Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.


Denver Cereal - Chapter One Hundred and Sixty-Six : Fresh start

CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED and SIXTY-SIX

Wednesday afternoon – 3:35 P.M.

“I’ll be right back,” Sandy said.

She smiled at Agent Angie and Ava and walked out of the storage locker. Jill, Heather and Tanesha were sitting under a tree in the parking lot. They were going through the boxes the FBI agents brought them. Just starting to feel the babies’ weight, Jill was seated on a makeshift throne of boxes with something under her feet. Sandy’s best friends were dirty and hot.

And it had only been two hours.

“I’m going to pump,” Sandy said.

“Do you want…?” Jill asked.

“I need some time to think,” Sandy shook her head.

“Your water, madam,” Heather said. “Got to prime the pump.”

Sandy smiled. Her breast feeding champion, Heather gave Sandy a small bottle of water. She drank it down and gave the bottle back to Heather. Heather refilled it from the orange plastic water cooler they’d nabbed from Lipson Construction. She gave the bottle back to Sandy.

“We’d hug you but…” Tanesha raised her dusty hands.

Sandy gave her a sad nod. She waved at them and went to Aden’s SAAB. She didn’t usually drive, but Aden had insisted today. He wanted her to be able to get away when she needed to. She told him Jill would be there, but he was so concerned she took his car.

Turning on the car to get the air conditioning running, the subtle smell of Aden’s cologne filled the interior. She loved this car. Every time she got in, she remembered their first date. They’d met at the gym and he usually drove a work truck. Noelle had insisted he take his fancy car. She smiled.

She put up the metallic window screen and the side window shades. She put on her nursing cover and set up the breast pump. She said a silent prayer for Rachel and began pumping.

Sandy’s mind drifted to the storage locker. When she had stepped into the storage unit, she knew her entire life had been a lie. Her eyes glanced from lavish ball gown to gold leaf chair to bear skin rug. No wonder her mother couldn’t afford glasses for Charlie! She’d spent all her money on this… junk.

While the ridiculous expensive garbage angered Sandy, the waste made her furious. Ava pointed out a rat’s nest in a pile of hand sewn, hand painted kimonos. Her mother could have paid for Charlie and Sissy’s college two times over with the money she’d spent on just the plush junk she’d destroyed!

That’s not to mention the wall of boxes filled with… more pricey junk. Heather found three boxes of stage costumes. Too small for her mother, they were clearly created, worn and cared for by someone. Jill thought they must have been Sandy’s biological mother’s. The rush of information was almost too much for Sandy to process.

She switched off the pump to massage her breasts for a minute. She tried to force her mind to think of her precious little baby who was dependent on her milk. The more she pumped, the more milk was available to help Rachel grow. She took out her iPhone to look at pictures of Rachel from the last weekend. She drank her bottle of water then turned on the pump.

The passenger door jerked opened. Sandy gasped with surprise.

“Oh sorry,” Leaning on metal crutches, Seth’s head poked into her car cave. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not moving well and…”

“Sit down,” Sandy said. “Please. I have about five more minutes.”

Seth carefully put one foot in the car and eased himself into the seat.

“You should be in the hospital,” Sandy said.

“Locked ward,” Seth said. “That’s what Ava said.”

“How’d you get out of the house?” Sandy asked.

“Maresol went to the market,” Seth said. “I made Dale take me.”

“In your fancy race car?” Sandy asked.

“I’m not letting that boy touch my performance vehicle. Are you crazy?”

Smirking, Sandy waited for Seth to continue. Seth chuckled.

“We came in his car,” Seth said. “We had to pick it up Ava’s replacement car. We stopped by here to surprise Ava.”

“You convinced Dale to help you get the car and while you’re out you managed to stop over here?” Sandy laughed.

“Hmm,” Seth said. “Sounds diabolical when you say it.”

Sandy smiled.

“Is it so wrong for a man to want to give his girlfriend a vehicle?” Seth laughed. “She needs to be able to get around..”

“Hmm,”Sandy said.

As they often did, they fell into companionable silence. Sandy finished pumping. Seth helped her put the bottles into her ice filled cooler. Under the nursing cover, she cleaned up and put the pump away. For a moment, Sandy sat in the car.

“Do I have to go back in?” Sandy asked.

“No,” Seth said. “You and the girlfriends can go home. We’ll hire people to go through everything. That’s easy.”

“When did you start calling Jill, Heather and Tanesha ‘the girlfriends’?”

“Charlie made a good case for why they’re ‘the girlfriends,’” Seth said. “They are the pinnacle of great female friends – loyal, dedicated to each other, kind, loving, willing to step in at a moment’s notice – with none of the usual petty jealousies and stupidity. I mean Heather’s in love with Tanesha’s summer fling and they worked it out. Who does that?”

