The soft click of the exit door closing behind me reminds me the weekly sessions with Dr. Meeks are over. For almost five months, I’ve regurgitated every detail of my past and present. We’ve dug into and explored places in my mind my subconscious had long ago buried.
Today is the first time my insides don’t feel like they’ve been strung out and picked apart by hungry wolves. I should be happy to shed daylight on the secrets I used to hide.
What I am is scared of the future.
I give my parking ticket to the valet, take my phone from my purse, and stare at it. There are two people I need to reach out to, but I’m not sure how to start either conversation. I’m determined to repair my friendships with Chels Coffman and Morgan Kimball or at least try. Truth be told, I miss them. How will I be received? Will they talk to me? Want to see me?
My car rolls up and stops. The valet exits, holding the door for me. I tip him and drive away. Breathing becomes easier because I’m in heavy Chicago traffic and temporarily relieved from worrying.
Last year at this time, I could’ve knocked on either of their doors and been welcome. Now my hope is they don’t turn away from me.
Chels and Morgan were my best friends and coworkers before I bolted from Club Silken and disappeared.
The parking lot at the apartment complex looks the same, well, except there’s a vehicle under the carport in slot four-eighty-three. It used to be mine. I park in one of the visitor’s spots, turn the key, and sit in silence.
Wednesday used to be Chinese-food night for Morgan, Chelsea, and me. We all lived in the same complex so getting together was easy. We’d order in and eat ourselves into a state of bliss. Morgan might be living with Zack Pierce, and it’s possible Chels has moved, but I have to take a chance.
I get out of my car, stuff the keys in my purse, and start down the sidewalk. My heart is pounding, my palms are sweating, and my nerves are just about fried. A high-pitched squeal startles the crap out of me. I look toward the sound.
“Kayla Jean Britton,” Chels cries out. “Oh. My. God. It’s really you.”
My heart hurts as I brace myself to catch the woman running toward me. She doesn’t slow down until her arms are wrapped around me. We stumble but, together, we regain our footing. Tears flood my eyes and run down my cheeks in little rivers. I’m so relieved at my reception my knees are weak and there’s a knot in my throat.
“Thank, God. We’ve been so worried about you.”
“I’m sorry,” I manage to say. I hold her away from me so I can look at her. “It’s so good to see you.”
She takes my hand and gives me her stern expression, which makes me smile. “Well, you’re not getting away from me. Come on. It’s Wednesday and we’re ordering Chinese, opening a bottle of wine, and then you’re telling me what the hell happened to make you rush home. Club Silken isn’t open on Wednesdays and I’ll bet Morgan’s free tonight.”
“How is she?”
“She and Zack Pierce are engaged and she’s beyond happy.”
“I’m glad. I hate that I embarrassed her.”
“Why would you think that?”
“She asked Zack to invite me to his BDSM club and right in the middle of the evening I just left.”
“She’s not upset about that. After you called me, I told her you had to rush home to Arkansas. Is she worried about you? Hell yes. After that one phone call you never returned any of our calls or messages.”
“I’m sorry.” Guilt rushes me. I shouldn’t have doubted she’d meet me with open arms. “That was thoughtless of me, but I just wasn’t ready to answer questions.”
“I understand. Morgan will too. Let’s call her.”
I stop in my tracks. I’m not sure I’m ready for a full-blown girls’ night. “Please, don’t.” I take a deep breath. “I’d like to spend a few hours with you.”
Chels’s eyes are full of questions, but she smiles. “Whatever you want.”
“I’ll reach out to Morgan tomorrow.”
“I hope you do. She waited a while for you to return before planning her wedding, but Zack wants to start their honeymoon while the temperature is just right on whatever island they’re staying on for a month.”
“I wish they hadn’t waited for me.” My stomach clenches.
Chels loops her arm in mine and hangs on while we get to her apartment. “She wants us both in her wedding. You have to call her.”
“When is the wedding?”
“Rehearsal is this Friday and the wedding is Monday.”
“Then the wedding is planned and arrangements made. I can’t call her tomorrow and expect her to find a place for me. Maybe I should wait until after the wedding.”
“Stop. That would break her heart.”
“Will Zack’s friend, Nick, be there?” Maybe if I pretend I don’t remember much about him I can hide my embarrassment. He took me on a tour of Zack’s members-only club the night I disappeared. Nick’s hands were large and warm resting on my lower back. The connection was immediate—well, it was for me, but a caning scene triggered memories of being lashed across my back to the point of having welts. I freaked and ran to the restroom. The night just got worse when my brother called, and I raced from the building. “I don’t know if I’m ready to see him.”
“He probably doesn’t remember it. So what if he does?”
Tears build in the back of my eyes. I’m so grateful she’s so open-hearted. Here, I feel more like I’m returning to my family than I did at home. I’ll share my past or at least part of it with her.
She opens the door and waves me inside. A sense of warmth surrounds me as I enter. Her boho style hasn’t changed. The multi-colored couch is still against the wall next to the hanging bamboo chair. Colorful paintings decorate the walls. Green plants of different varieties line her breakfast counter. The bookcase houses a ton of romance novels and a few of her favorite souvenirs from beach vacations.
“I love it here. Your apartment is so warm and inviting. I was always glad when it was your Wednesday for our girls’ night in.”
“Good. Now that you’re back maybe we can begin again.”
“After you left and Morgan moved out, Wednesday night died of natural causes.” Chels fishes her cell from her purse. “You want the usual?”
