Chapter 15

Returning to my desk after gym class, I found an envelope sitting on my desk addressed to “Hope B.” I didn’t recognize the handwriting, which made me all the more intrigued, wanting to know the content. Pulling out my chair, I sat down and released the envelope’s adhesive with my pointer finger. I then slid the cream-colored stationary out of its home. In distinct, printed handwriting, the words read: “In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. Proverbs 3:6.” The note continued. “Notice: It says ALL your ways. Not just some of them or what feels comfortable to you. In ALL your ways.” No signature. No indication of who may have placed it on my desk, just a single envelope with a special message inside.

I surveyed the room to see if someone might be watching me. No one stood out. I studied the handwriting closely, but still couldn’t place it. Gavin? Jenna? The penmanship didn’t look familiar. I scanned the room again. No one advertised his or her involvement in my mystery. Resigned to not knowing who had purposefully written the inspirational words with me in mind, I tucked the message back into the envelope and slid it onto the top shelf of my desk for safe keeping.

A couple days later, while feeling particularly down, another note appeared on my desk between classes. It read: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’ Jeremiah 29:11.” The note continued. “It will get better. God promises!”

My eyes welled with tears, a stray one falling on the letter, bleeding the black ink used to write it. I swiped at my eyes then slowly scanned the room. Not a single person seemed aware I had received this letter. I shook my head in disbelief. How does this mystery person know what I need to hear? The timing couldn’t be more spot on. It’s been an absolutely horrible, rotten day. More tears brimmed in my eyes. I reread the words “not for disaster” and sighed deeply. I’m going to choose to believe that. It had been several weeks since Colleen had shown her face at school, but I still anticipated her at every turn, believing she could appear around any corner. I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Not for disaster.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tucking my flute into its case, I snapped the lid shut and clicked the latch into place. Flinging my backpack over my right shoulder, I snatched up my instrument and sprinted toward the hallway door. “Hey, Gavin! Wait up!”

Gavin slowed to a stop just outside the door and waited for me to reach him. “Hey, there, Gorgeous! What’s your hurry?”

I slowed a few feet in front of him and flashed a playful grin. “Trying to catch you in between classes,” I bantered. “Got a sec?”

“I’ve always got a moment for you,” he flirted. “Wassup?”

“I’m needing to know something.” I hiked my backpack higher onto my shoulder and proceeded with my inquiry. “Got any idea who’s been leaving mysterious notes on my desk?” I eyed him suspiciously. “It wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”

He cleared his throat and tilted his head to portray a cocky air. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I nodded my head, unconvinced. “Sure you don’t,” I teased. Eyeing him closely, I couldn’t decipher the truth.

“What did the notes say?” His eyebrows danced with curiosity.

I looked at him in disbelief, gesturing at him with my flute. “You know exactly what they said. Quit teasin’.”

“No, really, I don’t,” he insisted, “but now you have me curious. What was in those notes?” The expression in his deep brown eyes almost made his words sound believable.

I started walking backward toward the classroom door, swinging the flute by my side. “Nice try,” I gave him credit. “I’ll have to catch you later. I have to get to class. Don’t let me make you late, either,” I instructed.

Gavin shook his head and released an exasperated sigh. “Women!”

I chuckled, turning toward the door. “Thanks for your thoughtfulness,” I called over my shoulder.

“You betcha!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Oh, my!” I gasped. “I’m supposed to be home in thirty minutes, and it’ll take me forty to get there.” I glanced briefly at my watch, verifying the time. “Brad will never forgive me if I’m late. I need to get going.” Scrambling to pick up my purse, I headed toward Greg’s office door.

Greg glanced at the clock next to his desk then laid down his pen. “Looks like we ran a little over,” he confirmed, “but only a few minutes. No need to panic.”

“You don’t understand. I told Brad I’d be home by six to meet my mom so he wouldn’t get stuck watching Calleigh. I need to be there so I don’t inconvenience his schedule.” My desperation heightened as seconds resounded off the clock on the wall.

Greg ignored my urgency. “OK, I hear you; but please explain to me. Why can’t Brad watch Calleigh? He’s her father, right? Dads watch their daughters all the time. What’s different with your situation?” He tilted his head and waited for my answer.

I rolled my eyes and exhaled sharply. “You don’t get it. He can’t be late for his poker game with the boys. Punctuality is everything to him; and, if he’s late, he’ll lose face with his buddies. So, that means if I’m not home in time to watch Calleigh, I’ll be the one to blame for making him look bad.” I shook my head with rigid certainty. “You never make Brad look bad.”

Greg’s brow creased, his countenance growing serious. “Hope, are you concerned Brad will hurt you?” His voice issued alarm.

I turned and squared my shoulders. “No. Calleigh and I aren’t in any physical danger.” Yet, I kept to myself. “But I need to get home. It’s important I get there before Brad does.”

“I don’t want your safety to be an issue because of our sessions,” Greg added. “Are you sure everything is OK at home?” He eyed me warily.

I hooked my purse over my right arm and placed my hand on the door handle. “I’m sure. Brad’s never laid a hand on me.” That part’s true, I mentally fortified my statement. Doesn’t mean he wouldn’t, though. I glanced at my watch again, anxiety spiking with the time.

