Confusion. It was all Holly could clearly feel. Gabriel was gone. She had thought about this moment at odd times—what she would do without him, what she would feel if anything. She’d broken up with so many others, it was almost a given that at some point they wouldn’t work out either. However, why today of all days? She had stood there, by his side all day, even though she didn’t want to, even though the fear was overwhelming at times. Still she had stood and done her best to get him through the day.
And what did he do? He broke up with her anyway. Yet, she knew why. She understood. He was now stumbling in the darkness, unsure of anything. He wasn’t in his right mind. In fact, that was supremely obvious by his erratic behavior. First he was kissing her, and then he was telling her to get lost. Gabriel, the Gabriel she knew, would not toy with her like that. No, he was hurting, and he was pushing her away, maybe not even because he wanted to but because he was trying to get through the pain moment by moment, not really thinking any farther than that.
As she climbed the stairs, Holly reached for the one and only thing she could think to do—prayer. “Dear Lord, please give Gabriel peace. Whatever that means for me, for us. Just give him peace. Be with him, God. Station Your angels around him to protect him. Please, dear Lord. Please, I’m asking.”
The prayer stayed with her the rest of the night.
“So you took Holly back to the mansion?” His mother didn’t so much as wait for Gabe to get all the way into the kitchen.
“Yeah.” He was a wreck—emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, and he knew it. There were only tiny shreds of sanity clinging to him, but even they were slipping. He stepped into the glaring light of the kitchen and blinked it back. All he wanted to do was crawl into a hole and disappear.
At the table sat his mother, his aunt and his uncle. They all looked at him, watching him. He walked to the cabinet and took out a glass. He felt like he hadn’t had water in a month. With a jerk he turned on the water, filled the glass, and then shut it off. He turned to lean on the cabinet. Still, they were looking at him. “What? What did I do?”
His Uncle Adolfo glanced at the two women. “Gabe, we’re a little concerned about this relationship.”
A knife dug into his heart, but defiantly he took a drink. “What relationship?”
“You and this girl… Holly. Do you really think this is a good idea? Can’t you see she’s using you?”
Staying strong hurt worse than it ever had. “Using me? For what? Entertainment?” His laugh was hollow. “Holly’s not like that.”
“I know you think she’s not,” his Aunt Ida, said. “I know you want to believe that, but…”
Gabe felt the emotion rising, disintegrating everything in its path. If he didn’t get out now, he was going to do or say something he’d likely regret. He spun around and pitched the last of the water in the sink. “Well, you don’t have to worry about it.” The glass clinked to the cabinet. “I won’t be seeing her anymore.” His grip on the cabinet felt good because it hurt worse for a moment than the pain.
He heard his mother’s sigh, but he couldn’t get as relieved about that as she sounded.
Pulling stone-hard into him, he turned. “So, what are we doing with the food? I don’t want to be up all night.”
Holly was still praying the next morning when she got up and put on her sweatshirt and jeans. She hoped his night was better than hers. “God, be with Gabriel today.” The prayer continued as she went through the kitchen, got her coffee, and headed out to the back. The more she got done now, the less he would have to do when he came back.
As she got to work unstringing the lights from the bushes and the fence, she thought how hard it would be for him to come back. Everything, everywhere would remind him, even as it reminded her now. The thought that he might decide not to come back went through her, searing every tender place left. How could she go on without him, without hearing his voice, and feeling his arms around her?
Dragging two sets of lights to the gazebo and going back to the ladder, she couldn’t help but see the unfairness of it all. Others fell in love, and everything was wonderful for them. She thought of Eric and Rebecca. Sure, they’d had a few rough spots at the beginning, but hurting like this? No way. They were head over heels. She knew Emily less well, and had only been around Jeremy a few times. Yet they too, knew how to make this work. They were, after all, getting married in January.
Find someone, graduate, get married. It seemed so easy for everyone else. Why was it so impossibly impossible for her? The thought of being relegated to the merry-go-round of relationships her mother tried to make normal dragged her spirit down even as she descended the ladder, picked it up, and moved it six feet over. She climbed back up.
No, she would not be like her mother. She would rather live her whole life by herself than to go through that gauntlet. The lights on the fence snagged. She reached over and yanked up on them to dislodge them, but the fence’s hold didn’t yield.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Come on.” One toe was all that was left on the ladder’s third rung as she reached, straining to untangle the strand of lights. “Come on!” She yanked, her frustration with life going right into the string. The ladder wobbled under her, and her heart lurched. She tried to find something to grab onto but found nothing. “Ahh!”
Sharp branches of the bush below met her on the way down, slicing into her skin. They were the only things that slowed her plummet. As she fell through them, they jabbed and cut, slicing into her face, hands, and arms. And then, she was lying on the ground face up. The crash of the ladder in the opposite direction made her cringe.
“Ugh.” Her back screamed in pain, not letting even a modicum of breath into her lungs. “Oh.” She couldn’t get in a real breath. It was completely impossible. “Ugh. Ugh.” She gasped for air, coughing because her lungs hated the air trying to come in.
“Hey!” The yell kept her from losing consciousness although she couldn’t really tell where it had come from or who it was. “Are you okay?”
Holly couldn’t stop the groan. She fought to breathe, but her lungs still wouldn’t let much air in at all. She closed her eyes to squeeze out the pain shooting through her.
“What were you doing?” The guy’s gaze was frantic and worried. “Look at you. You shouldn’t be out here doing this stuff.”
Reaching for his sleeve, she sat up with his help. That made her head spin. “I’m sorry. I was trying to…” Nausea swept into her. “Oh.” She needed something to lean on. Careful not to make the movements too big, she scooted over to the little bench but didn’t crawl up onto it, rather leaning against the cool metal supports, she worked on getting her breathing back to normal.
