Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Roxie's eyes glittered in the light of the four little candles as the voices of the small gathering trailed off…."and many more..." Juju bent down to whisper "Make a wish," into Roxie's ear just as Sam snapped a picture with his i-phone. Alessandra leaned over his shoulder to take a peek at the image of the two blue eyed blonde look-a-likes. "They could be sisters," Ale thought, as she smiled at her close friend.
"Auntie Allie, look at my cake! It's a mermaid!" squealed Roxie, delighted to be the center of attention.
"It's beautiful, Roxie. Just like you; and probably just a sweet. Here, let me help you cut it up for everybody. You can carry it over to them." And with that, Ale stepped up to the table and deftly began serving the birthday cake onto the aquamarine blue paper plates as Roxie carefully chose a plastic fork and napkin for each piece and shuttled it to outstretched hands.
Juju began assembling the colorful pile of gifts and cards so Roxie could reach them easily once the cake and juice had been dispensed with. She surveyed the small group, grateful for the presence of her friend Alessandra, a raven haired exotic beauty with eyes so expressive any director of the silent film era would have made her an instant star, and her "handsome Sampson". The three had met two years earlier when they worked at the local Tacky Jack's. Ale and Juju waited tables, Sam had been the bartender. Sam and Juju had had a brief affair which ended in tears for the vulnerable Juju. After a few months apart, they had come together again as friends and enjoyed a richer relationship without guise or flirtation. Now they were able to truly appreciate the special bond that had developed, once again lovers after over a year of just being buddies. Now Sam was teaching school and training for his dream of becoming a mixed martial arts professional. Ale and Juju had moved on to work at the Hangout, Gulf Shores' famous restaurant on the beach. It was "the place to be" and the two women had worked hard, serving the tourists and students on break from school. Juju still worked there, waiting tables. Ale now worked for United Air Lines as a flight attendant. She had made it a point to be back at the lively beach side community to celebrate her adopted niece's birthday. The friends had created a family for themselves, each acutely aware of the value of their unconditional love they held for one another.
Sam was helping the kids with their juice refills and keeping them entertained with his exaggerated caricature of an English butler. His own son, two years older that Roxie, held up his cup to his father. Sam fondled the boy's curls, "Thirsty, master Aiden?" The boy held his dad's eyes with his own as his face broke into a wide smile.
Juju picked up the blue and white package stamped 'FEDEX' and checked the return address, knowing it was from her Aunt Frankie. When she opened the box, a letter, addressed to her, fell to the ground. As she bent to retrieve it, a lump rose in her throat as she recalled the last time she had seen her great-aunt. It was before she had known she was pregnant with Roxie; before Christian had been killed in that horrible fiery accident on the oil rig, before she had moved to Gulf Shores from a lifetime spent in the rural countryside of Clarke County, Mississippi. The last time Juju had been with her great-aunt Frankie, they had cried in each other's arms, sobbing and reeling from the death of Natalie. It was a pain that quickly washed over Juju as she added the package to the growing pile of her daughter's birthday gifts. Sam stole a glance at Juju and caught the distressed look on her face. Handing the jug of juice over to Ale, he joined his beloved girlfriend and wrapped an arm over her shoulder as he drew her into his chest.
"What's going on, Babe?" he asked, as she stuffed the envelope into her pocket.
"Ah, nothing. Looks like the kids are about done with the sugar. We'd better get Roxie to open her presents before they all start running around like a bunch of wild monkeys." She looked up into his face and let a small curve of a smile cross her lips. "I love you. Thanks for being here today, with us."
"I wouldn't be anywhere else, you know that. I love you too." Sam knew that later, probably while they were in bed with the lights out, and as they nestled into each other's embrace, she would talk to him about what pain had overwhelmed her.
