Chapter 34

Greg tapped his pencil against his notepad, analyzing my first date with Brad. “Sounds like you fell for this guy rather quickly.”

I shrugged. “It didn’t take much to become infatuated—if that’s what you mean.” A smile toyed at the corners of my mouth. “I admit he was good looking, witty, a real charmer. Nothing about him was the least bit boring, either. I liked that. He also had educated and well-thought-out answers, which intrigued me. Everything he did made sense, even if a bit unusual at times.”

“And he showed a real interest in you,” Greg pointed out. “I imagine that had to be an attractive trait, as well.” His eyes dared me to object.

“That was part of it,” I grinned, “but I didn’t go into our ice cream excursion expecting or even wanting a romantic relationship. I really didn’t.”

I stared back, expecting light-hearted retaliation. Greg didn’t disappoint. He tucked his chin and peered over the rims of his glasses, presenting an air of skepticism. “Then why did you go asking all those questions?”

“What? Can’t a girl find out if she has anything in common with the guy she’s just met?” I feigned innocence. Greg raised an eyebrow. “Hey, friendships have to start somewhere. How else was I supposed to get the dirt on him? Why beat around the bush. It’s easier hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

Greg smiled. “You have a point.” He paused then jotted down a few notes before probing further. “So, did you get the answers you were looking for?”

I took a mental trip back to my first evening with Brad. I could almost feel the breeze coming off the lake. “I suppose I did. By the end of the evening, it felt like I had known him my whole life. He seemed to be the real deal, and I liked what I saw.”

“So, he was good at making connections,” Greg respected our instant bond. “I can appreciate that, but I noticed there’s something you didn’t say.” I furrowed my brow, waiting to hear the missing link. “I understand Brad shared a lot about himself with you,” Greg continued, “but I don’t recall you saying that he asked much about your life and what makes you tick. Did I miss that part of the story?” He watched as I processed his question.

“Well…I guess not. Truth be told, I was so focused on Brad and the details he was sharing with me, I never bothered to question what he was picking up from our conversation. I’ve always lived my life as an open book; so, guess I just assumed he was gleaning whatever he wanted to know from our talk. I don’t have anything to hide, so I didn’t think of a reason to hold anything back.”

“I’m guessing he was banking on that,” Greg nodded. “Innocence and honesty are seen as strengths if you’re talking to a healthy person; but, for self seekers—or those with hidden agendas—anything that exposes you reveals vulnerability, and weakness opens the door to victimization, if you’re not careful.”

“Oh, that’s not what was going on here,” I objected. “Brad’s not a fraud. He was genuinely interested in me. I would’ve known if I was being played.”

“Would you?” Greg challenged. “I’m sure his interest felt real. I’m not doubting that for a second; but, from a trained listener’s point of view, his intentions don’t necessarily sound legit.”

“Of course his focus is going to seem like it was all about him. I was the one asking the questions,” I countered.

“But were you the one receiving all the answers?” Greg paused a moment, allowing me to digest his words. “The cockiness you describe Brad having has motive written all over it. Stop and think about it. How much personal information did you give up by buying into his charm on that first date?” I bit my lower lip, uncomfortable with the insinuation. “Uh, huh. That’s what I thought. Don’t feel bad. It’s easy to buy into the game and not even realize you’re playing along. The crazy thing is, he probably didn’t ask any probing questions. He simply had to make you feel comfortable in his presence, and the rest naturally spilled out. Am I on the right track?”

“It was kind of weird trusting someone I barely knew,” I defended my actions, “but we had a real connection. We could talk about anything, and no topic was awkward or off limits. The conversation between us just flowed. Not sure I’ve ever had that with anyone else—at least not so quickly. I felt safe sharing deep, personal beliefs, because I knew he’d never hurt me with them. Not sure how I knew that, but I was pretty confident in my assessment at the time.”

“And now?” Greg waited for my reply.

“We don’t talk much. Guess he thinks he knows everything there is to know about me now.” I shrugged. “I barely see him any more. He’s so busy with work and all. I’m lucky to catch a glimpse of him before going to bed at night—if he’s even home. It didn’t use to be this way between us. We used to do everything together; but, now, he’s never around, and the house is more peaceful when he’s not.”

“Sounds like the honeymoon phase is over,” Greg acknowledged. His knowing glance didn’t get by me.

“Yeah, you could say that.” I pursed my lips, confused. “It doesn’t make sense, though. After our first date, Brad was so confident I was ‘the one.’ He told me he called his mom that same night and told her, ‘I’ve found the girl I’m gonna marry.’ Talk about love at first sight! Now? I’m the last person he cares to think about. Most days I’m not sure he even knows I exist.”

“Oh?” Greg cupped one hand over the other and rested his lower lip against his knuckles, looking me in the eye.

I stared back. “I’m sure you’ve heard this story a million times. I’m not that interesting of a case.”

Greg responded, an indecipherable expression on his face. “I’m not sure I agree.”

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With cell phone pressed to my cheek, I stood under the shade of a mature oak tree outside Greg’s office. The suffocating Florida heat seemed to beat down hotter as Brad’s temper rose on the other end of the line. “I said I’d get to it when I have the chance—and not a moment sooner!” he barked. “Get off my back, Hope!”

