When I regained consciousness, it took me a moment to realize where I was. In the hotel parking lot, after the most incredible night of my life…or afterlife…hell, any life! I was seized with the intense desire to see my Gracie. Standing, though, proved to be quite a struggle. It blew my mind how weak I still felt and gauging by the position of the sun, I had been “asleep” for quite some time. Gracie was probably awake by now, but you never knew. Between the wine and our vigorous love-making, she could still be as unconscious as I had been for the past few hours. Yes, I said it. Chuck Butkis “made love.” And it was…it was…spectacular.
Moving comically slow, but smiling like an idiot, I made my way into the hotel and up the elevator back to our hotel room, where I found Gracie awake…and holding Blake’s shoe. There were tears streaming down her face, and it only took a moment to realize why.
I should have written her a damned note! What a fucking moron!
Sitting amid Blake’s clothes, solitary shoe, and even his wallet, it was obvious to Gracie that her date had left in quite a hurry. And the thought devastated her.
“Gracie,” I called softly, “are you okay?”
The girl seemed startled by my voice, then shook her head.
“He left,” she squeaked.
“He had to. I’m sure.”
Gracie sniffed and craned her head in my direction.
“Had to?” She asked, hopefully. “You mean, like, an emergency…or something?”
“Well, yeah,” I replied, sitting beside her. “Obviously, I mean, look at this mess! He must have literally run out of here, last night. I’m sure something big must have come up, and he just didn’t want to wake you.”
Gracie looked around the room, her eyes brightening.
“Yeah,” she said, but sounded uncertain. “You’re probably right. I mean, we had a great time last night! Chuck, I have never connected with anyone that way. It was…magic. He couldn’t just walk away from something like that! I mean, men don’t do that, right? He wouldn’t just disappear.”
I cringed, thinking of the many, many, MANY times I had done just that, when I was alive.
“I’m sure he’ll call you or something, any time now,” I said, changing the subject and thinking of ways to get ahold of cellphone quickly.
Gracie shook her head.
“He doesn’t have my number,” she said. “If I had his…”
“Well, there ya go!” I exclaimed, relieved. “That’s the answer! I’ll get you that number and you can give him a call. Let him know that you have his wallet and…his shoe.”
Nothing weird about THAT…
“You can do that?” Gracie asked, visibly excited. “Thank you so much, Chuck! I was afraid I’d never get to speak to him again and…I already miss him. Pathetic I know, but…”
“Not pathetic at all,” I interrupted, knowing how she felt. “It’s as if you were tapped into the entire universe when he was inside you, and now you feel sort of…cut off and…empty. Like there’s a hole inside that can only be filled by…”
“Making love to him again,” Gracie interjected, completing my thought.
“Yeah,” I said quietly, “that.”
“You really do know everything, don’t you?” Gracie said, with a small laugh.
“I used to think so,” I mumbled.
“Nothing, Gracie. I’ll be right back. I’m going to go get you that number.”
I prowled the hotel lobby like the thief that I was, trying to find someone, anyone, with a cellphone I could snatch. I didn’t need to keep the thing forever, just long enough to use it for one good conversation with my girl. I’d figure out the next step, after that! If there was anything Chuck Butkis was good at it, it was making things up as he went along. It was an unfortunately slow time at the Hotel Primeiro, however, and I couldn’t find a single mark. Even the pimple-faced kid working reception didn’t have a cell in his pocket or on the desk! Apparently, he was a traitor to his generation.
I abandoned the lobby, taking to the parking lot, and was about to lose hope when I stumbled onto one of the valets smoking in the alley behind the hotel, his thick thumbs texting away on his iPhone. I’d already been away from Gracie far too long, and we were approaching hotel check out, so there was no time for stealth. I ran right up to the man in the alley and yanked the phone from his hands, carrying it away as he stared in open-mouthed terror. I couldn’t blame the guy for freaking out a little. After all, it’s not every day your cellphone runs away from you, all on its own!
I rushed back to the hotel room, and was horrified to find it empty. And I mean, empty! No Gracie…no shoe…no wallet. Instinctively, I knew what the girl was up to, and my head fell back in dismay.
