Join the millions (or is it billions?) of people who are calling in to work sick, telling their children to watch TV all day, and putting their plans for world domination on hold because they can’t put down The Time Seller.
For those who are wondering what the big deal is, the first five chapters are available online. Start reading it here. But before you do, cancel any appointments and be prepared to shirk all your responsibilities because once you start reading, you won’t stop until the last page is read.
You’ve been warned.
Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
Simeon made his way through the trees, stopping occasionally to listen and get his bearings. The screams rang out occasionally, shattering the darkness. Sometimes they were close, other times far away. They always seemed to come from different directions. After a while, Simeon felt like he was walking in circles.
When he had been gone about two hours, he considered returning home—assuming he could find his way back. At night, everything in the forest looked the same. This far into the woods, the trees were thick and tall enough that they obscured his view of the mountains and the stars. If he couldn’t get his bearings, he might not get home before Cyril woke up.
Another scream rang out in the dark. It was close, and it was female. Irina. It took all his self-control not to go running toward the sound. It wouldn’t do any good to raise an alarm that he was coming. He needed to save his wife, then dish out vengeance to whomever had taken her.
Simeon pulled his sword from its sheath and moved through the trees as fast as he dared. After a few minutes, he stopped, wondering if he was headed in the right direction. The scream had sounded close enough that he thought he would have an easy time finding the source, but if the camp was well concealed, he could have easily walked right past it.
The faint sound of sobbing came from somewhere nearby. Simeon cocked his head and closed his eye, unsure if he had imagined it. He stood still for a minute, straining his ears to filter out the nighttime noises of the forest before he caught it again. It was faint, but it sounded like it was coming from the left. Opening his eye he followed the sound, praying that it would lead him to his wife.
It wasn’t long before he saw the orange flicker of a fire through the trees. Simeon froze. The light disappeared, then reappeared a moment later. He crept forward until he came to a small clearing bounded by an outcropping of rock about a hundred feet away. A flash of firelight came from an opening in the rock. Just as he was about to move from the cover of the trees, a large figure emerged from the opening. Even in the dark, Simeon could tell that the man was very tall—quite possibly the biggest man he had ever seen.
The giant stood motionless in the cave entrance. Simeon stayed partially concealed behind the trunk of a tree, his gaze riveted on the figure. Finally, the giant turned and walked across the clearing. As he moved away from the cave, Simeon saw that he carried something over his shoulder. At first, Simeon thought it was a large sack, but then he discerned an arm flopping with the rhythm of the giant’s gait. It was a human body. Simeon almost called out, thinking it was Irina, but the crying sound he had heard before floated from the cave. He recognized the sobs as hers.
The giant disappeared into the forest, and Simeon ran to the opening of the cave and looked inside. Four torches set into the stone provided just enough light to make out seven figures against the far wall. They were all slouched forward, their arms bound at the wrists and tied to iron spikes embedded into the cave. As his eye adjusted to the flames, he recognized the closest figure as Irina.
He rushed into the cave and knelt by his wife.
“Irina,” he said, brushing her hair out of her eyes.”
Her brown eyes fluttered open. Usually large and soft, they now looked bloodshot and tired. “Simeon?” Her voice was hoarse and just above a whisper. “Help me.”
With his sword, Simeon slit the ropes that bound her wrists. Her arms fell limply to her sides, and her body fell forward into his arms.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said as he stood and picked her up.
She tried to say something, but her words were slurred, and he couldn’t understand what she said. He didn’t bother asking. He would take her home, raise the alarm with the soldiers at Sredets, and gather enough men to slay the giant.
The man next to her groaned.
“Kamen?” Simeon said, recognizing his friend.
“Don’t leave us,” Kamen pled.
Simeon’s mind flooded with questions, but there was no time to ask them now. He looked back at the cave entrance, then set his wife down. He cut Kamen’s bands and then cut the cords of the others tied to the wall. Most of them were soldiers, but there were a few older people at the end who had the same emaciated look as Gavril. It wasn’t until he cut the last band that Simeon realized Boril wasn’t among the prisoners.
The old man at the end raised a bony arm toward Simeon.
“Help me,” he said, his voice just above a whisper. “I’m too weak to stand.”
Simeon called out to Kamen, who was helping his men to their feet.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
“Take your men and help this man and the two others out of the cave. Can you find your way back to your camp?”
“We have no camp. The giant attacked soon after we stopped to rest.”
“Then gather your men, and help these others out of here,” Simeon said. “Split up and head to Sredets. With Godspeed, we’ll rendezvous back there in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t we stay together?”
“Numbers don’t matter against whatever this is. We’re safer in smaller groups. Split up into units of two or three and head toward the city.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. I have to get my son.”
With that, he picked up Irina in his arms and walked out of the cave and into the warm night air. The light from the torches had ruined his night vision, and he needed a few minutes to get it back. He could barely make out the tree line. He hurried to the edge of the forest and waited behind a tree, hoping the giant would take his time before coming back.
“Do you have the strength to walk?” he asked his wife.
Irina nodded. “I think so.”
He set her down, but her legs gave out from under her. She leaned against him for support and started to apologize.
“Don’t talk,” Simeon said, hoping his words covered the worry that filled his body. “I’ll have you home soon. Just let me get my bearings, and I’ll carry you.”
He picked her up and gave her a kiss on the forehead. He held her tightly in his arms while he waited for his night vision to return. Behind him, he could hear Kamen and his men leaving the cave and entering the forest somewhere off to his right.
When he could make out the ground and the spaces through the trees, Simeon started through the forest. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was lost. All he had was a general idea of the direction they should head. He thought about stopping and making camp for the night, but he knew in his gut that waiting for morning wasn’t an option. He wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the cave as possible. Besides, his son lay in their home alone. He had to get both Irina and Cyril to safety.
He moved forward, trusting luck and his instincts to guide him. Progress was slow.
Some time after he felt they were a safe distance from the cave, a man’s scream ripped through the forest.
Look for Chapter 6 to be posted soon!
Enjoy what you read? Buy The Time Seller on Amazon
I was hoping to get the book out in August but there have been some small delays. All the writing and editing has been done for weeks but the talented person who is laying them out for print is swamped with work and it’s taken her longer than anticipated to get the book galleys to me for review. She did get them to me earlier this week and they look awesome! (See photo above.)
I finished the galley reviews today and sent them back to with a few minor changes to make. Hopefully that means I’ll have the book available in the next week or two. Thanks for your patience as I make the final product as awesome as possible. It will be worth the wait, I promise.
Also, if you want to know the second it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know as soon as it’s available to read.
Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
Simeon was a mile outside the city when he heard the thunder of hooves behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw ten horses barreling down the road. He guided the donkey as far off the road as possible, then stopped the cart. As the horses raced past, Simeon recognized Boril as the lead soldier. Seeing Boril out in front would normally have given Simeon a sense of satisfaction, but today, it only made his doubt and second-guessing worse. Boril had good political instincts but almost no sense of leadership or battle tactics.
He watched the men and horses disappear around the bend in the road and felt as if he was watching them ride to their deaths. As Simeon urged the donkey back onto the road, he thought about setting out in the morning to find the men and help them take down whatever was roaming the countryside, but he immediately rejected the idea. He had other priorities in his life now.
The sun was low in the sky when Simeon guided the donkey off the main road and through the forest on a path he had cleared the previous year. The path just wide enough for his cart to pass and was difficult to spot unless one was looking for it. After half a mile, the forest broke into a wide clearing. In the gathering dusk, Simeon could just make out his home, a small, one-room hut with a thatched roof. The sight of it warmed his heart, and he was glad his journey had come to an end. The donkey must have felt the same way, because it picked up the pace as they cleared the trees.
As he drew closer, Simeon realized that something was amiss. No smoke filtered through the thatched roof, and he couldn’t smell his wife’s cooking. The wooden shutters of the lone window were open—at this time of day, they should be closed. Then, through the open window came the wail of a child—his son, Cyril. The baby’s cry was hard and intense, as though the boy was somehow in pain. Simeon hopped off the cart, tied the donkey to an oak tree next to the house, and ran inside.
The interior of the home was dark and cool. The fire that was constantly kept lit had gone cold. Simeon spotted his son’s arms and legs flailing on the straw bed. He rushed over to Cyril, picked him up, and held him close. His son’s face was bright red from crying. He wore an overshirt that was open at the bottom, and his legs and buttocks were covered in feces.
“Irina!” Simeon yelled. “Where are you?” Worry welled up inside him. Irina took Cyril everywhere with her. There was no reason she’d leave him alone on a bed or lying in his own excretion.
He took his crying son outside with him and called for his wife again. Aside from his son’s screams, the farm was dark and quiet. He took Cyril over to the well, drew up a bucket of water, and sloshed it over the lower half of his son’s body. The shock from the cold water stopped Cyril’s cries for an instant, but then he cried even harder as Simeon washed him.
Simeon dried off his son with the hem of his tunic and carried the child back into the house. In the gloom, he could just make out a half-eaten loaf of bread that had been left on the table. The outside was hard, but the inside was still soft and moist. He broke off a chunk of the bread and went back outside. Balancing the baby on his hip, he took the piece of bread and dipped it in a bucket of clean water to soften it, then fed the wet bread to his son. At first, Cyril was too upset to eat, but after a minute of prodding, he finally quieted down and accepted the meal.
With his son now calm, Simeon tried to figure out where his wife might have gone. Everything in the house was in its place, and nothing of value had been touched. There were no signs that robbers or anyone else had come through. It was as if she had been in the middle of her daily routine and had suddenly left. That wasn’t like her. She was eighteen, and a responsible woman. It was one of her finest qualities—Simeon never worried when he had to go to Sredets for a day or two. He wanted to look for her, but he had to tend to his son first.
Simeon finished feeding Cyril, then wrapped him in a blanket. He went back inside and laid Cyril on the bed. Then he took some kindling and wood from beside the door and dug through the ashes in the hearth, hoping to find some hot coals at the bottom. He was in luck, and in a few minutes, orange and yellow flames licked the wood. He closed the wooden shutters and let the fire’s heat fill the home. Once he was satisfied that his son was warm and safe, he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
In the last of the light, Simeon untied the donkey from the tree, unhitched it from the cart, and let it into the pasture. Then he checked to make sure his sword was securely girded around his waist and walked around his farm, searching for any sign of his wife or clue to explain her disappearance.
He found the first sign at the garden. Most of the melons were smashed as though several men and horses had run through them. It was getting too dark to see much, but it looked like the path of destruction continued through his vineyard. He rushed to the broken plants to examine the damage. Most of the melons they were planning to store for winter had been destroyed. Without them, they would have a difficult time surviving. He followed the path of devastation to his vineyard. Half the vines had been smashed or uprooted. It would take years before his vineyard would be productive again.
As he walked through the devastation, he nearly tripped over a body in an imperial uniform lying face down between the second and third rows of grapes. Simeon grabbed the body by the shoulders and turned it over, noting that it was still warm to the touch. Two lifeless eyes stared back at him. It was Rade. Simeon stood and drew his sword, his eyes scanning his surroundings for any sign of danger. Simeon walked through the smashed and uprooted vines to edge of the forest. There he found a second body— also warm. He didn’t recognize the man’s face, but he wore the same imperial uniform. The ground around the body was dark with blood.
Simeon stood and stared at the black trunks of the trees. He could just make out a path where soldiers had made their way into the forest. For a moment, he wondered if Boril had stumbled upon his farm and taken his wife and destroyed his crops as an act of revenge. But that wouldn’t explain the two dead bodies or the fact that his son had been left untouched. Something had happened, and he had just missed it. Irina was out in the forest somewhere—he was sure of it.
Just as he was about to step into the forest, he heard a scream. It was so distant and faint that he wasn’t sure if it was human or animal, and he couldn’t decide exactly where it had come from. He stood dead still for several moments, but heard nothing besides the chirping of crickets and the hoot of an owl.
Then, from somewhere deep inside the forest, he heard the scream again. The shriek sent chills through his entire body, despite the warm night air. This time he sure that it was human and that it was coming from someone in great agony. It reminded Simeon of cries made by soldiers being tortured by a red-hot poker.
Gripping his sword, Simeon started running toward the sound.
Chapter 5 Coming September 18
Enjoy what your read? Get The Time Seller on Amazon.
I was recently interviewed by The Telegraph about widowers dating again. The article was published yesterday. Excerpt below.
After losing someone you love, the idea of dating again can be almost unthinkable. Some people decide to never be in a relationship again, and many see that through. Others jump straight back into it, attempting to quickly remedy their feelings or find a replacement for their lost loved one.
But that’s not to say that dating later in life is easy to navigate for senior singles. We caught up with Abel Keogh, author of Dating a Widower, to seek advice for those returning to the dating world and to hear about his own personal experiences as a widow.
What is the hardest thing about dating again?
“For me, it was understanding that those I was dating weren’t going to be anything like my late wife. When I first started dating I was looking for someone who was similar to my late wife both in looks and interests.
“I had to learn to accept the women I dated for who they were and evaluate them based on that, not on past experience or a fantasy of what I thought they should be. Once I did, the dates went better and it was easier to open my heart to those who were very different.”
We drove up to southeast Idaho this weekend to experience the total solar eclipse. It was part family vacation, part goodbye-to-summer trip (school started yesterday!), and part hoping we could experience a once-in-a-lifetime event together as a family. (It’s also something I’ve been planning since January.) I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. There was minimal fighting and arguing, I got to know some of Marathon Girl’s extended family better, and there was nothing but clear, blue skies the morning of the big day.
And then there was the eclipse itself: Sitting on lawn chairs watching as the shape of the sun shrink from a round, yellow ball to a thin, yellow bear claw, realizing you could no longer feel the heat of the sun on your skin, and watching shadow bands wigging across the cement. It was exciting and unreal all at the same time.
Then there was totality.
Totality. The most magnificent celestial event that I’ve ever witnessed. The photos I’ve seen on social media and as part of news stories are incredible, but even the best of them don’t do it justice. It’s something that you have to experience in person to really understand how astounding and amazing it really is.
In Rigby, Idaho we experienced two minutes and fourteen seconds of totality. It was the fastest one hundred and thirty-four seconds of my life and not anywhere near enough time to take it all in. Just a couple of things I noticed during totality included:
- The sudden blanket of darkness
- The 360-degree sunrise feeling along the horizon
- Streetlights popping on
- Planets and bright stars appearing in the sky
- Kids and adults screaming their heads off in excitement
- An abrupt drop in temperature
- Seeing everything and everyone coated in a silver-blue light
- A giant black orb in the sky surrounded by giant strands of arcing white light that looked like fine, white hairs.
It was like standing on an alien world.
I wanted it to last forever.
And just like that, it was over. The sun peeked out from behind the moon, light flooded the world, and life returned to normal.
But what made the event really unforgettable wasn’t just seeing a total eclipse with my own eyes—it was experiencing it with Marathon Girl and our kids. It was seeing them jump up and down with excitement, hearing their cheers as everything went dark, and listen to them talk about how cool it was to see on the (long!) drive home.
I’m happy I got to experience it but even more delighted it wasn’t something I did alone. Events like this are made sweeter when you experience them with family, friends, and others you love. It those kind of memories that will be talked about and passed down decades after the event. It’s those kind of memories that last forever.
There will be another solar eclipse in the United States in 2024. My advice is to do everything you can to see it. (If you live outside the U.S., find the next near you here.) But when you go see it, bring along at least one person you love. Things like total solar eclipses are best experienced with someone at your side.
Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
The Time Seller
Business in the market was brisk. Simeon’s reputation for growing grapes, combined with the fact that few people from surrounding villages had dared to bring goods into town, meant he was able to sell his crop quickly and at a premium. By midday, his purse was full, and most of his grapes had been sold. Under normal circumstances, he would have been thrilled with the money and the prospect of an early trip home, but today, his mind kept drifting back to the dejected look on Kamen’s face. Simeon had let his friend down, and it didn’t sit well with his sense of honor.
As he weighed some grapes for a woman, he noticed three soldiers enter the far side of the market. They looked around, spotted Simeon, and headed straight for him. Their hurried walk told Simeon they weren’t there to buy what he was selling. As they drew closer, Simeon realized that the lead soldier was Boril. His stomach turned sour at the sight of the man’s narrow face and pointed nose. The only thing different about Boril from the last time Simeon had seen him was that Boril’s black hair was shoulder-length. His face was still bare, having never been able to grow a beard. Simeon completed his transaction with the customer, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and turned and faced the approaching soldiers.
“Word reached me that you were in the city today,” Boril said, offering his hand.
Simeon didn’t take Boril’s hand or even look down at it. Instead, he glanced at the other two soldiers, realizing for the first time that Kamen was one of them. The second soldier he recognized as an archer named Rade. Simeon gave Kamen an inquisitive look. Kamen shook his head, telling Simeon that he hadn’t spoken to Boril about the earlier visit.
“If you came to buy some grapes, you’re just in time,” Simeon said. “They’re just about gone.”
“I have more important matters to discuss,” Boril said. “Military matters.”
“I’m just a poor farmer. What would I know about such things?”
“Don’t play stupid, Simeon. I know you talked to the two blind fools at the gate and paid a visit to the tarkan’s house. You know what I’m here to discuss.”
Simeon said nothing. He was impressed that Boril’s spy network was up and running so quickly, considering that he’d been stationed in Sredets for less than a month. He made a mental note to be more careful about where he went and whom he talked to in the future.
“I need—the empire needs—your skills to take care of a threat to the city,” Boril said.
“I’m not a soldier anymore. Tsar Samuil stripped that title from me, and I don’t think the current emperor plans on changing that.”
“I’m not here to make you a soldier. I want to buy your services. I need you to lead a group of men to dispose of a rogue Byzantine soldier.”
Simeon laughed loudly. “Oh, you think you can just buy my services?”
“I’m willing to pay you handsomely for your time and the inconvenience,” Boril said, pulling a bag from his purse.
Simeon noted the size of the purse. It was bigger and fuller than his. Still, no amount of money was a temptation when coming from Boril. “My services aren’t for sale,” Simeon said.
“This is more than most mercenaries make in an entire year defending our empire, and I know you don’t have much,” Boril said. He cast his eyes at the donkey. “This could go a long way toward improving your circumstances.” He shook the bag, letting the jangle of coins fill the air.
Simeon didn’t give the bag a second look, just faced Boril more squarely. “After all I’ve lost, you think that money can buy it all back?”
“Think of it as a first step toward restoring your name,” Boril said. “Once I send word that you helped take care of this menace, it could help reclaim what you’ve lost—you could gain your family, your livelihood, your honor, and the empire’s respect again.”
Simeon spat on the ground. “I don’t want a coward vouching for me.”
Boril lowered the purse, and his free hand went to the hilt of his sword. “You dare insult me?” he snarled.
Simeon tightened his grip on his own sword, but even as he grasped the weapon, he regretted his rash words. He wasn’t worried about fighting Boril— he could best the man with any weapon, or with his bare hands if necessary. However, getting on Boril’s bad side could cause other problems. As a tarkan, Boril had the legal authority to throw Simeon in prison, banish him from the city, or do almost anything short of killing him. Simeon had sold most of his grapes and made good money. His best option at this point was to take it and go home to his family.