I released an angry sigh. “I just got off the phone with Julia, and she said she called you more than three hours ago to let you know the electricity is off at the house. When did the power company say they’d be turning it back on. It’s a sauna in there.” I fanned myself with my blouse, repeatedly pulling the material away from my chest in an attempt to create a breeze. A drop of sweat trickled down my back and into the waistband of my pants as I wiped dampness from my forehead.

“I don’t have time to take care of problems that are going on at home while I’m at work,” Brad huffed in derision. “That’s frowned on here, and I’d like to keep my job, if that’s all right with you.” His sarcasm cut like a knife.

“You mean you haven’t even called them, yet?” My voice elevated several octaves, my blood pressure rising with my nerves. “This is kind of an emergency, Brad. Your family needs to be able to breathe. It’s 100 degrees outside.”

“Oh, stop the drama,” he ordered. “You’re not dying. I just told you I’d get to it.”

“But when? I need to know what to expect, Brad. Julia is doing us a favor by watching Calleigh this afternoon, and the least I can do is tell her when relief will be on the way.”

“If it’s such a big deal, have Julia take Calleigh to your mom’s house,” he snapped. “Use your brain. I can’t do everything for you.”

I pressed my lips together and slowly released my anger. “And how is she supposed to do that, Brad? I have her car since you weren’t willing to let me use ours today, remember?” I swiped at the perspiration beading up under my nose with my forearm. “They’re kind of stuck at the house until I get home—which is going to be at least another thirty minutes or so due to traffic at this hour.” I looked at my watch. Almost five o’clock. I-4 would be a parking lot, soon.

Pointing out the obvious only fueled Brad’s anger. “Then get off your lazy ass and call them yourself,” he spewed. “If you think I’m doing such a terrible job, act like an adult, and pick up the damn phone.”

I sucked in a deep lungful of air. “I am not inept, so stop insulting me,” I demanded. “I called the power company just now before calling you, and they won’t speak with me. Know why? Because your name is the only one on the account. That means you’re the only person who can clean up this mess, because you’re the only one with authorization.” I forced my bitterness into his ear, not feeling the least bit relieved. “But if that’s not enough for ya, let me remind you of something else you may have forgotten. I have no access to our money. None, Brad! So, how am I supposed to pay our bill?”

I could almost hear Brad rolling his eyes. “Hope, I’m trying to work here. “I’ll deal with the situation when I can deal with it. Until then, leave me alone.”

“And when will that be?” I persisted. “Don’t you usually take lunch around 2:00pm? Why didn’t you call then?”

“Because I was eating,” he answered, abrupt and curt. “There wasn’t enough time.”

“Not enough time? You had an entire hour!” I retaliated. “There was plenty of time for you to get a quick bite plus make an important call. A hundred-degree heat is nothing to mess around with.” Brad remained silent. “So, when are you planning on paying the bill?” I asked again. “I don’t want some vague answer. Give me an actual ballpark idea. Five o’clock? Six o’clock? I need to know what I’m dealing with here.”

“Before I come home,” he caved with reluctance. “Is that good enough for you?”

I shook my head as if he could see me. “No, that doesn’t tell me a thing. You never come home at the same time. What’s the plan for today? Ten o’clock? Eleven o’clock?”

“Keep it up, and I won’t be coming home,” Brad threatened.

At least that’s something I could count on, I kept to myself. I swallowed my emotions and exhaled slowly. “That won’t solve anything. The electric bill still needs to be paid, and I need to know when that’s going to happen.”

“I already told you!” he shouted. “When. I. Get to it!”

I rolled my eyes and bit my lower lip, my mind spinning. That’s not an answer. Why can’t you commit to taking care of your family like a responsible adult?

I forced a calm voice and lowered my tone. “Since we’re discussing payments, has the water bill been paid this month? I’m just wondering if we can prevent that from being disconnected—plus, one less extra fee. Forty dollars a pop adds up quickly.” Brad’s heavy breathing escalated in my ear. “Look, I’m not trying to tick you off; but, let’s get real, the last three or four months our water and electricity have been turned off for nonpayment. That doesn’t make sense. I know we have the money, so why aren’t our bills getting paid? Is there something I can do to help—set up reminders to remind you? Mark it on the calendar? Give me some ideas. I’d like to make this easier on you.”

“Hope, I don’t have time for this,” Brad exploded. “I told you that I’ll take care of it, and I will. Now, get off my back! I’m done talking to you.” A loud click resonated in my ear, then dead air.

I glanced around at the parking lot of empty cars. “Well, that’s mature.”

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I blasted air-conditioning in my face the entire ride home, knowing I would have to relinquish the luxury once I got there. This isn’t the end of the world. People in third-world countries live without A/C all the time, I fashioned myself a pep talk. But they’ve probably always lived like that and are used to heat. What’s normal for them is not the norm for me. I eased the car to a stop at a red light and let out an angry sigh.

