All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Second Chances: The Sequel to Forgiveness
Author's note: AUTHOR'S NOTE! Second Chances is a sequel to a much shorter story I wrote last year. The original story "Forgiveness" is the prologue to this story, which is why it is put in at the beginning of this book. Please understand that this a rough draft. I have not even fully edited this story as yet, so please keep that in mind as you comment and critique!
I stared at the white hospital linoleum, my heart pounding in my ears. How could this be happening? As an image of Amber as I had seen her just two hours before careened around in my mind, my world tilted on it's axis. I felt the bile, hot and burning, rise up in my throat, and I gripped the arms of the padded waiting room chair, trying to steady my nerves.
“It's going to be okay,” I said aloud. My voice shook and trembled. It has to be. I thought back through my past, the past that linked so closely with Amber's. After all, we had met when we were just six years old. I smiled tremblingly as I remembered that first week of first grade. I could see us plainly in my mind's eye out on the playground that first recess. I was wearing my favorite outfit, a pink shirt with yellow daises on it and little jeans with bead work on them that was also pink and yellow. My mother had braided my fine, light hair, and I felt extra pretty because of it.
It wasn't until I got out on to the playground that I realized something. I had no one to play with. I wandered from one game to another, but no one seemed very willing to include me. Discouraged, I sat down on a swing and swung my legs aimlessly back and forth, very near tears. Then suddenly another little girl my age appeared and hopped up on the swing next to mine. I instantly admired her. Her hair was brown, thick, and wavy, the exact opposite of mine, and she wore a bright orange and purple sweater I would never have even thought of wearing, but somehow it fit her just right.
“Betcha I can go higher than you.” Her voice was playful, and her eyes sparkled.
“Betcha can't,” I said quickly, forgetting that I had been admiring her a minute before, “I go real high.” She started pumping her legs and I did the same. We flew together that first day, higher and higher, till our breath caught and the world spun around us. The chains connected to our swings began to jerk and pull us, and at last we stopped, feeling as if we had flown around the world and laughing breathlessly. She smiled at me, the funny half smile that I now associate with her, and said,
“My name's Amber.”
“Mine's Jess,” I said, and smiled back. It was the beginning of a strong friendship. I settled myself back in my chair as I remembered how we had gone through elementary school being almost inseparable. When junior high rolled around, I worried things would change, but they never did. Amber became popular, but she still stubbornly refused to leave me behind in anything, so I became popular too.
We ate at the cool table until one day Amber started being nice to one of the nerd boys that were spurned. The other populars couldn't stand that of course, so they ditched us, but we didn't care. We liked this new boy, Josh, better. Once again I wondered if this boy would break us apart, but it never did. We accepted him as we had accepted each other. We knew we all fit together. There was no doubt about that. I smiled, feeling a pang as I thought of a conversation we had all had one summer day when we were in seventh grade.
Josh had been sprawled across my bed as Amber and I put our make up on. He was watching us, a smile on his face. Suddenly he sat up and said loudly, “One day I'm going to marry one of you.” We had both turned, a little surprised.
“Why?” I had asked, grinning at him.
“Well,” he began, as if it were silly of me not to know, “I like you both so much, it would be stupid if one of you didn't marry me. Isn't that how it always works in those sappy chick flicks you two watch?” We had just laughed, and turned back to the mirror, both of us smiling to ourselves a little. We laughed, and yet from that day on it was an established fact. He was going to marry one of us. We just had to wait and see who it ended up being. I shivered and closed my eyes. Our friendship had been so easy then, so simple.
“Miss Reynolds?” My head snapped up as the nurse called my name. “You can go in to see her now.”
“Is she-,” my voice caught, and I struggled to hold back the tears stinging my eyes, “is she going to be alright?” The nurses eyes filled with pity.
“She will be, eventually. But.... the doctors don't think...”
“The doctors don't think what?” I heard the wild note of panic in my voice and tried to calm down, but it was impossible.
“They don't think she'll be able to walk. She's paralyzed from the waist down.” A hand, strong as iron and cold as ice, gripped my heart, threatening to tear it from my chest. The pain ran through my entire body, and the tears could not be held back. I broke down, sobs pouring from me as I tried to draw breath. Amber, beautiful, bright, active, smart Amber, paralyzed? This is all my fault. The nurse hurried out of the room and returned with a glass of water and a box of tissues. I took them with trembling hands, trying to stop the flood flowing down my face. This can't be happening. Not really. This is some horrible nightmare, and in a minute I'll wake up.
My mind whirled, refusing to accept the reality of the situation. I forced myself to wipe my tears away and breathe. I needed to see her. The nurse looked at me, obvious concern in her eyes.
“It's alright. I'm okay now.” The biggest lie I've ever told. “Can I go in and see her now?” The nurse nodded, still looking worried, but led me down the hall to Amber's hospital room. I stepped inside, too afraid to look at the person who would never forgive me for the pain I had caused. Not that I blamed her. She's going to hate me. Detest me. And I deserve it. I ruined her life. I ruined her future. I glanced at the hospital bed, and felt the tears well in my eyes as I saw her, pale, with eyes closed, lying there.
Suddenly, her eye lids fluttered. Then she was looking at me, looking at me just the same way as she had when we met on the playground in first grade, with that funny crooked smile on her face. “Hey, Jess.” The words were quiet, but they stabbed at my heart mercilessly.
“Hey,” my voice broke, and I walked a little closer. The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. “Amber, this is all my fault. I hate myself. I can never forgive myself for causing this.” I bit my lip as tears slipped down my cheeks. She shook her head. Her voice was weak when she spoke.
“It wasn't your fault.”
“Yes it was! You told me not to hang around with Greg. You told me! And I never listened. And at the party...,” I trailed off. The pain was too much. I couldn't voice what had happened.
“At the party we had that fight.” I bent my head.
“I started it,” I whispered, “and then when you told me you were dating Josh, something just exploded in me.” The words took me back to the night that seemed years ago, and yet was just two evenings before. Greg had convinced me to attend yet another of his friends wild parties. I “loved” him so I went. I had never done anything really stupid at those parties, though I'd seen other people do things I knew they'd regret later.
But this night had been different. This time I convinced Amber to come with me. I felt it was necessary somehow. Amber had never liked Greg, even before I started dating him during my sophomore year. She tried and tried to get me to see that he was no good, that he was just using me, but I stubbornly clung to what I thought I knew to be true. Greg loved me. Of course he did. Amber was just jealous. Slowly, as I continued to refuse to listen to her, it began to tear us apart. I spent less and less time with Amber and Josh and more and more time with Greg and his sister Mandy. I thought maybe if Amber came to the party with me it would even things out. Maybe I could mix my two worlds.
And then we got there and Greg was kissing another girl. I stood there, crying and furious, waiting for the apology from him that never came.
He just looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I guess it's over then.” My heart shattered. Amber saw it all. She tried to make me come home. She tried to talk some sense into me. She tried to be the good friend. And what did I do? I turned on her, angry.
I screamed at her, “You think you're the perfect one! You always have! You think you're soooo much better than me. Just say I told you so and get it over with, I know you're dying to tell me off.” I ranted on about her being a goody-two shoes, about how she always rubbed everything in my face, how she never did anything even half way daring. I barely knew what I was saying. Amber just stood there, eyes blazing, cheeks red.
When I was finished, she said quietly, her voice brimming over with pure anger, “Jess, I may not be “daring”.But I'm not stupid either! And maybe I am the good one who always does the assignment. But at least I have a decent boyfriend,” she continued on, her face emotionless, “Josh and I started dating two months ago.” It felt like someone had just socked me in the gut. I choked on my own anger, seeing the world flash red before my eyes. How dare she and Josh start dating and never tell me? I'm their best friend! How could they do this to me! How could Josh have picked her over me?? Angry at myself for letting her hurt me, angry at her for knowing how to hurt me, angry at Greg for cheating on me, and angry at every one in the world, I felt my hand fly through the air.
The next second Amber was on the ground, holding her bleeding mouth with one hand. I shuddered as I remembered that moment. I had never felt worse in my entire life. She had just stared up at me, tears shining in her eyes. Then the next second she was running for the door.
“Amber! Wait!” I had yelled, beginning to realize what I had just done. I ran onto the porch just in time to see her jump in her car. She had gunned the engine, and as the car began to speed up the street, she looked back at me, and I saw the tears running down her cheeks. She was looking at me, not the road, so she didn't see the ice.
In a split second I saw the car skid out of control, in a split second it flipped, in a split second in hit a tree. I heard her scream, a scream like one I had never heard before, then suddenly the world had gone black. I had woken up in a hospital waiting room with my parents bending over me. Amber's hospital waiting room.
I looked at her lying there, still pale, her face weak and tired.
