Saturday, September 25, 2010

Untitled 1: Part 11

Mike realized he was holding his breath. He looked at Eileen and saw that the ice-cream in her cup had melted and was leaking from the bottom. He took the cup from her and set it on the coffee table.

“Your mother made you keep the baby?” he asked.

Eileen nodded. “My mother may have been a crack whore. But she was a Catholic, church-going, God-fearing crack whore. Abortion was not an option. And I could not bear the thought of giving my baby up for adoption. The thought of someone else raising my baby. Maybe being abusive or doing something else,” she shuddered at the thought of it. “There was no way I could give my baby away to someone. I believe in adoption now, but back then, I couldn’t even consider it as a possibility.”

Mike nodded. “So, then what?”

“Well,” she sighed, “I was pretty lucky. Considering how young I was, how physically unprepared I was for a baby, I did okay. The pregnancy itself wasn’t too difficult. I went to school until December. My mom spoke privately with the Principal about what had occurred, and he arranged for a private tutor so that everyone at school wouldn’t know I was pregnant.

“My water broke three weeks before my due date while mom was at work. I was terrified, called her crying. She rushed home. We thought that we had plenty of time, but the contractions were coming fast and hard, and I was bleeding. She got me to the hospital faster than an ambulance could have. I was tucked into Labor and Delivery right away. The doctor was worried because things were happening so fast, but Scotty and I came out of it okay. He was so tiny. But beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

“I was supposed to go home the next day, but I really wasn’t feeling well. The doctor thought it was just because I was so young and my body wasn’t prepared for the rigors of childbirth, but I knew something wasn’t right. My body just felt off. Nothing I could put my finger on. She agreed to let me stay another day. During the night that night, I was nursing Scotty, and mom was asleep in the chair. Out of nowhere, this horrible pain ripped through my abdomen and I started hemorrhaging. I called for my mom and she bolted out of that chair like a rocket. The last thing I remembered was her catching Scotty as he slipped out of my arms.

“When I woke up, I was in Intensive Care. Apparently, a tiny piece of the placenta had stuck behind in my uterus, and was causing massive complications. I ended up having to have my uterus totally removed. Yup. Thirteen years old and having a hysterectomy. The ovaries were left in place. But the uterus was out. So, that’s why I’m not able to have children.” Eileen laughed a small, bitter laugh. “Yeah, all the benefits of not having a period, but all the hell of PMS thanks to my hormone-pumping ovaries. Lucky me.”

Mike’s nostrils flared as he exhaled. “How awful for you. I still can’t believe your mom made you keep the baby. I mean, I’m Catholic and I don’t particularly agree with abortion, but I’m not a woman. I wouldn’t tell any woman what to do. How in the world did you cope, especially after the surgery?”

“It was hard,” Eileen admitted. “Mrs. Burkman really helped out, though. She took care of me and Scotty so mom could go back to work. Those early months were really difficult, but time went by so fast. Mrs. Burkman watched Scotty during the day so mom could work and I could go to school. She didn’t have any children, so obviously no grandchildren, either, and Mr. Burkman had been dead for—gosh, I don’t remember. Ten years, maybe? But she loved Scotty and took such good care of him. She watched him almost every single day during the week until he went to kindergarten.”

“Scotty was able to go to a regular school?”

Eileen was confused. “What do you mean?”

Mike flushed a little. “I just thought—um—well, Scott seems, I don’t know. Slow?”

Eileen let out a small laugh. “Oh yeah. Duh. Scotty wasn’t born like…like how he is now. He was actually way ahead academically in kindergarten and first grade. No, it was something else that happened.”

Mike’s heart was aching for her. “What happened? Did he get sick or something? Hurt?”
Tears welled up in Eileen’s already red-rimmed eyes. She hadn’t done any actual crying since she started talking, but was getting dangerously close. She took a deep breath, trying to get control of her emotions.

“Hurt is probably the best description. He got hurt and ended up with some brain damage.”
The tears she was fighting to hold back began spilling over onto her cheeks. Mike reached out to wipe them away, but Eileen pulled her head back.

“Don’t,” she said. “I’m okay. Let me just get through this.” She took a long, slow, deep breath, and closed her eyes for a few seconds.

“Okay, I’m better. So anyway, yes, Scotty got hurt. It was toward the end of first grade. I had been going to school part-time and working.” She sighed heavily. “I got home one evening and found Scotty playing in the living room by himself. It wasn’t like Mrs. Burkman to leave him alone in a room. She was always hovering over him. I looked around and was relieved to find that my mom was home, but she was asleep in her bedroom. I woke her up to see if everything was okay, but she was kind of snippy and told me to leave her alone. That wasn’t like her, but I figured maybe she just wasn’t feeling well. I spent a quiet evening with Scott, and the next morning, mom seemed fine. She didn’t mention anything from the night before, so I just let it go. Everyone’s entitled to an occasional bad day, right? God, I was so wrong.

“Three days later, I came home from work and it was complete chaos. I walked in the back door and it was like a tornado had gone through the kitchen. The table was knocked over and the dinner my mother had obviously been making was all over the walls. I was in a complete panic. I ran to the living room, calling for my mother and Scotty. I found Scotty on the floor, unconscious, but breathing, with a puddle of blood around his head.

“I was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, grabbing a towel from the hall closet for Scotty’s head, when I saw mom on the floor in the bathroom. She’d been badly beaten. But I had to take care of Scotty first. The police and paramedics came, and it was like a flashback to the night I was raped. Just the noise and the chaos. Mom and Scotty were both rushed to the hospital, and then Scotty was air-lifted to the children’s hospital. He was in bad shape. I went with him, but it was hard to leave my mom behind.

“Scotty was in critical condition. His brain was swelling, and he was in a drug-induced coma. The doctors weren’t sure he was going to make it, and I felt so damn helpless, because I didn’t even know what happened. I knew my mom had been released from the hospital, but she didn’t come to see Scotty for two days after that. I was too scared to be angry about it.

“When she did show up, she was in pretty bad shape. Her nose was broken and half of her teeth were missing. And she just had this look. I’d seen that look before. And I knew she had relapsed. I knew that my baby boy was on the brink of death because of her carelessness. I flew at her, physically attacked her before she even had a chance to speak. It took two security guards to pull me off of her, and she just stood there, crying and wringing her hands. I just wanted to wring her neck.

“Finally, she told me that she had relapsed several weeks earlier and she had been ‘borrowing’ from an old dealer friend. That day, he came to collect, but she didn’t have enough to pay him. He tried to force himself on her, thinking that they could work out a little barter system like they had in the past. When she refused, he administered a light beating in an effort to straighten her out.
“However, he underestimated the power of my little boy, who was not about to let anyone hurt his grandma.”

Eileen started to laugh. “Scott ran up to the guy and bit him on the butt. Even through the guy’s pants, he bit hard enough to draw blood.” She laughed for another minute, then quieted down.
“So, Scotty bit him. The bastard backhanded him hard enough to knock him to the floor, but that didn’t stop him. He got up, ran over to the guy, then lunged at his ankle like a crazy dog. Scotty got two big chunks of skin out before the guy kicked him in the face. But then he kept kicking him. Over and over until Scotty’s skull was cracked and partially caved in. Then he beat my mom until she was unconscious.

“The guy was caught two days later. The cops put the word out at local hospitals about the bites, and he ended up getting nailed. He’s still serving time.

“So, that’s it. Scotty eventually woke up. Took about three weeks. But even when he came around, it was obvious he was gone. The brain damage was that severe. He needed extensive therapy. Very extensive therapy. Three months into it, my mother died of an overdose. It was labeled an accident, but I think she did it on purpose. Just out of guilt, you know? Two months later, Mrs. Burkman died of a heart attack, so then I was really alone.”

Eileen looked at Mike and saw that he had tears in his eyes.

“God, Eileen, how horrible for you. How in the world did you manage?”

She shrugged. “I just did what I had to do, you know? Actually, I got pretty lucky. Mrs. Burkman left the building to me in her will, along with the money from her life insurance policy. I quit school and my job for a while to take care of Scotty and lived off that, plus the income from renting out the lower level. A few years later, I went back to school and got a degree in Criminal Justice and then went through the Academy. And now, here I am. The end.”

Mike was slowly shaking his head back and forth. “You are one hell of a woman, Eileen Riley. But you left something out.”

She gave him a quizzical look. “Um, it’s my story, Mike. I think I know it pretty well.”

“No. What happened to Derek? Was he ever caught?”

Eileen gave him a stiff smile. “I guess you could say that. Joe kept his word. He worked on every lead, even when they seemed like dead-ends. When I was eight months pregnant, he came over to tell me and mom that Derek had been shot by police after robbing a liquor store. He pulled a gun on the cops and they took him out. Joe stayed pretty involved in our lives. He’s actually Scotty’s godfather. Mrs. Burkman was his godmother, but she’s been gone a long time now.”

“Joe sounds like a heck of a guy.”

Eileen smiled. “He is. Old Joe Blue is the best.”

Realization hit Mike. “Are you kidding me? Joe Blue? As in the nickname for one Mr. Joseph Bloomington, the chief of police?”

Eileen’s eyes twinkled. “That’s him.”

“Damn! No wonder he’s so good to you. The guys used to joke that the two of you were either banging, or you were his illegitimate kid. Now I know the real reason."

