Six Months Later
It had been fifteen months since Jeff and I broke up. Though I still thought of him and remembered with fondness the times we shared, I noticed the wound on my heart had healed. The vacancy his absence created in my life was slowly filling up with new interests, new friends, and different pursuits.
While unpacking what seemed a myriad of boxes settling into my new home, I discovered treasures I’d long forgotten. Mama’s recipe box—index cards covered with handwritten recipes, and the accompanying stains—was among my favorite finds. I spent weeks recreating some of the food she made I loved. As I did, I made slight changes to some of the recipes, adding a new seasoning I’d discovered, or using a new technique I’d learned. I kept Mama’s original handwritten ones, but I bought new cards and added my creations to the box, too. One day, I pondered, my daughter or son may well be doing the same thing I’m doing with Mama’s recipes now. The thought of it made me smile.
As I grew in my renewed faith, I started really reading through Daddy’s prayer book. Having something of his that was so deeply personal brought me back to his memory when I held it. I’d discovered little notes, and even doodles Daddy had made in the margins. Most times, they were idle thoughts and scribbles pertaining to his specific prayers, or his words of wisdom about faith, family and friendship. The worn leather cover smelled like the aftershave I remember him splashing on in the morning; the spicy, woodsy scent kept him closer to me in heart and mind. Little did I know that cover had another gift to give me. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.
Though an outsider would have thought me crazy—some days I would think their observations correct—I spoke with Daddy every night before I slept. I talked about my day, how my life was going, and, most importantly, I renewed the promises I made to him and Mama. When I’d told him everything I wanted to say, I ended my conversation with the same words; “I love you, I miss you, I’ll see you again someday.”
After Aunt Jenny’s letter saved my life, we reconnected via letters and phone calls. I was always so excited to see a letter from her in my mailbox; she had a knack of saying exactly what I needed to hear, and when I needed it most. In return, I’d send song lyrics and poems I’d written, some recipes I’d found that had been Grandma Farmer’s, or a snip or two of wisdom from Daddy’s prayer book. Her feedback on song lyrics helped me to polish them into much better versions, and while chatting on the phone, she’d hum the tune she envisioned to accompany the words. That was when I discovered my singing talent likely came from the Farmer side; Aunt Jenny had a beautiful voice. Mama couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. That isn’t to say she didn’t try, God bless her.
Jared was thrilled to have me back at the coffeehouse, so much so that he promoted me to assistant manager within my first week back. He was horrified to learn about the shady operation at Sing-A-Gram, but relieved that I left it in my past. My promotion brought a steady and decent income, plus the tips I earned on each shift. Yes, the position had longer hours and more responsibility, but I was honored to work with some of my best friends. I truly loved the atmosphere and closeness we had there at the Flying V.
I discovered, quite by accident, a chapel in the western hills of Starlight Shores and started attending. Walking into church that first Sunday felt like being home again. The pastor, Tim Cross, had the same vision as I did growing up in that little chapel back home. He was very approachable, as was the entire congregation; everyone I met was friendly, welcoming, and forgiving. Given the lifestyle I had just left, their unconditional acceptance amazed me. There was no judgment, only grace and warmth.
I never realized how many believers lived in Starlight Shores until I found the chapel. Many of them were younger and, like me, career-minded and driven. A few of them had tried, without success, to break into the music business. When talented singers and musicians like them could fail, I realized how stacked the odds were against me. It didn’t matter, because my desire for fame, fortune, and everything that went with it faded away. What remained was a kinder, more compassionate version of me. I learned to love myself in a healthy way. I was someone everyone wanted to be with instead of the horrible person Jeff accurately described during our last fight.
It wasn’t long before I joined the choir at church and sang with them. There were only eight of us who would put in the time that the obligation required. Though everyone was friendly, I developed a strong, close friendship with a man my age named Stephen. He was one of many talented singers denied their opportunity for a music career. It was his failure that cemented my decision to abandon the dream that had brought me to the city almost three years before. We found closeness in our shared interests, though there was no romantic spark between us. I considered Stephen a male version of Polly.
The worship leader, Tanya, encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and lead worship. This would be my first time performing for anyone, with the spotlight on me, since I quit my job at Sing-A-Gram. Given my background at the chapel back home, I should have been comfortable with it. In reality, I was scared half to death. I wasn’t worthy to stand center stage after what I’d done. Stephen, however, had such faith in me, I agreed to it. In every way, he was a stunningly handsome man; blond hair, killer brown eyes that hid behind his dorky nerd glasses, a perpetual five o’clock shadow, with a tall, slender build. His wit was sharp and sometimes dry, but he always made me laugh.
Stephen’s face lit up when he saw me walk through the door. He greeted me with a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. “There you are! I’m happy to see you didn’t chicken out!”
I chuckled at his wording; I might have been nervous, but I was no chicken. “Good morning, Stephen!” I wrapped my arms around him and returned the kiss. “You’re the one who should lead this morning. I’m not nearly as talented as you.”
Stephen huffed at me. “Nonsense! You’re a fine singer. I wish you would recognize that, Destiny.”
Well, I did. But after making terrible decisions for so long, my overall confidence took a tremendous hit. “Thank you.” We walked together into the green room; the room itself served multiple purposes, equipped with a full kitchen, sofa, makeup tables, and a coffee machine. I walked to the mirror to check my hair and makeup. “I can’t believe how nervous I am,” I said and held out my shaking hands. “This is unreal.”
“Once you’re up there, it will all come back to you,” Stephen said. “I’ve seen you in ‘the zone’. It’s a sight to behold.”
“Oh, come on. I’m no better than everyone else here.” I shrugged and heaved a deep sigh. “I’ve been in some shady places in my past, Stephen. I don’t deserve to be on stage, much less leading worship.”
“I beg to differ.” He hugged my shoulders and placed a tender kiss on my forehead. “It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It only matters where you’re going; I see you going places, Destiny.”
“I gave up that dream already.”
“But you shouldn’t have. Maybe you’ll find your dream when you aren’t seeking it. That’s how it usually goes.”
How did he get to be so wise at twenty-two? “You’re probably right. But I’m not counting on it.”
“Never count on anything, but be prepared to embrace your destiny.” He gave me a slight smile. “Why did your parents name you Destiny, anyway?”
I knew we didn’t have the time for the full story. The cliff-notes version would have to do. “I was their miracle baby, their legacy. My mama’s destiny.” As I spoke, Tanya flickered the lights; our time was short before the start of service. “The next time we catch supper together, I’ll tell you the long version.”
“It’s a date!” he said with a smile. “Are you ready? You’re going to crush this today.”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” He took my hand and squeezed it, kissed my cheek again, then led me to the door.
“Break a leg, Destiny.”
“Thank you.” I swallowed what remained of my confidence.
We walked into the sanctuary together. I took the lead spot, up front and center stage, with Stephen behind me on my left side, and Tanya, who was also a lead vocalist, behind me to my right. The others filled in around us. The band was poised and ready to play, and it was time to go. My mouth was dry, and I prayed that my first notes wouldn’t be raspy. I bit my tongue and made my mouth water a bit. There wasn’t much, but it was just enough to swallow before I sang the first words of a song I knew by heart.
