Disclaimer: Sigh.The characters used within...yadayada... MMPR
Note: My first songfic! For once this should be SHORT; I know, I know, it's me, but I'll try, okay? This idea comes to you courtesy of my idiot Muse, who REALLY should know better than give me new ideas when I'm in the middle of not one, but THREE stories screaming to be finished. The silly critter was inspired by an email conversation with a fellow author; hope y'all like. Rating is PG-13 edging to R in a few places, but...judge for yourselves. Comments are welcome, as always. DB, Summer 2001/Fall 2002.
"If I could turn back time
If I could find a way
I'd take back those words
That hurt you and you'd stay..."
I saw him today.
He drove that red-and-black Bronco (same model, newer version) of his into the supermarket's parking lot and met a girlwell, woman now; we all left the boy/girl stage behind us a couple of years agoI used to know, too. I even thought we were friends. At the time, she was with someone else, but I guess people change. I sure as hell have, but only because I had to. The choice wasn't entirely mine. Well, actually it was, but... never mind. Back to what I saw. He went up to her, tipped up her chin and kissed her full on the mouthand it wasn't just a quick peck, either. Which she returned very enthusiastically, I could see that even from several dozen yards away. Not that I blame herquite the contrary, in fact. I'd have kissed him back the same way, if not more so. The way the two greeted each other spoke of affection, of love even... all the things that once could have been mine, if I'd had the sense God gives a goldfish to hold on to them.
Blast it, why did I have to come back to Angel Grove at all? I didn't want to move here in the first place back when I was sixteen, and if it hadn't been for Aunt Louisa leaving me a small legacy in her Will, I certainly never would've come back. Not after the way he looked at me that day.
Well... he had reason.
And if I didn't need the money, what little there is, so much to start over, nothing and nobody would've made me return. But being a single mother, even $7,000 can go a long way if you have no marketable skills except... but no. That was something I swore I'd never do, and I got out before I had no other choice left.
But let me start at the beginning. Hello, my name is Emily, and I'm the greatest idiot that ever lived. How's that for an introduction? True, though.
I'm a blue-eyed blonde, and I really thought I didn't fit the usual cliché. You know, ditzy, mush-for-brains, man-crazy? Not me! Well, shows you what I know. The mush-for-brains part certainly is right.
Anyway, Mom and I moved to Angel Grove while I was still in High School, to live with said Aunt Louisa. I didn't know anybody and since I had more attitude than good sense, I didn't try to make friends with any 'good' kids, but after a period of sort of lurking in the shadows fell in with Eddie and his biker crowd. Let's put one thing straight right away, we're not talking Hell's Angels here or anything of that sort, but we were a pretty wild bunch nonetheless. Like, cruising around town all day on our bikes instead of doing schoolwork and stuff, and boy, was it fun! Even if we didn't ride Harleys.
Then, one day after we'd decided to trash Ernie's newly-opened beach club on a lark, I met him.
Easily one of the best-looking guys it's ever been my pleasure to scope out, and an all-around decent guy. Funny, sensitive, intelligent... and he really seemed to care. He was so earnest when he approached me in the Juice Bar! I didn't really want to talk to him, but he had this wonderful look in his eyes (a girl could drown in that darkness... mmm... ahem. Sorry.) ... anyway, next thing I know, despite my reluctance we were taking a walk on the beach, he kind of saved me from a monster, and that's the kind of thing to turn any girl's head, wouldn't you say? Well, it worked for me, anyway. So, I decided why the heck not and tried to be good for a change. I even got Eddie to apologize to Ernie, and I took a job at the Juice Bar.
All to impress Jason.
I'd seen the way he looked at me, and was... flattered. Thrilled, even. I mean, when had a guy ever cared about what I did, what I was doing with my life? None before him, for sure. And his friends accepted me, tooat first mostly for his sake, I think, but heyI wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I mean, let's be honest here, they're exactly the kind of people I'd always wanted to hang out with. Not the total in-crowd, but popular enough, good-looking, fun to be with... the works. The kind of people you needn't be ashamed to bring home. Only, my home wasn't the place you brought decent folks to. Would you want to admit to your new friends that your aunt was a bingo addict in addition to being a slob and your mother worked as an Exotic Dancer?
Exotic Dancer, my ass. A stripper, that's what she was. And I'm pretty sure (although I never went and asked her right out; I didn't want to know) that at least part of her incomewhat little there was of it; Mom wasn't a very good stripper, nor particularly beautiful; just someone who took her clothes off in public for a livingcame from... let's say, 'private entertaining'. As for my father, he'd split before he ever got around to marrying Mom. Not that I wanted the jerk around, anyway.
But that's beside the point. Where was I? Oh yes, impressing Jason.
It worked, too. He was so delighted over me seeing the error of my ways that he did everything he could to impress me in turn. Even to the point of taking part in a fashion show. I'm sure that the charity aspect helped, but... I just know he did it for me. I didn't need Tanya or Kat to tell me, but it was still nice to have confirmation. So, we all got dressed up, and watched.
