Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Project Chapters One - Seven

Chapter One
Houston, Texas 2015

     Mike Ray shut the door, lifted the seat and pissed. He flushed, dropped the lid, and ran water in the sink for background noise. He didn’t expect anyone to be listening, but felt caution was best. He opened the medicine cabinet. Prozac, Trazadone, and Zyprexa … you’re as fucked up as I am, Suze, he thought. He filled the plastic bag with bits from each bottle, slipped it into his jacket, washed his hands, opened the door and listened. If there were sounds he ignored them as he looked across the hall at Leigh’s room. A Keep Out sign, scrawled in purple and tacked was honored more now than before. No one had entered, except his wife who picked out the blue dress worn for St. Margaret’s Spring Swing. She’d also wear the necklace. There was no need for shoes.
     Mike glanced down the stairs. Suze told him she had errands to run and would leave before he finished in the bathroom. Hearing nothing he continued to the closed door. Turning the knob, he opened it slowly and took in his last view of Leigh’s world. He first noticed the dark blue walls, painted a year earlier in a fit of self-expression. In the midst of teen rebellion she scrawled messages secretly directed at him. FUCK YOU … I HATE THIS PLACE … I AM NOT A CHILD. They were written shortly after entering high school, but weren’t found until he followed her into the room during a heated argument. She saw the hurt in his eyes and her wall cracked. She cried and apologized, promising to help him repair the damage. She chose the color, he did the work and things were calm for a while.
     Straight ahead, above one of her dressers, was the fairy poster Mike bought her when she still believed in such things. Magic Begins in Your Heart, it read with various creatures - a ladybug, a butterfly, a bluebird and of course several faeries surrounding the words. To his left was her bed, still untouched. He wondered if putting the pillow to his face would allow him to catch the fragrance of Clinique Suze gave her at Christmas. Behind the headboard the group One Direction appeared to watch over where she slept. Beside the bed a small white desk covered with what he called girlie stuff. The term made her cringe, adding to the evidence of her father’s inability to let her grow up. In the center was her laptop - cover opened and tempting him to explore. He quickly declined. Let her keep her secrets. He saw no reason to invade what he wasn’t meant to know.
     Mike looked out the window onto the driveway to see if Suze’s car was gone. It was, which suited him. Some things should be done solo. He pulled the desk chair toward him and sat, then rolled closer to the bed. Should I say something? He said good-bye at the funeral, but that was ceremony. It made more sense here. This was Leigh’s space since climbing out of her crib. She didn’t just sleep here. She grew here. She learned here. She went from worshiping to tolerating him here. He wasn’t sure what his wife would eventually do with the room. He didn’t care, because he’d never know.
     “Hey Doodle,” Mike said, imagining the face she would have made hearing him call her that. He tried to feel Leigh and wanted to believe he could. He looked across the room to her bureau. At the bottom corner, tucked between the mirror and its frame was a photo of her on a Schwinn. He smiled, remembering how learning to ride was so difficult for her – almost a phobia. Unable to use her brand new bike when she hit nine years, one Sunday morning he loaded it into the SUV and drove to the empty parking lot of the local high school. She protested ‘I can’t’ and he told her she would. The photo was taken less than an hour later and she kept it within viewing range ever sense. “Remember how scared you were? What did I tell you? If you fall I’d pick you up. I did two or three times, until you were riding all over the place. You were so proud of yourself. You told me a few years ago that you appreciated how I was always there for you. Maybe you were trying to brown nose me for something, but I think to a point you believed that. Well, you might not have noticed, but I didn’t respond. Eventually I would have, but that wasn’t the right time. Honey, you thought I did so much for you. The truth is that you were the one who kept me going. I don’t think I could ever repay you for what you did for my life. At least that’s how I looked at it. I could handle anything… until last year.” His voice choked and he stopped to compose himself. “Are you watching? I don’t know. I’m not feeling you and if you’re not here I want to believe you’re someplace better. We both need to be. I’ve never been into that Heaven stuff, but now I’m hoping. Hope … it’s all I’ve got. Maybe I don’t deserve it, but you do and in spite of all the times I embarrassed or pissed you off, you’ve always been the only one who mattered. As for your mom, you probably knew something wasn’t right. Let’s deal with the questions when we see each other again, if that’s how this works. I love you and miss you so much. Anyway, that’s enough. I’ve got to fix all this.”
     Mike stood and slid the chair back in place. He walked out of the room, closing the door behind him and stopped at the top of the stairs to consider if he wanted to go into the bedroom he once shared with Suze. Why? He thought, then moved down the steps. He went into the kitchen and took a yellow post it and pen from the end of the counter and wrote: DIDN’T FIX IT. CALL A REPAIRMAN. He smiled, wondering why she bothered asking him. During their seventeen years together he rarely held a tool. You actually thought I could fix the dishwasher? He left the note on top of the appliance. Before leaving the room he opened a drawer and removed a corkscrew, sliding it into his back pocket and lifted a wine glass from the drainer in the sink. He continued to the front door. He opened the door and turned his view back into the house in an attempt to depart with one good memory. Instead he thought of Suze, sixteen years earlier when she told him.

