Warning Signs

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What If


"Mama?" I peeked through the doorway of the dark bedroom. Daddy had gone to work hours ago and Mama hadn't woken up yet. I was scared and hungry. There was no school today and I hated it. It meant I was stuck at home taking care of Mama. At least at school the teachers and aides took care of me, and I got to eat lunch, and breakfast too if I caught the bus on time.

"Mama are you okay?" I pushed open the door. Even though the room was pitch black I felt a sense of relief when I heard Mama's grumbling snore.

Trying not to trip over anything I made my way over to the side of her bed flicking on the small bedside lamp. She was still wearing yesterday's clothes, they smelled stale and full of cigarette smoke. Her covers were kicked off of her yet she was curled up in a small tight ball as if she were freezing cold.

"It's time to get up Mama." I said softly, placing my hand on her bare shoulder, "It's time to make lunch. Are you hungry Mama?"

She let out this grunt and jerked her body away from my touch, flinging her arm out. I pulled back quickly knowing she would keep striking out at me if I didn't move away.

"Please Mama," I begged raising my voice just a little bit more, "It's past one."

She didn't move anymore, just curled back up, her chin nearly touching her knees. I left the light on in the room, hoping it would help her to wake up and made my way down the hall over to the kitchen.

I peered into the pantry and opened a few drawers.

The cupboards were mostly bare. Mama hadn't gone grocery shopping in more than two weeks and Daddy was busy working out on the road all the time. Sometimes he would bring me a deli sandwich on his days when he would come home, or a hamburger, but he usually wouldn't come home for days at a time. He was a salesman and it took him out of town more than it let him stay home.

Sighing I grabbed the last bag of instant noodles I had hidden behind the rack of wine bottles. While we often ran out of things to eat, we never ran out of wine. Mama made sure of that.

Pushing down the folds of my skirt nervously I closed my bedroom door and headed down the hall. I hadn't felt this anxious since my wedding day, and it wasn't because Clay was going to knock on my door in about five minutes to pick up Henry and me, it was because I was going to Matthew's parent's anniversary party, and I was going to see Matthew there.

My heart ached terribly over the way he left our house the other night. I laid in bed wide awake afterwards, tossing and turning, trying to find a way to swallow the regret that consumed me.

What if I had let him stay? What if I hadn't gotten so angry inside? What if I had kissed him back?

What would happen to us then?

The questions swirled around and around my heart leaving room for nothing else.

But you see, the hole in my heart hadn't completely healed. I didn't know if it ever would.

I knew I shouldn't have thrown Clay in Matthew's face. I wish I could have taken that back. But deep down inside me the hurt and anger were there all piled together just festering, waiting for the moment when it would suddenly burst out of me. I wanted to scream at Matthew that night, just yell at him why. Why did he leave me? Why couldn't he ever talk to me? Didn't he know that I was hurting too? That Joseph's death had hurt me too?

It was the same anger that fueled me back when I first saw Matthew at the park. The way I lashed out at him. I was really angrier at myself, that he could still make me want him, even after everything. So that's the reason why I couldn't walk away. That's why I invited him back to our house. That part of me, the one that still loved him, didn't let me let him go.

And all those sweet kisses. Even though my heart jumped every time his lips met mine, all my brain could think about was that he was taking the easy way out. That he could just kiss me and make up and everything would be all better. Didn't he realize that all we would accomplish would just be going right back to where we started from?

So I used Clay.

I know it hurt him. I could see it in his face. But still, I used Clay.

My relationship with Clay was complicated. Even thought it felt like I knew him forever, there were times when I felt as if I didn't know him at all. We could spend an entire day together without so much as a peck on the cheek, nil of any type of romantic conversation, and then there were the days when he would arrive on my doorstep with a dozen roses in hand, whisk me off to dinner, try to hold my hand, or kiss me on the cheek goodnight.

Still, I didn't question it. Clay was my security blanket. I hid behind him, told myself that this is what I wanted. I knew I was in denial, I just pushed it away. I never felt any type of desire for Clay, was actually glad he never tried to get overly affectionate. He was there at Joseph's funeral, he comforted Matthew's parents, and then when my marriage fell apart, he comforted me.

