From Letters, Lovers, & Lies

(A portion of the Thanksgiving scene.)

I had high hopes for this Thanksgiving Day. The weather was perfect: not too hot, not too cold. Today would be good in other ways, too. Communication with Jake had improved greatly, easing the tension that had been smothering our home and our hearts for quite some time. All it took, really, had been for me to show a slight interest in his concerns and theories surrounding the death, the funeral, and now the threatening letters, and put aside my contentious denial. His mystery was far from solved, but at least we were finding ways to cope with the unknown, now that we could move forward together.

In my mind, however, one nagging issue stood unresolved: my best friend Laura and the time she’d spent at our house, fantasizing about being the woman in Jake’s life. I’d thought I’d said all I needed to say on that afternoon I’d stormed over to her apartment and let off enough steam to propel an old-fashioned train up a steep hill, but the added information of her ‘sleepover’ left me with a few more questions. In an attempt to both solve this issue and diffuse the situation, I’d invited Laura to join Jake and me for Thanksgiving dinner. While Jake was doing some last minute shopping, all issues would be resolved.

Laura arrived with pies—pumpkin and cherry—a can of whipped cream, and an awkward sense of hesitation. After a few sketchy moments of staring at each other, we hugged, opening a path to rational conciliation. Or so I’d hoped. I offered her a glass of wine while we finished cooking the feast, and waited for Jake to return.

We sat in the backyard while the turkey roasted in the covered grill saturating the air with an aroma too delicious for words. Wendell thought so, too. He kept a close watch. Malcolm wanted nothing to do with the cooking of the bird.

Laura still seemed apprehensive, and I knew I couldn’t put off the difficult conversation any longer. Jake would return soon. “Laura, you know you’re my best friend, right?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

“Then you know I must be honest with you.”

She nodded and swallowed, preparing. “Yes. And I will be honest with you.”

“Good. Because, as I said before, I felt like you were making a move on Jake when I was out of town. Am I way off base?”

Tears welled in her eyes. Tears of what? Sadness? Loss? Guilt?

“Oh, Lindsey,” she finally said. “Jake never did anything wrong. In fact, he was clueless—kind of odd for a guy who obsesses over figuring things out. In September you’d told me about the problems you two were having, and it seemed like you were going to dump him over all this ‘Anthony’ stuff. You knew I liked Jake. I liked him long before you did. Remember? You were dating Emmett and Martin back then.

We had a discussion, and you told me to ‘go for it’ with Jake.” Laura sighed and looked down. “But even then, he had no interest in me. That night in October, when he arrived home a couple days early after seeing you in Austin, he was beside himself, thinking you didn’t love him anymore and that you thought he was a lunatic. I just wanted to comfort him. I guess I also wanted to comfort myself.”

She looked up again, meeting my eyes. “He paid no attention to me. It was really late, so I left him alone in the office with his laptop, and I fell asleep on your couch. Yes, Jake did ask me to come over here originally, but the pets were the reason he asked for my help. Jake is completely innocent.”

I’d thought as much, but it was a huge relief to hear it said out loud. My heart ached for Laura, though. Her expression was so sad.

“As for me?” she said quietly. “Well, I’m guilty of liking Jake and wishing I had someone like him in my life. For a few days, I let myself believe he was available, but nothing happened. Nothing. And I’m truly sorry. I’ll leave if you want me to.”

I didn’t want her to leave. She’d been like family to me for several years, ever since she’d taken the exceptional education teaching position at school. I wanted our relationship as best friends to continue, so I pulled her into another hug, and we wiped away our tears.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “You can help me make the salad, and I’ll mash the potatoes. Jake should be back any minute.” He was taking forever. “How long can it take to buy butter and rolls?”

The table was set with fall placemats depicting deciduous trees with red, yellow, and orange leaves, and a centerpiece of small Aspen branches, pinecones, tiny decorative birds, set among fall leaves. Dark tan, bayberry-scented candles added to the festive décor. Jake’s favorite CD played in the background, and the smells coming from the kitchen were to die for. All we needed was Jake.

And then, the door opened. Jake stumbled in, his face dripping with blood. His mouth and eyes were swollen and turning darker with each passing second.

“Oh, my God!” I screamed.

After four hours in the Emergency Room, twelve stitches and a bunch of butterfly bandages, Jake and I returned to the house where Laura had waited with Wendell and Malcolm. We attempted to resume our Thanksgiving festivities but with much modification. Jake’s dinner consisted of mashed potatoes, and though Laura and I were physically able to eat everything, we didn’t have an appetite for much of anything. So we just ate pie.

Jake was more talkative now that he’d been patched up and had the benefit of some pain medication and a little wine. He told us Sean had attacked him, gone ballistic after being accused of crimes against Anthony and against us.

“I remember the threat he made just before I blacked out. He said, ‘It’s so easy for you to kick a man when he’s down. Well, it’s your turn now, Jake.’ And I thought about those words as I drove home. But you know what? I have no idea what he was talking about.”

I stared at him, knowing I’d heard those words before. Where? A fable floated to the surface of my thinking. “The Dogs and the Fox,” I declared.

Both Jake and Laura turned toward me, confused. “What?”

It’s easy to kick a man when he’s down is the moral to that fable.”

Laura lifted one sardonic eyebrow. “Uh, huh. I can see you weren’t kidding about switching your interests from fairy tales to fables.”

