TAG, YOU’RE DEAD
Jake Holley stood like a statue beside his best man. Jennifer was twenty minutes late. He prayed to God she was just late or simply leaving him at the altar. He loved her for a myriad of reasons, but the old fear had crept in. He couldn’t take another dead fiancée.
He could see bridesmaids milling around in the outer chamber. The organist was playing something. He couldn’t place it. Couldn’t think for the what-if’s screwing with his brain. On the outside looking in at his own wedding, his heartbeat sped up. And he had a really bad feeling.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He’d meant to give it to Mike, his brother. His best man. The man who lived the same nightmare, bearing responsibility for the death of his own fiancée. Some brotherly bond that was. Seemed like loving a Holley could be pretty damn lethal.
His phone vibrated again. It was a text. From Jennifer.
Jake stared at it. After the second longest minute of his 25 years, he threw the phone down the aisle where Jennifer should have been walking toward him.
Sorry? He watched his phone slide away.
What the hell did sorry mean?
Without a word, he walked off the small stage, down the aisle past a hundred staring eyes, and out the church doors. He ripped crepe paper off his car and tried to smear off the soaped-on lies covering his windows. He picked up each individual can tied to his bumper, cut the twine, and threw it as far as he could.
When his father and brother had just about reached him, he got in his car and roared off.
Jake sped up the road to his cabin. Minutes later, he was screaming up the mountain on his dirt bike. An hour after that, he pulled to a stop, threw down his bike, walked to the edge of the cliff, and stared into the depth of the narrow canyon with which he’d become so familiar.
It was the place he spilled his guts and allowed solitude to calm his soul. A place where he could stand on a precipice and decide how to live again, something he’d needed too many times.
On the ride up the mountain, he’d already thought the worst things he could think about his loser self and his betraying Jennifer. True love number two straight down the toilet.
He stood with his toes at the edge of the cliff wondering what was next for him besides a heart as empty as the hole in front of him. He didn’t have to wonder long to know it was nothing. A whole hell of a lot of nothing. Then he heard her.
He turned slowly, not believing his ears.
“I knew you’d come here,” she said.
He just stared at her. Son of a bitch. There just wasn’t one damn word he had to say to her.
“Jake,” she said as she stood up in front of the very boulder where she’d saved his heart ten short months ago. It was a sheltered enclave where they’d both brought their individual sorrows for as long as either could remember.
“Come talk to me, Jake.” She held out her hand. “Please.”
Without volition, without feeling the ground or his movement, Jake walked toward her. She’d cut his heart out and stomped it. Now she reached for him. Maybe he did have something to say to her. Maybe he did want to hear what she had to say.
Jennifer pulled Jake with her as she sat on the ground in front of the boulder. She entwined her hand with his. This was a perfect replay of their beginning. Perfect down to the broken heart.
“Deep in your heart, Jake, you must know.”
“I know this was supposed to be our wedding day.” He sorely wanted to hurt her, leave her heart bleeding the way she had his.
“The heart is a crazy thing, Jake. Sometimes it partners up with our brain to make us believe something that isn’t true. I’m sorry it took me so long. Sorry I’ve been such a coward about it. But beneath the surface is where we find the truth, and I found that truth today, Jake.”
“What truth would that be, Jennifer?” he snapped. He hated responding to her. He wanted to freeze her out, make her feel alone. Deserted. He wanted to do a lot worse than snap at her. He wanted to scream. He wanted to shake her.
He wanted to cry.
“We’re a lot of things to each other, Jake. Friends, saviors, strength. But we’re not in love.”
“We’re not, huh? Could’ve fooled me.” She squeezed his hand but he wouldn’t acknowledge it. Neither did he pull away.
“Fooled me too, Jake. I wanted so badly to love you. To marry you, settle down, have a family. The whole dream. A little while ago, I realized that what I really wanted was another family.”
“Just not with me.”
“What I realized was that I was substituting you and your family for mine. Jake, I had just been so lost. So alone. Until I hooked up with you. You saved me, Jake.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t intend to fall into a sappy stew of bullshit reasons he should be happy she fucked up his life.
“I love you, Jake. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You grounded me when I couldn’t hold on. And you let me return the favor. But that’s not enough, and I can’t trade our chances for true love so that I won’t be alone.
Yeah, he thought. Much better we both be alone.
She wasn’t catching his foul mood. It’d be easier to fight if she would. Or maybe she was, and just didn’t give a damn. She sure as shit was a lot calmer than he was. Despite his silence, she kept talking.
“Marriage may suit both of us for a while, but it can’t last. I’ll get past my parents’ deaths. You’ll get past Christy’s.”
“I’m not yet sure of that, Jennifer.”
“See what I mean, Jake? We’re not ready.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going back to school. I want to be a nurse.”
Jake’s shoulders fell. It was over, and he just couldn’t deal with it now. He closed his eyes.
Dammit. He couldn’t hate her. He released a deep, resigned breath, and squeezed her hand. “You’ll be a good one.” He couldn’t deny her that one truth.
As quickly as they had fallen in love months ago, they had fallen out.
“I’m going now, Jake. I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, me too, Jennifer. Me too.”
“I hope you forgive me some day.”
“Yeah, me too.”
He couldn’t even say goodbye. He just let her walk away. He was adrift again. He was mad. He was humiliated. He knew she was telling the truth.
He would never have Christy, and he would never have Jennifer.