“I see,” Sandy said. “And I still have to go back in there.”

“I think the hope was that you would find something we missed,” Seth said. “No one knows your mother better than you do. No one has watched her year after year being her horrible self. You know in your soul that she created, managed, and profited from your abuse and the distribution of the videos. You’ve told me that.”

Sandy nodded.

“So where is it?” Seth asked.

“Where is what?” Sandy asked. “I’m not even sure what we’re looking for.”

“I don’t think we’re sure,” Seth said. “Would your mom use physical ledgers or a computer?”

“Computer,” Sandy said. “Maybe a network of computers. A couple years ago she was all about the computer network.”

“Would she network via the Internet?”

“No way,” Sandy said. “She was too paranoid. She always talked about hackers and she was really pissed when the Patriot Act was passed.”

“That’s good, Sandy,” Seth said. “If she had computers, would she keep them in this kind of disarray?”

“No,” Sandy said. “She’d have a climate controlled clean room. She used to work in an HP facility. She knows what computers need. The computer at her house was up to date, latest hardware, software. The room it was in had its own air conditioner. Huh…”

“Huh?”

“Oh, it’s probably nothing,” Sandy said.

“What’s nothing?”

“I can’t remember when it was, but she was really pissed about computers failing,” Sandy said. “She didn’t sleep or eat. All she did was talk about how our country was failing because of its poor manufacturing standards. It was all she talked about for months. She was furious.”

“Manufacturing standards?” Seth’s voice raised with doubt.

“Yeah, I know. Why would she care?” Sandy’s eyes flicked back and forth as she strained to bring up the memories. “Dad was still alive, but sick, really sick. I don’t think anyone knew how sick he was except me, and you of course. I remember being mad at Mom because Dad was really sick and she was in a rage about something stupid. I wonder if that’s when Dad and Sissy came here.”

“Probably,” Seth said.

“Who knows?” Sandy shrugged. “The weirdest thing about it was that she was pissed about it for months. Every time I talked to her, every time I saw her, she went on and on about it. Then like a switch, she stopped talking about it. It was so weird I asked her about not talking about it. You know what she said?”

“What?”

“She said she didn’t know what I was talking about,” Sandy said. “’Why would I care about manufacturing standards?’ That’s what she said.  She acted like I made the whole thing up. I was surprised but Dad was sick and…”

“Huh,” Seth said.  “Where do you think she kept her computers?”

“Jill asked Agent Angie about another room,” Sandy said. “She asked a couple times. But the FBI said there wasn’t another room, blah, blah.”

“Another room?”

“Here,” Sandy said. “Connected to this room.”

“Where?” Seth asked.

“Let’s ask Jill,” Sandy said.

“Jill?”

“She’s got some powers…” Sandy gestured to her head. “…you know, those kind of powers, since she’s pregnant with the boys.”

“Oh good Lord,” Seth said. “More Marlowe boys.”

“Poor Jill,” Sandy smiled. “She says it’s like a curse or madness. She doesn’t know how to use the skills or what to do with them. Jacob and Katy tease her all the time.”

“You think she can find this room?”

“I do.”

“We need your help, Sandy,” Seth said. “We can’t do it without you. I know it’s a horrible imposition, but…”

“No,” Sandy said. “We have to stop this thing. For me and every other girl and boy they’ve used.”

“That’s my girl,” Seth said.

“Thanks for coming to help,” Sandy hugged him.

“I didn’t come to help,” Seth said. “I came to drop off…”

“Yes, yes,” Sandy said.

She undid her side window screen but left the windshield screen up.

“Just stay there and I’ll…” She started to say when the passenger door opened and Maresol’s fury marked face appeared. Maresol directed a stream of angry Spanish at Seth. But when Sandy was getting out of the car, she heard Maresol ask Seth if he’d gotten it. She watched as the two old friends whispered back and forth. When Maresol stood up, she was back to her charade of being angry with Seth. Unable to stop herself, Sandy ran around the car and hugged Maresol tight.

“Your idea?” Sandy whispered in the woman’s ear. She felt more than saw Maresol nod.

“He was so frantic, so worried,” Ava’s voice came from behind them. “I don’t think Maresol had a choice.”

“You see what I have to deal with Sandra,” Seth said. “Women telling me what to do.”

Sandy laughed.

“Come on, old man,” Maresol said. “Let’s go catch this bitch.”

“Bitch?” Sandy’s eyes went round. “Did you just say ‘bitch’?”