The clothes were funky but nothing I'd ever want to be seen in public in, to tell the truth. Rocky was his usual slightly goofy self, waving to us, but I forgot everything and everybody when I recognized Jason. He'd wanted to surprise me, and boy, did he ever! He looked good enough to eat, sauntering down that catwalk in tight pants and a silver shirt. I preferred him in black, actually; he looked so deliciously dark and just a little dangerous, especially with all those gorgeous muscles. Did I say good enough to eat? Hah. Wanting to nibble at him from head to toe, then go back for seconds and thirds was more like it. I got hor-, uh, tingly! Yeah, tingly is good! all over every time I looked at him. And when he smiled at methat sweet, slightly bashful and yet rakish smile that's uniquely hismy legs turned into overcooked spaghetti.
Anyway, I never really figured out what happened, but after a time of exchanging glances and stuffyou know how that goeshe was sick for a few days or something, and then he asked me out.
"Would you like to go out for a movie tonight?"
"With your friends?" I'd asked, hoping with all my might that he'd say no for once.
He did. He actually blushed, which was totally adorable, but took my hand in his and squeezed it meaningfully. "Um, no. I thought it would be nice if it were just the two of us. You and me." He winked. "I'll even let you choose the movie."
How could I say no to that? An honest-to-goodness date with one of the cutest guys in town? I may be blonde, but I'm not totally stupid. At least, I wasn't then. So of course I said yes, with appropriate girlish hesitancy, and had one of the nicest, most normal evenings I can remember. We saw a Sandra Bullock comedy, shared popcorn, he slipped an arm around my shoulders in the dark... and when we said goodnight, he kissed me. Not aggressively, I could have stopped him at any moment, but I didn't want him to, and when he finally did... there are shooting stars in California, aren't there? Because I sure saw a few.
From then on, we were officially a couple. You know, PDA and everything. I'd thought he'd be too macho to hold hands and stuff, but no. Not Jason. He was too honest about his feelings to hide them. Even his friends seemed happy for usfor him. As for me, I felt as if I'd never had a boyfriend before, as if he was the first guy ever to catch my fancy.
Don't I wish. I told you, Eddie and friends were a wild bunch. Me included. We not only rode the bikes and harassed innocent people for funthank God it never went further than that; we were wild, but not criminalbut we also used to frequent deserted spots on the coast, a ways out of town. Especially in the summer, and at night. And when we met there, anything went.
What 'anything' meant, you want to know? What do you think? Beer, some of the milder drugs like pot, lots of bragging and crazy planning ... and sex. I slept with Eddie soon after I started hanging out with him. It was the cool thing to do, you see? It made me his chick. And I was proud of it, too. I mean, it was fun, sort of, and I enjoyed doing it with him, even behind a dune with the others partying only a few feet away. There was a thrill to it that even went beyond the thrill of doing it at all.
But back to Jason. We started dating, and for a while everything was roses. I mean, he was such a gentleman... kissing me with an almost-reverence that made me all teary-eyed inside. Never groping me or pressuring me into anything I might not want to do, always respectful of me.
I think in retrospect that was the thing that got to me most. His respect. Nobodyand I mean NOBODYhad ever respected me before. Like never, ever. Not my Mom, not what little family I had, certainly not Eddie and his gang. But Jason did. No questions asked.
It's just the way he is, and because he always was only being himself, I found myself really falling in love with him.
Okay, okay, I admit it, at first I went out with him because he was a hunk, because being his girlfriend suddenly made me the envy of half the school, because he never made me pay for my own drinks or movie tickets or whatnot. So I'm materialistic. Given my background, it was understandable, I thought. Not very nice, maybe, nor totally excusable, but... oh well.
But the better I got to know him, the more I wanted to be the kind of girl he thought I was. The kind I wanted to befor him, anyway. And believe me, I tried. I cleaned up my act, spent mornings at school, and to my everlasting surprise, actually graduated. Afternoons were spent working for Ernie, watching Jason and his friends as they hung out at the beach club, or the Juice Bar... half the time drooling over my gorgeous boyfriend when he showed off his body for me.
I know he was. I mean, there have to be more comfortable clothes to wear than loose, low-cut muscle shirts, or why would he suddenly start showing up in biker shorts rather than the gym variety? Those buns in tight black spandex... yay mama! And when he took his shirt off altogether, looking all sweaty and totally yummy... I wanted to jump his bones so bad, it hurt.
So, in due time, I seduced him. Make no mistake, I arranged things so that Jason believed it was his idea, going all virginal on him even though I'd been around the block more than a few times. And when it finally happened, it was the way it should be for every girl. Or boy, for that matter.
Jason had chosen a weekend when his folks were out of town. He took me to dinner at a somewhat fancier place than usual, we went dancing... and when we made it to his house at last, he was so sweet, so romantic ... I'm talking candlelight here, and soft music, and a scented bath... a massage... the whole nine yards. He even apologized for any clumsiness, telling me with another totally adorable blush that it was his first time. What could I do but pretend it was my first time as well? I regretted lying to him, but I wanted him too much to care.
"Please, sweetheart, tell me if I'm doing something wrong, or if I hurt you?" he asked, nibbling down my throat. His hands meanwhile were busy doing incredible stuff to my back and other, more interesting body parts. I know I moaned.
"I've never done this before," he confessed, gently pushing my blouse off, then unhooking my bra. "Oh man, awesome!"
I shivered as he looked at me, half-nude. There was so much hunger in his eyes, but also tenderness, hesitancy... what could I do but guide his mouth to my chest? He got the hint and started to lick and suckle. With my last coherent thought, I remembered to reassure him.
"You couldn't hurt me, Jason. Anything you want to do is fine with me."