Her senses were coming back, and she realized she had, in fact, seen this guy before. That day out by the pool. She groaned at the memory. Putting her head against the cool metal, she tried to find the words to tell him she was fine, but they swam around in her brain like a school of frightened fish.
“Look at you. You’re bleeding.” His frantic meter was heading into the danger zone. “We need to get you inside.”
“What in the world happened?” A second guy came hurrying up along the path. This one was tall and black. She had seen him too, but she had no idea what his name was.
“She fell,” the first guy said. “She was doing the lights.”
“Why was she doing the lights?”
“I don’t know. She was up on the ladder trying to get them down when I got here.”
Holly didn’t want them fighting over her and her stupidity. She waved her hands at them. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I just wasn’t thinking.” Pushing her feet under her and praying they wouldn’t fail her, she reached up to the bench. “Here, help me up.”
Although he looked less than sure, the black guy reached down for her hand. He helped her gently to her feet and didn’t really let go even when she was up. Concern etched in his gaze. “You’ve got some nasty scratches there.” He reached over to her face. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
It was only then that she looked at her hands. There were tiny trails of blood all over them. She put one thumb knuckle up to her forehead to get her head to stop pounding. “I’m sorry. I’m okay. Really I am.” Lowering her hands to her knees to regain her composure, she pushed the pain and the blood away from her as she looked back at the lights. “We need to get these things down. I already got some down, but I didn’t know what to do with them.”
She pointed over to the gazebo, the pain pulling her energy down farther. It was still difficult to breathe. She reached up and scratched the side of her face, desperately fighting to get back to normal.
The two guys looked to where she pointed and then to each other.
“Who took all the chairs down?” the black guy asked.
“I did. Yesterday.” Holly pushed herself up to standing and started for the ladder.
For one moment neither of them moved. Then suddenly they were a whirlwind of action.
“Here, I’ll get that,” the Hispanic guy said just as she got to the ladder.
“Yeah.” The black guy stepped over to her. “Why don’t you take a little break? We can get this.”
Holly shook her head. “No. I want to help.”
“Okay.” The Hispanic guy drew the two syllables into about five. “Then why don’t you help Darius roll up those lights? I’ll get this.”
She really didn’t have the energy to argue. Instead she just bobbed her head up and down and started for the gazebo. “God, just keep me on my feet.”
It was noon before Gabe woke up. His mind still had that fog of needing more sleep, but he fought through it. No one was supposed to sleep this late. His father would… He snapped that thought in two. He forced himself up and trudged down the hallway. In the kitchen he pulled a bowl out and grabbed some Apple Jacks. The way he felt, that might even be too exotic. He was sitting at the table before he remembered the milk. But he was too tired to get milk, so he poured some cereal and dug in.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. It echoed off the hollow walls of his mind. Memories hazed at the far fringes of his mind, but he deliberately shut them down. They didn’t need to remind him.
“Oh, Gabe,” his mother said as she stepped into the room from the other side. “I didn’t hear you.”
“That’s okay. Would you like some lunch? I can make salami sandwiches with extra cheese.”
“No thanks.” The thought made him ill. “Did Uncle Adolfo and Aunt Ida leave?”
“They said they were sorry they missed you, but they needed to get back.”
Gabe nodded. The movement spun through him.
“I was thinking we need to go into town today. I think I’ll put you on our… I mean, on my checking account, so you can sign checks on it.”
“And the car’s timing is still missing. I was going to ask… We never did get that fixed, and I’ve been afraid it was going to leave me stranded for a month.”
“I’ll look at it.”
“You better do that before we go into town.”
“I said I’ll do it.” The words were harsh, sharp, and Gabe slammed his eyes closed, trying to take them back. His heart jammed into his throat. “I’m sorry, Mama. Really I am.”
She gazed at him, looking older than she ever had. “I know.”
Holly couldn’t take another minute alone in the big, empty house. The cuts on her hands and face looked worse than she thought they would, but they were not worth calling out the National Guard like the guys wanted to do. She’d worked most of the morning with them–Tim and Darius. They were nice guys, funny. Although she knew they were trying to be serious with her around, funny was never very far away.
As she slipped out the front door and started for the carriage house, she thought about how worried they had been about her when she fell and even throughout the morning. In fact the top two things on the list of things she’d said were, “I’m fine” and “Don’t worry. I’m fine.” On the outside she was, the inside was another story.
Absurdly she hoped Gabriel would be there when she opened the heavy door. She knew he wouldn’t, but it didn’t stop the hope. With a yank she pulled the door open and stepped inside. Strange how the chill seemed to permeate the space even when the weather outside was full-on summer. She reached out and pulled on the little light. Up the stairs she went, wrapping her arms in the long, oversized cable knit sweater. She had chosen it in anticipation of the chill.
At the top, she let her gaze lead her down in to the memories. The breath was one of acceptance. As much as she hated to admit it, Gabriel probably had a point. Not that she deserved better, but that he did. She walked over to the little bookshelf and pulled one off. True Power & Real Peace. It was the one she had seen him reading. Taking it, she went over to the couch and curled onto it. Even here, alone, she felt his presence, and it helped. For a moment she could once again believe she wasn’t trash, she had a purpose, and there was someone in the world who actually loved her. It was a feeling that would be hard to get used to living without again.
“I think tomorrow we need to go to the lawyer,” his mother said from across the table.
The spaghetti, always his favorite, was tasteless. He ate anyway, not wanting to hurt her feelings. But his mind was elsewhere—in the mansion, wondering how Holly was doing.
“I found the will earlier. Not that I want to, but I think we need to get that settled.”
Gabe thought he nodded, but he didn’t really hear any of it. He wondered if he would ever hear anything again.