My footsteps stopped in front the closed white door in the hall. I hadn't opened it since the day Matthew left. I couldn't bare to be in that room without him. I couldn't even imagine taking Henry in there. That was supposed to be Matthew, he was supposed to take Henry into the music room for the first time.

So it stayed shut. The instruments untouched.

The knock on my door jolted me out of my musings and with a quick step I went into Henry's room and lifted him out of his crib, it was time to go.

The banquet room was decorated brilliantly. Gorgeous crystal vases overflowing with colorful blooms adorned the round tables. Soft glowing candles sparkled and glistened in the wall scones along the walls. It filled the atmosphere with love and happiness, and romance.

"This place looks great." Clay grabbed at my hand and pulled me past the first few tables filled with chatting animated guests.

I followed behind Clay awkwardly, my eyes darting around the room quickly. Even though I wouldn't admit it to myself, I knew I was looking for Matthew.

My throat tightened when I didn't find him. I tried to push down the worry, and the disappointment. I did see Ben and Cassie, they were both watching us as Clay made our way over to them. Cassie gave me a warm smile but Ben didn't look too happy. I could only imagine why. I knew he reconnected with Matthew over the last few weeks, I was actually glad about that, to see Matthew and Ben hanging out again. It made me feel a tiny bit better that someone was watching over Matthew.

Ben didn't say anything to me though, he reached out and shook Clay's hand, made small talk with him as I went and stood next to Cassie.

Cassie held out her arms to Henry, making a silly face at him and trying to get him to smile. He reached for her happily.

"Yay! You're here." Cassie snuggled Henry close to her giving him a small squeeze.

The guys quickly excused themselves and headed over to the open bar to get us some drinks.

Once the guys were out of sight I caught myself looking around the room again, scanning through the sea of faces.

"He isn't here yet." Cassie's voice was low, "I thought he would be here, with you, what happened?"

I just shook my head, not wanting to get into it with Cassie just yet.

"Well he hasn't shown up. Ben already tried to call him and he isn't answering his phone." Her voice trailed off as my eyes met hers. She could see it all over me, the fear, the worry.

"That doesn't mean he's out dri..." Cassie quickly shook her head at me, "He wouldn't do that, he was trying Sarah, he was trying for you. What happened Sarah?" Her voice was shrill.

"Get the fuck away from me!"

"Mandy baby, please."


Mama was screaming. It was loud. Loud enough that I thought the neighbors could hear for sure. I pulled the blankets around me tighter against my head.

"Come on, give me the glass." Daddy was trying to get her to calm down. He had returned home from a job. I was supposed to be asleep already, but I was reading with a flashlight under my covers.

"No! Get away from me Henry!" Mama sounded really angry too. She hated it when anyone tried to take her glass away.

"You've had enough Mandy. It's late, come on, let's go to bed." Daddy was speaking in his soft comforting voice, the same one he always used with me when he made it home on time to tuck me in at night.

"I hate you!"

I winced, squeezing my eyes shut. I always got afraid when Mama got mean, especially with Daddy. I was afraid that when Daddy would leave on his next job, he wouldn't come back. Then it would just be me and Mama.

I could hear a door slam and something shatter in the background as it banged against the wall.

My eyes squeezed together even harder than before. Lucky for me there was school tomorrow. I would get away from Mama, at least for a little while.

I could hear Daddy's soft footsteps linger right outside my door. The knob tuned and I knew he stepped inside. I lay completely still, until I heard his voice, it wasn't angry, just sad.


I raised my head up and looked at him. "Yes Daddy?"

"Are you okay sweetheart?" He stood by the foot of my bed, his eyes red and tired.

"I'm fine Daddy." I lied.

"How was your day? Did Mama feed you dinner tonight?" He always asked me this question and I always told him the same thing.

"Yes, we both had some soup and crackers."

I don't know if he believed me or not, sometimes I thought I could see it in his eyes, the doubt and fear, but I always kept on lying. I never wanted him to leave us.

He stayed quiet for a minute and then nodded at me, "Okay sweetheart, sleep tight."

"You too Daddy."

I don't think I slept much that night. The nights they fought were always the worst. Sometimes I could hear Daddy cry and I vowed that I would never fight like that with my future husband. I would never turn out like Mama either. I would never touch a drop of liquor.