Maresol laughed. Their laughter brought Jill, Heather and Tanesha over.

“Can you find the room?” Seth asked Jill.

“I can try,” Jill said. “I’m not very good and I don’t really know what I’m doing but…”

“Sounds perfect,” Seth said.

“Would you like me to take you home now?” Dale asked.

“And miss this?” Seth shook his head. “Not a chance.”

Dale followed Ava and the girlfriends toward the storage locker.

“But I’ll need help,” Seth said under his breath.

“Come on old man,” Sandy said. She put her shoulder under his arm. Maresol took the other side. “Let’s catch the bitch.”

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday afternoon – 4:25 P.M.

“Hi Rubén,” Blane said.

Walking into his doctor’s office, Blane found the phlebotomist who took his weekly blood draw waiting for him.

“Hola Blane?” Rubén, the phlebotomist asked. “You can come back.”

Blane followed the young man back through the maze of hallways to what he called the ‘blood letting’ area. Since his liver crash a few months ago, he came in once a week to see how he was doing. So far, with Heather’s help, intensive Chinese herbs and acupuncture, his liver had been able to battle back.

So far. Every week was another test; another mystery. Rubén tapped a chair and Blane sat down.

“Where’s Heather today?” Rubén asked.

“She’s helping her friend Sandy with her mother’s storage locker,” Blane said. “It’s a long story. Sam and Jake are picking up Mack. We’re going to have a boy’s evening.”

“Beer and pizza?” Rubén smiled.

“Playground and ice cream,” Blane said. “Or something like that. Boy’s night has a very different meaning than it used to. Sam has some plan.”

“Never stop a man with a plan,” Rubén said.

“That’s for sure,” Blane said. He rolled up his sleeve for Rubén.

“You know,” Rubén said. He put the rubber strap around Blane’s arm. “I’ve always wanted to ask you…”

“Okay,” Blane said.

“I don’t want to be rude,” Rubén said. “Make a fist for me.”

“Okay.”

“But I always wondered…” Rubén tapped his vein.

“I’m kind of stuck here,” Blane said. “Ask away.”

“How did you get AIDS?” Rubén asked. His head was down and he stabbed the needle into Blane’s vein.

“I prostituted myself in Cheesman,” Blane said.

Rubén didn’t move from his head down position.

“Why?”

“Does Heather know?” Rubén asked. His face was horror stricken. “You guys seem so happy and…”

“Of course, Heather knows,” Blane said.

“I mean about you being gay,” Rubén said.

“Of course, Heather knows.”

“But…” Rubén said.

“There you are,” Jacob said. “Dad and Mack are playing in the fountain out front. I thought I’d let you know.”

Jacob flashed Rubén a bright smile.

“I’m not ashamed of my life,” Blane’s voice rose defensively. “I was living on the streets and addicted to drugs. I didn’t have a family until Jake’s Mom found me in Cheesman. Sam took me in and Jake saved my life. I’m gay. That’s the truth. I would never lie to Heather. Ever. I don’t know what you’re implying.”

“Nothing,” Rubén said. “I didn’t mean anything. Really.”

Pulling off the last tube, Ruben released the band.

“Sorry,” Rubén said. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Or…”

“Great,” Jacob said. “We’d better go rescue Sam and Mack before they get arrested.”

Blane nodded to Rubén and followed Jacob out of the office.

“What was that?” Blane whispered to Jacob when they got to the waiting area.

“I think he’s interested in you,” Jacob pushed open the door to the office.

“Interested?” Blane’s eyebrows went up.

“Interested in dating you?” Jacob laughed at Blane’s puzzled look.

“He is?” Blane turned to look back in the office. “In me?”

“Yes, genius,” Jacob said. “He’s your type and is interested in you. If I hadn’t saved you, you would have blown it.”

“Blown what?” Blane glanced back at Rubén who was standing behind the counter and followed Jacob into the hall.

“I guess you’ll find out,” Jacob said.

For a moment, Rubén stared at the closed office door.

“What’s wrong?” Blane’s doctor asked when he saw Rubén.

“Blane just told me he’s gay,” Rubén said. “He says Heather knows about him being gay. She’s in love with him. She’s his wife. He’s going to destroy her.”

“He is?”

“Of course, he is,” Rubén said. “Gayness isn’t a disease that even the most wonderful, beautiful woman can cure.”

Laughing, the doctor patted Rubén’s shoulder and turned to go.

“Why did you laugh?” Rubén asked.

“Heather is Blane’s wife, right?” the doctor asked.

Rubén nodded.

“She’s not his lover,” the doctor said. “He hasn’t had a lover since he got burned by a guy he was committed to five or six years ago.”