My hand wrapped around the microphone, holding onto it for dear life. My heart was pounding in my chest. One last deep breath to soothe my anxious soul. The band played, and with the first words, I discovered Stephen was right all along. I was ready for this, and I was at ease for the first time in years. What I had feared all at once felt natural. I could almost sense Daddy and Mama smiling down at me. The nervousness faded, and I was unstoppable, singing my heart out in worship.
When services were over, Stephen was the first person to approach me. He wore an ear-to-ear grin, his arms held open wide.
“You did a fantastic job, Destiny!” he said. “I knew you’d hit a grand slam home run this morning.”
A what? I didn’t know what that even meant, but I was too embarrassed to ask him. “Thank you! It happened just like you said, Stephen. As soon as I started singing, I was home.”
“I hate to be the one to say I told you so, but I told you so!” I nudged his arm with my shoulder and laughed along with him. Such a lovable brat.
“I know, I know,” I giggled. “I’m glad you were right.”
“Me too.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Do you have plans this afternoon?”
I shook my head and wrinkled my nose. “Nope. What do you have in mind?”
“Let’s go for lunch. My treat. You know, to celebrate your victory today.”
“Psh,” I said.
“Don’t doubt me, Destiny. You’re going to get noticed one of these days. Talent like yours is begging to be seen.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. “You’re being much too kind.”
“Oh, stop!” Stephen scolded me playfully. “Just shush and let me take you for lunch. You can tell me the story of your name.”
“Okay, you win.” He held his arm for me, and I entwined mine with his. Together, we left the chapel, headed for the diner on the strip.
The next morning, Jared was already at the coffeehouse when I turned my key in the door. He wasn’t scheduled until that afternoon, so his presence there was unexpected. He waved at me as I locked the door behind me.
“Good morning, Des,” he said.
“Good morning, Jare. Aren’t you a bit early for your shift?”
He nodded while he finished preparing his coffee. “Yeah, Evie is sick today. I’m covering her shift, and mine, too. I wish I could clone you.”
I giggled at the suggestion. If only Daddy could have heard that. He and Mama always said they were glad I wasn’t a twin; they thought the world couldn’t handle two of me. “Well, if you need me to stay past my shift, let me know.”
Jared started making another coffee drink. He already had his coffee, so I assumed he was making one for me. “I will, thanks. I need to find someone to fill your old spot. No one wants to wait tables at a coffeehouse, I guess.”
Though I could relate, I also couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. The coffeehouse wasn’t a career, but it paid the bills and allowed me to save a little every check. “Some struggling star will come in someday looking for work, just like I did.”
“I sure hope you’re right, Des. I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to clone you.” He handed the paper cup to me; the beverage contained within was hot and foamy perfection! “I made your favorite.”
“Thank you, but you didn’t have to.”
“I know, but I wanted to.”
My first sip of coffee was smooth and sweet. “Are you busy this weekend, Jare?”
He paused for a moment while stirring his coffee. “I don’t think so. What’s up?”
“I have my last bunch of drywall coming to finish the living room, and I was wondering if you’d come help?”
“For you, Des, I’d do anything.” His smile, though familiar, seemed different as the words left his mouth. “I know Sunday is good for you, right?”
I nodded. “Mmhmm. After church, of course. Maybe about noon? With the two of us, it shouldn’t take but a few hours. I’ll treat you to supper afterward, too.”
“It’s a date,” he said. A customer knocked on the door and pointed at his watch, drawing Jared’s attention. “Oh, shoot!” He jumped up and ran for the door. That was the end of our casual conversation.
Right after the lunch rush, I was cleaning tables in the dining room. I volunteered to stay on and help Jared after my regular shift. It was a long day, but as the assistant manager, Jared expected me to put in extra hours when he needed me. We didn’t normally have much foot traffic in the early afternoon, but a group of people walked in, laughing and chattering.
“Have a seat wherever you’d like,” I said when I greeted them. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
A big concert was scheduled at the Hoi Polloi that evening, a classic rock and roll band on a reunion tour. I overheard the conversation at the table; the group was attending the concert and staying in town for a few days. Tourism was good for Starlight Shores. It helped bring revenue into shops that catered to working class folks like me, and not the snooty, ritzy restaurants and nightclubs that littered the Los Sueños Strip.
I nodded at Jared, letting him know I’d take the table of concert-goers. He continued to wipe down the counters and clean the coffee presses. I grabbed my pad from my apron pocket, but I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t need to write the orders. While I waited for the group to decide, I glanced at their faces. All six of them were men, maybe Aunt Jenny’s age, some a bit younger.
Each of them ordered a coffee drink and a pastry from the case. As I was jotting their orders onto my notepad, I noticed one man staring at me. Suddenly, I regretted my decision to take this table; his relentless glower made me very uncomfortable.
“I’ll have your orders in a few moments,” I said and walked away. Jared must have noticed my troubled expression, because he was right there to question me.
“Are you having problems with that six-top?”
I shook my head and turned my attention away from them. “Not a problem, but one of them is just staring at me. It’s a little awkward.” Jared cast his gaze in their direction, noticed the guy still fixated on me, and nodded once.
“Hmm, I see that. I’ll watch them,” he said while I prepared their coffee. I nodded in appreciation.
Jared retrieved the food items, and we carried the order to the table together. I knew why he insisted on helping me; he didn’t want a situation in his coffeehouse involving his friend.
I placed the orders on the table in front of them, one at a time. The table was long, and I couldn’t reach everyone from where I stood, so I walked to the other side, away from Jared. I leaned in front of the man who’d been watching my every move. His eyes moved from the table up to my name tag as I placed his espresso down in front of him. Jared walked to where I stood, anticipating trouble.
“Well, I’ll be…” the man finally said. “I can’t believe my eyes.” His voice quivered a bit. “If you aren’t just the spitting image of your mother.”
The hair on my neck stood on end. How did he know Mama? “I beg your pardon?”
“You have to be her,” he said, his eyes not shifting despite Jared standing right there. “The hair, the eyes, the accent. Your name.”
My name? Okay, this is just creepy! I looked at his face, searching for something, anything, that would give me a clue about this mystery man—nothing. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are.”
In my peripheral vision, I saw Jared standing at the ready to protect me if I needed it. The man smiled at me and winked. “I used to call you ‘munchkin’. Maybe that will help?”
I squinted my eyes and looked closer. It couldn’t be… “Jason?”
“You do remember!” he said with a cheerful smile. “Destiny, you look so much like your mother, it’s astonishing!” He stood and hugged me; I couldn’t believe it. Mama’s one-time boyfriend… Jason Matthews.
I blushed. Being told I looked like Mama was a tremendous compliment. “Thank you. How have you been—”
“Who is this pretty little lady?” One of his friends interrupted me, eyed me, and licked his lips. Jason shot a scowl at his leering friend, shaking his head.
“Remember me telling you about Fran, Will?” The friend nodded while Jason spoke. “This is her daughter, Destiny. She would have been my step-daughter in much different circumstances.”
“Oh, is she that red-headed hot mama you was talkin’ about…? Damn, Jason, how many years ago was that now?”
Red-headed hot mama? Is he kidding me? Jason saw my angry expression and interceded. “Cool it, Will. That’s her mother you’re talking about.” He turned to me. “How is she, by the way? How’s your dad?”