Was it ever.
It was perfect. There's no other word for it. And it was all because of Jason, in the way he treated me, in how he cared about what I felt, thought, did.
Afterwards, when he held me and actually thanked me for letting him make love to me, all I could think of was, if he was that good in the sack his first time, he was going to be absolute dynamite with practice! (And I was right about that, too!)
Don't worry, I'm not going into any more details. Let's just say that for a while, I couldn't have been happier. Which was a fairly new sensation for me in and of itself; not something I was used to at all. Jason seemed happy, tooat least he told me he was. Frequently. Usually every time we were together. Which was more and more often as time went by and the summer sped past. He was preparing to go to college, I was looking into getting a better job... I mean, Ernie is a great guy, but he can't pay all that much, I had neither the money nor the grades for college, so a job it was. I didn't mind, not really. After all, I had Jason.
So of course something had to happen to spoil it. Both for me, and for Jason.
I'd lost contact with Eddie over the summer, mainly because I was so much involved with Jason and his friends. Eddie grumbled a little about it, but as he was basically a decent guy, just not very dependable or respectable, he let me play at being good. Only, one night right at the beginning of October, he came to me, looking rather the worse for wear. Like, a black eye, torn clothes, pretty messed up... in a word, terrible.
He told me some sob story about how he'd challenged another guy to a race or something with their bikes. A real Harley against his slightly-worse-for-wear Yamaha. Yeah, right. How stupid can you get?!? He thought it would be good fun; what he hadn't counted on was that the other guy belonged to a real gang. Chains, tattoos, leather, studs, the whole bit. Needless to say, Eddie lost the race. When he was asked not very kindly to fork over the money wagered, he had to admit that he didn't have $50 to his name, much less the $500 he was supposed to pay. He got a short but effective lesson in how the real tough guys dealt with that kind of situation.
Eddie was lucky he didn't break anything or needed stitches.
Anyway, he came to me. For old times' sake, I'd have helped himafter all, he and his friends had been the only people who were there for me at all, before Jasonbut my bank balance was exactly $203.76. Way short of what Eddie needed. I told him soregretfully, yes, but in no uncertain terms.
Then he actually had the nerve to ask me if I wouldn't ask Jason for the money.
While I knew that Jason could afford ithe'd worked all summer in construction and made good wagesand probably would have done me the favour, I was NOT going to ask him for a loan. If it had been for myself, a personal emergency... well, maybe, but for my ex-boyfriend? The guy who was irresponsible enough to make such a bet, knowing very well he couldn't pay up if he lost? No way, nohow.
"But Em, the guy will kill me," he whined. "Look at what he did to me already!" The cut over his left eyebrow bled sluggishly, and I fetched him a towel. I certainly didn't want him to bleed all over Aunt Louisa's scruffy couch.
"You should have realized something like that might happen when you accepted the bet," I replied, trying to sound stern. "It's your own fault." Impatiently, I bandaged him up. He obviously had no idea what to do, and he had been a friend. It was a small repayment I felt I owed him.
"Yes, it is, and I promise I'll never do it again, but I really need the money!"
"Eddie, I'd give it to you if I could, but I don't HAVE $500, and that's that!"
I really thought it was. Only, I should have remembered the way Eddie operates. He grew quiet for a bit, then started to go on about how sorry he was to put me on the spot like this and stuff. Which, I admit, made me feel just a little mushy. Nostalgia, I'm sure. And of course, the fink had only been waiting for that.
Next, Eddie sent me on the mother of all guilt trips. How he'd been the firstand at the time the only oneto bother about me. How he and his friends had stood by me. What good times we'd had. And how he hadn't protested at all when I'd practically dumped him for Jason, letting me go my merry way because even he could see that Jason was the much better catch. All because he cared about me, natch.
The damn thing is, he was right.
I knew he was pushing all my buttons, I knew he did it only to get his way, and yet I couldn't help myself. Don't ask me how, even after all this time I can't really figure out how it happened. How he managed it. How I could be so bloody STUPID to let him persuade me to, uh, 'borrow' the money from Ernie.
Don't look at me like that. Of course I wasn't going to ask for the money. Ernie would've wanted to know why, what, how and whatnot, and I had no answer to give him. So, the plan was that Eddie would meet me Friday night after closing time at the Youth Center, and I'd take the sum from the cash register, and... well, I'm sure you get the idea. We even had figured out a way for me to look like a victimEd would rough me up a little, make it look like a mugging... and a little discomfort would be worth it to get him out of my hair for good. I knew it was wrong, I had a really bad feeling about the whole thing, and still I agreed to do it. Stupid me.
And whether you believe it or not, I had every intention of paying Ernie back somehow. Starting with my $203.76.
How goes that quote again? 'The best-laid plans of mice and men...'
What I hadn't reckoned with was, that when I called Jason after a tense week during which I barely managed to hide my growing nervousness (due, no doubt, to my nagging conscience) that I'd have to work late at the Youth Center on Friday and close the place up, the dear chivalrous fool would take it in his head to pick me up so I would get home safely.
And knowing Jason, I really ought to have known.
He walked in on usEddie and me, that isright when I counted out the money for him. On the Youth Center's bar. With the cash register still wide open.
Jason just... froze. There's no other word for it. He stopped dead in his tracks, looked at me, at the bunch of dollar bills, at me, at Eddie, the money, me, the cash register... and the color just bled out of his face, leaving his eyes two darkly-burning coals on a chalk-white plain.