“So he went straight?”

“You’re so conservative,” the doctor laughed.

“Me?” Rubén asked.

“That’s why I laughed,” the doctor said. “Maybe you should ask Heather. I was concerned too. I asked her. She’ll tell you. They’re convinced they’re soul mates. You’ve seen them together. Don’t they seem like soul mates?”

“But…”

“Conservative,” the doctor laughed.

Turning, the doctor walked down the hallway to his office. Rubén stood in behind the counter for a moment then ran after him. He tapped on the doctor’s door and went in. The doctor looked up from the notes he was writing.

“What are you saying?” Rubén asked.

“I’m saying that there are lots of different kinds of soul mates,” the doctor said. “Blane and Heather are parents. They have Mack and are hoping to adopt from foster care. They’re partners in everyway except one – they aren’t in a sexual relationship.”

“What if…?”

“If she finds someone, Blane and the kids come with her. If he does, same thing. Or that’s what they say. We’ll see how it works when it happens.”

“So he’s available?” Rubén asked.

“He comes with a child and a wife,” the doctor said. “That’s a tall bill for anyone to take on.”

“So he’s available?” Rubén asked.

“He was burned badly by this guy,” the doctor said. “He doesn’t associate in the gay community because he was thrown out, shamed, and his life destroyed. If you can get him past even considering a first date, then he’s available.”

Rubén nodded and left the doctor’s office. He wandered back to his testing station, put together a package to send to the lab, cleaned up and got his stuff. He was almost to his car when he realized what the doctor had said.

His dream man was available.

Smiling, he started his car and drove home.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday evening – 6:25 P.M.

Looking in the mirror, Schmidty tucked his dress shirt into his jeans. He couldn’t do anything about his thinning hair or his distance runner’s thin body.

“Lizzie knows you’re bald and skinny,” Schmidty said to his reflection.

His reflection didn’t say what he wanted it to. It didn’t say how handsome he was. It didn’t shout great catch. He leaned closer. His image reflected what he was sure it always did – that he was a complete and total loser.

“Just pizza,” Schmidty said. “It’s just pizza.”

He tugged on his shirt to give him more bulk.

“You can get through pizza, can’t you?”

It wasn’t like Lizzie was the first girl Schmidty had taken out. He’d dated a lot in high school and college. She wasn’t even his first shickza.

He smiled at the word. She’d heard the word somewhere, probably from one of Seth’s music friends. He didn’t know what she meant. They were playing in his parent’s backyard when she snottily told him she wouldn’t be his shickza. He’d nodded and ran inside to ask his Dad. His Dad has looked over his reading glasses at him for a moment before saying: ‘A shicksa is a gentile woman a Jewish man uses for sex.’ Without saying another word, his father had gone back to read Variety.

Blushing head to toe, he’d stood there. ‘I don’t need to tell you how bad it would be if you burned O’Malley’s daughter.’ His father’s voice came from behind the newspaper. He’d swallowed hard and ran away. At ten years old, he was mortified to think she knew he thought of her in ‘that way.’ His cheeks in his reflection flushed red at the memory.

He still thought of her in ‘that way.’

“It’s just pizza, Jammy,” Schmidty called himself by his childhood nickname. “She likes pizza. You like pizza.”

He swallowed hard.

“Don’t screw this up.” He pointed at himself in the mirror.

His reflection nodded to him. In the mirror, he caught the time on the clock on the wall behind him.

“Crap.”

Grabbing a jacket, he jammed his wallet and keys into his pants and jogged out of his Hilltop house. He took Alameda to Steele Street around the Cherry Creek Mall. As if it was fate, he caught every green light on Steele and turned on Clarkson Street. Turning on Seventeenth, he pulled into a parking space right in front of Sandy’s condo where Lizzie was living. He took the stairs two at a time until he was standing in front of Sandy’s door.

He knocked.

And waited.

He looked up at the ceiling as waves of shame and remorse passed through him. She’d stood him up. He was about to leave when Lizzie yanked the door open.

She was sucking sauce off her thumb.

“Sorry,” Lizzie said. “I was just setting the table.”

“I thought we were going out,” Schmidty said.

“Sandy reminded me that Pasquini’s is really loud,” Lizzie said. “I had the pizza delivered. Sandy still had Dad’s cards so he paid. I hope that’s okay.”

Lizzie turned in place and went back toward the dining room.

“You still don’t eat pork,” Lizzie’s voice wafted toward him. “Right?”

Schmidty stood in the doorway for a moment then followed her in. Turning to close the door, he smiled to himself.

Everything was perfect.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

~~~~~~~~

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