrels scurried about once more, alive with the awakening springs brings. Claire stepped out onto the busy street, active with unnatural animation, the squalid mechanisms of transportation contrasting with the gentle spring emergence all around. Flowering buds opened to the fumes of cars, and trees scratched the smoggy sky. But it was the city, Claire’s city, and she loved the busy street as much as the open expanses of the park. She almost wanted to twirl in circles at the beautiful weather. Had she no appointment with Fr. Bill, and if Ryan was not already at work, she would have dragged him out of the apartment to take a long afternoon stroll through the city, embracing the new change with fervor and bliss.

Claire walked away from her building to the little park nearby. People passed her quickly, and she could not figure out why they moved so hurriedly in such a gorgeous climate. Now was a time to stop and enjoy the release from winter, yet these people moved from unseen destinations to others, vapors before her eyes.

There was an old man sitting on the bench not far from her, cloaked in black and staring happily at the world around him. A small plastic bag sat bunched in his lap. His eyes, turned upon not just one object, but the city as a whole, looked over the world in joy, like the creation was new and freshly minted.

Claire recognized Fr. Bill sitting on the bench, and casually walked over to him. She was in no hurry, and did not fancy to be, either. The priest looked up at her, smiling as she approached. He stood and they hugged.

“Hello,” said Fr. Bill.

“Hello, Father. How are you?”

“I’m an old man, so cold and grumpy!” Fr. Bill laughed.

“I’ve yet to see you grumpy, Father,” replied Claire.

Fr. Bill gave Claire a sly smile and laughed. His joy was visibly derived from the change of weather, but Claire knew he always carried with him an inner joy that he tapped when necessary. Outwardly expressed, the inner joy seemed to fuel him when necessity dictated.

“You, my dear, have not seen me at 8 a.m. without coffee.”

“I doubt that,” she said.

“Well, either way, shall we enjoy this beautiful day of our Lord?”

“It is so lovely out!” Claire exclaimed.

“Oh, and I brought some old bread. You don’t mind feeding the birds with an old man, do you?”

“I’d love to feed the birds with an old man,” Claire replied happily.

“It’s just too pretty to sit inside today.”

The two started off through the small park, where large trees flashed their vibrant foliage to an anticipating world. Some revelers milled around in the still dead grass, while others walked through the lanes and by the fountain, which was still bare of water and sitting in its wintery state. People in business attire, runners and tourists all trekked along the same paths as Claire and Fr. Bill, some hurrying and others walking as slow as, or slower, than they were.

“So, Claire, how have things been? Anything you care to discuss?” asked Fr. Bill.

“Everything has been really well. Ryan is doing well. We have not had any issues of late. I mean, you know, little stuff, but not like before.”

Claire’s voice was happy and peaceful, but hidden in the intonation was a little bit of the darkness Fr. Bill knew too well. He had heard it many times before, a slight hesitation that spoke of hidden pain, and an earnest desire to speak of it.

“Would you mind sharing some of the fights, some of the ‘little stuff?’” asked Fr. Bill.

Claire folded her arms across her chest, guarding her body from the cool breeze that was blowing the last of the wintery chill across the expanse. Two children, dressed warmly but whose haste prompted unzipped jackets, ran past, chattering something about Iron Man. Fr. Bill smiled as they went by.

“We argue sometimes, over stupid things. You know how couples do. He gets grumpy, or I’m stressed. Whatever. It’s been a little more frequent, since his business is slipping. He’s worried, and the bills are still the same. Too bad rent was never proportionate to what was earned.”

“Ryan told me about the business.”

“It’s on his mind a lot. I know he’s always worried about it. And my work is getting really busy now, so, it’s easy to have an argument. But, they’re not like before.”

Claire felt her pain from the previous night.

“Is it?” Fr. Bill asked.

Fr. Bill stopped when he saw some birds. He knew Claire was always a good speaker, and she needed little prompting, but sometimes, having an activity to draw attention was always nice. The little birds were scattered at first, but he pulled from his large pocket the plastic bag and drew out a piece of bread. He handed a piece to Claire, and together, they started throwing little bits onto the brown earth.

Between newly emerging blades of green grass, the little birds hopped to the crumbs, snatching them greedily. As the chirping of one of two caught the attention of others, the ground became more animated with little chirping birds of various sizes and shapes.

“Look at them,” Fr. Bill said.

The priest laughed gaily as the hungry birds demanded more through their esoteric language. He tore pieces off and tried to disseminate arbitrarily, but some of the little ones were far more aggressive than the others, and they bullied their way to fuller stomachs.

“Greedy little things they are,” Claire said.

“Look at them go!”

“They are too funny!” Claire giggled.

Claire, lost in the comical merriment of the birds and extreme joy of the priest, did not reconsider the question he asked her, and had nearly forgotten it. She pulled little pieces of bread and tossed them out into the crowd. People moving past would cast a glance at the couple, and move on, some smiling and others expressing a disdain for such mindless activity; unhappy people whose lives were filled with more gloom than even they cared to admit.

Fr. Bill was watching Claire from the corner of his eye. She was amused and lost in the work, or play, or whatever she considered it at the moment. He knew it was a good place for her to be, since he needed answers, deep answers.

“Is it?” Fr. Bill repeated.

“Is…?” Claire asked.

Then, Claire remembered what was asked. The little birds bounced up and down, fighting for the crumbs that fell from her hand. She thought the shards of bread were like clumsy brown snowflakes, falling haphazardly upon the flock. She tried to focus on the image, the silly image of fat brown snow, but the previous night still lingered. She wished she could throw it from her hand, but she couldn’t.

To avoid directly confronting the pain again, she thought about Brett and sharing that with Fr. Bill. After all, that was most prominent on her heart at the moment; she was learning that the presence of pain was normal, and some pains hurt more than others

“Can I ask you something, Father?” Claire asked.

“Of course.”

One little bird alighted on Fr. Bill’s shoe, and he chuckled as it recognized its folly and leapt off. Claire gathered her thoughts and began.

“What happens when an outside party gets involved in, well, our situation?”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Well, I have a friend, a very good friend, and he’s been a confidant of mine through a lot of this. I’ve told him a lot, and he’s very intimate with our situation. A few weeks ago, we had a heart to heart, and he simply asked me to leave Ryan; well, not leave him entirely, but move out. He said it wasn’t going to work. I argued with him about it, and left off with no decision being made. We’re still good friends and all, but, I don’t confide in him as much now.”

“Why is that?”

“I just, I guess it’s not the same now. I don’t know. I need to be with Ryan, and I have to believe this will get better. I love him. I just can’t give up on him. He needs me, and he can’t do this without me. He said so.”

“Claire, Ryan has to want to do this.”

“I know, I know. But, if he has no reason to fight, why would he even try, right?”

“The quest of humanity is always self-betterment.”

“I guess,” she replied. “But I’m just afraid that without me, he will never change. He can be so much more, so much better than he already is. You know him. You see what he can be. I want to be there to help him become that.”

“I know he can be amazing,” Fr. Bill affirmed.

“See? And it’s my duty to help him to become that.”

“Claire, I understand and applaud you sense of loyalty to him. I feel, if anything, your love may help, but you cannot be the reason.”

More birds gathered before him, and the patch of brown earth was filled with little beggars all open beaked to any piece that fell their way. They chirped loudly, but the sound was soothing and amusing. It wasn’t long before a few brave squirrels ventured over to the pack, and elbowed their way through the phalanx of beaks to stand before the feeding hands. Fr. Bill laughed, his acceptance of pain and the ability to laugh and love through it quite evident. Claire, her humor not so jovial, smiled weakly at the little furry thieves and tossed them a few larger pieces.

“So, that kind of put me at odds with Brett. Again, I love him very much, but I just didn’t know how to take it. I know he had my best interest at heart, I know he did. I just didn’t know what to say or do, really. Does he have any right to say that?”

“He seems like a very good and very concerned friend. An opinion like that should always be valued, but what you choose to do with it is your prerogative. I would keep him close, if you don’t mind some advice, and rely on him. It’s always good to have a friend like that.”

“Yeah, it’s just now, I don’t think it’s good for me to be around him. A little distance will help things, and it has already.”

“Claire, what do you mean?” Fr. Bill asked suspiciously.

“Frankly, we’re both scared of anything coming between us. Something like that could ruin Ryan and all the progress he’s made.”

Fr. Bill narrowed his eyes on the birds and squirrels, as if they were the ones speaking to him. What Claire said alarmed him, though his composure did not change. Claire received the piece of bread Fr. Bill handed her, and she continued to mindlessly toss the fragments onto the earth, oblivious now of the act she was doing. Her mind was far from the patch of bird-covered grass. She thought of Brett, and of Ryan, and how she did not feel completely in control of making the decision to distance herself from her friend.

“We’re?’” asked Fr. Bill. “Claire, who is ‘we?’”

Claire lowered her eyes, a sudden and unmistakable shame rushing over her. She knew she needed to be present for Ryan, but in her heart she knew it was that same man who made separation between her and her friend.

“Ryan and me, mostly,” she said, shrugging.

Fr. Bill lost all interest in God’s creation at his feet. He turned his head to his left to look at Claire as the final crumbs fell from an open hand. He heard what he needed to hear, what he feared to hear. In his mind, a new piece was added, something he would have to address with Ryan when they meet next. Things were turning, churning, and not in any favorable manner.

“Claire, did Ryan pull you away from your friend?” Fr. Bill asked.

“Father, it’s not like that. Not at all. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not the case. He’s, we’re just looking out for us. I still see Brett and I still talk with him, and Ryan is cool with that. He’s okay.”

“Is he?”

“Father, I, yes, he is. We just need space right now, and not people interfering with us, that’s all.”

“Claire, that sounds like something Ryan would say,” Fr. Bill said calmly.

There was in Claire’s voice a sense of anxiety and frustration, detectable and certainly visible to the priest. What caused it was unknown to him, but he guessed it had to do with blame, and she was probably trying to figure out now how she could either blame herself or her friend for instigating the fight, and not Ryan, the true cause of the issue at hand. He guessed correctly.

“But did Brett have any reason to get into our business?” she asked, aggressively.

Fr. Bill waited a moment, hoping the slight pause would allow her time to collect herself and calm down. Claire, hearing nothing and seeing nothing but the pain of the issue before her, felt the sadness and the pain of her anger at Brett. She still forced her aggression at him, though she did not understand why.

“Claire, Brett,” Fr. Bill began slowly “is your friend. As a friend, especially a loving one, he felt he had a responsibility for your safety. Did you not go to him the night you left? Remember that. He’s your friend and he loves you. He feels he has an obligation to assist. You are fortunate you have him. Many do not, and feel they are alone.”

Claire looked up at the darkening sky. She felt an urge to escape the conversation and the man, for both in that moment were touching upon issues she wanted to leave alone. There were sores on her heart, bruised places each with a memory, and now Claire felt they were exposed and probed. She hurt, and each bruise pulsated with an evil energy. She wanted to go, but something made her remain by the side of the priest. Maybe it was his voice, so placid, or perhaps the vibrant eyes set in flesh that still captivated her. Maybe it was the park and the birds and the squirrels, now scattered abroad by better prospects for food. Or maybe, just maybe, it was that this man hurt her also by gently telling her the truth in a way that needed to be heard. He revealed to her the pain from which she suffered, and though it hurt, Claire needed that pain, and she needed that man, that priest to make it happen.

“Claire, what does he say about your family?”

Claire sighed deeply. Finally, she could give an honest answer that needed no fabrication. Pictures of her family flashed before her, of their holiday, of parties, of her calls after work. Ryan hardly knew them, maybe he didn’t want to; Claire did not know.

“He says nothing.”

Claire looked at the priest, who was staring across the grassy yard, watching the two children playing Iron Man. They ran freely, without care or concern for the protests of their guardian. They were free. Fr. Bill knew freedom of a theological kind, but in his heart, he yearned for the freedom those children felt. He sighed.

“Claire, pardon my frankness, but Ryan is isolating you.”

“No, he’s not. I’m still friends with Brett.”

“But do you confide in him?”

“I can still talk to him.”

“But do you confide in him?” the priest asked again.

“No, I don’t. But he did that, not me.”

Fr. Bill coughed and cleared his throat as if to give a lecture. One of the children fell on the cement path, and the other, who was swinging on the black chain roping off the grass, looked over, then rushed to their sibling. The priest watched them keenly.

“Claire, he is isolating you. It’s classic behavior when one feels threatened. He has taken Brett from you. Don’t argue. You know it as well as me. Next, will be your family, and any remaining friends. He will bring you closer to himself, and not in a positive sense. He seeks to control you, and he is placing his pieces on the chess board appropriately.”

“No, no he’s not. He’s been with you, and he’s learned a lot. How could he be doing that? How, Father? How?” Claire asked, frustrated and nervous.

“He feels threatened. He’s lashing out any way he can.”

“Can you talk to him about it? I think it’s just a misunderstanding. He can explain better than I can. Please, talk to him,” she pleaded.

“I will, I promise you that.”

The sky was growing darker as the lamps began illuminating the cement paths. The chill of night crept across the city as the people began to leave. The sun, fading behind the towering skyline, sent up its last rays as a salutation to the day, then slowly sank into oblivion.

The two children, now coached by their guardian, began making their way along the path previously trod, their feet not skipping as frantically as before, for a degree of fatigue entered into their little frames, as even Iron Man grows weak after much play. They would return to a happy home, rejoicing in their easy and free lives. Fr. Bill saw them leave together.

“Well, I guess it’s getting late, and I better get in,” Claire said.

“Yes, it is,” Fr. Bill replied, flatly.

“Thanks for your time,” she said.

The priest did not reply. There was a singular mood in the air between them now, a mood of awkwardness and uncertainty. The priest did not further pursue the issue, for he knew the pain she felt, and Claire did not want to rouse feelings of animosity any longer. She wanted peace and placidity. She wanted to go home.

“I’ll be in touch, Claire. Remember, this is not your fault. If you need me, call.”

Fr. Bill did not stop staring at the place where the children played, even though the darkness was emerging from all corners to occupy the space. He looked forward, as if in a dream, and a part of him merged with the solitude around him. Claire looked at him, at his eyes, but did not see any emotion she could recognize.

Claire felt awkward and ashamed at getting frustrated and annoyed with the priest. Her only hope was that she was successful in concealing it. He was like a loving father to her, and she cherished not only the work he did on her behalf –something she did not forget – but the sincerity he put into his work, and the care he had for her.

“Alright, and thanks. I’ll see you later.”

The priest gave a rather half-hearted goodbye, and did not turn to look at Claire as she walked away. His mind was consumed, infested with ideas, thoughts and fears. He trembled for Claire and what was transpiring, and was angry with Ryan for so lightly casting off his duty to rehabilitation. Fr. Bill knew it was a rough and dangerous road for Ryan, and knew that he would have to correct him numerous times, but such an act like this nearly showed the priest that the man was not trying at all. He even wondered if Ryan was simply ‘dancing along’ to the priest’s song.

Fr. Bill would confront Ryan with the news, though he had to reckon on how he would present it. He did not want to make tougher issues for Claire, but he had to show Ryan what he was doing, and where he was going. If he did not, Ryan might slip away and fail. Fr. Bill saw it before, men and women who came to him for help, but slipped through and vanished into the darkness of their own self-imposed misery. He sighed again, a sigh that allowed his own ghost to pass from his body and enter into the night, where it would wander alone in the city streets of destitution and pain, searching for a balm it could never render.

When I get home, Fr. Bill thought, I will email Ryan. I want to meet with him tomorrow. I have to meet with him tomorrow. My schedule will be cleared as best I can. This must be addressed for both him and Claire. If I falter, like last time, it will all fall apart. I can’t have that, not again.

The area where the children played was overrun with darkness now, the joy they emitted there forsaken and devoured by the bleakness of the night. Fr. Bill looked one last time, then started off down the lamp-lit path.

* * * * * * * * * *

Fr. Bill sent the email and waited patiently for a response. He did not figure it would return to him so quickly, but in an hour’s time, he found a reply sent from a phone, and, though electronic, seemed hastily scribbled. It acquiesced to his demand, saying Ryan would see him at the appointed time.

The morning air was chilly, but somehow, delightful to the priest sitting on the steps of the church. Fr. Bill watched some birds alight on a ledge across the street and survey the road, their little heads jerking back and forth. The noise of the street had little effect on the birds, who watched from their perch as the busy world moved beneath them.

The people who passed strolled lazily along the sidewalk, old couples were hand in hand, and loners had hands in pockets, trudging through a city that was more isolating than friendly to them. Fr. Bill watched them all, and memories of his early priesthood days came back to him. He had them all in his congregation, the loners and the friendly, all coming to the doors of the church to receive what they needed to survive another week. Fr. Bill always thought of his occupation as more than just the purveyor of spiritual goods; he wanted to give something material, something physical to his flock, and with his smile, a kind word, even a few dollars from his pocket, he tended to their needs, giving of himself as much as he could.

Two cups of coffee sat steaming next to Fr. Bill like Styrofoam volcanoes, their puffs indicating an imminent eruption. Fr. Bill brought them out for him and Ryan, hoping not to be confined to the office today. Instead, it was his desire to walk the streets, talking and navigating through Ryan’s issues. He was nervous for the meeting, but he always was before such a confrontation. Being a priest meant more than just fulfilling spiritual duties; there were also social duties that required both tact and humanity. He would certainly need both to reach Ryan and discern his intentions.

Fr. Bill had one hand in his coat pocket, his fingers nimbly moving along the faded beads of his rosary. With the rosary such a concrete part of his existence, Fr. Bill reached a point in his spiritual life that he could recite it diligently while still maintaining an active presence in the world, much like the antiquated monks of Egypt he studied in seminary. He looked around, greeted what faces looked upon him, and kept a watchful eye on the birds overhead, all the while blessing the heavens with his recitation.

A yellow cab pulled up to the curb. Fr. Bill could see the driver, his hat mashed down over his messy locks. Behind him, Ryan’s face looked puzzled as he beheld the priest sitting on the steps. He exited after paying the man, and slamming the door, looked the priest over as the cab returned to the flow of the lane. Ryan normally walked, but he was running late and the cabby was present when he needed him.

“Morning,” Fr. Bill said gleefully.

“The same to you,” returned Ryan.

“I thought we’d take advantage of the pretty morning to have a walk. Coffee?”