I told you he's intelligent, right? Well, it didn't take a genius like Jason's friend Billy, or that cute kid, whatshisname, Justin, to figure out what was going on. Jason certainly drew the right conclusions straight away. Eddie making a grab for the cash and running away like a bat out of hell was another surefire clue. But to this day I'm convinced that I gave everything away there and then just by looking as guilty as I felt at that very moment. Not so much for borrowing the moneyokay, stealing the money! Satisfied now?but for putting that look of disappointment in his eyes.
I wanted to die.
Jason let Eddie go with hardly a glance, all his attention fixed on me. Now, in the normal course of things, I loved that. However, as things stood... I squirmed. Blushed. Fidgeted. In other words, I might as well have held up a big flashing neon sign, with "CULPRIT!" written on it in bold letters.
"J-jason," I stammered. "I can explain..."
"I'm sure you could," he interrupted. God, his voice had never sounded so cold... or so dead.
"Please, it's not what it looks like..."
He wouldn't let me finish. "Oh no? You mean, you didn't open the cash drawer so that this loser, your ex, could help himself? Are you seriously trying to tell me that you weren't stealing from Ernie? One of the best people ever, anywhere? A person who has shown you nothing but kindness? Someone who trusted you?"
He was right, of course. I couldn't deny a single word. Even if they hit me like sledgehammer blows. Especially coming from himthe guy I'd fallen in love with somewhere along the line. And whose good opinion of me meant more to me than... well, just about anything. So, I looked away. I could feel the tell-tale blush fade from my cheeks, but I'm sure my sudden pallor proclaimed my guilt just as loudly. I so wanted to run to him, throw myself against that gorgeous chest and sob out my misery, but one peek into his eyes showed me that I'd thrown away that right.
So, I tried to salvage what I couldby being honest, at last.
"I can't," I whispered. "I wish I could, but I can't."
I heard him exhaleslowly, painfully. In my mind's eye, I could even picture the shudder passing over his solid frame. Tears started to gather behind my lids, a few already spilling over, but I knew that such a sign of remorseand I was sorry, more than I could saywould be too little, too late.
I'd blown it, big time.
He moved behind the counter and took the key to the register out of my cold, numbed hands. "Go home, Emily," he told me tiredly. The weariness in his voice was almost more than I could bear. "You've done more than enough here."
"Don't," he interrupted me once moresomething he never did. Normally, that is. But this was hardly a normal situation. He'd just caught his girlfriend ripping off a man he considered all but family. I can't even begin to understand how that must have made him feel inside. He probably hurt just as much as I did at that moment, if for totally different reasons. "Just goand if I were you, I wouldn't come back for a while. I doubt Ernie will want to see you anytime soonnot after what you've just done."
It was the death blow for our relationship. I knew it, and yet I had to try, had to make one last attempt...
I dared touch him. Just a hand on his arm, but even with just my fingertips brushing his skin, I could feel him tense. He might as well have shoved me right across the room. I took my hand away again.
"W-what about you?" I murmured, with a last vestige of hope. "Will you want to see me... in a few days, maybe?"
Jason just looked at me. I could read so much in his eyesthose wonderful, midnight-dark pools that used to look at me with so much warmth, passion, tenderness. Now they were bleak, shuttered, closing me out. Oh, there were still some emotions therejust not ones I'd ever wanted to see. Disappointment. Betrayal. Hurt. And most damaging of all, contempt.
I'd known that for Jason, loyalty and trust were important. In fact, they came right next to godliness and cleanliness, as my foolish Aunt Louisa was so fond of saying. And for a while, I'd thought I'd adopted his values as wellwanted to be worthy of what he was. But by letting Eddie talk me into this madness, I'd managed to lose everythingmy sense of right and wrong, what little character I'd managed to build, his respect... and most of all, Jason himself.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not laying this whole mess at Eddie's feet alone even though he played a major part in it. If it hadn't been for him... but I made my own choices, and boy, were they ever the wrong ones.
I'd never realized how final two simple letters could sound. I swallowed, turned and shuffled to the exit, slower than an octogenarian with two bad hips, arthritic knees and a walker, but I couldn't help hopingpraying!that he'd call me back at the last instant. Or come after me.
Yeah, right. How foolish could I be?
Of course he never did.
Jason let me walk out of the juice bar and ultimately his life with not a single glance. And I would have knowntrust me, I always was aware when he looked at me. That night, he didn't.
Once outside, I couldn't hold back my tears any longer. I felt the hot, salty wetness spill over, blinding me, run down my cheeks... so I started to run, too. Across the parking lot, turning right, down the sidewalk... I was lucky that it was too late for many people to be still about, or I'd surely have bowled a lot of them over in my mad dash to I didn't know where. Just... away.
"If I could reach the stars
I'd give them all to you
Then you'd love me, love me
Like you used to do.
If I could turn back time..."
Four blocks down, Eddie was waiting on his bike. He picked me up, and while I made a token protestI really didn't want to deal with him anymore, right now or everhe somehow managed to get me on behind him. Then, he drove towards the beach. Out of habit, I clung to his back, crying into his leather jacket. I didn't care. Nor did I care that that other guy was waiting for us at the dunes. It only made me cry harder. Eddie paid him off, got a blow to the stomach for good measure and then the nightmare was finally over.