I ran out of the hotel room and into the elevator praying (yes, praying) that I could somehow beat Gracie to Blake’s place, or if not, that he would at least not be home when she rang the doorbell. When the elevator doors opened into the lobby, I rushed through them, uncomfortably passing through a crowd of bodies in my haste. It seemed a tour bus had unloaded.
Where were you people when I was trying to lift a cellphone, goddamn it?!
Using the confusion of the crowd flooding through the hotel’s entrance, I ran out to the curb and zoomed off in some lady’s car before she or her valet-parker knew what had happened. Fortunately, I didn’t have far to go, so by the time the cops tracked down the stolen vehicle it would be of no consequence to me.
I was driving down Blake’s street when I realized that there was a taxi cab parked in his driveway, with no passenger in the back. My eyes darted to Blake’s porch…and there she was. Still in her little, red dress from last night, curls a mess from rolling around with me, Gracie reached out to ring Blake’s doorbell and I shouted at her as my stolen car screeched to a halt.
“GRACIE, DON’T!” I yelled, though I was out of earshot.
I jumped out of the car and ran as fast as I could toward her determined figure on the porch, and was about to shout again when Blake’s front door swung open. My steps slowed to a miserable pace, as a suspicious looking redhead eyed my disheveled Gracie with disdain.
“Hello,” the woman greeted coolly, from the doorway.
“Hi,” Gracie replied, her voice an awkward chirp.
The two stared at each other anxiously and I wished the hell-mouth would reappear to swallow me whole.
“Is there something I can do for you?” The redhead said after a moment, then noticed Blake’s shoe and clothing bundled up in Gracie’s arms. “Wait…are those Blake’s?”
“Is he here?” She asked, innocently.
The redhead glared at Gracie with such loathing that any hopes my girl might have had about her relationship with Blake were immediately obliterated. This was obviously not Blake’s sister, not a friend. This was Blake’s wife.
“Blake?” she called, her jaw tight. “There’s someone here to see you!”
I heard the man’s footsteps approaching the door, and I should have done something. I should have slammed the door in Mrs. Tracey’s face and drug Gracie away before any further damage could be done. I should have jumped into Blake’s body and controlled what he would say. I should have done anything but stand there and just watch the train wreck…but that’s what I did. Frozen in place and at a complete loss for words, I did nothing, said nothing, as Blake appeared in the doorway.
“What’s up, honey?” He asked, before following his wife’s icy glare to Gracie’s mortified figure on the porch.
“Is that my shoe?” He continued, with obvious confusion.
“Yeah,” Gracie replied, quietly. “You, um, left it at the hotel last night. I wanted to bring it back…and your wallet…”
My girl held the items out and Blake snatched his wallet from her trembling hands.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Blake all but shouted.
The man turned to his wife, desperately.
“I have no idea who this person is, Kim, I swear!”
Gracie seemed to shrink.
“Is that right?!” Kim responded, shoving her husband away from her. “You stood me up on our anniversary, then come stumbling home at 5:30 in the morning, half-dressed, with supposedly no recollection of where you’d been all night…then this whore shows up on my porch holding your shoe?! Are you fucking kidding me?!”
“Honey,” Blake pleaded desperately, “I swear, nothing happened last night!”
“I thought you didn’t know what happened last night!”
“I don’t! I mean…I just know I would never, ever cheat on you!”
Kim shook her head violently.
“First your wedding ring goes missing,” she said, bitterly, “now this?”
“My ring?!” Blake exclaimed. “Honey, I told you, I took it off at the spa so it wouldn’t get massage cream all over it and forgot it in the locker room! I was going to go back and pick it up this morning.”
“How am I supposed to believe you?!”
“I don’t know,” Blake moaned, rubbing his hands down his face. “I don’t know what I can say! I took Chauncey for a walk before dinner, then the next thing I knew, I was waking up in a parking lot half dressed, with no memory of the night before! I swear to you…that’s the truth.”
Kim crossed her arms, shaking her head in disbelief, and walked back into the house. Somewhere inside, a door slammed, and Blake winced.
“Who are you?” He asked, turning to look down his nose at my Gracie. “Why are you here and what do you want? Money? Is this some sort of blackmail?! You drugged me last night, didn’t you? And now you’ll destroy my marriage unless I pay you off to tell the truth? Is that it?”