Time was divided between her desk, the loft, and the garden. Always, always, the prayers went with her. She had started reading the book, and it now weaved in and out of the words she sent to Heaven.
When true power and real peace join, the lion lays down with the lamb in perfect harmony. The rich soul knows he need not know every bend and twist in the road because he knows the One Who does, and if he is smart, he will trust that Knowledge. He will put his life into the Wisdom of the great I Am and know that he has never to worry about the future. The future is held in the Providence of the great I Am. The past likewise is given to the Mercy of the great I Am. The Present, that mystery that surrounds every rich soul, is held in the Love of the great I Am. So past, present and future he is forgiven, loved, and protected. Thus, he can step out in courage and freedom that amazes those around him.
Each piece of understanding he gains in this regard will allow the rich soul to break free of the fears which seek to keep all truly great souls in chains. This understanding will allow the rich soul to take leaps of enormous faith to the point of walking on water because he will slowly learn that love, providence, mercy and joy will be his even in the midst of outward worry and grief. No setback will ever stop him for long. No trial will yield his defeat.
There were no markings on this page, and Holly wondered at that. Had Gabriel not made it to this part yet? Or had he not found anything to take away from this passage? Holly considered. It wasn’t her book, nor was it her place. However, in her heart the lion suddenly laid with the lamb, and she knew it was right. Gabriel may not ever know what he had given to her, but here, this was a way that someday he would know.
Taking the pen that was never far from her when she read, she carefully underlined the last three lines. Then, in her flowing script, she wrote: This is what I wish for you. May it be as you become the rich soul you were always meant to be. HJ
And once again, she said the prayer that was never far from her heart.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Rebecca asked the next afternoon when Holly picked up the cell phone that bleeped to life on her bed.
Holly sighed. “It could be better.” She flopped down onto the bed, not really caring about eating supper alone again.
“Why? What’s going on?”
In as few words as possible, Holly related all that had transpired since their last phone call.
“Oh, man,” Rebecca said when the story wound to a close. “How’s Gabriel?”
“Who knows? I haven’t seen him since the night of his dad’s funeral.”
“He hasn’t been back to work?”
“Nope. I’m sure he’s helping his mom with things, and Luke told him to take some time off.”
“How are you doing?” The question was hesitant, full of trepidation.
Holly searched her heart for the words. “I’m okay. Really. I miss him like crazy, and I wish how I knew this was all going to work out. But every time I ask God, He says to be patient and give Gabriel time. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Rebecca said nothing for a long moment. “God?”
“Yeah, we’re getting to be really good friends.” Holly laughed. “I know. I know. But it’s nice to have Someone to talk to when things go spinning out of control.”
“Yeah, it is.” Rebecca paused. “Listen, Holly. I hate to add more stuff to your plate, but the lease for this place is coming up on the first. We talked to the landlord, and we can keep it if we want.”
There were moments when peace was really hard to hang onto. This was one of them. “Oh. So you’re thinking about not coming back to the dorms then?” Man, that hurt to say, to even think.
“Well, actually, we can’t really afford it just the two of us, but we were hoping… Well, we’ve talked about it, and we thought maybe you might consider…”
Absurd hope slammed into her. “You want me to room with you guys?”
“You’ll have to room with me actually. Em would have her own room down the hall. We’d get the big one. But I didn’t know if you’d be able to swing it, you know with everything that’s going on.”
Everything that’s going on. That wasn’t a small consideration. “Yeah. Well, I’m going to have to ask Mom when she gets back.” The thought of them coming back raked through her. “I don’t know how keen she’ll be on the idea.”
“Yeah. I figured that, but we wanted to ask, to give you a little time to figure it out.”
Loneliness crept into her spirit at the thought of going back without them. “What happens if I don’t? What happens if Mom vetoes the idea? Will you guys come back to the dorms?”
Rebecca paused. “Why don’t we see what your mom says first? Then we’ll figure out what we’re doing.”
“Oh, okay.” What else could she say?
Gabe went with his mother to church on Sunday, but the persistent fog draped over his whole life like a heavy curtain. What the readings were about, what the sermon was about, he had no idea. When they walked out, people stopped his mom and asked if they needed anything. Gabe hung back, trying to disappear. These were his mother’s friends, not his.
The conversation with Rosa was longer than Gabe’s nerves could take. Finally, he leaned down to his mother. “I’ll be in the car.”
“Oh, Gabe, will you be back to work tomorrow?” Rosa asked.
He had to search in the far corners of his mind for the answer. “I guess so.” Not an ounce of him wanted to think about that. “I’ll be in the car.”
His mother nodded, and he fled. It was strange. Just a couple short months ago, he was worried about what classes he would be taking in the fall. Now, school, work, life—all of it seemed way outside his grasp. He got in the car that was working better than it had in years. That might have been due to the 14 hours he’d spent beating it into submission over the course of the last week. If he wasn’t with his mother, attending to things that needed dealt with, he was working on the car. It was a channel for his frustration with everything else.
Unfortunately, now it felt like a cage, a trap. He sat there, watching his mother talk with Rosa, praying she would hurry up and simultaneously hoping she never quit talking. Why that was, he couldn’t clearly tell, but it was how he felt. Only a few more minutes and she turned and started for the car.
He held his breath. The whole keeping everyone in one piece thing was draining.
She got in, and he put the car in drive. They were out of the parking lot and in the sparse traffic when she glanced at him. “So, you are going back to work tomorrow?”
Gabe shrugged and turned down the AC. It was making him shiver. “I have to go back sometime.”
His mother nodded more with her eyes than with her head. She didn’t want him to leave, but he didn’t know how not to. Even with his working, they might well have a tough time making it. And that was if he didn’t go back to school. The ride home was silent, and once home, Gabe went straight to his room. How could a person be so tired and not have done anything all day?
