I have to admit that sometimes my stomach tightens when I write certain scenes I know will be uncomfortable for my characters.
I know. That’s weird.
“They’re fictional characters, Lisa.”
That’s what you’re thinking, but to me they are real. At least in my head so when I have to write —wait. I know what you are thinking again: “When you have to write something? You don’t have to write anything. You’re the writer. You can write whatever you want.” Oh, how I wish that was true. See, I write by the seat of my pants. My characters tell me their stories and I transcribe what they tell me, but sometimes they tell me to transcribe something I don’t like. This week’s chapter won’t be too rough but a couple upcoming chapters are causing me some stress and to yell: “No. No! Don’t do that! You idiot!”
Maybe that’s why I had been putting off writing them until this week. This week it had to be written though because the scenes were playing over and over in my mind. When that happens I have to write them down before my creative brain will stop bugging me. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this week’s chapter and brace yourself for the next few chapters. We might all be going on an emotional roller coaster.
Molly’s stomach tightened at the sight of Ben Oliver standing with his parents in one corner of the church lobby before the service.
What was he doing here? She hadn’t realized he even attended any church anymore.
They had attended youth group together as teens but in their senior year Ben had started attending church less and less until he didn’t attend at all. The way he had talked about Angie that day at the store had told her all she needed to know about his Christian walk and where he was in it. She had no idea what his relationship with God was now and there were times she didn’t feel like she cared.
People can change, she reminded herself as she watched him laugh with the pastor, shaking Pastor Joe’s hand. Ben had the same charming smile, the same bright green eyes, the same dark hair swept back off his forehead, and the same chiseled jaw she remembered from high school. He looked older, yes, but no less handsome.
She lowered her gaze as she walked past him, hoping he wouldn’t see her. She followed parents into the sanctuary, joining them next to Jason and Ellie in the pew they had occupied for most of her life. She inwardly cringed when Ben sat with his family four rows in front of theirs, realizing she’d have to stare at the back of his head for the entire service and smell his familiar cologne even from four rows back.
She closed her eyes, willing away the memories of his lips on hers so many times when they were teenagers, his arms around her, his palm pressed gently against the side of her face. All of that tenderness seemed a lifetime ago. She didn’t know Ben now and in many ways, she hadn’t really known him then either, not the real Ben. The real Ben had shown himself in the way he’d broken up with her, in the way he’d spoken about her that day with his friends.
She did her best to focus on the hymns being sung, her friend Mary’s singing at the front of the church, and Pastor Joe’s sermon, relieved when the last hymn was song and she could head toward the back of the church and toward the exit.
“Meet you at home,” she told her Mom. “These shoes are killing my feet.”
It wasn’t a lie; the straps of the black dress shoes she’d picked out that morning were digging into the tops and backs of her feet. She was much more comfortable in a pair of work boots or sneakers. It wasn’t only the shoes she wanted to leave behind, however. She also wanted to travel as far as she could from Ben and the painful memories he brought with him.
A hand touched her elbow as she reached for the door and her heartrate quickened at the sound of the voice close to her ear.
More than anything she wanted to keep walking through those doors, but instead she paused and turned to face him.
“Oh, Ben. Hey there. I didn’t know you were here today.”
His hand was still on her elbow. “I’m hoping to get back into regular church attendance now that I’m back in town.”
Time for me to find a new church then.
“Oh. Okay,” Molly said out loud. “Well, that’s nice. Will you excuse me? These shoes are killing my feet.”
Ben laughed softly, dropping his hand from her elbow – finally. “Yeah, those shoes don’t exactly look like something I remember you wearing when we were younger.”
What is that supposed to mean?
Molly forced a smile. “Well, people change and so do their taste in shoes. These straps just happen to be a bit tight.”
Ben laughed softly. “Of course, people change. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He followed her through the large wood doors into the bright sunlight. “Molly, can we talk for a minute?”
The softened tone of Ben’s voice caught her attention and she looked at him as they walked, noting his serious expression. She really didn’t want to talk to him but the sincerity in his voice had changed her mind.
Ben paused by the bench in the courtyard and gestured toward it. Molly sat next to him with apprehension, remembering a similar moment eight years before, her chest constricting as she looked at Ben and her mind transported her back to that night on her parents’ porch. The memories were less painful than they’d once been, but they were still painful.