Fr. Bill stood on his step and handed a cup to Ryan, who took it in his hands and sipped it. It was still warm, though not entirely hot. Ryan thought it a pleasant morning as well, so did not mind the notion to walk. What occupied his mind, however, was the urgency that formed the meeting. They were not scheduled to meet for another day, but the email prompted otherwise.

“Coffee’s good,” said Ryan.

“Coffee and early mornings go hand in hand. Shall we start this way?”

“Sure,” Ryan replied.

“Good. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I am most appreciative.”

Ryan simply nodded and inhaled a waft of bold roast aroma. The two started walking down the sidewalk in front of the church, and immediately turned the corner. The buildings flowed out from before them like receding water on the coast, the structures of old brick lining both sides of the avenue. For a moment, the two were silent as they walked, with only the plodding of their feet making any noise between them. Fr. Bill sipped his coffee with his free hand, while the other still maintained its workings with the beads. Ryan walked casually, his mind collected, but still confused.

“So,” began Ryan, “why the meeting this morning?”

A car sped down the lane, splashing a dirty puddle in the road. The sound caught both men by surprise, though it should not have. The car disappeared in the distance.

“Ryan, I am a firm believer that all of our actions have a purpose to them. Sometimes, we know that purpose and are conscious of it. Other times, we do not, yet still we act in a sort of mechanical way, like automatons. When we know our actions, we have familiarity with them; when we don’t, they sort of move in the background, working out situations unbeknownst to us. It’s like there is a little person in our brains who works for us. They labor to keep us safe and to protect us, sometimes defending us from ourselves, and sometimes from others. Because this happens it doesn’t mean it’s always bad. It’s a defensive mechanism. What we do, we do without out our own knowledge, at times.”

“Yeah, you’ve said that before,” Ryan said.

“I have. And I live by that. I have a fear. Ryan, allow me to be frank. I am afraid you are isolating Claire.”

Ryan mentally questioned the idea the priest just proposed, his astonishment not expressed on his cold face, but certainly felt in his mind. His steps took him along the road in accordance with the priest’s mechanical notion, but his mind was still ensnared by his words. He could not figure out what he meant by it, and ran the past few days with Claire through his mind. Everything seemed fine and fair, save for a few bumps. What could be the problem?

“How so?” Ryan asked.

“It has been mentioned that Claire no longer speaks openly with her friend, Brett. Ryan, this is classic behavior, the isolation of loved ones for the sake of dominance.”

“What does that, or he, have to do with anything? She can still speak with him. I don’t forbid that. They see each other at work every day. I can’t stop them from talking.”

Ryan was defensive in tone and body language, tossing his cup in a garbage can and tucking his hands into his pockets. He was ‘balling up,’ trying to fold himself into his own protective layers, hiding deeper within his own darker self.

“Ryan, no need for defensive actions here. I am here to help, and this is what you have tasked me to do, remember? What is happening, as far as I can understand, and again, forgive my frankness, is that you are feeling challenged by Brett’s presence and his friendship with Claire. Now, I cannot read your mind, but it seems that Claire is being isolated from her friends. If the pattern holds true, then her family is next. Ryan, tell me honestly, am I correct?”

Ryan did not reply, but kept walking and staring at the cement a few paces before them. His mind was heavy and wrecked by the violent assault of the priest’s words, the seeming conviction that now was branded into his mental flesh. He fumed, he grieved and he held his breath to retain his frustration. He wanted to shout at the priest, and also cry, for he knew there was an element of truth in what he was saying.

The city smelled of spring, or as best it could, given the smog of the vehicles and general scent of the alleys. But spring was still approaching in multiple forms, from the little buds on window box plants to the lessoning chill in each inhalation. The priest would have relished the new scents more had they not both been mired in so dark and troubling a conversation.

The priest tried to choose his language carefully, moving first for a full frontal assault with his frankness to unsettle the man, then trying to find a gentler means of communication to bring back his peace. By now, he knew how Ryan operated and knew he would need something blunt to truly catch his attention. Now, the priest needed to be gentle to soothe and help him to see he was still a confidant.

“Ryan, you are welcome to your silence, but it will not help anything now. I’m not convicting you of anything, Ryan. I’m just showing you what might be transpiring.”

Ryan’s attempt to reply failed, and he went back to his cement, watching the dirty slabs pass under his feet. The priest did not speak either.

“I just don’t see how this impacts anything, priest,” Ryan finally said.

“Ryan, if you isolate Claire, then you are still following suit with your intentions, and have learned nothing, and are still headed towards destruction. You are exhibiting mannerisms that are contrary to how you want to live.”

“How do you know how I want to live?” Ryan asked, a heated tone in his voice.

“Ryan, you came to me for help. This is what I do. Sometimes, I calm you down, and other times, I agitate you with the truth. You are sliding back on all the work you have done, if your intention to isolate Claire is genuine.”

“And what’s wrong with it being just us two?” Ryan asked angrily.

“Ryan, that is dangerous ground. If you seek to cage her in, trapping her and stealing her from her life, then that is wrong, and well below your character. I’ve seen the kind of man you are, and I see how you strive to make yourself better. This is not you, Ryan.”

The priest maintained his placidity, though frustration and anxiety grew within him. He wanted to reach Ryan and make him understand what was happening, but Ryan was on the defensive now and closed to all other words. All he heard was the tormenting conviction from the priest’s lips. He felt the stinging accusation against his heart and the self-righteous judgment of the priest in his mind. Ryan fumed, but kept his anger checked partly from the exposure of the street, and partly from the training he received from the very priest he now raged against.

Ryan stopped walking, and the priest, seeing his companion arrest his movement, stopped likewise and turned. He looked at the angry face behind him and knew there was a rage boiling in Ryan’s mind. He saw it before, the challenge one man makes to the autonomy of another. In this case, Fr. Bill was challenging both Ryan’s commitment to the overall goal, and his dominion over his life. Most men, and a few of the women with whom he had worked, all went through the same set of emotions. As the sessions grew tougher, and the reconstruction of the psyche became more rigorous, so, too, did their temperaments grow more aggressive, until they tempered them for the sake of their love and life.

“Ryan?” the priest asked.

Ryan did not look at him, but cast his eyes upon the red bricked buildings sprawling down the lane, their red mingling in the distance with the blue of the sky. Ryan wanted to glare at him, to shout or do something to suppress the anger he felt, but he knew that a glance at the aged face of the priest would suspend his aggravation; Ryan did not want that. He wanted to savor his anger and nurse it to a crescendo. He was not ready to suppress or remove it. Blinded and bound by his anger, he was an unconscious slave to its whim.

“So, because I need Claire to get along, suddenly I’m a bad guy,” Ryan said.

The words, coming out slower than either man anticipated, were defiant, with a subtle hatred that was unmistakable. The priest could sense it, and Ryan could feel it. He spoke not as an embittered pupil, but as mature rival, a student who felt he had run his course with his master and was ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

Ryan knew he needed Claire, and he would be damned indeed if anyone were going to take her from him. He was poised to overcome the evil, poised to accomplish great things and make a new and better life for the woman he loved. She was the intensity of his fuel, the bright and burning star that guided his course through the horrid desert. He needed her, he knew it, and he was prepared to defend her position by his side.

What hurt, however, was the notion that Claire was speaking openly with the priest about things that were misconstrued. Ryan thought he had explained himself adequately enough to his love and the priest, but now both seemed to be against him. On the sidewalk, as pedestrians passed them in little clusters, Ryan felt alone. The sounds of the bus and the hum of the vehicles did not press from his mind the idea of isolation.

This can’t be, Ryan thought. Why would Claire say such things? Where did she get that idea? No, it can’t be her. She loves me and knows how much I need her. She wouldn’t speak against me, would she? No, nope, I will not believe it. She loves me unconditionally. The words she may have spoken were not her own, but this devil. He’s the one who is aggravating things, just like that monster Brett. They both want to see us fail. They hate us being happy. They detest the strength we both share, and the fact that I will succeed with Claire’s help.

“No, priest,” Ryan said.

“No, what, Ryan?”

“You’re wrong. I don’t know what Claire told you, but you’re wrong. What you heard from her was what you wanted to hear. For whatever reason, you don’t want me to succeed!”

“Ryan, that is not it at all. I fear for the road you are traveling. My job is to help you, not hurt you. I’m not in this for any gain.”

“I don’t know that. All you’ve done since we met was knock and bash me, like I’m some kind of derelict.”

“Now you just wait!” roared the usually placid priest. “I take no pride in the things I say and do. What I say is for your benefit. Do you think I like working with women and men who made a hobby out of terrorizing their loved ones? Do you think I like this? I remember well my mother crying herself to sleep every night, and how she would barricade my bedroom door with her own body! She took the beating meant for me too many times. If that is not Jesus in this world, then I don’t know what is.”

Ryan was shocked and stunned. He stared at the red-faced priest who was staring straight into his eyes. The priest’s half consumed cup of coffee was spilled on the dirty cement, a victim to the intensity of the priest’s outburst. He breathed heavily and worked to collect himself again. He had been shouting, and the lone couple who passed them hurried their pace.

“Blessed Mother, forgive me,” the priest said out loud.

Ryan saw an image in his mind of two Shaolin monks, one older and one younger, both heads shaved and standing in contrast to the flat, open horizon before them. One felt pity, the other anger, and only the bowed head of the younger indicated acquiescence and obedience.

Ryan felt shame at the angry words the priest spoke, and his own anger seemed to melt like fresh snow before the morning rays of the sun. Displaced by the outward display of the priest, who customarily spoke softly, Ryan felt unsettled and almost nervous. He was suddenly glad they were on an open street.

“Ryan,” began the priest, “I want to help you. Part of that is tearing from you the old growth that brought you to me in the first place. Let me help.”

The priest’s words were soft and fatherly, like wisdom not from a book of reverence but from a heart of love. In tender language, he tried to speak to the young man, hoping his words called past his anger to the heart that still beat for change.

“I’m sorry. It’s just a lot of stuff right-”

“Don’t apologize,” the priest interrupted, “just change.”

“I’m trying.”

“I know you are, Ryan, I know. And this is the hard part, where you must confront your own darkness. We all have it. You just need to learn what to do with it.”

Ryan finally pulled his eyes away from the august face and looked again at the sky. It was a soft blue, a new blue, unwashed entirely by the sun and crisp in its color. He wondered what he could do next, what he would do. He then questioned himself on many points, wondering if there was true merit to what the priest said.

“So, what now?” Ryan asked.

“Change. Make the change in you. You must not isolate Claire from anyone. She needs her life and her ability to reach out to her own support network.”

“Yeah, but -”

“No ‘but.’ We’ve broken ground, and I’ve already sinned today, so I might as well continue. I think you don’t like Brett. I think you hate him. That’s why you are pulling ‘your girl’ away from him. He’s a threat to you.”

The priest sounded tired, as if the weight of his own personal sin sat on his shoulders like a red devil, seducing and tormenting him constantly. He watched the reaction on Ryan’s face turn from surprise to admittance. In Ryan’s eyes, the old man could see the truth of the statement resonating with the morose sentiments Ryan carried about Brett. It was true, they both knew, what the priest said.

“Maybe he is,” Ryan said.

Ryan was ashamed and convicted, the tired eyes of the priest staring through him, slicing through his bitterness like two sharp knives. He breathed heavily, then held his breath, slowly releasing it like the prisoner it was in his lungs.

The priest sighed at the statement, and slowly lowered his eyes as well. He had the feeling of a man who had just carried a heavy chair up two flights of stairs, and just reached the top. The task was finished, but there was still more furniture at the bottom. For the moment, however, the task was done.

“Ryan, you must come to terms with this. It is okay for Claire to have friends. You must become acquainted with that. She has done no wrong, and in the end, you will be stronger because of it. Today, start today. Learn to see him not as you see him, but as you must see him, as a friend who loves both you and Claire. You cannot isolate her. If you do, you will enter a darkness that no light can penetrate.”

Ryan shook his head and stared at an old gum stain on the sidewalk. Another bus passed, sounding more like an old loud blender than a vehicle of transportation. The sound of music blared from an open window, some awful new singer bellowing like a sick cow to the harmony of falling pots and pans.

“Ryan, I’m here to help,” the priest said. “Remember that, and me.”

“I know, priest. I know.”

“If this were easy, there would be no need of me in the equation. It isn’t easy, Ryan, and it requires a lot of re-direction of your thoughts. That is what makes it so difficult.”

“But I don’t want to lose Claire. I need her.”

“Ryan, you think you need her, but in reality, the strength is already in you. She is a very good reason to change, but you must want it for yourself.”

The priest pointed a thin finger at Ryan’s open jacket, touching the sweater underneath. By gentle force, he tried to show the location of Ryan’s inner ability. The priest wanted Ryan to know that he was his own cause, and he himself was worth fighting for. What love he experienced in life could never surpass his own value, and for that value he should desire change.

The point of touch on Ryan’s chest still tingled with feigned pressure after the priest removed his finger. Ryan could feel it like a little burning ember, slowly warming the surrounding chest cavity. He thought it foolish, but he almost thought the sensation was growing in him, warming him throughout. All his life, he focused on external entities as his sole worth; never did he consider his own person as the mightiest worth he held. Now, Ryan saw himself for the first time as a man who needed to change for his own being, a man like the sages of old who sought great knowledge not for the benefit of humankind alone, but for the betterment of their individual souls.

I can honestly say this is new to me, Ryan thought. I never figured I was worth much, growing up as I did. Guess I was wrong.

Ryan looked upon the priest and slowly brought a smile to his face, then looked away and the smile faded. What the priest said concerning the darkness weighed on his mind, and he was fearful he would fall into it and disappear in its mire, like the man who raised him.

Ryan lowered his eyes before seeing the priest return his smile. The sky overhead was pleasant and shimmering in its spring delight, as more people were taking to the streets, and more cars were traversing the bumpy roads on their long commutes to wherever they were going. The activity was new, but always the same routine, the same new from old, for long winters always brought about pleasant springs. Those who scurried saw only the current weather, and moved through it with as little gratitude as their distracted minds could muster. For the priest, though, it was always the new from the old, and the old repeated every day and in every way, the same story always unfolding in new characters, but the plot ever the same.

“Well, why don’t we head back? It’s almost time, anyway, and I don’t want to make you late for your afternoon,” the priest said, stooping to retrieve his cup.

“Yeah, I guess we should.”

“So, how has work been? I read a review of your restaurant the other day. I’ll need to get over there and try it some time.”

“You should. Let me know when, and I’ll set aside a table for you.”

The conversation continued in the same vein as they retraced their steps back to the church. Behind them, the street still stretched out like a long line racing to the sky, and on the cement, a drying spot of coffee spread out as the only monument to the moment that transpired between the two. For the priest, it was a moment of confession, a time to pour out his own dark memories to a man who needed them. For Ryan, it was a moment to realize he was his own strength, his own reason for living and striving. But in his heart, where the darkness still had sway, it was also a moment of bitter reckoning, where the harshness of the rebuke still lingered and was embraced by the devious darkness. It was twisted and misconstrued to fit its own agenda, and by the time both men reached the old church, Ryan felt an upwelling of anger once more. Prudence dictated that he proceeded with concealment and caution, and so hid his bitterness. The genuine feelings of remorse and shame he felt earlier were replaced by animosity and sullenness at the old man who stood between him and his lover.

When the priest said farewell, Ryan watched him enter the building while giving him a friendly wave. In his heart, however, he was hurt, stung horribly by the conviction of the priest who professed love, but delved out pain. If he loved me, Ryan reasoned, how could he hurt me?

See, he is just like “him.” He says he loves me, and how does he show it? He rips me apart! That’s not love, and that’s no way of showing it. If you love somebody, you want what’s best for them, like what I’m doing for Claire. He wants what’s best for himself. He wants to punish me for his own pain. You suffered? Get in line, priest! We all have pain. You just have to deal with it. How I let him fool me this long I’ll never know, but it won’t last. If the power is in me to change, then what the hell am I doing here?

Ryan smiled at the heavens above. The day was growing more beautiful by the moment. Instead of a cab, Ryan thought he would walk and enjoy what was left of the day before he went to the kitchen. The weather was changing; all things were changing, and for the better. Ryan felt it, and with the thought of Claire on his mind, he began his walk through town.

Chapter 20

For a week, Ryan mulled over the conversation with the priest. He maintained his schedule, and with reserve he navigated the conversations. Great pain welled in him at the last and most significant conversation he had with the priest on the street, but he hid it still, not wanting the priest to know he was affected. Foolish pride, wounded by the comments, shielded Ryan from any further learning, but also gave a most handsome smile to mask his silent and boding opposition to the religious man and what he sought to do: separate Ryan from Claire.

It was a Saturday morning, and Ryan was sitting in a chair near the sofa, sipping an espresso he brewed, the meager hours of sleep he received now more than sufficient. Claire was still asleep, and through the unclothed windows Ryan watched the new sun rise slowly over the city like a silent guardian. He thought of his last few meetings with the priest, of the words spoken and the information prescribed like medicine. He openly acknowledged that the meetings helped him greatly, and that he learned a lot since he started with the priest a few months ago. Relations were different with Claire now, and they were happy. Ryan loved Claire in new and astonishing ways, relishing each day as a day devoted to her. Controlling her was an issue left in the past, as he now no longer felt it necessary. He was stronger, they were stronger, and everything was improving. Perhaps, he reasoned, the priest was no longer necessary.

Ryan crossed his legs and started to pick at a stray thread on his lounging pants. With purpose he took off from work for that evening; he wanted a Saturday night with Claire, to take her out and have a genuine date with her. It had been a while since their last real outing, and he knew she wanted one so desperately. Who could ever fault a woman for simply wanting to be with her man, he thought.

Ryan pulled at the thread of the faded blue material, hoping to extract it without destroying the garment. It was fruitless; the thread just pulled and pulled. Ryan gave up, and not having either a pair of scissors or the desire to stand and retrieve them, he simply let the thread fall in defeat.

The espresso scented the area and reminded him of an old coffee house he visited Avignon. Ryan started to reminisce about his travels, then turned his mind to dreaming of future travels with Claire. He envisioned them walking along the Tiber by night, the street lamps burning hot in the summer night, or splashing into the blue depths of the Philippines, Claire’s tight body contained in a sultry swimsuit. Ryan liked that dream, and expounded upon it a little more.