He flopped onto the bed and arched his knee, laying his wrist on his eyes. For a split second he considered calling Holly, but with a punch he knocked that thought away. She didn’t want to hear from him. Worse, he knew one note of her voice could crack his resolve in two. How he would ever face her tomorrow was beyond his comprehension.
Trying not to think about that, he stood and went to the desk. His new schedule for classes, unopened, lay on the desk. Heavily he sat down on the little chair and opened it. Fifteen hours, hours that would take him that much closer to his ultimate goal. The sigh sliced through his heart. Who was he kidding? He couldn’t make this work. School was too far from work. Work was too far from school. He couldn’t do both, and there was only one his mother needed him to do.
With a slow blink, he took the sheaves, crumpled them, and let them fall into the wastebasket next to the desk. There was no feeling left as he stood, walked back to his bed, and lay down. All he wanted to do was sleep, yes, to sleep forever. Maybe then this claustrophobic existence would be bearable, but he doubted it.
The chairs were long gone as were the lights. Still, Holly spent every morning in the garden, weeding and praying. It was all she could think to do. He hadn’t been back to work. That much she was sure of, but when he would come back and how she would react when he did, was anybody’s guess. It had been a full week of wondering, worrying and praying.
By the time the sun came up Monday morning, hot and bright, she had to accept the fact that he wasn’t coming today either. “God, please, please be with him.”
“Hey,” Gabe said, trying not to make his entrance anything remarkable. He walked straight through the work shop office to the filing cabinet. It was difficult to remember how to do this.
Darius looked up from the table. “Oh, hey.” He paused as Gabe got a cup of coffee. “How’s it going?”
“Good.” Gabe wondered if anyone would buy that lie. “What’s up for today?”
It took Darius a moment to understand the shift. “Oh, well. I was going to send Tim over to do the pool, but since you’re here…”
Gabe took a drink, tasting nothing. “I think I’m going to take the mower into the shop in town. I’m tired of that dragging blade.”
It was clear that Darius had no idea what to say to that. “Okay. So you want Tim to do the pool then?”
“Yeah. I guess somebody had better get it done.” The impossibility of finding the right words crawled over Gabe. He needed to get out of here. “I’ll just get it loaded.”
“Oh, do you want help?”
At half past two Holly saw the movement out the back window, and her heart jumped into her throat. Knowing she shouldn’t, she went to the living room doors and peered out. However, her spirit fell at the sight of Tim patiently skimming the pool. He looked up and caught her watching. There was a soft smile and a wave. She couldn’t be mean.
“Pool duty?” she asked, stepping out.
Everything in her wanted to ask, but she wasn’t sure she should. She didn’t want to tip the guys off to how worried she really was. After all, they weren’t together. What right did she have to be worried? However, she was out here, and she did want to know. “So, did Gabriel come in today?”
Tim stopped his work and gazed at her. “Yeah. He took the mower into town.”
Holly lifted her chin in understanding. “Oh. Okay. Well, I was just wondering… in case they ask when they call.” The middle of her heart ached. He was back at work, yet he hadn’t come this morning. “Well, I’ll let you get back to work.” What else could she do?
With everything in him, Gabe wanted to go by the carriage house after work. Just looking at the mansion all day had been more than his heart could take. The thought that she was so close but so unbelievably far away was enough to overload every circuit in his brain. Knowing that going, risking that she might be there and that she might not was a bad idea, he turned the pickup out of the front gates and headed home. His mother needed him at home anyway. He didn’t have time for silly things like reading anymore.
Holly waited for him, hoping and wondering, but by the time her watch said eleven o’clock, she knew he wasn’t coming. She’d never been more alone in her life, and that was saying something. It was truly, truly a good thing for God. Had it not been for Him, she hated to think what she might have done to compensate for feeling like no one in the world cared whether she lived or died.
She closed the heavy door and wrapped her arms over herself. “God, please be with Gabriel. Please show him Your love. Please show him You have his future in Your hands.”
Gabe was hunched over a bowl of Cheerios the next morning. The sun wasn’t up, but he had no intention of moving until it was. Besides he liked the dark. It felt like not living. In the dark he didn’t have to face how bleak his life had become, how scared he now was with his father gone, how lonely he was with her gone. Even God seemed very, very far away. That hurt, but he could see no way to remedy it. He thought about going to the loft later to get something to read, but what good would that do? It wouldn’t change anything. All it would do is show him how many stupid, worthless dreams he’d let himself get sucked into believing.
Well, he didn’t believe them anymore, and in all probably with the way he felt now, he never would again.
“I saw her on Tuesday,” Tim was saying when Gabe returned from weed eating around the barrier trees by the front gate, “by the pool. She looked better.”
“By the pool?” Darius asked from inside the office.
“Yeah, I think she just came out to say hi, and she asked about Gabe if he was back.”
The center of his heart constricted at the sound of his name.
“Were the cuts better? I swear I still think we should’ve taken her in. That one on her hand was pretty bad.”
“Yeah. The ones I saw were better. That one down her neck is almost gone.”
Gabe could take no more. As if he’d just come in from the outside, he walked in and flipped the tool belt to the chair. Both gazes went to him. He felt them, but self-defense wouldn’t let him acknowledge them. He nailed Tim with one glance. “I thought you were going to mow.”
“Oh, yeah. I… I was headed.” Tim stumbled to the door, and in seconds the sound of the mower reverberated through the room.
With maximum noise and force, Gabe yanked the file cabinet open and rifled through the papers trying to remember what he was looking for. The mower sound faded as Tim drove it out into the sunlight.
“The bill for the chairs and stuff came in this morning,” Darius said, holding up a letter. Quiet reasserted itself.
“I was wondering if you wanted to pay it out here or take it up to the house.”
Gabe half-turned, glancing at it. Why did he have to make every decision? “Whatever. Take it up there if you want.”