Well, Eddie's nightmare, anyway.
I was still caught squarely in mine, and was still bawling my eyes out when the rest of the gang showed up. Believe it or not, these idiots started to party now that their boss was off the hook. They broke out the booze, the drugs... and within half an hour it was as if no threat, no danger had ever existed.
At one point, somebody pressed a beer into my hand, and I gulped it down without thinking. Then another, and another. Bad idea. You see, Jason doesn't drinkand not only because at nineteen, he's not yet allowed to drink by law in California, but because his value system wouldn't let him. Something to do with all the karate he does, I think. Anyway, to please him I'd gotten out of the habit over the summer, and so the alcohol hit me much harder than I was used to. Add to that a couple of joints, and within a very short time I was smashed. Worse than I'd ever been, really.
The booze made me maudlin, and I started crying again. For once, Eddie noticed something beside the can in his hand, and scooted over. Draped an arm around my shoulders, and held me as I bawled my eyes out. Nice of him, right? Wrong. Because I was so needy at that moment, I more or less flung myself at him, just wanting to be held, and the louse took advantage of me. Yes, exactly the way you thinkhe started getting very familiar. And because I was drunk, high, angry at myself, desperate and whatnot, I didn't stop him. Before I knew it, he was on top of me, humping away. Frankly, at that point I couldn't have cared less. I certainly didn't enjoy it or myself, but... I let it happen anyway. I mean, I'd already lost Jason, so what was a little sex? It didn't mean anything because my life had lost meaning.
I don't remember much of what went on after that, but when I woke up from my stupor the next morning around dawn, to my horror I found myself not just in his arms, but huddled together with a couple of the other guys, as well. All of us were naked... and I sure as hell knew the other two weren't gay. That could only mean one thingthat I... that they...
I just made it behind the nearest dune before I started to puke.
How I got home, I never knew. Hitchhiked, probably; it didn't matter. I holed up in my room and, after trying to scrub off my skin in the shower for a full half hour, stayed there, crying, cursing myself, Eddie, Jason, fate... everything and everybody, really. Not that it did any good, but I couldn't help myself. Whenever I could bring myself to glance into a mirror at all, I saw a hag with red-rimmed eyes, runny nose and a haystack for hair. It gave me a perverse sense of satisfaction, knowing that I looked as bad as I felt. I also couldn't eat, couldn't sleep... and continued to spew my guts out. It got so bad that even my Mom noticed, and over my loud protests made me get cleaned up, dressed and hauled me to her doctora creepy guy with too-soft, cold and clammy hands that made my skin crawl during the exam.
What he found out put the final nail in my coffin.
I was pregnant.
And it couldn't have been Jason's child, because he'd always used protection.
Now, of course I know that no contraceptive is 100% foolproof, but as far as I could reconstruct things, Eddie and his buddies hadn't bothered using anything at all. So there was an as-good-as-certain chance that my baby had not one, but three possible fathers. None of whom would consent to a paternity test, I was sure. Not that I wanted them in my life (what life?!?), anyway.
On hearing the news, Mommy Dearest kicked me out. Just like that. It didn't matter that I had no job, no money, no help, just that she would be inconvenienced if I was having a baby. There wasn't even a single question whether I was going to marry the father or not. She ranted and raved all the time while I was packing my stuffjust enough to fit into a suitcase and a backpack. Called me a slut, an idiot, a randy bitch who didn't even know how to keep her skirt down and more of the same. I didn't bother to listen, really. What could she say to me that I hadn't already said to myself a million times over? Nothing, that's what.
Aunt Louisa stood by the door when I left. At least she looked a little sorry for me, but that didn't help me either. She certainly didn't try to hold me back. But she did make me promise to let her know my whereabouts, if I couldcare of her favorite Bingo Hall, if you can believe it. I just nodded and left. I never saw her again. Nor Mom; she fell off the face of the earth sometime between then and now. Good riddance, I say; she never cared much about me in the first place, and besides, I don't need her anymore.
When I closed down my savings account, I held the grand total of $215.23 in my pocketthere had been a bit of loose change left, plus some interest. I had every intention of going directly to the Greyhound station and buy a ticket to a place as far away as the money would take me, but somehow or other, I never got there. Instead, I found myself staring at Ernie's apartment door. Don't ask me how; I don't know or care.
I watched myself as if from a distance as I rang the doorbell, and when he let me in, I took one look into his so-kind eyes and broke down. Because Ernie just hugged me and was all concernedabout me!
"Emily! Good Lord, where have you been? I was so worried about you!"
He drew me inside his cluttered but comfortable place, wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise until I was sitting on his couch, a mug of tea in my hands. I was so stunned, I let him, watching him waddle around in total disbelief. Why was he being so nice to me? But whenever I tried to speak, he shook his head and went off again. Only when he'd gotten his own drinka coffee with a shot of brandydid he sit down next to me and ask what had brought me to his doorstep.
I fumbled with my purse.
"I... I've come to give you your money back," I stammered, holding out my $200. "I know it's less than half, but I'll get the rest, somehow! I promise!"
I hadn't even known I was going to do thatI sure as hell needed that money myself, to get out of townbut as soon as I said the words, I knew it felt right. Guess I hadn't lost all decency, after all. Imagine my shock, though, when he looked at me rather quizzically.
"What money, Em?"