Ryan dreamed big, and since his time with the priest, quite often. The future was frequently on his mind, not just thoughts of the immediate future, but thoughts of a long and happy life with Claire by his side. He saw them marrying, raising a family with little children bumping about his knees, and growing old together, where their lives would be spent reminiscing about their days of youth. He was right when he said the right woman would make you see the future. He saw it now, thanks to Claire.

Ryan heard footsteps, and as he turned, he saw a sleepy Claire swaying down the hall, her drowsy stupor refusing to depart her mind. He smiled at the sight of his sleeping beauty.

“Hey, sleepy baby,” Ryan said playfully.

“Hi,” she said softly through closed eyes.

“I’m glad you decided to join the world of the living.”

“You left me,” she whimpered.


“I woke up and you were gone.”

Claire protested his absence with playfully and whiney words spoken in a short and soft whisper. Standing there before him, her hair disheveled and pillow creases tracing across her face and arms, she was to Ryan the essence of unspoiled beauty. She was dressed only in her hipster panties and matching tank top, but her shape, her pouty lips and the way she lazily crossed her arms across her breasts made Ryan’s mind swim with so many wonderful emotions. He reached out to her and pulled her into his lap. Claire greedily accepted the position and sat across his legs, cuddling up in his arms and laying her head against his chest.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Ryan said.

“You were gone,” she whimpered still.

“I know, but now I’m here again.”

Claire did not respond, but slowly sank into a little slumber as she felt Ryan’s arms wrap around her frame. He could smell the remains of her body spray in her hair, a soft and delicate scent of peach for the arrival of spring. He kissed her head and allowed his face to rest against the strands of her hair, his nose smelling and savoring all that was her.

“Baby?” Ryan asked.

Claire shifted her head only slightly, but hoped it was enough of a response to warrant his continuing. She was still drifting and her mind wandered over so many little nameless memories. She could feel herself being pulled to the realm of dreams, but his voice was a beacon drawing her back.

“I’ve been thinking about something, and I wanted to run it past you,” Ryan said.

“What’s that?” the sleepy one replied.

“I’ve gotten so much out of my time with the priest, and I’ve learned a great deal. I hope it shows. I’ve tried really hard.”

“And I’m so proud of you,” Claire said.

Claire’s voice was muffled as she tried to speak into Ryan’s shirt, her head still slumped and fading into midnight realms.

“I know the priest said it wouldn’t last forever. I’m kind of thinking that time might be now, you know, to take a step back from those meetings and let it be just us again. I mean, I’ll keep in touch with him, but I think I can’t learn any more from him. I think it’s time for us to venture out on our own again.”

Claire was still drifting, but she heard what Ryan said, and she was shocked awake from her peaceful repose by his words. He spoke them softly and casually, as one would tell a story, but they shook her mentally. They spoke of severance and dissolution, something she thought would never happen. Since Ryan started with the priest, he was indeed a different person. With the cessation of his meetings, the thoughts of what manner of man he would become frightened her. The possibility of his succeeding was always as great as his failure, she knew, but with the priest to help him mature into his new mindset, Claire felt safe and secure. Now, with one simple line, all of her security was quickly eroding.

Claire thought for a moment, the warmth of Ryan’s body warming her face. She was awake now, conscious of the moment and the room, the man holding her and her own fears welling within. She was more than awake, as she saw now not with the limited vision of the human eye, but with a vision that was almost spiritual, a vision that opened to her a future that might happen. She could envision fear and pain, yet also love and strength. It was a gamble that would secure its place in their relationship. Not being one for gambles, Claire always wanted a sure and certain thing, and the priest was it. The priest was always present to moderate the change in Ryan, like a coach on a field, helping the situation unfold with direction and clarity. He was safety, security, peace. Now, she was losing that.

“Baby, you’re not saying anything.”

“Oh,” Claire began, “I do agree that you have learned a lot from him. And honestly, you are such a better man for it. I loved you when I met you, but I love you more now than ever. I just, I just think we should continue them for a little longer? There’s no need to rush things, right? We have plenty of time.”

“I know we do, but I’m just ready for it to be us again. I’m prepared for this, and we both have been made ready. What’s stopping us?”

“I just thought we’d take things a little slower. I want us to work, baby, and I’m willing to move as slow as we need to,” Claire said.

“I know, but, I want to get moving. I’m ready, I am.”

“I’m not doubting that, Ryan. Don’t think that I am.”

“Then why are you arguing?”

“Baby, I’m not. I love you, and I want us to work.”

Claire hugged him tightly while Ryan stared over her head into the dismal shades of the dark room. The sun was rising but its brilliancy was concealed behind the tall buildings. Some rays fell over the land, but others hid, shading the world in darkness.

Ryan felt his agitation rising, but he recognized it easily and started to calm himself. It was not worth a fight, he said to himself, and certainly not worth upsetting Claire.

“And I love you, Claire. That’s why I want us to break away. I want to see us swim, fly, succeed. That’s what I want, and I’ll never know as long as I’m being spoon fed by the priest. I need this, baby. I need to know I can do it, and I need to know you believe in me. Don’t I have your trust?”

Claire lifted her eyes to meet his, and shifted so she could face him. Her eyes lost all of the sleep they contained, and were now replaced by an awareness to the moment and the syllables uttered. She brushed his face with her hand, the thick stubble tickling her fingertips. His last word to her sparked all the love she had for him, and she now faced the divergence of her own soul: if she sought safety, she would lose his trust, and if she sought his trust, she would lose her safety. Peering into his eyes, she hoped to find in them an answer, or at least a reassurance, but they were void of answers to her problem, and she knew then the solution was solely inside her. She made up her mind.

“Baby, if you do it, I will stand beside you on your decision.”

Gone to the wind was Claire’s sense of security, the blanket that cuddled her in many a storm, replacing it with a thrilling sense of devotion and loyalty, new comforts that would help her navigate her future. She swore to stand with him, and so she would, come what may.

Ryan pressed his lips to hers, bringing up one hand behind her scented head. They thrust their passions into each other’s souls, embracing mutual confessions of loyalty and fealty. He felt her love, her passion for him, and by the recitation of her heart, Ryan felt he could be invincible. She was his strength, his support, and having her committed was all he needed to not only survive the ordeal, but to surpass it. Someday, when he was the man she always wanted, it would be her strength that brought him to that point.

The remainder of the morning was spent making love, laughing and finally cooking a late breakfast. They were happy, in love, and filled with a joy neither of them could express, but only feel. That night, Ryan took Claire out, and they had a wonderful time. When the evening was over and they returned to their apartment, they made love once more. Claire laid by Ryan’s side, the sound of his breathing lulling her to sleep. All day, she repeatedly convinced herself she made the right decision. That night, she foolishly believed it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Fr. Bill got to his office early and, entering the church, was overwhelmed by the silence of the old, stately building. Above his head, the lofty beams of the sanctuary hovered nearly out of sight in the darkness, the penetrating rays of the sun still moments away from piercing the stained glass windows. He walked slowly through the placidity of the space, each step he took a silent prayer for a loved one, a friend or for himself. There was a purpose to his early arrival, and that was to pray. He led a very active prayer life, but he found his most effective means of communicating with the Divine was in the quiet of the church, where the trappings of the religion surrounded him. He needed to pray, for his heart was heavy with pain and fear. Ryan and Claire had been on his mind the past few days. Since her confession to him of the situation with Brett, he feared for them. When he walked with Ryan down the street the other day, he worried all the more, since he could see through the affectation of that visit and the subsequent meetings. He fretted greatly.

Fr. Bill opened his office door and moved inside. He left the lights off, tossed a worn leather briefcase on the chair and flopped onto the couch, sitting with his knees supporting his arms and face. Breathing through his hands, Father Bill started to pray slowly and deliberately, his humble mind calling upon Saints and God alike to assist Ryan and Claire.

For a while he remained there, praying, thinking and allowing his mind to wander over the empirical amount of data he knew, and faces that seemed to coincide with that data. He was focused on his thoughts, and did not hear the staff, or the movement in the main area as more people arrived, or the reverent but happy voices as they bade one another good morning. He was lost to it all save for what wandered through his head.

Father Bill opened his eyes, and light entered through the gaps between his fingers. He looked through those gaps to the floor, not really paying any degree of attention to the grey-colored carpet. He could finally hear voices outside of his office, the light chatter of the work place, and he smiled weakly. Then, he smelled coffee brewing, and slowly rising to this feet, he moved out of his office and followed the scent like a hound on a trail.

Back in his office, the little Styrofoam cup steaming in his hand, Fr. Bill turned on his computer and opened his appointment book. Today, he had a few items of business in the early morning, then one red-inked appointment for late morning: Ryan.

The priest looked at the red lettering of the appointment and sighed. All morning he prayed for Ryan, believing his petitions would be heard on High. It was only a matter of time, though, before something happened, either good or ill, with the young man and his girlfriend. Fr. Bill knew it, felt it.

When the appointed time finally arrived, the priest was sitting back in his chair, a fresh cup of coffee in his mug, and the Styrofoam cup empty and pushed to the side of the desk. He watched the clock continuously, the minutes to their meeting slowly falling away.

“Just a little bit now,” the priest said out loud.

Sipping his coffee, he heard a familiar voice in the hall, and after a few greetings, Ryan appeared in the doorway, his face beaming and his walk confident. The priest stood to receive him, and as Ryan entered, he closed the door behind him.

“Hello, Ryan,” the priest said.

“Hey,” he replied.

“Can I get you some coffee? Oh,” the priest asked.

Ryan held aloft a coffee cup with the imprint of a local roaster, lid attached and the small mouthpiece acting like a chimney for the heat contained inside.

“Nope, got it covered today,” Ryan answered.

“A good soldier is never short, eh?”

“You got it, priest.”

They both sat and the priest reclined in his seat, same pen and pad on the desktop. Starting first with formalities, they both explored the days between their last meetings, asking pleasantries and receiving them in return. Ryan was jovial this day, excited for something only he knew, something for which he had waited for a long time. When he left the apartment that morning, Ryan knew he was headed toward a certain future filled with promise and good fortune.

In the past few days, the priest noticed a new change in Ryan, and though it warmed him, he also felt a degree of caution, and some alarm. The suddenness of the alteration was what prompted most of his fear. It was too sudden and too optimistic for it to be genuine, the priest knew, and he figured it could be a feint move, a distraction to something going on behind the scenes. Or, he had hoped, it was a genuine move in the right direction.

At one part during the conversation, the priest stood to get another cup of coffee for himself, and offered one to Ryan, which was accepted. Ryan watched the old man exit the office with a slow gait, and amused himself with looking around at the various decorations of the space, items he saw for so long, but items he knew he would have to look upon for only a short time longer. He felt his liberation – as he was calling it now – was so close, and he pictured himself as a paroled prisoner stepping out into the free world for the first time.

Soon, soon, Ryan said to himself, looking upon the war painting, I’ll be finished with this, and it’ll be just Claire and me. It’s been good, but its run its course and I’m done with it. God, how long it’s been.

The priest returned with the two cups, and for a moment, he thought about his caffeine consumption and how he might consider moderating it. He shrugged it off and had a sip of the hot brew, then retook his seat.

“I’m glad things have been going well with you and Claire. I am most pleased with all the progress you’ve made, Ryan,” the priest said.

“Thanks,” Ryan replied.

The priest took another sip as Ryan returned to their previous conversation, and chatted on delightfully about future plans, and what Claire meant to him. He expressed gratitude towards the priest for all his help, but in his tone, the priest caught a simmering resentment. He’d heard it before, and now found it again in this young man’s voice.

“That does sound exciting,” the priest replied to a comment Ryan made about opening another restaurant within the next two years.

“It is. I just feel like, with Claire, I can do anything! I mean, I know it sounds hokey and all, but she gives me a strength I never knew I had. Just the way she’s committed to me is, well, just amazing.”

“Claire is a special woman, indeed. You are most blessed to have her in your life.”

“I am fortunate.”

“And, I can’t speak for Claire, but I believe she would agree, Ryan.”

Ryan smiled, knowing that it was true what the priest said. He shifted in his seat and sipped the coffee. There was creamer in it; for some reason, the priest never remembered Ryan took his coffee black. He just smiled and sipped it slowly.

“So, how have things been?”

Ryan pondered the question for a moment before replying to the priest. Things, he wanted to say, were wonderful, but he was afraid that the answer without some honest negativity would only prompt more questions, so he gave a brief report and left it at that. The priest nodded in agreement and cast a look at the pad. He took the pen and made a note of something.

“And Brett? Is Claire still speaking with him?” the priest asked.

The sound of his name irritated Ryan. It had been days since he even heard it mentioned, and from what he gleaned from conversations with Claire, and from what he saw on her phone when she was asleep or away from it, she did not speak quite as actively with him. When he would use the GPS on his phone to see where she was in the evenings, she never was found to be in the vicinity of his apartment. That pleased him to see her so loyal, but, he knew he could not tell all this to the priest. He would be too upset by it, and would not understand, and it would only make Ryan look controlling.

Ryan, however, believed himself being cautious and protective of his girl. That’s why he monitored her whereabouts. He also had to know she was loyal to him, something that was of paramount importance to his heart. When he checked her call history to see who she spoke with while away from him, he saw she called only her mother, and was pleased, feeling more in love with her than ever, though he began to question what she said to her mother in private.

“I don’t know. It’s not my friend, so I don’t ask. If she sees him, cool. If not, it’s still her bag, so she does what she wants.”

The priest did not like the answer, but did not confront him, not yet, at least. He desired to probe Ryan a little more, since the arrogance in Ryan’s voice told him enough, and alerted him that what was on the surface was not what operated underneath.

“Well, that’s good you give her the space she needs,” the priest replied.

“I try to, you know. She needs that, and I want to be accommodating.”

“I’m glad you ‘accommodate’ her. Claire’s needs are as valid as yours, and so are her concerns. She is your equal in everything, not lesser or greater.”

“That’s the way we approach things in our relationship. Everything is equal. I cook the food and she eats the food. She mops the floor and I dirty the floor!”

Ryan laughed at his little joke, shaking his head while still smiling, though the priest felt a heaviness in his heart. The smiling face before him almost scared him, since he could almost sense a hidden anger behind such a lovely countenance.

“Ryan,” the priest said sternly.

“In all seriousness, we are equal. And I mostly mop the floor.”

“Equality is not a joking matter,” the priest warned.

“It’s a joke, priest. We’re cool, really.”

“Now,” began the priest, “would Claire say all things are equal?”

Ryan shifted again in his seat, but not to achieve greater comfort. The question angered him, and his response was an agitated movement in the chair as a means of concealing the animosity that suddenly arose within him.

Ryan felt the question was a challenge to his truthfulness, like the priest heard him but did not credit him with the ability to speak honestly. He knew Claire would answer the same as he just did, and his annoyance at the question prompted a moment of silent and irritated reflection.

“Of course! What else would she say?” Ryan answered hotly.

“I feel compelled to ask, given some of your initial thoughts on control,” the priest replied calmly.

“What is it with you and control? Why do you always make me out to be a monster? Is that all you think of me?” Ryan shouted.

The outburst took the priest by surprise, but he recovered quickly and regained his composure. The irate face staring at him was turning red beneath the reddish brown beard, and the eyes, so animated, would have startled anyone not accustomed to such direct confrontation. The priest waited for him to settle down before replying.

“Ryan, I have told you time and again, my job is to challenge you when you need it. Growth comes from challenge. Now -”

“Now nothing,” Ryan interrupted, “I’ve had it with this shit! I’ve had it with your condescension and your subtle attempts to humiliate me. I’m done with it.”

“Ryan, calm down,” the priest said with a slow motion of his hand to add effect.

“No, I will not! This whole time I’ve listened to you berate me, challenge me and condemn me of things that have nothing to do with the issue. You’ve vilified me and frustrated me for what only seems like fun to you.”

“Ryan, that is not the case, and you know it.”

“Fuck you, priest!” shouted Ryan.

Ryan’s words carried through the closed door, and the attempt to contain them was in vain. Those in the immediate vicinity heard the angry brawl emerging from behind the office door, their curious and alarmed eyes turned in that direction.

“Ryan, you will not speak that way in this office. Now, moderate yourself.”

“You know what, priest, go fuck yourself. I’m done with all your shit, all your antagonizing and belittling. I don’t need you, so you can go to hell. I am finished with all this shit you have put into my head, making this situation far worse than it really is. And I’m done with you turning Claire against me. Yeah, you don’t think I didn’t notice that? No, I saw the stupid and ignorant ideas you put into her head, making her think all sorts of shit. This shit is over!”

Ryan leapt up from the chair at the last line and shouted over the desk at the priest, who still retained his seat, his hand calmly holding his coffee cup. The speech, though violent, was nothing new to him, and through the words and the mental bashing, he pitied the man yelling at him.

“Ryan, just sit down now. There is no need for aggression. Curb your anger.”

“What the fuck are you, Master Yoda?”

“Ryan, sit and talk this through with me. There are unresolved issues. I’m seeing them now. This is not finished. If you want to succeed, sit down with me.”

“Priest, I told you, it’s done! I can’t take having you yelling at me anymore!” Ryan shouted.

“Ryan – “

“No, no, no. I’m fucking done with it, you hear? Fucking done!”

Ryan slammed his hands down on the desk, and it rattled under the blow. What few items the priest kept sitting on the surface all shifted, and the coffee in the priest’s hand splashed slightly, a drop falling on his tired but firm hand; however, of all the things to shake, it was the priest’s mental resolve that was shaken the most, and staring into those vibrant and alarmingly animated eyes, the priest suddenly experienced a glimmer of fear.

Ryan stared down at the priest like a hunter does its prey. He feasted on the shocked expression the old man showed him. This was his moment, the moment of revenge where he could finally empty his reserve of anger and hate onto the lap of the man who helped mold the container. He had waited so long for this, and now, when the room reverberated with his anger and hate, he felt the power that was his again, power to control and dominate, and realized how much he missed it.

“Ryan, calm down,” the priest said quietly.

“It’s too late for that, priest,” Ryan replied with a bizarre smile on his face.

“Ryan, only death makes it too late,” the priest replied boldly.

“Don’t lecture me, old man.”

“Then, if you are truly finished with this, as you say, why do you linger?”

Ryan still leaned against the desk, his sweaty palms gripping the wood and squeezing it, as if it were a human neck. Hearing the priest only further aggravated him, and sensing quickly that what the man said was a direct challenge to his superiority, Ryan knew his savoring was over, and it was time to leave. He leaned forward a little more, and shouted one last time at the priest:

“Fuck you, old man.”