“Yeah. He’s been very flexible with me and very discreet in letting my supervisors know why I work the schedule that I do. I know some people resent my being able to be off almost every weekend, but I put in a lot of extra time during the week. Good old Joe. He was so proud when I told him that I wanted to go into law enforcement. Well, actually, first he wanted to clobber me. Once the shock wore off, then he was proud.”

Eileen looked at Mike, briefly meeting his eyes before hurriedly looking away. Mike caught it immediately.

“What’s up, kiddo?”

She didn’t speak at first. She fiddled with the pins in her hair, finally pulling them out, allowing her hair to fall and partially cover her face. Mike reached over to smooth down the tresses, but Eileen pulled away from him.

“Don’t,” she whispered. “I am so, so sorry that I didn’t tell you about Scotty right away. Obviously, Joe knows about Scott. And since Ryan sent you here, you know he knows. But I haven’t told anyone else until now.”

Mike slid closer to Eileen, cautiously reaching over to hug her. She was stiff for a few seconds, but finally relaxed in his embrace, leaning her face into his chest.

“Eileen, you have nothing to apologize for. Nothing. Actually,” he swallowed hard over the lump in his throat, “it’s me who should be apologizing. I am so sorry for how I behaved and the horrible things I said. Nobody deserves that. Especially not you.”

He kissed the top of her head and stroked her cheek, surprised to find it wet with tears. He pulled her closer, and she continued to quietly cry, saying nothing, making no sound except for an occasional sniffle.

Mike was at a loss for words and opted to remain silent and wait for Eileen to speak. The minutes ticked by, and he continued to hold her. She finally let out a small sigh and sat up, rubbing her eyes.

“Okay. I’m done being weepy. I’m betting that you have a ton of questions. Fire away.”

“Kiddo, it can wait.”

She shook her head. “No. I’d rather answer as much as I can now. If you wait, I may not be in the mood to answer.”

Mike shrugged. “I don’t have a ton of questions. I mean, I’m curious about how you kept it a secret all these years. And how did Scotty end up not living with you anymore?”

Eileen eyed him warily. “That’s really all you want to know? You’re sure?”

He nodded. “That’s all. Really. Wait. I guess I’d also like to know why you kept Scotty a secret. He seems like a great kid.”

Eileen smiled. “Scotty is a great kid, and I love him very much. I don’t tell people about him because—I’m embarrassed to say this. I don’t tell people about him because I’m afraid of being judged, and I don’t want to have to tell the whole ugly history. The past is painful and I really don’t like talking about it. But I’d have to tell the whole story if people are going to understand. That’s the why of it.

“The how isn’t that hard. I’ve just never mentioned it. It was harder when he was living here full-time. I tried to make it home everyday to meet him when he got off the bus. He attended a therapeutic day school here in the city, and he usually got home around five. He knew if he got home before me, he could get a snack from the refrigerator and wait for me. That worked for a while, but as he got older, he wanted to be more independent. I didn’t help at all. I was being completely overprotective, not letting him do anything.

“It was really only a matter of time before something would happen. And it did. Oh boy, it did. It was a couple of years ago. Scott beat me home and decided to make dinner for us. He wanted to surprise me, show me he was capable of helping out. He wanted to make grilled cheese for us.
“He got things started, and was actually doing okay, but the pan got too hot, and started to smoke. Scotty started to panic, didn’t know what to do. He threw a towel on top of the pan, but the towel caught on fire. He was terrified and put the burning pan and towel in the pantry to hide it from me. He was afraid I’d be mad.

“When I got home, the kitchen was full of smoke and Scotty had locked himself in the bathroom. There was a fire in the pantry, which fortunately, was small, but still scary. I put it out with a fire extinguisher, but not before it did some damage. Actually, that was when I decided to gut the pantry and make it a laundry room. That was also when I decided that I needed help with Scotty. I had to face that I just couldn’t do it by myself.

“I spent the next few months looking into group homes. I finally found one that I liked out in Lake Zurich. I took Scotty for a visit and he seemed to like it. He didn’t move in right away. We did a slow transition, because I didn’t want him to feel like he was being punished because of the kitchen fire. I think he understood, but he was still terrified. He cried so hard when he did his first overnight visit. Ryan was with us, and Scotty just sat on the floor, hugging my legs, begging me not to go. I finally got myself out of his grasp and kissed him good-bye, but I was crying so hard, I couldn’t drive. Ryan drove and just let me cry the whole way home. Now that I think about it, he spent the night and listened to me blubber the whole evening about how guilty I felt, how I was such a bad mom, how I felt like a failure. He was just there for me, said all the right things to make me feel better.

“When we went to pick up Scotty the next day, he didn’t want to leave! I had to coax him into coming home to pack his things. He could hardly wait to get back there. Now, he spends his weekdays out there, going to school and learning job skills and independent living skills. He’s at home with me every weekend and on holidays and vacations. I pick him up on Fridays after work, and drive him back on Monday mornings. The staff out there think I’m nuts. Most of the parents only come out to see their kids a few times a year.” She shook her head in disgust. “Some of those parents think they got such a raw deal. But you know who really got the raw deal? Those kids. They’re slow, but they’re not stupid. They know full well that their parents view them as an embarrassment. I just can’t even imagine that.”

Mike was still stunned by all that he had just heard. “You drive to Lake Zurich every Monday before work? You must be out the door by five in the morning.”

“Actually, it’s closer to five-fifteen. But it works for us. That’s also why I’m so darn tired on Mondays.”

“No wonder. It explains a lot. You are something else. Scotty is very lucky to have you as his mom.”

Eileen shrugged. “Not quite. I feel like I’m the lucky one to have Scotty as my son. Nobody could ask for a better kid. He does pretty well for himself, all things considered. But so do I, I guess.”

There were a few moments of awkward silence as Eileen and Mike sat looking at each other. The air was heavy between them, full of things that were said, things that were left unsaid.

Mike spoke first. “Eileen, I don’t know what to say.”

“Yeah, me neither.” She took a deep breath. “Have I damaged our relationship to the point that it’s beyond repair?”

Mike started to respond, but Eileen shushed him. “You don’t have to answer now. Think about it. I know we rushed into things. Jumping into bed probably isn’t the best foundation for a long-term relationship, so if you want to just play it cool for now, that’s fine. I’ve been attracted to you for a long time, but I never acted on it. I was too worried about—well, worried about a lot of things. I knew how important your marriage to Tina was, and I didn’t want to intrude on that. I needed to evaluate myself and why I was—am—attracted to you.

“I also needed to determine if I could open myself up enough to tell you about Scotty. I made a huge, huge mistake in not telling you right at the very beginning. Or even the morning after. I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously, if we were going to start a relationship, I was going to have to tell you eventually. I guess I just thought if I had more time, I could figure out how to tell you. I made a serious error in judgment. The whole stupid thing is that Scotty knew all about you. I’ve talked about you to him for years, and he was always asking if he would get to meet you. I wanted to have control of the situation, and I told him that I was sure he would meet you someday, but it would probably be a long time. Scotty, bless his heart, isn’t quick enough to realize that it’s an issue. Time isn’t very relevant for him, so it doesn’t matter when he meets someone. Anyway, I’m babbling. Sorry.”

Mike looked at Eileen for a long, long moment, not speaking, barely breathing. Then, without a thought in his head, he threw his arms around her and kissed her hard on the mouth. She stiffened in his arms, eyes wide, caught off guard by his reaction. After a few seconds, she relaxed, tentatively wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him back.

They stayed that way for a few minutes, clinging to each other, until Mike broke the kiss. He kept his forehead pressed to hers, looking intently into her eyes. “Does that answer your question?”

Eileen smiled. “I think so. But I still have a lot to make up to you. I know that dishonesty is something that is very, very difficult to work past. I meant it when I said I was sorry. I really am. But I’m not going to keep apologizing for it. I believe that if someone says ‘I’m sorry’ too many times, it loses its meaning. Just know that I am. And it’s a mistake that I’m not going to repeat.” She paused. “That’s not to say that I’m going to run around telling everyone that I have a son, but I will promise that there will always be truth between you and me, no matter what.”

Mike was struck by the sincerity in her voice, touched at the effort she was displaying to make up for what had happened. He sighed. “Kiddo, I couldn’t agree with you more. Hugs and kisses for truth telling from now on. Sound good?”

“Sounds very good.”

They sat awkwardly for a few minutes, neither one sure what to do or say next.

Eileen finally cleared her throat. “So, now what do we do?”

Mike shrugged. “I’m not sure.” He caught Eileen’s eye and smiled a sly smile. “I wouldn’t be opposed to fooling around. You know, just to make sure we still have chemistry.”

Eileen rolled her eyes, but smiled. “Mike, I don’t think chemistry will ever be a problem. Tell you what. Let me go check in on Scotty, and then we can…we can do something. I’ll be back.”
Mike watched as Eileen headed toward Scott’s room, amazed at the strength in her stride. Life had certainly kicked her around, but she was obviously stronger because of it. He paused and reflected on all that she had just told him. He felt happy and settled, knowing that this strong woman was giving him another chance, and he vowed to himself that he would never do anything to screw it up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Untitled 1: Part 10

Eileen sat for a few moments, staring at the fourteen flickering flames and smiled to herself. Mom had remembered. Thirteen candles, one for each year. The extra candle was her special wish candle. She looked up from the cake, locked eyes with her mother, and they both smiled. She could almost hear her mother’s slight southern drawl, and though neither one of them said a word, she knew exactly what her mom was thinking.