“Would you tell me if something was going on?” Skepticism covered his face.

I forced a weak smile and nodded. “I would, and I will,” I promised, “but, right now, I really need to get home.” My leg bounced with impatience.

The worry in Greg’s eyes deepened. “Abuse isn’t just about physical violence, Hope. You can still be abused without a person ever laying a hand on you. You know that, right?”

I stood there, silent. I didn’t know what to say. Truth be told, I didn’t know that. My definition of abuse mirrored the physical kind—the kind Brad skirted around, threatened with, but never followed through on. Sure. He had come close on more than one occasion to giving me a black eye or bashing my head into the wall—I had seen it in his eyes—but he had always stormed away before his verbal threats morphed into physical reality. He also prided himself on hiding this Jekyll & Hyde side from others, so I couldn’t be the one calling him out on it. I had to live with him.

“Hope, you’re not alone,” Greg sympathized, his words gentle and nonjudgmental. “I’m here if you need help getting out of a bad situation, or if you just decide you want support getting through it. Just say the word.”

I looked him in the eye and nodded again. “I’ll see you next week.”

“Call if you need me sooner,” he added.

“I will.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Brad’s belligerent tone swelled, bigger than life—heavy breathing making his nostrils flare. “Counseling is a complete waste of time and money, and now you’re gonna try using it as an excuse for being a piss-poor mother? What’s next? Traffic make you late?” His accusations sliced like a knife, following me through the front door and into our house.

“They call it rush hour for a reason,” I answered, noting the bitter glint in Brad’s eyes, “and, yes, my appointment ran late, so that put me in some pretty heavy traffic. You know how bad I-4 can get. I’m sorry Mom couldn’t stay later today to help with Calleigh; but, if you leave now, you can still get to your game on time, you just won’t be early.” I set my purse on the dining room table and continued into the kitchen.

“You could’ve just gotten up and left,” Brad fumed. “Better yet, you shouldn’t have been there in the first place. There’s absolutely nothing normal about airing out dirty laundry in front of a complete stranger.” He stabbed at my supposed impropriety, posturing by the kitchen door. “You’re determined to ruin this family, aren’t you?” His dagger-like stare followed my every movement.

My eyes grew wide. “I’m not ruining anything, and you don’t just get up and leave in the middle of a session,” I shot back. “Who raised you to be so rude?” Disgust dripped from my words, tension tightening my chest and shoulders. “You should feel ashamed of yourself for even suggesting such a thing.”

“You have no right sharing our personal life with some idiot shrink,” Brad plowed on. His eyes bore into mine, perfused with anger. “What happens between you and me is nobody else’s business but yours and mine. Do you hear me? Under no circumstance are you to go sharing information about what happens in our home with anyone else,” he ordered, clenching his jaw. “Am. I. Clear?”

Hot, angry tears spilled down my cheeks. “That’s not what I’m doing. That’s not what I’m doing at all!” I balled my hands into two tight fists, trying to control the trembling in my arms. “What I share with Greg is confidential,” I added. “It doesn’t go beyond those four walls.” I gestured beyond the front door in the direction of Greg’s office. “You might not think therapy is worthwhile for you, but it’s working for me; and that’s all that should matter. Why can’t you be happy for me? Why can’t you support me getting help?” My lower lip began to quiver.

Brad bristled with superiority, his words coated with hate. “Life doesn’t revolve around you, Miss Goody-Goody. You would know that if you got your head out of your ass and actually functioned like a normal human being every once in a while.” His hot breath caressed the side of my face as he stepped toward me, saliva spattering my cheek. “You need to grow up and get over yourself. Stop whining and complaining, and put your big girl panties on. No one cares to hear your sob story. No one.” His eyes narrowed into serious threats as he lowered his voice to assert power. “It’s time you stop burdening our family with your make-believe issues and start acting like an adult. We’re all tired of having to deal with your bitching and moaning. I know I am.”

Gritting my teeth, I stared back, locking my knees for battle. “Things would be a whole lot better if you’d stop putting me down or treating me like I’m not worth the air you breathe,” I rebutted. “I have the right to take care of myself, and that doesn’t make me less of a person.”

Brad rolled his eyes, throwing his hands in the air while slowly backing away. “There you go again. It’s all about you. Poor lil’ Hope. Broken, pathetic, God-forsaken Hope. Nobody’s life could possibly be as bad as yours,” his words oozed disdain.

“I’ve never said that—nor have I inferred it,” I cringed. Brad’s words stung more than I cared to admit. I took in a deep breath as his glare hardened. “I made another appointment for next week. I’m telling you now so you don’t think I’m hiding something from you.” I mentally braced for his next outburst.

Brad’s eyebrows met with the hair on his forehead. “You think you’re going to throw away even more of my hard-earned money?” he fumed. “Yeah, there really must be something wrong in your head!” His chest rose and fell in tandem with his growing frustration.