“You don’t want to take it up there?”
Turning back he shrugged. “Do what you want. Whatever. I don’t care.”
Darius said nothing for a long moment. “You know, for what it’s worth, I think we seriously misjudged her.”
“Who?” Gabe asked as if her name wasn’t burned on his heart.
He had to swallow to get anything out. “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
Darius leaned back in the chair, folded his hands at his stomach, and watched Gabe’s every move. “Well, when you were gone, those first few days, she took down all the chairs, and she was in the middle of taking all the lights down when Tim found her impaled on a bush.”
The story beat across Gabe’s mind. “What was she doing out there?”
It took a moment for Darius to answer. “Well, if I don’t miss my guess, she was trying to help you.”
He doubted it, and he pushed the implication away. “I didn’t ask her to do that.”
“Yeah? Well, she ended up about killing herself over the deal anyway.”
The words dug into him.
“She’s worried about you, man. She didn’t say it, but I know she is.”
Gabe didn’t say anything. He couldn’t.
“Dude, look. Holly’s great. What are you doing? Why are you being so stubborn about this?”
Gabe’s fist curled tight. He thought about making up some stupid excuse, but that took too much energy. “Because she deserves better. Look at me. I’m a two-bit maintenance guy who just had his future handed to him in a casket.”
Darius looked at him, assessing. “Is that really what you think?”
Fury cracked into him, and he slammed the cabinet closed. “What else am I supposed to think?”
“This isn’t you, Gabe.” The slow words from his friend startled him into listening. “This isn’t the guy I’ve worked with for three years, the one who was going to the top, who wasn’t going to let anything stop him. What’s going on? Is it your dad?”
He couldn’t answer, so he didn’t try.
“He wouldn’t have wanted you to shut down your life over this,” Darius continued.
Gabe set his jaw and shook his head. “I’m going to help Tim. I need to see if that mower’s any better.” He headed out. He didn’t need a psychoanalyst to tell him life stunk.
“I’m putting that bill here,” Darius called. “It needs handled one way or another.”
Handled. Gabe would like to handle the whole lot of them.
As Holly sat in the loft on Thursday night, she wondered where he was, how he was doing, what he was doing. Okay, so he didn’t want to be together with her. What was the harm in being friends? Was that really so awful? Would it kill him to stop in and say hi?
Logic told her he was hurting too badly to do that, but the knife of knowing he was avoiding her hurt more than she had thought it would. There were moments when even breathing hurt, moments when she would’ve given anything to be with him in the garden again. But then her head would take over, reminding her that sooner or later this would’ve come. He just spared them both the pain when she went back to Boston.
She curled onto the couch, the book in her hand. Sleep began to drift over her eyes. She didn’t want to go back to that big, empty house. It was creepy. The dark shadows seemed to lie in wait for her, ready to pounce if she ever let her guard down. At least here the light could stay on, and nobody would know. With that thought she let sleep take her all the way down.
“Dragon lady’s supposed to be back today,” Tim said as they stood in the workshop, sorting tools from the garden revamp they’d just come back from the next Monday.
Gabe was in the office, trying to make sense of the fall pruning information. He’d never really thought he’d be here past August, and now it seemed he might be here forever. He hated sending them out to do jobs he should be overseeing, but too much work and too much likelihood that he’d run into her at the house kept him right here in this seat.
“So soon?” Darius asked Tim.
“It’s been two weeks,” Tim said.
“So soon?” Darius asked again, and they laughed.
“Holly said their plane lands at two. They should be here by four.”
With the mention of her name, the voices dropped in volume.
“How’s she doing?” Darius asked.
“Good, I guess.” Tim put the wrench up on the wall. “I think being up at the house by herself has kind of freaked her out though. She told me she’s been sleeping in the… loft?”
“The loft? What’s that?”
“I’m not sure. She didn’t say. Just said it’s creepy up there by herself.”
It was the height of insane, but Gabe could take it no longer. He jumped from the desk, went to the filing cabinet, and grabbed the receipts. She needed the receipts and the bill for the chairs which he still hadn’t dealt with. He strode out and through the workshop. “I’ll be back.”
“Where you going, boss?” Darius asked.
“I’ve got to turn these receipts in up at the house.” He knew there was a glance between them, but he pushed that away. They could think whatever they wanted. All he cared about was making sure she was okay. That was all.
Holly heard the doorbell, and questioning concern snapped into her. Luke and her mother weren’t due for another five hours at least. Her ears picked out the voices at the front door. Rosa, and who? She tried to make it out, but it was too muffled. Then she heard the footsteps coming down the hall toward her office. She stood, and halfway up, Rosa appeared in the doorway.
“Miss Holly, do you have a minute?”
“Uh, sure. What is it?” Gazing at the doorway, she had the sensation of hoping the chair would catch her shock. Behind Rosa, Gabriel appeared, gaze down. His glances up told her he didn’t want to be here even now. Holly stuffed all the fear, pain, and anger down as she resumed her seat. “Oh, it’s okay, Rosa. Thanks.”
Rosa nodded and left.
Gabriel took a hesitant step forward as Holly pulled professional to her. “Umm, we got this bill down at the work shop.” He held up a letter. “I didn’t know if you wanted to pay it or if we should.”
So, this was only about business. That swept the net from under her, but she fought off the stabbing pain in her heart. She held her hand out for it. “What is it?”
He stepped closer to her desk, and she noticed how cautious he looked. He reached up and scratched the side of his head and then held out the letter. “It’s for the chairs from the wedding. I mean I can pay it… if you want.”
Holly brushed her hair back. “That’s fine. I can get it.”
“Okay.” He handed it to her, and just the close proximity of his hand to hers clutched her. The transfer made, he didn’t move, didn’t even really back up.