With his question, my heart sank, though I should have expected it. I took a deep breath. “They’re both… gone.”
Jason embraced me again and held me to his chest. “Oh, Destiny, I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Daddy had lymphoma. Mama died of cancer, too. I just don’t know what kind hers was. She passed away suddenly…” I blinked back tears and swallowed the growing lump in my throat. “I still miss them so much.”
Jason’s arms squeezed me tighter. “Well, of course you do.” He released me from his grip and looked into my eyes. “We’re in town for a few days after tonight’s concert. Please let me take you for dinner, so we can catch up?”
Nodding, I smiled. “I’d really love that.”
That was about the time Jared spoke up. “Is everything okay here, Des?”
“It’s fine, Jare. This is my mama’s ex-boyfriend, Jason. And Jason, my boss, Jared.”
They didn’t do more than exchange a passing glance, each suspicious of the other. Jared finally decided to be the bigger man and extended his hand for a shake. “Nice to meet you, Jason.”
“The honor is mine. You should know this little princess is important to me, even if I didn’t marry her mother.” His gentle hand on my shoulders was comforting, like a piece of ancient history reborn. “I never forgot you, munchkin. What are you doing in the city, anyway? I didn’t think you’d ever leave Appaloosa Plains.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you at supper.”
Jason smiled and hugged my shoulders before sitting down again. “I can’t wait, Destiny.”
Two Nights Later
I gave Jason my address before he left the coffeehouse that day. He showed up at my front door dressed in a custom-tailored tuxedo, holding a bouquet of beautiful pink roses.
“Hello, Princess!” he said. Pink roses were Mama’s favorite. His sweet gesture wasn’t lost on me.
“Come in!” I greeted him and swung the door open. He handed the bouquet to me once he was inside. He shivered as the house’s warmth enveloped him. “It isn’t much, but it’s home.” Though it wasn’t perfect, the house looked miles better than it did when I moved in last year. With the last batch of materials, and Jared’s help to install everything this coming weekend, the house would be finished. Only the floors and painting would remain.
Jason looked around and gawked at the furniture. I know he had to recognize some of it; the loveseat and end tables were ones he and Mama had purchased together. “What a lovely home you have, Destiny. Your folks would be so proud of you!”
I was in the kitchen fussing with the flowers. “Thank you! I’ve come a long way since they passed away. Sometimes I can’t believe all I’ve been through.” I placed the last rose in the vase, took the baby’s breath that remained in the paper, and arranged it so it looked pretty. “Where are you living now?”
“I’m back in Twinbrook. I bought a house and fixed it up, and I’m living there with my Aussie shepherd, Kota. It’s just me and him, two guys playing bachelor.” He held his arm for me. “Shall we?”
I nodded with a smile. “Of course!”
Despite my determination to not wear the gown Jeff had given me, I decided to that night. In reality, I had nothing else that was appropriate to wear. Fancy dresses and gowns weren’t exactly a priority for a girl working in a coffeehouse.
A ritzy new restaurant on the Los Sueños strip had opened up a few months before; that was where Jason decided we should spend some time getting reacquainted. It wasn’t exclusive, but it was more than I could afford, except for special occasions.
Jason guided me down the icy sidewalk to his rental car. I almost stopped in my tracks when I saw it; a shiny black Camaro, just like the yellow one Jeff had at school. He held the door for me and helped me in without incident, and then walked to the driver’s side.
Ten minutes later, Jason pulled up in front of the restaurant—a bistro called The Tower—and allowed the valet to park the car. He led me inside the front door with a proud expression on his face. “I’ve heard only good things about this place,” he said as we stood at the host podium. “Matthews, six o’clock.”
“Ah, yes Mr. Matthews. This way, please.” The host ushered us into the dining room and sat us near the window overlooking the park. “Your server, Kimberly, will be with you in just a moment.” The host spoke with an accent I didn’t recognize. It certainly was not from the mainland.
“Thank you,” Jason said, then turned his attention to me. He pulled the chair from under the table and held it for me while I sat. “Do you indulge in adult beverages from time to time, Destiny?”
“I haven’t in a while, but I wouldn’t mind a glass of semi-sweet wine.”
Jason walked to the chair to my left and sat. “That sounds good. So, tell me how you came to live in the biggest little city in the north?”
“You remember the Bradfords, right?”
“Funny you should mention them. I haven’t seen them in a long time, but Sunny and Caleb still live in Twinbrook with Junior and Lisa. Sunny still makes award-winning pies and cakes for the fair. I always see them covered in ribbons and awards. She and Caleb have always been very kind to me.”
“The last time I saw them was at Mama and Daddy’s funeral. They traveled all the way back home to pay their respects. I’d sure love to see them again, before they’re gone, too.”
“Maybe someday you can drive over the pass to visit. I’d love that.” The server stopped at the table and introduced herself; Jason ordered a bottle of red moscato. “So, you were saying about the Bradfords?”
“Oh, yes! Well, Maya sang to me when she took care of me. She and Sunny encouraged me to sing, and I found out I was rather good at it. A long story short, I wanted to move here and become a singer. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a little girl, and now, a dream abandoned. I have my degree in fine arts, though there isn’t much here I can do with it. Maybe I’ll take courses at the local college, because I don’t intend to work at the coffeehouse forever.”
“A singer? Really?” Jason smiled at me. “I bet you’re a fantastic singer, too.”
I blushed. “If my success here is a sign, then no.”
“So, do you have a boyfriend? What about that dude from the coffee shop? He looks like he’s sweet for you.”
“Jared?” I laughed. “No, he’s my boss. I was engaged to the frontman of The Rock J Experience for a couple of years. We met in college, but it didn’t work out.”
“Bah,” he sneered. “That group is trash, anyway. What on Earth did you see in a grunge singer?”
“He swept me off my feet,” I said. “He was there after Mama and Daddy passed away, and he took care of me. At one point, I didn’t think I could live without him. I’ve found, though, I’m thriving on my own.” Kimberly returned to the table with the chilled wine, opened it, and poured two glasses; the half-full bottle of wine went into an ice bucket, then she walked away.
Jason picked up his glass of wine and swirled it. “This is a wonderful vintage. Flowery with notes of berry. Sweet, but not cloying.” We clinked our glasses together for a toast. “To you, Destiny. What a lovely young lady you’ve grown up to be, and I’m proud of you.”
I blushed again. “Cheers!”
“There’s no one you’re dating? I find that hard to believe.”
“Nope. I have a few close friends here, but no boyfriends. It’s okay, though. I’d been attached to someone since I was sixteen. It feels good to be single for a while. A little lonely sometimes, but I’m busy with work and worship team practice.” I took a sip of wine. Jason was right; it was slightly sweet and refreshing, and I liked it. “What about you? Where did you go after you left the Plains? Do you have a special someone?”
Jason sipped his glass of wine. “Well, you likely don’t remember the circumstances of how or why I left. You were so little. But when I left, I traveled around for a bit, like a drifter. I didn’t stay in one place too long, but I ended up in Twinbrook a year or so later. I found a good deal there on a small bachelor pad and fixed it up.”