"Come on everybody! Let's see what Roxie got for her birthday!" Juju called out to the now rambunctious group of kids. Soon she was surrounded by jumping, hopping youngsters as they vied for a position around the picnic table where they would be able to see the contents of each package. Roxie stood in a lawn chair at the head of the table, her paper tiara slightly askew in her blonde curls. She was suddenly the chairman of the board as she called for order from her noisy, chattering friends and with a hand held high overhead she loudly exclaimed, "I'm not going to open anything until you all settle down!" which made the three adults in attendance burst into laughter. The relief was immediate for Juju, and she kissed the top of her daughter's head, bending to whisper "Don't worry, it's ok…just start opening your presents and they'll all start quieting down".
Shortly after the gifts had been torn open and examined by the mob, moms arrived to whisk their little princes and princesses away from the party. Sam and Ale were busy pulling crepe paper streamers down and throwing plates of leftover cake into the huge green trash cans, while Roxie and Juju carried armloads of toys, t-shirts and tutus to the trunk of Sam's car. Aiden was helping Roxie with her armload of birthday booty, eyeing a pirate sword that had been meant for him. Juju had gone ahead and wrapped it as a gift for Roxie knowing she would share with him once it all made it back to the playroom the two shared at Sam's house in Fairhope.
Aiden was very protective of Roxie and happy to play with her. At first he had been reluctant to share his father's attention with the little girl, especially since he was only able to see Sam every other weekend and Wednesday nights. His own mother, Sam's ex-girlfriend, often fanned the flames of jealousy during her interrogations each time Aiden returned 'home' to her house. Now he felt more at home with these new members of his family, even though he spent most of his time with his mother. He still felt a little sad each time his visits with Sam, Juju and Roxie ended, but he was getting used to it and knew it wouldn't be too long before he would be reunited with them. After over six years of passing back and forth between his parent's homes, he was accustomed to the routine.
"Come on Roxie, I'll buckle you in." Aiden said as he helped the birthday girl into her car seat. Juju gave Ale and hug and a kiss before Ale got into her own car and pulled out of the parking lot. Once the mess had been dealt with and the little family was settled into the car, they all sighed deeply and a quiet contentment filled the air of the vehicle. Soon the two young pseudo-siblings were nodding off, their two heads supporting each other as they relaxed into their seats, side by side.
"That was a great party, Babe. 'Seemed like all of the kids had a good time and it was just long enough. Good call having it at the park." Sam reached over to massage the back of Juju's neck and she instinctively snuggled into his open arm. They drove along in comfortable silence, not wanting to disturb the sleeping children with the radio and both worn out from the day's activity. Juju eyes wandered to the side window and she let the world outside turn into a blur as her mind returned to the events of her life over the past four years and nine months. Back to the day she heard the phone ringing, and the moment she heard her great-aunt Frankie's voice telling her that something awful had happened. It seemed as though that one pivotal moment had completely changed her life, altered the path of her existence and hung in the air of eternity, frozen and waiting for her to grasp it, let it thaw and then release it to move along. The iciness of that moment still haunted her at the oddest times. Juju closed her eyes, now burning with the hot tears of her still sharp pain and sorrow, even after all of this time.
The red light of sunset was streaming into the room, reflected by the mirror over the sideboard. Juju and Christian were just coming in through the French doors from the pool, damp and hungry, ready for some real food. Just as they reached the kitchen, the phone rang. Juju considered not answering it, but knowing her Grandmother and great-aunt would probably be checking in to see if she was there and taking care of the place, she decided it best to allow the intrusion. She rolled her eyes at Christian as she lifted the phone and answered, "Hi Grammy. Everything is just fine. You two staying sober?"
There was a pause at the other end, a long pause. Juju, puzzled, said "hello?"
Someone cleared their throat. Another pause stretched into the receiver. "It's me, Juju, Auntie. Something terrible has happened."
Juju looked at Christian who had frozen in place, a look of concern on his face as he shrugged his shoulders in a question to Juju. She shook her head at him with her palm raised in an expression of "I don't know what's going on."