Cassie was still watching me, waiting for me to answer her. Her eyes narrowed when she began to suspect that something went wrong between Matthew and me.

"He came over the other night and we..." I struggled to tell her. "He tried to...I told him I couldn't, told him to leave."

Cassie's eyes widened and she began to bounce Henry up and down in her arms. "Are you okay?"

"Cassie," My voice broke, "What if I made him drink again?"

Cassie didn't get to answer because Ben and Clay were back. They placed the glasses on the table at the same time Jason and Lily made their way over to us.

"Ladies! And Boys," Jason was giving us all warm smiles, "Thank you so much for coming, how is my grandson?" He plucked Henry from Cassie's arms and swung him around.

Lily didn't look as happy as Jason, she was smiling of course, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm so happy to see you, all of you." Yet she was not focused right on us, she seemed to be looking past us, behind us, she was searching for him too.

Both Cassie and I stood to give her a hug, "Congratulations!" Cassie had her arms around Lily, "You look beautiful."

She hugged Cassie back just as tightly, "Thank you dear, you look stunning as well, be sure to go out back when you and Ben have a free moment. We reserved the terrace back there for the party as well and the hotel did a fabulous job decorating it. There's even a live band playing on the balcony over it." Her eyes met mine, they held a question.

Where is he?

And then she blinked and smiled at me.

"Sarah, thank you for bringing Henry, we are so happy you both are here." She pulled me into her arms.

I felt almost ashamed. I tried not to cry. I hated feeling this way. Had I let everyone down? Let myself down?

Clay was the one to save me at the moment. After congratulating Jason and Lily he pulled them away from our group to introduce them to an old friend whom they hadn't seen in a year. Another friend who gone to college with Clay and Joseph.

The minutes ticked by. One hour turned to two. Dinner was served and so was dessert. The DJ was already up on stage and the hotel staff began clearing a few tables so there would be more room on the dance floor. The lights dimmed making the candles glow brighter.

Ben and Cassie chatted quietly next to me. Henry had fallen asleep in my arms. Clay had eaten dinner with us and then spent most of his time flittering around the room talking to everyone, probably trying to acquire more clients.

Matthew never showed up. The fear in the pit of my stomach grew and grew. It hit me with more force than I ever thought possible.

"Matthew! What are you doing home so early?" I was trying to put my grocery bag down on the counter but Matthew looked like he was going to burst if I didn't follow him right away.

"Come on babe, come look, it's finally finished." His voice was bubbling over with excitement and without giving me a chance to respond he pulled on my arm, taking my grocery bag absentmindedly and placing it on the floor.

"They finished it?" I was talking to myself really, Matthew was't listening to me, he was flinging open the freshly white painted door, a big grin on his face.

I smiled at him, mostly because he looked so darn cute. But then I gasped out loud. It was just breathtaking, absolutely perfect. The room had been redone in these earthy tones, light browns, tans, and just a touch of yellow. There was a whole wall dedicated to the guitars. They hung proudly like trophies on their mounts. My Roger McGuinn hanging right in the center mount.

In the opposite corner was a small desk, it was more like a stand. I always tried to get Matthew to buy a nicer desk, something he could be comfortable in while he wrote, but he refused. He loved that measly desk. He'd written all his best work sitting at that thing and he wasn't going to get rid of it.

It looked perfect in the corner though, like it was made for this space, his binder filled with his completed songs, and another stack of his unfinished work.

Matthew spent a good three months having this room remodeled. He wouldn't let me see it, kept the door closed the entire time. He wanted to surprise me with it, and whatever vision he had for that room, he made it come alive. It blew me away how perfect it all way.

"Oh I love it!" I nearly skipped to the center and spun around, "Look at our guitars! Look at your keyboard! And the microphone. Is that a new mic stand? It's gorgeous Matthew, I love it."

Matthew smiled at me his green eyes sparkling. he seemed to be more excited about seeing my reaction than having a new music room. A fresh wave of love washed over me. How I ever found this man was beyond me. He was beautiful and loving and kind.

I never actually intended to date him in fact. I purposely avoided him the first day I saw him. He was sitting all cocky rolling his eyes at his friend. I tried to get the other girl who worked with me to go take his order but she was busy, plus he friend was hanging all over Cassie.