“Amber, I don't know- I don't know how I can ever say I'm sorry enough. If it hadn't been for me you wouldn't have gone to the party, then I the fight, and I hit you... and,” I couldn't continue. I had hit my best friend. My best friend. Not Greg, the person if anyone I should be hitting, but my best friend. “And then you crashed.” I realized I had said the words aloud and tasted the salt of my own tears on my tongue. I remembered the screech of twisting metal, the terrified scream of pain from inside the car just before I had blacked out. I bit down hard on my tongue to stop the memories and felt the taste of blood mix with the salt of my tears.
“And now I'm paralyzed.” I looked up at her. She knew? “Yeah, I know,” she said, answering the question I had just asked myself in my brain. She said it calmly enough, but I saw the cloud of emotions swirling behind her eyes. Pain, fear, worry, but no anger.
“Amber-” I stopped. I wasn't sure I could say what needed to be said. “Amber, I know you must hate me. I hate me. I wrecked your whole life, your whole future. I know, 'I'm sorry' will never be enough, but please believe me when I say this, even though I know you have no reason to.” I took a deep breath and tried to steady my voice, but it didn't work. I leaned closer towards her. “I wish, with all my heart, that this had happened to me instead of you. Amber, you don't deserve this. You don't just act better than me, you are! I don't understand, I will never understand why this happened to you and not me, all I know is that this is my fault, and I will never forgive myself for this.” Tears shimmered in Amber's eyes.
“Jess,” she whispered, “I'm so scared.” She blinked her eyes and looked away. I stood, thinking of all the joy I had robbed her of. Not just now, not just for a year, but for a lifetime. How could I live with myself? “Jess?” I lifted my head to look at her, pushing my bedraggled hair out of my red eyes. Her face was blotched with tears, but her voice was steady when she spoke. “I want you to know, know without a doubt, that this is not your fault. You didn't make me crash, it was my own dumb driving that put me here, not you. Jess,” her eyes were full of pain as she spoke, “you are my best friend over and above any guy. Josh should never have come between us, neither should Greg. You are closer to me than anyone I know, and I think of you as my sister.” The world blurred as I blinked tears away.
“Amber, don't say that! How can you say that! It is my fault. I made you come to the party, I hit you, I made you upset. You were looking at me when you crashed. How can you not say this was my fault!” My voice broke, and I buried my head in my hands, my sobs filling the room. I tried desperately to shut out the pain that was ravaging my heart but it couldn't be done. I was to blame. For all of this.
“I forgive you.” The words were tiny in the sudden stillness of the room when I stopped crying. I lifted my face from my hands, staring at her. “I forgive you, for everything. For everything that happened at the party, for all the times you haven't listened to me, and if you feel like you made me crash, I forgive you for that too.”
“How can you? I ruined your life.”Amber shook her head, swiping at some of the tears on her cheeks.
“We were both to blame. And, Jess, you were the person I could always turn to after I fell to pick me up and dust me off. I'm going to need you so bad soon, and I need you now. How am I going to get through this without my best friend there to make life easier?” I didn't answer. My mind refused to accept the possibility that she was serious. “Please,” Amber managed a weak smile, “let me forgive you so you can forgive yourself.” I nodded, wordless.
“Thank you,” The words, full of gratitude, broke the silence. “I don't know if I'll be able to forgive myself, but I'll try,” I whispered.
Amber nodded, “Try.” I felt tears brim in my eyes for what seemed the thousandth time that night. Amber laughed.
“Betcha I can cry harder than you can.” I chuckled softly, feeling what felt like the beginnings of a smile pull at the corners of my mouth.
“Betcha can't. I cry real hard.” She smiled, and I felt a weight roll off my shoulders. My best friend had taught me the true meaning of forgiveness and friendship.
“Jess?” I lifted my hands from the computer keys as the sound of my best friend's voice rang through the air. “Where are you?”
“I'm in the den.” Quickly I clicked save and navigated away from the story I had been working on. I spun around in my swivel chair just as Amber entered the room, rolling herself along expertly in her wheel chair. “What's up?” I asked, noticing her tired but jubilant face.
“It's finished.” Her face was bright with happiness and the quiet triumph in her voice warmed my heart.
“You finished your painting? I stood quickly, eager to see her work. “How exciting!”
Amber's brilliant warm smile that I remembered so well from earlier days flashed for one instant, like an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. “Come on in my studio and see it. I'm so glad it's finished in time. I was almost afraid I wouldn't make my deadline. I've been so uninspired lately. But this past week....” Amber's eyes lit with an artistic passion I had envied many times, “it's like I discovered the soul of the painting. And then it was like magic.” For a moment, she stared into the distance, and I could feel her reliving every brush stroke, every daub of paint that she had smeared onto the canvas. Then she looked at me and grinned. “Come on. And if you say you don't like it I'm going to kill you.”
Spinning her chair around Amber moved for the door and I followed, laughing. When we entered her studio I glanced around and without thinking began to move with a certain precision and wariness. Nobody, not even Josh or I, were very often asked into Amber's sunny and peaceful studio. I knew very well that I was privileged to be here at all, in this, Amber's sanctuary and beautiful place of creation.
Amber stopped in front of a painting that was neatly covered with a cloth. “I waited till I had put the finishing touches on and they had dried before telling you it was done. I wanted you to see it the way anyone else would, really complete and whole.” I nodded. Amber leaned forward dramatically, and then with a sudden movement, pulled the cloth from the painting and sat back, her eyes trained for my reaction.
I gasped. The first thing that caught me was the colors. Everything in this painting had a bright quality, a clean and fresh look I had not known it was possible to capture with paint. The next thing that drew my attention was the open emotion on the faces of the people in the painting. Each one had a story. That was obvious. I found myself wondering what they were and where they had come from. The scene in the painting was fairly simple itself. A shining white house sat in the background of the painting, rising up tall and majestic. A dirt lane led up to the house, and on it, walking away from the house were a couple, with hands intertwined. On either side of the lane wild cherry trees bloomed, and the petals of the flowers rained down on the lovers, though they seemed obvlivious to anything but eachother.
“Oh... Amber.... it's...it's-” Words failed me as I studied the painting, feeling the heart that had gone into this beautiful work of art. “It's gorgeous. Just... gorgeous.”
“Thank you.” Amber's pleased smile showed that she knew I was truly impressed. Suddenly someone knocked softly on the door to the studio, and Amber's smile suddenly bloomed out brighter than ever. “That's Josh. I called him and told him the painting was finished. He said he'd drop everything and run over to see it.” She moved toward the door and I stepped back, wanting Josh to have the full affect of the painting.
“Hey honey,” Josh came in and stooped to kiss Amber tenderly. He glanced towards me and smiled. “Hey Jess.” His eyes moved towards the painting and he gasped. “Oh sweetheart. It's amazing.” He reached for her hand and Amber took it, her eyes shining. Slowly he walked toward the painting, as if mesmerized by the scene. After gazing at it for a few more minutes he looked down at Amber and smiled broadly. “It's gorgeous. The best one yet.”
Amber smiled back at him and gestured towards the couple in the painting. “You were my inspiration. I really painted it for you.”
“Amber...” The pure love in Josh's eyes as he smiled tenderly down at her tugged at my heartstrings. As he knelt to the ground and their lips met I discreetly moved towards the door. I suddenly felt like an intruder.
After slipping out of the studio I walked through the house Amber and I had bought together and headed back towards my work room. Things had certainly changed since Amber and I were in highschool. So many things. For a minute my heart ached as I remembered the weeks and months after Amber's accident. It had been terrible for both of us. Amber had strived to be brave and uncomplaining, but she was in a lot of pain and adjusting to a handicapped life. I was looked at by some as the reason for her suffering and received lots of heartache at school about it. For the rest of the year people avoided me or whispered at me as I walked through the halls. Greg, the boy who had cheated on me at the party Amber and I had gone together the night of her accident, spread vicious rumors, badmouthing both me and Amber. Josh had put a stop to that fairly quickly, and after Greg miraculously suffered a bloody nose and a black eye, the rumors had mostly stopped circulating.
As the years passed things changed, slowly but surely. Even Amber and I had changed. We had both learned to be more independent, to be more mature. We had grown up. Both of us went to college and graduated with honors. I became a “real” writer, or at least, I was trying to. I was in the process of writing my first book, but I had already had about three short stories published in book form as “anecdotes” and wrote regularly for “Modern Life” magazine. Amber was a well-established local artist and had toured schools in the state speaking about the power of art to elementary and middle school students. She even had her own website, “The Artist In Amber” where she sold her paintings and updated her blog on art regularly.
And then there was Josh. He worked as an architect, though his projects were mostly small. His and Amber's relationship had flourished over the years, and Josh was at his happiest when Amber was near. But Amber herself.... I frowned as I seated myself at my computer again. As much as I knew Amber loved Josh, I also knew that lately she had seemed to withdraw from him. Although they rarely fought she almost seemed to seal herself off from him, as if afraid to let him get too knew her heart. Now that we had been out of college for about a year and a half I knew Josh was seriously thinking of asking Amber to marry him. It seemed almost as if Amber sensed this and was drawing back from the possibility, trying to signal Josh that she wasn't ready. But why on earth wouldn't she be?