“Chinese sounds perfect.” I wander over to the bookcase and pick up a picture of the three of us at an office party. Morgan, Chels, and I work for the same company. Well, we did until I left. Chels notified my boss a family emergency resulted in me going to Arkansas. It’s been six months and I’m sure my position in payroll has been filled.
Chels ends the call and puts her cell on the breakfast bar. Smiling broadly, she gets two wine glasses from the cabinet, walks to the fridge, and retrieves a bottle of Pink Moscato. When both wine glasses are full, she waves me to the couch. I kick off my shoes and pull my legs under me. Chels hands me a glass and takes the same position on the other end. She leans forward and toasts me. “To good friends reunited.”
“Absolutely.” I blink back the dampness in my eyes, touch my glass to hers, and take a long drink. “I haven’t had this since the last time we three were together.”
“I have questions. Lots of questions.”
“I’ll do my best to answer them.” My nerves tighten. Dr. Meeks drove home the fact I’ve done nothing to be ashamed of, but I’m not ready to share all of my past.
“There’s a few we can get out of the way before dinner arrives. Where in the hell have you been? Why haven’t I heard from you? And, most importantly, are you okay?”
I take a deep breath. These questions are easy to answer. “I went home to Arkansas for a month, since I returned, I’ve spent the last five months in therapy. At the time, I couldn’t answer the questions you would’ve asked. I believe, scratch that, I know, I’m okay.”
I can see Chels’s mind working as she pairs up each answer with the right question. She knows there’s more to it than what I’ve told her. She stands, goes to the kitchen, bringing back a couple of plates and napkins, placing them on the coffee table.
The knock on the door startles me but not her. “Let me get money out of my purse,” I say.
“It’s already paid for.” She opens the door and takes the sacks of food, then thanks him. I hear the snick of the deadbolt before she turns, grinning, back to me. “You can have your turn next Wednesday.”
“That’s a deal.” Relief that she hasn’t changed one bit washes over me.
“I don’t understand why you’ve been in the city for five months and haven’t contacted either of us?”
“You and Morgan would’ve taken me on as a full time project and I couldn’t let you. I had over twenty years of horrible memories to deal with; I had to work through it alone.”
Chels’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m so proud of you.”
I thought about what she said for a minute. “Thank you. I’m proud of myself too.”
“May I ask where you’re living?”
“In a furnished apartment not far from here. My lease is almost up, and I’m trying to decide if I want to stay there or find a new place. If I move, I’ll have to buy a couch, bed, well, everything.”
“I guess it’s a good thing I had the complex manager put your belongings into storage.”
“You didn’t.” I shouldn’t be surprised. No one would’ve been this kind, except her.
“I did. I just happen to know where there’s a great apartment for lease.” She’s smiling from ear to ear.
“Oh, yeah? It wouldn’t happen to be in this complex, would it?”
“And on this floor. I’d love to have you as a neighbor.”
“You are absolutely one of a kind.”
“I don’t know about that, but I love the idea of us living close to each other again.”
She picks up her chopsticks, separates them, and scoops a mouth full of Ta Chien and fried rice into her mouth. Her gaze never leaves mine as she chews then swallows.
I study her for a moment. Her coffee-with-cream colored hair and hazel eyes combine and make her a beautiful woman. “I’d hug you but there’s a gooey green pepper on your shirt.”
She looks down then shakes her head. “I don’t see it.”
“That’s because of your big boobs.” I pluck it from her blouse with my chopsticks and drop it on a napkin. “I’ll check on the empty apartment in the morning.”
Chels nods and we eat in silence until the last piece of food disappears. “May I ask a personal question?”
“Of course.” I stuff the empty boxes back into the sack, gather up everything except the wine glasses, and take the trash to the kitchen. I rejoin Chels on the couch, expecting to reopen the conversation about my family emergency.
She speaks just as I sit. “Do you need money?”
“I don’t, but thank you for asking.” I take a sip of wine and start my story. “I’d never been truly happy until I left for college. My life had been pure hell. My father beat the crap out of me for anything and everything that went wrong.”
“Where was your mother?”
“Oh, she was there. She did her best to be invisible or she got the same treatment.” I empty my glass and pause for a minute. “That’s all in the past.”
“I’m so sorry.” Chels pours us a second glass of wine. “You don’t have to say anymore if it hurts too badly.”
I wave her off.
Her face is rigid. I see anger, not pity, in her eyes. She’s always been protective of her friends.
“My brother, Paul, called me that Thursday night while I was at the club. He said Dad died. The attorney wanted me there for the reading of the will. I didn’t know my mom had passed until I got there. I didn’t give a damn about the money, but I wanted to know where my mother was buried and that she had a proper gravestone.”
“Are you working?”
“Not yet. I’m living off my small inheritance and just focusing on my mental health.” I stand and stretch. “I’m beat. Thanks for dinner.”
Chels stands and catches my hand. “I’m glad you’re here. I missed my friend.”
“I missed you too. As soon as I know something about the apartment, I’ll call you.”
“And you’ll call Morgan?” Chels wraps her arms around me.
We stand there for a few minutes and my heart does a double-step. It’s the first human touch I’ve had in a long time. I realize how badly I’ve missed it. We’re both teary eyed when we separate. “Yes, Mom. I’ll call Morgan tomorrow.”
I get my purse and she walks me to her door, watching me stride down the hallway until I step onto the elevator. The nerves banded around my chest release. I’m touched Chels didn’t push to know every little detail that happened in my past. I shudder as my brother Paul crosses my mind. He’s like my dad only worse, and I never want to see him again.