“So, this is awkward for me, and I’m sure it is for you,” Ben started, one elbow propped on the back of the bench, his body twisted slightly toward her. He dropped his gaze, looking at the ground as he continued. “I should have had this talk with you years ago, Molly. I know that. I was ashamed, though. Ashamed of how I treated you, how I acted, who I was back then. To be honest, there were years I didn’t even think about how I had treated you or the things I did at the time. I was completely self-focused, completely arrogant.”
He looked back at her and Molly’s breath caught at the genuine soft expression, at his green eyes shimmering slightly in the sunlight. “But when I hit rock bottom and woke up, there you were, at the forefront of my mind. Molly Tanner. The one person who loved me even when I was unlovable and I threw it – and her – away for a cheap fling with a girl who had eyes for every boy in the county. I’m sorry, Molly. I’m sorry for how I treated you and how I broke it off with you. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry it took me so long to say I’m sorry.”
Molly sat for a few moments, unsure how to respond. She didn’t want to say, “Hey, no hard feelings. No problem,” because there were hard feelings. She’d held on to that hurt for years and only recently had started to let it go, if even a little. Still, she saw an earnest effort in Ben to apologize, to make amends to ask for forgiveness for how he’d hurt her.
The cynical side of her wondered if his request for forgiveness was for her benefit or his own, though. Had he really changed?
Ben didn’t want for her to respond, reaching out to lay his hand gently on her arm. “I understand if you can’t forgive me right now but maybe in the future you’ll be able to and know that I am truly sorry for who I was back then.”
Molly let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. She nodded slowly, the words he’d said to his friends all those years ago still in her mind, even as she tried to ignore them.
“We were young, Ben,” she said finally. “Kids make mistakes. People grow and mature. And, yes, people do change.” She laid her hand over his. “Thank you for apologizing to me. I’m sure it was hard to do.”
Ben smiled, that familiar beautiful smile that used to make Molly’s heart race but today only made her smile back and feel a sense of peace.
“It was hard,” Ben said. “But it’s been the one thing on my mind since I got back to town. The one thing I knew I needed to do even if you had moved on because I knew I hadn’t. I was still holding on to the guilt over how I had treated you, the girl who used to be my best friend.”
He rubbed the palm of his thumb against the top of her hand has he held it. “We had some good times, didn’t we? Before I became the worst boyfriend on the planet.”
Molly laughed softly. “Well, not the worst . . .”
Ben grinned. “But pretty darn close.”
Molly bit her lower lip and lowered her gaze, still smiling. “I plead the fifth.”
“Remember that time we were on that haunted hayride?” he asked. “That guy jumped out at us from the dark with a chainsaw and you almost ended up on my lap.”
Molly laughed and shook her head. “I think it was you who almost ended up on my lap.”
“Um, no. That does not sound manly at all. It had to be the other way around.”
Molly was very aware that his hand was still on hers, his thumb still making circular motions on her skin.
“Maybe we both were afraid and jumped at each other then,” she laughed.
She gently pulled her hand away, pushing her hair back from her face.
“I miss those days,” he said softly, moving his hand to his knee and tilting his head slightly as he looked at her. “They were innocent times in so many ways.”
Molly watched her parents and brother and Ellie leave the church, get into their cars, drive away and wave at her and Ben on the way by. She knew lunch would be ready soon.
“One thing I always wondered,” she started as they stood from the bench. “Why did you even bother to take me out that night you broke up with me? You could have just broken it off before the date.”
Ben winced, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck. “Ugh. That night. I hate remembering that night. I almost chickened out. I think deep down I knew what I was doing was wrong. Part of me wanted one more night together and part of me wanted to get it over with. I thought I loved Angie, you know I didn’t even know what love really was. What I had for Angie was lust. That lust caused her and me, and you, a lot of pain.”
Ben nodded his head toward the parking lot. “Let me walk you to your car. I’m sure your mom still cooks those amazing Sunday dinners.”
“Yes, she does.”
Ben cleared his throat as they walked. “Maybe this is oversharing, or maybe I’m confessing too much, but I came back here to try to get my life back on track after I was fired from my last job. I’d started drinking to drown out all my guilt, not just over you, but over a lot of things. Angie got pregnant a couple of years ago. I wanted her to get an abortion, she wanted to keep the baby. I didn’t want to be a father. I was too young. I left her to raise the baby on her own.”