Chapter Two
Nashville, Tennessee 1999

     “We need to talk,” Suze said, as she sat on the couch holding a section of the Sunday newspaper in her hands.
     “One sec,” Mike whispered, as he nodded and held up a finger. Quietly he walked into the kitchenette of their apartment, one of many in the Andrew Jackson Family Housing Complex of Vanderbilt University. It was his third year as both a college student and husband, his tenth day as a father. From the dishwasher he retrieved a glass, filled it with crushed ice and plucked two cans of soda from the refrigerator. On the way into the living room he grabbed his Latin book from the counter and tucked it under his arm. Sitting on the sofa next to his wife, he smiled. “Finally she’s out.”
     “Like that matters to you,” Suze said, taking the glass. No eye contact was made, Mike’s clue that he was in trouble for something or this would be a serious discussion – at least from his wife’s viewpoint. The last one came during her first trimester when she suggested he transfer to a school near her parents in Houston. Convincing her it wasn’t a good idea he compromised with a semester break trip to visit them and added a promise to consider applying at Rice University for his graduate work. “You’ll be oblivious at two-thirty when she summons me,”
     “You wanted to talk?” Mike asked. He slid coasters in front of both of them on the coffee table and set his drink on one. He wiped the wetness from the can on his pants, because Suze would make one of her faces if he hadn’t before he put his hand on her leg. “What’s up?”
     “I’m not happy,” Suze said, placing the glass on her coaster.
     Great, I’ve got a final tomorrow, Mike thought. Be supportive and maybe this will go fast. “You’re not happy about…“ He paused waiting for her to fill in the rest. Suze stayed silent so he continued. “We just had a baby. It’s going to take some adjustment. I know I’m not doing enough, but finals are almost over.”
     “It’s not just that,” Suze said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
     “Suze, the doctor told us about this,” Mike said, aware that as he talked she was pulling away. “You just carried Leigh for nine months and now your body is changing back. It has an effect on women.”
     Suze shifted to face Mike, pulling her legs onto the couch and knees up to her chest. It was obvious she didn’t want him to touch her. “I’m not an idiot,” She said. “I thought a baby would make a difference. It just makes things worse.”
     “It’s a chromosome thing,” Mike said, the topic beginning to worry him. Their doctor explained the strange feelings Suze might deal with after she gave birth. It happens to some women more than others. “That’s all this is.”
     “It’s not God damn chromosomes, it’s us,” Suze said. “I’m not happy with us. I’ve been thinking about it since we got here, before you got me pregnant. I was barely eighteen when we got married. You were twenty-one. You got to experience life. You lived on your own. You had time to learn what you wanted. I’ve only been with my family and you.”
     “Let’s get something straight. Leigh, was your idea. You talked about having a baby since day one. I suggested waiting until I graduated. I compromised with you having her this early and I’m glad we had her. I love her and I love you. The only thing that matters is if you love me,” Mike said. Suze nodded she did. “Good, then we can work on this. You’re right, I did have time to discover what I wanted in life before we met. That’s how I learned that I wanted to be with you. You didn’t have that opportunity, but fortunately we fell in love. That doesn’t mean you have to completely do without. There’s lots of ways for you to get what you missed out on. Do you want to go to school? We can work it out. Do you want to take a trip? Within reason we can do that. Just tell me what will make you happy and I’ll do it.”
      “I want to see other men,” Suze said, giving Mike the same puppy dog eyes used when she over spent her budget.
     At first Mike couldn’t respond, because he wasn’t sure if he heard her right. “You said you loved me and you’re talking divorce,” He said. “You’re not making any sense. We should sleep on this and talk in the morning. We can get help. It’s not just you. I’ll do whatever it takes to save our marriage.”
     “I don’t want a divorce,” Suze said. “I just need more and how do you think Leigh and I will live without you? I’d have to move back in with my family. That’s not going to happen.”
     “You’re worried about moving back in with your parents?” Mike asked.
     “That’s just part of it,” Suze said. “You know the kind of guys my folks would try to hook me up with, Bible thumpers and that’s not the experience I need. I want to stay with you, because I do love you. You’re a good man and you’re going to be a great dad for Leigh. Let’s face it, no one from the Goodwill Assembly of God will ever make what you’re going to pull in. Besides that, do you want your daughter growing up without you? That’s what’ll happen if we split.”
     “Suze, we need help,” Mike said. “The university has counselors and it won’t cost us anything. We can move back to Houston. I’ll transfer my credits. I’ll do anything. I’ll change.”
     “It’s not always about you,” Suze said, looking angry. “This conversation is over. I’m going to bed. If you’re awake when Leigh wants her bottle give it to her.”
     “But I love you,” Mike said, watching her stand walk away without a response.