"There's been a horrible accident. Its Natalie….." a chill immediately overcame Juju and she sat on the floor with thump, in an uncontrolled collapse, unable to respond. Christian swung the door closed on the refrigerator and reached out to Juju, unable to catch her in time. He joined her on the floor as she heard Frankie's voice, distant and hollow, saying she needed to pack a bag and come to Mobile. "I'll wait for you here at the hotel. We're…I'm at the Marriott, Battle House…you know where I'm talking about, right?" Juju nodded her head, mute from shock. "Juju? Are you there?" "Yes, yes, I'm here. I'm on my way. What happened Auntie? What's going on?" Juju's voice started rising higher and higher until she was nearly squeaking into the phone. "Just get down here. Is Christian with you? Have him drive you." Juju was nodding again and handed to phone to Christian. "Hello?" he said into the little cell phone. "Christian? Can you drive Juju to Mobile, right now?" Frankie's voice was tight and sharp. "Yes ma'am. I'll just call my momma to let her know. We'll be on our way as soon as we can. What happened?" Christian's hand began to shake. "Just get down here, safely." And just like that, the earth shifted for the two childhood friends.
Christian punched in the number to his parents' house and tersely relayed the message that he would be going to Mobile with Juju and didn't know when he'd be back, adding that there had been some sort of accident and as soon as he knew any more, he'd call with an update.
Juju was still sitting on the floor with a blank look on her face. "It's something bad, I know it" she whispered. Christian deftly lifted her to her feet. "Get dressed, now! Pull it together. Frankie needs you to get down there. Let's go!" He ushered her to the bedroom they had been sharing during the past few nights. Grabbing a light summer dress, he pulled it over Juju's head. She became an automaton and started looking for her sandals as Christian tossed a few things into his overnight bag, went to the bathroom and collected their tooth brushes and a handful of other basic necessities. Juju had found her shoes and was buckling the thin straps as her childhood friend headed out the door and jogged to his truck, tossing the bag stuffed with the few things they would both need for a night's stay in Mobile. He started the engine and pulled up to the expansive deck off of the front entry just as Juju stepped through the door. Reaching over the seat, he opened the passenger door for her as she approached and then buckled her seatbelt before pulling away in a rooster-tail of gravel.
The next two hours were spent in a tense silence as they drove through the approaching darkness, the headlights of the truck creating a tunnel of light, broken only by the whispered mumblings of Juju and the soft spoken words of reassurance from Christian. A sense of relief mixed with dread filled the two as the lights of the Mobile skyline became visible. Moments later the two had pulled up to the front of the historic building, leaving the truck's engine running as they left it for the valet. Frankie was in the lobby, surrounded by a group of suited men and women and one very large, muscular, casually dressed man who sat next to her holding her hand. Frankie and her handsome companion both rose as the two younger newcomers hurried across the polished marble floor. Frankie was pale and visibly shaken, but managed a weak smile as she reached for Juju. Upon their embrace both began to cry, Juju because she knew the news was going to be bad, Frankie because she would have to be the one to tell her.
The room and its occupants seemed to slip away into a blur of colors swimming around them as Frankie locked eyes with her beautiful young niece. Both women's eyes brimmed with tears as they lowered themselves, still holding both of each other's hands, onto the sumptuous settee. Frankie's mouth opened and closed, her lips quivering with the unspoken words she knew had to be uttered aloud. "Nat's gone" was all she could manage at first. "She fell from the balcony. I shouldn't have left….I shouldn't have left her alone. I'm so sorry, Juje. It's all my fault. If I hadn't been so selfish, if I had just stayed with her like we planned, instead of running off…" her voiced trailed away as her grief choked her throat, making speech impossible. An eerie wailed escaped from Juju's mouth and filled the chamber-like room, echoing and rising to a bone chilling cry. "Shit!..Shit! shit, shit, shit, shit…" was all that followed. Juju's voice, cracked and hoarse kept repeating the foul words, unable to form any other sound. Her aunt reached for her and drew her into her embrace, muffling Juju's chant against her breast. What followed was pretty fuzzy in Juju's memory…the suits closed in and they were ushered into the elevator, down a hallway and into a large, bright opulent room. More suits arrived, some uniformed policemen hung in the doorway and hall. At some point Christian joined her and held her. She vaguely remembered being introduced to the big Scotsman, Cameron and then the floor dropped away from beneath her and she began to swirl and spiral down into a gray abyss as the word 'suicide' was spoken and overheard. She could actually feel her heart breaking and shattering as she slipped into a catatonic like numbness. A compendium of moments spent with her grandmother played before her eyes, like a newsreel of historic footage. Her grandmother's tenderness, frustration, love and pain, the ballet lessons, the night sky and smell of wet earth, the sharp stick of the holly bushes outside of Juju's window as she sneaked away from the house to join teenaged boys and the look of disapproval in her grandmother's eyes whenever Juju spoke harshly or cruelly all flashed through Juju's tormented mind.