I had just started working on the lastest chapter of my book when my cellphone rang. Annoyed at being distracted I spun around and around in my chair several times trying to locate the sound. Finally spotting the phone I threw myself out of my chair and pressed the talk button just before it went to voicemail.
“Hello?” I glanced down at the phone, hoping it wasn't someone I was trying to avoid. Well that's what I get for not checking caller ID first. But the number was not one I knew.
“Um, oh, hello. Uh, I'm sorry I really wasn't expecting.... is this Jessica Reynolds?”
“Yes.....” I drew out the word, wracking my brain for why the male voice on the other side of the line sounded so familiar.
“Um, well I'm not really sure you'll remember me but this is a, um, Greg Barker. From highschool?” Instantly a buzzing sound filled my head, as cold chills ran up and down my arms.
“I-uh, well, um, I thought- I mean, I never, uh,” My head was spinning and my tongue suddenly seemed to turn into a piece of thick leather.
The man- Greg- laughed ruefully. “I guess you do remember me then.”
“Um, how did you get this number?” No use in trying to be polite. I was too baffled to even make an attempt at civility.
“I located your agent and told her I was an old friend. She agreed to give me your cellphone number after I sent her my old yearbook with the pictures of you and me circled in it.” He laughed. “She was pretty tough on me though. You've got good people on your side.”
I'm going to kill Cassandra. “Yeah, I guess I do.” My head was still spinning, but at least now I was coherent. “So, Mr. Barker. Why exactly did you want to get in touch with me?” The coldness in my voice was so obvious I cringed. It sounded as though I had just spent a week in a refrigerator.
“Uh, well,” The nervousness and unsureness was back in his voice. It shook me up. I wasn't used to hearing Greg sound unsure. “I'll just come right out and say it. I need to talk to you Jess. Badly.”
“My name is Jessica, Mr. Barker. And quite frankly, I can't see any reason why you would feel so desperately in need of conversation with me.
“But Jes- I mean, Miss Reynolds, you don't understand. I- well I.... I need to make something right. And I feel like that would be better accomplished if we were to meet in person. Perhaps for dinner?” When I didn't say anything for several minutes his tone took on an almost pathetic ring. “Please, Miss Reynolds. You have no idea how much this means to me and after that meeting if you wish, we need never speak again.”
I chewed on my bottom lip. Seeing Greg again. The idea sounded so phenomenal, so unlike anything I had ever imagined that I balked. But he sounded sincere. And the sadness in his voice had'nt escaped me. It would be alright to see him again. A quick dinner, very formal at best, and he would tell me what was on his mind, I would nod politely, and we could go our separate ways. For good. I sighed.
“Alright Mr. Barker. Where would you like me to meet you?”
“Wait... you're going out with who?” Amber stared at me blankly as I riffled through the contents of my closet.
“Greg Barker from highschool. And we're not “going out”. He wants to talk to me so we're going to dinner to have a mature conversation, most likely revolving around several very immature things we did in highschool. I'll go and I'll come back and it will all be over and done with.” I selected a red dress from my closet and held it up to me. “What do you think?”
Amber sized me up. “Well, that certainly does not say you'll go and come back and it will all be over and done with. That says you'll go, bowl him over, make him speechless, and leave him begging for you to come back to him on his knees.”
I rolled my eyes. “Very cute.” I tossed the dress on the bed and turned back to the closet. “Let's see what else I have.”
“Wait, hold on, I didn't say any of that was a bad thing. This is the grown up version of your cheating ex we're talking about here. It might be nice if you give him a little taste of what he could have had.”
I glanced at her, laughing, but her face was serious. “Oh come on Amber. I'm twenty-four years old. I'm not going to get revenge on a guy who cheated on me seven years ago. When we were in highschool no less.”
Amber shrugged. “I don't know. Makes sense to me. I mean, IF, and I do mean if, he's grown up to be a decent guy he'll probably take it in stride. And if not, he'll get a little taste of his own medicine. Nothing wrong with that.”
I laughed. “Hey now, you just worry about your own dating life and I'll worry about mine.” I cringed as I realized I had just referred to Greg as part of my dating life. Old habits die hard. But Amber didn't seem to notice. “Aren't you going out with Josh soon?”
Amber's happy smile suddenly appeared. “Yeah. He said he planned a special surprise for me.” I stopped searching my closet for a moment and stared at her.
“A special surprise?” I echoed, wondering if what I was thinking of was true.
“Yeah I think he's taking me out to a really fancy dinner or something. He told me to wear something nice.”
“Oh wow. Sounds like quite an occasion.” I turned back to the closet to hide the knowing smile on my face. “Do you need help getting ready?”
Amber's brow furrowed. “Well, yeah, but I know you're getting ready too so I didn't want to ask you...”
Thirty minutes later after I had eagerly dropped everything to help Amber get ready, I stepped back from applying her make up, pleased with my work. “There you go. You look beautiful.”
Amber grinned at me. “I feel like a princess they way you've been waiting on me.”
“Oh well your highness, allow me to escort you to your vanity.” I pushed her over to the full length mirror on the wall, and let her take the image in. Her smile grew.
“I love to look pretty for Josh. Sometimes I think... well I think I don't deserve him. That he's too good for me. After all he's so healthy and active and I'm a crip-”
“You're an amazing girl who looks like the hottest thing in the world tonight.” Josh stood in the doorway, dressed in a suit. He was smiling, but I noticed flecks of worry in his eyes. He knelt down next to Amber's wheelchair and lowered his voice. “Babe, you'll never have to worry about me being too good for you. If anything, you're far too much of an angel to be interested in me.” He leaned in to kiss her but Amber stopped him.
“I wish I could believe that. I really do.” She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the jaw then smiled. “Let's go Josh. Bye Jess!”
“Amber-” Josh began, but I stopped him.
“She doesn't want to talk about it right now. Give her time Josh, she'll come around, and you can find out what's really bothering her.”
Josh glanced at Amber worriedly, who was already rolling down the hallway. “Well I hope I can find out before I give her this.” Quickly he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring box. He opened it and I caught a glimpse of the beautiful diamond ring inside. Then he snapped it shut and just as quickly slipped it back into the inside pocket of his coat. He swallowed, and I noticed his palms were sweating. “I'm nervous enough as it is.”
I reached down and squeezed his hand. “You'll be fine Josh. She loves you. And-” I felt tears come to my eyes and quickly brushed them away, trying to hide them behind a gentle laugh. “I wish you all the best. I hope you know that.”
Josh smiled at me and kissed me quickly on the cheek. “You're the best Jess.” Then he walked hurriedly down the hallway, calling, “Hey gorgeous wait up!”
I grinned as I heard the door slam shut behind them, then glanced at my watch and gasped. I was supposed to be at the restaurant in fifteen minutes. It only took about five minutes to get there but I would have to hustle. Quickly I headed back toward my closet then glanced at red dress lying on the bed. For a moment I was torn. Then, justifying that I was in too much of a hurry to choose something else I grabbed up the red dress and reached for my make up kit. No matter what else, this would be an interesting night.
“Jess?” I turned around and felt all the air rush out of my lungs. There he was. Greg. The man who had once been the boy who had broken my heart. He was tall, as he had always been, but he was no longer a skinny adolescent. His chest and shoulders were broad and he had filled out considerably. His brown eyes were still as sparkling and lively as ever, but the mischief and angst that had once filled them seemed to be replaced by humor and, if I hadn't known any better, kindness. His brown wavy hair that had once fallen almost all the way to his shoulders was short now, though a bit unruly as it had always been. He was wearing a blue shirt that matched his eyes and some tan dress pants.
I swallowed hard. He looked good. There was no denying that. He looked firm and muscled, and although his smile was uncertain, it still held that strange spark and sparkle that had drawn me to him in the first place.
“Wow, Jess, you look, well amazing! I knew you were pretty in higschool but I never expected...” He trailed off and I felt his eyes travel over me. When he met my eyes, to my surprise, he blushed. My mind reeled. The Greg I had known had not blushed. Ever.
“You look good too.” I admitted, then felt as if was back in highschool again. Greg was smiling his slow grin at me, a grin that started as nothing and ended as something a girl could never forget. Only I thought I had. Obviously I was wrong.
“Thank you. Though you- you are exquisite.” Quickly he moved around the table and pulled out the chair opposite his own. “Won't you sit down?”
“I-I suppose.” I said, caught off guard. He was seating me? This was an act. It had to be. People changed after highschool and during their college years but this was incredible. There was no way a boy like Greg had grown up to be a man like the one who was sitting down across from me.
“So,” he smiled at me, “shall we order?”
“Oh, well, certainly.” I picked up my menu and made my eyes stare at the words, though I wasn't comprehending a thing. Once my eyes drifted off the menu and glanced at Greg. To my surprise my eyes met his and I realized he had been looking at me as well. Quickly I dropped my eyes to the menu again, feeling like a teenage girl. How much more immature could I get?
“The pasta is very good here. I was thinking of ordering spaghetti. I can vouch for it, it's delicious. Would you like some of that?” I lowered my menu and nodded my head almost automatically.