Marrying Jennifer wouldn’t have made him get over loving and losing Christy, and no amount of trying would turn his connection and affection for Jennifer into true love. He’d hidden that belief deep in the dark, walled off recesses of his heart, hoping that, unacknowledged, it would disappear.
Christy was dead because he’d wanted to watch the game. Simple as that. He should’ve driven into town to pick her up. He should’ve been watching the weather. He should’ve skipped the game. He should’ve watched it at Christy’s place. He had a whole lot of should’ves in his pocket–always handy when he was in a sour enough mood to kick his own ass. The one thing he did know was that Christy would be alive today if he’d been driving, snow or no snow.
The loss of Christy, the guilt, and the grief ate him up and eventually drove him here to this cliff ten months ago. He liked this place, identified with it. A hole in the earth that, over the years, had listened to every grief life had piled upon him.
He smiled at the irony. That day ten months ago, it had been Jennifer standing on the edge of the cliff looking down into the canyon searching for her own answers.
She’d said she’d been deciding whether the loss of her family would destroy her. Wondering how she could go on. Wondering if the will to live would one day trump the emptiness in her life. He’d understood completely.
Their deep unhappiness had bound them immediately and grew until they were tightly interwoven in their understanding of the other’s dogged drive for survival and a return to anything that felt near normal.
Well, the whole pitiful parade of hope had just served to prove he wasn’t man enough to keep a woman, even a desperate one.
To match his mood, the sky darkened. He felt the thunder when it boomed. Wished the lightening across the sky would strike him and deliver him from the hell of his life. But it didn’t. Another wish denied.
The summer storm blew in quickly, and the rain suddenly came down in sheets. Within minutes, he was completely soaked. Still, he stood watching the storm. He couldn’t bear to go home. Didn’t want to see anyone. Couldn’t talk about what had just happened.
Instead, he drew in a deep breath and yelled his agony as loud as he could. He picked up a rock and pitched it across the canyon with all the force his anguish could muster. And then he threw another, and another, and another. He wanted nothing more than to hurt something, break something, kill something… escape.
He drove his bike back to his cabin, picked up his emergency survival pack and rifle, and headed out again. Solitude was something he could trust. She would be his mistress. The lonely mountain forest had soothed him before. Before Christy. Nothing had soothed him after Christy. Not even Jennifer.
He drove like a maniac until the trail petered out. Then he walked, and walked, and walked. This was his element, rain or no rain. No one to hurt and no one to hurt him.
He was exhausted by the time the sun went down. It had finally stopped raining, but his clothes were sopping wet. So much the better–he deserved to be miserable. He ate peanut butter crackers from his pack, drank a couple dozen healthy doses of whiskey from the same emergency pack, and passed out.
The morning came with sunshine, warmth, and a mild breeze. Everything smelled fresh and new. It mocked him, a complete antithesis of his being—unclean, unworthy, unwanted.
He took off his still wet and muddy clothing, the pants and what used to be the white shirt of his tux, and tossed them away. He couldn’t even remember what had happened to the jacket. Nor did he give a shit.
He hung the jeans and tee shirt from his pack on a tree branch to dry out and just stayed naked. He was going to become a new man, a solitary unhappy figure in a sea of happy couples lucky enough to have found one another. Luck he would never possess. Solidity he would never feel. Companionship he would never share.
He picked up his rifle and set off to kill breakfast. Instead, he viciously shot off every round he had with him into a mound of dirt and wildflowers. He spent the rest of the day wandering and drinking the rest of his whiskey.
When he woke the next morning, his skin was on fire. He’d passed out next to a stream and had provided a bountiful feast for a pack of bloodsucking bugs–probably female. He rolled over into the stream—blessed relief found in the ice-cold water.
He didn’t know how long he’d been in the water, but it’d been long enough to know he couldn’t spend the rest of his life naked and hiding in the woods. And through the relentless burning and itching of a million bug bites, he’d discovered that he preferred punishing himself with his heart and brain more than his body.
It took him a bit to pick up his trail and find his way back to his pack. He dressed, hiked back to his bike, and drove back to his cabin.
Jake got up the next morning, threw clothes into a suitcase, got in his car, and without calling anyone, drove south. Away from Colorado, away from his heartache, his family, and the snow that had killed Christy. Away from Jennifer. He thought the desert would suit him just fine.
He stopped in El Paso, Texas, but it didn’t feel right. He didn’t know if he’d ever feel right again, but he was pissed enough to keep driving until he was convinced there was no hope for him. He decided to drive across Texas, and turned east.
He was a couple of hours out of El Paso when he pulled off the road to stretch his legs. But he didn’t get to relax. What he got was a kick in the nuts.
Some damn girl was sitting on a rock bawling. They were the only two people at the rest stop. She was facing west toward El Paso. He couldn’t see her face, but her body bounced in that crying way he’d seen in women who were trying not to cry out loud.
Holy hell. He supposed he’d have to at least ask her what was wrong. Maybe he could help her, but he’d be goddammed if he wanted any part of another woman, let alone one full of tear-worthy troubles.
Then he thought, what the hell. He was already pretty darn damned.
“Ma’am? You alright?”
Her head bobbed up and down once.
“Can I help you? Do something for you? Your car okay?
“I’m fine. Thanks,” she said without lifting her head.
“If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure. I’m just saying goodbye.”
“Okay. Good luck, lady.”
Jake got back in his truck and didn’t think again until he reached Austin. He felt it immediately. He was home.
A few days later, he called his folks. But he didn’t call Jennifer.