Chapter Three
Houston, Texas 2014

     “Mrs. Ray is on line two, Mike,” Charlotte’s voice came over the intercom. “Are you in a meeting?”
     Mike closed the folder and pressed the button. What the hell does she want? He thought.
“You know me so well,” Mike said, thinking over his choices. Charlotte, his personal secretary, learned early how to handle happenings between her boss and his spouse. The pieces were easy to put together. He showed up at company parties without her. He never took her with him on business trips, a perk allotted partners. He mumbled words like bitch when told she was on the phone. He knew she’d cover for him, because that’s what a good secretary did. She also did it, because she thought he deserved someone better – someone like her. He considered the options, lie and listen to Suze’s babble when he got home or get it over now. “Did she sound sober?”
     “Yes Mike,” Charlotte said. “She actually sounded pleasant.”
     “Fuck, what now? Give her to me,” Mike said, kicking his feet onto his desk. Lifting the receiver he pushed the button and took a breath. “Listen Suze, I’m kind of busy. I’m getting ready for a meeting and I need to…”
     “You didn’t pay for my tennis lessons this month,” Suze said. “Anthony just called and he’s not pleased.”
     “Is that what you call it?” Mike said, opening the organizer program and running the cursor down to monthly payments. “How’s your backhand from the prone position?”
     “Very funny,” Suze said. “Are you going to send my payment or what?”
     “Why don’t you tell the asshole to buy a calendar? It’s not due until the twelfth.” Mike said. “Oh and it’s my payment, not yours. Is that all?”
     “No that is not all,” Suze said. “You need to talk with our daughter. She wants to go to South Padre for spring break. I told her it was up to you. She said there’s a chaperon. It’s her friend Debbie’s mom. You know, the drunk at the 4th of July pool party who rubbed those fake tits all over all the men there. I’m leaving this up to you.”
     “Of course you are. Once again, I’m the villain. Ever consider being a mother?” Mike said. Another complaint he had was Suze’s lack of participation in Leigh’s life. He was the one who made sure she got to dance class, girl scouts or whatever involved her time. When she was younger he fit in daddy-daughter activities on a monthly basis, something they seemed to do less now that she was older. Suze filled in only when there was no choice. He hated making excuses to their daughter for her mother. “She’s fifteen, what other reason do you need for saying no?”
     “Just talk to her when you get home,” Suze said. “I’ve got to get ready for my lesson. I’ll pass on that calendar idea to Anthony. He’ll be grateful. Oh and you might want to pick something up for you and Leigh for dinner. I won’t have time to fix anything.”
     “Bitch,” Mike said, disconnecting his end of the call. “Why the fuck did I stay with her?” Because of Leigh, he thought. Someone has to be there for her … had to be. The older she gets the less she wants me around. Now there’s one more reason I’m going to look bad in her eyes. Swinging his feet onto the floor he pressed the intercom button. “Charlotte, I’m calling it a day, damage control at home.”
     Mike filled his briefcase with files for a late evening review and unhooked his phone from the charger. He grabbed his overcoat from the rack and checked his pocket for his keys before heading out the door. Minutes later he exited the garage, deciding against the longer route to the house. On the way home he’d drive through Greek Town and stop at a gourmet pizza place Leigh used to love going to with him. Eating alone with her might give him time to work away the coldness he was sure to experience.
     Leigh was smart enough to know that fathers had to make the unpopular decisions. She’d be mad, but she’d get over it. She’d have to, or it would be a long evening for both of them. Going home so early in the afternoon made it worse. He hated every moment he spent near Suze. As he drove he thought of events that led to where he found himself – stuck in a marriage with a woman he stopped loving years earlier. He was surprised how quickly his feelings changed.
     Upon learning Suze’s ideas of marriage, Mike tried to get both of them into counseling. She refused, believing the answer to her problem was to be proactive – to see other men who could fulfill her needs. In the beginning she only talked about it and he thought living closer to her parents might help. He transferred between semesters to Rice, losing only a handful of credits in the process, and remained there until finishing his BA in business. For a short time he thought the move proved successful, until a cousin of Suze suggested he keep an eye on her. When the confrontation came he told her that he didn’t want his wife sneaking around behind his back. If you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, don’t hide it. I have to know, so I can deal with it. She agreed and they decided it best to keep things between them. Leigh would never know, at least while she was young.
     From the beginning Suze insisted she didn’t want a divorce and at times she was still affectionate. Even at the worst of times they shared the same bed and had sex, which Mike called love making until told otherwise. She called it sex. Do you want to fuck, screw, give it to me, take me, jump my bones? She refused to say make love.
     Mike understood Suze’s game, why she kept him in the marriage – finances. Alimony and child support wouldn’t keep her in the life she wanted. To combat any thought on his part to leave she’d constantly tell him his true worth in a relationship. I married you to get away from my family. I’ve never enjoyed sex with you. I felt sorry for you. No other woman will want you. He believed her, thinking she had no reason to lie about such things. Although his therapist explained this was her tool for keeping him in place, he refused to seek a relationship elsewhere. When a woman appeared interested he questioned her intentions and refused to allow anyone into his life.
     The love eventually died, Mike’s sadness turned to anger, and finally a sense of acceptance was born. He would stay as long as Leigh needed him. Once she was out of the house he would make his exit. The timeline was now changing, because his daughter, now a teenager, seemed to need him less. Making matters worse, he began seeing more of Suze in her.
     Pulling up to the entrance of the gated community, Mike punched the code into the keypad. He could see their home ahead and slightly grinned. I might be a bad fuck, but I sure as hell provided for them, he thought. Entering the driveway he tallied the division of property. She’d get this place and half our savings. The way she spends that’ll go fast. Leigh will get stuck going to community college and I’ll be blamed.
     “Dad, you’re home,” Leigh came running out the front door as Mike got out of his car holding the pizza. She approached him with a hug and grabbed the arm free of his briefcase. He noticed she wore the chocolate diamond necklace he gave her on her birthday. “Oh my god, you stopped at Giovanni’s?”
     “You’re mom’s going out,” Mike said, handing the pizza to Leigh. “So I thought we could do a dad-daughter night. We need some bonding time. First I need to talk with your mother.”
     “She said she was going to talk with you, about spring break,” Leigh said. “Did she call you?”
     “She did,” Mike said, not wanting to discuss things on the front lawn. “Let’s find her and we’ll all talk about it.”
     “Mom said she was fine with it, but you’d have to make the decision,” Leigh said, slowing down before the door. He could hear the waver in her voice, the way it did when she was upset about something.
     “I’m sure she did, but I want her to tell you what she told me. She’s not all that crazy about your friend Debbie’s mother,” Mike said. She’s trying to make me the bad guy again. “Care to see if she’s changed her tune?”
     “All the other girls have permission to go,” Leigh said, trying not to lose her smile completely.
     “And you expect me to agree, because all of them do?” Mike asked.
     “Mom said yes,” Leigh said, stopping on the porch.
     “And she said it was up to me,” Mike said. “I say no, not this year. Probably not next year either. Where’s your mother I…”
     “Mom said you’d say that,” Leigh said, throwing the pizza to the ground. She turned and ran back into the house, leaving the door open behind her.
     I guess we don’t eat pizza, Mike thought, picking up the box. He followed her inside, placing his keys in the bowl next to his wife’s. “Suze, where are you?” He asked nearing the staircase.
     “Welcome home, dear,” Suze said, at the top of the stairs she descended wearing a pool robe over her two piece. “I see you already spoke to Leigh. Why do you have to be so mean to her?”
      “Why’d you have to set me up?” Mike asked.
     “Sweetheart, someone has to be the fall guy,” Suze said, “and you play the part much better than I do. I’m sure you can deal with it. I’m heading to the club to get in a few laps.”
     “Not this time,” Mike said, turning back toward the front door and grabbing both sets of keys. “You’re going to tell Leigh that you called me and said you don’t want her going. I’m not taking the heat alone.”
     Suze smiled and reached for the door knob. “I’m not driving, dear and I’m not covering for you. I suggest you talk with your daughter or eat alone.”
     Mike watched her exit saying nothing. I expected better? He thought. Ascending the stairs he avoided approaching Leigh’s room, knowing nothing he said would make matters better. Going into their bedroom he shut the door and began undressing for a shower. After a quick in and out he dried himself and changed into jeans and a tee shirt. Walking back into the hall he noticed his daughter’s door open and peaked inside to find the room empty. Moving back downstairs he saw a car pull out of the driveway filled with giggling teenage girls.
     “You’re going to bitch to your friends about me,” Mike said to himself, “and you have no clue what I gave up for you.”