Ryan kicked the chair out of the way, the old relic thundering across the floor until it hit the soft couch, and he stormed violently out of the office. He was angry now, and as soon as he left the office, all joy he took from the moment faded. Cautious eyes followed him down the hall and through the building, though he did not realize it. His face stared defiantly ahead, his rage blinding him to his surroundings. All he saw was anger and hate.

Fr. Bill finally stood up from his chair as a few of the staff rushed into his office. He motioned to them that he was fine and looked to the door, his vision seemingly following Ryan through the building and out to the exit. He would almost see him hitting the street with his angry step and heated demeanor. He could almost see him rushing down the sidewalk, passing nameless faces who cared little for the anger harbored in him. And finally, he could see him returning to Claire. There, he stopped imagining. He wanted to see no more.

Outside, Ryan did rush down the sidewalk, his body a heated mass of anger that burned down the cement pathway. The cars rushed away and the buildings seemed to rise far above him, as if both sought to distance themselves from his presence. Ryan stared straight before him, seeking a place where he could go and not be interrupted, a park or some vacant little space where he could burn off the intensity of his hate before returning home. What joy he thought he would have at his departure was now overshadowed by the power of his impassioned mind, and a lurking sense of fear at being alone without help.

Fuck him, fuck him, Ryan thought as he crossed a street and moved past a little bakery. That motherfucker was ruining my life, Claire’s life, he was fucking ruining us! No, I’m glad I’m done with him. That bastard can go fuck up someone else’s life now. No, not mine. No fucking sir! This is it, either sink or fucking swim. That’s what life is, isn’t it? You either do or die, and I don’t feel like dying, not now, not ever. Got too much going on right now, too much good shit, shit I brought about. Thanks to me, and Claire, we got this thing going again, and now it’s just us, just us two, to make it even better. And this fucking thing was not near as bad as he made it out to be. He lied to us both about our issues, so he could ensnare us in his little web. But I saw through it, I did. Now we are free of his shit, free of those damned meetings and all the bitching. No more lies, no more anger and no more being made to feel like shit. I’m done with all that now. I’m done, free of it all.

Ryan slackened his pace as he moved down the sidewalk. His anger, which always erupted with fervor, abated quickly, and now he was left with a subtle feeling of triumph for finally ‘sharing’ with the priest what he thought.

Ryan knew he was in control of his life, his destiny. He had dominion over his relationship, and with that– something he was made to believe was evil – he had made his relationship stronger and more passionate. Control was necessary for everything, and knowing what he had in his life, he would do nothing to surrender it, lest he lose it all.

The priest, Ryan believed, made him into a monster; now, he was free of that, free to pursue his own course with the girl he loved more than anything, a girl who swore to be with him through whatever trial they encountered. With her, he could face anything. He had control again, and direction. His life was finally back in order. What ill memories of his father that surfaced during the meetings faded, and what ‘demons’ he had lurking in his mind showed no appearance. He was healthy, in love, and ready for his future, their future.

Ryan smiled at a funny placard on the side of a bus. Looking around, he recognized the area, and remembered there was a little bistro that was always fantastic for lunch. He had time, so he thought he would treat himself to a meal. And that night, he wouldn’t go to work. He wanted to be home when Claire arrived, a surprise for the woman he loved. He smiled as he began to plan out a select menu for his lady.

His life was his own again.

* * * * * * * * * *

The onions sizzled lightly in the butter as the heat rose lazily from the pan. Ryan eyed them casually, knowing by the brown skins that they were almost finished. He inhaled deeply, the scent of frying onions a happy reminder of home, one of the few he had.

Julienning the vegetables, Ryan worked the knife quickly across the board, making little masterpieces out of commonality. He worked like he was in the kitchen at the restaurant. He seemingly waltzed around the kitchen in a ballet of skill and familiarity, knowing just where everything was located, and how to best use it once he procured it.

The apartment was smelling delicious as the clock approached the time Claire was to arrive. The light from the windows was fading quickly, like the sun setting into the ocean. Ryan took a quick glance out, and the city seemed to stand erect, as if anticipating his inspection. Ryan was happy and smiled. All afternoon he thought about his future with Claire. What did not cross his mind, however, was his severance with the priest. After the fight, he ate his meal as if nothing transpired, and took to personal business before coming home to cook. To Ryan, it felt like a very normal day; missing in his frame was the agitation that so violently stirred him earlier.

The oven bell dinged and he turned to see that it had warmed. Pulling two chicken breasts from the refrigerator, he unzipped the gallon bag and pulled the dripping pieces from their marinade. When he placed them on a separate cutting board, he looked at them, thinking. With a quick movement, he grabbed a mixture of herbs and tossed a few shakes on top, the little green and brown dried flakes falling so daintily onto the wet cuts of meat.

“That should do,” Ryan said out loud.

They were placed in the oven and he closed the door. Ryan washed his hands, whistling the ‘happy birthday’ tune a few times, then dried them on his apron. He wasn’t in the kitchen, so he could do that.

Ryan’s whole afternoon was filled with delightful anticipation, as he both looked forward to the surprise he would give Claire that evening, and for the future he could see so visibly. He grinned and through the hours that smile did not abandon his face. It was tattooed on his countenance, much as Claire’s name was on his heart.

The phone was sitting in a vacant corner of the kitchen, resting on a towel. Ryan looked at it and picked it up. With the GPS, he found Claire’s location and saw she was close.

“Almost time,” he said.

Ryan tossed the phone back on the towel and returned to the range top. He slid the julienned vegetables into the pan and delighted in the hiss they made when they struck the hot surface. That sound, more than any, always seemed to invigorate him when cooking. He thought back to a distant memory of him sitting in the kitchen, watching his mother scurry around the space to prepare a meal before he got home. The hissing could be heard from his mother’s old pan, and he marveled in child-like enthusiasm at the sound. She called him over to watch as she threw another hunk of butter in the pan, a little more to help it along, she would say.

The memory was sweet. Ryan let his mind go for a moment as the old memory cascaded over him in a delicate flow. Then, he remembered how it ended. Ryan moved away from the pan and started slicing bread. He thought no more about it.

Outside, Claire was strolling up the sidewalk, her own spirit quite happy. She debated visiting Ryan at the kitchen, but decided to get a little work done first, then make a late night sojourn to his place. Dinner would be leftovers, she knew, and she would eat fireside, watching something from Netflix on her tablet. Or maybe she would use the television. It would be a happy night, though lonely until she saw Ryan at the restaurant.

Her life, Claire thought, was coming together pretty well. She was young and successful, had a good job with great benefits, and a boyfriend who she loved and cherished. He was successful, and a bit of a growing celebrity in the city. They had their issues, but she always felt she was loved, and knew she could love and trust him with her vulnerability. Her life, indeed, was coming together. She remembered something Ryan said on their first date, that the right person will help you see the future. The future opened before her, and it looked amazing. She felt happy.

As Claire came around the corner of the building, the dark shadows of a few trees made her phone appear brighter as it rang. Claire held it in her hand on the way home, as she normally did, and when it sounded off, it startled her. One jogger ran past, his route taking him to the Columbus Park. She looked at the gleaming phone and saw it was Brett calling.

“Hey,” Claire answered.

Brett barely uttered a hello before he ventured into a diatribe about a certain problem he was having with a scheme he and his team were working on for the next day. He was stressed and agitated, and hated to call and bother her on her time away from the office, but the problem stumped them all and they needed a fresh mind to assist.

“No problem, let me look at it when I get upstairs. Is it on the system? Okay, good. I’m heading in now. You still have a little bit of time on it, so don’t stress. It’s cool,” Claire said.

Claire entered the building and tossed her keys in her bag, talking as she ascended the stairs. The building smelled of fresh paint, and she looked around to see what changed colors, yet again. Claire did love Ryan’s building, but sometimes she yearned for something that exhibited its antiquity a little more naturally.

Claire exited onto their floor and walked slowly down the hall, talking lightly with Brett until she got to the door. She tossed out a few ideas, and Brett seemed pacified with them, certainly calmer than when he first called.

“Okay, let me try this, and if we need you again, we’ll call.”

“I can look at it now, Brett,” Claire said.

“Nah. I think we got it. We’ll adjust the font and change the location of the logo. It’ll take some re-working, but that just might do it. Thanks,” Brett replied.

Claire opened the door, but stopped when she smelled the aromas emerging from the sealed barrier like fleeing prisoners from their cells. Her eyes widened as she thrust the door open and rushed in, phone still to her ear, though she barely heard Brett’s last reply.

“Oh, gotta run. My baby is home!” Claire squealed into the phone.

“Okay. Thanks.”

Claire hung up the phone and flew into the living room, the door left open and her phone and bag tossed on the floor. Ryan was still at the range top, his eyes watching the pans, but his mind wondering who was on the other end of that call. He knew how she spoke to certain people, and knew that was not any family member. He also knew she would never address a client like that. The possibilities were limiting, and he was slowly growing irritated.

“Baby!” Claire screamed, running into the kitchen and throwing her arms around the chef.

Ryan had enough time to look up at her when two eager arms enveloped him, Claire giggling as she clutched him tightly. He laughed, trying to break free so he could hug her appropriately.

“Hi, sweetie,” Ryan replied.

Slowly, Ryan pried the bear hug off of him, and when his arms were free, he put them around Claire’s waist. He kissed her, and she him, their lips and hearts locking together in a firm embrace. The touch of her body in his hands excited Ryan, but more than just sexually. He felt not only the woman in his arms, but the loyalty and devotion of her nature, and the esteem she had for him.

“Hi, baby,” Claire whispered, pulling her lips away.

“Surprise,” Ryan also whispered.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“What do you mean? I live here,” Ryan playfully stated.

“I know that!”

Ryan brushed the side of her head with his free hand, feeling the auburn strands sliding between his fingers like soft silk. He looked at her face, studying every curve, every delicate feature, then settled on her eyes. He loved her eyes.

“I thought I’d stay in tonight and be with you.”

“Baby, that is so sweet,” Claire said, melting in her heart.

“Nothing sweet about it. It’s where I belong.”

Claire could not restrain the sensation to kiss him again, and as she pressed her lips to his, she felt the grandeur of her love for him, and of his love for her, as if by a single kiss it could be violently released to gush over both of them.

Pulling away a second time, Claire looked slyly at him, then removed herself from his arms. Ryan watched her as she moved further back into the kitchen.

“You know what we need now?” she asked.


Claire pulled out a bottle of South African Sauvignon Blanc and held it up. She smiled, knowing it pleased Ryan, since his taste for the beverage was ushered in with the arrival of spring.

“Nice,” Ryan said.

“I thought you’d approve.”

Claire uncorked the bottle and poured two glasses, while Ryan returned to the stove to tend to the meal. He asked about her day and listened to the details as she hurried to close the front door, realizing it had been left ajar. As she tidied up the room from her joyous explosion upon seeing him, she told of her day, her mishaps and a very awkward lunch she had with a client. Ryan listened enthusiastically to every detail, his mind taking mental notes to store for later. As he listened, he waited for his turn to speak, and with what joy would he speak!

Claire came out from the bedroom, still running through the gamut of her day, while Ryan started to plate up the meal. He asked questions, laughed at her jokes and patiently waited for her to ask him about his day. He had news, news he wanted to share, and it was with great eagerness that he finally told about his morning, and the meeting, the last meeting, he had with the priest.

“And that was it,” Ryan said, concluding the story. “That is the end of that. We are done, finished and ready for it to be just us again.”

Claire suddenly remembered a missed call from the priest after the lunch hour, and in the business of the day she had forgotten to return it. Now, Claire listened to what sounded like a triumph and a completion of a goal. She did not turn away, though the anxiety she felt wanted her to seek a better place of refuge than the doorway to the kitchen. She sipped her wine absentmindedly, not thinking of anything other than what Ryan just said.

Claire was silent. Ryan was busy finishing the last plate, the vivacious joy still resounding in his tones. He waited for an affirmation from Claire, a word to say she was proud of him for his accomplishment, or a touch of affection to suggest that she, too, was ready to search the world with him. Neither of those came. He could not see her, but with his back to her, he grew pale and annoyed.

With a busy mind Claire tried to conjure a response, but the weight of Ryan’s words loomed over the kitchen, masking itself in the scents of the meal. There was a gentle sliding noise as Ryan spun the plates to wipe them; then, he turned around. The noise, to Claire, sounded like an axe being sharpened.

Claire had just lowered her eyes to the counter beside her when Ryan looked at her. She did not look in his direction, but with cowering eyes, she took another sip of the citrusy white, the taste of lemon grass now more reminiscent of acid on her palate.

Ryan waited, watched and wondered why the silence in that portion of the kitchen existed. All day, he waited to announce his news to her, and all day he waited for the look of joy to fall across her face when she received the news. It was, much to his surprise, absent. She swore to trust him and side with him, to be a presence for him throughout the ordeal, and now all of that was behind them. Why, then, he wondered, was she quiet?

“You’re silent,” Ryan said coldly.

“No, just listening, baby,” she replied.

“You have thoughts. What are they?” he asked, sternly.

“Baby,” Claire began, nervously, “I just don’t think that’s the way to go.”

Ryan bypassed frustration and went straight to anger. He could feel it, as one does the advent of heartburn, welling in the depths of his body and growing by the moment.

“And why is that?”

Claire could not only hear the anger in his voice, she could also sense it boiling in him, controlling his movements and animating his being.

“Baby, don’t get angry,” Claire pleaded.

“You know why I left that bastard? You know why? Because I’m sick and tired of everyone telling me what to do, like I’m some little shit-ass kid who can’t do anything on his own!”

Claire stepped back at the harsh, loud comment. Her first instinct was to flee, and the second was to stay and work through it. Her second instinct won.

“Baby, I’m not telling you what to do. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, that’s all.”

“Claire, why can’t you ever just support me? Why not, just once?”

“Ryan, I do support you, you know that,” Claire protested meekly.

Ryan moved away from the prepared plates and set his glass down angrily before moving out of the kitchen. What was supposed to be a fun and romantic evening was turning into a disaster. His fervor was growing by the moment and he blamed Claire for his ill-tempered state.

“Then, why the reserve? Why so damned silent? I thought this would be an exciting step for us, as people and as a couple. I thought we would have a fucking good time tonight. What the fuck, Claire?”

“Ryan, please,” Claire said, continuing her retreat into the dining area.

Ryan followed like a hound chasing a fleeing captive, the scent of the game and thrill of the hunt too invigorating not to follow. He was fueling himself with dark and painful ideas, the words he would speak first forged in the furnace of his mind, red hot with hateful speech.

Ryan started shouting about his commitment to the methodology of the priest, his endurance of the ill-tutelage and the pain of feeling Claire’s abandonment; Claire tried to desperately quiet him down, though her efforts were all in vain. His movements became wild, his arms flailing to further emphasize the sentiment in his words.

Claire tried to listen and be compassionate, and she tried to soothe Ryan, but nothing she heard made sense to her, and nothing she said succeeded in helping. Her own frustration mounting, she vented in a different fashion: she cried, tears streaming freely down her red cheeks.

“Baby, I’m not the villain here. Neither are you. And I’m not turning against you. I’m trying to help you,” Claire pleaded through sobs.

“How are you not? All I ask for is a little understanding, and all I hear is how I again made a wrong choice. At what point, Claire, are you going to side with me on something?”

“Baby, I have always sided with you.”

“Yeah, and who the hell was on the phone? I know who it was. Don’t even try to lie to me. You said you would stay away from him, but that was nothing but a lie. You betrayed me and lied to my face!”

“Ryan, it was a business call. That’s all. I promise.”

“You lied to me! It was him, wasn’t it! If you’re so fucking in love with that bastard, why not fucking marry him?”

“Please!” Claire shouted, falling down beside a chair, her sobs loud.

Ryan stopped suddenly. In his mind, he could hear above all the clamor of his head, a voice so soft spoken, talking to him and guiding him gently. He could smell the old leather sofa and the scent of coffee in the air. The voice, coming from beneath the old war print, cautioned him to restrain himself and seek moderation of temper and mind, forsaking the wrath of hate and breathing in new life through love. The voice, calling from some other place, was a memory, one which he needed right now.

Claire hunched beside the seat, her wet eyes blurring the images before her. She tried to battle the aggression, but she lost the fight to a wrath she could not conquer. It was as if all of the hate in the city was funneled through one man before her, and she alone was left to defend every heart against the onslaught. She felt alone and embattled by such hostility. She cried uncontrollably at the thought of the merciless attacks brought against her, and the vicious accusations of betrayal and untruthfulness. Her heart yearned for a balm to heal her, but the pain seemed incurable.

Claire rolled onto her side and let her head lay upon the cold flooring. She could see Ryan’s shoes across the room, but nothing else, as a veil of anguish hung before her eyes and tampered with all she saw. The feet before her shifted positions, then finally drew near to her.

Ryan approached her quietly, and slowly knelt beside her little frame. He did not know what to think, looking at her shaking on the floor, her eyes turned to some distant spot in the room, or perhaps to some very distant world where she was happy and he was not with her. He saw his results, the frail image before him, shivering as if in death throes and awaiting the final black veil to descend. He tried to touch her, but felt a force restraining him. Ryan thought it a projection of her pain pushing him away, but he knew it was a restraint found only in him, something prohibiting him from touching her for fear of defiling her.

Claire balled her body up, and put her hands before her face. Images of her peaceful night flashed before her in a taunting fashion, showing her the evening she could have had. How she longed for a peaceful meal by the fire and a night of quiet and painless repose. How she longed for peace, freedom from the moment, and, perhaps, her life.

Ryan stood up briskly, his sense of shame suddenly overwhelming him. He not only saw the cause of the fight, he felt it. Filled with a sense of remorse he never felt before, he stormed from the area, leaving Claire crying on the floor. Behind her, she heard the door slam, and Ryan was gone, his loud steps carrying him off like a strong wind does a distant storm.

The darkness of the streets welcomed the morose character who, raging with pain, escaped from the confines of the building. Ryan walked briskly down the paths tracing across the old metropolis, his mind confused and bruised. He did not know where he was going, or what he was doing. All Ryan knew was that he needed to escape, to not look upon the disaster he created.

The night was alive with sounds and sights, people stirring about and a light breeze seemingly moving all along. Ryan paid no attention to these things, but, like his steps, his mind wandered aimlessly, sometimes hearing a soft voice, other times hearing his own screaming. Ryan passed shops and little restaurants where people sat window-side, their faces happy and their moods light. He wanted to tap into that joyous experience, but felt he was too embittered to taste any happiness.