“I apologize for my words,” Simeon said. “You defended Sredets from the Byzantines, and we are all grateful.”
Boril’s grip on his sword loosened. “Thank you, but despite my great victory, I still need your help.”
Simeon wanted to laugh at Boril thinking of his defense of the city as a great victory. But he kept his feelings to himself. “My services are not for sale, to you or anyone else.”
“If you refuse to obey, I’ll have you arrested. I’ll seize your purse, your crops, and the sad little ass that pulls your cart.”
“I won’t stop you. Do what you want. But that won’t convince a single soldier to venture outside these walls to fight a rogue Byzantine soldier.” Part of Simeon couldn’t believe he was saying these words. But Boril was a coward, and Simeon was nearly sure he would try to find a way to save face once his bullying tactics didn’t work.
Boril turned to Kamen and Rade. “There have been reports of thieves in the market. Walk around and look for suspicious activity while I finish up here.”
Kamen and Rade gave each other a knowing look, then started toward the far side of the market. When they were out of earshot, Boril turned and faced Simeon.
“I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye on things, but the empire needs you. I’ll pay you the full purse now and the same amount again if you eliminate the threat.”
Simeon chuckled. “The empire. The way the war is going, the Bulgarian empire will cease to exist in a year or two.”
“I promise to put in a good word with the emperor when I send him a report of the success.”
“That won’t help restore my good name,” Simeon said.
“How can you possibly think that?”
“Don’t act so naive. You served in the emperor’s house.”
Kamen opened his mouth to speak but Simeon continued, the words rushing out of him all at once. “You of all people should know the emperor is happy to blame me for his uncle’s death. I could slay a thousand Byzantine soldiers with my bare hands, and it would do nothing to move him. My actions gave him the throne. Easier for him to justify his reign if I remain the villain. Besides, I’ve already proven my bravery many times over. I don’t need to do it again.”
“Simeon,” Boril said, “the men in this city look up to you. The stories about your heroic efforts at Kleidion are legendary. If you get on a horse and go out the gates, you’ll have the whole legion behind you.”
“Why don’t you get on a horse and let them follow you out the gates?”
Boril stared at Simeon incredulously. “I need to supervise things here. There are walls that need repair and supplies that need to be restocked.”
Simeon stifled a laugh at Boril’s weak excuses. “Men will not follow someone who won’t obey his own commands. Instead of acting like one of the nobility, volunteer to lead them out the gate. Show them your courage and your bravery.””
Boril’s face turned red. Simeon tightened his grip on his sword in case Boril pulled his. They stared at each other for what seemed like a long minute before a normal color returned to Boril’s face.
“You may have most of the soldiers in Sredets on your side, Simeon, but you have no support among the nobility. If you refuse to help me, I swear that one day you will regret your inaction.”
Simeon just smiled bitterly. “You and the nobility are welcome to everything I no longer have.”
Boril turned and left the market. He called out to Kamen and Rade to follow him. Rade immediately turned and fell into line behind Boril. Kamen cast a long, pleading gaze at Simeon.
Simeon shook his head. If Kamen had come alone to the market and entreated Simeon a second time, he might have been persuaded to take him up on the offer. But he couldn’t bring himself to help Boril. Not after Kleidion.
Kamen turned and followed Boril and Rade out of the market.
It wasn’t until someone came to purchase the last of his grapes that Simeon realized he was still clutching the hilt of his sword tightly in his hands.
Enjoy what your read? Get The Time Seller on Amazon.
Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before it's official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
The Time Seller
As the donkey approached the tarkan’s house, Simeon realized that something was amiss. The horses Kamen and his fellow soldiers had ridden were tied to posts in front, still sweating and pawing at the ground in thirst. No one had watered them or taken them to the stables. The cavalry was the backbone of the army, and not caring for military horses during a time of war was punishable by death. Aside from an imminent attack, Simeon could think of nothing that could excuse the soldiers’ neglecting their animals in such a manner.
Not seeing a guard in front of the house, Simeon tied the donkey to a post and approached the horses. They were breathing hard and biting at their bridles. Simeon looked up and down the road for soldiers who could care for the animals. Seeing none, he called for two boys who were sword fighting with sticks in front of a home nearby and took the last two coins from his purse. His wife would disapprove of giving away their money where they were just scraping by, but Simeon couldn’t stand seeing the horses suffer.
The older of the two boys looked about ten. Simeon held one of the coins between his thumb and forefinger. They boy’s eyes lit up at the sight of it.
“Grab a bucket from your home, go to the well, and water these horses. If you do a good job, this will be yours,” Simeon said.
As the first boy scampered off, the second boy looked at Simeon expectantly. He had large brown eyes and shoulder-length hair, and Simeon thought he looked to be about seven. Simeon squatted down so he could look the boy straight in the eyes.
“Do you know how to watch horses?”
“Yes,” the boy said, nodding his head.
“Good,” Simeon said, holding up the other coin for the boy to see. “While your brother fetches water, I need you to keep an eye on these animals and my grapes. Can you do that?”
The boy nodded and tried to grab the coin from Simeon’s fingers.
Simeon moved his hand out of reach. “Watch the animals and my crops, and if both are in good condition when I return, this is yours.”
The boy moved to the horses and started petting their noses, talking to them. Satisfied that things were under control, Simeon looked at the door of the tarkan’s house, which also served as an informal gathering place for soldiers. It had been just over three years since Simeon had last passed through these doors, and standing in front of them brought back memories of laughing and drinking with his soldiers, planning battle strategies, and catching his men trying to sneak girls to the upstairs rooms. It felt both comforting and odd to return.
He entered and heard the sound of men talking in the large room to the left—one that was used as a resting area for soldiers on break. The room was pretty much as Simeon remembered— a few scattered chairs and a large table in the middle. Nine soldiers crowded around the table. Kamen stood on the far side. It took him a moment to notice Simeon standing in the door.
“Come in, Simeon,” he said, motioning for Simeon to enter.
The soldiers turned and looked.
“Tarkan,” one of the soldiers said, his voice full of shock.
Some of the soldiers’ eyes grew wide in surprise, but the other men said nothing. A few nodded in recognition.
“Make room for our guest,” Kamen commanded.
Two soldiers at the foot of the table moved aside, giving Simeon an unobstructed view. Simeon looked down and gasped. The old man he had seen on horseback earlier lay on his back, his arms at his sides. A blue-and-white striped blanket covered the man from his stomach to mid-thigh. What Simeon could see of the man’s body was skeletal, the skin wrapped so tightly around the bones that Simeon wondered if that was what held the man together. The man’s ribs and breastbone stuck out from his chest, which barely moved up and down with each shallow breath. His legs and arms looked like long, straight sticks, and his skin was splotched with dirt and sores. The old man’s eyes were sunk deep into his head; one was closed, the other half-open and listless. A pungent smell wafted up from the body, and Simeon had to pinch his nose and breathe through his mouth to avoid gaging.
The old man reminded Simeon of soldiers who had spent a good deal of time in a Byzantine prison being fed nothing but water and the occasional scrap of bread. Maybe he had been recently rescued. But even if that was true, Simeon didn’t understand why Kamen and his men were so interested in him. It was only then that he noticed that the soldiers around the table were standing at least three feet from the edge, as if they were afraid that getting too close to the old man might bring a similar fate upon them.
“Thank you for coming,” Kamen said.
“Is this why you’ve brought me here?” Simeon asked, motioning toward the table.
Confused, Simeon took another look at the body. “What for? The man needs a physician.”
“We’ve sent for one, but that’s not why you’re here. Tell me, do you recognize him?”
Simeon stared at the man’s gaunt face. There was something familiar about his features, but Simeon couldn’t remember seeing him before.
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“Are you sure?” Kamen said. “Look closer.”
Simeon took another long look. In his mind, he added some weight to the cheeks and life to the eyes. He trimmed up the beard and combed back the hair. He had the feeling he should know the man but still couldn’t match him up with anyone.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I know him,” Simeon finally said.
“The man you’re looking at is Gavril. You served together at Kreta.”
Simeon looked at Kamen in disbelief, then back down to the white hair, long beard, and taut face. The old man did resemble Gavril, but this couldn’t be him. Gavril was a strong young man of about twenty years.
“You must mean this is Gavril’s grandfather,” Simeon said.
Kamen shook his head. “I wish it was so, Simeon, but this is Gavril.”
“Do you take me for a fool, Kamen? This man is at least three times Gavril’s age.”
“Believe me when I tell you this is Gavril,” Kamen said. “We’ve served side by side at Tarnovo for the last year.”
“This is some kind of trick,” Simeon said. “How can he be so old?”
“I’m hoping to get an answer to that and many other questions,” Kamen said, “but as you can tell, he’s not in any condition to talk.”
“What happened to him?”
“There’s a giant roaming around the forest. Gavril was captured by the giant about three weeks ago while on patrol.”
“I was told this morning that a Byzantine mercenary is causing problems.”
“It’s not some rogue soldier,” Kamen said. “This man, if you want to call him that, is something else. He’s faster and stronger than anyone I’ve fought against. I . . . I wouldn’t be here telling you this if it wasn’t for three of my men sacrificing themselves so we could rescue Gavril.”
Simeon thought back to what Bozhidar and Miroslav had told him. He had inwardly doubted their story, but with Kamen telling it . . .
“How many men went out with you?” Simeon asked.
“Twenty on horseback, with enough provisions to last us a week.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “What happened to the rest of your men?”
Kamen looked at the floor. “Dead or missing,” he said quietly.
There was silence in the room as the words sank in.
“One man stood against twenty?” Simeon tried to hide the skepticism in his voice, but it came out anyway.
“He appeared out of thin air a few minutes after we found Gavril. It was as if . . .”
“As if what?”
“As if he was waiting for us. Like the entire thing was a trap.”
Simeon thought, trying to figure out how a single man could successfully fight against twenty soldiers. He had never seen a soldier or anyone else—no matter how tall or strong— stand against that many men. “Where did you find him?”
“In the foothills of the Black Peak,” Kamen said.
Simeon felt his throat tighten. His home was in that area. His vineyard was secluded and far away from both the main road and the many hunting trails that crisscrossed the foot of the mountain, but there was always a chance that someone could stumble upon it by accident. His thoughts immediately went to his wife, Irina, and their infant son, Cyril. Simeon wished he was back there with them. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He wanted to believe his home was safe and secluded. During the recent siege of Sredets, the Byzantine army hadn’t come across it, but something in the back of his mind told him this giant was a greater threat. His gut told him to get back in the cart and drive his donkey back home as fast as he could, but he couldn’t come home empty-handed. He had promised the last of his money to the boys to watch the horses. His family needed the money that would come from selling the grapes. He couldn’t look his wife in the eye if he came home with nothing in his purse.
“Simeon, may we talk alone?” Kamen’s words brought him out of his thoughts.
Simeon nodded and followed Kamen out to the street, glad to be away from Gavril’s smell. He was pleased to see that the horses had been watered and that they were being tended to by the younger boy. A quick glance down the street showed the older boy hurrying toward them, water sloshing out the top of his bucket.
They stood by the donkey, and Kamen patted the beast’s nose. “You seem to have done well for yourself.”
“Farming is good for me. I’m finding it more enjoyable to create life than to take it.”
“We miss your leadership. We could use more of it.”
“You held Sredets.”
“That was luck. The Byzantines brought their catapults too close to the walls, and we destroyed them. They’ll be back next year, and when they come . . . I don’t know if we can withstand another siege.”
Simeon stood in quiet contemplation as he thought how fast the empire was crumbling. In the three years since Kleidion, most of the southern lands had fallen into enemy hands.
Kamen looked around, then said quietly, “I’d like you to lead a select group of men to go after whatever is out there.”
Kamen looked around, then said quietly, “I’d like you to lead a select group of men to go after whatever it is that’s out there.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t realize you had the authority to organize such a mission.”
“I don’t, but it doesn’t have to be official. When word reaches Boril that this mission was a failure, he’ll berate the men, then try to round up more soldiers. I’ll volunteer to lead and spread the word that you’ll help us. You can meet us just outside the city tonight. I’ll have a horse and supplies for you. You can keep your donkey in the stables.”
Simeon thought the offer over. The tarkan in him was curious to see the giant, or whatever it was, that could defeat twenty soldiers. But another part of him still bristled at how the nobility had dismissed him after Kleidion. He was a hero to his solders, but not to the tsar. He was loath to give a hand to the power that had treated him so poorly.
Simeon shook his head. “I need to sell my grapes and get home before nightfall.”
“Now isn’t the right time, Kamen. I can’t afford to spend the day running around when I have crops to sell.”
“I’ll find a way to compensate you for the grapes.”
“It’s not about the money,” Simeon said. “I have a wife and child now. I can’t just be going off on missions whenever I feel like it.”
“You have a child?”
“Yes, a son. Eight months old. His name is Cyril.”
Kamen put a hand on Simeon’s shoulder. “Congratulations are in order, then. When things settle down here, I would like to meet him and see my cousin again.”
“After the harvest.”
“After we defeat the giant.”
Simeon sighed. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I have different priorities now. Besides, Tsar Ivan and the nobility made it very clear that they don’t want me anywhere near their soldiers. I posed a risk to you and all the men in that room just by crossing that door.”
“Did you not see the faces of the soldiers standing around that table, Simeon?” Kamen said. “They’re terrified. I doubt Boril could round up more than three soldiers to go find whatever’s out there. But if they knew you were ready to lead them, I could get fifty men.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” Simeon called to the two boys and handed them the last of his coins. Then he untied his donkey and climbed into the cart. He flicked the reins, but Kamen grabbed the donkey by the bridle.
“I led twenty men out and came back with four. This monster poses danger to everyone within a two-day journey of the city— including your wife and son. If you won’t do it for the empire or the soldiers, do it for your family.”
“I am thinking of my family, Kamen. They need a husband and father, not a soldier. Now, I have crops to sell. Let me go on my way.”
Kamen gave Simeon a long look, then let go of the donkey.
Simeon flicked the reins again, and the donkey started down the street.
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About The Time Seller
The year is 1017. A mysterious giant terrorizes small villages near the city of Sredets, the last remaining stronghold of the First Bulgarian Empire. Disgraced solider Simeon Exarch is reluctantly drawn into the fight and manages to slay the giant. But his victory comes at a price—the deaths of his wife, Irina, and son, Cyril.
A thousand years later, Simeon lives on, having harnessed the giant’s powers to prolong his life and those of his friends. Then one evening, he notices a woman who looks exactly like Irina. From the sun-shaped birthmark on her neck to the smell of her body and the fact that she and his late wife share the same name, Simeon becomes convinced that the woman is his late wife and holds the key to eternal life.
Kidnapped on her wedding night, Irina has no memories of the past. Her husband, Miles, will do anything to rescue her from her captor. Soon, they will both learn just how deep their love for each other goes, as well as what happens when one crosses the threshold from life to death.
Part I: The Byzantine Devil
Sredets, First Bulgarian Empire
August 1017 A.D.
The road to Sredets was muddy and quiet, black and empty.
Normally, the road bustled with the traffic of traders, soldiers, travelers, and peasants heading to or from Sredets and the fortress that protected it. But today, as far as Simeon could see, the road was barren. The hoofprints, wheel tracks, and footprints that normally scarred the road were also missing. It was as if no one had journeyed to or from the city since the morning rain. Even the forest on either side of the road was strangely silent. The normal cacophony of insects and birds was absent. The only sound was the trudge, trudge, trudge of the donkey pulling the cart through the muck.
The silence made Simeon wary. An empty road meant people were afraid to travel. The latest Byzantine siege of Sredets had ended unsuccessfully a few weeks earlier, and Simeon hadn’t heard of any other reason to avoid the area. Still, he found himself turning his head to his right more often than usual to check his blind spot. If a bandit or robber hiding in the forest noticed his missing eye, they would sneak up on that side. He touched the intricate crossguard of his sword, his fingers tracing the lion heads at each end, then flicked the reins, urging his donkey forward at a faster clip.
His nerves eased when Sredets came into view. Men were scattered atop a scaffolding, repairing and patching the walls that had been damaged in the siege. Others were dismantling the abandoned Byzantine catapults scattered nearby. Soldiers stood guard on the tops of walls, watching. The air smelled like charred wood.
The guards at the south gate recognized Simeon and waved him through. Just inside the entrance, two blind men sat cross-legged on the side of the road. Each man held a bowl in his lap. Their heads turned at the same time when they heard the soft clop of hooves.
“Can the brave traveler spare something extra for a soldier blinded by the Byzantine monsters?” one of them cried out, raising the bowl high above his head and waving it in the air.
Simeon brought his cart to a stop. “I always have something for a fellow soldier, Bozhidar.”
The blind man stopped waving his bowl and smiled. “Simeon, is that you?”
“It is, old friend.” Simeon got down from the cart and approached the two men. Their clothes and beards were caked with dust. In place of eyes, each had dark slits that sank deep into their skulls. “How are my two friends this morning?”
“Blind as ever, but alive,” Bozhidar said. “The priest says my lack of sight is a blessing, but I think if he was missing both eyes, he’d feel differently.”
“When I stop in the church to pray, I’ll be sure to ask God to send a more understanding servant to the city,” Simeon said.
Bozhidar elbowed the man sitting next to him. “Miroslav, it’s Simeon.”
“I may be blind, but I’m not deaf,” Miroslav barked. He held out a scarred hand in Simeon’s direction. “It’s good to hear your voice again. It’s been months since you’ve come to town.”
Simeon took the man’s hand in his. “I’ve been busy with the harvest. It’s been a good year for just about everything we’ve grown. Which reminds me—I have something for both of you.” He grabbed two large clusters of grapes from the wagon and gave one to each man.
Bozhidar took one of the clusters. He held the grapes to his nose and sniffed them, touching several with his fingers.
“Oh, grapes,” he said, his smile widening. He popped one in his mouth. “They’re delicious. I can’t believe you’re selling them, let alone sharing them.”
“It’s my best harvest yet. I have more grapes than I can turn into wine.”
“Delicious grapes make delicious wine, and one can never have too much wine,” Bozhidar said, spitting out a seed and putting another grape in his mouth.
“And I have plenty of both. Better to share and sell than to let the excess spoil. Maybe I can finally earn enough to buy a horse.”
“I thank you,” Miroslav said. “It’s not often that we’re given something so fresh. Most people think they can give us something half spoiled just because we can’t see.”
“I’ll stop on my way out with some coins for the two of you, but first I have to sell the grapes.” Simeon looked around, then squatted next to the two men and spoke quietly. “The road to the city is empty. Why are people afraid to travel outside these walls?”
“You haven’t heard?” Miroslav said.
“Quiet, you fool.” Bozhidar tried to cover Miroslav’s mouth with his hand. “Don’t listen to what he says, Simeon. He wants to share the stories passed down from soldiers who are too afraid to do their job.”
Miroslav brushed Bozhidar’s hand from his face. “Don’t hush me. Simeon’s home is far outside these walls. He needs to know.”
“Know what?” Simeon asked.