It was those deep gorgeous green eyes that got me hooked. The second my eyes met his I was gone, and there was no turning back after that.

I was cautious at first. Didn't want to make the same mistakes I made in high school. For some reason I was a magnet for losers, guys who only wanted two things, girls and booze.

After fighting off the third guy who took me out, got himself drunk and tried to take advantage of me, I swore off men for a while. I promised myself that the next guy I dated would be different. He would have to be smart, have a kind heart, and he definitely wouldn't drink.

I was miserable. I'm sure it showed. All around me were happy couples, including Ben and Cassie. I was ready to go home but I couldn't. Lily and Jason had Henry, he had woken up when the DJ began playing music. Henry loved music, loved the bold bass and rhythm of the instruments, he was out there in Jason's arms dancing away with delight.

I sat and watched for a while, a fake smile plastered on my face. I couldn't even find Clay anymore. I had no idea where he went. I guess it was one of those nights were he found something better to do, it no longer surprised me.

When the third slow song of the night started, I had enough. I pushed my chair back and rose. With a lump in my throat I made my way around the back wall, intending to go hide in the ladies room, changing my mind at the last second when a group of laughing teenagers pushed past me through the doors.

Looking around I saw the pretty glass french doors that led out to the back. No one saw me leave, they were all too wrapped up in themselves to notice me.

Lily was right, the hotel had done a wonderful job decorating the terrace. Tiny white lights were strung all along the beams and around the rose bushes. Large white heat lamps gave out a warm glow and blended into their surrounding with classic charm.

I leaned against the rail overlooking the frozen pond below for a few seconds before heading to the gazebo. The white wicker loveseat called out to me and I sunk down onto the cushions closing my eyes with a soft sigh. I gave into the feelings that I was struggling with for nearly two years.

What if Matthew never lost his brother? Would we still had gone down such a hard road anyways?

What if I had known how to help him? How to reach him? I knew the lure of the bottle, and the consequences. I knew it all too well, and I would never ever let Henry see what I saw.

Despair tightened around me and a cross between a breath and a sob escaped from my lips. It didn't matter how I felt anymore. I had a child to protect, a child to raise, and when I became a mom I vowed to be the best mom I could.

A soft breeze made me shiver slightly, sending me back to my daydream.

What if Matthew suddenly showed up? Right here. Right now. What would I do? What would I say?

And that intense longing feeling of wishing he were there made me open my eyes. For a second I thought I was still dreaming, because standing right in front of me, looking at me with these gorgeous green eyes, was Matthew.


The bartender remembered me.

I don't know why, or what I did that made me stand out in his mind, but he actually remembered my name.

"Well look who's back. It's Big M, it's Matthew."

I never even noticed this guy was missing a tooth until he grinned at me, "What'll it be?" He asked.

"Got any vodka?" I sat down on the stool and leaned up against the bar. The bartender let out this ridiculous laugh and didn't even answer me. He just grabbed one the the tiny shot glasses sitting neatly on the bar and reached for a gleaming yellow bottle with his other hand. He poured that stuff right in front of me and pushed the glass up near my elbows.

"Where you been?" He picked up this dirty looking rag and began wiping the bar with it, "I haven't seen you around."

I just shrugged, wrapping my fingers tightly around the glass, "Nowhere."

"Nowhere huh?" He didn't look at me as he talked, just kept wiping this same spot over and over with those big burly hands.

"Thought maybe you finally went home to that pretty girl who kept coming in here for you."

His words jerked me to attention and I glared at him. "What pretty girl?"

"You know, the pretty one, long brown hair, big sad eyes. She was always trying to get you to leave with her, telling you to go home with her." He looked at me and shrugged, "But you never did."

I don't know why but he was making me mad, "What the fuck are you talking about?" I snapped, raising the glass to my lips.

"The pretty girl," He turned away from me and threw the rag down onto the floor. "You know, the one that would come in here, you called her Sally or Sarah or something," He paused. "But then you called all the girls who came in here that. But she was the pretty one though, I always thought you would go home with her."

I didn't move.

I didn't want the image of Matthew to vanish and I was afraid it would if I moved.

