Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.


Denver Cereal - Chapter Thirty-Three : Val and Mike

(Editor’s note: This is a long chapter. Our of respect for topic, we’ve chose to keep the chapter together rather than split it into two chapters. We apologize for any inconvenience.)

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

“Ok, Mike?” The producer asked. “Can you sit right here?”

Mike sat on the ornate Victorian style sofa.

“Val honey? Can you sit next to him?”

Valerie sat down next to him. As always, the molecular draw to each other took immediate effect. The space between them shrank until they were touching.

“Sit a little apart,” the producer said.

Mike scooted over. When he put his arm to the back of the couch, Val slipped closer to him.

“Maybe we should get two chairs?”

They were sitting in the sitting room where Ramon had spent the last twenty four hours converting into a studio set. The small room was packed with people, equipment, and wires. Sam, Jacob, Jill, Megan, Candy and Steve sat on the floor along the wall of the room.

The plan was to tape Mike and Val’s interview at the Castle. While Mike and Val made their way to Chicago, the television editing magic would happen. This interview would be interwoven with the variety of video interviews taken in the last few days. Mike and Val would arrive for the airing of their interview and answer questions live. That was the plan.

They just needed to get this interview done.

The rehearsal was sheer chaos. They blew fuses. The family talked in the background. The room was so hot that even Val was sweating. This take was going to have to do.

“They’re fine,” the camera man said. “At least they’re in the frame.”

“Everyone happy? Everyone quiet?” The producer grimaced at the family.

Everyone nodded their heads in unison.

“All right, let’s check the lights? We are going to tape….”

When the producer turned to Mike and Val, they were kissing.

“We need makeup….”

A flurry of people came forward to touch up their make up. The woman facilitating their interview sat down across from Mike and Val.

“We’d better just start or we’ll never get this done,” the producer said.

“Let’s start with how you met,” a woman said.

“Even though we lived only a few blocks from each other, Mike and I had never met. I went to public school and Mike went to Catholic school,” Val said. “I’d never seen him before. My family went skiing for a weekend at Copper Mountain. I was on the lift when he sat next to me.”

“I had this bet with my buddies. The guy who could sit on the lift with the prettiest girl won. Of course, I was a fourteen year old alter boy. Just sitting next to a girl was a thrill. I hadn’t seen Val’s face. I…. One of the guys pointed her out and said that she would win the day. Well, I couldn’t let him win. My friends and I followed Val and her family around Copper. I tried get on her chair in three different lifts. But her parents always sat with Val and her brother. Finally, I cut her father off to sit next to her.”

Val and Mike looked at each other.

“And?” The interviewer asked.

“I don’t know. It’s one of those things,” Mike said. “One moment, I was hanging out with my buddies hoping to win the bet. The next moment, my life changed forever.”

“What happened?”

“I smiled at him,” Val said. “He stammered. Jake, my brother, said something silly and we all laughed. It was a long lift ride and when we got to the top….”

“We weren’t really apart after that,” Mike said. “We spent every moment we could together. Val’s parents had this rule: as long as we got good grades, participated in school, and worked our jobs, we could hang out at their house. We were ‘A’ students, star athletes and model employees.”

Val laughed.

“It sounds wonderful,” the interviewer said.

“It is wonderful,” Val said.

“What happened?” The interviewer asked.

“My parents died,” Mike said. “A stupid accident. I have three younger siblings. Megan, my older sister, and I wanted to keep the family together but we don’t have any other relatives. Meg went to work and I…. I joined the Army.”

Mike and Val’s eyes held for a moment. Like a current, sorrow and regret flowed between them.

“What was that?” The interviewer asked.

“I was intimidated by Val and her family,” Mike said. “I joined to Army because I thought I would make something of myself. I wanted to be good enough… for her and myself, I guess. But I left her.”

“I think it’s one of those things,” Val said. “You have such an amazing thing when you are so young…. I don’t think either of us appreciated the preciousness of our relationship. We took our relationship for granted because…. I don’t know.”