“People have gone missing recently—soldiers, men, and women.” Miroslav spoke in a tone just above a whisper, and Simeon had to move closer to hear his words. “Peasants have run through these gates telling stories of a giant dressed as a Byzantine soldier who uses magic to appear and disappear out of thin air, snatching whomever he wants. They call him the Byzantine Devil.”
Simeon’s first inclination was to laugh out loud, but the earnestness in Miroslav’s voice stopped him. “I would think you’d be smarter than to listen to peasant gossip,” he said, stroking his beard.
“It’s not just the peasants telling these stories,” Miroslav said. “Soldiers have gone missing too. Most refuse to stray far from the walls unless they’re in large groups. Yesterday, it took Boril all day to round up a dozen soldiers to go find this creature.”
Simeon felt the blood rise to his face and his heart pound at the mention of Boril. Even though he was standing in the shade of the walls, it felt like the summer sun was shining directly on him.
“Boril is in Sredets?”
“Yes, he’s the tarkan of the garrison. Didn’t you know?” Bozhidar asked.
Simeon shook his head, then remembered that his friends couldn’t see what he was doing. “The news hasn’t made it out to where I live.”
“He was recently sent with some troops from Tarnavo—just before the siege,” Bozhidar said.
“Then it’s a miracle we managed to hold off the enemy,” Simeon replied.
Both of the blind men laughed.
“He’s half the reason they haven’t caught whatever’s out there,” Miroslav said, his tone serious again. “The men don’t respect him.”
“He’s not the problem,” Bozhidar replied. “The men here are weak and scared. They’re poor excuses for soldiers.”
Simeon clicked his tongue. “Don’t speak of our soldiers in that way, Bozhidar. They’re the only thing keeping us from becoming Byzantine slaves.”
“You know I mean no disrespect,” Bozhidar said, “but you also know how easy it is for leaderless men to let fear get the best of them. When Boril sent them out to track the giant down yesterday, he had to threaten them with death before they would go.”
“Fear. That was something I never had to worry about from you, old friend,” Simeon said, putting his hand on top of Bozhidar’s head. “You were never one to cower, even when the odds were stacked against us.”
Bozhidar smiled. “Thank you. If I could only see, I’d be out there hunting whatever is responsible for these stories.”
“I know you would,” Simeon said. “Thank you both for the information. I will be cautious on the journey home.”
“Simeon,” Miroslav said, reaching out.
Simeon took the man’s hand and held it in his. “What is it?”
“We’ve been through a lot together, have we not?”
“We’ve been through hell and back, then back to hell,” Simeon replied.
“I owe you my life, as does Bozhidar, so please listen to me. This isn’t just some story the soldiers are telling to shirk their duty. I cannot see, but I hear a fear in their voices. You remember Kleidion, don’t you?”
Simeon instinctively touched the spot where his right eye should have been. “How can I forget it?”
“Even when the Byzantines were overrunning our positions, the men under your command stood their ground. They fought even though we were outnumbered and there was nothing left to fight for.”
Simeon nodded. “There was much bravery that day. Many good men died.”
“Even the bravest soldiers are terrified to go outside the walls. Traders and villagers have been hesitant to walk the road in broad daylight. Even if the stories are exaggerated, there is something out there taking people. Bring your family to Sredets for protection until it’s taken care of. They’re not safe.”
Before Simeon could answer, there was a commotion at the gate. He turned and saw four solders ride in on horses.
“Make way! Make way!” the lead soldier shouted, even though the street leading from the gate was practically empty.
They raced past, each horse glistening beneath a slick sheen of sweat. The second horse bore both a rider and a passenger, but all Simeon could see of the latter was a puff of white hair and the long beard of a man bent with age, his head resting on the neck of the horse.
The man on the last horse glanced in Simeon’s direction as he rode past, then pulled the reins up tightly. The horse neighed and reared up on its hind legs. The rider brought the horse to the ground and turned it around so its nose was pointing directly at Simeon.
“Simeon, is that you?” the man on horseback said.
Simeon cocked his head. The voice sounded familiar, but all he could see of the man’s face was a bushy brown beard. The rest was obscured by a helmet and nose guard.
“Surely you haven’t forgotten me,” the man said. He removed his helmet, revealing large brown eyes and a high forehead.
“Kamen!” Simeon said, breaking into a grin. He pressed the donkey’s reins into Bozhidar’s hands, then hurried to greet his friend.
Kamen dismounted from his horse. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s been years,” Simeon replied, putting both hands on Kamen’s shoulders. “I didn’t know you were stationed here.”
“I arrived just a few weeks ago. We were sent from Tarnovo to help reinforce the city.”
“How goes the war?”
Kamen shook his head. “Not good. For every battle we win, we lose two. I received word yesterday that the enemy is moving toward Setina. If we fall there . . .”
“Then Sredets is the last stronghold left,” Simeon said, surprised by the sad tone of his voice.
“Tarkan, I was wondering—”
“Do not call me by that title,” Simeon said. “I’m not a soldier anymore.”
“No matter what the nobles think, you’ll always be tarkan to me and to many of the men here,” Kamen said.
“Thank you for the kind words.” Then, lowing his voice, Simeon added, “But be careful how loudly you speak them. There are many who would consider what you said to be treasonous.”
“I’m not worried about Boril,” Kamen said. Then, looking from side to side, he lowered his voice as well. “Your presence in Sredets comes at an opportune time. I might have a way by which you can restore your honor—at least in the eyes of those who feel you have none.”
“I couldn’t care less what the tsar thinks of me,” Simeon said.
“I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about your family and former clan.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I’m listening.”
Kamen glanced around the courtyard. “I’d rather show you than try to explain. Do you have time to come to the tarkan’s home?”
Simeon felt his heart hammer at the mention of the house. It was given to the captain who commanded the soldiers in the city. It had been his for a time, until the tsar stripped his honor and title.
“What about Boril?”
“I doubt he’ll be there,” Kamen said, disdain dripping from his voice. “If he’s not bedding a stable maid, he’s over at the governor’s house yapping about how his inspired leadership saved the city.”
“Still, if he’s there . . .” Simeon’s voice trailed off.
“If he is, I’ll post a guard outside the door. If you see one, head straight to the market.”
“Very well,” Simeon said. “I’ll meet you there.”
“Thank you. Gather your cart and come as quickly as your donkey will permit.”
Simeon watched Kamen get on his horse and ride off. He then returned to his cart and took the reins from Bozhidar.
“That sounded like Kamen,” Bozhidar said.
“It was,” Simeon said, realizing that Bozhidar and Miroslav had probably overheard the entire conversation.
“Kamen led the troops out to find the giant yesterday,” Bozhidar said. “He was the only one who didn’t have to be coerced to leave.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Simeon replied.
“How many men did he just return with? I heard only a handful of horses return.”
“Three soldiers and an old man rode in with him. From the looks of their horses, they rode them hard over many miles.”
“Kamen led four times that many men on horseback yesterday,” Miroslav said. “What do you think happened to the rest of them?”
Simeon looked through the open gate down the black, muddy road, hoping to see more men riding toward the city. Though he wasn’t going to admit it, his gut told him anyone who hadn’t returned was probably dead. “Don’t assume the worst, my friends,” he said instead. “The others will return soon.”
“I hope you’re right,” Miroslav said.
Simeon climbed into his cart. “I’ll see you before the sun goes down.”
“Be careful, Simeon,” Bozhidar called out.
“Thank you, my friends. I’ll stay safe. In the meantime, keep your ears open.”
Simeon took one last look down the empty road, then flicked the reins and guided the donkey down the city’s narrow streets.
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My last Widower Wednesday post about Facebook photos of the late wife generated a lot of discussion both in the comment section and the Dating a Widower Facebook group. There was enough conversation and debate that I decided to write a follow-up post.
As a quick reminder, a widower asked what he should do when his new girlfriend asked that he delete all past Facebook photos of the late wife. My advice was that as long as the photos weren’t stopping him back from moving forward, I didn’t see a problem with keeping them.
The two main criticisms of my suggestion were 1) Marathon Girl and I dated before social media so we never had to deal with this issue and 2) Facebook is such an immersive part of some people’s lives that it’s not fair for them to have random images of the widower and his late wife pop up at unexpected times.
I think the first critique is valid. Marathon Girl and I became a couple before social media became such a big part of everyone’s daily lives and as a result there are no pictures of the late wife on any of my social media accounts. So I asked Marathon Girl what she would want me to do if we were dating today and there were lots of photos of the late wife on my Facebook.
Marathon Girl didn’t have an immediate answer and needed time to mull it over. After some thought she said she’d be okay with me keeping the photos up so long as I met the following four conditions.
- I had previously announced my late wife’s death on Facebook.
- My relationship status was changed to In a Relationship with her as opposed to Widowed, Single, or Married to the late wife.
- I wasn’t spending time looking at or commenting on past photos, or sharing memories of the past on my timeline.
- I was being proactive in letting torchbearers know that tagging me in photos of the late wife or posting memorials and other things related to my past marriage were unacceptable now that I was in a serious relationship with someone else.
I find nothing unreasonable about those requirements and would suggest that those in a relationship with a widower use them as a starting point in creating their own social media boundaries.
As for the second criticism, part of using social media is doing so responsibly. If there are people, subjects, or other things on social media that make the experience miserable, take control of your account to the best of your abilities. Unfollow or unfriend those who can’t get over the past. Update your Facebook settings. Take control of your Facebook newsfeed. Spend less time in the virtual world and more time in the real one.
And, yes, even with your best efforts a random picture or some other reminder of the widower’s past is going to appear when you least expect it—online or off. But that’s part of life. Since you can’t control these events, what’s important is how you deal with these random moments when they happen. You can let it ruin your day or you can shrug it off and move forward. Focus on how the widower’s treating you. Do his actions show that he loves you? Is he working on strengthening your relationship and building a new life together? Is he respecting your boundaries? That, more than a random photo on your Facebook feed, will determine whether the relationship with your widower will last.
Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read the last chapter below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
Get Room for Two at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Smashwords
The morning of November 10, 2002, I awoke to a pitch-black room. The sound of the wind blowing leaves across the driveway reminded me of running water. I didn’t bother looking at the clock. I instinctively knew it was much earlier than my usual five a.m. wake up.
I pulled the covers to my chin and tried to fall back asleep. It was pointless. The leaves continued to make scratching sounds as they were carried from the driveway to the street. Then the furnace kicked on with its customary clatter. Usually I would have found such noises comforting. But this morning my mind was too active and alert for them to be anything but unwelcome.
After what seemed like an eternity of lying in the dark, my alarm clock buzzed at five a.m. I silenced it and lay there, letting the thoughts of the day weigh heavily on my mind. Throughout the day I would think back to what I was doing one year ago and relive every moment, every mistake, exactly like it happened.
My eyes became accustomed to the dark and I could just make out the lines where the ceiling met the walls. I wanted to sleep the day away or at least as many hours of it as I could. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. My body was already filled with anxious anticipation. For the last year I had counted the days, weeks, and months since Krista died. After today I would start counting years.
When I was ten, my mom told me about a book she had read. The book was about a man who survived a battle with cancer. This was during the early 1980s when surviving cancer was rare. My mom had tried to explain to me to how the man found his battle with cancer to be a spiritual experience. At the time I didn’t understand how going through something so horrible could be a spiritual. The year before, when I was nine, I watched as a great uncle lost his battle with bone cancer. The memories of him lying naked in bed, grimacing from the pain, were still fresh in my mind, and I wondered if my great uncle had found a spiritual aspect in his suffering before his death. What my mom was trying to explain to me was something I didn’t understand until this morning. Personal and spiritual development doesn’t come when life is good and unchallenging. It’s the hard times — the ones where we are forced to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other — when the real growth occurs. I was learning that difficult times helped me appreciate the sweet ones. And if I let them, these trying moments would teach me what was truly important. What the last year had taught me was the incredible value of the people I love. It was my parents, siblings, friends, and loved ones who made my life worth living. And though I always knew this to be true, it took the death of the two most important people in my life to realize how precious the time we shared together really was.
The darkness gave way to a cold, gray dawn. As I watched the shadows recede from the room I realized the light was similar to the morning in which I had seen Krista alive, lying in bed with the covers wrapped tightly around her body, her arms wrapped around her protruding belly that contained our daughter, Hope. The memory floated through my mind for a minute before I dismissed it. I felt dark and empty as I got out of bed.
I took a long shower. The hot water had a cleansing feel as it cascaded from my head to my feet. I fought off memories of Krista’s death. One thing I had learned over the last months was moving on isn’t forgetting about the past, but knowing when to remember it. I needed to do my best to let those who were with me know how much I loved them instead of dwelling on the past. I focused my thoughts on Julianna — the first time I saw her walking up the aisle of church, the first time we held hands, our first kiss.
I dressed for church and made breakfast — eggs and toast. To my surprise I wasn’t hungry. I ate only a few bites before I pushed the plate away and looked outside at some magpies jumping among the branches of a box elder tree. I had hoped the weather today would be different than what it had been a year before. I wanted gray skies and rain. Outside everything seemed exactly the same — blue sky with a touch of haze and the same sickly yellow light that seems to accompany even the brightest winter days.
As I threw away my uneaten breakfast, I glanced at the clock. Eight fifteen. I realized at this time last year I was just starting to run my errands. And for a moment I saw myself back in the car driving toward the intersection deciding whether or not to drive straight or turn left. Usually when I thought about this moment, I would curse myself for not listening to the subtle prompting telling me to drive to the apartment. Today was different. Instead of beating myself up emotionally, I thought about how one seemingly insignificant choice had changed my entire life.
My thoughts drifted over different choices I had made in the last year. For some reason my mind kept coming back to my decision to buy the house. I remembered sitting amid the dead bugs and feeling that I should buy it even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. There were times I still regretted buying the house. I meant living in a city I didn’t want to be part of anymore and a long commute to work, which meant less time with Julianna. Then it hit me. Julianna was the reason I bought the house. Never before had a thought come to my mind with such force and clarity. If I hadn’t bought the house and had moved closer to work, I never would have met Julianna.
I tried to think of what my life would be like without her. I doubted the happiness and contentment I now felt every day would still be there. Julianna was such a wonderful blessing to me. I couldn’t see my life without her.
Smiling through the tears that were running down my face, I got to my knees and thanked God for second chances.
Julianna greeted me with a kiss when I picked her up for church. The kiss, along with the look in her eyes, told me she was willing to help me in whatever way she could today — even if that meant doing nothing more than being with me. She invited me inside and went to the bedroom to put on her shoes and coat. Earlier in the week we discussed that this day might be a particularly difficult one. We had both agreed to be patient with each other and hope the day would turn out better than we thought.
As I waited, I looked over at the textbooks on her bookshelf. Organic Chemistry. Physics. Calculus. These books brought thoughts of one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Shigley, who taught Renaissance literature and courses on Elizabeth Bishop. She was married to an engineer and would sometimes share stories about being with someone who approached problems so differently than herself. I had always thought it odd that two people whose interests were so diverse could be so happily married. This was probably because when it came to our interests, Krista and I were very similar. I remember thinking at the time how fortunate I was to have someone who had the same tastes in literature, poetry, and art.
It never occurred to me that I could love anyone who had such a scientific mind. Julianna had proved my assumptions wrong. Even though she was very different from Krista as far as her interests and how she viewed the world, they weren’t as important as the things I admired about her. Julianna was active in church, had a positive outlook on life, was patient with me, and had a kind heart. She had introduced to me to a new self within because she was not only so different from Krista, but also from me.
There was a melancholy air on the drive to church as if we both wanted this day to be over. Julianna took my hand and held it, as if to let me know she understood this day was a difficult one. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one that felt this way. At church I couldn’t concentrate on the services. Instead I was either replaying parts of that sad day in my mind or counting down the hours and minutes until Krista killed herself, which happened at ten minutes to two. The last prayer of the service was said, and Julianna and I headed home.
My mom was knocking on my door when we pulled in the driveway. There was a sad countenance about her, and for a minute I thought she had bad news. My heart sunk, thinking I didn’t want to hear about anything else that was sad. I should have realized my mother would be depressed for the same reason I was.
"We’re going up to the cemetery to visit Krista," she said. "I wondered if you wanted to go up with us."
"Thanks, but we’re going up later."
My mom seemed a surprised by this but seemed okay with it. "If you change your mind, we’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes."
The wind had picked up, and we hustled into the house, hoping for warmth. Inside we prepared lunch. Julianna fixed sandwiches while I made a salad.
"It seems like your family wants to spend time with you today," Julianna said. "Yet you seem to feel the opposite."
I put down the tomato I was dicing and stared out the kitchen window at the empty lot next to my house. The chain-link fence had leaves piled against it. They looked brown, wilted, and sad.
"The month after Krista died, I had a lot of support from friends and family," I said. "If it wasn’t for their love, I don’t know what would have become of me. I love my family, but they haven’t made the same progress I have. That makes it hard to be with them today. I feel that being with them would take me back instead of forward.
"The decision to move on with my life, no matter how bleak each day seemed, was something I’ve had to do by myself. Friends and family have been there to support me, but in the end I was the one who had to make these decisions."
"And that’s why you don’t want to go to the cemetery with them?" Julianna asked.
"That’s part of it. It’s really something I want to do alone."
By the silence in the kitchen I could tell that Julianna had stopped making sandwiches. I realized we hadn’t discussed whether or not Julianna would come with me to the cemetery later today. I turned and saw confusion in her eyes.
"If you feel comfortable coming," I said, "I would like you to join me."
"Are you sure? If you want to be alone, I understand."
"You’re the only person I would like to be with me," I said.
Julianna nodded and added thin slices of turkey and Monterey Jack cheese to the bread.
"Thanks," she said. "For wanting me there, letting me be part of this."
I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. "Thanks for wanting to be part of it."
We were spooning on the couch when the time was ten to two. I could just see over Julianna’s head to the clock on the VCR. The light streaming through the window had the same pale, dreary look to it that it had a year ago as I had climbed the stairs to our apartment complex. I closed my eyes and let the memory flow. There was no point trying to stop it. This was something I had to relive one last time.
Everything was just as I remembered it: the matted, miserable-looking grass, the dark windows of our apartment, and the feeling inside that something wasn’t right. I took the stairs to the door and unlocked it. At this point there was a part of me that wanted to stop. I had gone far enough. There was no need to go farther. Proceeding wasn’t going to change anything.
Instead I called out for Krista. And a second later, I heard the crack of a gunshot exploding from the bedroom. I ran back and there was Krista. Every horrible detail from the color draining from her face to the sound of blood gushing from the hole in the back of her head was real and vivid.
Only this time one thing was different. Instead of the panic I felt upon discovering Krista’s body, I felt calm. Where shock and fear had ruled my emotions, I was strangely composed. I knelt next to Krista’s body. The blue in her eyes was fading to gray. She didn’t have long.
"Oh, my love!" I said. And I reached for her and held her in my arms until she died.
Back on the couch, tears were streaming down my cheeks falling into Julianna’s hair.
"Abel, what’s wrong?" Julianna said. She tried to turn and comfort me, but I held her so she couldn’t move.