But the image of that beautiful man stayed true. He let out this shuddering sigh, I could see the tiny white puffs of breath float around his face.

He tilted his head to the side, his green eyes watching me, they looked sad.

I didn't say anything to him. Just waited for my daydream to disappear. I still loved him, I was absolutely one hundred percent sure of it, nothing could ever change that. Just the way I was sure that my Daddy loved my Mama. He loved her so much he never left, even when I was sure he would. He stayed by her side, ignored all the signs, looked the other way, and it hurt the one thing they created together.

"I thought you left already." Matthew finally spoke. His words were slow and careful. "But then I saw Henry, with my parents, and I knew you still had to be here."

I stayed silent, straining my ears to catch the tiniest bit of slur, looking directly into his eyes for a hint of cloudiness.

"I wasn't going to come." He continued, his voice choppy, "I had no intention of coming. I went to a...I was at..." He faltered.

And I knew it.

I already knew it.


"You're fucking lying." I could almost taste the vodka. It was right there sitting under my lip. He couldn't be talking about Sarah, she only came here once or twice.

My words didn't even faze the guy. He just shrugged. "Fuck Matthew, I don't know who she was. You always had girls hanging over you. She was probably just another lay for you. She was the only one who tried to take you home though." He urged me with a wave of his hand to drink up.

"There was a redhead who liked to hang on your arm all the time too, and the black haired girl, she was shit ugly man. I'm glad you didn't hook up with her. The blonde was a looker, really stunning, she never talked to you, just sat in the back and watched you. All the guys would try to hit on her but she just gave them a fucking drop dead look. I thought she was your sister or something."

The smell of the liquor was making my head spin. I didn't know what the hell this guy was talking about, or who all these girls were. I couldn't remember a damn thing and it was frustrating me.

I breathed in another whiff of the vodka and closed my eyes.

"She stopped coming after a while." The bartender just wouldn't shut the fuck up. "The brown haired one, she got mad at you, screamed at you about some guy. Probably your dad or something. She screamed about some Henry guy and that you needed to go with her. You just blew her off. That was the last time I saw her here."


He kneeled right in front of me, and having him this close was making my heart cry out.

"I went to a bar Sarah." His words were perfectly clear and strong, and all I could see in those eyes was my own reflection staring back at me.

"But I didn't drink. I didn't drink anything at all. Instead the bartender, he remembered me, he knew my name and everything. He told me something, but I didn't believe him."

His hands were gripping my knees, they weren't trembling, they were warm and steady, and felt so good.

Matthew shifted closer to me so that his chest pressed against my legs, he looked up at me longingly, those green eyes looking deep into mine. "He said you kept coming back to the bar and tried to make me go home with you, was that true? Did you keep coming back for me?"

I wasn't sure what he was talking about or why he was telling me this story, he knew I kept going back, kept trying to make him come with me, didn't he? I could only nod at him slowly, my eyes searching his.

"Did you, did you come tell me when Henry got sick?" His voice held so much pain and his fingers were digging into my skin. I could see from the look in his eyes that he almost wished I hadn't gone to the bar that day to tell him about Henry.

I hesitated for a moment. The idea of pretending it never happened flashed across my mind. But that would be taking the easy way out, avoiding having to talk, and I would be just as bad as I accused Matthew of doing.

"It was me." I whispered still hypnotized by the look in his eyes. I wanted to put my hands on him and touch his face, tell him I still loved him.

He nearly groaned, "What did I do? What did I tell you?" His gaze never left my face and I knew this was hard for him, it was hard for me too. I didn't want to tell him, right now his mind didn't remember the horror of that day and all the sleepless nights that followed it.

But as hard as it was, he didn't give up. "Please," His voice was a whisper, "Tell me."

And I knew that he needed to hear this. Needed to know. I wouldn't carry this burden by myself any longer. "I tried to tell you that Henry was sick. You, you ignored me. You didn't listen to me because..." My voice cracked and he reached out and touched my hand gently.

"You were with someone." I said shakily. I wanted to look away, this was going to hurt the both of us.

"Someone?" Matthew tilted his head to the side confused for just a second because then it hit him, he realized what I meant. His eyes grew wide at my words and he let out a sound, a half cry, half moan.