The fact that he was so close was stifling to her. She opened the bill, looked at it without seeing it, and stuffing it back into the envelope, she looked up. “Is there something else?”
“Yeah.” He stopped, obviously not remembering what that something was. He seemed so scattered, so ill-composed. “Oh, yeah. The receipts.” He looked down and dug in his pocket. “There aren’t as many this time.”
Holly nodded, wishing he would just leave already. This was worse than him being gone, knowing how much he didn’t want to be here. “Is that it?” She hated how prickly her tone sounded, but she couldn’t stop the hurt in her from winding through them. He couldn’t even look at her.
There was a nod, but still he didn’t move. A second, two, three. She was about to ask again when he started. “I’m… uh, I was wondering if you wanted paid.”
The word slapped into her, and her gaze snapped to him. “Paid? For what?”
He stuck his hands in his back pocket, and his gaze was solidly on the floor. “For picking up the chairs and stuff.” He glanced up. “The guys told me what you did.”
“Oh,” she laughed softly. “That was nothing. I was just out… in the garden.” Why did that feel like admitting all the things she couldn’t tell him? How she wished she could turn that part off as easily as he had. Then she realized she didn’t want to turn it off. Right or wrong, she cared. It was impossible to even pretend that she didn’t.
Gabriel never really moved, only stood there desperately trying to get himself to get out of that office. But he couldn’t. All he wanted was to talk to her for another moment and then another. His heart was screaming at him to do something, something so he wouldn’t lose her again or something so it would be over for good. But he couldn’t take this—this being there with her but not. Her gaze slid up to him. He felt it. Oh, to get his feet to move. All he wanted to do was run far and fast. Get away from her, away from this once upon a time that could never be. Why couldn’t he move?
“So how are you doing?” Holly asked. The soft, kindness touched the raw nerves it found. “The guys have really been worried.”
“Oh? Me? I’m fine.” He tried to laugh it off, but it seared every part of him. He shrugged, which didn’t help either. “Back to work. You know? It’s fine.”
For the span of a breath he thought she bought it.
“Liar.” As harsh as the word was, she didn’t sound unkind.
He swallowed hard. “I’m not… I…” He slammed his eyes closed to keep the tide back, but it rose with frightening velocity, overtaking the wall he’d carefully built. The breath came in short shivering puffs. “Work’s a little rough, catching up and everything, but besides that…”
Her face was somewhere between mirth and worry. “You are such a bad liar.”
“I’m not lying.” Vehemence rose in him, but every fiber of him knew differently.
Softness graced the depths of her eyes. “Gabriel. This is me. Holly. You don’t have to put on the nicey-nice face and pretend with me.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.” He turned.
“Gabriel!” She stood. “Wait.”
Stupidly he stopped. Why couldn’t he just leave? The breaths were strangling him now, but he fought them back with everything in him.
She came around the desk to where he stood by the door. Six inches from him, she tilted her head to look at him. “It’s all right, you know? You don’t have to be Superman with this. Everybody gets scared. This would’ve knocked the props out from under me, but you don’t have to do this alone. Let your friends help. They care.”
“I’m fine,” he said again, wishing he believed it as strongly as he said it. “Really. I am.”
“Yeah, and that’s why you haven’t been out to the garden or up to the loft in two weeks, that’s why Tim’s doing the pool, and Darius is worried out of his mind. Gabriel, listen to me, you don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders like this. You don’t. Let us help.”
“Us?” His gaze lifted to hers on the word. There was a strength in her eyes he hadn’t remembered being there before.
“Yes, us. What? Do you think I don’t care anymore? Good grief. Tim is getting tired of giving me updates. I care about you, okay? I do. Is that a crime?”
He wanted it to be. It would be so much easier that way. If she was mad and never wanted to see him again, yes, that would be much better. This was impossible.
“You need a break.” Her gaze searched his. “You need some time to yourself. Why don’t you come out to the loft tonight? Just for a little while.”
His brain remembered Tim saying something about her and the loft, but he couldn’t exactly remember what that was. “I don’t… I need to get home.”
He felt the softness in her gaze as she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Holing up at home isn’t going to bring him back.”
“I know. She needs you. And you need somebody too. You don’t have to do this alone, Gabriel. You don’t. If you won’t talk to me, then talk to Darius or Tim, but don’t crawl in a hole and give up.” Passion twined through her words. “Don’t do what I did, don’t give up. Okay? You have too much good to give to the world.”
He felt like all the good he’d ever get done had already passed him by. “I’ve got to get back down to the shop. They’re going to think I left.”
“If you need me, I’m here.”
Gabe nodded although he didn’t let her words get all the way to his heart. However, instead of letting him leave, Holly inexplicably stepped up to him and put her arms around his shoulders. That gesture was enough to collapse the dikes holding back the flood of emotion. He had to get away. “No. Okay. I’m fine.” He backed out of her arms and away from her.
He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t let her see into his soul, or she would know just how deep the denial went and what was really at the bottom of it. His heart ripped in two as he turned and hurried out.
“I’m here,” she called after him. “If you need me…”
But he didn’t need her. He couldn’t.
When he was gone, Holly closed her eyes as the pain in his eyes mixed with the pain in her soul. “Well, that went well.” Knowing nothing else to do, she said a prayer and went back to work.
Eat fast and disappear. That was Gabe’s strategy when he got home. He had the microwave humming when his mother walked into the kitchen.
“Do you mind explaining this to me?” she asked, and Gabe turned at the anger in her tone. He caught one look at the crumpled papers and turned back for the microwave. “I found these in your trash can.”
The microwave dinged, and he yanked it open. Maybe he would just eat in his room. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone?
“Gabriel Jose, what is the meaning of this?”
He spun the food with his fork. “I don’t need them anymore. I’m not going back.”