He took the last sip of his glass and set it down on the table. His expression and tone of voice were suddenly downcast. “Fran had a choice to make, and I ultimately drew the short stick. Your dad’s return home, while good for you and your mother, ruined my life.” Jason looked away, I guessed, to compose himself. A tear welled in his eyes; his pain was still palpable after all these years. “I never dated anyone after your mother, Destiny. She was my one true love, and it hurt like hell to have her slip through my fingers. Now, she’s gone forever.”
His voice quivered when he spoke of Mama. Jason was not a topic of discussion between Mama and Daddy, so I never learned the truth of his sudden departure. I didn’t realize Jason had been so hurt, and I felt bad for him. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled with a soft sigh. “Oh, it’s okay. Pain lessens over time, and gradually I accepted the reality of her choice. I have survived for seventeen years without her. You’re still here, though. I’m so glad we’ve reconnected, Destiny.”
“I am, too.”
Jason ordered meals for both of us; blackened Mahi for himself, and steak tips for me. We ate while we sat and reminisced. I had so much to tell him. Just one night of visiting would never be enough. But we talked, laughed, and yes, cried a little together. I had so much fun with him, I hated for the night to end.
It was almost midnight when he pulled up in front of the house. “I really loved spending time with you again, Destiny,” Jason said, and placed a soft kiss on my forehead. “This isn’t the last time we’ll see each other, I hope. I’m only two hours away if you ever need anything.”
I leaned toward him to give him a hug. “It would be so much fun driving to Twinbrook to see you and the Bradfords.”
“Anytime, munchkin,” he said with affection. “I love you, Destiny.”
It was no surprise to discover I still loved him, too. He could have been my stepdad, after all. “I love you, too, Jason. Let’s not be strangers.”
“You bet.” He got out of the car and helped me out, walked me up the icy sidewalk, and got me inside the house. “Remember, just call me if you need anything at all. I’ll be here.”
“I will.” I kissed his cheek and hugged him again. “Thank you for supper, and for all the fun times. I missed you.”
He nodded. “I missed you, too. I’ll see you soon.” Jason turned to walk to his car. I stood in the front door and waved while I watched him get in, start the midnight black Camaro, and drive away.
That Saturday, the hardware store in town delivered the last batch of materials I’d need to finish the living room; it was the only room in the house that still needed major repairs. Electrical work had all been done, and the insulation was placed; all it needed was the drywall, crown molding, primer, and paint. All the supplies I’d ordered were placed into the garage for me. This was a job I would be happy to see finished, and I was fairly proud of myself for coming in under budget by doing most of the work myself, only hiring contractors for the tasks I couldn’t do or that required licensed work.
The next afternoon after church, I was in the garage inventorying supplies when I heard Jared knock loudly on the door, and yell “anyone home?”
“I’m out in the garage, Jare! Come on in!” I shouted.
Jared’s footsteps made their way into the kitchen, where I heard the refrigerator door open and close, and then the sound of a heavy bucket on the concrete floor. “Hey, Des, I put some wine in the fridge for later and I brought the tools we need.”
“Oh, thanks, Jare.” I said as I opened the door between the garage and the kitchen and placed a paint can in front of it as a doorstop. “All the other stuff we need is out in the garage. Would you mind giving me a hand carrying in the drywall?”
“Your wish is my command,” he replied and flourished as we walked back out into the garage. Jared positioned himself on one end of a drywall sheet and had me at the other end. “Now, lift it with both hands from the bottom edge, Des,” he gently instructed, “and we can carry it in easier.” With Jared walking backwards, we carried the sheet into the living room with ease. The other ones were just as quick to tote into our work area.
The two of us labored side-by-side, Jared giving me pointers on the fine art of hanging drywall. He showed me how to match up the seams and put the screws in the right places while he finished with the seam tape, corner guards and mud; his steady, experienced hands, and his cool temperament, did a much better job than I ever could have. By the time we had the last piece in place, the sun was setting in the western sky.
Jared collected the tools he had brought as I swept the floor, drywall dust swirling in the long, orange sunbeams coming through the windows. We looked at one another and laughed; we were both ghosts, sweaty and—except for where our goggles and face masks had been—covered with that self-same white dust.
“I never knew putting up walls was such dusty work,” I said, pulling my hair out of the ponytail I had worn all day and shaking more residue out of it. Jared seemed mesmerized, staring at me as the hair fell down around my shoulders. I poked him in the shoulder, waking him from his trance. “Earth to Jared, Earth to Jared…”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry ‘bout that, Des. Yeah, yeah, it’s dusty work, but it’ll be even worse when I start sanding.”
“Oh, joy.” I replied, my eyes rolling back in my head. “You, uh, okay, Jare? You were kind of zoning out there…”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m, uh, fine. I was just thinking about— you know, never mind…” his voice faded to silence. As we walked into the kitchen, he ran his fingers through his hair, knocking out the excess dust. “Hey, do you mind if I use the extra shower upstairs? I’d love to clean up before we eat.”
“Um, yeah. You know where the towels are. Help yourself.” I grabbed my laptop and plopped on a nearby chair. “What are you in the mood for, Jare? Where should I order from?”
“Let me get dinner, Des. My treat.”
“But I promised—”
“I know what you promised. Just let me, okay?”
I huffed, feigning indignation. “Okay. If you insist.” I put my laptop on the kitchen counter and started walking toward the stairs. “I’m going to hop in the shower, too. Meet you back down here?” Jared nodded, his gaze meeting mine.
“It’s a date,” he grinned as we started up the steps.
About forty-five minutes later, I walked downstairs; it was mostly dark save for the light in the kitchen and a soft, orange glow coming from the living room. “Jare? Jared?” I called out, thinking he may still have been upstairs. I walked into the living room to find a thick blanket spread on the floor in front of the fireplace, now filled with a nice, roaring fire. A bucket from the garage sat on the floor, filled with snow and a wine bottle, wine glasses and a set of candles burning nearby completed the scene. How cozy, I thought to myself. Almost… oh no—romantic? The thought struck me and I felt a sudden knot form in my stomach. But… this… this was Jared, my friend, my boss. Surely, he wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with me, especially with his strict ethics policy. It must be in my head. Right?
“Well, you certainly look less dusty than you did an hour ago,” Jared said with a smile, stepping into the living room from the kitchen.
“I’m sure I do. Man, that dust goes everywhere, doesn’t it?” I answered with a bright, cheerful grin, trying to fight back the growing nervousness I was feeling. We had both changed into clean, casual clothing; I had on a pair of loose yoga pants and a tank with my cozy slippers. I felt underdressed, and suddenly wished I had thrown on a sweater or cover up, but I didn’t think being around Jared in only a tank top would feel so… awkward. Jared was wearing some dressy sweats, an “A” shirt, and a zippered hoodie. His feet were bare, a brave undertaking considering the floor was concrete and the temperature outside was freezing.
“I feel so much better,” I said to Jared, attempting to ignore anything in the scenario that could be considered ‘romantic,’ yet my heart was racing like crazy. Act cool, Destiny. Breathe. All in my imagination…
“Dinner’s in the oven,” Jared said, seemingly oblivious to my inner turmoil. “I made something at home last night and snuck it into the fridge when I got here.” He smiled sheepishly. “It’ll be a little while. I just put it in a few minutes ago.”
“Ooooo!! Bachelor cooking!! What did you make?”