"You were drunk." I kept on going, "You didn't know it was me. I tried to tell you the ambulance was on its way. You just, laughed. I couldn't stay. I had to go." I tried to keep the tears out of my voice but I couldn't keep the tears out of his eyes, I placed my hand on his shoulder, my fingers curling into the curve near his neck, trying to offer some comfort and taking some for myself as well.

"I'm sorry," He shook his head at me, "I know it sounds worthless but I'm so sorry."

"So am I," I whispered softly, "I'm sorry that I wasn't enough for you."

"No," He argued, shutting his eyes at my words, "That wasn't it, it wasn't you, you don't understand."

"Then tell me." I begged placing my hand underneath his chin and forcing him to open his eyes and look at me. "Make me understand."

"I want to." I could hear the pleading in his voice. There was desperation in his eyes and it tore at me. "I'm trying to, but." He hesitated pressing his lips tightly together, "I'm afraid Sarah. I'm scared." His breath escaped him with a sigh. "What if it doesn't make a difference? What if it doesn't make a damn difference between us?"

I was only twelve but I still remember that day. It stands out in my mind and in my heart.

"Here try the blue one one, blue looks good on you girl."

Mama taken me shopping at the mall, just the two of us.

She got up early on a Saturday morning and told me to go get ready because we were going on a girl's day out, that we deserved it.

So I got dressed and we headed for the mall. We rarely went to the mall. I was cautious at first, watching Mama's every move, waiting for her to get tired of shopping, to get tired of me.

But that didn't happen, instead she bought us both an ice cream cone, and then a soda, and one of those big salted pretzels with melted cheese.

Afterwards we went into shop after shop trying on clothes and giggling like teenagers. She let me buy two new shirts and a new pair of jeans.

By the time dinner rolled around we went to this tiny restaurant that was at the end of the mall and ate the best home cooked fried chicken and mashed potatoes that I ever tasted. I was in heaven, it was one of the best days I could remember.

Her words still echoed in my brain, what she said to me in the restaurant.

"I'm serious Sarah, I'm not going to drink anymore. I'm throwing those bottles away when we get home. I promised your Dad and I'm promising you. I'm through with drinking."

And I believed her. It was the happiest I been in years. She had finally choose me.

It lasted a week.

Seven days to be exact.

Then the bottles came back.

And the yelling.

And the fighting.

As the years went by I spent more and more time away from home. Staying at friend's houses, hanging out at the library after school, anything to keep from going home.

When I was allowed early admission to college at seventeen I jumped at the chance to get out of my house and away from her.

Once I left I never looked back. Only naming my son after my dad. Because despite everything, even though he never put me first, he didn't leave me. He stayed.

So I kept looking into those green eyes, trying to keep myself from flinging into his arms. Matthew was right, what if whatever he said didn't make a difference? What if there was nothing or no one who could make it better? What if it was really over?

Did I want to be just like my Daddy? No I couldn't, I wouldn't. I closed my eyes begging silently for some kind of strength for what I was about to do, a sign that I was doing the right thing.

"Sarah?" Matthew's voice was soft and sounded far away. "I'm trying baby, I promise you, I'm trying."

I opened my eyes and looked back down at him. His hands moved up to my waist, his eyes searching mine. My heart jumped at the sight, I knew it always would.

I don't know what made me change my mind. Maybe it was the band above the terrace that started playing this slow serene melody, or the white lights that twinkled up above us with their dancing shadows. It was just the way Matthew was making me feel.

So instead of telling him goodbye, I slid my hands from his shoulders down to his hands, taking them in mine. "Dance with me." I stood, pulling him up with me, "Please dance with me."

He looked bewildered at first but came willingly into my arms, holding onto me firmly as if he sensed this might be the last time.

But even though I knew there were still secrets to be revealed and trust to be built, this time I wasn't going to let go.

This was my husband. This man in my arms. He was mine and I wasn't ready to let it end.

I could feel his quick warm breath on my neck and feel the urgency in the way he held me. He was still afraid of losing me, but he had it all wrong. He never really lost me, I had lost him, and now it was time for me to rediscover this man again, the man I loved.

The music kept playing softly around us, floating over our skin in rhythm and waves. It kept us there and it felt like forever, which was good.

Because we needed forever.

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