The next morning room service delivered two silver pots of steaming hot coffee and a basket of fresh croissants and berries. Juju and Frankie had fallen asleep in their clothes on the same bed, locked in the comfort of each other's arms and exhausted from the stress of the evening's events. Frankie rose first, awakened by the gentle tapping at the door, and allowed the waiter, eyes averted, to enter the room with the laden tray. "Just set it on the table, there. Thank you," Frankie whispered and she held out a twenty dollar bill to the man as he turned to leave. Juju moaned and pulled a pillow over her head, wishing that the past night had been a horrible dream; hoping that when she opened her eyes she would be back in her room at her grandmother's ranch, wrapped in Christian's arms. Frankie sat at the edge of the bed and gently touched Juju's shoulder. "I'm going to take a shower. There's coffee if you're ready," and she lifted herself up and away from her niece, squaring her shoulders and straightening her back as she moved.
In the room next door, provided by the management of the hotel, Cameron and Christian were discussing the plans for taking the remains of Natalie back to Clarke County. Before Christian and Juju had arrived the previous night, Frankie had been contacted by the Mobile Coroner's office about the transportation plan. She had call Wright's Funeral Home in Quitman and they picked up the responsibility for finalizing all of the necessary details. The two men, strangers only hours before, were now engaged in an intimate conversation about Natalie's recent loss of her husband and how Juju was going to be left alone once her Aunt Frankie returned to her home on the West Coast. "I know you two have been friends since you were kids," Cameron was saying to Christian. "This will be a very difficult time for her now. I hope you're ready for the task ahead. She's going to need your support."
Christian's thoughts flashed to the recent development in his relationship with Juju. They had been friends for years, but it had been innocent and childlike. That had all changed in the past few days. The passion and carnal appetites they had explored so recently seemed unreal, yet he had been transported to a whole new level of care and commitment to her. He nodded his head in assent.
The heaviness of the moment was disrupted by the sound of phone. Cameron rose to answer it, cup in hand. The coffee had grown cold, yet he took a last swig of the brew before answering. "Are you two up?" Cameron recognized Frankie's voice. "Yeah, we were just having coffee. What do you need? I'm here to help any way I can."
"Will you ask Christian to come over and sit with Juju so you and I can talk?" Frankie's voice sounded brittle and metallic.
When Christian entered the room Frankie gave him a quick hug and pointed to the bed where Juju still lay wrapped in the rumpled bedding. "See if you can get her into the shower." And she slipped pass him into the hallway. Cameron stood at the open door of his room waiting for Frankie. He noticed the stiffness of her gait as she walked toward him. Her face was set and tight. She looked stern and distant as she approached him. He stepped aside, allowing her to pass into the room where she took a seat at the little table, littered with coffee cups and crumbs from the breakfast tray. He followed her and sat down, trying to ascertain what her expression meant.
"Thank you for a lovely weekend, Cam. But as you can see, things have taken an unexpected turn. I know you have business to attend to and you shouldn't feel like you need to hang out here. I appreciate your trying to help, and your kindness, but….well, I'm sure you certainly didn't expect things to turn out like this either. We really don't know each other and I don't expect you to get involved here. I'm going to take my sister home today. It was wonderful meeting you, but I think we can just….just….leave it at that." Frankie's eyes glittered with unshed tears that belied her words.
