Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Holiday to Remember Chapter Twenty-Three

(jump to the first chapter)

Chapter Twenty-Three – Goodbye to What Might Have Been

by Brenda Whiteside

“Truck should be warm by now.” Jeb stamped his boots, knocking off snow, as he stood just inside the door. “You ready to go, Candy?”

Candy turned from the window where she’d watched Mitch’s neighbor clear the snow from the windshield of his truck. “Yes, I’m ready.”

Jeb pulled a hooded sweatshirt from a hook by the front door. “Put this on.”

“Thanks.” She slipped the fleece around her and smiled at the elderly man. Following him to the truck, her footsteps were heavy, but less from the soggy ground than the sadness weighing her down.

“You sure you wouldn’t like to stop at Mitch’s and get your own coat…or anything else?” He put the truck in reverse and backed out onto the road. “Wouldn’t be any trouble since we’ll pass right by.”

“I’m sure.” Candy didn’t mean to sound as icy as the weather but any reference to Mitch—to Michael—chilled her soul.

She stared out the window into the growing dark, not wanting to watch for Mitch’s place, but drawn to where she’d left her heart. The golden glow from the windows flickered through the trees before the cabin came into view. Tears stung her eyes. She could smell the wood burning in the fireplace, feel his arms around her.

“Mitch might like to ride to the airport with us. Should we stop and ask?”

Candy shook her head and forced herself to look at the road. She shut her eyes, damming the threatening tears. He’d made a fool of her. He’d played her, gained her trust and love, only to smash her feelings without any explanation. She never wanted to see that manipulating, heartless man again.

“You and Mitch—”

“There is no me and Mitch.”

“No? Maybe—”

“His name isn’t Mitch. He’s not who you think he is.” Why the hell should she protect his identity?

“He’s Mitch. He might have another name, another life before this one, but to all of us in Elridge, he’s just Mitch.” Jeb gave her a serious, narrow-eyed glance before turning his attention back on the road.

“You don’t know the real man. His name is Michael Crawford—”

“The third.”

Candy stared at Jeb, dumbfounded. She closed her gaping mouth when Jeb snickered at her.

“I’m probably the only one around here who does know, but that’s Mitch’s business.”

“Why would he hide his identity?”

“I don’t think he’s hiding, exactly.”

“No? Then why are you the only one who knows?”

“Can’t say. We all have secrets, and our reasons are our own.” His voice was quiet, the slushy road sounds nearly blocking out his words.

“Why, Jeb? Why did he change his name and move here?”

“I said I knew his real name, where he came from. Don’t know much more. When and if Mitch ever decides to tell me, I’ll listen. But it really doesn’t matter. He’s one hell of a man, whatever he calls himself.”

“Oh, yeah, one hell of a man.”

They rode in silence for a few miles. The fact that Mitch had told Jeb who he was didn’t mitigate her anger. Michael, not Mitch. But they were one and the same. All those years ago, she’d loved Michael—a childish love but love nonetheless—and he’d hurt her. What she felt for Mitch—the love, anger, hurt—was history repeating itself.

“The first winter Mitch was here, Jenny Martin lost her husband. Mitch went to her house every day, though he didn’t really know her.” He held up his hand when she opened her mouth. “Before you jump to conclusions, Jenny’s a grandma. But he was there, doing all the chores, helping her get the house ready to sell.” Jeb nodded at her as if he’d relayed the news of the week.

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“A man’s actions speak louder than words.”

Candy hugged the fleece around her. Mitch’s actions were loud and clear. He’d concealed the truth. That said it all.

“I was down with a broken leg a while back. Mitch was handy whenever I needed something done.”

“Fine, Jeb. I understand he’s a Good Samaritan.”

“There’s a lot more to the man.”

“Like what? How can you be sure if you don’t know why he’s here? Why he lives under an alias?”

“I could tell when he first moved here, he needed to set something right.”

“What do you mean?” Candy squinted to see his face in the dim light of the truck cab. If he knew something, anything that would absolve Mitch for his deceitful actions, she wanted to know. God, was she still harboring a sliver of hope?

“Sorry, Candy. I don’t know exactly what I mean. It’s just a feeling. But he’s a good man.”

She shook her head and turned away from him.

“When he was with you…happiest I’ve ever seen him.”

“You don’t understand, Jeb. You can’t know…” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

The good neighbor took the hint, and they rode in silence the remaining miles.

Candy dozed; pleasant dreams of Mitch’s kisses laced her slumber. She jerked awake when Jeb turned a sharp corner and pulled into a parking space at the Atlanta airport.

The engine noise died, and Jeb opened his door. “I’ll walk you in.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“My orders were to make sure you were delivered safely.”

“Your orders?”

His only response was a smile.

Tears came from nowhere. “Well, consider your task accomplished.” She swiped the tears away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Oh, jeez, sorry.” She dabbed at the wet spot with her hand. “Look, let’s just say goodbye here. There’s no need to walk me in. You’ve been so very kind and helpful. Can I pay you for the gas?”

“You most certainly cannot.”

“Then I’ll give you back your hoodie and—”

“No, no.” He shut his door and waved a hand in the air. “You keep it. You can return it when you come back.”

“Jeb, I’m not—”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

She leaned across the cab and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Goodbye, Jeb.”

“Until next time.”

There was no use arguing with him. She hopped out onto the asphalt of the cold parking garage, pulled the hoodie tighter, and walked to the elevator. As the doors closed, she waved goodbye to Jeb. Goodbye to what might have been.

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