My momma always said ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’”
Forrest Gump’s mother was right. About my life, anyway. It was a box of chocolates — and someone had eaten the creams and left me the nuts.
Nothing was clearer to me that April day when I stepped onto the plane to go home to Parnass Springs, Missouri. Pleasant memories and warm fires didn’t await me. My childhood had been tumultuous, to put it kindly; not the kind you wanted to revisit.
But headed back I was, to settle the estate of Aunt Beth, the woman who had helped raise me, and to further fuel a lie I’d lived practically from the moment I’d left Parnass. I was still cowardly Marlene Queens, in too deep to ever confess the pointless lie (that didn’t even make sense to me now) even to those I loved most. Even to Joe Brewster.
And especially to Joe’s son, Vic.
I had nine days to endure, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but most of life wasn’t.
My immediate problem was Sara, my only child. I’d spoiled her rotten. My daughter was like the lilies of the field — she toiled not, neither did she spin. You could add housekeeping and laundry to that list. Sara was the love of my life, but my daughter had an unhealthy dependence on me, even though she was a mother now.
On top of that, I had been battling diabetes and a host of other stress-related problems, including migraines and just plain exhaustion. And Sara was coming down with something — she’d moped for days, complaining that she didn’t feel well. I needed a break, even though this trip didn’t have peace and quiet stamped all over it.
But Aunt Ingrid had finally given consent to liquidate her and Beth’s jointly owned property, and since I was considered the closest thing Beth had to a daughter, her estate liquidation fell to me. The battle had been going on for over two years, and I for one was thrilled it was coming to an end. The upcoming skirmish would throw me into Vic Brewster’s path, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. Over the years we had remained the best of friends — or so it appeared on the surface, but only I knew the secret behind my lying facade.
I sighed. How many mistakes did God allow one woman?
But I, like a tiger, was in too deep to change my stripes now.
And granted, I’d drifted about as far away from God as one could get without drowning. Funny. I knew that, but I continued to ignore my condition — the way I ignored most things I didn’t want to face.
I’d never let Vic know that Noel Queens, my husband and a gifted thoracic surgeon, had walked out on me when Sara was two. When Vic married, I knew he was lost to me forever. So what if my pride wouldn’t let me admit my own marriage had failed? After all, the esteemed Dr. Queens and I weren’t together long — just long enough to bear a child and discover that the Devil, not the Lord, had spawned our relationship. I hadn’t lied about failure. Maybe I’d deceived Vic and my family about my marriage. A little. But deceit was certainly more acceptable than flat-out lying.
No, Marlene. You lied. You continue to lie. Face it.
Now that I’d be seeing Vic again, could I keep up the subterfuge? Did I want to? He was a widower. The guilt that I carried seemed so needless.
“Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
Oh, I’d found Jesus years ago during one of Joe Brewster’s spring revivals. Vic’s dad brought in one of those fancy Kansas City preachers who wore a white suit and pinkie ring and scared the living fire right out of backslidden church members. Even Beth and Ingrid became agreeable for a few weeks, but then the fire died to trailing smoke, and my aunts returned to more comfortable ways — church Sunday and Wednesday nights, and the rest of the time you just had to put up with them.
I’d found God during my youth, but then misplaced him when I married Noel. My actions of the past years were anything but Christlike.
Forrest said, “Momma said ‘stupid is as stupid does.’ ”
Forrest’s mom was a smart woman.
It was doubtful I’d avoid Vic. He lived in the guest cottage behind his dad’s house across the street from Beth’s and Ingrid’s houses, and I’d be sure to bump into him at the annual Parnass Springs cemetery cleanup. So no use pretending I wouldn’t see him. I simply needed to make sure we didn’t collide head-on.
A dark cloud hung in the west when I disembarked in Columbia, Missouri. I got my luggage, rented a car, and was on the road in twenty minutes. A gust of wind rocked the Grand Am, shaking the small compact the way a dog shakes a dead squirrel. A first-class Missouri spring line squall hit as I headed out of town. Rain and hail inundated my travel.
Why couldn’t the storm have held off until I had made the thirty-minute drive? More to the point, why couldn’t the guy behind the rental desk have filled the gas tank? My eyes locked on the needle hovering between a fourth of a tank and empty — maybe I had a malfunctioning gauge?
I couldn’t hear squat above the storm’s fury and hail pinging the roof. The rental company had better have good insurance, because the smooth candy-apple red surface on their shiny car looked like bubble wrap.
A mile from Parnass Springs, a tire blew. I veered the car onto the shoulder and stared at the driving rain. Malfunctioning gas gauges, blowouts. Great start, Marlene. And you chose not to take the rental insurance.
All right, Lord. This was supposed to be a freeing trip. Guilt flooded me. Who was I to talk to God like we were best buddies? I always seemed to find him when I needed something. Sara needed me, and here I had run from responsibility like a scared rabbit.
Les Swank’s image popped in my mind. I’d raced to the senior doctor at the Chicago Shriner’s Hospital when I almost blacked out last week. He knew me from my job there, in the cardiac care unit.
He’d eyed me over his bifocals. “What seems to be the problem?”
“My sugar’s 376.”
He shook his head. “Marlene. And you’re a nurse.”
“I know. I’ll watch my diet. I’ll ignore carbs — live on salads and protein.”
“And you’ll add a second Glyburide at night, you’ll exercise more, and you’ll stop by my office in the morning for a full checkup.”