This is so fucked up, Ryan thought, passing an old couple on the sidewalk. This can’t be my fault. Why can’t I get any loyalty here? Why? All I want is someone to stand by me, someone to be with me until I get things right again. Here we are, nearly complete in this shit, and she messes everything up again. I feel like I have to start all over. No! I don’t have to start over. I know, I know what I’ve got to do. I know how to do it. I can make things right again, but I don’t want to. I want her to make things right for once. It’s her turn to show me how much she loves me. Yes, that’s right, it’s her turn. It’s not my fault. I’m tired of everything being my fault. It’s not my fault this time.

Is it Claire’s fault, though? Did she really do anything? Yes, she did, she didn’t stand by me. I was so excited to tell her, and all she did was think the worst of me. I’m sick and tired of that. Enough already. Everyone thinks I’m the villain. I’m not. I’m not anyone’s villain. If she wants me to be a bad guy, I can be a fucking villain. Just let her see! I’ll show her who’s boss.

Ryan slowed his walk to a sluggish pace as he rehearsed the last line, saying it over and over again in his head. He heard it before, long before, and even said it himself. It always had the same impact on him. When the words weighed him down, he stopped where he was and looked up at the old church towering above him. There was some Revolutionary significance to the structure, but he did not remember it. Lights illuminated the tower as it reached heavenward, a reminder of the peculiar state of humanity, hanging in limbo between infinite happiness and infinite anguish.

Ryan moved to the side of the walkway and sat down on the step. He watched a few couples pass him, and wondered if they saw the pain from which he suffered as they moved, or if they not so much as cast a glance in his direction? Alone and feeling colder than he should, Ryan sat, the building a heavenly tribunal poised to condemn him for his actions, mere actions he was not entirely convinced were wrong. He couldn’t help but hear the voice again, calm and soothing, instructing and praising him when necessary. He went for his phone, but realized it was still in the kitchen of his apartment. He was truly alone.

Back in the apartment, Claire managed to rise from the floor like a wounded fighter and reached the bedroom. Her strength failed her then, and in hurt she fell onto the soft bed, a faux comfort, but comfort nonetheless. What she yearned for in authenticity, she received in artificiality. Her heart desired the loving embrace of a man who would wipe away her tears, but that was not to be, at least not that evening.

With the covers pulled over her, she tried to hide from all she suffered. She wrapped herself in the blankets, thinking a thicker layer between hers and the world would add comfort to her mind, but it only left her feeling empty and sad. She realized that in such situations, there was no peace and comfort, at least not for her. She was alone to sink in her misery and feel the pang of her previous life of happiness. In that life, she was free, free to love and cherish friends, free to experience life without fear or regret. She could love and live and find joy however she thought best. Now, she felt like nothing more than a slave whose ship was bound to reach a dismal end on some distant shore.

Claire felt herself slipping, but not into sleep. She felt like she was slipping down a slope, and could grasp nothing to arrest her fall. The further she fell, the quicker she moved, and at the end, a precipitous cliff vanished into the darkness that was devouring her life.

Claire sighed deeply and closed her eyes. Night quickly found her. It was her only friend in the moment, as her fear squashed all notion of contacting either the priest or Brett. That was her life now, her existence. Soon, sleep found her.

A few hours passed and the living room clock struck two a.m. When the door opened, the lights were still on, the meals were still on their plates, untouched, and the half-set table looked like a relic frozen in time. As Ryan stepped in, he felt like the moment he tried to run away from was waiting for him, staring at him now and wondering where he had been. Slowly, he walked around the room, searching for Claire. When he found the area free of her body, he turned off the lights and made his way to the kitchen to put the plates in the fridge. It was a mess, and would stay that way until morning. He did not have the energy to touch the dish he prepared for her.

Claire was asleep in the bed when Ryan slowly stuck his head in to see her. With care, he turned out the lights, then left the room. That night, he sat in darkness for a long while, his open eyes staring at the nothingness before him. The darkness, hovering just before his eyes, was not merely the absence of light; it was the blackness that poured out of his mind, his heart, his soul. Ryan detested it; he knew he had to change. What he needed was Claire alone now, only her and nothing else. He had to have her all to himself to make it work, or he would be encased in the inkiness of night for the rest of his days. There could be no priest, or Brett, or even family. He needed a woman who was totally committed to him, and nothing else.

Ryan closed his eyes to the night and his thoughts, and fell asleep, though he tossed restlessly. Finally, he slipped into a comfortable sleep just as the first rays of the sun sliced the sleepy sky in the morning.

* * * * * * * * * *

Claire awoke early, no doubt, from the restless night of sleep she endured. She vaguely remembered hearing Ryan enter the apartment and creep around. She dared not move, for she could not stomach another confrontation, and she preferred her own pain to that of his.

When she finally got up, she listened first to see if he was still sleeping, or even in the apartment. The whole abode was silent, but lit with the sun. She crept down the hall, her heart anxious and nervous for him. It was her hope that he slept in the apartment, for the sudden thought of him still on the streets, or huddled under one of the cold industrial tables frightened her. She moved past the kitchen and saw him on the couch, a throw tossed over his sleeping body.

At least he’s safe, Claire thought, and she moved into the kitchen to get a drink of water. All of the senses she thought through the previous night came back to her, and she suddenly had to deal with the sensation of being alone and unhappy. Her heart ached at the return of those ill thoughts. Standing in the kitchen, she felt more alone and more isolated than the previous night, and the soft breathing of the man on the couch only further enhanced that sensation.

Claire thought about a cup of coffee, but did not have the heart to make it, sip it or even think about it anymore. She wanted no food, and had but a sip of water. Proverbially beside herself, she felt out of body and out of heart, like her very soul was captured by Ryan’s angry words last night and held for ransom, her loyalty in exchange for her soul’s return.

With a sluggish step, Claire started back for the bedroom, and the bed where she hoped to find sleep, and if not sleep, at least the safety of the covers. In her dreams, she could find some manner of happiness, and maybe feel right once again. That was depending upon the dreams being peaceful.

Lying in bed, she found no sleep, despite closing her eyes. Her mind did start a conversation with herself, asking many questions she was not ready to answer, but questions she needed to hear. She wondered how she could love him, why she stayed, and would he ever really change. She wanted to know if he would ever accept her loyalty, or if he would only grow worse, succumbing to the darkness that now lived in them both. Finally, she wondered if he would kill her if she left. Claire opened her eyes.

There was movement down the hall, and she knew Ryan was awake. His movement, his stirring did something in her, something she did not expect: it awakened the love she still had for him, that stubborn love that refused to become extinguished. She detested and abhorred that love, but also embraced it, knowing that her feelings for him still ran strong. She knew that if she loved him, she could make up with him, and if she could make up with him, they would have peace once more, and she would feel a little less uneasy. Her love was a means to an end, and that hurt her.

Claire turned her back to the door, knowing he was approaching. Closing her eyes, she felt like a victim whose abuse was nigh. She waited, held her breath as the man entered the room, expecting any moment to feel the covers ripped from her body. She anticipated the blows to fall, either verbal or physical, for the man who screamed at her last night was a stranger, a person whose actions she could not predict. She breathed in deeply, holding her breath for fear it would be her last. This was her existence now, her life, and with her life came the lonely realization that she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. She couldn’t just up and leave on such short notice. She couldn’t just crash with Brett. That relationship, she reasoned, was damaged. Her parents knew nothing, and she wanted to keep it that way. Father Bill would only infuriate Ryan, and prompt something unordinary in him. She was alone, her fight was her own.

Ryan sat on the bed and put a hand on her shoulder. Claire cringed when she felt his touch, but in the same moment, she relished the touch of his fingers on her, even though the cloth.

“Claire?” Ryan asked.

Claire did not respond, but feigned sleep in the hope he would leave. She was not ready to talk, or to forgive. She even questioned if she was ready to continue the relationship. Ryan leaned closer, putting his face close to hers.

“Claire, talk with me.”

Claire obeyed, but begrudgingly, and rolled over to face him. Ryan shifted and laid his arm over her body. She looked up at him, but given the position of his arm, Claire felt more like a trapped prisoner than in a relationship.

Ryan’s face was dismal and fatigued, both with sleep deprivation and emotional distress. Claire searched his features for remorse, and to her surprise, she found much more than that. She saw the agony of a night without her. She saw his fear and remorse at the pain he caused, and his failure. In his face, Claire read what his life would be without her, and that frightened her. She started to cry.

Ryan saw the tears and immediately became angry, but not at her. He felt her pain, saw the swollenness of her eyes and berated himself for the hurt and injury he caused. Ryan hated himself for scarring Claire, and he hated himself for failing to be what she wanted, or needed. Deep with despair, he looked upon her tears as the expression of her grief at seeing him again. In that moment, he desired nothing more than death.

Ryan fell onto Claire, and she immediately wrapped her arms around him, her sense of devotion battling again with her sense of self-preservation. She wanted to flee and find safety, to kiss him, to leave forever, to make peace with him, to hide, to rest in his arms, and so many other things. What she wanted was to not want him anymore, and what she needed was to be wanted by him. She was confused and hurting from her conflicting thoughts. She sensed his weakness and forgave him, but her mind still warred and yelled for reserve and distance.

“Baby, I’m sorry,” Ryan whimpered.

The sound of his apology tore her mind to shreds and disabled all of her defenses. She wanted to be mad at him and make him sorry, but she lost all recourse when she yielded in pity. She knew it was crazy, and she forgave with a heavy heart, but it still felt right to her. Somewhere in her, she still believed in him.

“I’m so sorry,” Ryan repeated.

Claire did not speak, preferring to let her hands speak for her. They caressed his face and shoulders, touching him and passing into his frame the sense of devotion and loyalty for which she wanted to be known. Touching him was exhilarating, and foreign to her, as his body, the casement of his soul, seemed strange to her now. She felt alienated from him, regarding him as a stranger. Perhaps, she thought, she was the stranger.

Claire felt differently about herself and her relation to her lover. She felt love, and reticence in each breath she took. Viewing things differently now, she touched tenderly, but embraced the gulf that now existed. She was changed, but even she did not know if it was for good or ill. She did know she would not forget this.

Claire sat up in bed and pulled the weeping man into her arms. He reminded her of a child awakened by a horrible dream. She clutched him and tenderly caressed him, as if to brush away all of the pain in his life. For a long while they sat like that, sobbing, sighing and forgiving. Few words were spoken, and Claire finally began to feel like herself again.

Ryan started to speak more fluently, his voice still a soft whisper and uttered in such reverent tones that he was hard to hear at times. He spoke like a penitent speaking to a priest, his intonations asking for the divine forgiveness he could never utter aloud.

“Claire, I can’t do this without you, I just can’t. I need you, need you with me if I’m going to succeed.”

The words passed through the gulf between them and entered Claire’s mind. They were words she heard before, words that were beginning to be as meaningless to her as ancient script on a stonewall. To her heart, they were what she needed, affirmation that he needed her presence and trusted her to be his guide in order to succeed. She still believed in Ryan, and knew he could succeed. The day he triumphed, she wanted to be there, right beside him, holding his hand and watching him ascend to the destiny they built together.

“I got to have you with me, just me, just the two of us. I can’t make it if people interfere. I tried, and I can’t do it. I love you and am jealous for you. I admit it. But, you are the strength I need. When I’m right again, it will all be over, and we can go to a new and awesome life, not the old one, but one that’s better. That’s what I want for us.”

“What are you saying about interference?”

“The priest, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t.”

Claire knew what he meant, but she wanted to hear it for her own self, to hear the words that would forever change her life and enslave her. But, that was the price she would pay to try to save Ryan. The darkness wouldn’t last, she believed, and before long they would be happy and healthy. She still believed and cursed her belief, but relied on it when she knew he was going to isolate her further. He nearly said so. Her life, now on the verge of an excommunication, was about to enter even more into his own darkness. She closed her eyes at the thought, but believed that was what it would take to make him right again.

“I will be there for you, baby,” Claire conceded.

Her words sealed her fate, and a tear fell from her eyes, perhaps the last she would ever cry for herself. From that moment, she knew her tears would fall not for her, but for all women who dared to love so devotedly. She gave herself to him, and with her confession, pledged to be his alone. She still believed, she had to; her belief was all she had left, and by it she would either live or die.

Chapter 21

By committing herself to Ryan’s destiny, Claire committed herself to whatever evil might befall his soul. She was prepared for the worst, but she was not certain if it would really come. After their last fight, a relative peace fell on their house again, and Ryan showered her with all the love and affection he could afford. Days, then weeks passed with romantic dinners, surprise outings, and simple fireside evenings. The warming weather did nothing to dissuade either from utilizing the fiery red hues to create such a passionate atmosphere. They made love, shopped, cooked together and both fell asleep watching shows. They were a real, normal couple.

Ryan felt secure having Claire close, and Claire felt appreciated and needed. They had quarrels, but a certain amount of restraint on Ryan’s part, and a certain amount of forgiveness on Claire’s, made for easy transitions from aggravation to serendipity again.

This was the life Ryan wanted, and now it unfolded before him in peace and love. He carried within him a sense of invincibility knowing Claire was beside him, and he guarded that sense, and his companion, viciously. His fear of loss depleted when he knew he had her secured to his own heart, and though always haunted, he managed to forestall the emergence of those ill thoughts by the power of her presence. He looked upon her not as a parcel for him to own, but as a treasure that must be protected. In that mindset, he found new and exciting ways to express his love, and as long as she remained loyal to him, all was well. At times he had to “correct” her erring nature, as he called it, and while those times were moments of extreme harshness, Claire never seemed to mind, so Ryan acted, knowing he was making them both better.

Claire, for her part, passed through the weeks with a very carefree attitude. She was not carefree as a child would be, but rather as one who found she could not progress any further worrying and fearing over everything. Some might say she gave up, others might say she learned how to cope. She would never confess to either, but in those midnight moments, when Ryan was asleep and she could have her thoughts to herself once again, she knew it was a mask of survival that now prompted her to give up caring over so much. She yielded to all his whims, all his corrections and his decisions. She could not battle against him, and she feared the violence of his temper. She learned quickly that when she acted placidly, he appeared to love her more. And she knew never to challenge his authority.

Despite their absence, Father Bill maintained a continued presence in Claire’s life through texting and phone calls at work. Sometimes, Claire would answer, and other times, she would not, her sense of devotion and loyalty overwhelming the more logical need for a companion and confessor. Through this limited contact, the priest kept prompting Claire, strengthening her against the attacks. And Claire was listening.

Brett also operated from a distance. It took a little while to finally settle in, but when he realized that her reticence was obligatory, he grew more reserved, though his heart beat nonetheless for his friend. With kind, but discreet, words he reminded her of his love for her and his unending friendship. She would always have a companion in him. Claire knew it, but she never confessed it openly, and never allowed a text from him to remain on her phone.

All was peaceful, and it was now June. The world was preparing for a summer at the parks and life on the water. Ryan promised to take Claire to the beach for the afternoon, and that morning, they were lazily moving about, slowly packing a gourmet lunch he prepared. Claire tried on the two bikinis she purchased, her mind still undecided as to which one to wear.

Ryan was working in the kitchen, packing a bottle of French Rose and stuffing several small containers into a cooler. Claire came out, her body clothed only in the thin straps of her swimwear, and Ryan looked her over, his eyes devouring the flesh before him. He smiled approvingly of the suit, and winked.

“You like?” Claire asked.

“Mmmhm,” Ryan replied.

“Wait. I have another,” she playfully said.

“Oh? A little fashion show?”

Claire just winked at him now and jolted back down the hallway. She lost weight in the past several months. Ryan liked her to look shapely, but toned, and after some heated arguments and snide comments, she acquiesced. Her running picked up again with the change in weather, and she dieted more. It was good to be healthy, Claire reasoned. After all, she thought, she needed to look good for him. It was also easier than being berated, so she avoided all confrontation, and succumbed to his whims.

Claire pulled off the first swimsuit and was putting the second one on. The door to the closet was open and in the full-length mirror she could see her body. It looked so frail, so delicate. Bones protruded where they had not before, and her waist was so small. Claire always took to fitness and healthy living, but now it was bordering on extremism. She thought it was worth it; at least that’s what she told herself.

For a moment, Claire looked at her body in the mirror. She smiled, knowing how much her figure excited her man. But looking at her awkward shape and sickly appearance, she almost detested what she saw, her own body. She hated what she had become, and before she could muster adequate courage to fight back her tears, they fell, streaming from her eyes. The pain she carried in her, the very pain she hid away in the depths of her heart, flooded her soul. She felt as if she were drowning like a harpooned whale choking on its blood.

Ryan was putting the containers by the door and wondered what was taking Claire so long. There was silence from the back room, and he questioned it, throwing his voice down the hall.

“Just a minute, baby,” Claire replied, stifling her sob.

“Okay,” he replied.

Life was good for Ryan, the best it had been in a long while. Claire and he were so connected, intertwined even, and he felt closer to her every day. Business was good, picking up again now that summer was approaching, and his demons now seemed to lay dormant in his soul. At times, he almost thought them dead.

Ryan walked back to the kitchen and leaned against the entrance when he saw Claire coming down the hall, again in a stylish suit. He whistled at the body before him, his mind swimming with racy thoughts.

“That looks nice,” he said.

“You like?” Claire asked again.

“I do, I do,” he replied.

“Now, which one?”

Ryan pondered the question for a moment, tapping one finger against his cheek as he thought. He looked her over, slowly undressing her with his eyes. She was beautiful to him, still a little overweight, he thought, but nice looking. In time, she would be perfected, he thought. In time.

“Well, the other made your hips look too full, and this one lets your chest sag. I guess it’ll have to be this one. Or, you could just take them both off and come here,” Ryan seductively said.

Ryan pulled her into his arms and helped himself to her delicious neck, kissing it tenderly, sometimes biting it with glee at the pain it caused her. Claire wrapped her arms around him as if in passion, but it wasn’t present. She could not surrender her body, could not lay it down on the altar of lust for his sake. Something prevented her from opening herself to Ryan, and as he played with her, she suddenly had the sensation of being a prostitute, where her mind was as far from her body as the man’s heart was from pleasing her.

“Ryan, we need to go,” she said, a degree of agitation in her voice.