“Lasagna. It’s my Nana’s recipe. One of the first things I learned to cook, being a bachelor and all. My Mom always called it ‘Love Me Lasagna’ because it’s so good, it makes people fall in love.” He winked and smiled. The knot from my stomach made its way up to my throat. I gulped, hard, and hoped he didn’t notice. “We have some time to kill; would you like a glass of wine?” He gestured towards the blanket and the fireplace.
“Sure, Jare, that sounds… great.” I tried to sound as enthusiastic as I could. “This is such a cozy little setup,” I continued as we walked toward the blanket. “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
“No trouble at all, Des. I thought we just might have a little pre-housewarming housewarming.” He smiled and sat down on the blanket, patting a spot near the fireplace across from him. “Come sit.” Was he being truthful about the “housewarming” comment, I wondered, or had he seen that the scenario made me nervous as hell and was now just backpedaling?
I took a seat on the blanket and inhaled a deep breath, trying to pretend I wasn’t flustered. Any romantic overtones—real or imagined—aside, the flicker and warmth of the fire generated sweet memories of home, making me forget the surroundings and the feelings that accompanied. Jared noticed my dreamy expression and returned his own charming smile.
“Hope you don’t frown on screw cap wine,” he grinned as he opened the bottle.
“No worries, Jare. I don’t even have a corkscrew yet!” I joked back. He picked up one glass and tipped the bottle; I could tell it was a red wine from the darkness as he poured it. He handed the glass to me. I swirled it gently, letting my mind drift as I watched the firelight play off the spinning liquid.
“A penny for your thoughts,” he said, picking up his own glass and taking a sip.
“Oh. The fire reminds me of home. It’s the first time this fireplace has been used since I’ve lived here. I haven’t really had one since I left Appaloosa Plains.”
“Tell me about Appaloosa Plains, Des. What was it like?”
“It’s about as small a town as you can imagine. Only about five hundred lived there, so we all knew each other. It’s mostly agricultural, but there were some other industries as well, mostly to serve the Army base where Daddy was stationed all his life. We lived on a farm with a half-acre garden plot. It’s amazing how much produce Mama and Daddy grew in such a limited space, and how it sustained us through some pretty harsh times.”
“So you were born and raised there, right? And your parents, I imagine, lived there all their lives, too? Married for forty years, I believe you told me one time. So where does that Jason guy from the shop come into the picture?”
“Jason… yeah, that’s a little complicated. Daddy served in the big war; he deployed when I was maybe a couple of years old. The Army declared him dead after his plane went down during a botched mission and they couldn’t find him, or a body, during recon. He survived, though, and wound up living in a little village not too far from the crash site. Shows you how hard the Army looked for him, yes? It’s a much longer story than I’m telling, but in short, during the time Mama thought he was dead—about eighteen months—she met and dated Jason. The two of them hit it off and fell in love. Then, Daddy came home.”
My thoughts drifted back to the conversation I’d had with Jason and how much he’d been hurt. “Mama had to choose between her soulmate, and the man who loved and supported her when her life was crumbling; she loved them both. It was an impossible decision, because she knew the one she rejected would be devastated. Mama didn’t enjoy wounding people she loved.”
Jared sat his wineglass on the floor behind him and leaned back on his hands. “I would’ve loved talking to your dad about his travels. I’m a bit of a history buff, particularly military history, but I sure don’t recall reading about that story.”
“I don’t think it was the kind of story the military wanted in the history books,” I smiled, then took another sip of the wine. It differed from anything I’d had; slightly dry, but not cottony, and I found I enjoyed it. It had just enough kick to give me a warm feeling inside. “Daddy had much to talk about, that’s for sure. Not everything was good, but he still found something uplifting in every tale he told. He was a man of incredible faith.” Jared studied my face intensely as I talked about home, his attention riveted by my words.
“This is the first time we’ve really talked about your hometown, Des. I’m so intrigued. Appaloosa Plains sounds like it was a great place to grow up. Me? I was born and raised here in ‘fabulous’ Starlight Shores. It might seem like an exciting place to the outside world, but nothing exciting has ever happened to me here.”
“Nothing? Really? Nothing? Come on, something fun must have happened in your life. I bet you played football or basketball or something in school and drove the girls crazy, didn’t you? Don’t be shy, tell me about your girlfriends. After all, you know all about Jeff.”
Jared blushed and broke eye contact with me, but not before I saw—something—dance across his face. “Me? A high school jock? Nope, not at all. The only extracurricular stuff I was involved in was the Chess Club. Didn’t do much dating in high school.” He paused for a moment. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I did ANY dating in high school. I didn’t really have my first ‘girlfriend’ until the summer after graduation, and that was ten years ago. I’m not really a ‘ladies’ man’, Des, and certainly not what most women call attractive.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s true, Jare. You’re a cutie pie! I know I would’ve dated you—” Did I just say that out loud? It was the worst thing I could have uttered.
Despite the darkness in the room, save for the firelight, I saw Jared blush a deep shade of red. “Well, thank you, Des. I think, outside of my aunts, that’s the first time anyone’s ever called me ‘cute’.”
My mind raced for an appropriate reply. I didn’t want to lead him on. “You’re welcome,” was all I could stutter. We sat in silence and stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. I took a long sip of wine, hoping a slight buzz would break the awkwardness.
“I-I’m gonna go check on the lasagna,” Jared said, getting up from the blanket, definitely ending the tension. He stood, straightened his pants, then walked into the kitchen. I sat on the blanket, my face buried in my hands. What the heck was I doing? What did I want? The line between friend, boyfriend, and boss seemed to get blurrier by the moment. I took another hit of the wine, a gulp this time as opposed to a sip. I got up off the blanket and padded towards the kitchen.
“It sure smells good,” I called to him. No answer. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead; I was unsure if it was the fireplace, the wine, or the situation that made me feel warm. “Jare…?”
He popped in front of me as I entered the kitchen, his face still red. Had I embarrassed him that much? “Sorry, I had my head in the oven. Had to get the tin foil off so it could finish heating. I hope it tastes as good as it smells.” His answers conveyed no apparent discomfort.
“Jare…” I said with hesitation.
“Des…?” My name on his lips came quickly, with anticipation and maybe a bit of longing. Or was I hearing only what I wanted to hear?
“I’m sorry if I made things awkward. I didn’t me—”
“Look, don’t worry. I’m not used to compliments, and I never know what to think. It isn’t you.”
I bit my lip. “I just don’t want things to be weird between us, seeing as we work together. You know?”
Jared nodded. “That’s one of the biggest disadvantages of owning that shop. Anyone I meet I might have feelings for, I won’t pursue. I’ve let a few special ladies slip through my fingers, not that I ever had a chance with you, anyway.”
My heart fluttered. Did I hear him right? “What?”
“Huh?” he said.
“What did you just say?”
“Which part?” I wasn’t sure if he didn’t realize what he’d said, or if he was playing dumb.
“The part about letting women slip through your fingers.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I never had a chance with them, anyway. I don’t know why I even get my hopes up anymore. It isn’t as though I ever find, or deserve, something good.” His statements were self-deprecating, something I recognized in him as insecurity. “Why, Des? What did you think I said?”
I shook my head. Perhaps I misunderstood him. “Nothing. It was nothing.”