Five seconds of utter silence followed the statement.
“What do you mean you’re not going back?” There was anger laced with fear in her voice.
Gabe shrugged as if it didn’t matter at all. “I’m not going back to school. Why would I need those?”
Hurt and anger pulled her face down into a scowl. “That’s not funny. You are, too going back. I’m not letting you throw your life away.”
Pushing numbness over all the hurt, Gabe stabbed into the macaroni and cheese. “You need me. I can’t do that and work too.” He took a bite that he didn’t taste.
“Then you’ll go and I’ll get a job,” she said firmly.
He laughed a hollow laugh. “You’re not getting a job. Come on, Mama. You know better than that.”
Then she did something he’d never before seen. She pulled herself up to her full five foot, three inches, put her hands on her hips, and stuck out her chin. “What do you think? That I can’t get a job? I’ll have you know I worked many years before you showed up on the planet and many more after you showed up too.”
He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t clearly tell how far he would have to go to convince her, and starting down that road was scary. “It’s okay, Mama. Really. You don’t have to worry about getting a job. I’ve got one.”
“Yes, and it’s making a future for yourself not taking care of your mother. You are going back to school.”
Frustration poured through the overwhelming exhaustion. “No, I’m not. I know where my place is. It’s here… with you. End of story.” He slid his empty plate to the counter. He was tired of fighting, of defending himself, and explaining everything again and again. This was his fate, he’d accepted it. Why was that so hard for everyone else to get? “I’m going to my room.”
For the second time that day, he stopped although if he’d had any sense, he wouldn’t have.
Her gaze was firm with only a hint of soft. “What is up with you these days? You are walking around here like a zombie, biting people’s heads off, and being more stubborn than I’ve ever seen you. This isn’t you.”
Lord, how many times did they have to point that out? He took a breath to calm the desire to scream at her. Slowly he turned, and the sadness in his heart wouldn’t let his gaze hold hers. “Look, I get it. Okay? I do, and I’m trying to make the best of it if you all would just leave me alone.” He snatched the papers out of her hands, crumpled them up, and fired them at the trashcan. “It’s over for me. I get that. End of dream. Stop making this so hard.” And he spun and stomped out.
In his room he closed the door and flipped the lock. He should take a shower, but he didn’t care enough to do that at the moment. Instead he fell on his bed and willed the tears away from him. The dream was gone. He didn’t even care about it anymore. Why did everyone insist on reminding him of what could never be? It was getting really, really old.
Holly had slipped out long before. They were home again. In a way it was nice. In a way it was not. She sat in the loft, trying to put all the pieces of their talk together. Gabriel had been a rock before his dad’s death. He’d even been moving them forward. She remembered the almost kiss just before the whole world had blown apart. Confidence and hope had been his hallmarks. Now there was only despair and fear.
Fear. It was the thing she saw in his eyes most. If she could just talk to him and if he would just talk to her, maybe they could find a way to erase that fear. A memory snapped into her. She closed her eyes. “Fear.” She spoke the word out loud. “You must leave Gabriel by the Holy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. You are banished from anywhere around Gabriel. Heavenly angels, take up position, surround Gabriel morning, noon, and night. Do not let fear or any of Satan’s other tools get close to Gabriel. Keep him safe. Amen.”
The next morning she prayed and the next. By Friday she had sent so many demons away from her and from him that she felt like a warrior in battle. She couldn’t be at all sure any of it was helping. Darius was still worried, and Tim had come to clean the pool again. She hadn’t seen Gabriel at all. She was deep in the middle of another prayer when the small woman turned the corner into her office at midday.
“Oh!” Holly stood up the moment she realized who it was. “Mrs. Cabrelos. I… is everything all right?” Compassion and fear spun around her mind’s track at breakneck speed.
The lady’s gaze went reflexively to the ground. “I’m here to see Mr. Teracini.”
Holly noticed the clutch on her purse and wished they could find some common ground so they wouldn’t feel so much like adversaries. “Oh, of course.” She sat, but not without hesitation. She hit the intercom button. “Mrs. Cabrelos is here to see you, Sir.”
“Good. Send her in please.”
“Right this way.” Standing, Holly went to the office door and opened it. “Sir?”
Luke stood from his desk and came around to greet the older lady. There was a warmth that permeated everything he did. “Renita, please come on in.” His glance at Holly snagged her attention. “Thank you, Holly. If you’ll please close the door.”
“Yes, Sir.” She stepped out and did as instructed. She wondered what was going on, what Mrs. Cabrelos was doing here. But then again, it was probably to be expected. After all she was getting things in order from the death of her husband, finalizing the work issues was to be expected.
Holly went back to work and was in serious concentration over a letter 20 minutes later when the door snapped open. She looked up, forgetting for a moment who it was. They stepped out, and she re-anchored her gaze on the computer screen wishing she could disappear.
“Holly,” Luke said, “would you give Renita an application and have her fill out a W-9? And then you can get her information put into payroll.”
“Yes, she will be filling in for Rosa in the kitchen.”
“Oh, sure. No problem.” Holly struggled for composure. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Mrs. Cabrelos sitting down in front of her desk did nothing for her nerves. She slipped out the paperwork and pushed it across the desk. “If you’ll just fill this out.”
She tried to get back to writing the letter, but that didn’t work at all. Instead, she kept looking over to the lady, bent over the application. After several minutes of watching while pretending not to, she was startled when the lady pushed the paper back to her.
“Is that everything you need?” There was more to that question in the woman’s eyes.
Holly looked over the application and nodded. “It looks good. I’ll just get this put in.”
“Thank you… Holly.” The lady stood, and she extended her hand.