"C’mon darlin’ and make your wish. Make it a good one, for something that you really want. Prayers are for things that we need and wishes are for things that we want. So wish big."

Maribeth looked at her daughter, who was busy contemplating the candles on the cake. Eileen was growing up so fast, turning into a lovely young woman. Mother Nature was being especially kind to the tomboy-turned-teen-age-girl. Maribeth felt so guilty about her behavior since Matthew died, and she really wanted to make things better for her little girl.

She caught Eileen’s eye and gave her a wink. Eileen winked back at her. They both knew what she was wishing for and Maribeth was determined to make it happen.

“All right, darlin’. You wait much longer, and the candles are gonna burn the cake into nothing. Blow ’em out already.”

Eileen took a deep breath, then blew with all her might. All the candles went out and she grinned. This was the best birthday since her dad died.

Maribeth served up slices of cake to the birthday guests, apologizing profusely for forgetting to buy ice-cream, but nobody seemed overly concerned about it. Eileen opened her gifts afterward, delighting in the colorful, dangly earrings, necklace, and bracelets from her friends, and the bright green sweater from her mom.

Maribeth tousled Eileen’s hair.
“I know it’s still summer and it’s too warm, but I saw it and thought it would be perfect for when it gets cooler. It’ll bring out your eyes.”

Eileen’s heart felt ready to burst. This was the mom she remembered. She got up and threw her arms around Maribeth, not caring that her friends were giggling over the display of affection. Maribeth stood there, embracing her daughter and fighting back tears.

Finally, she laughed and disentangled herself from Eileen, playfully swatting her bottom.
“Now scoot, girl. You and your friends go do whatever it is that thirteen year old girls do. But be back for dinner, okay?”

Eileen nodded. “I will. We’re just going to go down to the park and hang out.”

The girls scampered out the door and Mrs. Burkman smiled after them. Eileen was such a sweet girl, and in spite of Maribeth’s troubles, she truly liked the woman.

“Maribeth, you’re doing okay with that girl.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Burkman. But I can’t take much credit. Eileen has really been raising herself these past few years. I haven’t been much of a mother to her since Matthew died. And even before that, Matt was always more hands on and way more involved than I was.” She sighed heavily. “I really feel like I’m letting him down.”

Mrs. Burkman gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Maribeth, you are not letting him down. Yes, you’ve made mistakes. But Matt would forgive you and only look at the fact that you’re really turning it around.”

Maribeth smiled through her tears. “You have such a way of making me feel better. I really appreciate all that you’ve done for me and Eileen. It means more than you’ll ever know. I’ll figure out a way to repay you someday.”

“Nonsense. You being okay is payment enough.”

They chatted for another hour over coffee and then Mrs. Burkman left to attend Saturday evening mass at the local Catholic Church. Maribeth busied herself with cleaning up from the party and preparing dinner. Eileen bounded in just as she was finishing cooking.

“Hey sweetie. Did you have fun?”

Eileen nodded, smiling. “We just goofed around a little. It was too hot to really do anything.” Her face was damp with sweat and she had a slight sunburn on her cheeks. “What’s for dinner?”

Maribeth’s eyes twinkled. “It’s your birthday. What do you think?”

Eileen let out a whoop. “Caramel apple pancakes?”

Maribeth nodded, handing Eileen a plate. Her daughter did a crazy little dance around the kitchen table before sitting down. Maribeth rolled her eyes. A teen-ager. Good grief.

Eileen wolfed down her pancakes and Maribeth was so pleased to see her baby girl smiling and happy. After dinner, bellies full, they sat on the couch, Eileen watching the regular Saturday evening programs, and Maribeth working on needlepoint. At eight o’clock, Eileen started getting restless. Maribeth looked up from her work.

“What’s up, honey?”

Eileen shrugged. “Nothing really. Just a little bored, I guess.”

“Tell you what. Why don’t you go shower and then make some popcorn. I’ll go down to the video store and rent a movie. I’ll stop for ice-cream, too, and we can finish off the rest of the birthday cake.”

Eileen brightened. “That sounds like fun. Rent something scary.”

Maribeth rolled her eyes, but nodded. Her daughter had strange taste in movies, and seemed to enjoy horror films. Normally, she would try to discourage it, but it was her birthday, so she relented. She gathered her purse and keys while Eileen got her things together for her shower.

“I’ll be back, kiddo. Fifteen minutes, tops.”

“Okay,” Eileen sang out as she closed the bathroom door.

She had just gotten undressed and was ready to start the water when she heard a knock at the back door. It was either Mrs. Burkman or her mother had forgotten her keys. She pulled a towel around herself and trotted through the kitchen to the back door. She swung it open and was startled to see a man standing there. Alarmed, she took a step backwards.

“Hey Eileen. Is your mom home?”

Eileen looked him over. She knew him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite remember.

“I’m sorry, kid. You probably don’t recognize me. I’m Derek. Your mom and I dated a few years back.”

Realization dawned on her. Of course. She remembered him now. He was one of the few men her mom had brought home who was actually nice to her. He had always brought her little treats and would sit by her and help her with her homework. She had been sad when her mother suddenly broke it off with him.

“Hey Derek. You’re right, I didn’t recognize you at first. Mom’s not here right now, but I’ll tell her you stopped by.”

“Would you? I’d really appreciate it.” He turned to go, but then stopped. “Gosh, Eileen. You sure have grown up since I last saw you.” He looked her up and down appreciatively and she shrank away, not liking the smirk on his face.

“Um, thanks. And thanks for stopping by. I’ll let mom know.”

He smiled at her. “Actually, I moved since I last saw her. Let me just leave you with my new phone number. Can I borrow a pen and paper?”

“Okay.” She clutched the towel tighter around herself. “There’s paper and pencils next to the kitchen phone.”

“Sounds good. Lead the way.”

He brushed against her as she stepped past him, causing her to inwardly recoil. She fumbled with a pencil and paper, self-conscious in the towel, wishing Derek would just leave.

Eileen turned to hand him the items, and he grabbed her wrist.

“Boy Eileen. You’re not a little girl anymore, are you?”

She jerked her wrist out of his grasp, glaring defiantly at him. “No, I’m not. Look, my mom will be home soon. If you want to wait for her, you can wait outside. Otherwise, please just leave your number and she’ll call you.”

“My, my. Haven’t you become a sassy little thing.”

He leaned his face in close to hers and Eileen’s heart sank. Until now, she hadn’t noticed his bloodshot eyes and the powdery white residue around his nostrils. She tried to step away from him, but he had her cornered against the wall by the phone. She attempted to side-step him, but he moved with her.

Derek reached out and traced Eileen’s collarbone with his finger. She slapped his hand away.

“Quit it. Write down your number and leave. Please.”

He threw up his hands. “Okay, okay. Don’t get all bent out of shape.”

He scribbled a phone number down and handed the paper to Eileen. She reached out for it and his hand clamped on her forearm like a steel vise. She struggled to get her arm free, but Derek just laughed.

“You struggle all you want. I’m not letting you go.”

Eileen opened her mouth to scream, but before the shriek could escape from her throat, he backhanded her so hard that she momentarily blacked out. When she opened her eyes again, her face felt hot and she tasted blood in her mouth. Derek had her back pressed up against the wall and he was grinding against her. She bucked against him, but that just seemed to excite him more.

“Feisty one, huh? You must get that from your momma.” He began tugging on the towel and Eileen got hysterical, flailing her arms and legs, trying to push him away. Derek hit her in the face again, this time with his fist, but Eileen didn’t black out. She did, however, feel two teeth in her mouth, which she spit in Derek’s face. He continued to laugh as teeth, blood, and spittle ran down his face. Ruthlessly, he yanked the towel away, and Eileen tried desperately to cover her nakedness with her arms.

He grabbed her by the hair, violently jerking her head back. Her eyes were rolling in their sockets as she tried to avoid his mouth and tongue as he kissed her. She turned her head from side to side, trying to get her mouth away from his, finally biting his lip hard enough to draw blood.

Derek jerked his head away and touched his finger to his lip. He looked at it like the blood belonged to someone else. He ran his bloody finger across Eileen’s cheek, and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to believe that this was all a nightmare, and she would wake up, and she and her mom would be on the couch, watching a movie.

Eileen began to whimper as Derek jerked her forward, twisting her wrists and forcing her arms up and behind her back. He shoved her roughly until she bumped against the kitchen table, then forced her to bend over it. She was hurting and confused and scared. She felt Derek’s hand probing her, and then he thrust a finger inside of her, causing her to gasp in pain.

Derek took her gasp as a signal of pleasure. “You like that, honey? You’re nice and tight. But not wet enough. Not wet enough to let me get in there. We better fix that.” He reached around her and began massaging her clitoris. Eileen began to hyperventilate. She had been in sex ed at school, and one girl she knew was actually pregnant, but she didn’t understand what Derek was doing to her. A weird tingle shot through her privates, almost like a small zap of electricity. Eileen bucked against him, trying to get him to stop. He again thrust a finger in her, obviously pleased by the results of the clitoral massage. “That’s better.”

He continued to hold Eileen’s wrists with one hand as he undid his button and zipper with the other. Eileen began to sob openly as she felt him rubbing against her. The kitchen table was cold against her small, budding breasts, but all she felt was Derek’s throbbing member pushing against her opening. She struggled against him, doing all that she could to wriggle away. But it wasn’t enough.