"Th-the money I took from your cash register the last day I worked at the Youth Center," I fumbled, blushing with shame to the roots of my hair.
Ernie was clearly taken aback. "Emilythere was no money missing," he said. "Jason gave me a cheque the next morning for the full sum, receipt and all. I thought the two of you had deposited it the night before..."
I realized right away that Jason must've chosen to tell Ernie this fib, adding the missing $500 out of his own pocket. I could feel myself blanch. "Oh."
Ernie noticed, of course. He has way too much experience with kids not to recognize a troubled mind when it was so plainly evident as it must've been on my face. Of course, the fact that I was crying again might've been a dead giveaway, too. He took a sip of his fortified coffee, then set the mug down with a decisive clatter. He reached for my hands, which were ice-cold despite the mug of hot tea I was cradling.
"Child... I think there's a story about that night and the money that I need to hear," he said gently. "Won't you tell me?"
Never mind that it was posed as a question, I knew an order when I heard one. So I talked. About Eddie, and his problems. About how he persuaded me to help him. How Jason caught us in the act. In short, the whole sordid tale. Tears were still flowing down my cheeks when I finished.
"I'm really, really sorry, Ernie. I should never have done it. Please, won't you take these $200 at least? It's all I have right now, but I swear I'll get the rest somehowif you'll give me some time," I sobbed. I also pressed the crumpled bills into his hands.
My former boss stared at them for a long time. At last, he looked back up.
"Did you trust meor Jason, for that matterso little that you had to steal rather than come to either of us for help?"
That was it. Not a single word of blame, of reproach... just a mild rebuke about my lack of trust. What a guy! Now I knew why Jason valued Ernie so much. I wished I'd known sooner. Well, actually I did, but... of all the stupid choices I'd made, that was probably the stupidest. Not trusting these two men, who had always been unfailingly kind and understanding towards me.
Just call me moron, okay?
"Y-yes," I whispered miserably. "No. I should've," I sniffled.
Ernie nodded, a bit sadly, I think.
"I'm making a wild guess here, girl, but I think you shouldn't be paying me back, but your boyfriend," he commented at last. I laughed, shortly, bitterly.
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen the way Jason looked at me. Or heard how he told me to just get out. I tried to explain, but he wouldn't listen. Believe me, he's no longer my boyfriend." And God, how THAT thought hurt!
"Oh, I don't know. Jason has always been very fairvery forgiving. If he sent you away then, it was most likely because he didn't want to say anything in the heat of the moment which he'd regret later. If you went to him now..."
I just shook my head. "It wouldn't do any good, Ernie," I murmured. "You see, that wasn't the only mistake I made that night."
"Why, what else did you do?"
I sighed. "As I said, I ran out. A few blocks down, Eddie picked me up. I... we got drunk together... I never meant to, but I ended up spending the night with him."
Ernie whistled through his teeth. "Oh boy."
He took a deep breath. "Did you sleep with him?" he finally asked me bluntly. I could only nod. What hazy memories I had of that night still had the power to make me ashamed.
"Him... and two others, I think." My voice was nothing more than a hoarse mumble, even to my own ears.
Ernie swallowed. "You... you think?"
"I was too smashed on booze and drugs," I explained painfully. Never mind also heartbroken, ashamed, desperate and whatnot. But nobody needed to hear that; it would sound too much as if I were looking for excuses for what I'd done. "I don't remember, but I do know I woke up between three naked guys." I wanted to barf all over again. "You think Jason might want to forgive that?"
"Maybe in time," Ernie mused unconvincingly after a heavy silence that lasted several long minutes. "You must admit, it's a lot to accept."
I wiped my nose with tissues from the box Ernie had handed me earlier.
"Even if Jason could accept thatI doubt he could do it with another man's child," I confessed at last, unable to meet Ernie's eyes at all.
To say that Ernie was stunned was putting it mildly.
"You... you're pregnant?!?" he managed at last.
At that point, I fully expected him to kick me out, like my mother had done. After all, Jason was one of his absolute favorites. But would you believe that wonderful man managed to surprise me again with his generosity? Not a single word was said about Jason anymore; he knew as well as I did that I'd truly burned my bridges with him. Not intentionally, no, just by being irresponsible and stupid, but they were gone just as much.
Instead of throwing me out on my butt, Ernie then started to discuss my situation with meeven going so far as asking me about my plans for the child I carried. I'd given that some thought, actually. More like instinctual reactions, I hadn't had that much time yet, but... I knew I wasn't going to have an abortion, for example. I'm an idiot, but I couldn't kill an unborn baby. Never. That left adoption... or bringing it up myself. And I had no idea which to choose.
Again, Ernie came to the rescue. He went to a desk piled high with papers, rummaged around a little and finally wrote something on a slip of paper.
"I knew I had this somewhere," he murmured, handing me the note. "You're not the first girl who got herself in trouble."
It was an out-of-state phone number and address.
"What is it?"
"It's a place in Las Vegas," Ernie explained. "It's run by Sister Mary Gabriel. She can help youif you want help, that is."
A nun? Ernie was sending me to a nun??? At first I felt disappointed and almost betrayed, but as it turned out, it was the best thing he could have done for me. He managed to talk me out of my scepticism, handed me back $180 of the $200 I'd given him (at my insistence, we set up an informal contract that it was a loanthat I would pay back the rest of the sum Jason had replaced in instalments, as large or small as I could manage) and packed me off personally onto the bus to Nevada.