Chapter Four
Houston, Texas 2014

     After Leigh left Mike went into the living room, turned the television on and watched the news. When network evening programs began he opened his briefcase and tried to look over a file for the next day’s meeting. The mood wasn’t right, his wife was out fucking, his daughter was pissed so he put the papers back into his case and mixed a rum and coke. One drink became two, then three. He stopped counting as the eyelids fluttered and gave up until the call came.
     “What the fuck?” Mike said waking on the couch, then realized Leigh changed his ring tone again. She thought it was funny to surprise him with a new one every couple of weeks. Once while in a checkout line of a grocery store it went off playing Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. Who’s the dumb shit, he thought searching in all directions. When the elderly woman in line behind him grinned he knew it was his cell. This time he identified the tune as Saints of Los Angeles, by Motley Crue. He smiled thinking that there were moments when his daughter took the time to do such things. She does love me … sometimes.
     “Hello … what … yeah I’m Mike … Michael Ray,” Mike said trying to grasp the voice on the other end. He sat up and tried to clear his head of the alcohol in order to understand. “Oh god, is she ok? I’ll be right there. Tell her I’m coming. Just take care of her.”
      That’s how Mike found out about the accident. Leigh left with her friends, headed to Spitfire Burgers and bitched about her father all the way there. They ate then changed the subject to boys when Tommy Randle and his friends walked in. She wasn’t allowed to date yet - his wife’s idea, which he found interesting. She doesn’t want her daughter taking after her. They got back into Molly Stevenson’s mother’s Audi and returned to the road where they burned up a quarter tank deciding where they wanted to go next. It was on her way to drop her off at the house when they collided with the van. It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t felt guilty about the pizza. When she told the girls about it, they reminded her what a good dad she had. None of the other fathers did the dad-daughter thing, and he was probably the busiest of all of them. She agreed and said she wanted to go home to apologize. In the back of her mind, she hoped he might have second thoughts.
     Molly died on impact as did Nanci Prophet, who sat next to her in the front. Both were crushed from the head on, moments after Molly responded to a text from her boyfriend. Megan Moore, Brandy Swatznager, and Leigh Ray – all in the back seat – survived until they reached the hospital. Megan walked out the next day. Brandy followed a week later. Leigh was less fortunate.
     Mike was the last parent to reach the emergency room. Suze never showed up. He called and got her voice mail so he sent a text, which went unanswered until she arrived home the next morning. Both Molly’s mother and Nanci’s parents stood across the room where they already learned of their daughters’ fate. He didn’t speak to either until the funerals. Megan and Brandy’s parents met him first with hugs and premature hope. This ended shortly with the doctor’s appearance.
     “Mr. Ray,” said the duty ER physician. Mike took note of the name, thinking he might want to send a thank you after the events were finished. He thought it was always good to show appreciation to people who took care of Leigh. “Can you sit down?”
     Can you sit down? Mike knew this wasn’t good. There are certain phrases people hear that are usually followed with bad news. When a boss tells you to shut the door, it probably means someone is getting fired. When a blind date is described as having a good personality, he or she is a dog. When a spouse tells you she’s not happy, it means she wants to sleep with other men. When a doctor asks if you can sit down, it isn’t followed with good words.
     “How’s my daughter?” Mike asked and hoped. He knew both girls in the front seats were dead, but all three riding in the back made it to the hospital. Megan and Brandy were going to be fine – a few broken bones and some patch up work, but they’d be back in school in a couple weeks sharing hugs with their friends as they cried over the loss of Molly and Nanci. There would be grief counselors at the school, a memorial service and a special page in next year’s year book. Leigh was also in the back. He remembered seeing her sitting near the driver side window, but didn’t think that mattered since most of the vehicle damage occurred up front. Brandy was on the wrong side. Her parents should be the one’s sitting here, he thought then quickly wishing he hadn’t.
     “Mr. Ray,” said the doctor. “We got her into surgery immediately. There only appeared to be minor bruising, but we discovered internal bleeding. We did what we could.”
     “How bad is she?” Mike asked.
     “Mr. Ray, I’m sorry. Your daughter passed. She never regained consciousness,” said the doctor. They’ve prepared her. Let me take you back to her.”
     Mike broke down three times over the past fifteen years - the night Leigh was born, the day he learned Suze found someone else to fuck, and the moment he saw his daughter’s body. Hearing the words, your daughter passed, were foreign until walking into the room. He would later tell people he barely recalled the hand helping him stand and the arm on his back guiding him to where her unresponsive body waited.
     One of the most emotional moments in one’s life is the first viewing of the body of someone you love, someone who could no longer love you back. Mike approached the gurney with Leigh’s partially covered body, noticing two things - the small bruise on her forehead and the necklace.
     She’s just sleeping, Mike thought, knowing she wasn’t. He grabbed a folding metal chair nearby and he moved it next to her. He sat, looked, and thought, As long as I stay here with her, nothing will happen after this moment. I won’t walk out of the room and give her up to strangers. She won’t miss out on any of it … graduation … college … meeting the guy who will take my place … children and grandchildren. As long as I stay with her time won’t go on. So he sat next to her, reaching beneath the sheet where he found her hand - slightly warm. He cried, because he knew. Time didn’t stop. It would go on without her and it was up to him, one last time, to do the right thing. For fifteen years he loved her. He changed her diapers, potty trained her, taught her to ride a bike, tucked her in at night, and took her to Giovanni’s when she wanted pizza. Now he would do one last thing for her. He would prepare her final days on this earth.
     Mike said nothing. He sat with her until he knew if he was ever to leave before they came to escort him out he’d have to do so soon. He couldn’t said good-bye, because he knew letting go of Leigh meant letting go of everything. Without words he stood and bent over her. He kissed her lips, turned to the door and walked out of the room. Passing the remaining parents he accepted embraces he couldn’t feel and walked out of the hospital. Leaving the parking lot he turned on the radio to an oldies station and listened to Free Bird all the way home. The next day he made that the ring tone for his phone. When he listened to it he thought of her.