He opened her with his free hand, then slammed into her so hard and so forcibly, that the delicate tissue tore and began to bleed. Eileen began to cry harder, on the verge of fainting from the pain and humiliation of the attack. She vomited on the kitchen table as Derek ejaculated inside of her. He shoved her face in the vomit and grunted with pleasure.
Eileen’s face was smeared with blood, snot, and vomit. Derek casually pulled up his pants, sighing with satisfaction. He let go of her wrists and gently patted her bottom. Eileen remained hunched over the table, crying and coughing.

“There you go, honey. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Come on and dry your eyes.”

He ran his hand up and down her back, but she hunched over even tighter, trying to avoid his touch.

“Poor baby. But I have to go before your mom gets home.” He picked up the piece of paper with his telephone number on it and tucked it into his pocket. “Guess your mom won’t really be needing this. Too bad. She’s a sweet piece of ass. Must be where you get it from.” He grinned at her and winked. “Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

Derek was just heading for the back door when he heard Maribeth’s voice.

“Sweetie! I’m home!”

He motioned for Eileen to be quiet, then hurried to the living room to exit through the front door.

Eileen slid to the kitchen floor, curled up, trying to conceal her battered, naked body. She did not remember the horrified look on her mother’s face or her frantic voice on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. She did not remember her mother wrapping her in the towel or being held and rocked. The first thing she remembered were the dark, dark eyes, infinitely soft and kind, of the first police officer to arrive.

He did not try to touch her. Instead, he squatted down next to her and said softly, “Eileen. I am so, so sorry that this happened to you. My name is Joe, and I promise I’m going to catch the bastard that did this to you.”

Looking up momentarily and meeting his eyes, she believed him. Then she buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.

* * *

“Mrs. Riley? I’m Dr. Mary Chin.”

Maribeth shot up out of the chair, frantic with worry. The damn doctor had kept her waiting for almost two hours while the physical exam and rape kit were done on Eileen. She just wanted to be with her daughter.

She glared at the tiny Asian doctor. “Where’s my daughter?”

The doctor took her by the elbow and guided her down the hall. “Mrs. Riley, I’m going to take you to her. Physically, Eileen is okay. Battered, bruised, and sore, yes. But she will be okay. She lost two teeth, one on the top, one on the bottom, but they were both molars, so it won’t be noticeable when she smiles. Plus, now she’ll have room for her wisdom teeth when they come in.” Dr. Chin gave Maribeth a wan smile. “Sorry. I’m just trying to lessen the horror of it all. But I can’t, can I? Okay. Her face is black and blue, her left eye is almost swollen shut. But the facial bones are intact, which is very good. Both of her wrists are mildly sprained, but we bandaged them up and they’ll be fine in no time. She’s also got six stitches to repair the vaginal tear from the sexual assault.”

Maribeth visibly paled. Yes, she knew her daughter had been brutally attacked, but hearing the doctor give the details out loud was almost too painful for her to bear. Her poor little girl. She shook her head and took a deep breath.

“But is she okay? I mean really okay?”

The doctor gave a small shrug. “Mrs. Riley, your daughter seems remarkably resilient. The exam she underwent is horribly embarrassing and uncomfortable, but she did it. ‘In the name of justice,’ were her words. After the exam, she just asked if she could change into the sweats that the crisis counselor brought for her. She did change, and now she just wants to go home and take a shower. And she can, just as soon as she finishes giving her statement to the police."

The doctor handed her Eileen’s discharge paperwork. “Mrs. Riley, I don’t know how she’s going to cope. I would strongly recommend counseling for her.”

Maribeth nodded, mentally steeling herself against the emotion rising inside. She needed to be strong for Eileen.

She stepped in the room and saw Eileen on the exam table, arms crossed over her chest, sitting cross-legged on a pillow. She looked up as Maribeth entered, but said nothing. The police officer stood up and shook Maribeth’s hand.

“Mrs. Riley, I’m Joe. We met briefly earlier this evening. I’m just finishing with Eileen, but I was hoping I could speak with you for a few minutes before you take your daughter home.”

“Of course,” she said. “Eileen, honey, will you be okay for just a little bit longer?”

Eileen nodded, but remained silent.

Joe and Maribeth stepped out into the hall.

Joe sighed. “Mrs. Riley, I’m so sorry for everything you’re going through. And I’m sorry you were kept waiting for so long. Normally, I would’ve met with you and your daughter together, but apparently, she asked for me after the rape kit was done, and she just started talking. I encouraged her to wait until you came in, but she was adamant. She said she wanted to tell it before she forgot anything.”

Maribeth nodded. “That’s my daughter. Stubborn as can be.”

The kindly officer squeezed her shoulder. “She’s one heck of a girl. She gave a very detailed statement, but I still need to clarify a few things with you.” He glanced at his notes. “It’s my understanding that Derek is an old boyfriend of yours?”

“Yes. We dated a few years ago, after my husband died. I was in bad shape back then. I’m assuming Eileen already told you that?”

“She did, but she was fiercely protective of you. She obviously loves and respects you.”

Tears filled Maribeth’s eyes and she swiped them away with the back of her hand. “Eileen is a special girl. She gives me way too much credit. Anyway, Derek and I dated on and off for about four months. Eileen really liked him, and I liked the fact that he was so kind to her. Derek and I were both pretty messed up back then, but he just seemed like such a good, nice person, especially when Eileen was around.”

Joe chewed on his lower lip. “Eileen wasn’t clear on why you stopped dating Derek, just that it seemed to end pretty suddenly.”

Maribeth began to cry openly. “It was sudden. We were getting ready to go out one night and I had gone into the bathroom to snort a line. When I came out, Derek wasn’t in the living room. I found him in Eileen’s bedroom. She was asleep, but he was standing over her, watching her sleep, and masturbating. I grabbed him by his hair and literally dragged him out of her room. He kept apologizing, saying he didn’t mean anything by it. But I threw him out, and I hadn’t seen or heard from him since. I didn’t even know he still lived in the city. At least, not until today.”

“And Eileen never knew about that incident?”

“No. Even though she was angry, because she really liked Derek, I never told her.”

“Okay then. That was all I needed. Mrs. Riley, I’m going to find this son of a bitch. I swear I will. Nothing makes me angrier than people who attack children. I have a son and a daughter, and I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to them.”

He handed her a business card. “Please call me if you think of anything else, if you need anything, day or night. My pager number is written on the back. Use it anytime. I’ll keep you posted on any developments.”

Maribeth shook his hand, then gave him a quick hug. “Thank you for all your help. Please find him. Find Derek and make sure he has to pay for what he’s done to my baby.”

Joe hugged her back. “I will. You have my word. No matter what it takes or how long it takes. I’ll find him. You just get your little girl home, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks again.”

Joe turned to leave, but turned back. “Oh. And before I forget, your downstairs neighbor took it upon herself to clean up the kitchen. The poor woman was blaming herself for forgetting to lock the outside door when she went out. We told her not to worry. But anyway, at least you won’t be going home to a big mess.”

Maribeth smiled. “Mrs. Burkman is the best.”

Joe again turned to leave and Maribeth watched him retreat down the all. She wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. It was time to take care of Eileen.

Maribeth stepped back into the room. “Are you ready to go, sweetheart?”

Eileen nodded, gingerly got off the pillow, and climbed down from the exam table.

“It hurts to move,” she whispered.

“I’m so sorry, honey.” She fished in her purse for the Eileen’s discharge papers. She quickly looked them over. “It says here you can take Tylenol every three hours.”

Eileen shook her head. “No. You know how I feel about taking anything. I didn’t even want to take the antibiotics they gave me here. I refused until they told me that Derek could’ve gotten me sick. You know. That way.”

Maribeth shuddered. Her baby with an STD? Surely God wouldn’t be that cruel. He’d already taken Eileen’s father and her virginity. The girl had suffered enough.

Eileen slowly made her way across the room, moving awkwardly. She stood in front of Maribeth for a moment, saying nothing. Then she slumped into her mother’s arms and began to sob. The sobs shook Eileen’s body, and her breath came in strangled gasps. Maribeth held her daughter, stroking her hair, trying to hold back her own tears.

When Eileen’s sobs quieted, Maribeth lifted her face up, really seeing for the first time the extent of damage that Derek had done. Yes, her face was badly battered and swollen, but it was the eyes. Eileen had a complete look of brokenness and defeat.

Eileen slipped her hand into her mother’s and they slowly exited the emergency room and made their way to the car. Maribeth’s hands were shaking as she tried to turn the key in the ignition. Eileen reached over and covered her mother’s hand with her own.

“It’s okay, mom,” she whispered.

Maribeth looked at Eileen. “Don’t you dare try to comfort me. This is all my fault. If not for me, if not for all the stupid things I did, Derek would never have been in our lives and this never would have happened.”

Eileen looked angry. “Stop it. None of it matters. It’s not your fault. It was Fate, mom. Destiny. Whatever you want to call it. It’s part of God’s plan. It was written in the stars.” She flopped back in the seat, wincing in pain as the sudden movement pulled at her stitches.

“Besides,” she said, “there are more important things to worry about.”

Maribeth was puzzled. “Like what?”

Eileen gave her an impish grin. “Like what movie you rented and what kind of ice-cream you bought.”