The rest, as they say, is history. True to Ernie's word, Sister Gabriel took me inshe manages a house for pregnant teenagers, helps them find jobs, offers basic medical care and most of all a shelter -the things I needed most. Sister was with me every step of the way, a big, homely woman with a gruff manner but the proverbial heart of gold. A female version of Ernie in a nun's habit, really. I wouldn't have known how to cope without her. She bullied me into taking care of myself, into accepting what I had done and was going through... and in due time, I gave birth to my daughter.
I had been leaning towards adoption, but hadn't quite made up my mind yet. Good thing I hadn't; because as soon as I held her, I knew I wouldn't be able to give her up. Strange thing, love is. That tiny, scrunched-up face, so-soft skin, her rosebud mouth... it all was too perfect to lose. And when she opened her eyes the next morning and looked at me for the first time, I knew that I had to hold on to that perfection, and never mind the cost to myself.
In that instant, I promised herand myselfthat I was going to try to be the best mother I could be. And when the nurse asked me if I had a name for her, I could answer without hesitation.
"Yes. Her name is Gabrielle Ernestine."
Named after the two people who had been there for me unconditionally through nine often hellish months. In the deepest corner of my mind, I knew that Jason would have been right beside themif the baby had been his, and if I hadn't thrown away his love in a moment of sheer idiocy. My own fault, nobody else's. I learned that, too. But I wasn't going to make my baby pay for my mistakes, the way my own mother had. Because to me, my daughter will always be Mira.
Short for miracle.
Mira was the one who really turned my life around. As soon as I was able to leave her in day care, I found a job at one of the smaller casinos; nothing glamorous, but it paid well. Once more, Ernie came to my rescue and gave me a reference that got me out of busing tables and behind the barwhere I could at least wear decent clothes rather than parading around among the patrons, in an outfit little better than a tight swimsuit, with fishnet stockings and high heels. Yes, it was that kind of place, but on a volunteer basis only. Any girl who didn't want to supplement her wages lying down (or standing up or any other way) didn't have to. And I might be poor, but not that desperate. Yet.
However, the pressure was always there. Subtle, yes, but there. And it was becoming harder and harder to resist. Added to that was the fact that due to my job, I had started to drink. Yes, there are tricks a bartender can use to avoid alcohol when a customer buys them a drink, but sometimes they just don't work. Plus, the stuff is always just there. Big-time temptation. Over time, I gave in more and more often. It was so nice to feel a light buzz, to laugh without effort, to find things funny. And to forget the drudgery life as a single mom often is, even if just for a few hours.
Then, one day I realized that while I was having a drink with a customera habit I'd gotten into almost without noticing ithe was making a pass at me, and I was actually considering taking him up on it. Hey, he was youngish, reasonably nice-looking... and I had been lonely for a very long time. So why not? But I'd sworn to myself a long time ago that I'd never sleep with a man again. Not without love, anyway. Lust and loneliness ... and the offer of a cash reward... just weren't enough. I turned him down with a small joke and pointed out one of the girls who I knew would be nice to him... and who could use some extra income. So could I, to be honest, but I hadn't sunk that low yet. I was NOT going to turn into my mother. My baby and I deserved better.
That night, when Mira was asleep in her little cot, I took stock of my situation.
I had a High School education, and nothing more. Some experience waitressing and tending bar. A four-year-old daughter who thankfully had inherited my own coloring, so I didn't have to guess every time I looked at her who her father might have been. I also had a battered old car, a clean but rather run-down apartment and $3,500 in the bank.
Say what you will, Las Vegas tourists tip well, even if your workplace isn't exactly the MGM Grand.
What I did not have were any debts. I'd managed to repay the $500 within the first two yearsonce with a $100 bill (after one guy had cracked the casino's jackpot and I'd served him the complimentary bottle of champagne; he was feeling generous, I guess. I still didn't like having the bill stuffed into my cleavage), more often than not in tens and twenties. No matter, I made it.
Ernie wrote me afterwards that he'd passed it on to Jason, who'd said little. Big surprise there. Well, at least he knew that I was trying to set things right as much as possible. I just wish I could repair our relationship as well. Bit by tiny bit, if need be, like the money I stole.
I can dream, can't I?
No, that's futile. I broke too much that night. My promise to Ernie. Jason's trust... maybe even his heart. I know I broke mine. But I was coping as best I could. And I would lick the drinking problem before it became a full dependency. This was the point to get the hell out of Dodge, as my boss liked to say.
Only, where to? And to do what?
I was NOT going back to my mother. I also was NOT going back to Angel Grove, and Ernie. He'd already gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me; I just couldn't impose on him any more. Besides, Jason still lived in Angel Grove. I wasn't sure I could stand running into him unexpectedly, much less ever look him in the eye again. I'd rather he remembered me as his ex-girlfriend who stole from someone he cared about than as an irresponsible slut who couldn't even name her daughter's father when he saw Mira. As he inevitably would; where I go, she goes, too.
I liked working in the restaurant business, I'd found. If I dared dream at all, it would be to manage, maybe later own, a small diner. Nothing fancy, but a place where I could live on the premises so I could work and have an eye on Mira as well. There was one such place a few miles out of Lake Tahoe, or so I'd heard; we'd even looked at it once on my day off, and it was just about perfect. The current owners were agreeable, the apartment small but sufficient for us, and there was even a playground for Mira close by. Only, I needed more money than I owned for a down payment.