“Because it was so easy, I think,” Mike said.

“Yeah.” Val nodded. “We also didn’t have any real idea what it meant to be in the Army. But once he left for basic training, Mike was basically gone.”

“What was that like?”

“It sucked.” Mike and Val said in unison then laughed.

“I finished high school and Mike worked,” Val said. “I didn’t see him for six months then he was gone for….”

“Two years,” Mike said. He reached to hold Val’s hand. “When I came back, she had graduated high school and was on her way to UCLA. I had been around the country and some of the world.”

“And the desire to be together was still there,” Valerie said. “I thought that he’d finished his two years. He was done. He was home. We’d move to LA together and…. But after a few weeks of leave, he was gone.”

“That was about a hundred times harder than the horrible first time,” Mike said. “And I don’t think things really were the same after that. Until Monterrey.”

“Until Monterrey.”

“Monterrey?” The interviewer asked.

“I was assigned to Fort Irwin one the summer. Val moved to Barstow to be near me. When she went back to school, we saw each other every weekend.”

“We got married on New Year’s Eve,” Val said.

“Val, we’ve looked for your marriage license and we haven’t found one for you,” the interviewer said.

“I have both of my parent’s last names. I’m Valerie Marlowe Lipson. I was married as Valerie Marlowe and Mike….”

“My family name was Repin. When I entered the Army, I had to dig out my birth certificate. Low and behold, Megan and I are Repin’s. Our other siblings were born here in Denver. They’re Ropers. I was married under my legal name Mikhail Repin.”

“But your name is Roper?” The interviewer asked

“Yes, ma’am. We still called ourselves Mike and Val Roper, we just married under our official names,” Mike said. “Megan sorted our names out after I died.”

“What?” The interviewer almost jumped from her chair.

Valerie gave the interviewer a soft smile then continued with their story.

“We lived in Monterrey. I finished school early and we played house. It was a truly magical time in my life.”

“Mine too.” Mike raised then dropped his shoulders. His sigh spoke volumes. “Then it ended.”

“My team was assigned to the Middle East,” Mike said. “Val and I had been through this so many, many times that you’d think we’d have gotten used to it. I know people who just learn to deal with it. But for us, it was…”

“Horribly sad.” Val finished his sentence.

“Val made it work for me. She really is a great actress. She put on a bright face and helped me every step of the way. She was… a delight on every phone call. She sent me those pictures….”

“Pictures?”

“You know the ones. The poses of me naked? I think the entire world has seen them. Well, I took them for Mike. I was in our bedroom. You can see the ocean in a couple of them.”

“I’ve seen them,” the interviewer said. “I’d say they are more seductive photos than nudes.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” Val said. “I…. I wanted to make him miss me… a lot.”

“She’s right, Val,” Mike said. “They’re not like Penthouse or Playboy. No full frontal nudity. They’re just you and the camera. They’re very seductive.”

Val gave him a soft smile.

“She sent me a photo a week,” Mike said. “And we tried to talk every night. I noticed her body was changing but….”

“I was pregnant,” Valerie said.

Mike’s eyes filled. When he turned to look at Valerie, she kissed him.

“Mike went on a mission. I was going to tell him when he came back, but I met two Army men instead. They told me that Mike was missing and I should assume he was dead,” Val said. “My mother died the next day and I lost the baby a few days after that. In the course of a few days, I lost the three people that mattered most to me. I… barely survived.”

“And where were you, Mike?” The interviewer asked.

Mike looked at the woman then looked at Val. With the question, his mouth was cotton ball dry. His eyes flicked across his brother and sisters, Val’s family, and the billion people in that tiny room. Like an oasis in the desert, his eyes landed on Alex Hargreaves. Wearing a ridiculous maid’s costume, her arm band tattoo peaking from the ruffled edges of her sleeve, she winked at him. He let out a breath.