Maribeth gave a small laugh of relief. Eventually, Eileen would be just fine.
* * *

The rest of the month of August passed without incident. There was contact with the police, but no new leads as to Derek’s whereabouts. Eileen would not go anywhere outside by herself, and she had trouble sleeping for a few weeks, but as her body healed, her spirit seemed to heal, too. She went back to school in September and complained to her mother that she was bored in class. Her grades weren’t suffering, but she often complained of being tired. Maribeth wasn’t concerned, as the counselor that Eileen had been seeing had indicated that chronic fatigue and tiredness were common in the months after a rape. In mid-October, Eileen seemed to be feeling better, and she began to get her appetite back. That Friday after school, Eileen told her mother she needed a new uniform.

Maribeth groaned. “Are you sure? I just bought that one last year. I was hoping it would get you through this school year, too.”

“Sorry mom. I’m a growing girl. It’s just getting too tight. I have to suck in my stomach to get the skirt zipped and buttoned.”

Maribeth checked, and sure enough, her little girl was on the verge of bursting out of the maroon plaid. “Okay, kiddo. We’ll go shopping tomorrow. And maybe we’ll even buy it a little bigger to compensate for all the Halloween candy I’m sure you’re going to eat.”

Eileen laughed. “Mmmmmm. Chocooate. And peanut butter. I can hardly wait!”

The next morning, though, Eileen didn’t feel like shopping. She came out of her room, looking pale and pasty. Maribeth was immediately alarmed. Eileen rarely got sick.

“What’s going on, sweetheart?”

Eileen shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just feeling kind of tired and pukey today.”

Maribeth pressed her forearm to Eileen’s brow. “You don’t feel feverish. Could it be something you ate?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe I just picked up a bug from school.”

“Maybe. But if you’re not feeling better by Monday, I’m taking you to the doctor.”

Eileen remained tired and lethargic for the rest of Saturday and Sunday. True to her word, Maribeth took Eileen to the doctor on Monday, over the howls of protest from the thirteen year old.

Eileen’s pediatrician, Dr. Pederson, was a woman of about sixty, and had been taking care of her since she was two. Eileen adored her.

Dr. Pederson listened patiently as Maribeth described Eileen’s symptoms. She hadn’t seen Eileen since her follow up two days after the tragic encounter with her mother’s ex-boyfriend, and was puzzled by the sudden onset of new symptoms.

“Well,” said Dr. Pederson, “let me take a look at you, Eileen.”

She did a quick once-over, and Maribeth noticed that the doctor, who was usually very chatty and cheerful, had a slight frown on her face. She called for a nurse, then turned to Maribeth.

“Maribeth, honey, would you mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes? I need to ask Eileen a few quick questions. I’d also like to do a routine pelvic exam. It’s possible she has an infection. I just need to take a quick look.”

Maribeth’s heart was racing. “Okay. Can I wait right outside?”

“Sure, honey. I’ll have Nina call you when I’m through.”

The nurse smiled at Maribeth, but she couldn’t smile back. Please, God, please don’t let Derek have gotten her sick.

She paced out in the hallway for ten minutes before Nina poked her head out of the room.

“Mrs. Riley, you can come back in. Doctor is finished.”

Maribeth re-entered the exam room and her heart sank. Eileen, who had already gotten re-dressed, had obviously been crying.

Oh shit, Maribeth thought. It is some kind of infection. Damn! Why my little girl?

Dr. Pederson pointed to a chair. “Have a seat, Maribeth. We have a few things to discuss.”
Maribeth sat down heavily, alternately looking between her daughter and the doctor.

“Well?” she asked. “What’s wrong with my baby?”

Dr. Pederson sighed. “Maribeth, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your baby is having a baby. Eileen is pregnant.”

Eileen began to cry again and Maribeth, who wanted to go to her daughter and comfort her, simply slid out of her chair in a dead faint.
* * *

Monday, September 13, 2010

Untitled 1: Part 9

(Somewhere a few days later, after another homicide that I haven't written about yet...)

Over the next two days, Eileen only saw Mike once when they both responded to a call that Thursday. They had exchanged hellos, but nothing more. The pain between them was still too fresh, too raw for them to even pretend they were comfortable being in the same room. As Ryan and Eileen left the scene, Ryan gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. Eileen had said nothing about her dinner with Mike from the week before and aside from the fact that he could sense the tension between her and Mike, it was obvious that something was very wrong. Eileen was normally very chatty, working the room whenever they were investigating a homicide. She’d been unusually quiet all week and today, she’d barely spoken to anyone, instead letting Ryan do the questioning of the witnesses.

Ryan had tried hard to focus on the task at hand, but his attention kept drifting to whatever was going on between Eileen and Mike. There was no denying that Mike had been watching Eileen, though he was trying hard to make it look like he wasn’t watching her, and Eileen had struggled with not making it look like she knew he was watching her. She had been stiff and all business, appearing to be her usual abrasive self, but didn’t make eye contact with anyone.

“You want to talk about it, babe?”

Eileen shook her head and got into the passenger seat, looking out the window.

Ryan reached out and stroked her hair. “Sweetie, it might help to get it out. You’ve been miserable, and it hurts me to see you like this.”

Eileen looked at him and burst into tears.

“Oh, honey, come here.” Ryan reached across and gathered her into his arms, rocking her as much as the confines of the car would allow. Eileen’s whole body shook and her breath came in heaving gasps. Ryan’s heart was breaking for her. He had only seen her cry twice before, the most recent time when she was in the hospital, but both times before were nothing compared to this.

Her sobs quieted after a few minutes, but she still clung to him, resting her cheek on his shoulder.

“Now do you want to talk?”

She nodded, pulling herself back into the passenger seat and clicking on her seatbelt as Ryan started the car. She sighed. “It’s stupid.”

“That’s okay,” he replied. “Tell me anyway and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Okay.” Eileen sniffed and wiped tears from her cheeks, straightening up and regaining her composure. “Can we go to Starbucks?”

He laughed. “You drive a hard bargain, but sure.”

He eased the car into traffic and Eileen gave him a brief summary of what transpired between Friday and Saturday, trying not to gush too much about the electricity and passion between her and Mike.

Ryan let out a low whistle. “Good thing my washer broke. You wouldn’t have been able to get it on with him if I’d been hanging around. What the heck happened? It sounds like things were great.”

They pulled in at Starbucks and ordered their coffee. Eileen was quiet until they got back into the car.

“There’s more to it.” She then told him about Monday and Tuesday. “It was horrible, Ryan. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so terrible.” She sipped her coffee and looked out the window. “But I can’t blame him,” she said sadly. “Not after what he saw on Sunday.”

Ryan glared out the windshield. “I can. I can blame him. He shouldn’t have talked to you like that. Maybe if he would’ve listened to you, it would’ve been better. He’s a damn fool.” He glanced over and saw that Eileen was crying again, not the deep sobs like earlier, but a steady flow of tears running down her face. He took her hand and kissed it.

“Baby, please don’t cry. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.”

That just made her cry harder. “No, Ryan, he is worth it. He really is. If I had the chance, I’d be completely honest and tell him everything.”

“Want me to talk to him?”

Forcing herself to regain control, she took a slow breath and said, “No, that would just make things worse.” She sighed a deep sigh and sifted through her purse looking for a tissue. She blew her nose twice, then gave herself a quick once over in the rearview mirror. “God, I’m a mess.” She smoothed down her hair and dabbed her nose again. “Maybe I’ll just forget the whole relationship thing and join ranks with you and be a lesbian.”

Ryan laughed out loud, spraying some coffee out of his mouth on the steering wheel. He wiped it up with his sleeve. “You don’t want to do that. Trust me. Women are bitchy. You’re much better off if you have man troubles.”

She gave him a wan smile. “You’re right. I’ll deal with my man problems. Speaking of which, how are you doing in the man department?”

He shrugged. “Same old, same old, I guess. I’m going to a Cubs game later this month with a few of my buddies, but none of them have any potential for a relationship. Did you know there’s a shortage of nice, good-looking men in this city?”

Eileen snickered at him. “No, there isn’t. There’s a shortage in this city of nice, good-looking, gay men who can live up to your standards. I mean, come on, Ryan. You’re basically looking for someone to cook and clean, iron your shirts, and rub your back at the end of the day. Hell, you’re looking for a wife!”

He grinned mischievously at her. “Is that an offer?”

“No way. You had your chance and blew it. I know it drives you crazy that I’m such a good cook and I keep my house so neat. But that’s just because you realize what you gave up.”

“I guess. Not!” He stuck his tongue out at her. “It’s just hard. I know it’s stupid, because I’ve got this macho cop-image to maintain and telling the world I’m gay would blow that out of the water, but I just feel like there’s nobody out there for me.”

“Again, I’m not sure you’re being realistic.”

“Are you saying I should settle for less than I deserve?”

“No, you know my thoughts on that. The moment you settle for less than you deserve, you’ll end up getting even less than you settled for. I heard that once a long time ago and I believe it’s true. What I am saying is that you need to face reality. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a guy who will stay in the closet with you. The world is more accepting of homosexuality. Maybe you need to be more accepting of it too. Besides, secrets are no way to maintain a relationship.” She took a deep breath and sipped her coffee. “Trust me, I know.”

Ryan reached over and patted her hand. He knew that she knew. Boy did she know. Eileen was silent the rest of the way back, but the wheels were turning in Ryan’s head. There was no way in hell he was going to let Mike hurt Eileen more than he already had. Eileen deserved better than that. He would just have to coax the kind paramedic into opening his eyes and seeing things for what they were. And Ryan could be very persuasive when it was necessary.
* * *

Thursday afternoon and Friday passed quickly. Eileen found that she was looking forward to the weekend. She was completely drained and desperately needed some sleep. Since Mike had told her to beat it, she’d barely been able to go into her bedroom at night. Every time she looked at the bed or tried to rest her head on the pillow, she couldn’t help but think of the hours she had spent there with him. Thursday night, she’d given up and ended up catching a few hours of sleep on the couch, but even when she did sleep, it was fitful and restless. Strange dreams left her feeling groggy, slightly hung over in the mornings.