Smiling, yet feeling so sorry for Jake’s pain, I said, “I would never kid about something like that. But seriously, Jake, it seems to me that tonight Sean proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s capable of violence. He is definitely guilty of assaulting you. Shouldn’t we call the police?”

“Now look who’s sounding like a detective,” Jake said slowly, trying to form a smile of his own. He grimaced, and his hand went to his lips. “Ow! Maybe we should wait.”

“Wait? For what? This is the second time, Jake. Last June, when you found me in the Zuni Mountains, you arrived with a rather battered face after Shawna had slugged you. That’s when she blamed you, saying you were the reason Anthony had left her.”

“Yeah, but—”

Our discussion was interrupted by a knock at the door. Who would stop by this late on Thanksgiving? We rarely received unexpected visitors here at the house. I thought that it might be a remorseful Sean with an apology … or round three.

Laura told us to relax and stay put. She’d answer the door. Within seconds, she stood in the kitchen doorway, shrugging and staring at us with saucer-wide eyes. A tall, stocky policeman towered over her from behind.

“Jake Lee?” He spoke without emotion, but we could see the shock in his eyes when he got a look at Jake. “I just answered a call. A complaint from …” He glanced down at his notes then looked up again, regarding Jake’s face skeptically. “Sean Hepburn. He said you have been harassing him, threatening him on the phone and at his residence.”

I could tell Jake was still thinking, his response likely slowed by his meds, so I jumped in. “Officer, as you can see, Jake is the one who should be filing a complaint. He was viciously attacked by this … this Sean Hepburn.” I turned to Jake. “Hepburn? Since when?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I heard the name for the first time today.”

The officer glanced back and forth several times, looking from Jake to me to Wendell and even to Malcolm. He must have thought Laura was the only normal part of this picture because he didn’t look in her direction.

“I just came by to let you know about the complaint and ask you to stay away from Mr. Hepburn, otherwise he’s requested a restraining order on you.” He scratched his head and frowned. “Hey, if you want to file a counter complaint, you can. I strongly suggest we do that just in case there is any further violence.”

Jake said he wasn’t interested in pressing charges, but he explained his side of the story, the counter complaint was written, and a photo of Jake’s injuries was taken for the record. The officer ate two pieces of cherry pie before he left, and Laura departed shortly after that.

We were exhausted. I put away the food, but otherwise left the kitchen in a Thanksgiving mess before taking Jake’s hand and leading him upstairs to our bedroom. He noticed right away that the room had been set up for romance, and I sensed his regret, though he didn’t say anything. The bed was turned down, candles ready to be lit, and a bottle of Merlot waited to be opened. Plans change, though, and that was okay. We showered together, and I helped Jake wash his hair, tilting his head to keep his new sutures dry. We climbed into bed afterward and snuggled between the fresh, fragrant sheets. I went to turn off the lights, and Jake reached over to light the candles.

“Jake, the candles will keep.”

“That may be true, but I won’t.” His battered face attempted a crooked smile.

I wondered how he could possibly feel like making love after what he’d been through. Just hearing about Jake’s encounter with Sean, then seeing his injuries and the pain … the whole situation had dampened my desire.

“Are you sure about this, Jake?”

He was sure. Tonight our lovemaking would be sweet and gentle, if not a little challenging. We were both careful, not wanting to disturb any of his physical wounds, and I took the lead. I insisted on that after I realized even the slightest movement of his head caused him pain and dizziness. In fact, I not only took the lead, I got on top and ordered him not to move …

*****

(The scene in which the first shocking letter arrives.)

Jake. Jake and Wendell and Malcolm! The three most precious figures in my life, and I hadn’t even thought of them in almost three days. How was that possible? Poor Jake. I’d been so selfish—again. I hadn’t even called him. Being busy was no excuse.

Where was my phone? I checked my purse, my pockets, my carry-on bag, the drawers in the desk, everywhere. When was the last time I’d used it? Finally, I pulled open the drawer of the nightstand by the bed and there it was. Strange, I didn’t remember putting it there and wondered briefly if maybe housekeeping had done that for me. I also didn’t remember turning it off.

I powered it up and the screen calmly informed me that Jake had called six times on Wednesday, three times on Thursday, and once yesterday, but there had been no call today. Had he given up on me? The disappointment in myself weighed heavy, and a substantial dose of guilt slithered through me—like the rattlesnakes in one of my kindergarten desert songs.

An envelope slid under the door. Curious, the sight of it distracted me from beating myself up, and delayed the overdue call to Jake. It couldn’t be a bill because I wasn’t paying for the room. It had to be a note, and I could only hope it was a message from Jake. Bouncing to the door and trying not to trip on the oversized robe, I stooped to retrieve the envelope.

With excited anticipation, I ripped it open, stared at the note within, then shook my head with confusion. The room swayed, moving in muddled slow motion, and I think I screamed, though I heard no sound. I fell to my knees by the door, shocked, and rocking in a numbing vacuum.

When I’d regained an inkling of awareness, I found myself on the sofa with Lad’s comforting, strong arms around me. The note had been spread open on the coffee table, and I noticed the edge was stained with blood. A stinging sensation brought my fragile attention to the napkin wrapped around my finger and the pressure Lad was applying.

“Just a paper cut. You’ll be fine.”

My eyes were drawn back to the note. I stared at the words and my body trembled.

*****