“That'd be fine.” I set my menu down and sipped my water, glad to have gotten successfully over the hurdle of ordering.
After a moment I felt the need to break the silence. “So what are you doing now Greg? Where do you work?”
“Oh, well I own a publishing company in New York City. Barker's Books?”
I gulped. He owned a publishing company? And not only a publishing company, but a publishing company I had heard of. Several well known authors published their work through Barker's Books. I had never connected it with Greg though.
“You... you own Barker's Books?”
“Yes, you see my grandfather, Dylan Barker, started the company. He's retired now and because my father has no interest in the business, he passed it on to me. I've run the company for about two years now. Still pretty new to me really.”
“Are you literary then?” I asked, surprised. Greg had never shown this side of himself in highschool. Then again, maybe this side of him hadn't existed in highschool.
“I'm not a published author if that's what you mean. I work mostly with the business side of the company, although I own it.”
“I see.” I took another sip of my water, my mind still reeling.
“What about you? What do you do for a living?”
“Oh, I'm a writer. I write for Modern Life and I've published a few short stories. I'm finishing up my first book now.”
Greg smiled. “I'll be honest, I already knew you were a writer.”
“Yes. You see, I read your short stories. They were very good.”
Greg had read something I'd written? I shook my head in disbelief. “I though you hated my writing. You told me you couldn't stand it.” The words took me back to the worst fight Greg and I had ever had before he cheated on me. After that Amber had told me that he was no good, but of course, I hadn't listened to her.
Greg blushed and looked down, ashamed. “Yes, I know. And that's the perfect opening to the real reason why I called you and arranged this meeting. I realize now how... how badly I treated you in highschool. And, well, I wanted to apologize.”
“You wanted to apologize?” I echoed vaguely, feeling as if I were in an alternate universe. Was Greg really telling me he was sorry?
“Yes. I'm truly, truly sorry. I was nothing but a complete jerk to you. Honestly, you were the best girlfriend I ever had. The only one that seemed like she was with me cause she wanted to be and not because she wanted something from me. But I was too much of an idiot to understand that back then. I know I hurt you badly.... and with what happened with Amber that night.... well... I'll never truly forgive myself.”
“It-it wasn't your fault. It was mine.” To my utter embarrassment tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to brush them away, but it only became more obvious that I was crying. In an instant Greg was standing beside me, shielding me from the stares of the other customers in the restaurant.
“Come on, let's get out of here.” He pulled me toward the door, grabbing up my purse and laying a tip down on the table with one hand.
“But-but what about our food?” I tried to pull myself together but it was no use.
Greg gently grabbed my hand and continued to pull me toward the door. “It doesn't matter. They'll figure it out.”
I allowed him to tow me to the exit and then blinked in the light of a pink, purple, and gold sunset outside.
Greg beckoned me towards his car. “Come on, let's go someplace where we can really talk.”
I shook my head vehemently. “My car is here and-”
“I promise I'll take care of it.” Suddenly Greg stepped closer and grabbed my hand again, gently rubbing one thumb against my knuckles. “I know you have no reason to trust me but please try. I promise you won't regret it.”
For a moment I stared at him. His warm brown eyes stared into mine, and I saw a hint of something I remembered from the very first part of our relationship. He was sincere. I knew it. But....
“Sorry, Greg, this isn't a romantic comedy.” Quickly, I withdrew my hand and wiped ferociously at my eyes, no doubt smearing my mascara hopelessly.
“Here.” Greg pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me.
I glanced at it groggily, then grabbed it to study it more closely. “This is hand labeled.” The initials G.B, were stitched onto the clean white fabric in blue thread. It looked like a child's work. I glanced at him, hoping for an explanation.
He smiled fondly and took the handkerchief. Absently his fingers traced the messy lettering. “Yes, it is. My daughter did it herself and gave it to me last Christmas. My sister helped her a little of course.” He offered it back to me, looking innocent, as if not aware he had just thrown a social bomb.
“You're married?!” I blurted, not bothering to take the handkerchief. “Greg, I can't believe you! Having dinner with your ex from highschool while your wife stays home tending to the children!” Exasperated I threw up my hands to turn away but he caught my arm firmly.
“Hey now, listen a minute, I never said I was married.”
“Oh.” I felt heat steal over my cheeks as I realized how stupid I must have sounded. “I-I'm sorry, I guess I just assumed....”
“That I was still a cheating scum bag.” He finished. His smile took me off guard. “But no. My wife and I are divorced.”
“Oh.” What was wrong with me? It seemed as if my vocabulary was suddenly limited to single syllables. “I'm sorry.” There, that was three.
He smiled, but I saw the hurt in his eyes. “It's alright. We were too young really. I married her our sophomore year of college. We both still had a lot of growing up to do. She left me...” he trailed off and glanced past me. I felt as if he were reliving painful memories. After a minute he blinked and continued. “She left me for another man. A business associate of mine in fact.”
“Ouch.” I bit my lip awkwardly, wondering what I should say. We were both twenty-four. Weren't we too young for this sort of thing? “Greg... I hope you know I really am truly sorry. No one should be betrayed like that.”
He looked at me, an undefinable look on his face and gave a short, caustic laugh. “Yeah, you know all about that, huh Jess? I'm no better than my ex-wife really. Same self-centered fear of commitment. Same stupid excuses.”
“Greg, it was highschool. There was no commitment.” I tried to smile, but the butterflies twisting and diving in my stomach when he looked at me prevented it.
“Stop being nice.” I blinked.
“Stop being nice.” Greg stepped closer. “I never understood you Jess. I cheated on you and ridiculed you. And now you're telling me in a round about way that it really wasn't all my fault. Even after all that.” He reached out and gently cradled my face in his hands. The air rushed out of my hands. He continued, whispering, “I can handle you when you're Miss Reynolds, but when you're Jess, you sweep me off my feet.”
My mind spun as he leaned in towards me. The sensible part of me was screaming at me to move away, because I was in danger of getting hurt again. This was Greg for crying out loud! But his eyes, so full of unspoken words of the past and hope for the future, had me rooted to the ground. He closed his eyes and I realized he was about to kiss me. I closed my eyes.
“And I wonder if I, Ever cross your mind.... For me it happens all the time.” I jumped back as my phone began to blast Lady Antebellum for all the world to hear. Blushing red and not daring to look at Greg I glanced at the phone. Amber's calling? Really, right this minute??! I hit the talk button and sneaked a peek at Greg, who was running his fingers through his hair awkwardly and fiddling with his collar. At least I wasn't the only one who wanted the earth to swallow me up at that moment.
“Hey Amber what's up?”
“Jess, this is Josh. My phone ran out of battery so I borrowed Amber's.... I think you'd better come home.”
“Why? What's wrong?” I bit my lip.
“She-she said no.” Josh's voice was completely void of any emotion, as if he were purposely trying to hide his thoughts from me. My grip on the phone tightened.
“She said no? What do you mean Josh?” Greg shot me a worried look as I waited for Josh to answer. I tried to smile reassuringly at him, but then Josh replied.
“I asked her to marry me. And she said no.”
“YOU ASKED HER TO MARRY YOU AND SHE SAID NO???!!!” A couple leaving the restaurant stared at me. Greg jumped forward as if to catch me if I fainted but I waved him away. “Josh hold on a second.” I put my hand over the phone and said, “Hey, Greg, I'm really sorry but I think I'm going to have to run. I have an emer- a problem at home. Sorry to cut the evening short.” My brisk business-like tone made my romantic side cringe. But I ignored it.
“Oh, okay. Well, can I help in any way?” He stepped closer, but I was having none of this Prince Charming save the day routine. If it was a routine.
“I don't think so.” I smiled to take the bite from my words. “Bye, Greg.” Turning around and pressing the phone back to my ear I spoke again, this time to Josh. “Hey I'm on my way home. Be there in five. Bye.”
“Bye.” Josh's listless voice sent shivers down my spine. What was Amber thinking??
I ran up to my car and began to paw through my small handbag, looking for my keys. “Where the heck are they?”
I glanced inside my car and my heart sank. There they were. On the seat. Inside my locked car. Frustrated, I slammed my hand against the car door, and reached up to pry a bobby pin from my hair. I had seen people pick locks with these in the movies. I could do it right??
I inserted it in the lock and jiggled it uncertainly, not wanting to break my car door. I crouched down to see the lock more clearly but wobbled on my stiletto heels. Huffing, I stood and removed the offending shoes, dropping them to the ground beside me. Then, crouching in my hose, I twisted and turned the bobby pin, praying for the satisfying click of the lock opening.
“Uh, Jessica?” I tried to spin around quickly to find out who the amused spectator to my dilemma was, but forgot I was crouching and sat down hard on the hard concrete, banging my head on my car door in the process.
“Ow!” I reached up to feel my head, almost expecting a large sized bump. Instead, all I found was an increasingly tender spot. “Hey, what's the idea of-” I glanced up into the eyes of Greg, who looked as if he was hiding a smile.