“And you think your money is better spent on booze instead of food for your family?” I countered. “You make no sense. I’m not the one with my priorities screwed up here, Brad. You are. At least I’m doing something to better this family. What are you doing, huh?” I pursed my lips. “That’s what I thought.” I released an abrupt sigh, not feeling the least bit victorious. “You are more than welcome to come to the sessions with me,” I offered. “Who knows? Maybe it’ll do us both some good.”

Brad erupted with sardonic laughter. “I have no intention of seeing your whack-job therapist. Were you not listening to me just a moment ago? I’m not going anywhere near that fruitcake. For all I know, he’s in cahoots with you and part of some twisted plot to bring down our family. No thank you. I’m done here.” He turned and stormed from the room.

“Done with what? And what twisted plot? There’s nothing like that going on.” I stood in the middle of the kitchen, befuddled and at a total loss. “What does that even mean?” Done with this conversation? Done with the thought of marriage counseling? Done with our marriage? Afraid of making matters worse, I didn’t say another word. Instead, I listened as the door in the laundry room leading to the garage slammed shut. The outside garage door squeaked and moaned on its hinges, and then the hum of our six-cylinder SUV roared to life. “I’m assuming this means he’s decided to go to the poker game after all,” I mumbled to no one in particular. “Would be nice to know when he’s going to be back. Wonder how many hours of peace we’re going to have.”

That’s no way to view your marriage, I internally scolded myself. You should want Brad to be home with you. You should want his presence in your life. But, truth be told, I didn’t. Our marriage caused me great agony. Arguing. Bickering. Disagreeing. Never being good enough. Fighting about everything. But, occasionally, Brad would show a kind, loving side, and I would remember why I loved him and why we got married. I lived for those moments. Oh, how I lived for those!

Thinking over my sessions with Greg, an undeniable truth began to surface. A complete stranger cares more about my well being than my own husband. The thought nestled deep into my soul and wrestled with my complacency. The more I thought about Brad’s bitterness, the more trapped I felt in our marriage. This isn’t what happily-ever-after looks like, I finally admitted to myself, and this sure isn’t what I signed up for. I sighed with great heaviness on my heart. If I’m truly the problem, then why is Brad still with me?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sunlight spilled through the kitchen window. It illuminated a large crystal vase, which cradled a lavish bouquet of white daisies. Sneaking away from work, Brad had placed the flowers on our small bistro table in the breakfast nook—a familiar truce, of sorts. Along with the delicate arrangement, Brad had also penned his sincerest apologies and undying devotion. Holding the card in my hand, I read, “Sweetie, I am so sorry that I yelled at you last night. I should have never let my frustration out on you the way I did. You deserve better. Please forgive me. I promise to do better next time.”

I wanted to believe him. I wanted to trust the validity of his words. But how many times have I been the recipient of an outwardly beautiful but otherwise empty sentiment? I wondered. The words “next time” stuck out, and I reread them, as if seeing them for the first time. That’s what I’m afraid of—that there’s gonna be a “next time.” I shuddered at the thought. There’s always a “next time.”

Walking up behind me, Brad wrapped his arms around my waist and nuzzled his face against my right ear. Kissing the tip of my earlobe, he whispered, “I hate when you’re mad at me. Please don’t be mad.”

Startled by his presence, I instinctively flinched at his touch then slowly relaxed. “They’re pretty,” I smiled, gazing at the fresh-cut flowers. Something about them held a natural innocence.

“I know they’re your favorite,” Brad bragged. “Did I do good?”

I forced a pleasant grin and doled out artificial praise. “You know what I like.”

Sensing my emotional distance, Brad nuzzled closer, his child-like tone tugging at my sympathies. “Can we get past this? Please? I don’t want to lose you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Come on, Baby. Tell me you still love me.” He kissed my cheek and stroked my right arm. I heard his words, but his intentions felt insincere.

“Give me time. I’m working on it.” I forced a grin, surprised how my words sounded more believable than they felt.

Running a finger down the side of my neck, Brad then kissed my shoulder. I closed my eyes, willing myself not to move. “I always take care of my woman,” he crooned.

Every fiber in my being revolted at his declaration, sending up a hundred red flags. Then why don’t I feel taken care of? I wondered. I didn’t dare say the words aloud. I couldn’t handle more hours of his coldness. Shimmying from his embrace, I reached across the table and tucked the card behind the vase. “Thank you for the kind gesture. They liven up the room.” Focus on the positive. Bolster his ego. Give him what he wants to hear. You know this routine by heart, I reminded myself.

Brad’s cockiness flared. “I do what I can.” Picking up his briefcase by the dining room table, he headed for the front door. “I hate to run, but Jasmine’s expecting me back at the office for a meeting. I should probably get back to work before the boss discovers I’m gone.” His face beamed with deviousness. Opening the front door, he stepped outside and looked back at me. “Are we good?” He flirted with his eyebrows, pretending to be the ideal husband.

I plastered on another fake smile and played my part. “I’ll be fine. See you when you get home.”

He blew me a few kisses then closed the door behind himself. Hearing the deadbolt resound with a loud clunk, I released a slow sigh. At least he’s not yelling at me or giving me the silent treatment any more.

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