“You’re welcome.” How badly she wanted to ask, wanted to know if he was living even at home, but she couldn’t get the words out. With the barest of shakes, Mrs. Cabrelos turned and left. For the first time in weeks and weeks, all Holly wanted to do was get on a plane and go back to Boston.
Boston. She’d never called Rebecca back. Her gaze fell to the calendar. The 28th. She needed to ask so her friends could make a decision. But the thought of asking made her stomach queasy. Hoping he wouldn’t be mad, she walked to the office door. “Luke?”
“May I come in?”
He pitched his pen to the desk as she entered. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”
Holly walked across the room but didn’t sit down. Once again the net disappeared. “Umm, I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Slowly she laid out the case for the new apartment. He listened, patiently through the whole story. Then they came to the yes or no part. She wanted to run so badly her feet wouldn’t stay still.
“So you’re going back to Boston then?” he asked instead.
That put her back. She couldn’t even really look at him. “Well, yeah. That was the plan. I was only here for the summer.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “And you wouldn’t consider staying here?”
“Here?” The word hurt. No, she wanted to get away from here. Here where thoughts of Gabriel were everywhere. At least in Boston, she might be able to get a new start. “Umm, no. I really want to go back.”
Again he nodded only now he narrowed his gaze at her as if to divine the bottom of her motivation. “And what about Gabriel? Where does he fit into all of this?”
“Gabriel?” She had to swallow to get the name out. “Umm, we’re not… He’s not…” Why was that so hard to say?
“I see. You do know he is trying to find his new path now.” The statement hung there for a moment. “When my father died, I struggled for a long time to come to grips with where that left me. It was a very difficult time in my life.”
“What helped you?” She asked it because she still so wanted to know how to help.
“Time and a lot of patience on the part of those closest to me.”
She considered that. Finally she breathed and shook her head. “I don’t think I’m right for Gabriel anyway. Maybe if I’m not here, he can get back on a good track, find his legs again.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is he won’t have anything to do with me anymore—even as a friend.”
“Okay, so you go back to Boston. Then what? You forget about him?”
Forget? That would be impossible. Her heart curled around the thought. “No. I’ll never forget about him, but I have to let him make his own decision, and he’s made it. If his life doesn’t include me, then it doesn’t include me, and somehow I have to let that go and move on. I don’t want to, but…” She shook her head. “It’s okay. If you don’t want to help me with the apartment…”
“Who said I wouldn’t help you? I just want you to make a good decision, the best decision for you.”
She looked at him, willing her heart not to give her away. “This is the best decision for me.”
Luke smiled a barely smile. “Okay then. Call your friend and tell her it will be taken care of.”
Holly’s heart swelled to overflowing. “Really? Oh, thank you, Luke. Thank you so much. I promise you won’t regret this.”
“Regret what?” the harsh voice behind her spun her around completely.
All heat drained from her body. “Mom.”
Luke stood. “I just told Holly I would be happy to help her pay for school when she goes back.”
Her mother’s gaze could’ve melted steel. “How nice of you, Luke. What are you going to do to pay him back, Holly?”
Holly wanted to disappear.
“She doesn’t have to pay me back,” Luke said. “It’s a gift.”
Her mother nodded knowingly. “Holly, may I speak with my husband… alone.”
“Oh, s-sure.” Her feet carried her back across the room although she had no idea how. Out in her office, she closed the door. She didn’t know whether to be happy or sad, ecstatic or crushed. So she wasn’t any of them. She simply pushed it all away and went back to work.
“For the love of Pete, Gabe.” His mother walked into the kitchen on Friday evening and stopped at the sight. “You have got to get out of this house.”
“I went to work.”
“Not work.” Gabriel’s mother hovered over the table where he sat, scooping through the two-day-old enchiladas on his plate although he wasn’t eating any of them. “Why don’t you call some of your friends from school? Maybe you could go out with them. Do something. Go bowling. Anything.”
He didn’t answer. It took too much energy.
She planted her hands on her hips. The determined look was back. “You can’t sit here all weekend by yourself again. I’m going to work tomorrow, and I’m not leaving you here like this.”
Work. Oh, yeah. The bombshell she’d dropped on him the day before. The creeping fingers of failure’s icy grip crawled up him. His dad would be furious. It had to be some record somewhere. He hadn’t even been able to keep his mother out of the poorhouse for a month. He was a miserable failure of a son to both parents, and he knew it. He stood. “I’m tired.”
“Gabriel, this isn’t helping.”
He put his dish in the sink and headed out.
But he was walking, and once he got started walking, it was too hard to quit.
“I don’t know what to do with him anymore.”
Holly stopped short at the sound of the voice. It was Saturday morning, and she was headed to the kitchen for coffee. However, she knew that voice, and it stopped her with a thwack.
“All he does is come home, eat, and sleep. Sometimes I don’t know if anything’s even getting in anymore. I haven’t seen him like this since Taran’s trial. It scares me to death. I do not want to go down that path again. I almost lost him once, I can’t lose him now. Not like this.”
“Have you prayed about it?” That was Rosa, Holly knew her voice too.
“That’s all I do anymore, but I don’t know if it’s helping at all. Now he’s decided not to go back to school. He thinks he’s got to stay here and take care of me. I love him for that, but it’s not what’s best for him. But do you think I can convince him of that? No matter what I say, he just looks at me with those blank eyes and walks away. I can’t let him throw away his future, but what do I say when he won’t listen?”
Holly’s feet pushed forward. Although she really felt like standing to listen more, eavesdropping was rude. She walked into the kitchen, and the conversation stopped. “Good morning. Oh, don’t mind me.” She poured her own coffee and went to the door. “I’ll just be out in the garden if anyone needs me.”
Once outside her spirit started going through her options. Gabriel was in trouble. Serious trouble. And one way or the other she was going to stop him from jumping even if she had to tackle him to do it. It was the least she could do.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007