"Jesus, Frankie! What're you saying? I want to be here for you. It doesn't matter that we've only just met…I'm your friend, as crazy as it may sound to you. I care about you. I wouldn't abandon you at a time like this. There is no business I have that couldn't wait for us to attend to you and your family right now." He reached for her hand, but she drew it away from him, hiding it in her lap under the table. "Frankie, look at me. You don't have to do this."
"Go home, Cam. There may come a day when our paths will cross again, but right now I am too riddled with guilt and I can only associate the time we've had together with the feeling that I abandoned my sister when she needed me. My eyes were blinded to her pain because I was so smitten with you. I can't even look at you right now. Go home." Frankie rose from the table and walked toward the door. Cameron jumped to his feet and grabbed her arm as she tried to pass him. He could feel her struggling to free herself from his grasp, but pulled her into his broad chest and held her. She stopped struggling and he could feel her weight as she collapsed into his embrace. "Let me go, Cam. I'm sorry. I just need to take care of this all on my own." Against his better judgment he loosed his hold and she pushed herself away from his arms. She refused to meet his eyes and turned away from him closing the door behind her as she left the room. "Goodbye" he whispered to the closed door. He sat down heavily in the chair and held his head with both hands, elbows on the small round table. He was emotionally exhausted. Since meeting Frankie in the airport in Atlanta, he had been on a wild rollercoaster of the senses. Her robust appetite for life, her extraordinary sexuality, the whirlwind of laughter and tears over the past few days had been incredible. He was sure he would never recover from her. She would forever be imprinted on his heart and in his mind, his soul tattooed with the image of her.
When Frankie walked into the room she had shared with her great-niece, Christian was on the phone with his parents and Juju was in the bathroom, drying off from her shower. She emerged, wrapped in a white hotel robe, her wet hair hanging over her shoulders. The invigorating water had brought the color back to her face, but her expression was still vacant and sorrowful. The coffee pots had gone untouched, their contents now tepid.
"Okay, thanks Momma. I'll tell them. I love you too. Bye" Christian returned the receiver of the telephone to its cradle on the bedside stand. Turning his eyes to the two grieving women he quietly said, "My folks send their love." Frankie smiled back at him; Juju stared blankly out the window.
"I can't stand another moment here," Frankie practically shouted. "Chris, call the front desk and ask them to have the valet bring our vehicles up front." She started tossing clothes and toiletries into an open bag. "Ask them to have everything that was in….that was in the… the first room, brought to the bell desk, too." Frankie redirected her attention from the haphazard packing to her fragile niece. "…and tell them to bill us for one of the robes."
"Come on, honey. You can sleep more on the way home." Frankie began to usher Juju towards the door just as a bellman knocked. "If you could just grab those bags for us, thanks." Frankie gestured towards the several items. "Yes ma'am. I'll have them loaded into your automobiles."
Within minutes the trio was headed down the hallway toward the elevators. Frankie stiffened as she walked past the door of the neighboring suite where she imagined Cameron to still be. When the doors of the elevator opened and they stepped into the lobby, Frankie recognized the hotel general manager, pressed into the corner by a circle of newsmen and their camera crews. Outside the front doors were their two vehicles, waiting with engines running. Both sides of the narrow street were crowded with vans emblazoned with the logos of the local television stations. The front desk clerks, eyes round with amazement at the hubbub, caught the attention of the three escapees and nodded them to the waiting valet. Frankie led the way with Christian sheltering Juju, still dressed in the hotel bath robe, out to the street. Seconds later they were speeding away and headed for the freeway that would lead them to the gentle country road home to Clarke County.
Two hours later, almost to the minute, a big pickup truck and a dusty Mercedes convertible pulled into the driveway of the estate. Neighbors and friends of the close knit community had already been there to leave casseroles and cakes. A group of women from the local church had swept through the house, making beds, cleaning and straightening up the disheveled living room. They had scoured the kitchen and cleaned out the refrigerator, making room for the fresh offerings of those generous and kind people that came, unannounced, through unlocked doors, to comfort the bereaved family. Both Dan and Natalie had been respected and loved members of the small village. News had traveled quickly and through their shock and private grief of their own loss of these two people, the community seemed to move in a singular motion to rally around the surviving members of this stricken family.
