From the time she was a gangly 12-year-old, Melissa had allowed her private thoughts to fill notebook after notebook. She was always careful to keep them hidden. Those journals were secret places where she recorded her feelings…her thoughts. No one else had a right to read them. Even when her girlfriends would share their diaries with one another, giggling over adolescent confessions, Melissa kept hers to herself. She manufactured a little lie, telling her friends that she didn’t even own a diary and, if she did, she’d probably just forget to use it. Sometimes she felt guilty about that…as though keeping her journals a secret was disrespectful to the bonds of friendship…but she stuck to her guns. And it wasn’t simply because the entries were for her eyes only. She didn’t want to risk being judged by how others might interpret her thoughts.
She never began her entries with “Dear Diary.” She wrote “Dear MAT” because those were her initials. Even after she got married and those initials changed, she kept the salutations the same. MAT was who she was addressing…then, now and always.
Melissa’s journals were constant companions throughout high school, college, a stormy engagement and a shaky marriage. Tattered notebooks detailed the highs and lows in her life:
Her first prom – Brian was 10 minutes early picking me up and had to sit in the front room with Daddy. I almost laughed out loud when I got down there and saw how scared he looked. He gave me the most beautiful wrist corsage. It has little pink roses and baby’s breath. And when he brought me home, we snuck around to the dark end of the porch and he kissed me!
The crush on her psychology professor – I’m gonna ace this course. I just know it. Professor P. really likes me. I can tell because he always asks me if I’m enjoying his class. And he is so, so cute!
Her confusion about whether to marry – I don’t know if James is ever going to understand me. He keeps saying how great our life is going to be, but he never wants to listen to my thoughts on the kind of house I want, or kids, or anything!
And her doubts about her husband’s fidelity – This is the third time this week that James has called to say he’s working late. I just don’t believe him. They’ve never had this much extra work before. And he’s been so distant lately.
Some of her journals held questions as to how her life might have been different if she’d made other choices along the way. She allowed herself to wonder, in the confines of those pages, if becoming a wife and mother had kept her from pursuing a career that might have made life more interesting. Of course, those thoughts were transcribed on the days when the baby wouldn’t stop crying or the water heater burst or the casserole dried out waiting for James to come home. Cheerier moments produced entries written in an upward, flowing script that exuded her excitement about Brett making the Honor Roll or when she finally got her hyacinth to bloom or James surprising her with tickets to the theatre.
These books were Melissa’s therapy. They provided a haven where she could say anything, think anything, wish anything…with no fear of reprisal. After an argument with James, she’d close herself up in the bathroom and draw her journal out from behind the stack of towels in the linen cabinet. She kept a ballpoint pen clipped to her notebook, having learned long ago that tears cause felt-tip ink to run. Sitting on the floor, she’d hastily scrawl the thoughts that crowded her mind. When finished, she’d lean back against the tub…close the journal without reading it…and then stash it back in the cabinet. Only then could she return to the world outside of that little room, prepared to face whatever waited on the other side of the door.
Returning from a long walk on this wondrously warm fall day – where the crackle of leaves underfoot caused her to smile, and the high noon sun made her cheeks glow – Melissa’s thoughts focused on how she could put it all into words. What exactly could she say to adequately paint this perfect picture? Once inside the house, it became a moot point. When she entered her bedroom, she stopped short with eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Lying in the middle of her king-size bed – splayed like a woman offering herself for consummation – was one of her notebooks. Momentarily unable to breathe, she approached the bed and stared down at the words on the pages. She knew immediately that this wasn’t one of her recent journals.
Melissa’s hands were shaking, and her heart felt like it might beat out of her chest as she bent to pick up the notebook. She sat on the edge of the bed and read the entry.