Late Friday night, Eileen forced herself to take a long, hot shower before going to bed. Feeling drowsy, she could have sworn that she smelled Mike’s cologne. Fighting off the despair that threatened to overwhelm her, she forced herself to relax and drift to sleep. The weekend would be a good time to mentally rejuvenate and put the past behind her.

* * *

Late Sunday afternoon, Mike walked into Charlie’s, just glad to be out of his apartment. He’d felt like he was suffocating in the cramped confines and just couldn’t take it anymore. He needed a meal and some good company, and he knew he’d find both here. It was unusually quiet for the time of day, but he went up to the bar and placed his order with Mona.

Seeing the dark circles under his eyes and the tension lines in his face, she could tell he was not having a good day. Poor guy. She offered him a wink and a big smile. “You want a beer with that, Mike? You look like you could use one.”

He thought about it for a second. “Why not? Sure. I’ll take a Heineken.”

She popped the top off a bottle and leaned over to slide it across the bar, giving him a clear view of her ample cleavage. Her nipples jutted against her thin t-shirt, and she smiled when she saw that Mike had noticed. “Good choice on the beer. I’ll get your food right up.”

“Ah, Ramona, you sweet thing. You’re the best.”

She winked at him again and blew him a kiss. “I know. That’s why you keep coming back.”

Mike grinned, as he watched her sway her voluptuous bottom as she made her way toward the kitchen. The easy flirting was a soothing balm on his ego, making him feel good, taking away some of the sting of what had happened the previous weekend. Deciding to kill some time until he could eat, he walked over to the dart board. He was throwing darts, actually not doing too badly, sipping his beer and trying not to think about Eileen, which was difficult since they’d made a habit of teaming up and taking on their friends and co-workers, typically cleaning house and making a couple bucks on some friendly wagers. The minutes ticked by as he zoned out, lost in the soft thuds as the darts repeatedly hit the board. The blissful silence in his head was interrupted when he heard Ryan Maxwell’s voice.

“Hey Mike. C’mon over and join me. I had Mona bring your food to the table.”

He hesitated, tempted to pretend he didn’t hear Ryan, but then decided to join him. All the Eileen stuff aside, Ryan was a good guy, and they had hung out together many times without Eileen. He slid into the booth across from Ryan, noting that he was eating a giant burrito with hot sauce. Mike looked at his own plate, which consisted of grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, and a fruit cup.

Ryan sneered at him. “Man, how can you eat that stuff?”

Mike raised his eyebrows. “Me? How can you eat that?” he asked, pointing to the burrito. “I can smell the jalapeño from here. That’s going to tear up your insides later.”

Ryan chewed thoughtfully, considering Mike’s words. He swallowed, then took a swig of beer. “Point well taken. The good thing is, I live alone. Eileen, however, will have to deal with it all day tomorrow.”

Mike bristled at hearing Eileen’s name. He jammed a forkful of chicken into his mouth to avoid having to speak, but Ryan wouldn’t have it.

He narrowed his eyes, watching Mike chew. “She’s a good girl, man. Don’t mess it up.”

“It doesn’t involve you, Ryan. Back off.”

“Don’t tell me to back off. It does involve me. If it involves Eileen, it involves me. You can’t hurt my best friend and expect me not to have some kind of reaction to it. I know she’s a big girl and can handle her own problems, but I don’t like to see her like this.”

Mike sneered at him. “Then maybe you ought to invest in a good set of blinders.”

There was a slight twitch in Ryan’s left fist and for a split second, he actually considered popping Mike in the jaw. “Watch it man. You mess with Eileen, you mess with me.”

The air around the table reeked of testosterone. Mike and Ryan were sizing each other up, but mutual respect prevented both of them from throwing a punch.
After a few minutes of strained silence, Ryan spoke. “What the hell are you thinking?”

Mike set down his fork and looked across the table at Ryan. “Look, this really doesn’t involve you. If it did, you would have more of a clue as to what’s going on. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ryan stared hard at him. “Yes. Yes, I do know what I’m talking about. Look, Eileen told me what happened and—”

“And I’m sure she only told you her side of the story and made me look like an asshole.”

“No. She told me everything, including your side of it.” Ryan glared at him, angry and upset for Eileen. “Hate to be the one to tell you, buddy, but you don’t need anyone to make you look like an asshole. You’re doing a fine job of that on your own.”

Mike clenched his fists, trying not to get riled up. “Okay, so I’m an asshole. But if Eileen really did tell you everything, then you should understand why I’m so upset.”

“I would understand you being upset if you were right, but you’re not. There is an explanation, and if you’d bothered to listen to her, you’d know that.”

“So tell me what the explanation is.”

Ryan bit off a huge chunk of burrito, not really caring about the crumbs flying out of his mouth as he spoke. “No way, man. Eileen is my best friend. I’m not telling you anything. I would never betray her trust like that.”

Mike poked at his dinner with his fork, not really hungry anymore. “I just don’t get it. I don’t know what possible explanation there could be. I saw her with someone else. He kissed her. They were holding hands. I just don’t see a reasonable explanation for that.”

“Is that why you called her those names?”

Mike flushed a little. “I was really angry.”

“I can appreciate that. I’ve worked with Eileen for a long time. And you’re right about a few things. She can be inconsiderate sometimes. Bitch? Absolutely. Especially when she’s tired or hungry, which is pretty often. But the town slut? No way. You’re damn lucky she didn’t knock you on your ass. In fact, I’m surprised she didn’t. And you know she could do it.” He shook his head. “She is not a slut.”

Mike shrugged. “I was just calling it the way I saw it.” He scowled at Ryan. “Besides, if you combine what I saw with the amount of time the two of you spend together and the rumors we all hear, what other conclusion am I supposed to reach?”

Ryan was annoyed and it came through in his tone of voice. “Again, she is not a slut. And you more than anyone should know how hurtful rumors can be. All that crap people said about you after your wife died, how you’d gone off the deep end. Man, me and Eileen defended you, and she barely knew you at the time. You want to try and use something to judge her, how about you use that? A nice woman doesn’t know you from anyone and she’s telling people to back off and let you grieve. Out of everyone, your friends and family included, she was the only one who seemed to get it and know you weren’t losing it.”

The jab hit exactly where Ryan had intended, as evidenced by the obvious shock on Mike’s face, but he made a quick recovery. Through clenched teeth, he said, “First off, you’ve got a lot of nerve bringing up my wife and how I coped after she died. Secondly, I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about you and Eileen. How do you explain it? You two are always together. Always. Two good-looking people of the opposite sex? How could you have not hooked up? It would make sense if the two of you were brother and sister or maybe gay. But I don’t get it.” His nostrils flared as he gulped air, trying to control his temper.

Ryan let out a long-suffering sigh. “You know what? That made sense. But we’re not siblings. And she’s not gay.”

“Then how do you explain it?”

Ryan finished his burrito and chugged the last of his beer. He wiped his mouth with a napkin before he spoke. “Dude, you’re not getting it.” He reached over and rapped Mike on the head. “You need to put on your listening ears. Isn’t that what those nuns told you when you were going to school? So listen up now, buddy. I said she’s not gay.” He raised an eyebrow at Mike. “Now do you get it?”

Realization dawned on Mike and he leaned hard against the back of the booth. “No kidding?”

“No kidding,” Ryan replied. “But you better not tell anyone. Eileen is the only other person who knows, and her lips are sealed. So if anyone else finds out, I’ll know it came from you, and I’ll have to kick your ass.”

Mike threw up his hands in mock terror. “I’m shaking.” Then he turned serious. “You know me better than that. I won’t say anything to anyone.” He looked down at his plate, quiet for a moment, thinking about what he should do next. “Contrary to what my recent words and actions may indicate, I’m not a bad guy. Though I’m guessing Eileen would probably have something to say about that.” He rubbed his sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes, causing them to water for a moment. “She must think I’m a scumbag.”

“Not quite. But don’t take my word for it. Go to Eileen’s house and make up with her.”

Mike shook his head. “No can do, my man. It’s Sunday evening. You should know that she’s not home.”

Ryan rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. “I can’t believe I’m letting myself get involved with this. Look, she’s home. She’s home every Sunday evening. She does play softball during the summer on Sunday afternoons, but trust me, she’s home now.”

Mike contemplated Ryan’s suggestion. “Okay. I’ll go.” He glanced at his plate, not wanting to waste the food. “Look, I’m not going to finish my food. I know it’s not what you would normally eat, but help yourself.”

As Mike was getting up to leave, Ryan pulled his wallet from his back pocket, opened it, and pulled out a ten. He handed it to Mike.

Mike looked at him quizzically. “Dude, I’m not a hooker. You don’t need to pay me to go over there.”

Ryan snorted at him. “I wouldn’t pay you for anything. No way, not when I know you’re making a hell of a lot more money than I do. There’s a Dairy Queen a few blocks from Eileen’s house. Stop there first and buy two medium Heath Bar Blizzards.”

Mike gave him a puzzled look. “I know where it is, but why do I need to stop there? I mean, I can get something for Eileen, but why two? I don’t like Heath Bar Blizzards.”