Gracie’s arms fell to her sides, and the rest of Blake’s belongings dropped to the porch in a heap. Though her chin quivered violently, the girl did not cry. She just turned silently back toward her waiting taxi and walked away without a word. I was speechless as well. What could I say? What could I possibly say? Other than giving the taxi driver directions to her townhouse, Gracie did not make a sound on the ride home.
We walked into the townhouse, and the girl drifted silently up the staircase, her expression stricken. Her devastated appearance startled Rodge from his seat on the couch. I was sure he had been waiting there all night.
“What happened?!” He asked, leaping to his feet. “Why does she look like that? Chuck…what have you done?”
“Not now,” was all I could say, following Gracie up the staircase.
Rodge surprised me by leaving us alone, and when it was just the two of us in Gracie’s bedroom, she finally erupted into tears. Collapsing onto her bed and curling into a tight ball, I’d never seen such utter despair. And it was my fault. Mine. Chuck Butkis always took what he wanted, even if it meant destroying something beautiful. I looked down at the woman I just had to have, balled-up on the bed, and a wave of nausea swept over me. For the first time, I wondered how many other women had cried like this over me, when I was alive. I thought of their shoulders shaking violently, as they choked on sobs that racked their tiny bodies, strangled by the realization that they’d been used…and thrown away.
I began to pace, unable to stand still but unwilling to leave Gracie’s side. I wanted to make it better for her. I wanted to take it all back. But unfortunately, that was the one thing in this world that Chuck Butkis could not take. It was frustrating as hell! I struggled to find a solution. Surely there was some way to pull the knife out of Gracie’s heart, and undo the damage I’d done to countless others, to plug the gaping hole in my proverbial chest and stop my stomach from churning with guilt. Yes, guilt. I had a lifetime’s worth to suffer…and then some.
The emotion was unbearable, but try as I may, I could not find the key to ending our suffering. I was a little boy again. Helpless, desperate, and without a single person to turn to. I looked toward the heavens for a moment and thought, “Where are you in all of this?” Then, of course, I remembered the hell-mouth. I remembered that I was damned. But what about Gracie? There was no soul more deserving of divine intervention. Yet, here she was, in agony…after a lifetime of agony…and where was the God she so dutifully worshipped? Why wasn’t he here, giving her comfort, giving her strength, putting her pieces back together? Why did she have only me…the man who wrecked her…to turn to?
Overwhelmed with frustration and self-loathing, I kicked Gracie’s heavy, oak nightstand and the sudden bang momentarily quieted her sobbing.
“Chuck?” She whispered, and raised her head ever so slightly off the pillow.
I could not bring myself to respond at first. I was the bad guy. What right did I have? But when she called out to me again, pleading, I forced a single word through my lips.
“Yes,” I said.
Gracie’s head fell back to her pillow and she released a ragged breath, closing her eyes.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whimpered. “I’m so tired. And I don’t want to be alone.”
The statement took me by surprise.
“Then…you don’t hate me?”
Gracie’s eyes were still closed as she shook her head slightly.
“But…what happened…it was my fault! You trusted me, and I hurt you.”
“I’ve been hurt lots of times,” Gracie responded sleepily, the exertion of her breakdown having obviously gotten the best of her. “You weren’t trying to hurt me, were you?”
“No. I didn’t want to hurt you, Gracie. I just wanted…I don’t know. I wanted you to feel. Really feel. And I wanted to be the one to give that to you, because I’m selfish, and I wanted us to be closer…”
“How could we be closer, Chuck?” Gracie slurred through lips nearly immobilized with sleep. “You’re all I have.”
The impact of the simple statement crushed me where I stood. God, this girl deserved so much better…
“Will you lay with me until I fall asleep?”
I opened my mouth to respond, but found my throat sealed tight with an emotion I still cannot name. Abandoning words, I climbed carefully onto Gracie’s bed, and lay on my side before her. Our faces only inches apart, the beauty across from me still did not open her eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome, Gracie.”
“Who are you, really?”
Startled, I searched for an answer to the question I never expected to be asked, but was immediately interrupted.
“No…never mind,” Gracie continued, from somewhere between her world and mine. “I don’t want to know.”