Then, Aunt Louisa died of a heart attack. It took a while until I got the news, and I know I really should have felt more grief than I did, but despite living with her for close on a year, I never knew her all that well. It was a surprise that she left her things to me at all, but not bigger than learning how much money she had. Turns out she won big at bingo a few weeks before her deaththe first time ever. I guess it was a sign that I'd really grown up that one of my first thoughts was, she ought to have used the money to come to Las VegasI knew it was a dream of hers to just once do it big and play at one of the big, glamorous casinos. What a shame that she died before she could make it!
Oh well, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The way I figured, after I got her things taken care of, the inheritance plus my savings might just be enough to buy me a stake in that diner.
I didn't say that. I can't have said that! Please tell me I didn't say what I think I just said!
... I did?...
I must be crazier than I thought. I hate puns!
So here I was, back in Angel Grove despite my intention to never come back, only wanting to buy a few groceries to last me and my child while I waited for the paperwork to be processed so I could get my inheritance. I'd left Mira at Ernie's, because shopping goes much faster without a wide-eyed, grabby child in tow. Not that I don't love my daughter, I do, but... she sure is curious. And wants. Not necessarily to have things; despite her young age, she understands that Mommy can't afford to buy too many treats. But it was better this way.
So what happens but that I end up sitting in my car in a busy parking lot... watching my ex-boyfriend smooch with another woman.
I guess it gave me a weird sort of satisfaction to see that he'd at least remained true to typeit was another blonde, like me. I even knew she had blue eyes like mine, although there the similarities between me and Kat Hillard end.
Yes, it was herthe girl who had once fostered my own romance with the man she was kissing now. I wonder what happened between her and... what was his name again, Jason's best friend... oh, Tommy, of course. I never paid much attention to them, but I remember Kat used to be totally nuts about him. Oh well, never mind. She's obviously with Jason now.
When the kiss finally stopped, it gave me a distinct pang to see that under her loose jacket, her belly was bulging slightly. Kat used to be a dancer; I highly doubted that she would allow herself to get fat. Which left one conclusion... that she was pregnant. And from the way she and Jason greeted each other, with his child.
Because I couldn't help thinking that it might have been me, over there with Jason, being helped into his car with so much obvious care and tenderness. Hell, it ought to be me, if not for my misguided loyalties and stupidity. One lousy mistake, and my life's all shot to pieces.
No, I've got to be honest here. I promised myself that I wasn't going to hide from reality, not even in my own mind. Because that's how I got into this mess in the first placeby thinking that I owed it to Eddie to help him, even though I knew that what he was asking me to do was wrong. I should've let him straighten out his own mess. By assuming that I wouldn't get caught, even though I'm really a very bad liar. By not realizing that the man I loved valued honor above all else and would be crushed by my actions. By making things worse when I tried to hide from what I'd done behind sex, drugs and booze.
That's not 'one lousy mistake', that's a whole bunch of them. All mine. Not my mother's, even though she did have a hand in the way I was then. Not Eddie's, because I could have told him no. Not Ernie's, because he so foolishly gave me a responsibility I wasn't equipped to handle at the time. Not Jason's, certainly, because he set a standard for me that I desperately wanted, but didn't know how to achieve.
Hold it, I do know that. Did know, even then. Honesty, integrity, taking responsibility not only for oneself, but also for others. Loyaltybut to the right things and persons. How could I miss all that, when Jason showed it to me in everything he ever said or did? He doesn't just mouth the words, he lives them.
Like Kat does. I don't. Well... didn't. But I'm trying. Heck, I may have been an idiot once, but I'm not totally stupid. I can learn. Most of all from my mistakes. I just wish the lessons were a little easier.
Which is why I stayed in my car, watching them walk away, their arms around each other... feeling myself turn green with envy. Jason used to walk with me like that! Come to think of it, I actually fit better into his embrace than Kat does; she's taller than me... almost as tall as Jason. High heels are a no-no, girl! At that point, I gave myself a mental kick in the butt. I had absolutely no business to be so bitchy, even if it was just in the privacy of my own thoughts. It wasn't Kat's fault that I blew things.
If I could only go back to that night and change things! Change my decision to steal the money. Not run away. Most of all, not going with Eddie afterwards, getting smashed and knocked up. But I can't. And considering that I'd have to give up my daughter if I could... I wouldn't anyway. Mira is the center of my life now, and I'm not giving her up. Ever.
"Too strong to tell you I was sorry
Too strong to tell you I was wrong.
So, good-bye, Jason. I wish you every happiness in the world, even if it's with another woman. At least this time you chose someone who's not going to hurt you the way I did. I may envy Kat, but I know that she'll be a good partner for you. Perhaps even a better one than I could ever be.
I only hope that one day you'll be able to forgive and forget. Because I sure won't.
Won't forgive myself for being an idiot, and won't forget that once, I had it all within my grasp when I had you. Now, I'll plod on with what's lefta checkered past, around $10,000 in the bank, and a daughter that I love beyond anything. Which maybe is something of a future, after all.
If I could just turn back time....
Note: Just for the record, in case you haven't recognized it, the quoted lyrics are from Cher's song "If I Could Turn Back Time", written by Diane Warren, from the 1989 album "Heart of Stone". DB