Molly wasn’t sure what to say. Should she congratulate him on being a father or comfort him for his mistake in walking away? Part of her also wanted to punch him for suggesting the abortion.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly as they approached her truck. “That must have been very hard for you.”
He shrugged. “Not at the time. It was a relief. I was glad to be set free from the burden of raising a child. I was finishing my law degree while working at the firm in Boston and now with Angie gone, I was free to date other women, find a new kind of excitement. My whole life was in front of me. Or so I thought. Depression hit me hard after she left. The realization of who I had become hit me like a freight train, but I kept trying to ignore it, tell myself I wasn’t really as bad as I thought I was.”
They paused at the truck and Ben laughed, patting the rusting hood. “I can’t believe you’re still driving this old thing.”
Molly scowled. “I thought men liked classic cars, but you’re the second man to make fun of me for still driving this truck.”
Ben grinned. “Well, classic is one thing, but a piece of junk is another.”
“You know this was my grandfather’s truck, Ben.”
Ben nodded and laid his hand on her shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry for teasing. I was sorry to hear he’d passed away. My mom told me. I wish I had snapped out of my selfish behavior long enough to come back for the funeral.”
He closed the door behind Molly after she slid behind the steering wheel.
“So where is Angie now?” she asked. “Did she keep the baby?”
Red flushed along Ben’s cheekbones. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his dress pants and nodded. “Yeah. She kept the baby. It was a girl. Amelia. Angie wrote me a letter about a year ago, sent me a photo. They, uh,” he kicked at the asphalt with the tip of his dress shoe. “Live about four hours from here, close to where Angie’s parents moved about two years ago.”
“Do you think you’ll go see them?”
“I don’t know, really. I don’t know if Angie would even want me to. I wasn’t even paying child support, but she didn’t ask for it either. I never answered the letter. I’m pretty much a deadbeat dad.” He shook his head, tears rimming his eyes. “I never imagined myself that way, you know? My parents were amazing parents. I always wanted to be a good dad, like my dad has always been. Then — I became who I never thought I would be — selfish, arrogant, and a complete idiot.”
Compassion overwhelmed Molly, pushing back her awkward feelings toward Ben. She reached through the window and held her hand out and Ben took it, looking at her.
“As long as you’re still breathing there is still a chance to change things, Ben,” she said softly.
He nodded and swallowed emotion. “Thanks, Molly. I appreciate that.” He squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go.
“Hey, how about you?” he asked. “I know we were joking a bit at the rummage sale that day, but are you really dating that guy who works for your dad?”
“No, Ben,” Molly sighed. “I’m really not.”
Ben smirked. “But you have feelings for him?”
Molly started the truck and smiled. She was not about to talk about her love life with her old high school boyfriend, especially her old boyfriend who dumped her for someone he had called “hotter” at the time.
“He’s a good friend,” she said. “That’s all. It was good to talk to you, Ben.”
“You too. I hope we can do it again soon, but without the awkward conversation about what a jerk I was.”
Molly smiled as she pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward Main Street to head out of town and back to the farm.
She let out a long breath as she drove, shaking her head as if to shake off the surreal. Had Ben Oliver really just apologized to her, ending years of overthinking and over analyzing the event she had once seen as life-changing and romance ending? It was something she’d never thought would happen and now that it had she laughed to herself realizing she would probably end up analyzing what the apology meant to how she had perceived herself all these years. No analyzing today, though. Today she only wanted to live in the moment, a moment of peace and kindness that had soothed once raw wounds.
“Yeah, I’ll let you know when we get home, but so far she seems fine. Okay, Mom, talk to you later.”
Jason tapped end call on his cellphone and turned to see the nurse wheeling his grandmother toward him through the opstistrics door to the main lobby.
“I told her I could walk on my own,” Franny informed him. “I’m not an invalid yet but she said it’s hospital policy.”
“Just to your car, Mrs. Tanner,” the nurse said with a smile. She looked at Jason. “You can take it from here if you want and just bring the chair back to the valets at the front.”
“I’m sure you’ll be glad to have her off your hands,” Jason said with a wink.
The nurse laughed and shook her head. “Not at all. Your grandmother is a breath of fresh air. I love her spunk.”
Franny snorted. “Spunk. Is that what they’re calling cantankerous these days?”
Jason rolled his eyes. “I think someone needs some lunch. Maybe that will put her in a better mood.”