"I’m fine," I said as the tears fell faster.
"What can I do to help you?" Julianna said.
"There’s nothing you can do," I said
"Then let me comfort you," Julianna said. Her voice has a pleading quality to it. I relaxed my grip, and Julianna turned and wiped the tears as they fell. When the tears finally stopped, I pulled her close and held her in my arms.
As we lay on the couch together, I realized that something was different. It took me a minute to realize what it was. Usually after remembering Krista’s suicide I was filled with anger, grief, or a strange mixture of the two. None of those emotions were present this time. Instead there was serenity and peace. Somehow over the last weeks or months, I had found the ability to forgive Krista for what she had done. No longer when I thought about her death would I feel bitter toward her. There would always be questions, but the rage that had filled a part of my body for so long would never rise inside me again.
I opened my eyes. Julianna was looking up at me. Her eyes looked sad, and her brow was wrinkled in worry.
"I’m fine," I said.
We waited until four o’clock to visit the cemetery. I thought it would be late enough that Julianna and I would be alone. To my surprise, a dark red Ford Taurus was parked on the gravel road near Krista’s grave. There were two occupants sitting in the front seat, who appeared to look back through the rearview window as we parked. For a second I thought that it was Krista’s parents. I hadn’t seen them since Hope’s funeral, and they were the last people I wanted to see at the moment.
"What’s wrong?" Julianna said.
"I was hoping it would just be the two of us," I said.
The wind had picked up a little and buffeted the car. Then the person in the driver’s seat opened the door. I sighed with relief when I recognized the familiar face.
"Do you know who’s in the car?" Julianna said.
"It’s James and Grace," I said.
"Do you want to wait until they’re gone?"
I shook my head, opened the door, and walked toward Krista’s headstone. Julianna followed close behind. James and Grace joined us a minute later. We exchanged hellos and then stood in silence for a few minutes, staring at the tombstone.
The sound of gravel popping under tires made everyone look up. Another car parked next to mine. Maria, the director of the college writing center, emerged. After another round of hellos were exchanged, I introduced Julianna to Maria. Then the silence and the standing in the gray weather returned.
"I can’t believe it’s been a year," Grace said, several minutes later.
James nodded in agreement.
Maria wiped tears from her eyes. "I still can’t believe she’s gone," she said.
I felt that I should be crying or saying something profound. But my mind was blank, my eyes dry. I had already shed my tears and said my good-byes to Krista earlier in the day. Standing by her headstone was a mere formality.
Julianna stood with her arm around me. I moved a strand of hair the wind had blown into her eyes behind her ear. Then I returned my attention the headstone. I realized how happy Krista would be if she knew her friends and old boss had come to pay their respects. James, Grace, and Maria were some of her favorite people. And I felt glad that I was able to share this moment with them.
Soon Maria gave me a hug and returned to her car and left. A few minutes later, James and Grace did the same. Julianna and I watched their car drive down the gravel road. We stood at the headstone a few more minutes. Julianna leaned her head on my shoulder. Our shadows grew longer, and the cold seeped through my jeans.
"Let’s go," I said. "We’ve been here long enough."
Back in the car, I turned the heater so it blew on our faces and feet. I took one last look at the cemetery, unsure if I would ever come back.
As if reading my thoughts Julie said, "You can come back whenever as you like."
"I know," I said. I squeezed her hand, then put the car in drive.
I stopped the car for a moment before exiting the cemetery and took one last look back. One last look at Krista and Hope.
In my mind I started to piece together what I planned on telling Julianna later in the day on why would never return to the cemetery. I wasn’t worried about Julianna being supportive. I knew she would let me visit as often as I wanted. But that wasn’t why I didn’t want to return. Krista and Hope would always be a part of me. Memories of them would forever linger somewhere in the back of my mind. But if I wanted this relationship with Julianna to work, I needed to look forward to the future without regrets or memories of the past holding me back. All of my energy needed to be directed toward making a new life and new memories with Julianna. She needed to feel like she was the center of my universe.
As we drove down the main road, I looked over at Julianna and squeezed her hand.
"I love you," I said.
"I love you, too," she said. Her green eyes shone with unshed tears.
"Thanks for coming. I know that wasn’t easy for you."
"I don’t think it was easy for anyone."
I gave Julianna’s hand another squeeze. She leaned her head on my shoulder. I looked in the rearview mirror. The tops of the trees from the cemetery were all I could see. Then as the road sloped downhill, they disappeared completely.
We held hands all the way home.
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Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 15 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
Get Room for Two at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Smashwords
Two weeks before the St. George Marathon, I ran with Julianna on her last, long training run. It was the first time she had let me join her on a run over ten miles. To me it was proof that our relationship was growing stronger and that Julianna didn’t view me as a hindrance to her training.
I mapped out a twelve-mile course that snaked through the business depot. The route took us past warehouses, abandoned trains, and old ammunition bunkers. The latter was leftover from when the facility was owned and utilized by the US Army. I thought the route would be a nice change from the busy, main roads we usually ran. Being Saturday, the streets of the depot would be empty.
The run started like any other. We maintained a constant seven minute and thirty second pace through the first six miles. Between breaths we talked about the upcoming marathon, how fast Julianna wanted to run it, and traveling with her family to see it. I was looking forward to the trip, as it would be a good way to know Julianna’s family better.
As we started the seventh mile of the run, I noticed Julianna’s pace had slowed, and she seemed to have a slight limp in her right leg. With each step she grimaced ever so slightly as if she was trying to hide how much pain she was in.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
Julianna nodded. "My right leg."
"Is it a cramp?" I tried to say it like it was no big deal to mask my worry. For the last week Julianna had been experiencing discomfort in her right leg during our regular morning runs and would down several ibuprofens and a glass of milk when we were done. I had asked her what was wrong, but she had dismissed my questions by saying it wasn’t anything to worry about.
"I’m fine. Keep running," she said.
We ran for another mile. Up ahead was a major cross street. Turning right would cut the run short about four miles. Running straight would take us along the perimeter of the depot, down a long straight road with warehouses as big as football fields on our right and a chain link fence with barbed wire looping around the top to our left.
"Maybe we should head home," I said, as we approached the intersection. "No point risking further injury."
"I can do this," Julianna said. "The pain isn’t too bad."
As we ran through the intersection, I looked right. I could see up Second Street, all the way to my house. I longed to turn right and get Julianna off her leg as soon as possible. Julianna didn’t look to the right or the left. She kept herself focused on the course.
By the time we started the eighth mile, Julianna’s pace slowed to about eight and a half minutes per mile. Her limp became more noticeable. Her face was flush, as if running was pushing herself to the limits.
"I really think we should call it," I said. We were running slow enough that I could talk in complete sentences.
"I can finish," Julianna said.
"Don’t you want to run the marathon?"
Julianna didn’t say anything.
"Then why not take it easy? Cutting this run short by a few miles short isn’t going to slow you down come race day. If we keep running, you risk further injury. You might not be able to run the marathon at all."
"I’ll rest tomorrow," Julianna said. "Next week is short runs. I’ll be fine."
I grabbed her hand and tried to slow her down. "You can rest while I run home. I can be back with the car in less than ten minutes."
Julianna shook my hand from her arm and continued running. She didn’t stop until she reached my house. By that time she could barely walk and was doing her best to fight back the tears. She leaned on me, and I helped her slowly walk to the house. She sat down on the porch and leaned against the side of the house.
I went to the kitchen to retrieve a glass of water and ibuprofen. When I returned Julianna was lying on her back, staring at the sky. She had a faraway look in her eyes as if she was remembering something.
"You know what’s wrong with your leg, don’t you?" I said.
Julianna nodded. She sat up and swallowed the two pills and half the glass of water. Then she lay down on her side so she was facing the street. I sat by her head and ran my fingers through her hair.
"My second year at the University of Puget Sound, I fractured my right femur," she said. "The pain feels exactly the same."
"How long did it take to heal?"
"About nine months. The doctors wouldn’t let me run during that time."
"Is a doctor going to look at your leg before the race?"
"I have an appointment next week," Julianna said.
"And if you leg’s broken?"
"I’ve trained too hard not to run," she said.
We sat on the porch, watching the nimbus clouds blow in from the west and head over the mountains. I started massaging Julianna’s shoulders and back. Slowly the tension in her muscles dissipated. She relaxed and leaned against me chest. We waited until Julianna said the pain in her leg had subsided enough that she could stand. Then I helped her to the car and drove her home.
Julianna saw the doctor Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t ask me to go with her. I was a little hurt by her actions. I tried not to let it bother me even though I wanted nothing more than to be with her.
That evening I fixed dinner for myself. It was the first time in over a month I hadn’t spent the evening with Julianna. It felt strange to eat alone. It was a sober reminder what my life was like before Julianna became a regular part of it — when the loneliness of the house seemed to be my constant companion.
While dinner was warming in the microwave, I walked out to the mailbox. Mixed in with the junk mail and bills was a large manila envelope that had Primary Children’s Hospital as its return address. It had been months since I received any mail from them and wondered what it contained. Back inside I tore open the envelope and dumped the contents out on the kitchen counter. Two photographs of Hope floated to the counter and landed face up.
They were the last things I expected to see, and I was unprepared for the memories they unleashed — her lying in her incubator, trying to curl her hand around my finger, holding her in my arms as she died.
The tears came quickly. I leaned against the metal stove and slid to the floor. The microwave beeped, and there was a faint smell of warmed up tuna casserole. My body shook as I recalled Hope resting in my arms, gasping her final breaths.
When I finally composed myself, I picked up the photographs, trying to decide what to do with them. There was something strange about them. I looked closer. Hope’s face had a yellow tint to it. The only time she had looked like that was when she died. I couldn’t recall anyone with a camera in the room when Hope died and I wondered when the photographs had been taken. I thought back to Hope’s final moments — the doctor declaring her dead and me holding her briefly before handing her to the nurse and walking out the door. There seemed to be something I was missing, something I must have forgotten. I thought again, longer and harder, replaying the scene over and over again in my mind.
Then I remembered.
As I left the room, the nurse asked something about having photographs taken of my daughter. I must have said yes because as my dad and I were walking down the hall, I recall a nurse walking toward the room pushing a cart with a camera attached to it. I put the photographs back in the envelope. I was grateful to have them. I only wished they hadn’t caught me by surprise.
I took the envelope to the room where Krista’s things were stored. In the spring, my mom had created a scrapbook full of photographs of Hope’s brief life. I had only looked at the book once. The grief rose to the surface too quickly when I opened the scrapbook, so I had stored the book along with Krista’s things.
The scrapbook was buried deep under three-ring binders filled with Krista’s papers and journals. I put the envelope in the back of the scrapbook. I decided not to look through the rest of it. I had experienced enough memories for one day. As I was placing a notebook of Krista’s writings back in the box, a group of loose papers slid from their bindings and fell to the floor. I briefly looked through the papers — most of them assignments she had written for her college English classes.
I read the first page of one essay, and with it came a memory of Krista writing it on our computer late at night. I read a second, then a third. Each personal essay or story critique came with its own special moment, a reminder of how wonderful and creative Krista had been. Lost in good memories, I sat on the floor, amid the boxes, and read the first few pages of every paper. By the time I finished reading, I felt happy. It was nice to think of Krista and remember what she was like before the darkness had overtaken her.
Behind the last paper, stuffed in the back of the notebook in a mishmash fashion were a few of Krista’s poems. I always considered them the most personal of her writings and I hadn’t read any of them since she died. But I started sifting through the poetry. I read her poems out loud, one by one. I had always been envious of the way Krista was able to string words and images together. And as I sat there reading, I wondered how someone who was capable of writing such beauty could take her own life.
Then I read the last poem in the notebook. And everything stopped.
Ten-Toed Children of Eve
My parents were married
under the constellation of the aardvark
in the year of the swan.
I was conceived on Strawberry Hill —
which isn’t a hill — but a two dollar wine.
Don’t, however, make the mistake
of thinking maniacs cannot love deeply,
or underestimate the children of
their kind of frenzy.
It is true that Susan has since seen visions
and has mistaken the garage for
Eden on quite a few occasions (only
you can’t smoke near the gasoline).
It rains rhinestones on the lawn for her;
Just put up your lithium umbrella
and dance along.
Todd can fix anything . . . broken.
He repairs trees in the garden
for Susan who has woven
spark plugs into her hair.
She sings "the tree of life is a tobacco plant,"
but don’t make the mistake of thinking
that life isn’t found in strange paradises.
"I have born only good sons," she says.
And that is one up on the original Eve.
I read the poem again and again. Each time I pictured Krista’s parents in my mind. I could see Susan raving about hidden cameras placed all over her house by the FBI or claiming the garage was indeed Eden. I remembered Todd chain-smoking as he fixed their lawnmower for the umpteenth time that summer.
Then I thought of Krista and wondered what it was like for her growing up with Susan and Todd as parents. I could see why she was so hesitant to talk about them when we were first dating and even more cautious about having me meet them. As I read the poem a final time, I realized "Ten-toed Children of Eve" was about more than her parents’ insanity. Krista was part of the poem too, a warning not to underestimate what she was capable of based on the genes she had received from her parents.
Since Krista had told me about her parents, openly and honestly, I had always thought that Krista was immune to the mental illnesses that afflicted them. In reality, I had misjudged how powerful genetics could be. Krista had been suffering from something, I didn’t know what. But at that moment I knew taking her own life wasn’t something Krista would have chosen if she had been in her right mind. Accompanying that thought, I was filled with a feeling of peace. I held onto that serenity as long as I could.
Julianna stopped by as I was getting ready for bed. The unhappy look in her eyes told me the news she received from the doctor wasn’t good. It turned out the diagnosis was just what Julianna had feared. An X-ray had revealed a hairline fracture in her femur.
"What did he say about running the marathon?" I said.
"He said it would be better if I didn’t run it," she said. The tone of her voice indicated that the doctor’s words had devastated her. "If I decide to run, he suggested I not do any more training runs between now and race day." She put her arms around me and rested her head on my shoulder. "I was looking forward to this marathon. I’ve been running so fast. I thought it would be a great opportunity to improve my time."
"Maybe your leg will feel better if you stay off it until race day," I said.
Julianna shook her head. "Injuries like this don’t heal overnight. I know that after a few miles my leg will be in pain again come race day."
"Are you still going to run?"
Julianna nodded. "I have to run, no matter how hard it hurts. I’ve trained too hard to simply give up."
Instead of running every morning we went to the fitness center at her apartment complex and worked out. While I ran on the treadmill, Julianna rode the stationary bike — the only workout that wouldn’t further injure her leg. Each morning she pedaled fast and furious for an hour. In the afternoons after work before I returned home, she rode the bike for another hour. It became part of the routine for me to come home and find her preparing dinner, dressed in her workout clothes, sweat still lingering on her brow.
I had never seen anyone work so hard at something before. If it was me with the broken leg, there was no doubt I would have stopped working out or even thought about running the marathon. But Julianna was determined to race, and there was nothing that she would use for an excuse to stop.
Julianna insisted on running at least one good run a week before the marathon. We ran it in Salt Lake near her parents’ house. Her leg still hurt from the run, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been weeks ago. As we drove back to Ogden, I was going to tease Julianna about making up the whole broken leg thing just so she wouldn’t have to run anymore. But Julianna had a faraway look in her eyes, and I could tell she hadn’t been listening to me recap the run and the mental obstacles I had thrown up during the race.
"What you are thinking about?" I said.
The words seemed to bring her out of her trance.
"You," she said.
"What about me?"
"How you’re doing," she said.
I thought she meant how I was feeling after the run.
"I feel a little winded," I said, "but otherwise I feel great."
"That’s not what I meant," Julianna said. "How are you doing as far as moving on? You know, with Krista."
I thought I was slowly coming to an inner peace with Krista’s suicide even though there were still many unanswered questions surrounding her death. I wasn’t actively grieving anymore and talked about her openly with Julianna.
"All things considered, I think I’m doing rather well," I said. I briefly took my eyes off the road and looked at Julianna. "Why do you ask?"
"I think there’s some work you need to do," Julianna said.
Her words stung. I tried to think of anything I might have done to give her the impression I was having a difficult time moving on. I thought about my house. I had moved photos of Krista and me from the living room and hallways back to my bedroom. The rooms that Julianna spent most of her time at my place — the living room and kitchen — were now Krista free. I tried to treat Julianna like the number one woman in my life.
"What am I doing wrong?" I asked.
"I just don’t think you’re ready, that’s all."
"Ready? Ready for what?"
Julianna shrugged her shoulders and looked back out the passenger window.
"You can’t say I’m not ready and not tell me what it is," I said.
"All I’m saying is that I don’t think you’ve moved on enough."
I gripped the steering wheel tightly and gritted my teeth.
"You’re being unfair," I said.
"Please, Abel," Julianna said. "Trust me on this one."
I spent the next ten minutes trying to coax the information out of Julianna. After it became apparent Julianna wasn’t going to give in, we drove the rest of way home in silence. I dropped Julianna off at her apartment instead of taking her back to my place. I was frustrated enough that I didn’t want to spend any more time with her that day.
Once home I walked through the house, double-checking everything to make sure there were no signs of Krista in the rooms Julianna frequented. Not finding anything that said I wasn’t moving on, I pondered over the last few days and weeks in my mind. What hadn’t I done right?
Frustrated and still sticky with sweat from my run, I decided to take a shower. I turned on the water and let it run while I undressed. Before stepping in the shower, I looked in the mirror. Around my neck was the necklace from which hung my wedding ring. The ring had been around my neck since January. It had become a part of me, and I often forgot it was there. I set the necklace on the sink while I showered, the whole time wondering if this was what Julianna was referring to. I didn’t see how it could be. Though she knew about it, Julianna rarely if ever saw it. I never wore it running as I was afraid of losing it. The more I thought about it, however, I remembered how Julianna would occasionally rest her hand on my breastbone. Those times when she rested her hand there, I thought nothing of it, but now I seemed to remember her hand slowly moving over my chest as if to see if the ring was still there.
After the shower, I sat on my bed, holding the ring. If it was indeed what she had been referring to, I could understand why it would make her think I wasn’t moving on. But why hadn’t Julianna told me about the ring and how it made her feel? I removed the ring from the necklace and put it on my finger. It felt heavy and foreign, like it didn’t belong there. The gold sparkled in the sun that was now peeking through the clouds.
Part of starting a new life with Julianna was being able to put certain things from my first marriage away. My wedding ring was one of these objects. It was a symbol of the love and devotion Krista and I had for each other. If I was to be serious about starting a new life with Julianna, I couldn’t let the symbol of my first marriage come between us.
In the back of my T-shirt drawer was Krista’s jewelry box. It contained her wedding ring, a few necklaces, and other jewelry Krista wore. I placed my wedding ring next to Krista’s. Wherever life took me, I knew the jewelry box would always be with me. But it would remain closed, packed away. My ring wasn’t something I needed to remind me of Krista’s sweet influence and love. She would always be part of me wherever I went.
I took one last look at the ring and closed the lid. I placed the box back in the drawer and covered it with socks. I never opened the jewelry box again.