I don’t even know how to begin. Part of me knew this was going to happen, but I guess I didn’t really let myself believe it. No one can ever know about this. Since Brett is visiting my parents, I decided to swing by the shop to see if James was free for lunch. Randy said he was out on a job and didn’t know when he’d be back. As I was driving away, I saw James’s truck parked in the back lot. That made me suspicious, so I drove up a little way and parked out of sight. I walked back and slipped around behind the little work shed at the rear of the parking lot. I could hear sounds coming from inside the shed, and when I peeked in the window, I saw them. James had his shirt off and a woman was up against him, kissing his neck. I ducked down before getting a look at her face. The window was partly open, and I could hear them shuffling around and moaning. I still have a bruise from biting my fist to keep from sobbing. And then, when I heard her voice, I nearly fainted. It was Kathryn. Kathryn! I couldn’t help myself and looked in the window again. Neither of them saw me. I probably watched for five full minutes before I got my wits about me and ran back to the car. I cried and cried while I drove, not even thinking about where I was going. I just now got home, James is due in less than an hour, and I still can’t stop crying. How did this happen? And with my own sister! I don’t know which hurts more…James being unfaithful or Kathryn’s disloyalty. I’ve always turned to her whenever I needed to talk to someone. She sat right at my kitchen table, not three days ago, and let me pour my heart out to her about James. She knew I suspected he might be having an affair, and she just kept trying to convince me that I was imagining things. Now I know why she was defending him so hard. It’s been her all along! Right now, I hate them both so much! If it weren’t for Brett, I’d leave James today. But I can’t do that. Brett idolizes his father. What’s worse is, he idolizes his Aunt Kat, too. Damn them both!
Melissa let the journal drop to the floor and stared across the room at nothing in particular. Tears coursed down her cheeks and she felt paralyzed. Each heartbeat struck like a hammer, and for a moment she thought she might pass out. The light dimmed around the edges of her eyes and there was a loud buzzing in her ears. Lowering her head between her knees, she willed herself to breathe. When she felt steady enough, she raised her head a bit and looked again at the journal. She picked it back up and turned it over to look at the date, although there was no need. The passage she read had brutally propelled her back to that summer four years ago. She tossed the book onto the bed.
A quick scan around the room revealed that her bottom dresser drawer was partially open. That’s where this journal had been. Not stored away in the back of her closet with all of her other old notebooks, but underneath some old magazines in her drawer. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember why that particular journal hadn’t been with the others. The reason wasn’t important, though. After all these years fiercely protecting her innermost thoughts, she’d gotten careless. And there was only one person who could have found this. James was away on a hunting trip with his brother, so it had to be Brett. Precious, trusting Brett.
Melissa found her legs and ran from the bedroom, calling out her son’s name. She threw open his bedroom door, but he wasn’t there. Running down the stairs, she tripped and fell the last couple of steps. She ignored the rug-burn on her knee and ran into the family room. The television was on, but Brett wasn’t there. She halfway registered schoolbooks spread out on the coffee table as she whipped around and sprinted toward the kitchen. Empty. She ran back through the house and looked into the dining room and the living room. No one. Standing in the living room doorway, she listened to the house. It screamed silence. Melissa realized she was holding her breath and began to feel dizzy again. She stepped into the living room and dropped to the sofa. Where had he gone?
Brett finally stopped running when he reached the creek three blocks from his house. He bent over, hands on his knees, and surprised himself by vomiting. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tee shirt and stumbled over to the edge of the creek. Leaning against an old poplar, he squatted down and crossed his arms over his knees. He stared at the rippling stream of water and tried to clear his head. A loud caw drew his attention to the treetop where he saw a crow perched on a broken branch.
“Go away!” he shouted. The bird stared at him.
“Go!” Brett picked up a clod of dirt and chucked it up toward the branch. It fell far short, but the crow took heed and flew off.