“You know, I cherish what we have together.”
“What is it we have, Jare?” I hung on his every word, not sure what I wanted to hear.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. So much hung on his reply. “We’re friends. Close friends, Destiny, and nothing more.” There was melancholy in his expression, in his voice. He meant me, after all.
I reached for his hand; his fingers closed around mine as he squeezed his eyes shut. It was as though he knew my next words already, and he was bracing for them. “You can count on my friendship, Jared. I’ll always be here for you.”
There was a brief wince of pain on his face. “Thanks, Des.” He poured another glass of wine from the bottle and offered to fill mine, too. “Our friendship means much more to me than a night of passion. I want nothing to change with us… you know?”
“I do.” I took another sip of wine. “What would I do without you, Jare? You have been the one constant in my life since I’ve lived in the Shores. Please don’t underestimate how much I need you.”
“I need you, too. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Now I was the one blushing.
An hour later, supper was ready. Jared made himself right at home in my kitchen, and I was glad he did, too. He was at the house so often, it felt right to see him here. Everything smelled good. I couldn’t wait to try it.
We both sat on the blanket by the fire; in my lap, I had a plate of the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted. Jared took my hand in his. “Do you want to pray, Des? I don’t mind.”
It was the first time he’d ever suggested it; I was touched beyond measure. “I’d love it, Jare.” He bowed his head with me as I whispered a short, simple blessing over us.
When it was time for him to leave, Jared left the lasagna for me to enjoy. He’d been there all day, and we both had to work at the coffeehouse the next morning. I walked him to the door. Though supper was friendly, there was still awkward tension between us.
“Thank you for all your help today,” I said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“As always, it was my pleasure.” He took my hands in his and looked into my eyes. “Thank you for your company, Des.” He leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
My eyes closed, relishing the tenderness of the moment. I almost hated to see him go. “Yes, you will.”
“Goodnight.” Jared stood at the door, hesitating. Please go? I thought. Please go before I do something stupid… Finally, he twisted the knob. The door swung open; with it came an icy blast, and a sense of profound relief.
“Goodnight, Jare.” He gave a half-wave; I stood in the doorway, watching him walk down the sidewalk to his car.
I hated when my emotions played with me, when they made me believe I wanted something I really didn’t. The door closed, and I leaned against it, so confused. I growled a frustrated groan which echoed through the entire house. Two and a half years in Starlight Shores, and I was still alone.
The fireplace had long since burned out. I turned the lights out in the kitchen, plodded up the steps to my bedroom, and collapsed on the bed. I was so lonely it made me ache, but I was sure I didn’t want a boyfriend. At least, not yet. I kicked my slippers off my feet, pulled the covers up over my head, and wept until I fell asleep.
A few nights later, I dragged myself into the house after a double shift at the coffeehouse. I was dog tired, and all I wanted was to sleep. My shoes came off at the door, then I trudged up the steps to my bedroom. On the way, I turned on the television, which hung on the only free wall upstairs.
The entertainment news from Bridgeport blared from the set while I undressed for bed. It was just noise until I heard the name Jeffery Dean; that caught my undivided attention. I sprinted from my bedroom and collapsed in Daddy’s old recliner, dumbstruck by the image on the screen, and the news anchor’s report:
Breaking news. Jeffery Dean, frontman for the popular grunge band, The Rock J Experience, is engaged to his longtime girlfriend and Experience bassist, Valerie Jennings. The couple, shown here in Bridgeport last weekend, finished their year-long nationwide tour with Acidic Tides last November. A June wedding is planned in Dean’s hometown of Sunset Valley…
I turned the television off, slumped over in the chair. Longtime girlfriend? Valerie?! Was she the real reason behind our break up? No… it couldn’t be! I felt the ache in my chest, the sensation of suffocating, when I realized I wasn’t breathing. A sharp inhalation broke the stark silence the television had created. Tears streamed down my face, but I wasn’t sure why. Jeff and I had separated well over a year ago. I shouldn’t still hurt like this, should I? All this pain certainly wasn’t helping the loneliness.
My phone rang and startled me; Stephen’s number was on the Caller ID. Drat! I was supposed to meet him for supper. I took a deep breath and answered the phone.
“Hello?” Despite trying to hide my trembling voice, it came through with my greeting.
“Hi, Destiny! Are we still on for—” His normally friendly and peppy greeting was replaced with concern and care. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? Have you been crying?”
Stephen was always so shrewd. “Guilty. Have you seen the news from Bridgeport?”
“No, I haven’t. What’s wrong?”
“It’s Jeff…” Even though it was Stephen, I still couldn’t tell him without tears. “He’s getting married. I just saw it on television.”
“I’m so sorry, Destiny. What can I do to help?”
I sniffled into the phone. “Can I take a raincheck for supper tonight, Stephen? I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be alone tonight, sweetheart. Let me come pick you up, and we’ll go for dinner as we planned. Please?”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to ruin your evening, too.”
“Of course, I’m sure, Destiny. That’s what friends are for.”
“Give me about twenty minutes? I need to get cleaned up a bit.” As much as I didn’t feel like being social, maybe Stephen was right.
“I’ll just let myself in,” he said. I gave him a key to the house after I locked myself out one nightmarish evening. It was an event I didn’t care to repeat.
“Sounds good,” I replied and hung up the phone.
Forty minutes later, I walked down my stairs to Stephen’s bright, friendly smile. “You’re late,” he teased. “But the wait was worth it. You look beautiful.”
I blushed. “Thank you.” He took my hand and led me from the house to his car.
He drove us to a small, informal restaurant off the Los Sueños strip near the Hoi Polloi. We had been there many times before; it was one of the few places in town where folks could relax without celebrities hanging around.
The restaurant was a quaint Italian pizzeria decorated in rustic tones, red checkered tablecloths, sheer white window linens, and terrazzo tiles on the floor. There was a separate lounge with a karaoke stage, and a bar stocked with liquor and beer on tap. In the middle of the dining room, a small dance floor sat. Though there were few customers there that night, during the weekend, the lines to get in stretched around the building. It was a very trendy hangout among the working-class residents of Starlight Shores.
The host sat us at a small table near the window overlooking the Hoi Polloi. The waiter, a young man who introduced himself as Cyrus, took our drink order—sweet tea for me, and a pop for Stephen—and left us to peruse the menu. He smiled at me and took my hand.
“So, tell me, what had you so upset? I know it involved that self-important sea scallop.”
That self-important sea scallop? I giggled a little more than I should have, much to Stephen’s delight. His refusal to address Jeff by his name often brought unique, humorous, and sometimes colorful descriptions of him. “Well, you know the history I have with Jeff. It isn’t like I wanted him to be alone forever; I should be happy he’s found someone new. But he said he’d never be involved with another woman after what I did to him.”
“What YOU did to HIM? Oh please. Sweetheart, if anyone suffered in that relationship, it was you. He seems like he’s doing just fine.”
“That’s what he told me. Looking back, I think it was more a guilt trip than anything else.” Stephen nodded in agreement. “So, I should backtrack a bit to the part where he had a female band member, but he neglected to tell me about her. I learned about her on his graduation day. I was so angry.”
“Rightfully so, in my honest opinion. Why didn’t he mention her, do you think?”