“Are you okay?” Greg extended a hand to me, lips twitching.
“Are you laughing at me??” I swatted his hand away and stood to my feet on my own, trying to recover what shreds of dignity I had left.
“Never.” He ran a hand over his mouth, hiding his smile.
“What are you doing here anyway?” I tried not to sound like a pouting child and slipped my shoes back on with one hand, while trying to straighten my fly away hair with the other.
“I heard a noise back here like someone had hit their car or something. I thought you might be having some kind of trouble. I came back to see what was wrong.”
“Well my amazing prince, so far you have not been very charming.” I gave up the fight with my hair and reached up for the remaining bobby pins, letting it fall loose and slightly tangled on my shoulders.
Greg grinned, but ignored my comment. He glanced at the twisted bobby pin in the lock and nodded his understanding. “Come on, I'll drive you home. You can get an extra key there and I'll drive you back to get your car.”
“I can't have you do that. My house isn't too far away... I can walk it.” I took a step, as if to prove my ability and felt one of my thin heels give away. With a snap it broke, leaving me off balance. I teetered for one moment and then pitched directly into Greg, hitting him firmly in the stomach with my elbow.
“Ooof!” He caught me and wheezed, “Oh yeah, I can see that.”
I tried to get back on my feet, but was forced to lean on him. He looked down at me, and I realized how close we were.
“Ummmm...” my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I staggered and he gripped me tighter, pulling me even closer to him. “I,uh...” I had gained my balance but I couldn't move. I was breathing hard and my brain had apparently decided to take an unexpected vacation. The world whirled as he reached up with one hand and gently ran his fingers through my hair.
“We seem to be in this position a lot, huh?” Greg leaned closer and I nodded mutely. Almost out of habit I reached up and touched his cheek, feeling my fingers tingle. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard a distant voice screaming at me to back away. This wasn't worth the pain that would come later.
“I-I have to get home.” My voice, weak and unwilling, left my cheeks red hot. I sounded as if I were swooning in his arms. Then again... I glanced down. That was almost what had happened.
“Mmmm-hmmm,” Greg didn't appear to be listening, yet his eyes were fastened on mine.
“Now. We should go no-” I stopped abruptly as Greg kissed me.
It was strange, kissing him. I had expected an old familiar glow, a spot in my heart that had grown cold over the years suddenly warming again. It wasn't like that at all. It was better. It was fireworks. It was Paris in the spring. It was running through the sprinkler when you're a little kid, and blowing dandelion fluff on windy days. It was sweet and subtle, yet flaming and sparkling at the same time. Thousands of memories raced through my mind, rekindled and realer than they'd been in years. Greg kissing me. Greg pushing me on a swing. Greg handing me my birthday present, a silver charm bracelet with a real sapphire in it. Greg rolling his eyes but laughing at my dumb jokes. Greg pressuring me. Greg cheating on me.
I pushed him away, gasping. “Stop.” I stumbled back and leaned against my car, raising a hand as if to make sure he stayed at arms length. “This- this isn't smart. It doesn't make sense. I-I'm different now Greg. We were kids. We weren't right for eachother. We just thought we were.” I realized my voice was trembling.
Greg looked dumb founded. “Jess, I wasn't expecting- I mean, I didn't think it would be like that. It scares me too.”
“It doesn't scare me.” I took a deep breath and prepared to fib my way out of it. “I don't think of you like that anymore Greg. Honestly, you crossed a line. I thought maybe we could both be mature and adult about this. I guess I was wrong. Excuse me.” Slipping out of my high heels I walked away in my bare feet, head held high, mind spinning. I glanced back. Greg stared at me, hands shoved in his pockets, looking taller, stronger, more dependable, and more lovable then I'd ever seen him.
I faced forward again, trying to laugh. This was crazy. I was crazy. I had made a complete imbecile of myself.
I hadn't walked more than a block before a car rolled up beside me. “Jessica, let me drive you home. It's stupid for you have to walk.” I glanced down to see Greg in his classy black sports car.
“I'm fine, thank you.” I stood up straighter and squared my shoulders.
“Jess, don't be stubborn. Get in!”
“I can be stubborn if I want to be, thank you.”
Greg rolled his eyes. “Please, Jess, get in and I promise, we don't even have to speak.”
I considered this. I did need to get home in a hurry. Slowly, I nodded and headed for my car door. To my surprise, Greg beat me too it, hopping out of his side and hurrying around to open my door. “I can do it.” I said, out of habit and then reluctantly slid inside, grabbing my door and swinging it shut before he could shut it for me.
He walked around to the drivers side and slid into the seat, muttering something under his breath. “Where to?”
“1014 Bentley Road.” I sat up straight and folded my hands in my lap, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible while my heart was pounding like a sledge hammer against my chest. Greg appeared to have that affect on me.
We drove in silence for a minute or so before Greg spoke. “So, when did you become so independent?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about and doesn't this qualify as speaking?”
Greg ignored the last part of my comment. “Yes, you do. I saw how you've been squirming all night when I tried to do things for you. What's that about?”
I shot him a look. “If I tell you, will you promise to be quiet? For real this time?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
“After Amber got in her accident, there was a lot of gossip going around the school.” Greg flinched, but I ignored it. “Some of it was brutal, but the less bad stuff I just learned to tune out. But being accused by half the school of trying to end your best friend's life after physically accosting her can make you feel like an outsider. I learned how to stand on my own two feet the hard way. Then,” I stopped and bit my lip, wondering how much I should tell him, “you know how I left school after awhile to study at home and be nearer to Amber. She went through a really rough time after the accident, and I felt I should be as helpful to her as possible. It was the least I could do. Plus, it was an easy way to get away from other.... things.” I felt my cheeks heat up, and hurried on. “Anyway, about a year later my dad left. It started out with long business trips, then it was weeks of just disappearing. Finally, he was just gone for good. My mom signed the divorce papers and that was that.” I felt Greg's hand slide over mine. I blinked, and realized that I had tears in my eyes. With my free hand I swiped them away.
“But it was alright... after awhile. My mom re-married and my step-dad is great. His name is Brandon and he's an engineer who gets paid well so mom doesn't even have to work anymore. But she does. She owns a little florists shop over on Poplar Boulevard. It's really cute. My dad contacted me when I was in college and apologized for hurting me. Turns out he married the woman he left my mom for. Amy. Swimsuit model. Two years older than me.” I laughed, bit my lip, then sighed. “Anyway, I guess all that just made me skittish about relying on people.”
“Jess. I'm so sorry.” I turned towards Greg and saw nothing but compassion in his eyes. I realized he was still holding my hand and gently shook it off, laughing and swiping at my eyes, which were full even though I hadn't actually let any of the tears fall.
“Like I said, it's alright! I went to college, got my degree, I'm a published writer now, and me and Amber bought a house together. She still needs help in ways. I figured I should step in until Josh can take over.”
Greg looked surprised. “Josh is still friends with you two?”
I nodded. “Yeah, he and Amber have been dating on and off (mostly on) since highschool. And that's why I need to get home.”
As we pulled up to my house I shot Greg an apologetic look. “Sorry, I'll explain later! Thanks so much for the ride! Bye!”
“Wait, does that mean there's going to be a later???” Greg yelled, but I ignored him and raced inside the house.
“Josh, what happened??!” I stood in the middle of the living room, completely shocked at what I saw. A lamp lay shattered on the floor and Josh's suit coat, crushed and crumpled lay next to it. Josh was sprawling on the couch, tie unfastened and hair rumpled, his eyes listless and dim. In his tightened fist I could just glimpse the ring box being crushed so hard in his hand it was losing its shape.
“Josh?!” I made my way over the shattered remains of the lamp and sank to my knees next to him. “Can you hear me??”
“Sure, but I wish I couldn't.” Josh's voice slurred and I saw his shirt was stained with brown liquid.
“Have you been drinking??” I noticed an empty bottle on the end table near his head and grabbed it.
“This is hard whiskey Josh! What's going on? Where's Amber?”
Josh didn't seem to hear me. “It didn't work Jess. I thought it would work. I thought it would help, but it didn't.” Josh lurched to a sitting position and sprawled there, tears forming in his eyes. “She said no, Jess. She said no. Just like that. Didn't even let me finish. She just said no. She said.... she said she never wanted to marry me. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever...”
“Josh!” Exasperated I took him by the shoulders and shook him hard. “WHERE. IS. AMBER?”
He made an indistinct motion towards the bedroom. “She's in there. She's.... she's crying. Maybe. I don't know. Would she cry over me? I mean, if she doesn't really love me? Love me enough to marry me anyways. Never, ever, ever, ever....” I released my hold on him and he flopped sideways, still muttering.
“I give up.” I moved a pillow behind his head and swiped up the bottle of whiskey before he could reach for it and chug the last few drops at the bottom. “I'm going in to see Amber. Don't you dare throw up on my carpet.”
Josh laughed jerkily at that, then moaned.