“Mike, considering you were in the military, you do a piss poor job of following orders. Did I say one was for you? No, I didn’t. If you want something from Dairy Queen, pay for it yourself. Just buy two of them and go to Eileen’s house.”

Mike shrugged. “Whatever you say.” He started to leave, then turned back to Ryan with his hand extended. Ryan gave it a firm shake.

“Thanks. I still don’t think that this involved you, but for what it’s worth, I am glad that you butted in. But I have something to ask you, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Well, given your recent—ah—given the recent information, I was just wondering…”

Ryan shook his head and held out his hand to silence Mike. “Oh man. You’re going to ask me if I’ve ever thought about you that way. I refuse to answer that.”


“Because. If I say yes, then you’ll feel all weird around me. But if I say no, then you’ll be offended that I don’t find you attractive.”

Mike decided Ryan was right. “Fair enough. We’ll leave it at that.”

As Mike turned and walked away, Ryan watched his broad back retreat and sighed. If Mike only knew what he thought about. Rather than dwell on what could never be, he slid over Mike’s nearly full dinner plate and liberally doused the plain chicken and vegetables with hot sauce, looking forward to Monday morning with Eileen in the car. He could hardly wait to hear the relationship gossip.
* * *

Mike was on his way to Eileen’s when he decided to make a quick stop at church. His parish was one of the few left in the city that kept its doors unlocked. He parked in a spot right out front, leaving the windows partially open to prevent the early evening summer sun from turning the interior into an oven.

The inside of the church felt cool, though there wasn’t air conditioning. He walked up the center aisle, sat at the front, and stared at his hands, glowing multi-colored from the stained-glass windows. As always, he was assaulted by memories of Tina.

Their wedding day, as she walked up the aisle to meet him at the altar, her pale blonde hair piled high on her head, her face absolutely suffused with joy behind the gossamer veil. He remembered how beautiful she looked, her rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes glowing with happiness. He remembered kissing her after they exchanged vows, holding her tightly against him as their families and friends thundered applause in the large church, having no idea that Tina was thinking only of him going back overseas and wondering if she would be a widow before she could even get used to the idea of being his wife. He smiled as he thought about the time they spent in this same church, week after week of attending mass together and walking up the aisle for Communion, and the occasional pinch on his bottom that she would give when she thought nobody was looking. As the years went by, he and Tina would stay after and pray together for him to make a sound career move, and they would also pray for a child. Then she got pregnant twice and miscarried twice. But they still prayed. And then, in their sixth year of marriage, she got pregnant and stayed pregnant. Their joy was only overshadowed by her violent morning sickness that lasted until the beginning of her seventh month. It was during that seventh month that she started feeling better, only to have her water break in the middle of one of her shifts at the hospital. In spite of having access to immediate care, the labor couldn’t be stopped. Little Ben came too early and he was too sick. Mike had had to practically carry Tina up the aisle as they walked behind the tiny white casket.

Tina had stopped going to church after that, feeling that her relationship with God had been irreparably damaged. Mike couldn’t blame her, but he still went, still prayed. Less than a year after that, Tina was making dinner one night as he got ready for his shift. She hadn’t been feeling well, and Mike was hopeful that her nausea, headaches, and slightly achy abdomen for two weeks indicated that she was pregnant again. But right in the middle of cooking, she had collapsed on the kitchen floor, blood gushing from between her legs and pooling around her feet. She had been rushed to the hospital, barely conscious, Mike holding her icy hands and praying during the short ambulance ride. It was then that they learned that Tina was not pregnant. Her uterus was full of cancer. An emergency hysterectomy was done, dashing all hope for them having a child of their own. But, Mike still went to church and prayed.

They were cautiously optimistic during Tina’s chemotherapy. She responded well to treatment, and though she was devastated when she lost her hair, the chemo helped. Following treatment, the doctors couldn’t find any more cancer. Two years later, she was healthy as could be.

And then it happened.

They were making love one night and Mike was nuzzling her left breast when she suddenly yelped in pain. Mike was sick with fear when he and Tina both felt the tender spot and found a lump. A trip to the doctor the next morning revealed the hard truth. The lump turned out to be a tumor. There were options. Mastectomy. Another round of chemo. Tina was horrified at the idea of losing her breast, but Mike assured her it didn’t matter. He loved her, not her breasts. And he prayed. Then more bad news. Stage four cancer. In both breasts. Her lungs. Her brain. And still Mike prayed. Tina had refused further treatment, preferring to live her last days without the poisonous chemo that may extend her life for a few months, but not cure her. Mike supported her decision. She was dead four months later.
And he had walked up this aisle again, this time, behind his wife’s casket.

Mike sat, carried away by memories, his past memories and present feelings bleeding together. He twirled his wedding band and remembered the funeral. Tina’s family and friends. His family, friends from the Army, friends from work. The mass. The eulogy. He got up and spoke about her, smiling and even laughing occasionally when he told everyone about what a bad cook she was but what a wonderful wife she had been to him, wanting them all to know her the way that he knew her.

Through it all, he sat, dry-eyed, telling everyone he was fine. No, really. I’m fine. As fine as I can be under the circumstances. Yeah, it hurts like hell and I’m going to miss her, but this wasn’t unexpected. We all knew her time was limited. We were lucky. We got to hold each other and tell each other all the things we needed to before we ran out of time. We got to hug and cry and come to terms with it before today. I’m fine. Really. He was fine through the service at the cemetery. And he was fine when they began lowering her casket into the ground in the plot next to their son. And then he couldn’t take it anymore. The thought of his wife gone from him and in a place where she could hold and care for their son, waiting for him to join them, was finally too much for him. The life he had always wanted, all the plans he had, his dreams for the future, lay in the two graves in front of him. Something in him began to unravel and he sank to his knees, barely able to breathe. People stood awkwardly, not sure what to do for him. Most began to walk away. Mike stayed on his knees, watching as the casket containing his dead wife dropped further down. He was holding his breath without realizing it, staring at the ground as he started to feel dizzy. All he wanted was to jump down in there and rip the top off the casket and shake Tina, make her breathe, make her open her eyes and stay with him. He wanted to scream, rip out his hair, do whatever it took to make her come back.

Then, just as he was giving serious thought to planting himself on top of the casket and being buried with Tina, there was a gentle touch on his back. He had looked up and saw that it was Eileen. She said nothing, just slid her hand onto his shoulder and stood there. He felt the heat of her hand through his suit jacket, and that was his complete undoing. Under the unbearable burden of a life gone horribly wrong, his shoulders sagged, his body giving way to the pain that was suddenly too overwhelming to carry, and he buried his face in his hands and wept. Through it all, Eileen just stood there, not saying anything, letting him cry. She didn’t pat his shoulder, didn’t rub it, didn’t squeeze it. She just stood there, her palm resting firmly against him.

For the better part of ten minutes, he gave into his grief, gut-wrenching sobs shaking his large frame. When he was spent, he’d stood up and looked at Eileen. She handed him a handkerchief, which he took. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and said, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting. I’ll say a prayer for you and Tina tonight.” She had walked away after that. Mike still had the handkerchief, tucked away in his underwear drawer. He held onto it, and whenever he saw it, he remembered the kindness of a woman he had barely known, but who had seemed to understand the devastation he felt.

And now, back in this church, the church he was baptized in, where he’d made his First Communion and Confirmation, where he was married, and the church where he’d said good-bye to a baby son and a wife, he now sat and thought of Eileen. Guilt consumed him as he thought about how shabbily he’d treated her, the horrible names he’d called her. And he asked God’s forgiveness. Peace settled over him and he prayed. He knew God forgave him for his foolishness. He prayed that Eileen would forgive that same foolishness and find it in her heart to give him another chance. And then he prayed for the courage to forgive himself.

Just as he always did on his way out, he paused and lit a candle. It would be Tina’s last candle. He quietly thanked her for her years of love and support, and asked her to please understand that it was time for him to move on. In his heart, he knew she did, and as he left the church, he slipped off his wedding band and put it in his pocket.
* * *

Mike sat in front of Eileen’s house, trying to talk himself into getting out of the car. He knew he couldn’t keep sitting there, especially with the marked squad so close by. Finally, he took a deep breath, grabbed the two Blizzards from the cup holders, and made his way to her front door. The sun was just starting to set, and the front porch was bathed in cool shade from the large elm tree in her front yard. He could hear music playing, muffled, but he recognized the strains of country music and the song that he and Eileen had danced to in her kitchen the weekend before. It had seemed to fit that moment perfectly, and he’d been listening to the local country station regularly, always hoping to hear it again. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them, and reached out to ring the doorbell.

The time it took for her to answer the door seemed like an eternity. She was smiling when she opened the house door, but the smile froze and disappeared when she saw him through the storm door. She unlocked the storm door and opened it for him.

Not sure how to react to his presence, she simply whispered, “Hi.”

He stood sheepishly with his hands behind his back, taking in her appearance, not even remotely surprised that, as always, she was beautiful. She was wearing a pair of white denim shorts and a blue Chicago Cubs t-shirt. Her hair was pulled into a high bun, which accented her pretty face.

Mike realized he was staring at her. He hurriedly looked away, trying to maintain his composure. Being overly sleep deprived was combining with the fact that he was a little emotional to begin with, and unbidden tears sprang into his eyes.

“Sounds like our song.”

She looked confused at first, then embarrassed. “Oh, yeah. Sugarland. I like this song a lot.”