Brett’s mind kept replaying what he had read just minutes earlier. He hadn’t been snooping in his mom’s things. He was working on a project for school that required pictures to be cut from magazines. He knew she kept her old ones in that drawer and he didn’t think she’d care if he took a few. It was when he was taking out a stack of magazines that he saw the journal. He grabbed it and dropped the magazines back into the drawer. He knew he shouldn’t look at it. Even an 11-year-old kid knew better than to go reading someone’s diary. But he couldn’t seem to help himself. He was, after all, an 11-year-old kid. It wasn’t as good as finding his dad’s Playboys, but it still tugged at his curiosity.
So, he opened it. The first couple of pages were pretty boring. His mom wrote stuff about her garden and about some shopping trip she’d taken with his aunt. She also went on and on about how hard she was trying to stay on a diet because summer vacation was coming up, and she wanted to look nice in a bathing suit. He began flipping through the pages and was just about to put it back when his eye caught his own name. It was at the end of a long entry. It said something about how much he idolized his dad. And it mentioned his Aunt Kat, too. He decided to go to the beginning of that entry and see what his mother had written about them. Now he wished he hadn’t. He wished he’d never gone up to his parent’s bedroom. He wished his mother didn’t keep her old magazines in that drawer. And, most of all, he wished he’d never seen that journal.
Brett sat there, picking at his lower lip, and uttered all the curse words he could think of. All the words he’d get grounded for saying if his parents could hear him. Right at that moment, he didn’t much care what his parents liked or didn’t like. Well, his dad, anyway. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his mom. He was at that age where he was hell-bent on earning his way into teen-hood while still needing occasional hugs of reassurance from his folks. The two people he had counted on all his life. Now he didn’t even know them. How could his dad do that? How could he hurt his mom that way? And with Aunt Kat, no less. Brett may have been young, but nothing in his mother’s entry got by him. He knew exactly what she was referring to when she wrote about what she saw in that shed. His stomach was a gnarled chunk of hatred toward his father. There was no ambivalence there. If he’d been face-to-face with his dad at that moment, he would have hurled himself at him and pummeled until there was no fight left. What he couldn’t identify was how he felt toward his mom. He didn’t know why but, for the life of him, he felt like she’d let him down somehow.
The cawing was back and Brett glanced up to see what looked like the same crow sitting on a branch just a few feet above his head. All his anger and confusion came boiling out of him. He stood up, grabbed a fallen limb, and slammed it against the branch where the bird was perched. The crow took off a split-second before impact and disappeared up through the leaves. Brett knelt down at the base of the poplar and laid his head on the ground, sobbing.
Melissa realized she was accomplishing nothing by simply sitting there in her living room. She had to figure out where Brett might have gone. As she ran a mental tally of his closest friends, she decided that Justin wasn’t an option because he was away at his grandfather’s funeral. Seth might have been a possibility if he and Brett hadn’t gotten into a fight yesterday over a soccer game. Maybe he went to Tanner’s. Brett was closer to him than the other two and would probably feel most comfortable confiding in him than anyone else.
Melissa had a cell phone but, out of habit more than anything else, her family still used a landline in the house. She ran to the phone in the kitchen and rifled through the notes tacked up on the small bulletin board. Finding Tanner’s number, she shakily punched it into the keypad. After the third ring, his mother’s voice came on announcing that Robert, Lisa, and Tanner were unavailable at the moment and to please leave a message. Melissa slammed the receiver down and started searching for Seth’s number. She dialed, and he answered immediately.
“Seth, this is Brett’s mom. I’m trying to find him. Is he over there, or have you talked to him this afternoon?”
“Nope.” A boy of few words.
She ignored his cool tone and hung up.
Pacing back and forth across the kitchen floor, she wracked her brain for ideas. Then it hit her. From the time Brett was allowed to venture alone beyond their front yard, he’d taken to going down to the shallow creek that ran through Marlow’s Park. He loved to explore along the bank, digging bugs from the soil or capturing crawdads at the water’s edge. She couldn’t count the times she’d found mud-caked creatures in his dirty pockets. That creek was his favorite hangout, and Melissa was suddenly certain that that’s where she’d find him.