“That’s the question. I have no idea. My team was in a transport helicopter out of Turkey and…. I was so focused on what we had to do, what I had to do, that the where wasn’t that important. I was rehearsing in my mind what I would do when the pilot came on the headsets to tell us the electric systems were malfunctioning. We strapped in and waited for him to land.

“If you talk to people who have been through this kind of thing, you never expect that something bad is going to happen. You just do what’s next - strap in and wait.”

Mike rubbed his forehead and looked up. Alex Hargreaves nodded and he continued.

“Then WHAM, everything fell apart. The Army says that the helicopter crashed against an object the pilot didn’t see. I’ll tell you, it felt like a small bomb went off. I dropped forward to avoid… fire, metal, body parts, objects… I don’t know… stuff coming at me.

“I don’t remember landing. I may have passed out. I injured my head,” Mike pointed to a thin scar just under his hair line. “I woke up strapped to my seat. We started with twelve men and four pilots. Ten of us survived the crash.

“I grew up here… in Colorado. I spent most of my youth in the mountains camping or skiing. We landed in the mountains. I wasn’t in charge of the group, but I was the only one who knew what to do.”

“From growing up in the mountains?” The interviewer asked.

“Exactly. Under my direction, we bandaged people, built fires and looked over our supplies. We separated out the dead men. We were situated just as night fall came. I….” Mike’s eyes filled. “We lost a couple men that night.”

Valerie slipped her hand into his. He looked into her smile and love filled eyes then gave a soft smile.

“We were just perched on this rocky ledge. We couldn’t stay there. No way. We only had the water and food we scavenged from the wreckage. We decided to split up. We built a shelter for the men who couldn’t travel and gave them most of our food and water.”

“Why didn’t the Army come for you?” The interviewer asked.

“We think of the world as easily accessible. But the Army wasn’t sure where we went down. They sent someone for us immediately but it was eight hours to where we started then another twelve to where we refueled then….” Mike shrugged.

“We’ve talked to a couple of the men who were left behind,” the interviewer said. “They said the Army arrived three days after you left.”

“Three days,” Mike said. “The guys had food and water for a day, maybe two.”

“But they survived. Every one of them said they survived because of you. You made a fire from a stick?”

“Well, yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You settle in and wait.” Mike shrugged.

“The Army searched for you,” the interviewer said. “They never found you. What happened?”

“We set off to find water and food. That meant that we had to head down off the mountain. We weren’t in the greatest shape so the going was slow. But we were Army hardened. We stumbled, fell, walked for as long as we could stay on our feet. We made camp the first night.”

“What about your GPS and equipment?”

“Most of our equipment was destroyed in the crash. And you can ask anybody about GPS in the mountains. When it works, it’s inaccurate about 60% of the time. We couldn’t get a signal and the map was wrong.

“That first night, we dropped most of our possessions. I kept food, water and Val’s pictures. I had the pictures in this pouch right next to my heart. I knew exactly where I was going. I was hiking home… to Val.

“It never occurred to us that someone was tracking us. In all my years in the Rockies, I never saw anyone. But no one lives in caves in the Rockies.

“We were picked up about two days into our hike.”

Mike stopped talking. For a moment, his mind flooded with images.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” Mike said. “We invaded their land, their country. I think about how I would feel to find three soldiers in the middle of the Rockies or…. We… Anyway, they took us back to their camp.

“There was a lot of yelling, hitting, and all the stuff you can imagine. They wanted to know why we were there and we wouldn’t tell them. Truth was that we weren’t supposed to be there. But why would they believe us? By the time they hiked to the crash site, the Army had been there and gone. The Army took everything - men, chopper, everything. The Army even cleaned up the char marks from the crash and the fire. When they got back? The shit hit the fan.

Mike shrugged.

“They sent someone to get the head guy in their region. After the initial drama, things fell into a normal pattern. It was hard for us Americans. We were used to doing what we wanted when we wanted, even in the Army. We were captives. We did what we were told.

“The guys and I were strong and capable. We knew that someone would come for us eventually. As long as we were of value to them, they fed us. So we worked and worked and worked and worked.