Frankie pulled the great heavy drapes of the main living room closed and dropped into one of the high backed chairs that flanked the stone fireplace. Christian had carried Juju into her bedroom and gently placed in her own bed and covered her with a light chenille throw, then returned to the driveway to retrieve the suitcases and left them inside the front door. Not needing to be dismissed, he walked over to Frankie and placed a warm sincere kiss on her forehead before silently retreating. Frankie listened to the throaty rumble of the truck engine as Christian slowly drove down the driveway and headed back to his parent's home. Frankie rested her head back and closed her eyes, allowing a hot stream of tears to flow. The silence of the great room was both comforting and lonely. How could just one day create such a huge impact in her life? She pushed away a surge of anger that she refused to harbor for her sister's selfish act of suicide. Instead she replaced it with her grief and a huge sense of responsibility for not seeing it coming, for feeling, somehow, that it had been herself that had caused Natalie to throw herself from the hotel balcony to the hard granite steps below. She tortured herself with the imagined image of her sister, abandoned and dispirited, climbing over the glass barrier to stand bare footed on the narrow ledge, letting go of her handhold and holding her arms out from her body as in a swan dive, falling head first to the blackness of death.
The funeral was attended by nearly two hundred citizens, a mixture of close friends and the curious. More than a dozen women from the church where Natalie and Dan had been members fed the throngs of those that had come back to the estate and then cleaned the kitchen and great room before quietly leaving the Great Aunt and her orphaned niece to their privacy. Frankie kicked off her shoes and sank into a leather chair with a glass of scotch whiskey. Juju lay curled in a fetal position on the sofa across from her. The two, grateful for the company of the other, sat there together in silence, apart yet together in their sadness and uncertain of the events to come.
The following days and weeks, intruders marched up and down the drive, like circling sharks visiting the survivors in their dark suits and dour expressions, their cadence marked by their level of self-importance. The lawyers, realtors and financial advisers all wanting a bite of the pie. Frankie stayed on long after she would have liked, in an effort to protect Jewels from the predators. At the reading of the last will and testament it was revealed that absolutely everything was to go to Jewels; Frankie was appointed executor and it was also stated that until Jewels was twenty-five, she would have no power to draw from the estate, beyond what Frankie found appropriate.
Frankie, in her wisdom, knowing that Jewels would in no way be able to maintain the house and property where she had lived most of her life, sold the house and bought a small two bedroom cottage in Quitman, the county seat. She transferred ownership of Natalie's beloved Mercedes convertible to Juju and sold all of the other vehicles, depositing the funds in an escrow account that would automatically feed the insurance coverage of the single car. The small cottage was furnished with only the most sentimental of pieces that Juju simply couldn't part with. All else was sold at auction. It seemed that, even in death, Natalie had been able to provide Jewels with everything she would ever need….except her family.
In six short weeks Frankie had been able to settle the estate, ensconce Juju into her snug little house and at last return to her life on the west coast. Juju had come to rely upon Christian for comfort and company and he was pretty much moved into the little house with her; much to the concern of his momma. She considered herself a godly woman and didn't cotton to young people 'shacking up' together. But she had known the family for as long as they had lived in the small community and knew her son was Jewel's closest friend. She lied to herself that there was no romantic involvement and that Christian was simply there to help his friend. Once Frankie left, he began to live there full time.
As the two settled into a new rhythm of life, Christian returned to his job working on an off shore oil rig and Juju immersed herself in creating a comfortable home the two of them. The job on the oil rig was dangerous and backbreaking but Christian was young and strong and it paid well. He was determined to provide well for Juju and not her inheritance for their living expenses. His first two weeks home, after and arduous two week shift on the rig, they talked about their future together. Jewels was beginning to suspect she might be pregnant. When she shared the news with him, he insisted she take a test to be sure, but wanted her to know he was delighted and hoped she would consider marrying him. The two lovers decided to keep their plans a secret and especially to keep the news of her pregnancy private. Those two weeks together turned out to be the most cherished and wonderful weeks of their lives. Every day was spent musing their years to come, how many children they would have, where they wanted to have the wedding and flipping through catalogs of diamond rings. Christian wanted to stay in Clarke County, Jewels dreamt of travel. They could not have been happier. It seemed as if the terrible pain of the past two months was dissipating and the heavy burden of mourning was finally lifting from Juju's heart.