Chapter Five
Houston, Texas 2015

     “I’m increasing your Prozac,” Diane Bolus said, writing the prescription. “Three hundred milligrams doesn’t seem to be working. Five hundred should allow you to focus better. I’m hoping we won’t have to go beyond that.” Placing it on the corner of her desk for Mike, she picked up a spiral notebook and began flipping pages.
     “You’re supposed to help me, not turn me into a zombie,” Mike said. “Is that why Suze recommended you?” He couldn’t help watching Diane and kept thinking that she fit the stereotypical image of a shrink. She could be a poster child, with that outfit and glasses. He was surprised to learn his wife chose a woman psychiatrist, especially one so young and attractive. If Dr. Bolus was male, he’d understand.
     “Medication isn’t a fix. If it were I could mail you prescriptions and we’d never have to meet. The drugs are tools to be used with various methods. Our talks allow us to discover answers hidden beneath the surface. Hypnosis can draw out underlying information, the data you’ve blocked out. There are other measures of course, but we can discuss them later,” Diane said. “As for why your wife gave you my name, perhaps you should ask her. Hopefully she’s happy with her sessions.

     “You assume Suze would give me an honest answer,” Mike said. “I’m sure she’s hoping we’d eventually end up in group therapy.”
     “And you already said that isn’t an option. So I won’t bring it up and right now I think individual work is more important. If you ever change your mind, let me know and we can discuss it,” Diane said. “I’m going to have some tea, would you like some?” Mike nodded and watched her move across the office where a small cart waited. A clear pot of water set on a burner and a glass tea pot next to it. She reached below and brought out a small wooden box containing loose leaves. She placed two pinches into the pot, set it on the cart then poured hot water into a cup and immediately emptied it into the pot. She repeated this twice and waited a couple minutes before placing a stainless steel tea strainer over each cup filling them. “Most Americans don’t understand the effort behind a good cup of tea, Michael. Bagged leaves is so primitive and produces a low quality, but in a country where the average person prefers getting their dinner via a drive-thru window it’s understandable. My method takes more steps, but you’ll find the results favorable and the leaves can … no they should be used more than once. The second and third cups will taste better than the first. There’s a Chinese saying, the first is for your emperor, the second is for your wife and the third is for yourself. It’s a lot like therapy. In the beginning one finds dialogue sufficient. Then you’ll move into other methods like hypnosis or word association testing. If taken further you will be greatly surprised how much better the outcome. That of course is for a later discussion.” Timing her movement with her monologue she set the cup in front of him.
     “How long have you been doing this?” Mike asked, looking at the framed diploma on the wall behind her desk.
     “I earned my doctorate from the University of Munich in 2007,” Diane said. “My dissertation centered on alternative methods of therapeutic engagement. Most in my field are not as accepting of newer practices. Some things take time. Almost nothing is known about it here in the states.”
     “Why did you decide to come to America? Wouldn’t it have been easier to continue your research in Europe?” Mike asked.
     “I probably shouldn’t be sharing this,” Diane said as she poured both of them a second cup of tea, “but my father and I had a disagreement.”
     “He’s in your field?” Mike asked.
     “He believes so,” Diane said. “My father is considered by many to be the ultimate expert of all areas. It can be perplexing existing with ultimate perfection. Naturally with differing views we had a falling out and he banished me.”
     “He what? He should be proud of your accomplishments. I understand disagreeing, that’s human nature,” Mike said, “but as the adage goes, agree to disagree.”
     “Thank you, Michael, but human nature and my father rarely see eye to eye. He believes what I do to be not just wrong, but as an attack against him. His demand for unquestioned obedience and ultimate love has worn thin on me. We are where we should be for now, crossing paths only when he feels the need to disrupt my work,” said Diane, clicking her pen. “Now the last time we spoke you mentioned a church in Odessa, Texas. Is that correct?”
     “Between Odessa and Midland,” Mike said. “My family lived in Odessa and I decided to go, because I was told there were some nice girls there. They had a youth group that went to a lot of things like sporting events, theme parks, that sort of thing. I was raised Catholic and our church didn’t do much for the high school kids, unless you count altar boy training. I didn’t have to change religions so I thought what the hell and it wasn’t that far.”
     “There were no nice girls in Odessa?” Diane asked.
     “Sure lots,” Mike said, “but I wanted to go where I wasn’t known, if you know what I mean.”
     “Actually I don’t,” Diane said.
     “I wasn’t what you call popular,” Mike said. “I was a bit of a goof … a smart ass back then, and not really the type most girls liked to go out with. Also I didn’t play football and you can imagine how picky most Texas high school girls can be.”
     “And you thought girls just a short distance away would be different?” Diane asked.
     “No, but they were church girls and they didn’t exactly know me,” Mike said. “A football injury story works great, if the person you’re telling it to doesn’t attend your school.”
     “Hmm and you met Suze at one of the church activities,” Diane said.
     “It was a Friday night youth fellowship,” Mike said. “That’s what they called their gatherings. Like I said, I agreed to go for the girls. It was also a reason to get out of the house there’s not a lot to do in Odessa.”
     “I understand,” Diane said. “When did you first interact?”
     “Suze was with her friends when I walked in. They came over, introduced themselves and we talked. She told me she was seventeen and a senior, so we had that in common. We’d be graduating around the same time. She flirted with me all night, G rated of course. This was a Bible thumping church and most of the kids were believers,” Mike said. “She joked with me a little, but I wasn’t really sure if she was hitting on me and I didn’t decide to act on anything until the end of the night.”