“I told you I had the photos next to my heart. I didn’t know Val was pregnant. She and the baby were my life, my heart, my soul. I…. I just focused on the pictures. When I was alone, I would take them out. She has this smile in those pictures. A kind of, ‘I have a secret’ smile. I’d imagine we were talking or laughing. Those pictures and Val saved me.”

“The photos we just talked about?” The interviewer asked.

Mike nodded.

“What was it like for you, Val?”

“I went numb for a while,” she said. “Then I got mad. I told the Army that I wanted Mike’s body. I insisted, in fact. I hired lawyers, talked to Senators and banged on any door I could bang on. When we just got bullshit back, we started to look for Mike.”

“We?”

“My brother and I,” Val said. “We hired ex-military or ex-CIA guys to search for him. We compiled stacks of paper, spent… lots of money, but never found Mike. The one thing we did was convince the Army that there was a possibility that Mike was alive.”

“So Val’s looking for Mike. And Mike you’re waiting for the head guy to determine your fate?”

“Yeah. We were there about six months before that guy showed up. And wanted information. They…. I don’t remember most of it. Then they found the photos. Pornography. Evil. I fought for them, which made things worse for me. They pinned me down and cut my face.” Mike pointed to a scar on his jaw. “I thought they were going to cut my face off. I wouldn’t give up the photos. So they… Anyway, I lost the photos.”

The room was silent. Every face held round, shocked eyes. Even the interviewer was at a loss for words. The cameraman wiped a renegade tear. When Alex cleared her throat, the interviewer startled then came back to herself.

“What was that like?” The interviewer asked.

“I lost my mind. Days passed. One guy tried to kill himself.”

“He said you kept him from bleeding to death,” the interviewer said.

“Yeah, I guess I did. I wanted to kill myself but….”

He looked at Val then stroked her face with his hand. She smiled.

“In my insanity, I would draw Val’s picture in the dirt. I wasn’t an artist or a painter or anything. I thought I’d go to medical school.”

“What happened to the photos?”

“I thought they destroyed the photos. Pornography, you know,” Mike said. “But they needed money. Bad. They put the photos up for sale. Val’s Dad found them in like two hours and paid a lot of money for them.”

“Do you know how much?” The interviewer asked.

“Two or three million I think,” Mike said. “He won’t say.”

“My Dad and I weren’t in contact then,” Val said. “I didn’t know he bought the photos. He took the photos and my brother’s file on Mike to our Colorado Senator, Patrick Hargreaves. The Senator took the photos and file from my Dad and said he’d take care of it.”

“Did you know that?” The interviewer asked.

“No,” Val said. “I was already an actress. I had put this shell around me… so I couldn’t get hurt, I guess. By then, I wasn’t talking to my brother or my father.”

Mike pulled her closer to him then kissed her head.

“Those photos? That’s how they found me,” Mike said. “Senator Hargreaves sent them through the channels and the Fey team was notified within forty-eight hours. They were in the air within a week.”

“The Fey team?” The interviewer asked.

“Special Forces. They used to get hostages. That’s what they did. Retrieved hostages. They were killed a couple years ago.”

Mike looked across at Alex. She gave him a ‘good job’ smile.

“What happened when they rescued you?”

“I’ll tell you what I remember. At night, they chained me up in this area with the other guys. I mean, I wasn’t really sane. I’d sleep a couple hours then draw Val’s photos. The guys helped me get more charcoal or chalky rocks for the photos. I guess these pictures, so full of beauty and love, bolstered us. Well, they found them and it was not good.

“They figured that I drew them, so they isolated me from the rest. I was sure they were going to kill me. I just knew it. After one particularly bad… evening, I fell flat on the floor. My arms were out in front of me. I wanted to die. I wanted to just disappear. That’s how I was when the Fey team found me.

“I’m laying there, mostly crazy, and I hear this: ‘Damn, Michael, I didn’t know you even WANTED to be a priest.’”

“What?” The interviewer asked.