Claire pulled away before Ryan could say anything, and shocked by the refusal, Ryan watched as she moved back down the hall. Her change was so sudden that it took him by surprise, and his shock quickly turned to anger. He felt her stinging refusal and seeming rebuke, and detested both. He felt there was more present than a simple “need to go”; there was a challenge for dominance, and Ryan vowed he would suffer no competitor. He marched down the hall, ashamed to admit his fear of loss was compelling him to madness.

Clair was pulling a cover over her as Ryan entered. She heard him enter, but did not turn to see him, though she could almost feel the shift in energy as he approached. The hues of the room grew darker when he entered, like a black cloud covering the rays of the sun.

Claire continued to pull on her cover. She knew why he was present, and immediately regretted her comment and blatant refusal. It was folly, she knew, but she just could not yield to him. His hands were too foreign for her liking, too alien on her flesh. Now, however, she wished vainly that she could redo the moment and allow his hunger to devour her body again. What was about to come would be far worse than any lovemaking with a stranger.

For a moment, Ryan stood in the room without speaking. It was not his shock that silenced him; that had passed. It was now his anger and fear that actually kept him silent, though thoughts formulated. Like an army preparing for combat, he waited until all of his forces were ready before attacking. He watched Claire, who still kept her back to him, though if she were to look in the mirror, she would see staring back at her the most sinister pair of eyes and a jaw set on retribution.

Claire knew she had to do something quickly, or she would bear the brunt of his fury, and what objects came in his path would bear the rest. She called upon a reserve of strength to embolden her, and also to simply help her endure.

“Hi, baby,” Claire said cheerfully.

Claire finally cast leery eyes into the mirror, but turned them away at the sight she saw. It made her tremble to see the resurgence of such viciousness and aggravation. She knew well the storm that was brewing, his ‘correction,’ as he so tenderly labeled it, and she could feel in the very marrow of her bones the evil that shifted against her. Her heart began to race and she grew insanely tense.

Ryan did not reply, but took another step into the room, pushing before him the anger that surrounded his body. The bed stood between them as a fruitless barrier, but it gave an illusory sense of protection for Claire.

Claire turned around with a smile that felt like a lordly tribute to a demonic emperor. She held it up to his face, but the frowning visage counteracted her own feigned joviality, and she looked down.

“What was that?” Ryan asked sharply.

“What was what, baby?” she replied.

“Don’t play stupid, Claire. What the fuck was that?”

“Baby, I just thought we should get going, that’s all. I don’t want you to miss out on any beach time,” she answered.

Claire tried to add a delightful giggle to her voice, hoping an expense of playfulness would lighten the mood. It did not work.

“Claire,” Ryan began in an academic sort of manner, “we’ve been through this already. Several times, in fact. What do I hate more than anything? What is it, Claire?”

Claire didn’t answer, though she knew well the detestation to which he was referring. It was the challenge that drew his hatred and unbridled anger. She sank within herself, like a small child before a tormenting parent. Slowly, her mind eased into itself, sinking into a pool of sadness and distance from what she knew as her normal, operating world. The words of the priest, the love of her friend, the love of her family, all of it faded quickly in the face of the tempestuous storm upon her now.

“What, Claire? Are you fucking stupid? Answer me!”

“I’m sorry, Ryan. I –“

“Too late for that, Claire. You know what I hate? I hate anything that disrupts what could be a beautiful day. Today, Claire, we had a lovely day planned, and we were going to go to the beach and have fun.”

“We can still do that, baby,”

“Don’t give me that ‘baby’ shit. We had a nice day planned, and we could have started it off romantically. What the fuck is wrong with that? We could have made love, um, like a normal fucking couple! But what did you do? You denied me, Claire. I wanted something, and you refused. You know me, Claire, and I’m not an overlord. I’ve never been, but someone has to lead our union and be the protector of our love. I’m equipped for this and ready to take the responsibility, but I can’t do it while someone else is trying to lead also. Got it? I’ve made the sacrifice to assume responsibility for you and me, and the least you can do is stand by me in that decision.”

“It’s not that, Ryan.”

“No, Claire, it is. You think because you’re some high and mighty marketing director that you can just piss all over the poor little slob of a chef. That’s not gonna happen, sweetheart!” Ryan shouted.

“Ryan, I love you and respect you, baby. I’m sorry, sorry it came out like that. It’s not, I promise. It’s just a big misunderstanding, I swear,” Claire pleaded.

“Misunderstandings like this, Claire, are what screws things up. Misunderstandings should not happen, not when everything is so clearly laid out.”

Ryan shouted through his monologue as Claire was beaten by the harsh vocabulary. She tried to calm him, to plead with him, but Ryan did not listen. He became a yelling automaton, screaming like a frenzied worshiper at the altar of hate. His face red with rage, he flung his arms about and shook the room with his booming cords. Claire started to cry from fear and mental fatigue, but her sorrows had no bearing on his soul. Ryan operated on a new level now, a plane that reawakened in him his direr fear: loss. He saw Claire as a rebel in direct disregard for his right to govern, and if she had such strength in her, she could leave. That scared him more than anything else.

Claire tried to take the blame, but the more she fed him her pleas and requests for pardon, the more he grew intolerable and violent. Small items on the dresser took to flight as he flung them at the wall, the smashing noise rattling not only the walls of the room, but the heart of the woman who could feel the shattering noise as if it were directed at her bosom.

Never before had Claire seen such violence. Ryan was not only taking to his old ways again, but they were expanding like an empire on the advance. In her mind, she heard the words of the Father, and yearned for him at that moment, or Brett, or someone to take her into their arms and flee, racing her away from the hurt and the pain she was enduing.

Standing not far from some broken shards, Claire cried amidst the rubble of a ruined day, a shattered life and a love that was draped in the dark shroud of uncertainty. She felt sorry for all of the decisions she made, and for the loyalty she gave so freely. Mostly, she felt sorry that she turned her back upon those who loved her so tenderly.

Claire listened, not to the words, but to the tone of Ryan’s voice. It was thunderous and loud, bellowing from his volcanic mouth, having the same heat and destructive power as Vesuvius.

“Baby, please!” Claire pleaded through sobs.

“Please what? I try to give you a day and you fuck it up. This was supposed to be our day together, a special day for us, and you have fucking trashed it up. You ever think maybe I might want to relax a little? Does that even enter your stupid little mind? Answer me!”

“I’m sorry.”

Claire fell to the floor of the closet, where she had slowly retreated and sank into the darkness. Ryan saw her fall, collapse nearly, and for a moment he ceased the barrage. He had a thought in his mind, an old memory coupled with words he heard not long ago in an office not far from his house. The memory was of his mother, weeping on the floor. A hand clutching a leather belt hung over here; that belt, that same damned belt, over and over. Then the words, ‘love is never abusive,’ resounded in his mind.

“You know what? I’m done with this. I’m out of here,” Ryan said.

Ryan left the room as fast as he had come, his steps like one on the retreat. He did not feel himself the victor, but equally did not see the eruption as any fault of his. With a slam of the door, he was out of the apartment.

Claire cried. What more could she do? Her friends were too distant to assist, and even if they could, she did not have courage to contact them. In the heat of the melee, a small piece of porcelain flew at Claire, leaving a short cut on her thigh. The blood flowed freely and softly down her leg, flowing like the tears from her eyes and the pain from her heart.

Claire fell against the pairs of slacks hanging in a neat and orderly row, and the soft cloth brushed against her face. They covered her like a cape and hid her from the light of the room. The darkness was her friend now; in it she could hide and live and breathe. She felt safe in the dark shades and welcomed the concealment.

Outside, Ryan rushed down the sidewalk, running away from memories that he wanted to destroy, but now were shaping his future. He felt the pain his mother endured, the pain of the betrayal and loss of love. He felt the isolation and the loneliness, and the fear of loss. He shuttered when he realized Claire’s refusal was an exhibition of her strength, and that with it, Claire could walk, that she could remove herself from his life and leave him forever.

This can’t be, she can’t leave, Ryan thought. I can’t lose her, I won’t lose her. I love her and I need her. No, she won’t go, I won’t let her. I can keep her and this will work. It can still work. This is not over. She needs to learn, that is all, she just needs time to learn how I can make us better than before. And I have to make her change, help her to see what we can become. I can’t do that with her challenging me. No, that won’t work. Stability can’t be had with her messing things up, like she did today.

Ryan stopped at a street corner and smelled roasting garlic lingering in the air. The old neighborhood scent still remained, the smell of Italian cooking harkening back to former years. He looked around at the traffic and waited for the light to change. The brown buildings seemed like tall tombstones to him, brown stones rising from a damp earth to acknowledge the souls of the reposed, souls who wore the stripes of their love on their legs and backs and arms. Haunted, Ryan turned down the side street and rushed forward beneath the shop awnings until he managed to find a quiet strip of road vacant of the over abundant Boston traffic.

This is a mess, he thought to himself, a damned mess. Why must she be like that? Doesn’t she know how much that hurts me? Then she cries like it’s my fault. I hate to see her cry. I also have the responsibility of this union on my shoulders. I’m in charge here, and I take that role seriously. She needs to know that. And she has to learn that there will be consequences for her actions. It’s a damned law of nature.

Ryan walked slower now, a full hour having passed since he fled from the apartment. He tried not to think about Claire and how he left her, but his mind did wander back there. He hoped she was all right, and thought he might have been a little too harsh in his retribution, but consoled himself knowing he was making her better. He thought of her leaving, and grew worried again. He would not endure more loss in his life, he simply would not. He knew then he had to go back. Ryan wanted, needed, to know she was still in the apartment. He needed to know he was not alone.

The apartment was dark and the bedroom purposely put back in order. Two hours had passed since he left, but when he returned, the atmosphere felt different. It was as if nothing ever happened. The kitchen was tidied, and as he moved down the hall, the few objects that littered the bedroom floor were out of sight. He stepped into the bedroom, and it was quiet, orderly and smelled of body wash. The shower was running, and he heard light-hearted singing. Claire’s voice was a beacon and he followed it slowly, wading through the apparent happiness that retook its place after his departure.

Through the glass doors he could see her washing out her hair as she sang Bonny Portmore, in key and with a voice that wailed out the loss of something so beautiful. It was a song from her folk days in early college, when she learned true expression through music. She had nearly forgotten it until the fight that day, when she felt a true resonance with the beautiful ancient forest that was destroyed for sheer greed and selfishness.

The door opened slightly and she heard it, but she did not turn and she did not stop singing. She would not stop, she couldn’t, for it was her strength. He may take what he pleased, but he would not take her voice, her song.

Ryan listened to her over the sound of the water, and though the splashing water moistened his face, it was his tears that did the most damage. She sang from freedom, from happiness, from something he did not have in him, something he knew he would never have. He closed the door and left the bathroom, the song chasing him back to his shadows.

His retreat was heard, and she smiled, but not viciously. Claire smiled because she had something she could keep, something that was hers alone, and it could never be robbed or adulterated. Her voice allowed her a chance to overcome, to hide, to build a barrier against the world. Her voice was her pain and her agony, her own story of grief that was now a bulwark of defense. When she would exit the shower, her song would allow her to face her trial. She would succeed, she would defeat this.

Ryan was sitting in a chair by the hearth when a bath-robed Claire emerged from the hall and walked into the kitchen. She saw Ryan and smiled at him.

“Hi, baby,” she said gleefully.

There were no tears in her eyes, no marks of agony on her features. She looked strong, resilient and happy. It was as if the event never occurred and Ryan merely stepped out for a morning stroll.

“Was that you peeking in on me in the shower? You should have joined,” she said, winking.

Ryan was again shocked by the change, the absolute loss of all previous emotions. Her appearance of strength frightened him, but she was more frightened than he could have ever imagined. She walked in and around the kitchen, fixing two cups of coffee, the movement helping her control her nerves.

“Coffee?” she asked Ryan.

Ryan nodded slowly, still perplexed and slightly agitated by her lack of emotional display. Did she not care, or was she trying to put on a bold front? Ryan did not know, but was both annoyed and nervous over the apparent strength she displayed.

For Claire, it was indeed strength, but also it was also something else, something she could feel as she packed the grounds into the filters. She was away from herself, not out of body, but emotionally detached from all of her experiences. It was not freeing, and was certainly scary, but it was emotionally necessary, the ability to completely detach from all her woes and imagine herself happy once more. She moved like a woman who had no memory of the past few hours, and danced in the bliss of complete rejection. Claire found solace in her lie, and in her voice. With them, she would overcome.

The scent of coffee reached Ryan’s nostrils, but the usually lovely aroma brought him no delight. He was afraid to find their apartment empty, but now he feared even more, seeing this new version of the woman he loved. He cautiously stood and walked into the kitchen.

What the hell? he asked himself. Is this a game, or a joke? Is she going to blow my head off? Shit, this is messed up. What the hell is she doing? How can she be so happy, unless she has a plan. God, could she be leaving me? No, she can’t. She cannot leave, not now or ever. I won’t let her go.

Ryan moved into the kitchen and rested against the island, where Claire had set the two cups with their gravitational filters and was boiling water. She looked over at him and winked.

“How was your walk?” she asked.

“How was what?” he coldly replied.

“Your walk, silly.”

Ryan took a deep breath and exhaled. He did not know how to respond, or even if he should. For the first time, felt his own weakness juxtaposed to her power. It was a moment he would not forget.

“Oh, um good. Feels nice outside.”

“Good. Maybe we can take one later,” she said, walking past and touching his arm.

“Yeah,” he replied slowly.

“Oh, do you want to try some of the new creamer I got the other day? It’s pretty good, and you won’t be disappointed.”

“Um, no. Just black.”

“You sure?”

“Claire,” Ryan began, “about before –“

“Lover’s quarrel,” she whispered, making a jesting bite at him.

Ryan silently nodded. It was her fault the fight started, so if she wanted to move past it, he was fine with that. If she stayed like that, correcting her would be so much easier and less time consuming. But if this was a ruse, which he feared, then he feared greatly. He did not reply to her last comment, but knew this was going to need some thought and adjusting. She was strong, but would need to be broken. With her fortitude, she could leave, and he would never allow that.

The coffee water warmed and she temped it, then poured it over the two cups. He watched her with mixed emotions, still marveling at her ability to suddenly turn around, and leery at her sudden change of heart. He loved her and hated her, for she had the strength he desired, the power to move beyond, though he lied to himself about it.

The coffee brewed and Claire started chatting lightly about their afternoon, choosing some activities for them to do. Ryan just listened and finally loosened up, shedding his own aggression but not his suspicion. Her voice was soothing and beautiful, and soon his mind was at a level of rest, but still under alert for any move on her part. He was happy to have the fight behind them, but the uneasiness he felt could not last. He had to do something, and fast. He would not lose Claire to her own grandiose dreams of independence.

Claire trembled through every syllable she spoke, her boldness and feigned happiness a mask to protect her. But wear it she did, the drama of her existence playing out every hour. She remembered the words of the Father, and come Monday she would contact him once more. She needed advice and help, and she was going to get it. Come what may, she was not going to be a victim. She was still strong, as Father Bill always said, and no one could take advantage of her. The time of her passivity was over; she was going to start fighting back, fighting for both of them, fighting for the man she knew he could become. She still loved and still believed it was worth the battle, but she would not be the casualty.

Chapter 22

Summer storm clouds always gather where the heat is strongest, and in Claire’s moment of triumph, when she found again a strength she lost, the darkness came. Ryan was cool at first, but with the passing of days, his temper grew, and his fear of loss spurred him to acts of madness.

In the weeks that followed their Saturday fight, Ryan stepped up his obsession, his controlling aspect with his surveillance of her movements. Handled with stealth, Ryan monitored her whereabouts via text, using his phone to track hers. He would follow her at times, clandestinely stalking her through the streets and anchoring himself outside her building for long periods. He gradually grew convinced she was preparing to leave, and was determined not to allow that to occur.

With his aggression, though, came balanced measures of love and compassion, the more stable and sincere part of Ryan’s psyche still harkening back to the priest’s office and the old war painting. He loved her passionately and worshiped her body and mind. He pursued her with the vigor of a suitor trying to win a lady’s hand, ever seeking her heart and favor. He tried to give her room, but could not loosen his hold on her. Ryan truly was the greatest of mysteries, especially to himself. In one man fought the greatest of contrasts, that of love and control.

Those weeks were dark for Ryan. He lived in his shadow, ever stalking and watching, yet loving and tenderly touching her heart. He fought himself, battled his mind and tried in vain to free himself from the object of his own design, failing constantly. Knowing his actions were wrong, but still engaging in them nonetheless, Ryan was ever a contrast of morality. He sought to control and restrain the very person he wanted to be free, free to love him without promptings or fear. He hated his actions, but loved the power they gave him.

Claire continued to stand by her lover, but she could not deny the distance she felt from him. She knew he was changing, and not for the better; yet she remained, since he still showed elements of his old self, and she still believed he could improve. She also feared what would happen if she left. She was oblivious to his stalking, but could feel and see and hear the anger in his voice, and the menacing way he sometimes interacted with her. Snippy remarks were meant to quiet her opinions, and blatant sarcasm was meant to downgrade her morale and esteem. She fought against these vicious darts as best she could and lied to the world with her smile and seeming lack of concern. When alone, however, she cried from the strain of his oppression. Claire yearned for the man she first loved, and for the man she could still see hiding in the darkness, enslaved in his own hate and anger.

Claire reached out to Father Bill secretly vial work email and held a running conversation with him. The old priest encouraged her with words of love and compassion, and gentle reminders that she had friends and the strength to walk away. In his words, she sensed love, and she cherished it as not only a gift from a tender man, but as an acknowledgement from the divine that her trials were not hidden, and her pain unnoticed.

To the world, Claire smiled and laughed, playing the part for a society that labeled the woman the victim; not of abuse but of an ill-thought decision to remain believing that leaving was so easy. Her eyes glistened with joy, but she wore a mask to hide her pain. She leaned to lie to conceal her trauma and the nervousness that marked her every hour. But still, in her lying, she found her strength in not letting Ryan win. She also found strength in Brett, her old friend who, when needed, was there once more. With him at work, she cried, confessed and sought strength when she was in need. He was a bastion for her, a guard for her weakened state.