     “What happened?” Diane asked.
     “Well the meetings usually lasted about three hours. They started with a prayer, sang songs, played games, gave us time to talk… usually about Jesus. Then they sang and prayed again,” Mike said. “At the end of the evening they took prayer requests. That’s when the guy running the show asked if anyone wanted the group to pray about something. It could be anything, a sick mother, a financial need, whatever someone wanted to share. So they got all these requests then everyone held hands and prayed. I happened to be standing next to Suze.”
     “Hand holding can be a deal breaker,” Diane said then smiled. “Sorry Michael, it sounds as if you were ripe for the moment.”
     “You’re right,” Mike said. “There we were holding hands while some guy was praying aloud and I never heard a single word. All I could think about was her and I hoped she was thinking about me. She was, but not the way I thought at the time. Suze confessed that she saw me as a way out from day one.”
     “She told you that?” Diane asked.
     “It was said after things changed. I believed her. That was before I began seeing you and I didn’t understand she was playing head games. I know now she didn’t want me to feel good about myself, because remaining weak kept me from discovering other relationships,” Mike said.
     “So you don’t believe she meant it?” Diane asked.
     “I believe the 17 year old Suze liked holding my hand and she didn’t want to let go when they finished praying,” Mike said. “I believe she loved me, but also saw me as a way out. It wasn’t until after we moved to Nashville that she began questioning everything. She told me she thought having a baby might make things better, but of course it didn’t.”
     “She had Leigh and changed the rules,” Diane said. “You decided to stay and sixteen years later we’re trying to get you back on track.”
     “If that’s possible. Things aren’t any better than they were when I walked in five months ago.” Mike started therapy a month after Leigh’s funeral, at Suze’s suggestion of sharing a therapist. The idea took some selling, because it came from her. When he told her he wasn’t interested in couple counseling and she didn’t press the idea he agreed after she said, ‘What have you got to lose? You can always quit’.
     “Not true, Michael,” Diane said. “Five months ago you were barely functioning. You had a lot of misplaced anger, blaming yourself for everything from Leigh’s passing to the weather. Therapy takes time, but there have been improvements. You’re coming to terms with issues and you moved out of the house. By the way, how’s that going?”
     “Easier than expected,” Mike said. “I let Suze keep everything. Replacing furniture for her would have been costly. I’m not as picky and wasn’t out to impress anyone. Once I was out she returned to her old ways, went back to the club and tennis lessons.”
     “She didn’t socialize while you remained,” Diane said. “Did she ever ask you to stay?”
     “Of course, a couple of times, I didn’t bite, because there’s some things you can’t forget,” Mike said. “To say she cheated on me for fifteen years, doesn’t do it justice, Doc. She slept with so many guys and it didn’t matter if it was a friend or coworker. I didn’t tell you about that. Around the time Leigh was five and I was still a junior partner Suze hooked up with the guy my company selected to mentor me. That’s what Taylor and Briggs does with people they think have promise, they pair them with senior partners to train them and bring them along. Bill Andrews was mine and he taught me a lot, but he also fucked my wife. He’d give me extra work that kept me at the office late and he’d drive to our house where my wife waited for him. She’d put our daughter to bed and take him into our bedroom. Some things a guy can forgive. Some things he can’t. So when she suggested I never mentioned Bill or all the other guys to others, I just reminded her that having Leigh didn’t make her a homebody and losing her wouldn’t induce positive results,” Mike said. “I’m sure it pissed her off, but she knows it’s true. She accepted my decision quietly enough.”
     “That’s understandable,” Diane said, “and leaving was a big step, but you still seem to be connected to her.”
      “Weaning her has been difficult,” Mike said. “She calls me, because I still control the money and I’m not rushing the divorce. She phoned this morning and asked me to come over to fix the dishwasher. I’ll go over, take a look at it and tell her to call a repairman. What is she thinking?”
     Diane set her note pad down, stood and walked across the room to the bookshelf before speaking again. “Knowing what you do, about Leigh’s outcome, the years you spent with your wife and what they did to you, would you have done everything the same if given the opportunity?”
     “You mean would I have stayed if I had known that my marriage would never be right and my daughter would be killed in a car accident when she was fifteen? Yes,” Mike said. “I don’t know what Suze tells you, but Leigh was a pawn. Suze was willing to trade my time with our daughter for a lifestyle she’d never have if I divorced her. Fuck yes, I would have stayed.”
     “What if you could have left, before it all happened?” Diane asked. “What if you never had to make the decision?”
     “Huh? What the hell are you talking about?” Mike asked. “It did happen, that can’t be changed. That’s ridiculous. You’re talking impossible.”
     “Ridiculous maybe, but I want you to think about it, Michael,” Diane said. “What if you could do things over again – erase everything that led you to where you’re at now? Would you do it? We can discuss your answer at your next session. Our time is almost up.”
     “You’re cutting it off now?” Asked Mike. “Why would you ask me shit like that and not elaborate?”
     “My job is to open your mind to different ideas, Michael,” Diane said, “even the impossible can be considered sometimes. I’m sorry, but we can continue this next week.”
     “Sure, I don’t understand, but you’re the doctor,” Mike said. “Thanks for the tea. You’re right, it is better than the bagged stuff.” He picked up both cups, carried them to the tea cart, turned and smiled before leaving the room. On his way out he nodded at the receptionist then reached for his cell and turned it back on to find a text from Suze. The dishwasher awaits your attention.