I stared at the amazing woman before me for a long while, but she said nothing more. Instead, she instinctively reached out for me, but of course, her hand passed right through my body and dropped to the sheet beneath me. She made a tiny sound of subconscious disappointment, and I hurried to appease her by slipping a small pillow into her arms. She pulled it in close to her body, holding it as she could never hold me.
“I love you, Gracie,” I admitted.
But my girl was asleep.
Days passed and Gracie refused to leave her bed, other than to visit the bathroom. She didn’t eat, slept little, and hardly even spoke to me. She seemed to be in some sort of “waking coma,” and it scared the hell out of me. By day three, I was in a complete panic. I couldn’t let this continue. I had to do something. But what? I rushed into the guestroom to find Rodge sitting on the floor, meditating or something.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked, desperately.
“There is no we, Chuck,” Rodge replied, his eyes still closed. “I don’t want any more to do with you and your selfish games. I’m done.”
“But, what about Gracie?”
“WHAT, exactly, do you think I can DO?!” Rodge shouted, his eyelids flying open and his voice ugly with rage. “Gracie can’t see or hear me. What the hell am I supposed to do about this, huh?!”
I had never seen Rodge lose his temper, not like this, with the shouting and cursing and fire of absolute loathing in his eyes. It was truly disturbing.
“I don’t know,” I sighed, dropping to the bed, in defeat. “I just can’t stand to see her this way.”
“Well,” Rodge replied, bitterly, “maybe you shouldn’t have broken her, then.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I made a bad call! I thought I was doing the right thing…”
“On that, I call ‘bullshit,’ Chuck Butkis! You weren’t thinking of what was right or wrong, you were thinking about what felt good at the moment. You were thinking about your own selfish desires. That’s all you ever think about! And now, Gracie gets to pay the price. I hope that you’re finally satisfied.”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head, in dismay. “This isn’t what I wanted. Not for me and definitely not for her.”
“Maybe not,” Rodge said, calming a bit, “but what’s done is done. I wish there was something we could do to help her, but neither of us can be what she needs, now.”
“What does she need?” I asked, leaning toward him.
Rodge eyed me skeptically.
“You honestly don’t know,” he observed, looking annoyingly amused.
“No, Rodge,” I exclaimed, “I don’t know! I’ve tried everything to fix her!”
“Everything?” Rodge replied, curiously.
“Well…everything I could think of.”
“Like, what, booze, corny jokes, and saying nasty things about the guy who hurt her?”
“What else is there?” I responded, with a shrug. “When a guy gets his heart broken…”
“That’s just it,” Rodge interrupted. “Gracie is not a guy.”
“No shit, Sherlock!” I spat. “So what do girls need, at times like these?”
“In my experience…ice cream and their girlfriends.”
Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that! Women are like birds, they like to flock with their own kind! And here was poor Gracie, cooped up in this place with only a fox, instead. I jumped to my feet and flew out of the room and down the stairs. If my gal needed a girlfriend, I would get her a girlfriend!
I picked up Gracie’s purse from where she had dropped it in the entryway after our ruined date, and rifled through it until I found her cellphone. The battery was dead so it took a few minutes to get power restored, but when I did…yikes! Fourteen missed calls, all from the day spa. That was not good. I silently prayed that Joshua’s devotion to my Gracie would keep her employed despite her unexplained absence, as I scrolled through her contact list for the only woman I’d ever seen Gracie spend time with.
“Ha! Found you!” I cried triumphantly, as Mavis Davis’ number popped up on the screen.
I dialed the number excitedly, but ended the call after the first ring.
What the hell was I going to say?!
I tapped the cellphone against the fireplace mantle for a moment, the rhythmic tick-tick-ticking of plastic against wood calming me, as I schemed. I would tell Mavis that I was Gracie’s…brother…cousin…neighbor…delivery man? Why was I having such a hard time with such a simple con? This is what happens when one becomes emotionally compromised, I suppose.
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best, so I decided to go with a “buddy from out of town, who popped in to see Gracie only to find her heartbroken, and in obvious need of a girlfriend.” It was damn near to the actual truth, and it would explain the weird phone call. If I had asked Gracie if she had a girlfriend I could call, after all, I’m sure she would have named Mavis…seeing as how she was her only one…ever.