The fights Claire and Ryan had grew in frequency and fierceness. It was common to have some type of altercation at least once a week, if not twice, and all the while Claire not only bore the brunt of it, she also took the blame. To Ryan, she was the cause. He still believed she would learn to yield, but he was seeing clearly that she was resisting him and fighting back in sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways. Reminded and mentally prompted by the priest, Claire would fight, her smile as fierce as her tongue. She learned on that June Saturday she was not going to be a victim; that meant she was going to have to fight. Once she yielded for the sake of peace; now, she fought for it.

That was Claire’s life, fighting a monster for the man she loved. She still believed and honored her loyalty to him with her presence. She never dreamed of leaving, but the idea lingered before her. It was not duty that prompted her to remain, nor her love entirely, but the fact that in Ryan, she saw a man who wanted to be more and do more, who wanted to fight his past and grow to something better. She still thought he could succeed. That is why she stayed.

For all his desire to change, Ryan could never see his own faults. He became too accustomed to blaming Claire for their issues, and with that, he relegated to himself a level of faultlessness that was unconquerable. On his afternoon walks, he would patrol the area around her building, waiting to see if she left for lunch, or observing the time she finally exited at the end of the day. He would then go to the kitchen, but after some time, his absence there was more frequent than his presence. His fear was destroying him, though he could not see it. Thinking long on his mother and Gillian, Ryan swore he would not lose Claire. That was a promise he made to himself.

There was a significant increase in his texting and calling, especially when Claire was at work. She would be in meetings or consultations and the phone would vibrate. She could be at lunch with a client and it would sound off. She selected a special ring tone for Ryan, and when the phone wasn’t on vibrate, it sounded so frequently that it sometimes drove her mad. Brett heard, and saw it as well. Sometimes, she would text him and he would enter her dark office only to find her beneath her desk, her eyes red from tears and cheeks wet with the agony she could no longer contain. He would crawl under there and hold her, his own heart breaking horribly. She needed those times away from her life, those times to weep and sob and allow the comforting arms of another to support her and make her feel secure. They used to be Ryan’s.

Claire also called Fr. Bill when she could take it no more. He had a room ready for her at a shelter if she needed it, but always did she refrain. His voice was enough to calm her and help her to see the future, just one more day.

One particular day in July, the summer’s sun was heating the city and the minds of its citizens so much they forgot their distaste for winter and cursed the extreme nature of the hot weather. Brett was at his teammate’s desk looking over their shoulder at the computer when he heard his phone ding. It’s was Claire’s text, he knew, and moved to pick up his phone. It read simply ‘please come.’ He knew what it meant, and politely excused himself from his co-worker.

When he arrived at the closed door, a woman was passing before it. It was Charlotte, and she told Brett that Claire was out of her office for a short time.

“I know,” Brett replied curtly. “She said some diagrams I need are in her office.”

“Oh,” said the busybody, and moved on.

Brett watched her walk around the corner, then slowly turned the doorknob. The darkness of the office was apparent as he pushed inside, trying to open the door as little as possible. Closing it, he heard a shuffling sound, but saw no one; he knew where she was.

With a soft step, Brett moved closer to, then around the desk, and from the corner could see her slacks and designer shoes, then her body, all scrunched under the desk, concealed from all the world by her barrier. The blinds were drawn on the customarily open windows, and only bold beams of light dared to penetrate the slotted openings in the blinds and access the space.

“Babe?” Brett asked.

There was a stifled sob. Brett saw her phone sitting on the floor. He knelt down beside her and looked into the opening, her tiny frame filling it as she hunched up to fit.

It was a pitiful sight, but one Brett had seen many times before. There must have been another fight, since she did this when she needed to escape from her world. He moved closer and she instinctively moved into his waiting arms. Claire immediately found comfort, but it was like coming in from the cold on a frosty night, finding warmth, but still needing time to adjust and warm the body.

“Oh, Claire,” Brett said, holding her.

Claire cried in his arms, her head nestled against his shoulder. She held him tightly, squeezing him as the intensity of her grief poured forth. In his eyes, Brett had tears. This sight was more than he could bear, but endure it he did.

“What happened?” Brett asked Claire.

“He called. He had an attitude, and, and, it’s just the usual shit. He was so mean, bashing me and calling me names. I didn’t respond to a text quick enough, so he thought I was out with someone. Then he called. Brett, I was just getting to the phone to text him when he called. I can’t do this, Brett. I can’t.”

She cried horribly.

What could Brett reply? Were there any words of comfort to render, any aide to give? How could he tell an emotionally scarred person it would be all right, when he himself was not certain of the outcome? He was silent, but his silence was destroying him.

Claire lifted her head and wiped her eyes. Brett shifted so she could climb out of the hole and together, they leaned against the drawers, Claire still in Brett’s arms.

“I don’t want to go home tonight. He’s going to scream and yell. I try to defy his anger and act like it doesn’t bother me. You know. But, I can’t, not today. I, I, I’m done, Brett. I can’t do this.”

Brett had heard all he could endure, and after she concluded, his anger boiled. Months he watched as his friend endured horrors he was left blind to, and for so long he saw the impact it had upon her. The smile she gave could fool all the others, but it could not convince him she was happy. He knew better, knew Claire better, and he saw through her charade. Now, all the past weeks’ emotions culminated in his anger bursting outward.

“You know what? He can go fuck himself with his spatula! You’re coming home with me tonight. If he doesn’t like it, the PD can handle him. Maybe a night or two getting his ass raped in jail will calm him.”

Claire wanted to be free of her life, but she also wanted no more contention. Watching a beam of light on the gray-carpeted floor, she thought for a moment but could not formulate her reply. Hearing aggression from Brett did not assist or soothe her tortured mind. She wanted peace and tranquility, nothing more or less.

“Brett, please,” Claire begged.

Brett knew. He silenced himself, but his anger still fumed. He clutched Claire tighter and kissed the top of her head. The office was quiet then, the solitude of the atmosphere feigned, but still appreciated. There would never be solitude again, at least as far as Claire was concerned. Her heart was troubled, and she believed it always would be. Ryan once said that the right person would help you to see the future. The wrong person, she now knew, would also take it away.

For a few minutes they sat in Claire’s office, with only the occasional beeping of the email to shake the relative peace. The phone was strangely quiet, even Claire’s cell. She worried at its repose. Often, the calls worried her, but the span of silence made her fret even more. With constant contact there was one advantage: she could at least discern his attitude.

“Hey, why don’t you call the priest?” Brett suggested.

Claire felt stronger again, and pulling away, slowly stood up. The openness of the room surrounded her, and for a moment she felt the fear of vulnerability. Resting her hands on her desk, she leaned on them and looked down at the mess of papers and files. She was behind in all of her reports. Her life had become one dark episode after another, each robbing her of essential functions. She suffered, and so did the other aspects of her life.

“I might,” she replied softly.

Brett rubbed her back slowly, the silk of her blouse soft on his fingertips. He tried to fully imagine what she was enduring, but he could not, would never grasp the totality of her abusive situation. Brett knew Ryan controlled her, governing with a proverbial iron fist. Now, he was finally understanding a small extent of that control.

Claire’s office phone range, and they both started. They looked at the device, then back at the desk. There was no power in either of them to speak to the outside world. Brett would leave and conceal the secrets in his bosom; Claire would walk out and thrust upon her face the same old smile, grinning happily as if they alone had the secret to bliss.

“You okay?” he asked.

Claire looked at him with sad eyes, still red and swollen. Her face was downcast, and she looked fatigued, as if she just completed a race. There was sorrow in her features, from the lines on her brow to the strands of auburn hair that fell around her face. The delicate curve of her chin was naught but a downward slope.

“Yeah,” Claire replied.

She sighed and inhaled again. The phone rang a second time. She reached over and sent the caller to her voicemail.

“I’ll get that later,” she said, her eyes still on the device.

“Okay. If you need me, just text. I love you, Claire,” Brett said.

Claire reached out to him and hugged her friend warmly. Holding his body against hers, she tried to absorb the comfort and peace she knew he had from a lover who cherished his presence. She longed for that, for a lover who sought not his, but her happiness, who loved so unconditionally that her whole presence was his life. In her moment of grief, hugging her friend, she felt she had none of that. She felt alone.

“Thank you,” Claire said.

Brett smiled and kissed her forehead, then left. At the door, he turned again and looked at her. She seemed too small amidst the dark shades of the room, so lost in a fog of despair and grief. It occurred to him then that she did look small. She had lost more weight.

Claire sat in her chair and looked at her cell. She picked it up, turning on the screen. Opening the phone app, she saw his number. She hit the number and waited to hear his voice.

* * * * * * * * * *

Across town, Father Bill was praying. His mind wandered from face to face as he lifted each to God in prayer. It was no miracle that he thought of Claire just as his phone rang out in its old fashioned bell.

Fr. Bill, pulled from his moment of meditation, answered the phone, some sense in him alerting him to trouble. He spoke soothingly to the shaken voice on the other end of the line, trying to both calm her and get what information he could. The voice fell to tears again, broken and rattled by the events she described.

Fr. Bill told her he would call upon her immediately, and after a word of love, hung up the phone. He grabbed his coat and tossed it over his short-sleeved shirt. Those buildings were always chilly, he thought as he left the office.

Outside the building, Ryan was peering from a concealed spot. He looked around, watching those who ventured in and out of the building. He was so angry; it took all of his reserve to restrain his desire to storm her office. That, he knew, would be disastrous. So, he stalked like a hunter, every sound, every sight falling under his scope-like eye.

Looking over at the small park adjacent to the building, he saw one woman with a carriage, another couple passing her, then one woman with raven black hair on the bench. She looked at him and grinned. He looked over at a bus that stopped to unload its human cargo.

The street was busy with people and cars all vying for traveling space in the city. Horns honked and busses hissed as they sluggishly moved on in the tiring display of human automotive innovation. Then, a cab pulled up to the front of the building, a yellow cab that emitted a man in black onto the sidewalk. He stood, bent to pay the driver, then walked briskly inside.

Ryan knew the man not from his attire, but from the way he stirred such hatred in his mind. Slowly, he pulled back and walked down the avenue. He would not be at work that night.

* * * * * * * * * *

The summer sun was still high, but moving with haste to its resting place as the city prepared for night. Claire worked a little later in the office than usual. She lacked a desire to return to the apartment, and with the amount of work she still had on her desk, and the calls to return and the emails to send, she was too swamped to leave. When finally she did vacate her office, she walked slowly through the streets, neglecting her customary cab ride. She knew she would be questioned severely by Ryan on why she opted to walk, but she cared not. She could think of few things to really care about at the moment. It was as if her world was entirely black, and she could see nothing but the darkness pressing into her eyes.

Thinking about what Fr. Bill said to her that afternoon, Claire pondered if leaving was really a possibility. Her steps were bringing her back to him, but her heart seemed to linger elsewhere. She felt as if she were towing an anchor behind her, slowing her pace and impeding her journey home. Would leaving help her? She knew it would, but what of the future? Would Ryan survive? Would he still succeed in becoming the man she knew he could be? Would he still haunt her? Would he kill her? She shook her head at the last thought, believing that would not be the case. Ryan was many things now, she knew, but he was not a killer. She felt safe in that, but still the idea haunted her steps home.

The apartment building emerged from hiding behind another structure, and it rose up over her like a mountain of tribulation. Claire stopped and looked at her home, remarking to herself how happy she once was to reside there, and seeing now how the building was to her a brown brick dungeon, elegantly fashioned but grave in its purpose. She sighed a sigh of grief, of torment and anguish. Inner turmoil mounted in her stomach as she peered at the structure in the fading light. The city lamps turned on, suddenly casting the lane in new light. People still moved about, but not with the hastiness of the business day. They moved slowly, happily in the summer evening, holding hands and chatting lightly. Even the single individuals seemed cheerful, and Claire thought the pain she harbored in her must evidently be expressing its presence through her face, since none dared to look upon her for too long.

Claire sighed once more and walked inside, ascending the stairs slowly. She knew Ryan was not home, but the apartment held such symbolism for her that sitting within its confines was like sitting beside him. She was nervous and could not control a slight tremble in her hand. All that afternoon, she tried to contact him, and finally, somewhere around 5:15, he responded. Text messages are by nature cold and emotionless, but Ryan’s text, however, had all the emotions contained in his short response. She could read his anger in the words, the aggression that now seemed to have such a great hold on him. They texted back and forth, and only toward to the end did he inquire about her day, and leave off with a brief ‘see ya.’

What Claire could expect when Ryan arrived at night she did not know, but she could guess he would be angry or silent. Either way, it would be a hellacious night, and she would feel the blood trickle out of her mental gashes once more.

The hallway was quiet, with muffled noises coming from the apartments she passed. The carpet under foot crushed as she walked across it, until she reached her apartment. She unlocked it and opened the door.

When the door swung open, she entered, but to her surprise, found several of the lamps illuminated. That was uncustomary for Ryan to leave them on, and she immediately questioned their purpose, growing tense. There was noise in the back bedroom, the sound of someone walking. She gathered her courage; she knew what was next.

Ryan spent all afternoon feeding off his hate and anger. When he saw the priest enter that building, he felt the greatest degree of betrayal he had ever felt, and it was then he realized his relationship with Claire had taken a definite turn. He wanted to trust her and believe he could rely upon her, but in that moment, all of his beliefs were thrown into doubt at what he saw as nothing short of treachery. That afternoon and into the early evening he waited, his mind reeling with a multitude of thoughts he wanted to say, to shout and scream. He prepared, and that night, he knew he would unleash hell upon her. She would learn he was in charge.

Claire cautiously walked into the open space, observing the lights, the area and listening for a second sound to emerge from the back of the apartment. All was quiet now, save for the air conditioning that blew steadily. She stopped just opposite the door and closed it behind her. The click of the lock shook her, as it had a sound of finality.

The apartment was much as she left it in the morning, save for the illumination. With a few short steps she walked farther in, listening more than watching now. Then, she heard from the back a footfall, then another. Steps, hitting softly on the wooden floor. She waited and held her breath. Ryan emerged from the bedroom and looked at her. The hall put distance between them, but it was insufficient to give her any degree of safety. She held her breath. There was no smile on his face, no joyous expression at her arrival. His face, a distorted grimace that looked both sinister and sardonic, stared down at her as if penetrating her soul. He started to move forward with a slow step.

Looking at his face, Claire somehow understood that he was aware of the Father’s visit, though the sixth sense that assisted her just then was unexplainable. She trembled and her heart raced. Even sweat droplets formed on her brow. All day she knew this was imminent, but now, she prophesied that a level of ferocity would be reached tonight that had yet to be experienced.

“Oh, hi, baby,” Claire said as cheerfully as she could.

Ryan did not immediately respond, but walked very close to her. Claire still had her bag slung over her shoulder, and when he approached, she let it slide off, laying it on the floor beside a chair.

Ryan was stoic, his face mean and menacing. Claire found his silence worse than his screaming, for in it there was animosity that was a secret for Claire, a mystery that did not allow for easy deciphering. She wanted to read him and gauge his level of anger, but all she saw was hatred. That frightened her.

“I didn’t realize you’d be home tonight. Want me to fix something for dinner?” Claire asked.

The voice Claire projected into the room sounded as normal as she could make it, but the strength behind it was wavering terribly. She wanted to be strong, but she could not; she was too afraid. The best she could do was lie to herself and the world, smile and try to suffer through the yelling.

“Fix something?” Ryan asked Claire.

“Um, yeah. I could throw something together for us, if you’d like.”

“Claire,” Ryan started, his voice terrible, “yes, there are things that need to be fixed right now, but dinner isn’t it.”

“What do you mean?” Claire replied.

Ryan stepped up to her and looked into her blue eyes. He remembered the first time he saw them up close, but the sentimentality of the moment was missing, and all he looked upon were blue orbs.

“Claire, I trusted you to stand with me,” Ryan said.

Claire stepped back as the room grew heated. She could feel his energy warming the space like a furnace.

“Claire, I believed you would stand with me. I was naïve, stupid! How could I think that? How could I actually believe you would be faithful to me?”

“What do you mean?”

Ryan spoke, his voice riding the tension and hatred. It was a voice reproachful and vengeful. It was horrible.

“I thought you loved me enough to stand beside me, Claire. I was under the impression we were in this together. Isn’t that how it was supposed to be? You and me only, just us forging our way in life? That’s what we needed Claire, but you didn’t want that, did you? You never wanted that. And you never wanted me to succeed.”

“Ryan, why are you saying this?”

“Because I saw that damned priest enter your building today! That’s why, Claire. I saw that motherfucker there, and I know he came to see you! Don’t fucking lie to me!” Ryan screamed.

Claire trembled, shaking with fear, but also with her own anger. The priest was one of two comforts she had, and Ryan made her give them both up. Ryan could always rely on her for love and support, but where was hers? Where was her shoulder to cry on, to lean against? That would be the priest and Brett, and Ryan detested them both. He wanted all of the comfort for himself, and did not care how much agony she endured in the process so long as his will was accomplished.

The anger in Claire grew as Ryan continued to berate her, shouting so many profanities and lies. She did not feel his scorn or the pain of his verbal blows. She was not wearing her proverbial mask, and she was not hiding. No, her own pain and anger were too consuming to allow for anything else to penetrate her. She fumed with intensity at his words until she could contain it no longer. Then, like a lion loosed from its snare, she sprang her own ferocity onto Ryan.

“Stop it! Just fucking stop it!”

“What the fuck did you say to me!?” Ryan roared.

“I told you to stop it, you fucking bastard. I’m sick of your shit, sick of living like your slave and your bitch. I’m fed up with your fucking anger and your inability to be fucking normal. You’re a loose cannon ready to fucking blow up on anyone you think too weak to stand up to you. Well, fuck you! I’m done, Ryan. I’m finished with you!”

Ryan was speechless. He glared at her, his shock only momentary. Her insolence, only proved his point that all of her attempts at make-believe and her strength were for but one purpose, to leave him. He smiled wickedly at his assumption, knowing himself to be true in his theories.

“Guess I was right, then,” Ryan said.

Claire moved past him to the kitchen. She felt done, acted done, and knew she was so. It was not a show or a mirage on her part, and she played no magician’s role; she was genuinely frustrated and completely finished with all that were his problems. Did she still love Ryan? In that moment, yes, but the man he had become was nothing more than a devil to her.

“I’m not arguing with you anymore, Ryan. And you know what else, you’re done treating me like shit, okay?”

Claire angrily snatched a cup from the cabinet and poured a glass of Perrier. She chugged it down in sailor-like fashion, then slammed the glass on the counter when Ryan followed her into the kitchen. He started in with her again, but this time, his words were not as furious as previously shouted, and he tempered to a degree his animosity.