Chapter Six
Houston, Texas 2015

     Before walking inside the house, Mike stopped to look onto the driveway where he last saw Leigh. He wondered if he’d ever forget then reminded himself he wouldn’t have that problem much longer, but he wanted to remember her as long as he could. Standing on the porch he noticed a car of high school age boys drive slowly by, almost coming to a stop in the middle of the street. They know, he thought, wanting to be invisible he opened the door. Standing in the foyer he listened for sounds then walked into the kitchen just as he heard footsteps coming down the stairs.
     “Thank God you’re here,” Suze said, directing him over to the dishwasher and opening the door. “There’s fucking water standing at the bottom.”
     “God that smells,” Mike said, shutting it quickly. “How long has it been like that?”
     “I’ve only filled it once since you left,” Suze said. “How many dishes do you think I dirty? Think you can fix it?”
     “I’ll do what I can, but you might have to pay someone. Mind if I use your bathroom?” Asked Mike.
     “You know you still own this place,” Suze said. “If you want to, you can sleep over.”
     “Don’t think so,” Mike said.
     “I’m not hanging around,” Suze said. “You’d have the place to yourself. I know how much you loved the flat screen in the den. You can watch a game or something.”
     “I’ll consider it while I take a piss,” Mike said. “I’ll lock up whenever I leave.
     Mike climbed the stairs to the second floor and went into the bathroom where he relieved himself and gathered the pills from the medicine cabinet. He came out, visited Leigh’s room and descended back into the kitchen where he grabbed the corkscrew and wine glass He left Suze a note and departed. Back in the car he headed toward the Greek Town area of Houston, because of the abundance of large parking lots he knew were there.
     Mike stopped at a liquor store on the way. He walked the rows of wines until finding a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Ah Toasted Head, might as well go out with something I like, he thought. Returning to his car, he continued until finding the right place for his demise. He pulled in, pushed the button, collected his ticket then drove until he found an empty space near the center of the property. I’ll back in, so I can keep an eye on people approaching. The last thing I need is someone figuring things out.
     Mike kept the engine running and air conditioner on, unfastened his seatbelt, opened the bottle and poured a small amount into the glass. He swirled the contents then lifted it to his nose and inhaled. Finally that wine tasting class comes in handy, he thought before taking a sip and then adding more.
     “Got to have some tunes,” Mike said, briefly wondering why he bothered speaking then accepted last words were appropriate even if only to himself. He began pushing his preset buttons. Sports talk … who cares, Howard Stearn … not in the mood, Hair Nation … bingo, he thought. “We are the saints, the saints of Los Angeles,” he began singing. From his pocket he took out the bag of pills and considered which one to take first then shoved several into his mouth washing them down with a hefty swallow. That ought to fuck me up fast.
     The radio station followed Motley Crue with Def Leppard, White Snake and then Metalica. By the time Guns and Roses began singing Sweet Child of Mine, Mike was feeling the effects of the cocktail. “Oh Jesus, that can’t be the last thing I remember,” he said pushing buttons. He changed to another rock station and the same song began to play so he tried another and once again Axl came out singing. He pressed the preset button for a sports talk station, but instead of hearing voices talk about the Rockets the same song continued playing. “What the fuck is going on?” He tried the weather station and it happened again, so he assumed there was a problem with the radio and pressed the off button.
     Oh Oh Oh Sweet child of mine, the music kept playing.
     “OMG, that’s impossible,” Mike said. “The son-of-a-bitch is off.”
     Michael, even the impossible can be considered sometimes, the voice said over the speakers.      Mike turned his head to the passenger door and saw the figure tapping her fingers on the window. “Are you going to unlock the door?” Diane Bolus asked. He reached across for the button and felt the alcohol and drugs carry him to the floor board. The doctor moved her hands along the glass in an upward direction and the door popped open. She slid into the seat, lifting him back into his with ease.
     “Wha the fuck you doin’ here?” Mike asked, his head fell back against the driver door. “How did you know?”
     “You’re dying, Michael. We don’t have much time,” said Diane.
     “Wanna die,” Mike said.
     “Well, that is an option,” Diane said, “but there is another choice.”
     “I don’t want to be saved,” Mike said.
     “That’s understandable,” Diane said. “What about your daughter?”
     “She’s dead,” Mike said. “Without her I …”
     “Too much talk. If you’d waited another week I’d have more time to explain this,” Diane said. “You’re about to die, Michael. If you don’t make a decision quickly you’ll belong to him.”
     “Wha the hell are you talking about?” Mike asked. “Belong to who?”
     “My father,” Diane said and smiled.