I didn’t see Julianna until I picked her up for church the next morning. Neither of us mentioned the conversation from the day before. For the most part our relationship seemed back to normal. She held my hand during the services and occasionally ran her fingers up and down my back.
After church we ended up at my house lying on the couch side by side, talking. The couch was narrow and to stay on it we had to press our bodies close together. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for Julianna to touch my chest. She never did. Occasionally she would touch my face or arm or grab my hand. but her hand never came close to my breastbone. I began to wonder if I had been right about the ring. Maybe Julianna had been referring to something else. My curiosity was driving me crazy. I couldn’t live without knowing if the ring what she had been referring to. If that wasn’t what she had been talking about, I planned on pressing her for an answer.
"Last night I spent a lot of time thinking about what you said on the way back from Salt Lake," I said.
Those words brought a serious air to the conversation, which to that point had been light flirtatious banter. Julianna sat up partway on the couch so she could look down on my face.
"I couldn’t figure out what you were talking about. I walked around the house seeing if I had left some pictures or other things of Krista up. It wasn’t until I decided to take a shower that I saw the wedding ring around my neck."
Julianna made a move toward my chest. I grabbed her hand before she could reach it and moved it slowly back down to her side. I didn’t need any other proof. It was the ring Julianna was talking about. Julianna’s eyes darted from my neck to my chest, trying to see if it was still around my neck.
"I took it off," I said. "So you know, I didn’t do it just so you’d think I was moving on. I did it because it was something I wanted to do." I brought Julianna’s hand to my chest and pressed her palm to my breastbone where the ring usually lay.
Julianna’s hand slowly moved over my chest. Then she started to cry. I kissed her forehead as the tears fell.
"Why didn’t you tell me it was the ring?" I said after her tears had stopped falling.
"I didn’t want you to take it off for me. It needed to be something you were ready to and wanted to do," Julianna said.
"I was ready to take that step," I said. "I don’t want anything to come between the two of us."
We drove to St. George on a Friday, following Julianna’s parents’ white minivan. They and Julianna’s four sisters who were still living at home were all coming to cheer her on. Though I hadn’t spent much time with Julianna’s family, I liked what I had seen. They were supportive of Julianna’s running and attended all of her races. Even from those brief interactions with them, they were everything I had always wanted in in-laws, everything I had always wanted Krista’s family to be. They weren’t perfect, but they were good people who had worked hard to raise a family of seven girls. I hoped this trip would serve as a good chance to get to know them better.
It was late when we arrived in St. George. We checked in to our hotel and ate dinner. Soon after, Julianna went to bed, though there was little chance she would sleep anytime soon. Instead she would spend the next few hours relaxing her body and mentally preparing for the race. I spent the rest of that night with her family. I enjoyed our time together as we talked and joked. And when everyone finally retired for the evening, I knew that if things worked out with Julianna, I would have no problem spending time with her family.
At five in the morning her father, Steve, and I drove Julianna to the bus that would take them to starting line approximately twenty-five miles out in the desert. Julianna was quiet, her mind focused on the run ahead. I gave her a kiss as she exited the van and told her I would see her soon.
We went back to the hotel and waited. The plan was to wait a few hours, then I would start walking the marathon course until I found Julianna and run the final three or four miles of the race with her, giving her whatever support she needed to make it to the end.
I tried to stay awake, thinking of Julianna as she ran, but I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, Steve woke me up, telling me it was time to go. We parked the van near the course as it came into St. George. There were people lined up and down the street, sitting in lawn chairs or on the curb, waiting to watch the runners. The lead runner with a police escort in tow ran past the finish line and a cheer went up from the crowd. Another cheer went up thirty seconds later as the second-place runner followed.
I started up the course. Every thirty seconds or so runner ran by on his way to the finish line. By the time I had walked a mile up, the lead female runner came into view. She was followed by a pack of six other women, all vying for the lead. I scanned their faces to see if one of them was Julianna. She wasn’t among them.
The number of runners heading toward the finish line gradually increased. I kept my eyes open for Julianna and her turquoise running shorts and singlet with no success. Finally at mile marker twenty-two, I spotted her approaching the aid station. She grabbed two cups of water from a volunteer’s outstretched hands. She drank one quickly and poured the second one over her head. She looked tired and worn-out. The grimace on her face told me she was running through a lot of pain.
"How’s the leg?" I said.
"Not good," Julianna said.
We didn’t talk much until the next aid station. I offered occasional words of encouragement hoping they would help somewhat. After a mile and a half, the road crested and the city of St. George and the next aid station were visible.
"It’s all downhill from here," I said.
Julianna stopped at the aid station. She drank some water and rested her hands on her knees. Her breathing was hard and labored.
"I hurt," she said.
I rested my hand on her back. Her body was trembling. I thought back to the ten-mile run that had pushed my body to the limit. I thought of the words of encouragement she had given me and how much they had helped me finish.
"You are running an amazing race," I said. "Let’s keep going."
Julianna continued resting, her hands on her knees.
"Come on," I said. "Less than two miles to the finish line. You’re almost done."
Julianna crumpled the paper cup in her hands and tossed it to the side of the road. She started running, slowly at first but then picked up speed. After a quarter mile she began passing other runners.
The faster she ran, the more words of encouragement I offered. We ran into town, down the broad streets that made up St. George. Finally we turned a corner, and the finish line was in sight. The sight of the finish line gave Julianna some hope. She put on an extra burst of speed and crossed the finish line.
Behind the finish line was a fenced off area where runners could eat, cool down, and relax. I waited with Julianna’s family near the exit. Julianna made her way out of this area ten minutes later with a banana in her hand. Her face was flushed, and she walked with a noticeable limp.
We returned to the hotel. Julianna showered, then sat in the hotel’s hot tub. The hot water seemed to put her in better spirits, and soon she joined the rest of us in the pool. As the day wore on, her attitude improved. She seemed glad to have finished, even though her official time of three hours and thirty-eight minutes was a much slower time than her goal.
Julianna seemed anxious to put St. George behind her. We left early the next morning before her family was ready to go.
"Thanks for coming and supporting me," Julianna said. "It meant a lot to have you run those last miles with me."
"It was an honor to run them with you," I said. "You and your broken leg."
For the first time since the race Julianna smiled. "I like running with you," she said.
The freeway rose up through the mountains. Occasionally bits of the desert were tinged with the reds and yellows of fall. It added some color to what was, for the most part, a brown and bleak drive. When the road finally crested, the town of Cedar City came into view.
"If Krista hadn’t killed herself, do you think we’d be together?" Julianna said.
"If Krista wasn’t dead, I’d still be married to her," I said. I flashed a smile in Julianna’s direction, so she’d know I was being facetious.
"You know what I mean," Julianna said. "If you had never married Krista, do you think we would have ended up together?"
A hawk circled a field by the side of the road, floating on the wind. I put the car on cruise control and stretched out in the seat.
"I doubt it," I said.
I waited for Julianna to say something, but she just stared at the road ahead.
"Krista’s death sobered me up," I said, when it became apparent Julianna wasn’t going to say anything. "I feel like I’ve emotionally aged twenty years since she died. I’m nowhere near the person I was before she killed herself. I was so different back then. I had a temper and was quick to anger. I doubt things would have worked out between us. I don’t think I would have been mature enough for you."
Julianna looked out the passenger window. She seemed far away and distant, lost in thought. "I’ve seen flashes of the old Abel," Julianna said. "I’ve seen you become very frustrated once or twice, and the old you comes out for a second or two. But it’s gone a moment later, and the Abel I know and love is back."
"There’s always a chance the old Abel will rear his head again."
"Do you think you’re capable of being the person you were before Krista died?" Julianna said.
"I don’t know," I said. "I would hope all I’ve experienced the last year would serve as a constant reminder of why I don’t want to be that person again."
I took the car off cruise control and merged into the fast lane to pass a semitruck with the word Wal-Mart emblazoned in big, blue letters on the side.
"Do you think Krista’s death happened for a reason?" Julianna asked.
"The one thing I’ve come to believe is everything happens for a reason." I pushed down on the gas pedal, and we sped up a bit.
Julianna’s next question came out quietly, like a whisper. "Why do you think you had to experience what you did?"
I looked out past the sagebrush and scrub oak that seemed so prominent in this part of the state. In seconds I relived that entire day Krista killed herself. I could smell the bitter stench of spent gunpowder.
"Just because everything happens for a reason doesn’t mean we’ll always know why it happened."
Julianna looked back out the window. "I ask because I have mixed feelings when I think about what you went though. If Krista hadn’t died, we never would have met or fallen in love. That sounds awful and selfish, but it’s something I think about occasionally."
I held Julianna’s hand. "If someone told me eleven months ago that I’d be in love and happy less than a year after Krista died, I wouldn’t have believed them. Just because I don’t fully comprehend why things happened the way they did doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to have you in my life."
Julianna moved slowly in her seat, as if she were uncomfortable.
"Is your leg giving you problems?"
"My whole body hurts. Every muscle aches."
The town of Cedar City became a distant speck in the rearview mirror.
I looked down and found myself rubbing my chest where the ring had rested for months. It still felt odd to not have it there.
Julianna leaned her seat back to a reclining position. She took my hand and held it to her stomach.
"I love you," she said as she closed her eyes. In a few minutes she was asleep, and I felt relief and a quiet happiness that she had a smile on her face.
As I drove though the empty stretches of central Utah, I thought of how much I’d been blessed in the last few months. Life had always been worth living, though I hadn’t recognized how much sweeter it was when I had someone I loved to enjoy it with.
I gave Julianna’s hand a squeeze as we barreled down the highway. I was not only looking forward to taking the journey with someone, I was glad it was Julianna, a woman so brave that she ran a marathon on a broken leg.
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From the inbox comes the following:
I’m a recent widower and am in a new relationship. My girlfriend, who is divorced, has asked me to remove photos and posts on my Facebook timeline related to my late wife. I don’t mind taking down photos in my home but am having a harder time with the Facebook photos and posts because they’re snapshots in time. I want to move forward with this relationship but this seems to be a deal breaker for her. Is her request reasonable or am I being too sensitive?
Don’t Know What to Do
Hi Don’t Know What to Do,
I’ve posted about what widowers should do with photos in the home and how to update social media accounts once you’re in a serious relationship (see here, here, and here) but I’ve never heard or anyone asking a widower to delete past photos and posts from their profile.
Everyone has a past and thanks to social media, it’s something that anyone who is friends with you can access. I don’t know if you’re girlfriend’s been scrolling through past photos and feels that she can’t measure up to your late wire or if she did a similar purge after her divorce and feels that you should do the same. Maybe something else is going on. Whatever the reason, I see no reason to delete past photos and posts unless you’re constantly looking at them, commenting on them, re-posting memories, or find that they’re otherwise stopping you from moving forward with this relationship.
If you haven’t already, set aside some time to talk with your girlfriend about why she feels this way about the old photos and posts. Listen to what she has to say. This doesn’t mean you should remove the photos and posts but at least it will help you understand why she’s feels that way and whether it’s your social media behavior or something else that spurred her request.
In the end, if the past Facebook photos and posts are still a deal breaker you need to decide what’s more important: her or the posts. Personally, I don’t see a reason to remove them unless they’re pulling you back to the past instead of moving you forward. Her request borders on asking you to completely erase your past. Part of dating a widower is accepting the fact he was married and a small part of his heart will be for the late wife. If she can’t accept that fact or that your past lives somewhere on Facebook servers, then she shouldn’t be dating a widower.
Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 14 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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By late August, Julianna and I were spending every free moment with each other. From running early in the morning together to dinner after work, our lives slowly became one. Our conversations grew more comfortable and intimate, and soon we felt more comfortable talking about Krista, though I was still hesitant to voluntarily share information because I didn’t want Julianna to think I was comparing them. One evening I took Julianna to an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant Krista and I had frequented when we in college.
"The food’s really good," she said near the end of our meal. "How did you know about this place?"
My first impulse was to tell a half-truth — that it was a place I learned about in college, leaving out the fact that Krista and I had lived two blocks away. I worried if I told Julianna she wouldn’t want to return because it would be something associated with Krista. But I knew that being open and honest about Krista was important. So I told the truth.
"The first apartment Krista and I shared was just down the street," I said. "We found it walking through the neighborhood one day."
Julianna seemed unfazed by it and twirled a bite of orange chicken with her fork. "So the two of you ate here often?"
"We’ll have to come back," she said. "The orange chicken is fabulous."
I took a spoonful of the hot mustard and mixed it in with my food.
"Does it bother you that Krista and I used to come here?"
"Not really. Does it bother you?"
"Then why do you think it would bother me?"
"Because if the situation were reversed, I’d have a hard time with it."
Julianna put down her fork. "You and Krista spent most of your lives in Ogden," she said. "You’ve told me that there isn’t part of this town that doesn’t remind you of something the two of you did together. It’s not easy for me to know that. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Hopefully we can make some of our own memories."
"I think we already have some good ones," I said. "I seem to recall something that happened in a restaurant on our first date."
We both smiled remembering how badly that date had gone. I was glad we had reached a point where we could smile about it.
"Maybe we should start making some good ones," Julianna said.
We laughed and returned to our food. Julianna finished her chicken a minute later and pushed her plate to the center of the table.
"Are you still angry at her?" Julianna asked.
I looked at the table and herded a snow pea with my fork to the other side of my plate before answering.
"It depends on the day," I said. "And how much I’ve been thinking about her."
Julianna leaned toward me. She did this when she wanted my full attention.
"Do you think about her often?"
"Every day," I said.
Julianna dropped her eyes to her plate.
"Did you think I was going to say something else?" I said.
"No," Julianna said. "It’s the answer I expected. But it hurts to hear you say it. A girl likes to think she’s the only person in a man’s thoughts."
The waitress stopped and cleared Julianna’s plate and refilled our glasses with water.
Julianna watched as the waitress walked back into the kitchen. She picked up the glass of water and sipped it slowly.
"The reason that I ask about the anger is that you seem to be handling everything so well," she said. "But there are times when I see flashes of rage in your eyes. I don’t blame you for feeling that way. I only want to know if there’s anything I can do to help."
"I wish there was something you could do," I said. "But that’s something I have to work through on my own."
I was doing my best to make room for two in my heart. And for the most part I thought I was succeeding. I could honestly say that I loved Julianna and could see myself spending the rest of my life with her. But my anger toward Krista was stopping me from making a permanent place in my heart for Julianna. Before there could be room for both of them, there were some issues I still had to resolve.
After I dropped Julianna off at her apartment, I drove home and sat in my car, thinking about forgiveness. Forgiveness was something my parents and religion had instilled in me from the time I was young. For the most part I never found this difficult to forgive anyone, but only because I had never been seriously hurt or offended before.
It would be so much easier to forgive Krista if I had an explanation for her actions. But the only person who could tell me what was going through her mind when she put the gun in her mouth was dead. I had no doubt that wherever Krista was, she was aware of the consequences of her actions and regretted what she had done. However, she wasn’t in a position to explain why she had done it or to tell me how she was sorry for the pain and anguish she had inflicted upon me and others who loved her. It would be so much easier if she could just apologize.
I also wanted to say how much I regretted ignoring the three promptings that could have saved her life. I still felt guilty about my inaction and wondered how different life would have been had I only listened to those quiet warnings when I had the chance. I needed a way to share my feelings with Krista and know that she had forgiven me. It would be the first step to forgive her and myself. Somehow I would have find a way to do without an apology and knowing that there would always be some things that I would never know the answer to.
The next day I worked through lunch and left work an hour early. Instead of heading home, I drove to the cemetery. I knelt in front of the headstone and cleared away the dried grass that had accumulated in its corners. I traced Krista’s and Hope’s names with my finger. And for a while I was lost in good memories. It was easy to pretend my life with Krista was perfect and that she had never been pregnant or killed herself. Enough time had passed that, aside from her suicide, I had to struggle to think of fights or other bad moments we had together. I could almost understand why Julianna was so hesitant to become involved with a widower. It would indeed be difficult to be second in line to a person who, aside from the way she died, seemed so perfect.
Eventually my thoughts shifted to Hope. Nine months. That’s how old she would be if she had she lived. I tried to think of what babies were like at that age. Is that when they started to crawl? I couldn’t remember. Though usually I could picture my daughter growing up, that afternoon, the only way I saw her was in the hospital, lying motionless in her bed bathed by the bright, warm light.
Thoughts of Hope being so vulnerable and untouchable made me cry, and I let the tears fall. I found myself wishing for other memories of her besides those days in the hospital. I would often tell myself that if it had been possible to take her home and have her live a normal life even for a few days, it would be less painful to think of her. But that was a lie. Hope would always be the daughter I never had a chance to raise, and thoughts of her would always leave a tight feeling in my throat.
I sat next to the headstone with my knees pulled to my chest. Talk to me, Krista, I thought. Tell me why you did it. I thought those words as if I expected her to somehow answer me. I sat like that for an hour, waiting. When it became apparent that no answer was coming, I stood to leave. But before I left, there was one thing I still had to do.
There’s something I need to tell you, I thought. Something about the day you died. You see, I had several chances to save your life that day and I didn’t. I bowed my head and told Krista about the mistakes I had made the day she died.
Labor Day brought with it an invitation to another family barbeque. This one was to be a more intimate gathering than the one on the Fourth of July. Only immediate family and a next-door neighbor had been invited. Though my family had met and spoken to Julianna at church, this was their first chance to really spend some time with her. I thought it best to prepare Julianna for the worst.
"I’m still not sure how open my family is to our dating," I said. I was sitting on the side of the bathtub, watching Julianna use the curling iron. Containers of mascara, blush, eyeliners, and lotion were spread out on the sink. I picked up the mascara and twirled it with my fingers.
"Do you think they might be mean to me?" Julianna asked. She looked at me via the mirror. Her eyebrows were knit in a way that indicated she was a little concerned about fitting in with my family.
"Like you or not, they’ll be polite," I said. "I’m telling you this so that if for some reason there’s a problem, you won’t take it personally. It’s not you they’ll have a problem with you per se. The bigger issue is them adjusting to seeing me with someone else."
"I don’t want them to feel like they’re being rushed to accept me," Julianna said. She unplugged the curling iron and set it on the countertop. She took the bottle of mascara from my fingers, pulled the cap off, and applied the mixture to her eyelashes.
"How do I look?" she said, blinking at me.
"Beautiful," I said. I stood and kissed her on the forehead.
"I can’t be anyone else but myself, Abel. I hope your family doesn’t expect anyone other than me to arrive."
"Cross your fingers that everything works out."
We arrived just as my dad was putting hamburger patties and hot dogs on the grill. The meat sizzled. He greeted Julianna warmly.
For the first hour Julianna didn’t stray from my side. She seemed nervous, and as we talked to the dozen or so people in attendance. Gradually she became more relaxed and opened up to them. By the time we were done eating, she sat next to my dad and told him about working in the crime lab and the different types of evidence she analyzed.
I was pleased and relieved the family seemed to like her. Unlike Jennifer, everyone seemed happy to have her at the party. Still, inside, I remained uptight and watched my family all evening, looking for any sign that something was amiss.