For the first time, at his departure, Jewels cried inconsolably, and clung to Christian's neck. As he gently peeled her hands away from himself, he reassured her that he would be home in two weeks. "We have a lot of plans to make. You need to decide which of those rings you want and what kind of cake we're going to have. Don't cry, I'll be home again before you know it."
He left feeling a sense of dread but dismissed it all as the let down from such a high they had been on over the past weeks. He was sure that the pregnancy was making her emotional and that once he got back everything would be normal again. He was looking forward to his life with her and smiled to himself at the thought that he was actually going to get to marry his best friend. He had developed his first crush on her in high school, and now they were going to have a family. He shook his head with this sudden realization, "Wow! I'm going to be a dad!" It was going to be very tough not to brag to the other men over the next two weeks. That night, after he stowed his gear and reported to his foreman, he sneaked away for a moment to call Juju. "I just had to say goodnight. Don't worry, just take care of yourself and my little slugger." They both smiled over the long distance. "I'll see you on the moon" they said simultaneously and hung up.
When Juju awoke, she was surprised to see that is was past noon. She had slept for more than twelve hours. She stretched and shook out her hair before padding her way to the little kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The smell of the freshly ground French Roast, normally delicious and inviting, sent her rushing to the bathroom, retching. "Maybe just some juice today" she said to herself as she rinsed her mouth in the bathroom sink and examined herself in the mirror. "Hello Momma, what'cha got planned for today?" She smiled and brushed her teeth while planning a tasting trip to a bakery in Meridian. She would have loved to take Katie with her, but Katie would be working and besides, she hadn't shared the secret of her engagement to her friend yet. "Won't she be surprised when I tell her the news?" she said to her reflection. After a very light breakfast of fresh fruit and juice, Juju pulled on a pair of jeans, now just a bit snug, and a loose sweatshirt. She tied her hair back and slipped on her favorite sandals, grabbed her bag and headed for the door. Stopping on the front porch and pirouetting to go back into the house for her cell phone, she could hear it ringing on the kitchen table. She dropped her bag and sprinted to the kitchen, catching the caller just before they hung up. "Jewels, this is Clarice." Juju recognized her voice and the introduction was quite unnecessary. "Good morning" Jewels replied lightly. Clarice sounded distant and serious, like maybe a lecture was on its way and Juju was hoping to lighten the mood with her sparkly voice. She had been waiting for Ms. Clarice, Christian's momma, to call and discuss their new living arrangements. Juju knew she disapproved but she also knew that Ms. Clarice would just as soon believe they had worked out a platonic relationship and not face the possibility that her son would be going to hell for living in sin with such a Jezebel.
"Are you sitting down, Jewels?" the somber voice of Clarice asked.
"Uh, yes ma'am. Is something wrong?" Jewels responded as she sat down on one of the stools.
"I don't rightly know how to tell you this, you having had so much to deal with lately, but you need to hear it." Here it comes, thought Juju. The bomb is going to drop about Christian and me living together.
"Yes ma'am. I think I know what you're going to say and…." Before she could finish her sentence, Clarice broke through and in a voice husky with emotion she interrupted Jewels.
"They can't find him! There was an explosion on the rig this morning and they can't find him!" Clarice began to stutter and wail as her speech became unintelligible.
"What are you talking about?" Juju shouted into the phone, "Who can't they find? No, no, this can't be happening! Ms. Clarice, please, please stop saying that. He's fine, everything is going to be fine. I just talked to him and everything is going to be fine!" Juju's own sobs and hysteria took over as she laid her head and arms across the kitchen counter, her body wracked by her grief as wave after wave of total distress overtook her. The cell phone clattered to the floor. Juju felt as though she had lost her will to live. Everyone whom she loved was gone! First her beloved grandfather, then the only mother she had ever really known- her amazing and vital grandmother, and now Christian. This couldn't be happening. No one person should have to suffer this much.