Chapter Seven
Nashville, Tennessee 1999

     “Your father,” Mike said. “What the hell does that mean?” His eyes were closed. It was one of those embarrassing moments when you unintentionally lose consciousness at an inappropriate time. In this case the pill tainted wine was the villain. He knew he had been out, but wasn’t sure how long. No answer, Mike thought crazy fuck dreams must hit hard at the end. He remembered the bottle marking one quarter full, Axl Rose blasting from a turned off radio and his shrink hopping into the car as he leaned across her and threw up. Now he’d open his eyes to a silent world, the doctor certainly wouldn’t be sitting next to him and he had a job to finish.
     Mike breathed in wondering why his head seemed clearer than it had minutes earlier. Maybe I barfed it out, he thought. He looked down on the passenger floor mat and saw the bottle drained and lying next to a pair of Enzo Angiolini boots. Following the legs up the seat he viewed a hem, then continued to a set of unrecognizable knees. His investigation continued past a vee cut blouse until the eyes of Diane Bolus were looking into his. “You are here. I guess I messed up,” he said.
     “If you’re referring to your little mixture,” Diane said, “no, you were quite successful. Thankfully, you had me to intercede before you walked to the light.”
     “There was a light?” Mike asked.
     “Figure of speech,” Diane said, “but I stopped you from doing anything rash. Still, our time is limited and you have a decision to make.”
     “Backup,” Mike said. “What’s going on? How did you know I was here? Who the hell… No, what the hell are you?” He sat up in his seat and looked her over for the first time since she got into the car. The business attire was replaced with a more casual outfit and the glasses were gone. Her dark hair hung loose on her shoulders and he noticed her jewelry.
     Diane smiled and touched the Saint Christopher pendant. “Even if I don’t agree with his methodology, I’m addicted to the art,” she said. “We don’t have much time, but I suppose some answers are needed to move you along. What – I’m offering you a second chance. How – Remember the alternative therapy I spoke of? Who or what – wasn’t I covered in your catechism classes?”
     “Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” Mike said. “Am I tripping?”
     “No to both. I don’t think he has these,” said Diane as she dropped the necklace into her cleavage. “No time for a theology lesson, Michael. I only want to go over things once. Time is fleeting.”
     “OK, obviously this isn’t happening,” Mike said, “but I’ll play along. I’m unconscious and my body probably doesn’t have much time left. Got to tell you, this is interesting. I never saw you as evil though, doc. A bit strange with that last talk we had, but… wait that’s it. You put the idea into my head and it must have stuck there. That and the stuff about the falling out you had with your father. If he’s God then you’d have to be…”
     “Michael, open your door,” Diane said.
     “What?” Mike asked.
     “Open your door and get out of the car,” Diane said. “It’ll help you grasp why we’re here.”
     Mike pulled the lever and pushed the door open, then swung his feet onto the gravel that wasn’t there. He fell back into his seat as his feet dangled outside. “Shit shit shit…,” Mike said. He pulled back inside the car, fastened his seatbelt and looked stretched his neck to see that the car rested on nothing. He shut the door and looked back at Diane. “OK, I’ll play this out, if that’s what I need to do.”
     “Michael, you died,” Diane said. “If I wasn’t here, you’re spirit, soul or whatever you want to call it would have ascended already. I stopped it, because you deserve an option. When I’m done you can accept what I’m offering or go with him. It’s up to you.”
     “You’re giving me a Heaven or Hell choice?” Mike asked. “I was depressed, not stupid.”
     “Hell is what you left behind, Michael. I’m giving you a Heaven or life choice,” Diane said. “I understand your hesitance, but I’m not a soul collector. I see myself as more pro human than he is. Humans make mistakes. His solution is to offer a smorgasbord of ways to get to whatever you want to call your next destination, but he allows you to suffer before you transcend. I’m offering an opportunity to fix things. Pick him and I’m gone. I’ll be honest, it’s not bad. You’ll probably see Leigh again and others who left before you, but if you choose my offer there’s a chance you’ll get it right this time. Now shall we get started?”
     Mike nodded. “Okay, what now?” Mike asked.
     “First, we need to do something about this fog,” Diane said. She waved her hand across the front window of the car in the mist quickly lifted. “The hand gesture was for your benefit.” She smiled, as Mike saw the inside of the student housing apartment he and Suze shared at Vanderbilt. “This is just our first stop, but I want you to understand your reentry can be at any point. You need to decide which one is best.”
     Suze sat alone on the couch holding part of the newspaper in her hands. She was glancing at an ad in the real estate segment of the Houston Chronicle, her ‘Dream Pages’ as she referred them to Mike. Both knew one day they’d return to Texas, but the Odesa area was not in their plans. She kept glancing at the door to Leigh’s room, awaiting the discussion she would soon initiate with her husband.
     “I know this by heart,” Mike said. “I don’t really have to see it again.”
     “It’s good to reflect on the obvious, Michael,” Diane said. “You’ll observe things you didn’t notice at the time.”
     “She sitting there, same place, same newspaper, and the same damn look in her eyes… Waiting,” Mike said. “Look how she’s opening and closing her hands. She always does that when her mind is made up, but she knows we’re going to discuss something anyway. Right then, before I even came out of Leigh’s room, she knew how things were going to go.”
     As they observed a younger Mike quietly exited the nursery. He smiled at Suze, heard the words, and spoke softly as he headed for the kitchenette and fixed drinks for his wife and himself then joined her on the couch. He sat and the conversation began.
     “Look at her eyes,” Mike said. “She can’t look into mine, if she’s lying.”
     “Is that what she’s doing, Michael?” Diane asked. “Does anything she’s saying to you eventually turn out to me untrue?”
     Mike listened and shook his head. “Not really, expect the part about loving me,” He said.
     “Did she ever?” Diane asked.
     “Maybe, in the beginning,” Mike said. “Of course her story changed from time to time. She used to tell me she did – once. Then she said it was all part of the plan to get away from her folks. I think she probably did, but I’m not sure how long it lasted our when she stopped. Do we have to listen to all this?”
     “No, we’ve seen enough, but I have to ask you, Michael,” Diane said. “Is this where you’d like to begin again. Think a moment, because we have to move quickly.”
     “Not here,” Mike said, “but I sure wish I could see Leigh again. She was the most beautiful…”
     “You’ve already decided, Michael,” Diane said. “We much continue.”