“Amber?” I tapped gently on the bedroom door, fearing the sound of the silence on the other side. “Amber, honey, it's me, Jess. Are you okay?”
“I know, I know. I just wanted to make sure you were in there. Josh, is a little.... disoriented at the moment.”
The door slowly opened and Amber's face, blotchy and red from tears, peeked out. “You can come in.”
I walked in, and Amber shut and locked the door. “I had to do that when we first came home. I started crying and Josh was afraid I'd hurt myself or something. He thinks just because I'm in a wheelchair I'm some kind of glass doll.” Amber irritably waved her hand in the air as if waving away Josh's caring gestures.
“He loves you Amber.”
“I know.” Amber sagged in her chair, looking defeated. “That's the problem.”
“Amber...” I knelt beside her chair and stroked her bent head, searching for the right words. “Are you not in love with him? Is that's whats wrong? Did you feel like you had to stay in the relationship because you'd been in it so long when maybe Josh just didn't feel right for you anymo-”
“NO!” Amber's head snapped up and the harshness in her tone unsteadied me. I thumped backward into a sitting position, feeling as if I were walking on even thinner ice then I had thought.
“Josh is perfect! I love him! I've never loved anyone else! He's... he's everything I want, everything I need-”
“Then what's the problem??”
“You didn't let me finish! He's also everything I don't deserve.” Amber bent her head again and tears spotted the formal dress she still wore.
Shocked, I sat speechless for a moment or two, unsure of how to respond. “Amber. You don't honestly think that-”
“Josh is too good for me? Yes, I do.” Amber smacked the arm of her wheelchair hard. “Look at me Jess. No, really look at me. Without the rose-colored glasses of friendship and knowing my story and the hardships we went through together. Take that away and what do you have?? A cripple. That's all that's left. I had enough trouble adjusting to being limited in my own life. I can't adjust to limiting Josh's life. That's not just hard that's unfair. Josh is such an amazing person. He deserves to get someone perfect who can give him so much more than I can. Someone who can give him everything. Someone's who's not a charity case. Someone who's.... who's.... whole.”
“Whole? Amber, nobody is really whole. Everybody's toting along some kind of baggage their whole life. Think about it. For me, just one piece of baggage that I carry is my dad. He ditched me and my mom for a woman who wasn't even a college graduate then. He wanted her body more than he wanted me to be his daughter. That hurts. That hurts more than I can say. You don't think that's left it's scars? Let me tell you, it has. I'm broken, just like you. And you know what, that's what true love is all about. Accepting other people, scars and all and loving them in spite of it. In fact, love is kind of like getting a wheelchair.”
Amber glanced at me, eyes tired and red-rimmed. “Yeah, right. How can love be like getting a wheelchair?”
“Well,” I swallowed hard, praying this was going to get my point across, “after you had your accident, were you ashamed to actually get a wheelchair? Not being handicapped, not being unable to use your legs, but the actual act of getting a wheelchair to help you after your accident, were you ashamed of that??”
Amber paused and considered the question. “No, I wasn't. It was going to help me become more 'normal'.”
“Exactly. And it wasn't as if you said, 'I'm not good enough for this wheelchair. You had the disability, so you were happy to have the help, something that would you make you more able to handle every day life.”
Amber nodded slowly.
“Josh is kind of like your 'wheelchair'. He's there to be your full-time support system and he wants to walk beside you forever and push you along when you need a hand. He'll help you through life, help through your every day, and you'll do the same for him, by loving him with all his faults and being his support system as well. Do you see what I mean?”
“I guess...” Amber bit her lip. “But it still feels like I have less to offer him then he has to offer me.”
“Amber,” I took her hand and squeezed it, “after your accident, when we were in the hospital, you proved you were the best person I'd ever met by forgiving me for whatever part I had in your accident. I'll never forget you doing that. But do you remember what you said when you forgave me? You said, 'Let me forgive you so you can forgive yourself,'. And I said, 'I'm not sure I can.' Do you remember what you said to that?”
Amber smiled slowly through her tears. “Try.”
“Amber, you forgave me. Now, I think it's time you forgive yourself. You got a second chance at life. Don't waste it in holding a grudge against your own body for not being “perfect”. You're more perfect inside then anyone else I've ever known. So, even though I know it's not going to be an overnight process, please forgive yourself so you can forgive Josh for loving you.”
Amber opened her mouth, then shut it, then whispered. “I'll try.”
“Good.” I stood up and smiled.
Amber suddenly gripped my hand. “Jess, do you think Josh would give me a second chance?”
I laughed. “Amber, I think Josh would give you a thousand second chances.”
“Should I go talk to him?”
“Ummm... well, no, I wouldn't advise it.”
“Why? Is he that mad?”
“Well, no he's, um, drunk.”
“Drunk?” Amber looked confused.
“Yeah.... remember that bottle of whiskey we got for new years as a gag gift?”
Amber suddenly looked determined. “I'll go sober him up.”
“Amber!” But she was already out of the bedroom door and rolling towards the couch where Josh was just sitting up groggily.
“Amber!” Josh's drunken slur sounded so ridiculously happy that my eyes began to fill with tears.
SLAP! “Amber!” I couldn't help but gasp as Josh held onto his cheek and blinked like a man waking up from a dream. But she paid no attention to me. And neither did Josh.
“Amber, I love you. I always will, whether or not you want to marry me right now.”
“Shut up.” Amber smiled, even though tears were shining in her eyes. “You talk too much.”
“Wha-” Amber pressed to her lips to his before he finished. Josh sat forward and pulled Amber out of her wheelchair onto his lap as they kissed.
Josh pulled away first. “But why-?!”
Amber put a finger to his lips. “Just listen.” She snuggled into him and laid her head on his shoulder. “I have issues. And not just my paralysis. I have inward issues too. And if we're going to get married we're going to have to deal with the fact that those are there. I'm not sure I'm ready, emotionally, to get married to you just yet....” Amber's voice was timid, and she clung to Josh like a rock in a storm. “Would you be willing to wait a year before we got married?”
Josh turned her towards him and stared at her. “Is that a yes?”
“Well, I mean-”
“Is it?” Josh looked as if he was holding his breath.
Amber smiled. “YES!”
“YES!!!” Josh pulled her close again and kissed her. Then he pulled out the ring box, a bit squashed, but mostly in tact. “I'm the happiest man in the world right now.” He slipped the diamond ring on Amber's finger.
Slowly, I backed out of the room, smiling and crying and laughing all at once. As happy as I was for my two best friends, this wasn't a moment friends were meant to share.
I headed to my study, dancing on air. “Goingggg to the chapel where I'm gonnnaaa get marrrrieeed!!” I stopped and laughed at my own stupidity. “Amber's goinggggg to the chapel where she's gonnnaaa get marrrrieeed!” Wasn't it alright to be stupid about your two best friends getting married?
In the den, I sat down at my computer, still in my formal red dress, which was looking a good deal less stunning then it had earlier in the evening. Sighing happily I opened the document that held my treasured book, but for some reason I couldn't concentrate. All I could think about was Amber, Josh, and me, and all the things we had been through as children, teenagers and young adults.
As I thought of the night Amber was in her accident, the night that was forever seared into my memory, I shivered as always. Even time had not fully softened the sick horror I had felt on that night. As I remembered each detail my flesh crawled and I blinked hard, remembering the total hoplessness that had engulfed me. But, as usual when the memories became too vivid, the memory of Amber's total forgiveness washed over me, pushing away the cold chill that had settled on my heart. Sitting there, I realized again what a gift Amber had given me For, though I had never realized it, she had not only given me the gift of forgiveness, she had given me the gift of second chances. A second chance on my life, and a second chance to be the friend she deserved.
Suddenly an idea struck me. Quickly, I pulled up a fresh document and stared at it. For a minute, I hesitated, nibbling on a fingernail. Then, slowly, I lowered my hands on to the keys. Taking a deep breath, I thought back to that night again, sitting in the hospital waiting room. The cold distant feel of everything. The sharp smell of antiseptic in the air. The blatant pain crushing my heart like an iron fist. I thought of it till I had captured ever raw detail of the scene. Then I began to type.
I stared at the white hospital linoleum, my heart pounding in my ears. How could this be happening? As an image of Amber as I had seen her just two hours before careened around in my mind, my world tilted on it's axis. I felt the bile, hot and burning, rise up in my throat, and I gripped the arms of the padded waiting room chair, trying to steady my nerves.
“Jess? Are you alright?” A gentle hand on my shoulder pulled me from the blank world of sleep into bright sunshine. I sat up suddenly, confused. Turning, I saw Amber looking at me, a mixture of surprise, amusement, and concern on her face. “You fell asleep at your computer. How late were you up?”
“I-I don't know.” I yawned and stretched. “The last time I glanced at the clock it said 3:00 AM.”
“3:00 AM? What were you writing?” Amber glanced at the screen. “You must have been pretty inspired.”
“Actually, I was.” Blinking quickly to wake myself up, I mentally shook myself, straightened, and began to read to Amber what I'd written. She listened quietly, a small smile on her face.