It was only a few blocks away, but the car would be quicker than running, so Melissa grabbed her keys and charged out the door. As she backed out of the driveway, she made a concerted effort to calm herself. If she did find Brett there, the last thing she wanted was for him to see how shaken she was. She had no idea what she was going to say to him, or what he might say to her, but she knew she had to find him. No kid that age should ever have to try to digest the ugly information that was contained in that journal. He’d obviously read it, though, so it was going to be up to her to guide him through to some level of understanding. This thought did nothing to ease her shattered nerves. After all these years, even she wasn’t sure she understood it all.
Melissa couldn’t stop her thoughts from diving back to that summer, that awful day when her life turned black and cold and completely unfamiliar.
Icy fingers clutched her heart as she heard James’s truck pull into the drive. The opening and closing of the kitchen door announced his entrance and she pulled herself to the bathroom sink to assess the damage. The mirror reflected a red, swollen face with dirty tear tracks down each cheek. Without thinking how odd it might appear, she grabbed some facial cream and slathered it over her face. She blew out a big breath and, after taking one last look in the mirror, left the bathroom and headed down the stairs.
James turned his attention from the contents of the refrigerator when he heard her come into the kitchen. His eyes got wide and he started to laugh. “What in the world is that?”
“This? Oh, I read about a new skin care treatment and thought I’d give it a try. I have to keep it on for another half-hour.” She surprised herself by how calm she sounded. Her voice didn’t betray her fragile heart the way the man standing before her had done just a few hours earlier. He didn’t suspect a thing.
“So, what’s for supper? I’m starved.” James shut the refrigerator door and leaned against the counter.
“I haven’t started anything, yet. I thought maybe we’d just order pizza. Brett would get a kick out of it and, frankly, I just don’t feel up to cooking. I think I’m coming down with a cold or something.” Amazing how quickly her brain was working to make all of this plausible. Little did he know the time she would have spent preparing dinner had been occupied by mindless driving and hysterical sobbing.
“Yeah, sure, pizza sounds good. But I’ll call. You’ll get that junk all over the phone if you do it.” He laughed again and grabbed the phone book.
“I’ll be upstairs.” Melissa said as she turned and headed for the hall. Unbelievable! He acted as though this was just any other day. Of course, now that she thought about it, maybe this was just any other day to him. Surely this wasn’t his first little escapade. He’d probably been at it so long it was becoming a natural state of being. The hate that boiled up in her throat scared her a little. She never knew she could feel this way about anyone…least of all the man she’d promised her entire future to.
Brett raised his head and brushed the leaves out of his hair. He looked around to be sure no one had been watching him and was relieved to find himself completely alone. Even that stupid crow had finally gotten the hint.
He stood up and walked down to the creek’s edge, gazing into the water without really seeing anything. His jumbled mind was on fire. He didn’t know how to separate his anger from the confusion, so he just stood on the bank and let the breeze wrap itself around him. Were his mom and dad going to get a divorce? That’s what happened to Mindy Everson’s parents when her mom got a boyfriend. He remembered how she’d sit in the back of the classroom and cry. Oh, she tried to hide it, but even kids their age could figure out when someone was messed up. Mindy stayed messed up for what seemed like forever. Now, she only got to see her dad a couple of times a month and her mom was married to that other guy. Mindy made no secret of how much she hated him.
Once again, Brett heard cawing and he looked up into the tree branches. There it was. Like a soldier standing guard on top of a castle. He didn’t try to chase it away this time. The crow wasn’t the problem. His dad was the problem. His aunt was the problem. And maybe even his mom was the problem. But not the crow. It was just a dumb bird. And a hundred rocks thrown at it wouldn’t make him feel any better. He turned away and started to walk along the bank.
The crunch of gravel got his attention, and he looked back in that direction. When he saw his mom’s car pull into the parking area, he swung around and took off running in the opposite direction.
[To be continued…]