It was dark outside when Jewels opened her eyes. She was on the floor of her kitchen. It was cold and the front door was open. Her head hurt and she couldn't, for a moment, remember what happened. Had she been robbed? Did someone come in and hit her on the head and take everything she held dear? As the reality of her morning came rushing back to her thoughts, she cried out. "God! Why is this happening to me? I wish you would take everything away from me and just give me Christian back. Please God!" and again she let herself become overwhelmed with her pain. She was still on the floor when Christian's father walked through the door of her little house. He knelt next to her and gently rubbed her shoulder. Easing himself down to the floor he lifted her to his lap and held her, rocking and stroking her head. "There, there," he kept repeating. He was a rough country man, muscular and hard from his work caring for his cattle and his family. He had always been a quiet man, often shadowed by his excitable wife. Jewels had seem him angry only once and she knew him to be fierce. Now he shared his grief with her and tried to comfort her, knowing she was deeply hurt by the loss of his only son. They stayed there on the kitchen floor for some time, rocking and being rocked. Wibbon pulled the hair from Jewels eyes and sat her upright. "My back is killing me girl, and so's my butt. We've got to get off this floor." The statement so surprised her that Juju let out a little laugh and immediately jumped up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wibbon, of course. Here, let me help you up." The sudden awareness of the awkwardness of their position brought the years of training in the social graces to Jewels reaction.
"That's ok, kid. I can get myself up. I just need to sit in a chair or something." He reached out and patted her arm. "We tried calling you, but something was wrong with your phone and I was worried. That's why I drove over here. I didn't mean to intrude, but your front door was open, and….well. Here I am." He broke eye contact with her and looked down at the floor. She could see the deep lines in his face, etched by his years of working outdoors and now shadowed by his sorrow. He had never been a demonstrative man, and he felt awkward and strange to be here in this young woman's house, alone. He had known her since she was just a little girl, had picked he up out of the dust when she had fallen from her horse when riding with Christian in their fields. Now he was here to check on her well being again. "Think you could make me a cup of coffee?" was all he could manage.
Jewels was grateful for the menial task and it even sounded good to her, now. She felt stiff and drained. She moved to the sink and filled the coffee pot with water, poured it into the well of the coffee maker and dropped in the basket of ground coffee she had started this morning. She joined her should-have-been father-in-law at the table. For some reason she felt composed and hollow. She looked over at this man she had known for most of her life and realized she had never really been close to him or his wife. Her whole attachment to the family had been her friend, Christian, and now he was gone. It had happened so fast, that moment of departure, the words spoken over the phone. She longed for details but feared to hear them. She felt an odd sense of resentment towards the man's wife, for being the one to tell her that the father of her unborn child would not be coming back for her.
"Is there any hope at all? How bad was it, the explosion I mean," was all she could ask.
"Pretty bad. No survivors expected. They haven't found any one yet. The fire's too big to get too close." Wibbon fiddled with a paper napkin and his spoon, waiting for the bitter hot brew. "I'm going to drive down to the port where they've set up a command center, but I don't hold much hope." He looked up at her for a moment and their eyes connected briefly before he dropped his gaze once again to his hands. "I guess you'd get just as much information from the television as I can give you." Jewels poured the coffee into two large mugs and pushed the sugar bowl towards her visitor.
"Thank you for coming by to check on me. I'm sorry I made you worry."
Wibbon looked up at her face. "I knew you two were getting' pretty serious. I'm sorry you have to go through this again. Thanks for the coffee, I better get going. Clarice is beside herself. I should be home." As he rose from the table, so did Jewels. She walked with him to the door and embraced him warmly, hugging him tight before releasing him.
"Thanks. I'll come by tomorrow to see you and Ms. Clarice, I promise." Wibbon turned to leave, they simultaneously said "G'night," and he walked away as she closed the door.