“Jess, that's beautiful. I'm so honored you wrote about our experience together.” She peered at the number of pages in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. “Thirty-five pages? Is that all one story?”
“No, it's many. All stories about us. Things we've done, things we've said. The crazy scrapes we got into. The lessons in love we've learned.”
“Oh my gosh. You wrote this all in one night?” Amber reached across the desk to the mouse and scrolled through the word-filled pages incredulously. “This is incredible.”
“Yeah, and I have so much more where that came from.” I smiled. “My book can wait. These are stories I was meant to tell, and the world was meant to hear. I'm going to try to get these stories, and a few more, published. We could have a little book all about us.”
Amber looked impressed. “Aren't you ambitious all of a sudden.”
“I know I can do this. This is something I really care about and publishers are going to see that when they read it. Plus, I think I may have a connection now.” I couldn't help but smile as I thought of Greg. Amber shot me a quizzical look, but I ignored it. Suddenly I sat bolt upright. “Oh my gosh!!! I just realized I haven't congratulated you yet!!!” I grabbed her hand and gasped at the ring adorning it. “Ohhhhh, it's beautiful Amber.”
Amber laughed, a happy, youthful smile on her face. “Thank you, thank you.”She squeezed my hand, her teasing tone subsiding into a grateful one. “If it weren't for you, I might not have this ring.”
I grinned and leaned over to give her a hug. “You're welcome, though I don't think I did much.” I was glad my cellphone ringing stopped anymore thanks. “Hold on a second Amber.” I glanced at the number and realized it was Greg. I flushed and Amber laughed. “Maybe I should be congratulating you too. I take it your date went well.”
“It....went.” I said as nonchalantly as possible before hitting the talk button. “Hello?”
“Hey Jess, it's Greg.”
“Oh, hi.” I tried not to sound to eager.
“Hey, I was just wondering... is everything alright? You kinda seemed like something was going wrong last night.”
“Oh well, it sort of was. But it's not a big deal now. Amber and Josh are engaged! That's the important part!”
“Yeah, it was all settled last night.”
“Well, be sure to congratulate them for me when you get the chance.” Greg's voice suddenly sounded unsure. “Hey, Jess... I hope they know... I'm so sorry about what happened after Amber's accident... I hope they understand that I'm deeply, deeply, sorry. Do you think I should-”
“It's alright Greg. I'm sure Amber will forgive you for everything. She has a gift for handing out second chances. And living them.”
Amber smiled at that, then slowly spun to leave the room. I noticed she held the hand with her engagement ring out a little bit as if to admire it evey moment and had to hide a grin as she left the room.
“That's good.” Greg sounded so relieved my heart warmed towards to him before I even thought about it. “And what about you Jess? Do you forgive me as well?”
I bit my lip, my heart beating fast. There was something significant in his tone, a deep urgency and anxiousness to know that I was on his side again. It filled me with a warmth I hadn't felt in a long time.
“Of course Greg.” Though I never would have imagined it even a few days ago, I thoroughly meant it. Here was a chance to give someone else a second chance. And I was grabbing at that chance with both hands.
“Thank you.” For a minute silence reigned, a comfortable silence, with no unspoken words or bitter memories to mar it. Then Greg spoke again. “I was wondering... if maybe you'd like to come over and have dinner with my daughter and I some time. I'm sure she would love you.”
My heart sped up. Was this an invitation? A sign that perhaps Greg wanted to move towards something more permanent? I didn't know. And I was scared. Terrified of getting hurt again. But what had I just been saying about second chances? If I didn't count Greg's past against him then I had nothing to lose.
“I'd like that.”
Greg let out a breath he appeared to have been holding. “Great, amazing, wonderful.” The surprise and happy relief in his voice touched me. He had been afraid of getting shot down. Suddenly I wanted to see him again. Badly.
“How about tonight?” Had I just said that?? What was wrong with me?? “I mean, uh, if you're free and it's a good time and everything... I mean, I didn't mean to-”
“Tonight would be more than perfect. I can't wait to see you.”
“Alright, shall we say... seven-ish?” My happiness was evident, but for once I didn't care.
“Great, I'll pick you up.”
“Wonderful. Oh, and Greg,” I moved over to the computer and thoughtfully looked at the document on the screen. “I know it's a lot to ask, but can I ask you a favor? I need your professional opinion on something...”
ONE YEAR LATER:
“Chloe, hold still please while I tie your bow.” I laughed as Greg's six year old daughter continued to squirm. “You are just a bundle of energy today.”
“That's cause Auntie Amber is getting married today and I'm the flower girl, the flower girl, the flower girl!” Chloe, free from my restricting hands as I finished tying the bow, spun around in a circle, as exuberant as if she was the bride herself. Speaking of which....
“Amber? You doing okay?” I hitched up my maid-of-honor dress with one hand and stood to my feet, glad to be in a normal position now. Crouching next to a hyper six-year-old in a floor-length dress and high heels was not an easy task.
Amber turned towards me, radiant and happy. For a minute, I was speechless. I had helped her get ready, helped her choose her wedding dress, and helped her put the finishing touches on her already gorgeous hair and face, and yet, somehow I still could not believe this shining, gorgeous woman was the funny little girl I had met on the playground so many years ago.
“Do I look alright?” Amber, sitting straight and elegant in her well-decorated wheelchair, smoothed her dress nervously.
“You could not look more beautiful and perfect. Josh is going to get the wind knocked out of him.” I knelt beside her and felt tears well up in my eyes. “Amber, you and Josh have worked so hard as a couple to get to this day and I'm so,so, so, SO happy for you both.”
Amber smiled back at me, then laughed gently. “I'm glad you talked me into waterproof mascara.” She dabbed at her eyes with the crumpled tissue, then squeezed my hand. “Thank you Jess. For everything.”
“Oh, be quiet. This is your wedding day, you can't thank people. You're supposed to be demanding and annoying. Haven't you ever heard of Bridezilla?” I grinned, and Amber swatted at me, laughing.
Suddenly the door to the bride's room creaked open and Greg peeked in. “Everything alright in here?”
Chloe immediately sprang at him. “Daddy, daddy, look at my pretty dress!!”
Greg came in and shut the door behind him, then stooped to look at her. “You look gorgeous sweetheart. I smiled, watching them. Greg rose and walked over to Amber. “Amber, you look like everything good and lovely in this world. He bent and kissed her on the cheek. “Josh is grinning like an idiot in the other room. You never saw a man so excited and so nervous. He's a very lucky man Amber.”
Amber grinned devilishly. “Now Greg, I know I'm the bride, but don't get too flowery in your praises or your girlfriend over there may get bitten by the little green monster.”
Greg and I laughed. “My girl could never be jealous.” Greg turned towards me and the teasing in his eyes faded, replaced by a sweeter emotion. “She knows that she's my everything.”
Amber glanced back and forth between us and then motioned Chloe towards her. “Come on, sweetie, I want a picture with my favorite pretend niece.” The photographer stepped up and Greg moved over towards me.
“Hello darling,” he pulled me into his arms and stared at me, “did you happen to know that you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life at this moment?? You're... exquisite.”
“Why thank you sir.” I leaned forward and kissed him, loving the feeling that he was mine. I pulled back and smiled at him. “Greg, I'm so glad I'm hopelessly in love with you and not someone else.”
Greg chuckled and pecked me on lips. “Me too dearest. Me too.”
“Hey, what time it is?” I said, realizing that the photo session with Amber and Chloe was over, and that I should probably go back to the duties of being the maid-of-honor, no matter how much I wanted to stay right where I was.
“Five more minutes before we line up.” I leaned forward one more time and kissed Greg, then stepped back and shooed him towards the door. “Go, go, go be the proper best man. I'll see you soon.”
I turned to Amber, Chloe and the three bridesmaids. “Okay, let's get our bouquets!”
By the time we had all grabbed our bouquets and made last minute adjustments to our hair and dresses, it was time to go and line up outside the sanctuary. Quickly, I leaned down and gave Amber a big hug. “There. Our last hug before you get married. You ready for this?”
Amber nodded. “Now, I know for sure, I was born ready to marry Josh.”
Smiling I pushed her out to the foyer, and then the bridal party took their places. Amber's father stepped behind Amber's wheelchair, and I stood in front of her, taking deep breaths to calm my shaky nerves. This was it.
As the music began and the first bridesmaid and groomsman began to walk down the aisle, I sneaked a peek at Josh and Greg, grown so close over the last year, standing at the front of the church. Josh stood rigid, his face tight with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. Greg was more relaxed, looking solid and strong as usual. He caught my eye and fluttered a ghost of a wink at me. I blushed, and then felt idiotic for doing so. Greg and I had been dating for a year, but he could still sweep me off my feet in an instant.
It was my turn to walk down the aisle. I turned my head to look at Amber as a “single” woman for the last time, mouthed, “Love you!”, faced forward, and began to walk.