I sighed. “Well, seeing how they’re engaged to be married now, I think it’s pretty obvious he was playing me long before we broke up. I see now how our marriage would have ended, and it wouldn’t have been pretty. Almost everything he accused me of doing, he was doing to me.”
“Ah yes, projection. Destiny, the scallop sounds like a grade A narcissist—” The waiter interrupted him. Cyrus placed our drinks on the table and waited for our food order, but neither of us had peeked at the menu, much less decided. “Can we have a few more minutes?” Stephen asked.
“Take your time, sir. I’ll be back to check on you shortly.” Cyrus bowed and walked away.
Stephen turned his attention back to me. “I know it hurts you to realize that idiot is moving on. But maybe it’s better this way.”
A light bulb lit in my head with his utterance of those words. “Maybe it’s better this way…” I repeated, deep in thought.
Stephen recognized the look on my face. “I just gave you an idea, didn’t I?”
“You did. I need to write this down before it’s gone.” I pulled my journal from my purse—I always had one with me for such an occasion—but I couldn’t find my pen, of course. Drat! I feverishly looked through my bag for a pen and discovered one hiding in the depths of the black abyss. “Found it!” I declared, holding the slender, silver trophy in my hand.
I spent the next ten minutes writing the words to a song. They poured out of my soul and into my notebook with so little effort. When I was finished, I could barely read the chicken scratch—I’d apparently inherited Daddy’s atrocious penmanship—but my thoughts were there, saved until I could get home. Stephen read the words as I wrote them, nodding his approval.
“Where did THAT come from?” he asked, wearing a grin. “That is sheer brilliance!”
“That was your inspiration,” I said. “Thank you.”
The next morning, the temperature was freezing outside. My breath puffed from my mouth in steamy plumes as I opened the coffee shop to begin my shift. That was when I noticed her; a skinny, dirty little cat meowed and caught my attention. She walked to me and rubbed against my ankles. I reached down to pet her; for a stray cat, she was friendly but obviously neglected and starving.
“Hello there,” I said to her. “You look like you could stand to eat, little one.” I reached down to pick her up. She didn’t fight me at all. “You poor little thing.” She purred as I carried her into the employee break room. Jared came in two minutes later.
“I see you’ve met Poppy,” he said. “She’s been hanging around the shop for the last couple of days. I’ve been giving her some of the food that doesn’t sell. She seems to like the orange poppyseed muffins, which is why I started calling her Poppy. I can’t bring her home because my landlord won’t allow a pet. It breaks my heart.”
“You’ve named her, Jare?” I brought a saucer down from the cabinet and filled it with some cream. I knew dairy wasn’t the best food for her, but it sure beat a poppyseed muffin. “It sounds like you’re already attached.”
He reached to scratch the cat’s head. “Well, I hate to see her in such terrible shape. Sometimes, I really dislike people. Who does that to an animal?”
The cat lapped at the milk I set down for her, purring all the while. I never got attached to the barn cats we had on the farm back home, but this cat was different. She had obviously been someone’s pet—a cat used to being cared for and loved—not a feral barn mouser. That she’d been neglected for this long tugged at my heartstrings. “She needs a suitable home, someone to love and care for her. Maybe I’ll bring her home with me today, since you can’t take her. I could sure use some company, too.”
Jared smiled. “I agree, and I think it’s a great idea.”
Mama told me frequently about a barn cat she had as a child, one that used to sleep on her bed in the winter. Snugglebugg, as Mama named her, was more a pet than a barn cat, one that she spoke of often with fondness. I always wondered why she never took in a pet from the tamer barn cats. Perhaps she had too much to worry about with keeping the farm out of the red. At least in the barn, the cats had their fill of small vermin, and never went hungry.
Poppy was on my mind as I worked my shift that morning. We let her out back into the fenced yard behind the coffeehouse, since the county ordinance prohibited her being inside. I had an old beach blanket in my car’s trunk. I lined a box with it and set it by the door for her as a temporary shelter. When my shift was over, Poppy was outside the door, pawing at it and yowling. Seeing her like that confirmed I was making the right decision. I hung my apron up in the break room and collected my purse.
“Are you bringing Poppy home, Des?” Jared sat sipping a cup of coffee, keeping an eye out for Evangeline. She and a new hire would work the afternoon-to-close shift.
I nodded. “Mmhmm. First, a stop at the vet, and then the pet store. I need some things for her before I bring her home.” She rubbed against my ankles again, mewing. “You poor little thing,” I said as I scooped her up into my arms. She snuggled close to me, curled up inside my winter jacket. “Let’s go home.”
The vet determined Poppy was twelve to thirteen years old, about two pounds underweight with an upper respiratory infection. Dr. Hughes said that although she was scrawny, her condition wasn’t dire. He gave her a shot of antibiotics, some subcutaneous fluid, and worm medication, just to be on the safe side. I’d bring her back at a later time for a normal exam and shots. At the pet store, I bought a new litter box, two different kinds of food, toys, and a warm, fluffy bed. She slept tucked inside my jacket while I walked around the store, shopping for the things I needed.
How this poor cat survived outside in the harsh winter weather was beyond me, but she wouldn’t have to brave sub-zero temperatures and be hungry anymore. I talked to her while I opened a can of food, and she returned the conversation in meows and trills. She finally got to eat an appropriate meal instead of scraps that Jared fed her from the coffeehouse. Poppy devoured everything I gave her and drank a long time from the bowl I filled with fresh water.
It took no time at all to fall in love with this sweet, affectionate little cat. Someone’s loss was definitely my gain. The living room was chilly, so I lit a fire in the hearth, and then sat in Daddy’s old recliner. Poppy took her place in my lap, settling down to bathe herself. She walked onto my chest and curled up there. We dozed off together in the early evening, curled up like old friends.
By spring, Poppy had filled out; her coat looked shiny and healthy, and her ribs weren’t visible anymore. She had energy like a young cat and was extremely friendly. And though she’d spent a good amount of time outside, she seemed to prefer the indoors. In every way, Poppy was content, and frankly, so was I.
Having Poppy to care for filled a need I didn’t realize I had; her constant companionship. And though I wasn’t ready for another romantic relationship, I was lonely. Friends couldn’t fill the void that Poppy did. She slept on my bed every night, greeted me at the door when I came home from work, and listened to my troubles without judgment. I needed Poppy, and she needed me.
I sat on the floor in the living room, enjoying the cool breeze from an open window. Poppy played with a toy nearby while I strummed my guitar. A knock sounded at the door; I was expecting Stephen to stop by.
“Come in!” I called out. Stephen stepped inside, greeted by my furry welcoming committee.
“Hi Poppy,” he said, reaching down to scratch her head. “Are you taking good care of our girl?”
I smiled. “She is.” Her musical trills always warmed my heart; she was too darned cute. I set my guitar on its stand and stood up for a hug. “You’re just in time! I’m almost done with this song.”
“Is this the one you started writing at the pizza place?”
I nodded with a smile. “I think it could be a hit for someone.”
“What about you? Why don’t you record it, Destiny?”
“I can’t afford studio time on a barista’s salary, Stephen. But believe me, I’d love to.”
“What if I could make that happen? I know a few people in high places.”