“Priests lay like that before the alter when they are ordained. Guess you’re not Catholic.”

“No,” she said.

“Makes it less funny then.” Mike smiled.

“What happened next?”

“I tried to roll over but I was in pretty bad shape. Their medic put me out. That’s all I remember until waking up on the plane home. They knocked me out in the hospital. I had a couple surgeries. The moment I could move, I was out of the hospital and caught a plane to LA.”

“Did you know he was alive, Val?”

“No,” Val said. “I had alienated a lot of people with my… insistence on searching for Mike. I think they wanted to have him… in hand and healthy before they told me.”

“I flew to LA and watched Entertainment tonight. I waited outside the Ivy and…” Mike shrugged.

“I fainted when I saw him,” Val said. “We spent a month together. I tried….”

“I was insane,” Mike said. “God, poor Val. I was still in bandages from the surgeries, bruised up, AWOL and a complete mess.”

“I wasn’t much better,” Val said. “He left about a month later. Checked himself into the VA. By the time he came back, I was publically engaged to Sean.”

“We have an interview with Sean where he says that he’s gay,” the interviewer said. “His mother had terminal cancer.”

“Sean thought that his mother would die at peace if she knew he was ‘over’ his gayness. He told her it was a phase and we were getting married. She died a couple days later,” Valerie said. “It’s not the most politically correct thing to do, so Sean and I hid it.”

“That’s what he said,” the interviewer said. “He also said that you did that for his partner a few years later.”

Val nodded.

“But Mike saw those engagements as a betrayal….” Val said. “Of course.”

“We had a lot of push, pull,” Mike said. “I didn’t have a job or a life. I camped out in the garage of this place.”

“Your studio,” the interviewer said.

“Not then. It was a garage. No running water, no heat. I just camped there, went to therapy. Delphie, the woman who lived here, in the Castle, had no idea I was in the garage. Val and I saw each other probably twice a month. Val would come see me or I would go there,” Mike said. “Val was like an obsession. When she was gone, I thought of her constantly. When she was here, I couldn’t stand myself.”

“It was the same for me,” Val said.

“Then Val’s brother, Jake, moved back to Colorado,” Mike said.

“Jake’s a spark.” Val beamed. “He gets fires going. He got Mike working on the Castle and playing hockey again. The studio was covered in these drawings of me. Jake bought paints and left them for Mike. After a few missteps, Mike picked up oil painting like he was born to it. The first completed canvass is the one that’s in the museum.”

“I’d drawn the image so many times, it was like just getting it down,” Mike said. “Once I started, I didn’t stop.”

“What about Wes?”

“Mike and I fell into a rhythm of seeing each other a week a month and then most weekends,” Valerie said. “But we struggled. I became enamored with Wes. Wes is so normal, so slick. Mike and I had a fight about him, then Wes sent a car for me.”

“A car?”

“An Aston Martin,” Val said. “Mike was furious. He threw me out of the house, told me never ever to come back.”

“I’m a real asshole,” Mike said. “You don’t have to wonder why she left.”

“I deserved it,” Val said. “I walked the edge, never committing to Mike or anyone for a long time. I couldn’t stand losing him again. It would kill me. Just kill me. I couldn’t have Mike and I couldn’t be away from him. I went back to LA and started a relationship with Wes.”

Valerie fell silent. She closed and opened her eyes then let out a breath.

“This man lay on the floor while men kicked him, broke his bones and refused to give up photos of me. They cut his face with a tribal knife and he wouldn’t give them up.” Tears streamed down Val’s face. “And when he came back, I was too afraid to love him.

“Everyone’s said all this stuff about my lowlife husband. I mean, Wes said that I preferred a stable animal to a thoroughbred champion. But Mike’s the hero who fought for me.

“This time I’m going to fight for him. For us.”

When Valerie broke down, Mike pulled her onto his lap. There was not a dry eye in the room. For at least a minute, the only sound in the room was sniffing.

“That’s a wrap,” the producer choked out.

~~~~~~~~

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