“Oh, treat you like shit? Who was lied to? Who was abandoned? Who-“

“I’ll tell you who, me! I was lied to and abandoned, because I never knew this was going to be my life.”

“So now I’m at fault? Now this is all my fucking fault?” Ryan screamed again.

With rage Ryan slammed his hand against the wall, shaking a picture that hung a little farther away. Claire jumped when the loud thud echoed in the apartment. The hit gave a new dimension to the issue. Violence was now exhibited, and Claire began to grow nervous.

“I didn’t say that!” Claire screamed.

Ryan was growing furious again. Every word Claire spoke only succeeded in arousing his anger. He looked at her now as an enemy, his eyes blind to all the love he still held for her. Ryan just lived in the moment, and the one thing he loved the most now seemed to fuel his anger.

“And you know what you’re going to say now, fucking nothing! You better shut your fucking mouth, because I’ve had enough of it, you hear me, I’ve had enough. I’m in fucking charge here, and if you don’t understand that in the next five seconds, I’ll fucking make you understand it!” Ryan roared.

The look in Ryan’s eye and the redness of his face caused Claire to lose her nerve. He was no longer the man she knew and loved. He was a stranger who lived on hate alone, some foreign entity inhabiting the body of the man she once cherished. Gone was his voice, so soothing and calming; lost were those beautiful eyes that often gazed upon her. Before her was a monster, a man she did not know.

Ryan stood in the entryway to the kitchen, blocking Claire’s only escape. She wanted out, wanted to run as fast as she could, but she had to get past Ryan. She shook at having to cross so near to him, but her mind was resolved to escape the kitchen and apartment. She held her head high and quickly moved past.

Ryan saw her trying to walk away, and all he could think of was that she was leaving him, and for good. Infuriated and nervous at her loss, he spun around as she walked passed him and grabbed her arm.

“Where the fuck are you going?” shouted Ryan.

“Let me go,” she screamed, trying to break free.

“Don’t you fucking leave me!” he hollered in a tone both agonizing and hurtful.

“Let me go! Let me go!” Claire screamed again.

With a mighty thrust, Claire pushed Ryan back with her loose hand while jerking her arm free of his tight grip. Her arm hurt, but pain was the least on her mind, for she was consumed with escape. She rushed to the door, grabbing her bag as she hurried.

“Get fucking back here!” roared Ryan.

“I’m done, Ryan!”

“You’re not leaving me, Claire. You’re mine now, you hear? You belong to me!”

“Go fuck yourself!”

Claire rushed for the door, grabbing the knob in haste, but before she could open it, she felt a hand grab her shoulder. The force of the grip tightened, then spun her around violently. Before she could act, two hands were planted on her shoulders, squeezing her tightly.

“I said you’re not leaving. What is so damned hard about understanding that? You’re not going anywhere,” Ryan screamed.

“Let me go, Ryan. Get off of me.”

Ryan forcefully shook Claire with rage in his arms, and she flopped around like a rag doll in a canine’s mouth. She tried to focus and think, but the movements were too harsh and speedily executed for her to react. Finally, Ryan ceased and looked at Claire. Her hair was disheveled and there was present in her eyes a most sincere look of horror. She did not know what he was going to do next, and that frightened her.

With force and strength, Ryan slammed Claire against the door, her head hitting hard against it. He still held her by the shoulders, and now Claire was gripping his shirt, trying to fend him off. He was too strong for her to overpower, try as she did.

“Like I said,” Ryan began, “you’re not leaving.”

“Ryan, please, let me go. You’re hurting me.”

Claire struggled to push him away, but her efforts were in vain. He was locked on her and was not releasing his grip. She was trapped against the door with a man who eyes seemed entranced by madness.

“Now, why don’t you just calm your pretty little self down, Claire,” Ryan said sardonically.

“Ryan, you’re hurting my arms. Please, let me go,” Claire pleaded.

“Nope. You tried to run once. I’m not gonna let that happen, baby! You’re mine, you hear? Mine.”

Claire could feel his grip shifting on her shoulders, as if he were better trying to hold her, and it was in that moment that she pushed with all the strength she had, pressed against the flesh of the body she loved, the chest that once she craved. She pushed, and Ryan, shifting his feet, lost his balance and stumbled backwards. He roared angrily and sprung back at her. Claire grabbed the door but could not get it open before his hand slammed against it.

Ryan spun her around and faced her, but she turned again and tried the door. Infuriated by his lover, his life and the loss that was inevitable, he moved to a new level of hatred. He raised his fist, and just as Claire was trying to open the door, he slid his hand across the door, snatched her shoulder and spun her one last time. His fist, balled up not by mere muscular fashion alone, but by the evil that lurked in him, flew at her face, striking her square with great force.

Claire did not know what happened, and before she could react, all went dark. There was a blur, then she saw nothing but dark shades as her head slammed violently against the door. Blood, so bright and crimson, spewed from her mouth and nose and she slid down the blue door, the shade of which resembled a bruise.

Claire hit the floor, but did not know it. All was dark to her, and the liquid she felt on her face and tasted in her mouth was now also felt on her chest. She was dizzy and disoriented, and upon the floor, slumping against her only escape, she tried to stand, or move or do anything, but movement was impossible. She slumped over.

Ryan screamed, but not in anger. The horror of the moment seized him and shook from him all the anger and hatred that caused the scene. He saw his lover drenched in her own blood, felt the moistness of it on his hand. He screamed again as he looked at her, seeing not his girl, seeing not Claire, but his mother looking at him, her teeth red and eyes swollen. Stumbling back, Ryan fell over onto the floor, a third scream following him to the ground.

Then there was silence.

After a moment, Claire started to move again. She ran her hands along the floor, feeling the coldness of the wood. Then, she felt the blood on her fingertips as she dragged them through the pool. Slowly, she started to remember, to realize what happened. She saw the crimson color for the first time, the red-stained tips before her eyes, and it frightened her. Quickly, she sat up, then scrambled to find her footing, though she was still severely disoriented. She panicked as she fumbled against the door. Behind her, Ryan was crawling to her.

“Baby!” he shouted to her.

Claire only looked at him in horror, a look that could have killed him. In his agony, Ryan shook with fear and trembled at the sight. Her face was red, so red, and blood trickled mercilessly down her blouse. She left bloody handprints on the door as he stood, long red streaks likes slices in the barrier. It looked as if the very door was bleeding.

“Claire, please,” Ryan pleaded.

Claire said nothing, but in shock, hastily scrambled to her feet and grabbed the knob, pulling the door open with all of her might. Ryan lunged at her and grabbed her arm, but did not squeeze as he had before. He held her, his restraint ineffectual, as she quickly snatched her arm away in shocked disgust.

“Stay away from me!” she shouted.

“Claire, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. Please, Claire, please.”

Claire couldn’t listen, she simply couldn’t. With her hand on the knob, she turned it and the wetness of her fingers made everything slippery, but by tightening her grip, the knob operated and the door opened, a liberating gust of cold air blowing past her.

“Baby, I need help. I see that. Please, please, baby, don’t leave me. I can’t,”

“Leave me alone,” she screamed, still in shock.

With tears streaming from her eyes, Claire hastily stumbled out of the apartment. In the hall, a door quickly shut as she rushed out, Ryan following behind, begging and pleading with her to stay. Claire moved automatically, unconscious of all she did, somehow grabbing her bag before she left. In the hall, she could hear the pitiful pleas of her lover as he fell on the threshold, sobbing and shouting for her. She heard them as if in a thick fog.

“Claire, please wait! Stay, please!” he shouted.

On the floor, crying and feeling the weight of so much anger, Ryan sank mentally and physically as the image of his lover, his girl, his life, disappeared behind the staircase door. He watched, waited, and with blurry eyes tried to visualize her return, but it did not come. The pain of the moment only amplified his own grief, and in his darkness, in the horror of that night, he became the very thing he sought to avert. He became the darkness he loathed, and destroyed the woman he loved. He became his father, and beat his mother.

Claire was gone.

Chapter 23

What is it about autumn that delights so many hearts? Is it the beautiful colors that emerge from the verdure? Is it the homey scents of pumpkin spice and roaring iron bin fires full of leaves? Or is it something else, something deeper in the human consciousness? Is it that, in autumn, nature sheds the old? Can it be that in the natural world, there is a yearly ritual of ridding the self of all the old growth? Maybe in nature there are the examples of how the created order is supposed to work. Every year, through introspection, humanity sheds those less than desirable leaves, moving then into a period of mental hibernation, only to emerge anew in the spring. Perhaps, that is how things are meant to be.

Months passed since the July encounter, and neither lover saw the other, though Ryan tried desperately to make amends for his failure. With a date and a team of men, Claire vacated his apartment once and for all, and through messaging, forbid any further contact. Brett was there that day, as was Father Bill. To help her cope, Claire met with the Father to talk things over. She moved in with Brett and Dylan for the time being, until she could resettle herself elsewhere. Life, like the autumn leaves, was changing for Claire, and it was looking better. In her night moments, when she had only her thoughts for company, she thought of him, of his smile, that silly way he laughed, and of the man she always wanted him to be, the man he wanted to be. Then, she would fall asleep, sometimes dreaming he was beside her.

Work continued, and through the weeks, Claire learned to smile once more. She would never fully understand that night, but over time, and with the patience of Father Bill, she learned to cope with it. Brett was there to help, and with some awkward jokes and naughty humor, she regained her laugh. It was almost like college again, and she liked that. When she was sad, she would sing. She still had her voice.

Across town, there was only darkness and dismay. Ryan fell from his mental plateau to a stinking pit of despair. Lounging in self-pity, he mired there until a lone hand reached out to him. It was a sleeve he recognized, the sleeve of God and a man, and though bitter and angry, confused and alone, he took it, the firm grip of the priest comforting his heart. Slowly, he ascended, until he could look upon the light once more and see old friends. He made peace with it, and with life.

One morning, a Saturday morning, Claire sat at her computer in Brett’s apartment, her laptop in her lap and a cat moving about her feet. The weather was chilly and the leaves were falling before the windows, yellows and golds and reds all tumbling down to create the Boston autumn. Claire loved this time of year, though at this point she could not help but reflect upon a year earlier, when they first met in the park. How different she was then; how different now.

The email before her made her nervous, though not from the excessive length. Her contact with him was non-existent, but suddenly from the depths of oblivion, there appeared from him a message. At first, she wanted only to delete it without reading it, but her curiosity had to be fed, and a part of her, something she would deny, wanted to read something he wrote. It was like clinging to the shirt of a loved one; they may not be in it at the time, but touching something of theirs made all the difference in the world. In that email, she could touch him again.

When Claire read it several times, she was left puzzled, nervous and conflicted. It spoke of his life, his business and the new activities he was undertaking. He mentioned the priest, Father Bill, several times, and new support groups. The letter was mostly a ‘catching up,’ but the heart of it explained so much, and for the first time, he revealed so much of himself to her, shedding all of his layers before her that she might see him entirely. And in the end, he apologized for everything, and asked for a meeting. That’s what made her nervous.

It took Claire days to respond, and after a few meetings with Father Bill – who knew of the email – she formulated a response. She would not meet with him, but she would correspond electronically only. Ryan seemed happy with that, and periodically, they would shoot each other a line. This lasted for a few weeks, with each other casually passing messages along to one another. Father Bill was always copied on the messages, so there was a degree of transparency that made all parties feel better.

For Claire, life felt normal again, though not complete. She found herself waiting for his emails and wondering how he was doing. She confided in Brett and he just rolled his eyes and walked away. But, on his own, he understood, and in the end, he would support her.

When the emails arrived, she was happy and read them eagerly. When they didn’t, she lied and said she was alright with the silence; in reality, she yearned for his message. She couldn’t help it. He was still the man she loved, and now, more than ever, he was transforming into the person she always knew he could be.

Ryan also waited eagerly for the messages, but he was learning there could be no replacement for his own desire for change. He always thought he needed external influences for his ability to make amends with his past and to alter his future, but the power, he was learning, was not through Claire, but through his own heart. He was the ability to change, and no one else. So, he read the emails happily, but did not rely upon them, or her, for strength. He wanted to change, and so he would.

After a while, Ryan noticed that Claire began to email more frequently, sometimes sending a quick line about something that just happened. In his mind, it felt as if they were dating anew, two young hearts connected by love. He relished it, as he did her memory. He wanted so much to speak with her in person, just to say something, to speak openly about all that happened. He would not rest until he did. In his heart, he considered her gone, but he wanted to rest knowing she knew how he felt, and how enormously she touched him. Proposing that to her one day, she declined, still fearing what might be a fatal mistake. Ryan understood and said no more about it.

When autumn was at its height and the leaves shed their green for autumnal glory, he ventured not a meeting, but a date, a new start, and holding his breath, he sent the email, realizing it was a future he was proposing. No email came in for several hours, but when he checked late that evening from the kitchen office, there was a reply.

Ryan waited to open it, fearing rejection, and, gearing himself up for it, he read the solitary line. Then, he shut off his computer and went back to the kitchen, where mops were slowly moving across the dirty floor and counters were carefully being scrubbed.

Friday morning, a few days after the email, Claire was dressed and headed out the door, Brett in tow. It was to be a busy day at the office, and she was primed for it. Brett, cursing the arriving cold, was still struggling to get his jacket on as they exited the building. Claire leapt out first, the morning chill invigorating against her face. The leaves were nearly gone, and bare limbs reached up to tickle the overcast sky.

Claire shouted something at Brett, then stopped when she reached the bottom of the steps. A few paces away, leaning against the bark of a slumbering tree, Ryan waited. He smiled when she saw him, but in his mind a flash of red dampened the moment. He shuddered to himself.

Brett burst forth from the aged building as a line of cars pulled away from the corner, their tires rumbling over the cobblestone drive. He looked and saw Ryan, and wasn’t sure what his response should be. It was awkward, but he remained where he was, his hand clutching his phone in case of an emergency.

Behind Ryan, Claire could see Father Bill a few paces off, a cup of steaming coffee in hand, his side facing them and his eyes watching them, until some ravens alighted on a branch and drew his attention.

Neither spoke for a moment as they beheld one another. Feelings were mixed and emotional, with tears welling in cold eyes. A breeze blew up the street, chilling their bodies. Claire put her hands in her jacket pockets.

“Hey,” Ryan finally said.

“Hi,” relied Claire.

The first words were always the most difficult, but now that each heard the other’s voice, the tension lessened a degree. Ryan had things he wanted to say, and he needed to say them. He took a step closer, but kept a respectful distance. He knew well that Claire would harbor so many emotions concerning him, and that looking at him would only bring back ill memories, so, treading cautiously, he approached.

“I’m sorry to bust in on your morning like this, it’s just that I, well, I wanted to say something to you before tonight.”

Claire listened but did not reply. She did agree to meet with him that night, but did not know how she would actually act. Now, she no longer needed to worry about their first meeting, as it was before her.

“Listen, um, it won’t take long. I just wanted you to know, well, I just wanted to tell you that -” and Ryan stopped.

Ryan lost the words looking at Claire. He wanted to ask for forgiveness, he wanted to kneel before her and plead for it, but looking into her eyes, he saw, to his astonishment, that he already had it. It was there, waiting for him, a gift of mercy and love. He needed only to reach out and embrace it. At that, a tear fell.

“How can you?” he asked her.

Claire knew what he meant. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she watched him embrace her secret, the only secret she carried. It wasn’t easy, but over time, she learned to feed the part of her that loved, not the part of her that hated, and after some practice, the side she starved died away.

“It took time, lots of time. But, it’s there now.”

Ryan sighed and inhaled a deep, cold breath. Puffs of smoke came from their mouths as they spoke, a sign that winter was coming for Brett. With a smile renewed by her words, Ryan looked upon Claire with fresh eyes. She was always the strong one; he knew that now.

“Well, I don’t want to keep you. I know you have some crazy stuff to do today.”

“Yeah. Always fun stuff,” replied Claire.

Ryan took out his phone and looked at it. Then, extending his arm, he handed it to her. Puzzled, Claire looked at it, not certain if she should take it.

“What’s this?”

“My phone. I just figured that you could hold onto it until tonight. I’m going to be in the kitchen all day anyway, so if anybody needs me, they can reach me there. I won’t need it today.”

The phone, the primary means of connectivity, Ryan now surrendered to her along with the mindset of constant communication. If she wanted to contact him, she could, but he would not. Claire held the phone in her hand, knowing full well what it meant. And, opening her bag, she placed it in her leather case beside her own.

“Thanks,” Claire said.

“No, Claire. Thank you.”

They looked awkwardly at one another again, like two middle school students experiencing affection for the first time. They felt giddy and happy, nervous and excited. It was a good feeling, mysterious, but good.

“Okay, well, I’ll see you tonight, then. Hope it goes well for you today,” Ryan said.

“Thanks, me too. See you tonight.”

Ryan turned to walk away, but Claire called out to him. He turned around curiously.

“Oh, and don’t be late.”

Claire winked at him and sported off down the sidewalk, her stride powerful and her gait exhibiting the strength she always had in her. Ryan laughed and watched as she and Brett disappeared down the antiquated lane.

Slowly, Ryan approached the priest, and together they strolled down the sidewalk, each step kicking some fallen leaves out of their paths. It was a beautiful street lined with trees that now embraced the natural call to shed their old selves and await the new.

“Well?” asked the priest.

“It went well.”

“Good. Now, how about I buy us some coffee.”

“You know, that sounds like a plan, Father.”

The End


The following organizations listed are nation-wide and can be reached either on-line or via telephone. If you are in need of services, please reach out to them; they will help you.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Phone: 1800-799-7233

Phone: 1800-787-3224

Domestic Abuse Council, Inc.

HelpGuide - shelters

Feminist Majority (Offers a list of State Hotlines and Coalitions)

About the Author

Robert Oliver has been writing for several years, self-publishing his short stories. If you have enjoyed reading his works, please leave a review at your favorite retailer. Using literary means, Robert seeks to positively impact culture and society by bringing attention to those areas that he feels need attention. When not writing, Robert loves cooking Italian and Turkish cuisine, and drinking wine on the porch of his historic home. He is an avid outdoor enthusiast, enjoying whatever time he can spare hiking on the Florida Trail. He lives and works in Central Florida.

*This photograph was not taken in Florida.

Latest News from Robert Oliver


Twitter: @RobertOliver9


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