I dialed Mavis’ number again, this time hanging up after the woman had answered her phone. What in the hell was I doing?! Mavis couldn’t hear me! Only Gracie could hear me! Chuck Butkis was far more than “emotionally compromised,” he was losing his ever-lovin’ mind! I threw the phone across the room in frustration, the bang of its collision with the wall bringing Rodge curiously downstairs.
“What was that?” He asked, approaching.
“Gracie’s phone,” I sighed, dropping to the couch. “I had this jackass idea to call that Mavis chick for her…try to get that whole girlfriend/ice-cream thing going…but forgot that I can’t make phone calls to anyone but Gracie.”
“Because only Gracie can hear you,” Rodge concluded, with a smug expression. “It’s a great idea, Chuck, contacting Mavis. But instead of trying to break Gracie’s cell, why didn’t you just text her? No voice required.”
I appreciated the compliment, but not Rodge’s superior tone. I would have thought of texting Mavis myself, if my head wasn’t such a mess at the moment. I’d sent lots of text messages, since my death! I stood and walked across the room to collect the phone (which remained blessedly intact), but before I could send the message, a call came in…from Mavis Davis. I waited until the call concluded, and the tiny tone signaled a new voicemail, then typed in Gracie’s passcode so I could listen to it.
“Hey girl…its Mavis. What is up with you?! You missed class and now you call me twice and hang up? Is everything okay? I’m starting to get worried. It’s a sick, sad, world we live in, after all! Give me a call…a real call…where you, ya know, talk…or I’m coming over to check on you, okay? Bye.”
I waved the phone at Rodge, feeling happy for the first time in days.
“She’s coming over,” I sang, triumphantly.
“Yep! God, I am good!”
True to her word, Mavis arrived about an hour later. Apparently, she was tired of waiting for a call. I made sure that the door was not only unlocked but slightly ajar, so she would be sure to come in.
“Gracie?” She called, easing through the doorway and cautiously drawing a handgun from her purse.
“Yes?” I heard my girl’s voice call back, from upstairs.
Mavis followed the sound of her voice toward the stairs, gun still drawn, and was half way up the flight when Gracie came around the corner and shrieked.
“Sorry!” Mavis apologized, stashing her gun, “I didn’t mean to startle you!”
“Startle?” Gracie exclaimed, lifting her hand to her heart, as her knees shook. “Mavis…you almost made me pee!”
After a pause, the women began to laugh, more and more hysterically. It was wonderful.
“Seriously, Mavis!” Gracie cried, through her laughter. “I almost peed! Right here in the hallway!”
“I really am sorry,” Mavis said, her laughter beginning to subside. “I just didn’t know what to think, what with you all M.I.A and the front door open and…”
“The front door was open?”
“Yeah, a little.”
Gracie looked slightly embarrassed and her beautiful smile faded a bit, making my heart sink.
“I must not have closed it all the way, when I came in,” she said. “It was…kind of a rough morning.”
That was the understatement of the century…
“I’m sure,” Mavis asked, looking sympathetic. “But it’s just a car stereo, Gracie. We’ll get you a new one! We may even have an extra laying around the garage that would fit…”
“Car stereo?” Gracie interrupted, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Shit,” Mavis sighed. “I thought that’s why you were so upset, but…you haven’t looked at your car lately, have you?”
Gracie’s eyes grew wide and she darted out the front door. I stood in the doorway and watched her approach the Pinto, with her fingertips pressed to her lips.
“Oh crap,” Mavis said, as she followed. “I guess they broke the window too! I thought you’d just left it rolled down.”
The sight of the vehicle, with its front seat covered in shattered glass and knotted wires hanging from the gaping hole where the car stereo had once been proved to be the final straw for my Gracie. The momentary break in her misery forgotten, the girl collapsed onto her knees right out in the driveway and began to sob. Mavis crouched beside her, doing her best to provide comfort while I stormed back into the townhouse, furiously. How dare someone do this to my Gracie?! That stupid car meant the world to her and Rodge, and some jerk had the gall to just waltz up and take…something that wasn’t his…
I stopped in my tracks, and my head fell backward, in dismay. How many things had I taken, that didn’t belong to me? How many of them might have had sentimental value…mattered to someone, the way that piece of shit car stereo meant to Gracie? I may have had nothing to do with the mess in the driveway, but I felt my newly acquired senses of guilt and shame swelling within my gut, nonetheless. I thought karma was supposed to bite the bad guy in the ass, not the one he loves! Why should Gracie have to pay for my sins? If this was some kind of spiritual joke, I was definitely not laughing.