I felt uneasy, and I started making excuses. “I… I don’t have a band, or anything like that.”
“Why not do an acoustic demo? That’s all the rage these days. Everyone is remaking their big hits as acoustics.”
While what he said was true, those artists actually had established careers. No one outside the coffeehouse knew my name. “I-I don’t know…”
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. “What are you waiting for? Destiny, the world needs to hear you. You’re much more talented than you give yourself credit for, and that’s the biggest waste.”
I shook my head and stepped away from him. “I will not record it, Stephen, but I’d still like for you to hear it. The musical arrangement is almost finished, and I’d like your opinion.”
“Of course.” He came in and sat on the loveseat; Poppy jumped into his lap and settled down, demanding his attention. Stephen was all too happy to oblige her. I pulled up a chair, took my guitar, and settled down to play.
“This is still a work in progress, but the lyrics are finished. The name is Maybe It’s Better This Way.” A smile crossed Stephen’s face.
He stroked Poppy’s fur while I plucked the strings on the guitar, playing the opening of my new song. I got through the first verse and the chorus and stopped. In my peripheral vision, I noticed Stephen had his eyes closed, his jaw clenched, and I detected the slightest sniffle as he choked back tears.
“What do you think?”
His eyes opened; the tears he’d been trying to hold dripped down his cheek. He wiped them away and tried to collect himself. Apparently, the song had hit a raw nerve, but it was just the reaction I’d hoped for. Finally, he shook his head and took a breath.
“That song is so moving, Destiny. If you were trying to convey heartache and despair, you killed it.”
A smile pulled across my face. “That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”
“This song came from a deeply personal place. In a way, it’s helped to bring some needed closure.”
“Are you certain you don’t want to record that song, Destiny? It could be your first big hit.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “It will be a hit for someone. I doubt it will be me, though. I gave up that dream, remember?”
“I’m telling you Destiny, you are going to be discovered. I don’t know when, and I don’t know where. But someday, the stars will align, and you’ll become one of them.”
For months, I told myself I’d be content being a songwriter, making other people famous with my lyrics and allowing other vocalists to live my dream. But Stephen’s encouragement was reigniting a passion I thought had died—the longing I’d moved to the city to satiate.
That night, as I knelt beside my bed, I talked to Daddy like I did almost every night. This time, it felt different. I needed a sign, something that would tell me what to do.
Daddy, I know you’ve heard my new song. I wish so much that you were here to tell me what you think, which direction I should go. I’m not content working at the coffeehouse, even though it’s a reliable income. Daddy, I want more. I want to pursue my childhood dreams. But it’s so hard here, I don’t know what to do. Please send me a sign that you hear me. You were always so wise, and I’d love your advice. I’ll wait for your timing, because I know you’ll send the answer I need. I will love you and Mama forever. Please tell her I said hi.
As I set his prayer book on my nightstand, an old, tattered piece of paper fell from its pages. I don’t know where it came from; I thought I’d been through that book cover to cover. The paper looked like it had been torn from a book, perhaps part of a journal. Maybe this was the missing page from his travel journal Mama always wondered about? With trembling hands, I reached for the paper and unfolded it.
I don’t know how long I’ve been living in the village, about two to three months, by my best guess. My leg is still painful to bear weight, but I suppose it’s as good as it’s going to get. And as much I love it here, I’m desperate for home. I hunger for your arms around me, darling Frannie. I long to hear our daughter’s voice say, “Daddy,” one more time. Every day, I wrestle with making the journey home, because I know it will be on foot should I ever attempt it. I don’t look forward to it; the physical pain would be excruciating. Not having you and Destiny in my life, however, would be more than my aching heart could bear.
I have written most of this journal to you, sweetheart. Allow me, for a moment, to talk to our precious baby girl?
My breath caught in my throat, and goosebumps rose on my skin. My hands went from a slight tremble to a full shake. I swallowed hard and continued to read.
Destiny, my sweet princess, how I miss your little voice and giggles. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, or watch you grow into the beautiful young woman I know you’ll become. So, if I never make it home, there are a few things I want to tell you.
If you’re like your mama, you’ll have a tender heart, sacrificing yourself for those you love and cherish. You’ll be a hard worker, and you’ll succeed in anything you do. Your family, friends, and everyone around you will gravitate toward you, much like they do with your mama. Her never-say-die attitude will be yours. You’ll be loved so deeply, you will never fail. I would be happy to see this come to pass for you.
But if you’re anything like your old man, you’ll want to do big things with your life. You won’t be content to stay in one place for long, and your dreams will be larger than life. I want to encourage you, Destiny, to do the things you dream of, because you know you’ll never be happy with anything less. Reach for the stars, my baby girl, and become one of them.
A lone, salty tear dripped from my eyes and splattered on the note I held in my hand. How could he have known all those years ago what my ambitions would be? Wasn’t this the exact thing Stephen had told me? An eerie chill swept across my body; I wiped the droplet from the page and continued to read his words.
Finally, stay true to your faith, because if your mama raises you well, you will be a woman of great faith, just like her. Pray often, and love deeply. Follow the narrow path set before you, and He will never let you down. Put your trust in Him, and He will guide you. It is because of His grace and mercy that I still live.
If my circumstances keep me from returning home, I hope you’ll forgive me. Know, Destiny, that I will never forget you. You and your mama will be forever in my heart, and always on my mind. Be well and do good in your life. I will see you again someday. If not while we live, then in heaven. I will love you and your mama forever.
Hugs and kisses,
This was not the first time I’d gotten confirmation that I needed from Daddy, but it was the first time it had happened so quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I sat in stunned disbelief for a moment. His words were the warm hug I yearned for, and the gentle encouragement I sought. Peaceful tranquility washed over me; I knew exactly what path I should take. I wiped tears from my eyes, looked toward the heavens, and whispered to him, “thank you, Daddy.”
I climbed into bed and pulled the blanket up to my chin. Poppy, who had been waiting for me to settle down, jumped onto the bed and rubbed her face on mine—her nightly ritual—before she bedded down on my pillow each night. I reached to scratch her head; she returned a trill and a content mew.
“Sleep well, my sweet Poppy,” I whispered in the night’s stillness. “I love you.”
Up Next: Chapter Six, Generation Two
Poppy’s story—her rescue from the cold, wintry streets of Starlight Shores—was inspired by Twiggy’s rescue story from “Balam Says” on Instagram. Twiggy, in her short time with her adoptive family, stole the hearts (mine and Chris’ included!) of thousands of followers. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge on March 9th after she suffered complications from Feline Leukemia Virus. Her legacy is one of love and hope, and it’s in her honor that we have the opportunity to help the Balam Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit. The Balam Foundation works to help impoverished communities with cat and dog sterilization programs, rehabilitation of wild cats, and other animal causes. If you don’t already follow Balam Says on IG, please check out Balam and Co., and the witty, wonderful, and compassionate Phaedra Barratt, cat mom and caretaker. If you are interested in supporting the Balam Foundation, you may do so here: The Balam Foundation.
Thank you for considering your donation!
Pose Credits (Cover Photo)
Poses By Bee
Live Guitar/Singing Poses by Toys of Dukeness
Pose pack №10. With guitar by ModernLover
The Sims Resource
Useful Walls by CycloneSue