“They sing the song.”

“Oh,” he said, feeling awkward. Eileen continued to look at him, not sure what to say. Finally he cleared his throat. “You were wrong about something,” he said, still not able to look her in the face.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Pardon?”

He smiled and finally met her eyes for a brief moment before looking away again. His words came out in a rush. “Last weekend. You said you’d never seen me without my hat before. You were wrong. At Tina’s funeral. You stood with me. I wasn’t wearing a hat then.”

“You came over here to tell me I was wrong about that?” Eileen was confused, and her tone had an edge of annoyance to it.

Summoning up his courage, he pulled his hands from behind his back and held out the two cups. “No. No, it’s more than that. Truce?”

Eileen smiled a small smile, but it was genuine, and her tone softened. “You must have been talking to Ryan. Sure. Come on in.”

She took the cups from his hands and stepped aside so he could enter. She was quiet, waiting for Mike to speak. He opened his mouth, words of apology ready to spill out, but froze the second he walked into the living room. There, sitting on the couch, was the same man he’d seen Eileen with last weekend. Even worse, the guy was wearing his hat. His stomach churned, but he tried to stay calm. Ryan had sworn there was an explanation.

Eileen, now realizing she would have to speak first, broke the silence. “Given the fact that you came with two Blizzards, it’s obvious Ryan told you something. It’s also obvious he didn’t tell you everything.” She paused and cleared her throat. “Mike, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” She motioned to the man who had turned toward them but had yet to say a word. “Hey Scotty. Turn off the radio and come on over here.”

The man got up from the couch, clicked off the CD player, and walked over. More like shuffled over. He had a slow, slightly unsteady gait. Upon closer inspection, Mike realized that the guy was younger than Eileen. A lot younger. And something was a little off. Scotty had a smooth, bland face, but it was something about the eyes. It wasn’t just the color, though they were a darker and more startling shade of green than Eileen’s eyes. It was something. Something.

Eileen nudged Scotty’s hand. “Mike, this is Scott. Scotty, say hello to Mike.”

Scotty’s face brightened. “You’re Mike.” He shook Mike’s hand, vigorously pumping it several times. “I’m wearing your hat.”

Mike nodded, still bewildered. “You sure are.”

Scotty eyed the Dairy Queen cups that Eileen was holding, a big grin spreading across his face as he templed his hands under his chin. “Is one for me?”

“Scotty, that’s not very polite. But yes, one is for you. Mike brought it.” She handed him one of the Blizzards and Scotty’s whole face lit up.

“Thanks, Mr. Mike. Mr. Ryan usually brings me ice-cream on Sundays, but you’re okay, too. I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

Mike was thoroughly confused. “You have?”

Scotty nodded. “Yup. My mom told me all about you. She said you were the one who gave her the ouchie on her neck. I was mad when she told me.” His face tensed momentarily, but then relaxed. “I was mad. Really mad. But she said you had to do it to make her better after she got bit—I mean stinged. Or, um, stung. Yeah. When she got stung by the bees.”

Mike nodded. Mom? he thought.

Scotty continued. “My mom gets sick from bees. But I don’t. Just her. I’m glad you made her better, but I was sad last weekend when you came over. Mom said she couldn’t pick me up on Friday night like she usually does, but she said it was so she could make you a thank you dinner for helping her not be sick anymore.”

He grinned mischievously. “First I was mad because Mr. Ryan was supposed to come, too, and he plays catch with me when he comes over. But then mom said he couldn’t make it and it would just be you. So I made fun of her and said she had a date.” He broke out into song, “Mom and Mr. Mike, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” He laughed gleefully, flapping his arms, then hugging himself. “She told me to cut it out, but I thought it was funny. She still came for me though, just not until Saturday. But it was okay. I had fun with my friends Friday night. We played Frisbee Golf.” He looked inquiringly at Mike. “Do you know how to play Frisbee Golf?” When Mike shook his head no, Scotty kept talking. “It doesn’t matter. I can teach you if you want. Me and mom had a lot of fun on Saturday. We went to the dentist. That was okay. Some people don’t like dentists, but I do. He’s real nice. Me and mom were supposed to play softball on Sunday, but a bunch of people couldn’t come because it was so hot. Some of them can’t be outside when it’s real hot. But I can. So mom took me out for lunch on Sunday since we didn’t play softball, and we got ice-cream after. It was good.”

He looked down at his Blizzard. “Mom, can I eat it in my room?”

“Okay. But make sure you brush your teeth after.”

“I will. Can I watch Spider-Man while I eat it?”

“Fine. You know when to close your eyes, right?”

“Yup. The one scary part. And I’ll remember to go to bed by nine-thirty so I get up on time tomorrow.”

Scotty gave Eileen a hug and a kiss. “Just so I don’t forget later.” He gave her another kiss, still hugging her hard. “Good night, mom.”

“Good night, sweetie. Sleep well.”

“I will. Good night, Mr. Mike. I’m glad you gave your hat to my mom. It made her happy. And I like wearing it, too.” Scotty leaned forward and hugged Mike impulsively. “And thanks for the ice-cream, too.”

Eileen tapped Scotty’s shoulder. “Honey, Mike and I will be in the living room, okay? If you need anything or you get bored watching the movie, just come on out.”

Scotty gave her a devilish smile. “No, I’ll stay in my room except for when I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. You two might want to kiss or something.”

Eileen gave him a playful pinch on his cheek before hugging him again. “I love you.”

He wiggled away from her, calling out “I love you, mom!” as he scurried away.

Mike watched, completely dumbfounded, as Scotty made his way to his room. When he heard the bedroom door close, he turned to Eileen.

“Mom? I thought you couldn’t have kids.” His tone came out sharper than he intended. He softened his voice as he continued. “I’m guessing there’s more to what you told me last weekend?”

Eileen closed her eyes. “Believe it or not, I can explain. But it’s a long story.”

Mike sensed that it was, indeed, a very long story. He reached out and took her hand. “No time like the present, kiddo.”

Tears welled in her eyes when he called her that. That simple word. Kiddo. It began to heal something in her. She nodded and they walked over to the couch. Eileen sat down, curling her legs under herself. She stuck her spoon in her Blizzard, swirling the ice-cream and candy bits, then took a heaping spoonful and shoved it in her mouth.

She rolled the sweetness around on her tongue and was aware that Mike was staring at her. “What? You want some?” She offered him the cup.

“No thanks. It’s all for you.”

Eileen sighed. “Sorry. I’m stalling. Okay. Well, I guess you already figured out that Scotty is my son. He’s seventeen.”

Mike did the math in his head and raised his eyebrows at her, ready to speak.

She held up a hand to silence him. “If I’m going to tell this story, you have to hold your questions until the end. Okay?”

He nodded. “Deal. You talk, I listen.”

Eileen nodded. Her eyes took on a faraway look. “I guess I should start at the beginning.” Her voice grew so quiet, Mike had to strain to hear her.

“I had a pretty good childhood. Not perfect, but pretty good. My mom was a secretary at a law firm downtown and my dad was a truck driver. I actually grew up in a two-bedroom two-flat not far from here. Dad was gone a lot during the week, but he was home every weekend.

“When I was nine, dad was killed in an accident. I wish I could tell you it was something dramatic, like he died trying to save someone else, or it was a fiery crash in the middle of a blizzard, but it wasn’t anything like that. Truth is, it was the middle of the afternoon on a perfectly clear spring day. He was speeding, which was just like him. Not going horribly fast, but enough that it was a problem. Anyway, he went to change lanes, lost control and hit a guardrail, then a concrete wall. Still, he might have survived, but he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He flew out the windshield of his cab, died when he hit the ground. Traumatic injury to his brain stem. He never had a chance. After his whole crazy life—his parents dying when he was a kid, ending up in foster care, enlisting in the Army and going to Vietnam—he was done in by a one-vehicle crash.

“The funeral was hard. I was confused and scared. But mom—mom was devastated to the point of being catatonic. For weeks after, she would just lay in bed all day, crying and crying. I got myself up and off to school, and would make dinner when I got home. The neighbor downstairs helped us out a lot.

“After about a month, she started to pull it together and went back to work. Things were okay for a little bit. But then mom started acting weird. Really weird. Hyper. And when she wasn’t hyper, she was angry and mean. I was on my own a lot because she started going out every night after work. And she would bring people—men—home every night and they would spend hours in her bedroom. I just tried really hard to stay out of her way.

“When I was twelve, I finally learned why her mood swings were so bad. Turned out she was using cocaine. I walked in after a half-day at school and found her snorting a line at the kitchen table. She was completely humiliated. I didn’t know until I was older, but she was whoring herself out to pay for her habit. Her own salary and dad’s life insurance policy sure couldn’t cover it, especially since she was using so frequently. I guess one of the lawyers in her firm turned her onto coke. Mom never said so specifically, but she hinted at it.

“Anyway, in the months leading up to my thirteenth birthday, mom tried to get clean. She felt really bad about everything that happened and was dealing with a lot of guilt. She wanted to make it up to me, so that year, she planned a small surprise birthday party for me. I was so touched. We didn’t really have any family, but she invited our neighbors and my three best friends from school. When the time came for me to blow out the candles on my cake, I wished with all my might that mom would stay clean.”

Eileen took another spoonful of ice-cream and chewed thoughtfully on the chunks of candy. Though it was difficult, Mike said nothing. It was a full minute before she spoke again.

“So, it was my birthday.”