Faces in the congregation were a blur. All I could see were Greg and Josh, coming steadily nearer. Greg was smiling at me, and it struck me again how lucky we were to get our second chance as a couple. In a way, this wedding was a celebration of second chances. And love. Always love.
I reached my place in the front of the church and took a deep breath as the wedding march began. Amber, glowing from the inside out, started down the aisle, pushed by her father. I glanced at Josh and saw his face break into a smile, his nerves suddenly gone. My heart swelled as I saw the love in his eyes.
Two-thirds of the way down the aisle Amber's father stopped pushing her wheelchair. Josh then walked down the aisle towards both of them. When he reached them, Amber's father gently kissed her on the cheek, shook Josh's hand, and stepped back. Josh then gently lifted her in his arms out of her wheelchair and carried her the rest of the way down the aisle. At the front pf the church, he lowered Amber into a chair that had been set out for her and he sat down as well in an opposite chair. Then they joined hands.
I sniffed, and realized I was beginning to cry. As the ceremony continued and Josh and Amber pledged undying love and sacrifice to eachother, I wiped repeatedly at my eyes as unobtrusively as possible as I tried to commit each moment to memory. Then, suddenly, it was all over. Amber and Josh, said I do, kissed passionately to heartfelt applause, and then Josh gently picked her up again and carried her down the aisle, to the cheers and tears of the guests.
As I took Greg's arm to walk down the aisle I glanced at him and was surprised to find unshed tears in his eyes, which he was hurriedly rubbing away with one hand. I laughed and kissed his cheek, sudden joy bubbling through me, bellying even my sentimental desire to cry. Greg laughed as well and as we reached the foyer once more, whispered in my ear, “I'll meet you in the church garden in ten minutes.”
“What?” But Greg had already stepped away as we both reached Amber and Josh, and for a minute everything was hugs and tears and congratulations. Amber was smiling so hard I worried her mouth must be hurting, and Josh held Amber's hand like a lifeline, proud, and happy and humble all at once.
I leaned over and kissed Josh on the cheek. “Congratulations Josh. I wish you and Amber every happiness on this earth.”
Josh squeezed my hand and pulled me in for a hug, which I gratefully accepted as tears filled my eyes. “Don't worry Jess. Nothing's going to change. I told you both I was going to marry one of you someday. And now I've married Amber. But we're all still going to be best friends.”
I smiled, but stepped back. “No, Josh. Amber is your best friend now. And things are going to change. But it's alright. They're supposed to. I'll always be here for both of you, but you're a married couple now. I'm not always going to be putting my oar in. But it's alright. We've had a lot of fun as the three amigos haven't we?”
Josh said nothing, just pulled me in for another hug. When I stepped back, I laughed at his solemn expression. “Come on now, what's with the face? Don't you know it's your wedding day?”
Josh broke into a large grin. “I could never forget.”
I glanced at my watch, laughing. “Oh, hey, I'll be right back. Greg said he wanted to meet me in the church garden or something.
“He did?” Josh looked thoughtful. “Well, you better get going then.”
“Yeah. Tell Amber I'll see her at the reception.” Slowly, I made my way through the crowd of guests and well-wishers until I reached the door. Taking one last glance at Josh and Amber side by side in the crowd, wedding rings sparkling on their fingers, I pushed open the door and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Slowly, I made my way around the church to the garden in the back where Amber and her attendants, including me, had taken photos earlier. It was beautiful, complete with a fountain with a bench beside it and plenty of flowers.
Greg stood up from the bench as I walked over. “Hey there,” he smiled easily, tucking his hands in his pockets.
“Hello dear,” I walked over and kissed him. He seemed hesitant and I pulled back in surprise. “Is something wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing.” Greg, stepped back and nervously raked his hands through his hair, then fiddled with his collar. “Nothing happened anyway. But I do have something I need to say to you. And I don't want to do this the wrong way.”
I sank down onto the stone bench, a sick feeling of dread in my gut. Was Greg trying to tell me he didn't want to see me anymore? “Oh.”
Greg stopped is pacing and stared at me. “Did Josh say something?”
“Well you're acting weird. Is something the matter?”
“That depends a lot on what you have to say.” Nervously I fiddled with my dress, then put my hands in my lap, unsure of what to do.
Greg sat down on the bench, just far enough away to be completely beyond my reach, and bit his lip. “What do you think I have to say?”
I glanced away, feeling tears start to sting my eyes. “I think I know. And I don't want to hear it.”
“You don't?” Greg's voice was quiet.
“No. But,” I turned towards him, resolutely deciding I'd have to take it in stride, “I understand. Just say it.”
“Well, I don't have to say it, if you're not ready to hear it right now.”
I stared at him. “Well of course I'm not ready to hear it. Particularly today of all days.”
Greg turned away. “Oh.”
“But it doesn't matter. It has to be done, so you might as well get it over with. I can handle it.”
“It doesn't have to be done. We can stay just as we were. Nothing has to change.”
“Yes it does. If you really feel this way.” A tear snaked it's way down my cheek, and I reached up to wipe it away.
“No, it's alright,” Greg looked miserable as he took my hand, “please don't cry. It's alright, I'll stop.”
I pulled my hands away. “Oh come on, Greg,” I gave a rueful little laugh through my tears. “I get it. You want to break up with me. So just say it and I'll take it quietly but I can't promise I won't cry.”
“I want to break up with y-” Greg looked up astonished. “Oh, no, no, no, no. That's not what I wanted to talk to you about at all.”
“You didn't?” I stared at him, feeling foolish and not quite understanding why.
“No, no, no.” Greg looked so relieved and happy that I was confused.
“Wait, what's going on?” But Greg didn't wait to explain.
Slowly, he slid off the bench onto one knee and grabbed my hands. “Jessica Lynn Reynolds, will you do me the honor of marrying me?”
“Marry you?” I gasped, more surprised then I had been in my entire life. “That's what you wanted to talk to me about? You're proposing to me?”
Greg looked down at his posture. “Looks that way.” He smiled, then released one of my hands to rummage in the inside pocket of his coat. “See?” He pulled out a ring box and then opened it to reveal a beautiful diamond ring. “So,” he took a deep breath, “will you have me?”
“Oh my gosh...” I stared at him, and memories of the past year came back to me. Greg, Chloe, they had both come to feel like a part of me somehow. Greg was my soulmate. I knew that for sure. And suddenly I couldn't believe how lucky I was. My soulmate was asking me to marry him. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”
“YES!” Greg pulled me into him, but in his unsteady position lost his balance, and we both tumbled into the grass.
I laughed then leaned over and kissed him. Greg smiled and pulled the diamond ring out of the box. “I believe this belongs to you.” He slid it on my finger and I nodded, tears in my eyes. “Hey, hey, hey now.” Greg gently stoked my cheek. “What's with the tears?”
“Happy tears.” I studied my diamond ring. “It's beautiful Greg.” I hugged him, then said, “I love you, so much. I hope you can make you as happy as you've made me.”
“I don't think that's going to be a problem.” Greg laughed and kissed me then pushed himself up into a sitting position and held me in his arms.
As I lay with my head against his chest and listened to his heart beat, I felt joy surging through me like an electric current. “Greg, I'm so happy.”
Greg laughed. 'Well, you're going to be even happier in a few seconds.”
I kissed his cheek, my curiosity completely conquered by the overwhelming love I was experiencing. “I could never be happier on this earth then I am right now.”
Greg chuckled. “Thank you dearest. But you might want to hold off on saying that till I give you something.” He stood up and then sat me down on the bench. “Wait right there.” He hurried off but returned quickly with a book in his hands.
I took it, looked at the cover, and gasped. Amber and I as smiling children stared up at me. Above this was the title, “One Friend's Forgiveness”.
“GREG IT'S MY BOOK!!!” I jumped to my feet, astonished. “IT'S PUBLISHED!”
Greg smiled. “I told you I'd take care of it. Check out the publisher.”
“Barker's Books.” I said, almost unbelieving. “Why didn't you tell me you were going to publish it?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise. I hope you like the cover. I thought that's how you'd want it done.”
I kissed him. “It's perfect. Absolutely perfect.”
I opened the book and turned to the dedication. To Amber, for her forgiveness and the inspiration she gave me. To Josh, for his unfailing bravery, friendship, and love. And finally, to Greg and Chloe for being my family when I needed one.
I smiled. I had written the dedication when I had finished one of the many rough drafts of the book, and hoped that one day if it got published I would be able to use it. I was glad Greg had remembered.
“Thank you... so much.” I hugged Greg. “Other than this diamond ring on my finger, this book is the best thing you could have given me.”
“Well, you've already given me one of the best gifts on this earth. A second chance at love. And I'll never forget it.”
“And Amber gave me a second chance on life. And Josh gave Amber a second chance when he proposed.” I smiled. “It's like a domino affect.”
“So,” Greg kissed my cheek. “here's to second chances.”
“No,” I shook my head gently, “here's to love. Because if we keep on loving, there will never be an end to all the second chances.”
Greg nodded. “Here's to love.”