“Hardhead.” He took the prescription pad I offered and began to write.
I spoke his mind before he could. “I need my rest. I’m not a spring chicken anymore.”
“You’re what? Forty-three? That’s young, and you’ve still got what it takes to generate any man’s interest. It’s your health that’s starting to turn ugly. When are you going to slow down?”
“Slow what?” The foreign term threw me.
He tore off the prescription and handed it over. “You promised to slow down years ago, get more exercise, and eat right.”
“I will. Starting now. I’m going to Parnass Springs for a week — nine days, if you count the weekend.”
“Good choice. It should be lovely this time of year.”
Yeah, lovely. I’m sure I’d agree if it weren’t for the haunting memories of matters that had never been settled.
Why, oh why, didn’t I just stay home?
Thunder cracked. The wind whipped and howled while I dragged the doughnut-sized spare tire out of the trunk, breaking a nail in the process. The tire hit the pavement.
Wringing my smarting finger, I watched rubber bounce wiggly niggly across the asphalt. Motorists slammed on brakes. Tires screeched on wet pavement. The tire bounced mid-treetop level and landed in a ditch on the opposite side of the highway.
I should have waited in the car until the rain slacked, but by now, there wasn’t a dry thread on me. A half hour later, I’d fixed the flat.
I was drenched to the bone, and rain had plastered my hair against my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror and saw one soggy, darkened strand stuck to my forehead. Water rolled down the bridge of my nose in a nasty drip. I had brown eyes — liquid brown eyes, I’d been told. They were very liquid at the moment.
Waiting to pull back onto the highway, I noticed a line of motorcyclists. I counted twenty-one ahead of me. The riders and passengers were all decked out in leather jackets and rain gear. “Hell’s Angels” blazoned across the backs of their jackets. I backed off the gas and followed, wanting to pass but leery in the driving rain. The big bikes hummed like a swarm of hornets as rubber met wet pavement. Ah, the good old days. Vic and a neighbor had taught me to ride many years ago.
I hit the brake when a cloudburst consumed the car. The trip was starting off great. Very relaxing. My stress level had peaked somewhere between high and you gotta be kidding.
I reached to flip the wipers to high and my hand hit the horn. Beep! Then beeeeeep! I smacked the center of the leathercovered steering wheel trying to make it stop. The thing was stuck! I cranked down the window and stuck my head out, waving my arms to communicate that the horn was stuck. A female driver turned and motioned me past. I couldn’t pass. I couldn’t see!
I followed the twenty-one, none-too-happy Hell’s Angels, horn blaring at decibel levels that even the dead would have found objectionable. Lucky me. I got some lethal looks as I rolled into town on a wing and a prayer, just before dusk, soaked and chilled to the bone.
The day couldn’t get any worse — How silly of me. Of course it could. The town’s one gas station could be closed.
The station came into sight, and I sat up straight, hoping against hope — then almost swallowed my tongue. Oh, it could get much worse.
The gas station was open. But who was standing at the gas pump, filling an older-model pickup and looking better than any man his age should look? None other than Vic Brewster, Mr. Clark Kent and Indiana Jones rolled into one, wearing a pair of brown cords and a blue shirt.
This was too coincidental. Too romance novelish. Too stupid to bear.
My first instinct was to hide, to slump down behind the wheel and ease through the pump section with only my hands visible on the steering wheel. It’d look weird, true, but it would save me from a heap of embarrassment.
Ducking it was.
I hunched, watching for pump clearance from the corner of my left eye, the one with twenty-forty vision. I’d shoot right on through, zip onto the highway, and then pull over to the shoulder a safe distance away. When good ole Vic finished fueling and left, I’d go back.
Vic Brewster. The last man I wanted to bump into looking like flotsam dredged up from the bottom of the lake. A glance in my rearview mirror showed it was worse than I thought. Not only was I was drenched to the skin, hair hanging in wet coils, but mascara ran in black streaks down my cheeks, and every trace of makeup had vanished.
I eased up on the gas pedal, my rented car creeping past the tall, familiar figure, praying he wouldn’t notice me. The convenience store clerk gawked from the window at the seemingly driverless car, but desperate times called for desperate measures. The car cleared the last pump, and I sighed. I’d made it. Now all I had to do was sit up enough to spot any oncoming traffic before I pulled —
My thoughts shattered at the sound.
Bolting upright, I focused down the hood of the car at a sight I didn’t care to see again if I lived to be a hundred. I’d hit a Coke display — maybe fifty 12-can cases suddenly spewed a sticky, sweet soda geyser. My foot slipped and hit the gas. The display emitted an ear-piercing screech, scraping across the cement. My hands gripped the steering wheel so hard, my knuckles turned white. I couldn’t see anything for the soda washing my wipers. Stop and I’d die of humiliation; continue and I’d push the entire foaming display out onto the highway, possibly cause a wreck, hurt someone, or kill myself.
Or I could slam on the brakes, revealing myself to Vic and the curious convenience store clerk. Hmm. Die of humiliation or cause an accident?
Accident didn’t sound too bad.
The driver’s side door flew open, my options evaporating when I met a pair of startled, but oh-so-familiar dark eyes. Recognition dawned on those rugged features.
Dear Father, open this floor and let this car swallow me.
I did the only self-respecting thing a woman could do in such circumstances. I pretended to faint.