Julia and Calleigh must be sweltering, I gritted my teeth. They’re probably hot, sticky, and miserable; and there’s nothing I can do about it. The more my thoughts marinated on Brad’s disrespect, the more frustrated I became. Poor Julia. She didn’t sign on for this when I asked her to babysit. I’d be ticked if I had to put up with such pathetic, unnecessary conditions. This could have been prevented! I stewed.

We’re not living in some foreign country. People in the U.S. suffocate and die from heat strokes all the time. Wanting to stay cool in this ungodly heat doesn’t make me crazy, either. It means I’m smart and sane and…intelligent. I want to protect my family. There’s nothing wrong with that!

The argument inside my head refused to cease as I pulled into our subdivision and pushed the speed limit down our street until I could see the edge of our yard. Julia’s never going to forgive me. How am I ever going to explain this? There’s no excuse for what Brad’s done—or hasn’t done. She has every right to be mad at me. Shoot! I’m mad at me, and it’s not even my fault.

To my surprise, as I neared the house, I could see Calleigh jumping, squealing, and running across our lawn, trying to catch droplets falling from our sweeping, standalone sprinkler. Julia’s smile could also be seen halfway down the block as she stood in the driveway watching Calleigh’s animation unfold in front of her. “Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought,” I muttered under my breath.

Spotting the car, Julia stepped onto the grass and waved me forward, allowing me to ease onto the driveway. I turned off the ignition and pulled out the key, resigning myself to the onslaught of outside heat. Here goes nothing.

“Mommy, you’re home!” Calleigh raced through the sprinkler, embracing my legs in a sloppy, wet hug. “You’ve been missing all the fun,” she announced, her big doe eyes shining up at me.

I smiled down at her beaming face, then over at Julia. “I have, have I? You mean it hasn’t been all hot and icky here while I’ve been gone?”

“Oh, no!” Calleigh spoke for the both of them. “We’ve had some great adventures. Haven’t we, Aunt Julia?” Calleigh jumped up and down, excited to tell her tale, all the while dripping water over my shorts and sandaled feet. “May I tell her, Aunt Julia? May I?”

“Sure, why not?” Julia shrugged and grinned. “I’m not sure what there is to tell,” she whispered at me.

I chuckled. “What is so exciting that you’re just about ready to explode?” I turned and teased Calleigh.

“Well, first of all, all the lights went out, but that’s OK. We built a fort under the dining room table, and Aunt Julia found the flashlight—you know, where you keep it in the laundry room—and then she told me scary stories, and we sang silly songs, and it was really fun!” She giggled with hysterical enthusiasm, hopping on one foot then the other.

“That is quite the adventure,” I admitted. “Sounds like you owe Aunt Julia a great big hug for doing all that fun stuff with you.”

“I already said ‘Thank you,’” Calleigh answered. “But I can give her a big hug, too.” She pranced her way over to Julia and wrapped her wet arms around Julia’s thighs, hugging with all her might.

“Thank you,” Julia hugged back. “Just what I needed to cool me down.” All three of us laughed as wet marks surfaced on Julia’s pale blue shorts. “You are one wet little monkey!”

“No. I’m a happy sea lion,” Calleigh bantered, dashing back into the sprinkler. “You know, like the ones at SeaWorld.” She giggled loudly as cool water hit her arms and legs, a stray droplet dribbling down her nose.

“So, is that the end of your story?” I called after her.

“Uh-uh. We had peanut butter and honey sandwiches, too,” she yelled over her shoulder, “just like the ones Grandma makes me. They were yummy!” A squeal of delight echoed off the neighboring houses as more droplets fell on her face.

“I tried finding something that wouldn’t make us have to open the refrigerator,” Julia explained. “Sandwiches and crackers seemed the easy bet. I also found a couple of juice boxes in the pantry. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Absolutely not. I’m just glad there was something to find,” I apologized. “I know it’s slim pickings in there. Did you have enough to eat?”

“We made it work. Saved me from having to put my gourmet talents to the test,” she teased.

“Well, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and being mindful of all the perishable food in the fridge. I still can’t believe our power was turned off.” Embarrassment seeped into my bones.

Julia smiled. “No worries. We survived. How did your session go?”

“It’s nice to talk things out,” I admitted. “Thanks for allowing me to borrow your car, so I could get there. I would’ve come home sooner had I known you were sitting in the dark.”

“It’s not your fault,” Julia acknowledged. “Besides, I had fun spending time with this little squirt. It’s only been in the last half hour or so that it’s gotten noticeably warm indoors. That’s why we decided to bring the fun outside. Isn’t that right?” Julia tousled Calleigh’s wet hair as she came over to give another hug.

“That’s right,” Calleigh echoed. “We’ve had so much fun! You should’ve been here, Mommy.”

“Well, you’re an awesome aunt and a great sis,” I added to Calleigh’s enthusiasm. “We’re both lucky to have you in our lives. Thanks again for babysitting.”

Julia reached for the towel lying on top of a nearby shrub and wiped water droplets from her forearms. “It was my pleasure. Is there anything else I can do for you before I head home?”

I thought a moment then decided to brave an answer. “Do you have time to drop us off at Mom and Dad’s house?”

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