“Hey, hey now!” I heard Mavis cry from the driveway, as she pulled Gracie gently to her feet. “None of that! There is nothing broken here, that can’t be fixed! Let’s go back inside, okay?”
Gracie nodded, struggling to restrain her sobbing, and allowed the blonde to lead her back into the townhouse. Once inside, Mavis led Gracie over to the living room sofa and sat her down, like a little girl.
“Talk to me,” she demanded, softly. “No one gets that upset over a car stereo and a broken window. There’s obviously more going on here than, that! What is going on with you, girl?”
Gracie’s eyes welled up with tears as she tried to find the words to explain. As I watched her struggle, I realized that I had forgotten something important! Rodge had said Gracie needed a girlfriend, but he’d also said she needed…
“Ice cream!” I exclaimed, upset with myself for forgetting.
“Ice cream?” Gracie replied in confusion, thinking I was speaking to her.
“Ice cream?” Mavis repeated, thinking Gracie was speaking to her. “Man, it was a rough morning, wasn’t it?! I’ll go get us some. What do you like? Cookie dough? Rocky road? Cookies and cream? Name it.”
“Mavis,” Gracie pleaded, “you don’t have to…”
“Shut up,” Mavis interrupted, firmly. “Name a flavor, or I’m bringing you all of them.”
Gracie smiled weakly.
“Vanilla,” she said.
“Vanilla?” Mavis asked. “Really? Just…plain, vanilla?”
Gracie shrugged with sniffle and a small laugh.
“It’s my favorite,” she admitted.
“Alrighty then,” Mavis replied, darting out the door. “Vanilla it is.”
My girl smiled at the closed door and wiped the tears from her cheeks, then smacked her lips and grimaced. Cupping her hands over her mouth, a quick exhale and inhale reminded her that it had been days since she’d brushed her teeth. Mortified, she went upstairs and scrubbed her pearly whites passionately, before turning red at her disheveled reflection in the mirror. The girl was still in her rumpled Vegas dress, with her curly hair positively matted and her makeup…well, let’s just say that raccoons had nothing on my Gracie!
She stripped off her clothes and climbed straight into the shower, not waiting for the water to warm up, goosebumps raising all over her pink flesh as she scrubbed the aftermath of our date away. I watched her out of habit, lathering and rinsing her hair and body, all the while trying not to think about what I had done. Chuck Butkis finally found love…and he managed to shit all over it! I had taken this miracle and crushed it beneath my heel like a cigarette butt, grinding the most amazing woman who’d ever lived straight into the dirt. But I would make it right, somehow. I had to!
Grabbing a towel out of the cabinet and hanging it on the hook next to the shower for easy reach, I did what I could to make things easier for my girl. I even picked out some clean, comfortable clothes and placed them on her bed. But when she finished her shower and approached the bed, her perplexed expression told me that she assumed that she’d laid them out herself, but forgotten. Gracie looked a million times better after cleaning up, but her eyes were still swollen and red. Had she been crying again, in the shower?
I sighed and dropped down on Gracie’s bed next to her clothes as she removed them to dress, not noticing the mattress sink from my weight. I could not stand anymore crying! The guilt was killing me (figuratively, of course). After everything that Gracie had been through, the abuse, the attempted murder…how could this, an apparent “one-night stand gone wrong,” be the thing that did her in? That was when I finally understood the gravity of the situation.
Gracie’s night with me, and the train wreck of a morning which followed, brought a lifetime worth of pain to a swollen, throbbing head. The girl wasn’t just crying over “Blake.” She was crying over all of them. Marcus Crowley, her father, every man who had ever hurt her, ever used her. The memories were poison to her soil, and she was desperately trying to purge them. But all of the tears in the world didn’t seem to help, and as I heard Mavis return from the store, I hoped that vanilla ice cream might. If even just a little.