He leaned down next to Franny’s chair, one knee down, the other up. “Seriously, Grandma. You okay? I don’t want us to go until you’re sure you’re okay.”
“I’m feeling fine,” Franny sighed. She smiled and touched Jason’s arm gently. “My vision is still a little blurry, but I’m already seeing better than before. Thank you for your concern though. We’re not that far away from the hospital that if there is an issue we can’t come back.”
Jason nodded and stood. “Okay. Then we will head on home. Molly is going to hang out with you this afternoon to make sure you’re doing okay.”
“This is Bridget by the way, Jason,” Franny said tilting her head to look up at the nurse. “I already told her about you. My strong, smart, very handsome grandson who is helping his family run the farm. But don’t worry, I also told her that you are taken since you are going to be proposing to that lovely girlfriend of yours soon.”
Jason’s cheeks flushed red and he shook his head. “Grandma. . . .”
Franny smiled at Bridget. “Look at how he embarrassed he is that his old grandma is bragging about him.”
Bridget, with a pretty round face and bright green eyes, and probably about ten years younger than Jason watched him admiringly, smiling. “Good luck with the proposal,” she said with a wink.
Jason’s face and ears flushed even redder as he laughed and then cleared his throat. “Thanks. Okay, Grandma, it really is time to get you out of here.”
Back in his parents’ car, which he borrowed so his grandmother could get in and out of it, Jason started it and braced himself for his grandmother continuing the conversation she’d been having in the lobby with the nurse.
Here it was.
“I went to my appointment, I got my answers and I’ve even had my surgery, so now —”
“I know, Grandma and I’m excited. I’m hoping the surgery was a success.”
“I believe it will be. Now, with that settled, it’s time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”
Jason laughed softly, shaking his head. “Grandma . . .”
“Jason . . .”
“I know, Grandma. It’s time to propose to Ellie, but listen, I’m working on a plan for how to do it, okay? It needs to be big, right? I mean, it’s been this many years I really need to do something special.”
Franny rolled her eyes. “Oh, Jason, good Lord. Just jump.”
“Just get on the stick. Whatever the saying is these days that means – get your caboose in gear and propose to that girl before you’re both old and gray.”
Jason slid the car back into park and bit his lower lip. He looked at his grandmother, short dark, curly hair with gray streaks, her sweet round race and eyes full of anticipation and sighed.
“Grandma, I . . .listen, it’s just —”
A frown creased Franny’s forehead. “Oh my. Did you and Ellie break up?”
“What? No. No. That’s not it.”
“You don’t love her like you thought you did?”
“No. That’s not it either, Grandma.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
Jason stared at his grandmother, the woman who had helped raise him, taught him what it meant to work hard, push through tough times, and more than any of that, taught him what it meant to be a good Christian. He could not share with her what was keeping him from proposing to Ellie.
“Nothing,” he lied. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Franny wasn’t buying it. “Something is wrong, Jason. Something has happened. What is it?”
Jason shifted the car into gear again. “Nothing, Grandma. Never mind.”
Franny laid her hand over his. “Park this car, Jason and tell me what’s on your mind. You know I won’t love you any less.”
Jason shifted the gear into park again and pressed his forehead against the top of the steering wheel.
“I screwed up in college, Grandma. I wasn’t someone who would have made you proud.”
“Drinking?” Franny asked. “Parties?”
Jason raised his head to look at his grandmother. She was way too much like his mom; some kind of Jedi mind reader.
He nodded, determined not to tell her the rest, though. “Yeah.”
“I had a feeling,” she said with a sigh.
“You were different when you came back from college. Something seemed off. You seemed sadder somehow. I never knew how to talk about it with you. Then your grandpa got sick and, well, I guess I was sadder too. I’m sorry I never asked you if you were okay.”
Jason swallowed hard. “I would have told you I was okay even if you’d asked. You know that. I was embarrassed. And I’ve never told Ellie about what an idiot I was back then.”
Franny squeezed his hand. “Tell her, honey. She loves you. She will understand. I know I do. You were young. You made some mistakes but you’re still my sweet grandson.”
Jason knew his grandmother meant well but she didn’t know everything and he wondered if she would understand or think he was still her sweet grandson if she did. He also wasn’t so sure Ellie would understand. Not about the one-night stand for one, but especially not about why he hadn’t told her about it after all these years.