It wasn’t until after the barbeque that my dad said anything about her. We were both watching Julianna talk to Liam. They seemed to be having a good time together.
"She seems like a nice girl," he said.
"You like her, then?" I said.
"She’s very sweet," he said.
In my dad’s language, this meant he approved.
For the first time that evening the anxiety that had built up inside me was gone. Liam said something and Julianna laughed. My family had been more accepting of her than I thought possible. For the first time I thought there was hope that they were slowly moving on, too. I couldn’t wait to tell Julianna the good news.
In the first month that we ran together, Julianna would soundly beat me on any run over five miles. It was discouraging to watch her body melt into the darkness as she widened the gap between us with her long, powerful legs. When I could no longer see her, I worried about her safety until I saw her waiting for me at the end of our run. But I was becoming faster and was slowly closing the time between our finishes. After Labor Day I had cut her margin of victory on a seven-mile run to under a minute. It wasn’t until the last mile that Julianna pulled away from me. According to Julianna all you needed was to convince yourself that you could to push your body a little bit faster every day. Even though I had mastered the mental part of rising early in the morning and running every day, telling myself that I could keep up with Julianna was something I couldn’t do.
I blamed the hills.
Any run over five miles would, at some point, turn east toward the mountains and involve at series of hills. I was convinced it was impossible to run up them at a reasonable pace. Julianna, however, thrived on them and that was where she would usually pull ahead. Often I would tell Julianna I could keep up with her better if only the courses we ran were flat. Julianna would shake her head and tell me that I had the power and the stamina to keep up with her. The only thing that was holding me back was my mind.
The most difficult of all the runs was a ten-mile loop. It started at her apartment complex, then headed up Second Street toward the mountains. Once we reached Harrison Boulevard, we headed north running with the hilly road until we reached 2600 North. That road was, thankfully all downhill until we reached Washington Boulevard. From Washington it was three and a half miles of flat running back to her apartment. On this run Julianna would pull ahead on the hills of Harrison Boulevard. By the time I reached 2600 North Julianna was usually several minutes ahead of me. No matter how hard I ran, I was unable to close the distance between the two of us.
Julianna was planning on running the St. George Marathon at the beginning of October. Each morning she trained hard for it. Our runs had become faster, and I found myself tired most of the day. The week after the Labor Day barbeque another ten mile run came due. When I awoke that morning, it was the first time that I didn’t want to run with her. Physically I knew my body could handle it. Mentally I didn’t like the idea of doing five miles of running up and down hills and having Julianna pull far ahead of me by the second mile. Despite these thoughts I kicked off the covers and prepared myself for another run. It’s the last one until her marathon in October, I told myself. Do this and it will be months before we’ll run it again.
When I arrived at her apartment, Julianna was excited. She relished the longer runs. If her training schedule called for it, I had no doubt she would run ten miles every morning. As we ran up Second Street toward the hills, Julianna kept looking up at the sky. Between breaths I managed to ask what she was looking at.
"The stars," she said. "They’re very vibrant this morning."
I followed her gaze. It was one of those mornings where despite the lights of the city, the stars looked bigger and brighter than normal. To the east, right above the mountain, I could make out the constellations of Orion and Taurus.
Even now I’m not sure exactly what I thought about during that first part of the run. Maybe the heavens served as a distraction because the next thing I knew we turned left on Harrison Boulevard, and I was running right next to Julianna. The usual fatigue that set into my legs at that point was absent. For the first time I thought it might be possible to keep up with her for the entire ten miles. If I could just make it all the way to 2600 North, I felt confident I could stay with her the rest of the way.
Harrison Boulevard rose and fell with the hills. Instead of counting down how many hills remained I took them one at a time, telling myself each hill was the last. I fought back my body’s urge to slow down when I neared the hill’s peak and ignored the burning sensation in my lungs when I made it to the top of each one.
It worked beautifully. By the time we reached 400 East, I was still at Julianna’s side. Even Julianna seemed a little surprised I had kept up with her this long.
"You’re running very well this morning," she said.
I acknowledged her comment with a grunt. I didn’t want to say anything because it would require an extra breath.
I stayed next to her until the last mile when Julianna pulled a few steps ahead. At first I thought I had unconsciously slowed down. But as I increased my speed to catch up with her, I realized Julianna kept increasing her pace about every hundred yards.
"What’s the hurry?" I said. I forced out the words quickly, in one breath.
"You know I usually finish with a sprint," Julianna said. She increased the pace again. "Come on! Catch me!"
The teasing way she said it was just the motivation I needed to stay with her. By the time the end of our run was in sight, I was only two steps behind her. Julianna put on a final burst of speed. Her lead widened to three steps, then four.
"You can do it!" Julianna said over her shoulder. "We’re almost done!’
I tried to keep up, telling myself the end of the run was only one hundred yards away.
"You’re doing great!" Julianna said.
Spurred on by Julianna’s comments I ran the final fifty yards as fast I could. My lungs burned in my chest, and my legs felt like they were going to fall off. Then, suddenly, the entrance to the apartment complex was upon us, and I finished the run two seconds behind Julianna.
Julianna turned to hug me, but I flopped down on the strip of grass between the road and the sidewalk and gasped for breath. I felt like I was going to throw up. Julianna knelt next to me. Several drops of sweat ran down the sides of her face and landed on my neck. "You stayed with me the entire way!" She put her arms around me. She had a big smile on her face and sounded proud.
I was still fighting for breath, unable to respond. I looked past Julianna to the sky. The stars were so big and bright when we started the run were gone. Only a half dozen, the ones that were the biggest in the night sky, remained.
"How fast?" I said between breaths. "Our time. What was it?"
Julianna checked her watch. "We ran it in one hour and eight minutes," she said. "That’s about six-fifty a mile."
It didn’t seem possible I had run that fast for ten miles. I grabbed Julianna’s wrist and pulled it close so I could double-check our time. The digital display read back: 1:08:34
I looked back up at the heavens. One by one the stars twinkled one last time and then were hidden by the rapidly bluing sky. The sick feeling slowly subsided, and I was finally able to sit up and give Julianna a hug.
"Thanks for not slowing down," I said. I knew I would never have a problem keeping up with Julianna again.
That evening after a dinner of spaghetti and garlic bread, we lay on the couch and watched TV. The morning run had left us both too tired to do anything else. Fifteen minutes into the movie we were watching, Julianna fell asleep. Her head rested on my shoulder and her right arm lay across my chest.
I muted the television and put my arms around her. Julianna’s breathing was slow and relaxed. I matched my breaths to hers until our chests rose and fell in unison. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the slow and steady movement of our breathing and enjoyed feeling like one with her.
It was hard to describe how wonderful it felt to have her resting in my arms. I wanted to hold Julianna forever and never let her go. I was learning how precious and fragile love can be. I regretted that I had taken Krista’s love for granted. It was something I thought would always be there, something I never thought would be suddenly taken away. As I held Julianna in my arms, I told myself her love was something I would always treasure.
I rested my head on hers. Her hair had a faint smell of flowers that I found comforting and vaguely familiar. Krista might have had some lotion or perfume that smelled similar. I tried to recall an instance where Krista had smelled like that, but my tired mind was unable to tie the smell into a specific moment.
Soon I fell asleep. It was a light sleep, one where I would wake up every few minutes on my own or when Julianna stirred. But during those few minutes of sleep, I dreamed. The dreams were hard to remember. I’d awake unable to recall the specific details about them. Only small fragments remained — umpiring a minor league baseball game or driving along a dirt road in Wyoming. They left me feeling disoriented and confused.
This went on for about an hour. Then suddenly I dreamed about Krista. She was reading me a paper she had written for an upper-level English class for my feedback. It was something she used to do quite regularly when we were together. We were laughing over a pun she had used in the paper and having a good time.
Julianna stirred, partially walking me from my dream. In my half-awake state I thought it was Krista I held in my arms. Julianna raised herself on the couch and said something about it being late. Her words made it into the dream I was having, but they were Krista’s words, not Julianna’s.
"I don’t want to go home, Krista," I said. "I want to stay here with you."
The dream faded. I opened my eyes expecting to see Krista’s blue eyes looking into mine. Instead Julianna was staring at me. She looked confused. In an instant all traces of sleep left my body. We started at each other for several seconds. I was unable to tell whether or not she had heard what I said.
"You’re right, Julianna," I said making sure to emphasize her name. "It’s late. I need to go home."
I walked to the door, slipped my shoes on, and looked back at Julianna. She still looked confused, almost hurt. Thinking a kiss would help the situation, I returned to the couch kissed her forehead and left. I thought I had dodged a bullet and that my words had been too mumbled to understand or Julianna had been too tired to listen. But the look on Julianna’s face the next morning let me know that my words had been heard.
Instead of heading out the door for a run, Julianna invited me inside. "We need to talk," she said. She motioned to the couch. I sat on the middle cushion. Julianna sat several feet to my left. Her arms were folded across her chest, and her legs were angled away from me.
"Last night you called me Krista," she said.
With those words I felt all the progress we had made the last month was gone. Instead of being boyfriend and girlfriend, it was like we were on a first date, starting from square one. I scooted closer and tried to put my arm around Julianna. She moved her shoulders in such a way to tell me my touch was not wanted. I leaned back on the cushions.
"I wasn’t sure you heard me say that last night. Why didn’t you say anything?" I said.
"I was too stunned and hurt."
"It was an accident. When I realized what I had said, I panicked. I thought it best to leave before I slipped up again."
There was an uncomfortable silence between us. The ceiling creaked as someone walked across the living room upstairs.
"What were you thinking when you called me Krista?" Julianna finally said.
"I was dreaming," I said. "Krista was part of the dream. For some reason when I woke up, I thought it was her and not you I was laying next to."
"Do you ever pretend that I’m Krista?"
"I’ve never once held you in my arms and thought I was holding Krista. What happened last night was a fluke. It’s never happened before. It will never happen again."
"Why do you think you said it?"
"I don’t know. It just came out."
The look on Julianna’s face let me know she was accepting of my response but was still very hurt by what I had done.
"I’ve become extremely comfortable with you," I said.
The only thing I could think of was that I had reached a physical and emotional comfort level with Julianna that I had only felt before with Krista.
"Last night on the couch while you slept in my arms, I was thinking how nice it was to be that comfortable with someone again. I never thought I could feel that way about anyone again, but having you lying there, feeling us breathe together just made me feel how perfect we are for each other."
I moved closer to Julianna and pulled her close.
"I’m sorry it happened," I said. "But you have to believe me when I tell you it was an accident. It wasn’t my intention to call you Krista."
"I know you think about her," Julianna said. "I never expect you to not think about her or Hope. But these last few weeks . . ." Her voice trailed off and she looked lost in thought. "These last few weeks have been wonderful. You’ve made me feel like the center of your universe, like I’m the only woman you’ve ever loved. There have been moments where I’ve almost forgotten you were married before."
I bent my head so my mouth was next to her ear. "Before you came into my life, I wondered if I would ever laugh or smile again. But now I do because I can share it with you. Before I fell in love with you, it was hard to wake up every morning. I had to force myself out of bed. Now you’re my first thought in the morning, and I jump out of bed because I have the honor of running with you. And at night instead of going home and being alone, I want the two of us to spend the night together. You have made me love life again, Julianna. And because of that, I would do anything to make you happy."
Tears ran down my cheeks and landed on Julianna’s shoulder. I could feel her body tremble as she tried to hold back the tears. Julianna put her arms around me. A hot tear fell from her cheek to mine.
"I love you," she said.
We held each other and cried for several minutes. When the tears stopped falling, I looked at Julianna and said. "You really want to go through with this? I can’t promise there won’t be hard moments like this in the future."
Julianna nodded her head and leaned her head on my chest. I ran my fingers through her hair. It felt good to have her head resting on my chest. It felt natural. It felt right.
Finally Julianna looked at me and said, "Do you still want to go running?"
"More than anything," I said.
Julianna laced up her running shoes, and we headed into the cool September morning for a three-mile run.
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One of my favorite photographs from my time in Bulgaria.
Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 13 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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I was sitting in the backyard thinking of Julianna and watching the sprinkler turn in a circle as it watered the grass I had planted in April. The grass was dark green and thick and had somehow survived the blistering Utah summer despite a lack of regular watering. My yard didn’t have a sprinkler system, and any moisture the yard received came only when I had time to hook the sprinkler to the hose.
Since our afternoon on the mountain, Julianna had come over to my house for dinner after church on Sunday, but we parted that evening without making plans when to see each other again. Julianna seemed reserved, and I was unsure how much she had enjoyed that evening with me.
Water from the sprinkler sprayed near my chair. I had a bowl of ten apricots on my lap my mom had given me. "The last ones from our tree," she said as she handed them to me in a brown paper sack. I decided after I had eaten the last of them I would call Julianna and see if she wanted to go out again this week. Since I was worried about whether she’d agree to another date, I ate the apricots slowly, one half at a time, planning out what I would say to her. The apricots were dark orange and slightly overripe, just the way I liked them. Their flesh was juicy and sweet.
As I was biting into the fourth apricot, my cell phone rang. The caller ID showed Julianna’s number. I answered it on the first ring,
"What are you doing Friday?" she asked.
"Friday night? Not a thing," I said. My heart skipped a beat. Julianna was asking me out. She must have been happy with the way things were going.
"Actually I want to know what you were doing Friday morning," Julianna said. "About five a.m."
"I’m usually running at that time."
"I thought, perhaps, you might like to run with me instead."
"I’d love to." I tried to keep excitement out of my voice. This was the moment I had anticipated since I learned she was a runner. Asking me to partake of something she loved to do most likely meant things were going even better than I thought. I told her I’d be at her apartment at five on Friday. After I hung up I pumped my fists in the air ecstatic at the invitation. The bowl of apricots skidded off my lap, but I didn’t care. The apricots rolled onto the lawn, looking like a small round balls against the green grass. As I picked the apricots from the grass, I noticed the evening light was the same color as the fruit. Never again would I describe a sunset as orange. Every sunset from now on would always be the color of apricots.
I woke up every hour Thursday night afraid I had forgot to set the alarm clock. I’d double check the settings and try to clear my mind and go back to sleep. By the time the alarm went off at quarter to five, it felt like I hadn’t slept at all. When I knocked on Julianna’s apartment door fifteen minutes later, I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
Julianna invited me in. She was dressed in a T-shirt adorned with a marathon logo and purple running shorts — the same shorts she wore when she ran the Ogden Marathon. She laced up her running shoes, and we were out the door.
"It’s an easy run today," she said. "Three miles, at just under eight minutes per mile. Can you handle it?"
"I’ll be right next to you," I said. I wasn’t worried. My morning runs averaged seven minutes and thirty seconds per mile. If this was how fast Julianna trained, maybe I could win a marathon, too. If she had only told me the route we were running, I would have been far less confident and all thoughts of even entering a marathon would have been scuttled.
The run started along Harrisville Road for about a third of a mile. At Five Points we turned left and started up Second Street.
"Where do we go after this?" I asked.
"Straight," she said.
This was when I became worried. I made sure my running courses were as flat as possible. The biggest incline I ever faced was running over the railroad tracks on my way into the business depot. Julianna was heading on Second Street where the road sloped steeply to the east benches of Ogden.
"How far up this road are we going to run?" I said. Inside I was screaming, No way! I don’t do inclines!
Julianna looked at me for a second before returning her eyes to the road. "All the way to the top." I must have done something to indicate I was worried because she quickly added, "But we’ll also run all the way down." Her voice sounded so sprightly. I began to really worry.
The first quarter mile of the hill wasn’t bad. I kept up with Julianna without too much difficulty. Then my legs started burning as the muscles started to tighten. I dropped a few steps behind Julianna.
"Am I running too fast?" Julianna asked.
"You’re fine." I said though I had to strain to sound like I wasn’t tired. I had been telling Julianna what a good runner I was and didn’t want her to have the impression that a hill was going to give me problems.
By the time we reached the top of the street, I was four seconds behind Julianna. I caught up with her as we headed downhill. I told myself I could have kept up with her if she hadn’t kept talking on the way up. I was used to running in silence and every breath I took to answer a question was one less I used to help me reach the top of the road.
We finished side by side when we reached the apartment complex. Julianna stopped her watch as we ran across the entrance. "About 7:50 a mile," she said. "Good job."
"Just another morning run," I said. I tried to hide the fact I was breathing harder than usual. I could feel my face burn, so I had to be as red as a strawberry.
"Would you like some water before you head back?"
I looked at my watch. To make it to work on time, I would have to leave her place in ten minutes before driving back home and readying myself for the day.
"Water sounds great," I said. I was thrilled to just spend a few more minutes with her. I noticed she was barely breathing hard, and had only a little sweat on her forehead. I wondered how I could mask the fact that I knew I looked much worse.
The next day Julianna and I sat together at church for the first time. It was on one of the side pews near the front where just about everyone in the chapel could see us. Personally I would have preferred a seat more toward the back — out of the view of everyone — but this was the area Julianna usually sat, and I agreed to sit next to her without any objections, even though I knew the congregation would be abuzz about the two of us.
During the services I kept looking back at my family sitting on the back row to see how they were handling it. From where we were sitting, I couldn’t gauge their reactions and only caught them looking our way a few times.
After church I made a dinner of taco casserole and fresh corn on the cob from my parents’ garden. Then we went for a walk through the surrounding neighborhoods.
"If you want, we can walk one of my three-mile running routes," I said. "They’re flat and not as exciting as yours."
Julianna laughed. "You’ve never really told me why you run," she said.
"To lose weight," I said. "When I started running two years ago, I weighed fifty more pounds than I do now."
I shook my head and patted my stomach. "I topped the scales at two hundred and thirty-five pounds. That’s what sitting in front of a computer and drinking several sodas a day will do to you."
"What made you decide to give running a try?"
"I came home from work one day and looked in the mirror. I didn’t like the way my body looked. Growing up, I had always been very thin. I wanted to be happy with my body again and feel like I was in control of it. I rummaged through the closet and found a pair of running shoes and drove to a nearby high school and started running around the track."
The memory of that first run was still fresh in my mind. I had barely made it around the track once before I felt like my legs were going to fall off and my lungs were going to explode. It was a hot summer evening, and I was sweating profusely but I was determined to stick with it. Every day after that I tried to run a little father. After a month I was up to a mile a day. By the time fall arrived, I was easily running three. Within six months, I had shed fifty pounds.
"And you stuck with it?"
"I liked the way it made me feel. I slept better, felt better emotionally, and felt like I was back in control of my body."
"Did Krista run with you?"
It still surprised me how easily Krista came into our conversations now. Though I always answered Julianna’s questions, I was still hesitant to bring up subjects relating to Krista. I didn’t want Julianna to think Krista was always on my mind.
"Krista ran with me for two months. But when the weather cooled down, she lost interest. I think she was surprised I stuck with it after I reached my target weight."
"Did she encourage you to keep running?"
"She always said she was happy with the way my body looked. That was all the encouragement I needed."
We walked past a home with a freshly cut lawn. There was a strong smell of grass clippings in the air and flecks of grass scattered on the sidewalk.
"What was it like to win the marathon?" I said.
"That was awesome," she said, smiling. There was a happy glint in her eye. "It was one of the best experiences of my life."
"Tell me about it," I said.
"It didn’t seem real. Even as I was approaching the end and they rolled the tape across the finish line, it felt like a dream. It wasn’t until they called my name over the loudspeaker and announced me as the first woman to cross the line that I realized I had indeed won."
"Were you in the lead the whole time?"
Julianna shook her head. "A few miles into the race someone told me I was in third place. A few miles later I passed the woman in second place. It wasn’t until I was running down Ogden Canyon that someone told me the woman in first was struggling. I passed her with about two miles to the finish line."
"When you started the race, did you think you had a chance to win it?"
"Winning a marathon isn’t something you expect to do. It’s not something you think will happen. There are too many things that can happen to slow you down. An injury, for example, or you could be unprepared mentally."
"Is it easy for you to go running in the winter when it’s dark and cold outside?"
"No. That’s the hardest time of year to run."
"What makes you leave the warmth of the bed and do it?"
"I tell myself it’s something I need to do."
"That’s the way it is when you run a marathon. Your mind has to be prepared to handle the distance. If you don’t think you can run it, you won’t. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape you’re in."
We were now walking through a new development of duplexes. Each duplex had a satellite dish attached to the roof pointed in the same south by southeast direction. Behind the structures, fields of wheat and alfalfa lay in colorful patches. Across the fields I could see the back of my parents’ house and their large garden.
"Think you’ll win another?" I said.
"I don’t know," she said. "As long as I feel I ran and trained to my potential, I won’t care if I win or not."
We walked through the subdivision, then headed back up Seventh Street. The sun was to our backs, and our shadows were elongated ahead of us. I looked at Julianna out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to put my arm around her waist and pull her close but decided against it. After my fast-paced relationship with Jennifer, I didn’t want to rush into anything. I wanted to wait until the time was right.
"Do you want to run with me tomorrow morning?" Julianna said.
"I’ll be there at five," I said. I was glad she asked. I was unsure if her running invitation last week was good only for one day.
"It’s a long run," she said. "Nine miles. Pace."
"Six minutes and fifty seconds per mile."
"If it’s too fast for you, I’m okay running it alone."
"I wouldn’t miss running with you for anything," I said.
I had no illusions about matching Julianna stride for stride on her pace run. I did, however, expect to stay close to her. And for the first two miles I stayed right with her until breathing became so difficult, I had to slow down. As the run continued, the distance between us slowly widened. I’d watch as she’d run by a parked car or a street light, then count the number of seconds it took me to reach the same spot. By the end of the third mile, her lead had widened to fifteen seconds.
So far the run had taken us down Washington Boulevard, a wide, four-lane thoroughfare connecting the cities of Ogden and North Ogden. This run was another example of how our running tastes differed. I preferred quiet neighborhood streets where at five in the morning, cars were the exception, not the rule. I was hesitant to run on main streets, even ones like Washington Boulevard that had wide ten-foot shoulders because the last thing I wanted was to be hit by a car. Julianna, however, didn’t seem worried about the traffic. It wasn’t until weeks later I learned part of the reason she liked the busy roads early in the morning was she felt there was less of a chance of being accosted by someone when lots of cars drove past.
Right before mile three and a half, Julianna turned right on 2600 North and disappeared around the corner. I started counting. When I counted to twenty-one, I turned the corner just in time to see her running through the orange circle of a streetlight and disappear into the darkness. I was running as hard as I could. I tried not to think about the pace or how many miles were left; mentally it would have been too difficult for me. I was beginning to understand what Julianna said about longer runs being more mental than physical.
The road sloped gradually uphill. With each step I could feel myself slowing down. Every step was a struggle. Julianna appeared every so often under a streetlight. Her lead was increasing rapidly, and I stopped counting the distance between us. It was too frustrating.
Just when I felt like I couldn’t run any more, I saw Julianna running toward me. She must have reached the four and a half mile mark and was starting the second half of the run. Unsure where the turnaround point was and not wanting to be left too far behind, I turned around, looking over my shoulder occasionally to make sure Julianna was still running behind me. It took her only three minutes to catch up with me.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"Great," I gasped. I could barely force the word out. It took too much energy to speak — energy I couldn’t spare. I hoped I didn’t die before the run ended. It would have been too embarrassing. My thoughts were muddled; I was so exhausted.
Step by step, Julianna pulled ahead. And soon I started counting the seconds between us. I increased my pace, determined to keep up with her, but suddenly found myself coughing. I stopped running and knelt in the gravel by the side of the road. I started dry heaving, and it took several minutes to catch my breath and feel like I could continue running. When I looked up, Julianna was gone.
During the first half of the run Julianna looked over her shoulder every three or four minutes to see where I was. For some reason I expected her to notice I stopped running and turn around to find me. Instead the road was dark and empty. I ran to the corner and headed south on Washington Boulevard. I looked down the shoulder of the road, hoping to spot her in the glare of the oncoming headlights. I saw nothing.
I started to worry. What if during the time I was dry heaving by the side of the road, someone had assaulted her or she was hit by a car? I could see someone jumping from the dark side of the road and dragging her out of sight of the traffic. It would be my fault because I was unable to keep up with her. The fear that something had happened to Julianna gave me added adrenaline to keep up what felt like a very fast pace. I kept hoping to see her somewhere ahead, running under a streetlight or silhouette illuminated by the headlights of oncoming traffic.
It wasn’t until I turned down the street that led to her apartment complex that I saw her. By this time there was a gray glow in the east and I could see all the way to the apartment complex. She was walking slowly up the sidewalk in my direction, hands resting on her hips. When I saw her, the worry dissipated and the anger became stronger. Why hadn’t she waited for me? Would it have killed her to slow down or turn around when she noticed I was no longer behind her? She had turned around and looked for me, right? A seed of doubt crept into my mind as to whether I wanted to continue running every morning with her.
Julianna clapped her hands when she saw me turn the corner. When I was in shouting range, she encouraged me to finish the run with a burst of speed. I couldn’t do it. I ran at the pace I had been maintaining for the last two miles. I stopped when I reached the entrance to the apartment complex. I felt like collapsing. I was exhausted not only from running, but from worry. I had never been so glad a run was over.
"You did great!" Julianna said. She looked at her watch. "You were only four minutes behind."
Four minutes? It seemed like I was much slower than that. I walked to my car. There was no time to stay and talk to Julianna this morning. I had a full day of work ahead of me. And even if I left for home right now, the odds were I’d arrive at work later than usual. But at that moment, I didn’t care. All I wanted was a nice shower and a cold glass of water.
"Time," I said after I had caught my breath and was leaning against the car. "What was your time?"
"A little over fifty-eight minutes," Julianna said. There was a hint of pride in her voice.
I was too tired to do the math. "What’s that per mile?" I said.
"Six minutes and thirty seconds."
I stopped, trying to figure out my pace per mile. "If you ran that fast, then how fast — "
"A little over seven minutes a mile," Julianna said.
"Are you sure?" That couldn’t be right. All summer I had struggled to break the seven-thirty minute per mile mark. This morning I had shattered it. I had Julianna recalculate my pace several times. The anger toward her was replaced with a feeling of pride in what I had managed to accomplish. The fatigue in my arms and legs dimmed, too. Maybe I could keep running with her awhile longer.
The last thing I told Julianna before driving away was that I would run with her the next morning.
Morning runs together become part of our daily routine. Depending on her training schedule, we ran between three and ten miles a day. We averaged about thirty miles a week. It was the most I had ever run. But I loved spending time with Julianna and wouldn’t have given up those mornings together for anything.
Watching Julianna run was something I never tired of. She kept her arms low, hands loose. Her breathing was steady and relaxed. She took long strides. It was more than her technique that made her runs beautiful. She never cut runs short or said she wasn’t up to running that morning. Like an artist at work on a masterpiece, Julianna put her heart and soul into each run. There was never an excuse to do less than what she thought was possible.
One morning after a grueling seven-mile run, I was sitting on the floor of her kitchen drinking some ice-cold Gatorade. My right knee has stiffened up during the last two miles, and I kept resting the glass on it in an attempt to make if feel better. Julianna sat beside me resting her head against the wall.
"After work, would you like to have dinner?" Julianna asked.
The question took me by surprise. "Sure," I said. "Where do you want to go?"
"I was thinking we could have dinner here. I’ll make you something."
"I’d like that," I said as calm as I could. Inside I was bursting with excitement, which was something considering how far we’d run. I’d wanted to spend more evenings with her, but Julianna still seemed cautious about moving the relationship quickly. I had been waiting for her to feel more comfortable with me before I was going to suggest it. Instead Julianna had beat me to the punch.
Julianna made a simple but delicious meal — a green salad and pizza bagels. Between our large appetites from running, we ate everything she had prepared. After we cleaned up the kitchen, we wandered to the living room. I sat on the middle of the couch cushion to see how close Julianna would sit to me. She sat on the next cushion, leaving a good two feet of space between us. I wanted to kiss Julianna for several weeks, but up to this point we hadn’t even held hands. Because of her concerns about dating a widower, I had been content to let her take things at her own pace. But I was growing increasingly impatient. Each day as my love for her grew, so did the desire to kiss her and be close to her.
I shifted my weight and closed the space between us by twelve inches. Julianna turned so she was facing me. She looked into my eyes for split second, then, as if reading my thoughts, looked away. I moved in to kiss her but pulled back before Julianna could see me. That moment of hesitation was all it took for Julianna to start talking and the moment to be gone.
"Was Krista a competitive person?"
I returned to a sitting position, frustrated.
"What was she competitive in?"
"Games mostly. Board games, computer games, word association games, trivia games. It didn’t matter. If you played any sort of game with her, she would never show you any mercy. Kind of like when I run with you. You never slow down."
"Do you wish I would slow down?"
"I did at first, but not any more. My running has improved tremendously over the last few weeks because of you."
"So she wasn’t competitive in physical things like running."
"No. The few times Krista and I ran together, she couldn’t have cared less who won."
"I guess in that way, Krista and I are opposites," Julianna said. "I don’t care if I win board games."
With that comment I realized what Julianna was doing: she was seeing how she stacked up to Krista.
"I don’t compare the two of you," I said.
"Krista was part of your life for years. How can you not notice the things I do differently?"
"You’re a different person," I said. "You have different interests and abilities. If I wanted someone like Krista, I’d date a crazy, blonde English major who writes poetry."
"It’s not that," Julianna said. "I know in some ways I could never measure up to her."
"Why do you want to know so much about her?" I said.
"I’d like to meet her." Julianna looked away, embarrassed. "I wish I could talk with her and know what kind of person she was."
I stood up and walked to the far side of the room in frustration. I leaned against the wall and looked at Julianna.
"Why do you want to know so much about Krista?" I said.
"She’s always going to be part of our relationship. It’s not that I can’t live with that, I want to know more about her so I can understand you better."
I walked back to the couch and sat next to Julianna. She rested her head on my shoulder and put her arms around me.
"I know things are moving slower than you’d like," she said. "Just give me some time. In some ways this relationship is very hard for me."
I tried to kiss Julianna twice the next day, but each time Julianna looked away. When she looked up again, her eyes pleaded for patience. The kiss finally came the next Sunday after a dinner at my house. The meal I made hadn’t turned out as planned. The casserole was burned on the edges and cold in the middle. The soup was watery and weak. The only thing that was edible was the salad, which wasn’t enough to fill us up. In the end we heated up leftover pizza.
When we were done, Julianna brought the last of the dishes from the table and set them in the bubble-filled water. I put my arm around her waist and pulled her close. This time she didn’t look way. She took a step toward me as I embraced her so her body was pressing against mine, and we kissed.
The kiss wasn’t perfect. We were both hesitant and our lips didn’t quite mesh at first. But to me that didn’t matter. That spark I never thought I would feel again was present. It was the same feeling I had felt years ago when I kissed Krista for the first time. A warm feeling spread through my body as if to confirm the woman in my arms was the right one for me. It seemed like forever since I had felt this way toward someone.
When we finally pulled away from each other, Julianna leaned her head on my chest and put her arms around me. I kept one arm around her waist and rested my other hand on her head, holding her close. We stood like that for several minutes, feeling our bodies rise and fall with each breath.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I said.
"Yes," Julianna said. "I want this to work."
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Here's a first look at the cover for my next novel The Time Seller
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Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 12 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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The day after Jennifer returned to Arizona, Bekah invited me to dinner. I had a feeling this wasn’t just a friendly dinner invitation but an excuse to talk with me about Jennifer. I was glad for the chance. Since I was unable to talk with my family about Jennifer and wanted a sounding board for my feelings, Bekah was the perfect for that.
The meal was simple but one of my favorites: pepperoni pizza and breadsticks. Bekah and I made small talk and watched as Anderson, who was now fifteen months old, ate and played with his food. I was on my third slice of pizza when the subject of Jennifer finally arose.
"Did you have a good time with that girl?" Bekah asked. She said it in such a way that let me know she wasn’t fond of Jennifer. "The way she was all over you in church, it was obvious she was enjoying herself."
"We had a good time," I said. I summed up the highlights of her visit and emphasized how much we had in common and how comfortable I felt around her. I wanted Bekah to see that the relationship was more than a physical thing.
"And when are you going to see her again?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Labor Day, maybe."
Bekah looked down at her plate. She had barely touched her food.
"What’s wrong?" I said.
"It’s just that . . ." Bekah’s voice trailed off. She looked unsure how to say what was on her mind. "It seems like it’s happening so fast."
I looked out the kitchen window to the horse pasture where a brown mare nibbled at some grass. "A lot of people feel that way," I said. I thought back to the barbeque and my family’s reaction to Jennifer.
"How serious are the two of you?" Bekah asked.
I looked back at Bekah. She looked as if she was bracing for bad news.
"I’m not sure," I said. "But if I was to ask Jennifer to marry me, I’m certain she’d say yes."
"You’re that serious?"
"She’s that serious."
"How do you feel about her?"
"I don’t know," I said. I looked down at my plate, at the half-eaten piece of pizza. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. I pushed the plate to the middle of the table. With my right hand I played with the lace edge of the tablecloth.
"We have the most amazing time together. It’s like we’re best friends." I glanced back at Bekah. "But there’s something missing that I can’t explain."
"Try to explain it to me," Bekah said.
It took a moment to gather my thoughts. "There was something about Krista," I said. "Something that I’ve never felt for anyone else. I don’t know how to begin to describe it other than a very intense attraction. When Krista and I were first dating, she consumed my thoughts. I wanted to be with her every minute of the day. I don’t feel that way about Jennifer."
I smiled remembering the early days in my courtship with Krista. I had fallen in love with her the first time I went out with her, though it took her longer to warm up to me. After our first date I knew I didn’t want to be with anyone else. I had found the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
"If you feel differently about Jennifer, then why are you spending all this time with her?" Bekah said.
"When Jennifer and I go out, we have a fabulous time together. I get along with her just as well as I did with Krista. In some ways, I get along with Jennifer better."
"What are you saying?" Bekah said. "Do you love Jennifer more?" The quiver in Bekah’s voice made me think she was about to cry.
"What if those feelings that I had for Krista are something I can only have for one person?" I said. "Does that mean I can’t be with anyone ever again? Do I need those same feelings with Jennifer to have a strong relationship with her?"
Anderson picked up a piece of pepperoni, threw it to the floor, and squealed in delight. He had been so quiet, I had nearly forgotten about him. He threw a second piece to the floor before Bekah could stop him. She removed the uneaten pizza from his tray, then wiped his face and hands with a washcloth.
While she was doing this, I looked back at the horse pasture. The brown mare was now walking slowly toward the other side of the field where a large, metal tub was filled with water. She put her nose in the water and took a long drink.
Bekah set Anderson on the floor in the living room with a few toys. He picked up a blue plastic ring and began chewing on it. She sat back at the kitchen table and took another look at Anderson to make sure he was all right.
"It’s really none of my business who you date," she said. "I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that Krista was my best friend, and I have a hard time seeing you with anyone but her."
Anderson crawled into the kitchen. Using the table leg as a balance, he stood up and took two unsteady steps toward Bekah, who picked him up and placed him in her lap.
"Tell me," Bekah said. "If you knew how your marriage to Krista would end, would you still have married her?"
"I’d do it over again a hundred times if it were possible," I said.
"Even if it ended the same way each time?"
"Even if," I said.
Bekah started crying. "It makes me so happy to hear that," she said. She wiped her eyes with a napkin. "So you know, I’ll support you if you decide to remarry."
I went out with Julianna the following Saturday. We ate dinner at a local pizzeria, then headed back to my place and watched a movie. It was a horrible date. What little conversation we had felt forced. Julianna had always been reserved when we were out, but this evening she was frigid. She said as little as possible during dinner and, as we watched the movie, she sat on the far end of the couch with her arms folded. About an hour into the show I moved to the chair next to the couch so I could sit closer to her. Julianna slid to the next cushion as if to empathize she wanted nothing to do with me.
After the movie I drove her back to the apartment and walked her to the door. I tried to coax some final words out of her. The date was frustrating enough that I thought about never asking her out again. I wanted some sign that she was still interested in me or that this evening had been a fluke. But all Julianna said before retreating into her apartment was, "Thanks for dinner."
On the drive home I listened to the three voice messages Jennifer had left on my cell phone. The first two were playful. She sounded annoyed on the final message and wanted to know where I was and why I hadn’t returned her calls. I was too irritated from my date with Julianna to talk to anyone and decided not to call her back.
I lay on my bed and thought about Julianna’s behavior. Over the last two months we had gone out a total of five times. None of our dates had been spectacular. The first one and this one had been downright awful. Yet Julianna continued to accept every invitation to go out again without hesitation. And despite the less than stellar dates, I couldn’t shake the attraction I had for her. I tried figure out what was going on behind her pretty green eyes. As my eyes grew heavy, I decided that at church the next day I would talk with her and settle things with her once and for all.
The talk almost didn’t happen. After the first hour of services, Julianna quickly left the church. I had to run to catch up with her.
"We need to talk," I said.
From the look on her face, talking to me was the last thing she wanted to do.
"I don’t have time now," she said. "It’s my sister’s birthday. I’m late for her party."
We were twenty feet from her car, and Julianna’s long strides were rapidly closing the distance.
"I need ten minutes," I said.
Julianna took her key chain from her purse and pushed a button. With a chirp, the car alarm was deactivated. Another three steps and we were at her car.
"I’ll call you after the party," Julianna said. "If it’s not too late, we can talk then." She got into her car and put the key in the ignition.
"I’ll be home all night," I said.
Julianna started the car and drove away without another word.
As the day progressed I grew less confident that Julianna would call. The way she brushed me off in the parking lot made me think she would stay as late as she could at the party, simply so she wouldn’t have to talk to me. While waiting for her call, I decided to visit the cemetery. I thought it would be a quiet place to sort out my feelings. And I hoped that if Krista were lingering nearby, she would hear my thoughts and know that even though I was moving on, I still loved and missed her.
I was sitting next to Krista and Hope’s headstone when Julianna called. It was dusk and I was looking over the valley watching the lights from the city come on like stars, one at a time. I was positive Julianna was going to tell me that she had stayed late in Salt Lake and we wouldn’t be able to talk. To my surprise, Julianna said she was at her apartment. I told her I’d be there in five minutes.
I stood and took a long look at the headstone. "This talk could change everything," I said. "But it won’t change the way I feel about you." My words seemed to disappear into the gathering darkness. I walked back to my car and drove to Julianna’s apartment.
Julianna was wearing red-rimmed glasses when she opened the door. I had never seen her with glasses before but thought the small frames looked good on her. It wouldn’t be until months later that I would learn she had worn them to help disguise the fact she had been crying while she waited for me to arrive. She invited me inside her sparsely-furnished apartment. A worn eight-foot couch lay against one wall, and a small twelve-inch television stood in a far corner on top of a cherry wood chest. The only other furniture in the living room was a bookshelf, half of which was filled with books and the other half with ornate dolls.
"Have a seat," Julianna said. She gestured to the couch. I sat on one end, Julianna sat on the other. It felt like there were miles between us. Julianna stared at the far wall and looked like she was going to be sick.
"Are you feeling okay?" I said.
"I’m fine," she said.
We both sat in silence, dreading what was coming next.
"Do you like going out with me?" I finally said.
"Sort of." Julianna didn’t look at me when she said this. She continued to stare at the wall. I wanted to see her full face while we talked.
"I can never tell how you’re doing when we’re together." I said. "You hide your feelings well."
"I’m not sure how I feel about you," Julianna said.
More silence. I tried to read Julianna’s face. It was expressionless.
"Tell me about her," Julianna said after a minute. She was looking at me now. Even behind the glasses, her green eyes could be piercing.
"Who?" I said, though I was pretty sure she meant Krista.
"Your wife. Tell me about her."
"What do you want to know?"
"What was her name?" Julianna’s tone indicated frustration that she had to pull even basic information out of me.
"Krista." Julianna repeated, as if the name suddenly added a human element to this previously unknown person. "How long were you married?"
"Almost three years."
"When did she die?"
Julianna looked at the ceiling as if she was counting the number of months between November and July. "How did she die?" she said after she had reached her answer.
"She took her own life."
Julianna’s literally shook at the news. It was like she was expecting something else — an automobile accident or a fatal, unexpected disease. Anything but suicide.
"How did she kill herself?"
Now it was my turn to look away. I still felt embarrassed when I told this part of the story. "With a gun. My gun. I came home one afternoon, and as I entered the apartment I heard a gunshot."
Julianna nodded her head slowly. "Did you have any kids?"
"Krista was seven months pregnant when she died," I said. "Our baby, Hope, lived for nine days."
Julianna seemed surprised by this answer, too. I couldn’t tell if it was from the fact that the child had lived or that Krista was pregnant when she committed suicide. There was a sad but curious look in her eyes that indicated she wanted to ask more questions but was unsure how to proceed. Her gaze returned to the far wall.
"There were too many compilations with her coming into the world so early," I said. "I made the decision to remove life support."
Julianna’s lips were pursed as if in deep thought.
"I don’t know if I can do it," she finally said.
"Date a widower."
"Why? You have to ask why?"
"Tell me why it would be hard," I said. I could foresee a lot of potential problems but wanted to know if Julianna’s concerns were the same as the ones I saw.
"I don’t know if I can live with having my every action compared to a dead woman," she said. "I don’t want to compete with a ghost,"
"Have you felt like I’ve been comparing you to Krista?"
"I don’t know you or Krista well enough to answer that question," Julianna said. "But I know when someone dies, they tend to be put on a pedestal. It doesn’t matter what they did wrong, all anyone can remember is the good, loving things about them. Meanwhile I’d be with you making mistakes and being compared to a woman who is a saint in some people’s minds."
"I never thought about it that way," I said.
"I’ve thought about it a lot since we’ve been going out. I almost think it would be easier to date a divorced man. At least then I can assume that there’s some sort of hostility toward the previous spouse."
I thought back to my family’s reaction to Jennifer at the barbeque. I realized that a lot of their response to Jennifer was because they were comparing her to Krista. This comparison was going to be an issue whoever I dated was going to have to deal with.
"Why are you dating again? Julianna said.
I didn’t have a good answer to that question. "I enjoy spending time with other people," said.
"What exactly do you enjoy about it? Being close to someone? Is that the only reason you’re dating? To satisfy some physical need?" Julianna looked at me. "I don’t want to be a warm body. I want to be loved and appreciated for who I am."
"We really haven’t been physical — "
"What did Krista look like?" Julianna said. "Did she have long, blonde hair like me? Did she have my green eyes? Maybe I’m a spitting image of her, and that’s the only reason you want to date me. I don’t even know if you’ve dated anyone else. I don’t want to be the first and only woman you’ve gone out with."
"I’ve gone out with other people," I said.
"Then there’s the communication issue," she said. "We’ve gone on five dates and aside from the bomb you dropped on me during our first date, you’ve never talked about Krista again."
"I haven’t been sure how to bring her up."
"I don’t want you to feel that way," Julianna said. "I want you to be comfortable talking about her, and I want to be comfortable asking questions about her and the life the two of you shared."
I leaned back into the soft couch cushions. As far as I could tell, any chance of having another date with Julianna was history.
"Where do you see this relationship going?" I said.
"For now, all we can be is friends."
"Friends," I repeated. I was willing to take that. Perhaps with a little time, we could take another run at the dating thing.
"Just friends," Julianna said.
Julianna still looked like she was going to be sick. Considering how things had gone, I thought this would be a good time to leave. I thanked Julianna for making time for me and told her that being friends would work out fine.
As Julianna followed me to the door, I felt impressed that I should ask her out on a date for Saturday. I quickly brushed the thought from my mind. We had just agreed to be friends. Asking her out could undo everything we had worked toward this evening. I put my hand on the doorknob and again felt that I should ask Julianna for a date. I opened the door, then turned and said, "Would you like to go out on Saturday?" Even as I said those words I stood there wishing I could take them back.
"Sure," Julianna said. She looked surprised at her response. I thought it best to leave before she changed her mind. "Plan on dinner," I said.
On the drive home I cursed myself for asking Julianna out. I didn’t have the confidence that our date on Saturday, if it happened at all, would go any better than our previous ones. But something about our conversation felt right. The issues she had raised were valid concerns, and I thought if we could find a way to work through those problems then there might be a chance that things would work out between the two of us.
My cell phone rang as I pulled into the driveway. It was Jennifer. I hadn’t spoken to her all day. I put my finger on the button that would send her straight to voice mail. There was so much I wanted to think about, and Jennifer was only going to be a distraction. But if I didn’t answer now, she would call back. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk with her. I just wanted some time alone to sort things out.
"I’ve been waiting for your call," she said when I finally answered her call.
"I spaced it," I said. "I’ve had a lot on my mind this evening."
"Is everything all right?"
"Everything’s fine," I said. "Things are finally starting to make sense."
Whatever had been stopping Julianna and me from getting along well on our previous dates had disappeared by Saturday. For the first time our conversation flowed. It was as if our talk the previous Sunday made us feel like we could open up with each other about anything.
Julianna excitedly told me about her marathon. She had finished the race in three hours and thirty minutes — twenty minutes slower than her previous marathon — but she seemed happy with her time. And overall she had done well, finishing fifteenth out of 250 female runners.
Several times we swapped jokes and funny stories and found ourselves doubled up with laughter. For the first time together we relaxed and acted like ourselves. And I was sad when the evening had to come to an end.
As I stood outside Julianna’s door, we made plans to spend the following Saturday together. My gut told me this date that this was the date that was going to show whether or not there was a real possibility for us to take the relationship further.
It was. We watched the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs and went hiking. Through the movie I resisted the temptation to hold Julianna’s hand, which lay on the armrest. I told myself we needed to take things slow. One wrong move could send our relationship tumbling back to square one. I kept my arms folded telling myself to be patient.
After the movie we drove to the summit of North Ogden Divide. There was a parking lot where trail heads for several popular hiking trails were located. We each carried backpacks with several bottles of frozen water and lunches of turkey sandwiches, chips, carrot sticks, and chocolate chip cookies that Julianna had prepared.
We started up the trail toward Lewis Peak. Even though the trail snaked along the north edge of the mountain and was shaded by pine trees, it was still hot. We stopped every ten minutes or so and took long drinks of water. I let Julianna set the pace. Mostly I wanted her in front of me so I could look at her long, tan legs without her knowing I was staring. Her legs were strong from running, and I enjoyed watching the muscles in her legs expand and contract with each step she took.
After about a mile and a half, the trees thinned and the trail leveled out and snaked its way south toward the summit. We followed the trail for another half mile until I spotted an outcropping of rock fifty feet off the trail. The rocks formed a small ledge that extended over the east side of the mountain. I told Julianna that would be a good place to stop and eat.
Both of us were soaked with sweat. We sat on the ledge that looked over the farms and homes that made up the cities of Huntsville and Eden.
"It’s very nice up here," Julianna said, after we had rested for several minutes.
"There are many good hiking trails in the area," I said. "My favorite is the one that goes to Ben Lomond." I pointed to the mountain to the north.
"Do you go hiking a lot?" Julianna asked.
"Not as often as I’d like to."
"I don’t like hiking alone. I’d rather do it with someone." My stomach grumbled, and I smiled. "We should eat if we’re going to have any strength make it back down."
We unpacked the lunches and started eating. A slight breeze kicked up and felt cool on my shirt, which was still clinging to my back with sweat. While we ate, I took a long look at Julianna. The light gave her hair a gold tinge. Julianna glanced in my direction. I looked away, embarrassed to have been caught staring.
"What are you looking at?" she said.
"Why are you looking at me?"
"Because you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen."
Now it was Julianna’s turn to look away. "I’m just plain and ordinary," she said.
"You’re anything but."
"How do you know that?" she asked.
"I don’t go out with plain and ordinary girls."
Julianna face reddened. The wind blew a strand of her hair across her face.
"So tell me," I said. "How come a beautiful girl like you doesn’t have a boyfriend?"
"Who says I don’t have a boyfriend?" She smiled and looked me right in the eye.
Her green eyes let me know that she was serious. I had assumed that since she was always available to go out and never came to church with anyone that she didn’t have anyone special in her life.
"Do you have one?" I said.
"I broke up with him three weeks ago."
I waited for her to say more. Instead she pulled a cookie out of her backpack and chewed it slowly.
"Can I ask why?" I said, after she had finished the cookie.
"It wasn’t because of you," she said. "I broke up with him the day before we had that serious talk at my apartment."
"Are you sure it wasn’t because of me?"
Julianna threw a cookie at me. It hit my shoulder and landed on the ledge. I picked it up and took a bite. "Five second rule," I said. Julianna shook her head and looked back over the valley.
"He lived in Provo. That made it hard to see each other on a regular basis. I need to spend time with a person to feel like the relationship is going somewhere. Phone calls and a visit once a week aren’t enough for me."
"I can understand that," I said, thinking about Jennifer. I wondered how many voice messages were going to be on my voice mail when I returned home. "It’s hard to know if you want to spend eternity with someone when you’re never around them."
Julianna finished the water in her first bottle. She pulled the second one out of her bag and took another drink before continuing. "He wasn’t ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship, anyway. He seemed happy living apart and seeing each other once a week. I think a relationship should be moving forward or backward. Our relationship hadn’t been going anywhere for several months, so I ended it."
I chewed on a carrot stick, pondering what Julianna had just shared with me.
"So if you had a boyfriend, why did you keep agreeing to go out with me?" I said.
I nodded. Julianna brushed her hair away from her face and looked down at the valley. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rested her chin on her knees.
"After our first date, I was ready to be done. I drove to my parents’ house that night and told them about how awful it was. When I was done with the story, my dad told me I should give you a second chance."
"Why did he say that?"
"I don’t know. It was a strange thing for him to say. He’s the type who wants to make sure his daughters are dating men who will treat them right."
"Did he tell you to give me a third and fourth chance, too?"
Julianna shook her head. "I don’t know why I kept going out with you. I wanted to say no but felt I should do it."
We heard a sound of voices and turned as two teenage boys ran down the trail. The wind carried their voices back up the mountain long after they disappeared.
"Since we’re on the question of past loves," Julianna said. "How long did you wait to date again after Krista died?" Julianna kept her eyes were on the valley below, her face expressionless. I was learning she could hide her body language when she had to.
"About five months."
"Have you been dating regularly since then?"
"As often as I can."
"And how often is that?"
"Just about every weekend."
Down in the valley a black pickup drove along a dirt road leaving a trail of brown dust. It turned into a long driveway of a ranch-styled house that was surrounded by several pastures. I looked back at Julianna for any clue on what she was thinking or feeling. Her poker face remained intact.
"Am I the only person you’ve dated more than once?"
"Have you been serious with anyone since your wife died?"
The pause before I answered made Julianna look at me. "Actually, there’s someone else I’ve been seeing while we’ve been dating," I said.
Julianna’s raised her eyebrows for a split second. That was an answer she wasn’t expecting.
"You’re with someone?"
"Yeah. For last two months."
Silence. My eyes wandered from Julianna back to the black pickup truck. The driver lowered the truck’s tailgate and lifted something that looked like a long rectangular piece of plywood out of the back and carried it to the garage.
"She lives in Phoenix. I brought her to church about a month ago. I thought you saw the two of us together."
"I wasn’t paying close attention to you a month ago," Julianna said. "If I would have seen you with someone else, I would have been glad for an excuse to turn you down."
"I’m glad you weren’t paying attention."
"What are you going to do about your girlfriend in Phoenix?"
"I don’t think it’s going to last much longer," I said. "I think I’ve found someone better. Someone I’ve wanted to know more about since the first time I laid eyes on her."
Julianna blushed and looked away. I rummaged through my backpack and found a cookie. I moved closer to her and said, "Have a cookie."
We talked for the next hour. It was as open and honest a conversation as I’ve ever had with anyone. It was during this talk that I knew without a doubt that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Julianna.
The shadows of the bushes and trees grew long. It was at least a thirty-minute hike to the parking lot. To be in the car before dark, we’d have to leave soon. But I didn’t want to leave. I would have preferred to stay on that ledge with her all night.
The wind caught a plastic sandwich bag. I grabbed it before it went over the ledge and put it in my pocket. "We should get going," I said. I picked up the remains of our lunch and put it in my backpack. But Julianna didn’t move. She sat, looking over the green valley. A gust of wind caught her hair and blew it over the side of her face, obscuring it from my view.
"Everything okay?" I said.
"I’ve really enjoyed this afternoon," Julianna said. She pulled her hair out of her face and tucked it behind her ear. "But before we go, there’s something I have to tell you."
I set the backpack on the ground. There was something about her tone that indicated this was something important. I braced myself for bad news.
"I suffer from depression," she said.
A memory of Krista flashed through my mind. She was having one of her bad days and telling me that there was no hope for anyone and that we were all going to die. The look in her eyes was dark and dreadful.
"How bad is it?" I said, without looking at her.
"I’m not suicidal. I’ve never thought about killing myself," she said. "Considering your history, I think it’s something you need to know."
"Do you do anything to treat it?" Though I doubted Julianna’s depression would lead to any dark episodes like I experienced with Krista, it was enough to make me pause and wonder if it was something I was willing to live with.
"I’ve been off and on medication for several years."
I looked back up at Julianna. "Off and on?"
"I’ve always believed that you are responsible for your own happiness. No matter what happens, you should try to make the best of the situation. Sometimes medication is necessary, but I’d rather try to be happy on my own."
Her answer intrigued me. Maybe it was because I spent so much time with Krista’s family where prescriptions were preached as the cure-all for every ailment; this was the first time I had heard someone say they’d rather not be on antidepressants.
"What do you do to make yourself happy?" I said
"That’s part of the reason I run marathons. The endorphins running releases make me feel better. I also try and do things for others when I’m feeling bad. And I try to concentrate on the positive when bad things happen." Julianna looked up at me. "It’s not easy. It seems like when life is going good, I stop taking the pills. Then something bad happens and soon after, I’m back on them."
"Some people would say that there’s nothing you can do about the way you feel," I said. "Take a pill and enjoy the ride."
"I’m not saying that medication isn’t helpful. I think that people have more control over the way they behave and act than they think."
I looked at the ground. An ant approached one of several cookie crumbs in the dirt. It picked one up in its pincers and turned back to the direction it had come. Krista’s dark days had been difficult. There was no guarantee that Julianna wouldn’t act similar or that one day she could wake up and her depression would be much worse. I had to decide if this was something I could live with. It was tempting to simply give up and find someone who didn’t have depression. I’d been through a lot. Who would blame me if I decided to throw in the towel?
Then my mind went back to Krista. Despite those hard days, I never thought once about giving up on her. I wanted to see her through those hard times because I loved her. She had meant more to me than anyone else, and I was willing to be help, no matter how bad the situation became. And in that moment I realized it didn’t matter if Julianna would have good days or bad. She was trying her best to work through her depression, and I was willing to take a chance and love her not matter what lay ahead.
"Thanks for telling me," I said. "There are a lot of people who think if they don’t take a pill every morning, they can’t be happy. I think it’s great you’re doing your best to resolve these issues on your own."
Julianna smiled. "Thanks," she said. "That means a lot."
We gathered our things and headed down the mountain. When we walked by some mountain flowers by the side of the trail, I picked one and handed it to Julianna. She took the flower and smiled. And with that smile, I knew there would be many more days together in our future.
It wasn’t until we were on our way home, warm night air blowing through the car, that I realized I needed to call Jennifer and end things. I hadn’t been honest with Jennifer about our relationship. All that needed to change. It was time to come clean.
After dropping Julianna off at her apartment, I turned on my cell phone. There were three messages on my voice mail — all from Jennifer. In the messages she sounded happy and anxious to talk to me. I sat in the driveway and brought up Jennifer’s number. I imagined myself pushing the call button and hearing Jennifer’s voice answer. I went through a dozen different ways of telling Jennifer our relationship was over. I tried to think of the kindest, nicest way possible to end it until I realized there’s nothing I could say that would ease what I was about to do.
Ending it was something I would have done eventually, even if Julianna wasn’t part of my life. Despite the wonderful times we had together, I never felt for Jennifer the way I did for Krista. I had rationalized the lack of those feelings by thinking it was impossible to have them for anyone else other than Krista. But after tonight I realized it was possible to love someone just as much as I loved Krista. The hard truth was I had pursued a relationship with Jennifer because I was lonely. And when the opportunity presented itself to be loved again, I took it.
I listened to a couple of songs on the radio, putting off the inevitable. The music was happy and made me think of being with Julianna. Finally the music broke to a commercial. I turned off the radio and got out of the car. I unlocked the door to the house. In the dark, I took off my shoes and walked to the couch. I lay down and dialed Jennifer’s number and waited. There was two seconds of silence before the lines connected. Jennifer answered the call on the third ring.
"I’ve been trying to call you all afternoon," Jennifer said. She sounded excited to finally talk with me.
"I know. I got your messages."
"Where were you?"
"That’s what we need to talk about," I said.