|Far From Home|
Okay folks... you've read enough to know that standard disclaimers apply here... Also, I think I'm gonna start putting my comments up here instead of down at the bottom.
A few things. This chapter begins the transition into what I originally conceived as Part II of the story. It transitions to a time a few years down the road and sets up for upcoming events. Things have changed since I originally thought this out though.
Back in late July I got the chance to house sit for a friend. I took my story with me and read it from beginning to end. I was rather appauled at the grammatical errors I had let slip by me and some other stuff... I took the time to make minor corrections to the story, and the corrected versions of Chapters 1-10 are on my site (I refer to them as version 1.1). It also gave me the motivation to begin the massive rewrite of the story that I knew was coming. I've rewritten the first three chapters of the book and have changed the format of the story into something I am much more satisfied with. If you would like to see a sample, I've put Chapter 1 Version 2 up on my website. Take a look at it if you like, and let me know what you think. (By the way, crosswinds.net has been a tad slow to load over the last few days. I appologize if you have any problems with it).
Chapter 12 is already written and should appear on my site on or before September 6th. It will appear on Nifty shortly after. As always, emails are welcome.
from last time...
"I'll be fine. Honestly in some ways, I'm relieved. I know that sounds bad, but our marriage started to fall apart after Christmas. In fact, I almost left him that night you went to jail. And while I really do miss him, I don't miss the fights we got into. Honestly, had this not happened, I don't think we'd have lasted much longer."
"Mom, I'm so sorry," I said, tears forming in my eyes.
She put down the casserole pan she was working on. "Charlie, you have nothing to be sorry for. It's not your fault he was such a jackass sometimes."
"Nope. Not another word." She handed me the casserole pan and went to work on a rather stubborn serving dish. "When are you heading back to Georgia?"
"I don't know. How long do you want me to stay?"
"Charlie, you have a life and a job to get back to. And I'm heading back to work on Tuesday. Why don't you head back the day after tomorrow."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Life goes on, Charlie."
"Hey. You packed yet?"
I'm not really sure why Ryan asked that question. My room was a total and complete mess. Clothes were strewn about the place, and to quote my mom, "It looks like World War III has taken place in here!"
"Dear God. What am I gonna wear?" I was running around my room frantically trying to pick out an outfit.
"Charlie, calm down. Don't be so nervous. It's just—"
"Just dinner with your parents! What have I got to be nervous about?" I asked sarcastically.
"It will be okay. Besides, I've already met your parents."
"I think circumstances were a bit different then. We have to be in Macon in three hours and I'm nowhere near ready!" I was so worked up about this I was practically shaking. I dove back into my closet in search of an outfit.
"Charlie?" he called from my room.
I walked out of my closet looking somewhat impatient. "What?"
"Ryan, we only have three—"
He walked over and wrapped his arms around me, planting a kiss on my forehead. "It will be alright. I promise. They are nice people."
I smiled and relaxed in his arms. "Why is it that whenever I am about to pull my hair out, you come to the rescue?"
"I'm a sucker for hard luck cases. Now what can I do to help."
"Well, I haven't packed my shaving kit yet...."
"Consider it done."
"Thanks pookie. I love you."
"I love you too." Ryan let go of me and headed into the bathroom. I returned to the closet. "Hey Charlie, why don't you wear that shirt I got you for your birthday?" he called out.
My birthday had been in May, three months earlier. Ryan had gone out of his way to make it special. While I was at work, he spent the entire day planting the flowerbeds in the front yard. When I got home, he gave me an entire outfit that he had bought and took me out to one of the most expensive restaurants in Buckhead. I'd never been to a restaurant that had valet parking before, and I can only imagine what the bill was.
I picked up the shirt he had bought me and eyed it carefully. Ryan said that the blue complimented my eyes nicely. After selecting a pair of olive dress pants, I was confident that I'd found my clothes for the evening. I walked into the bathroom.
"Is this dressy enough for where we're going?" I asked him.
"It's perfect. Now go finish packing. It's just a weekend at a beach house—don't worry about how you look."
Ryan's birthday was the first weekend in September, but since we'd both be in school then, I'd rented a cottage on St. George Island for a four-day weekend. The plan was to have dinner with his parents, spend the night in Macon, and drive down to the panhandle of Florida the following day.
Taking Ryan's advice, I hurriedly finished packing. Traffic on the way out of town was, to say the least, nightmarish. We apparently tried to leave Atlanta right before a Braves game.
Somehow though, we arrived at the restaurant right on time. As we were walking up to the front door, I started to feel very nervous. Ryan sensed my anticipation and grabbed my hand, assuring me things would be fine.
"We're with the Kirkpatrick party. I believe they are expecting us," Ryan said to the Maitre'd.
"Right this way sir." He led us to the table where Ryan's parents were sitting. His dad didn't quite look like I had expected. Mr. Kirkpatrick owned his own landscaping company, so I guess I anticipated him being a giant hulk of a man, but he wasn't. He looked like a taller, older version of Ryan.
On the other hand, Ryan's mother looked exactly like I'd expected. She was a kindergarten teacher and had that gentle, loving air about her.
"You must be Charlie. I'm George, Ryan's dad," he said as he stood to give me a firm handshake. "This is Deborah, Ryan's mother."
"Nice to meet you both," I said sheepishly.
"Won't you sit?" asked Ryan's dad. "It's okay, we won't bite."
"See, I told you they were nice people," Ryan whispered in my ear.
Ryan's mother reached across the table and rested her hand on mine. "Charlie, Ryan told us about your father. You have our condolences."
"Thank you ma'am. We weren't very close at the time..." my voice trailed off.
"We know, honey."
Our waiter appeared and announced the specials. Ryan's dad ordered a bottle of wine and some appetizers for us. I stared at the menu, trying to decide what I was hungry for. When the waiter came back for our order, I had to ask Ryan for suggestions.
"Try the coq au vin. It's quite good here," he whispered.
"Um... I'll have the coq au vin," I said. After the waiter left, I asked Ryan what I'd just ordered.
"WHAT?" I said, a bit too loudly.
Ryan began chuckling at my reaction. "Relax, it's a chicken dish. You'll like it."
He was right, I did like the dish, and dinner went off without a hitch. Most of the evening was filled with questions from Ryan's parents in an effort to get to know me better. After dinner, I got the driving tour of Macon, which was rather... uneventful.
By the time we got to his parent's house, his dad had already gone to bed. Ryan's mom was in the kitchen washing some dishes. "Mom, you still up?" he asked.
"I've got one more week before school starts and I have to start getting up at six in the morning. I'm gonna take advantage of it. Plus, Mel Gibson is on Conan tonight!"
"I'm exhausted," said Ryan. "Charlie, will you help me get the bags upstairs."
"I put a set of fresh linens in the guest room," said Ryan's mom. That settled one question I had. I was a bit hesitant to ask about sleeping arrangements in his parent's house. After getting settled in the guestroom, I came back downstairs to find Ryan's mom in the den watching TV. I was never a big Mel Gibson fan, but I took a seat in the recliner next to her. She looked so cute curled up on the couch with her cup of decaf.
When the program went to commercial, she got up from her seat. "Charlie, can I get you something to drink?"
"Some milk would be fine."
"We've only got rice milk. George and dairy don't mix, and he's allergic to soy."
"Sounds good to me." I got up and followed her into the kitchen. "Mrs. Kirkpatrick, can I ask you a favour?"
"Can you tell me about Ryan as a kid?"
She got a broad smile on her face. "I'll do one better than that. Here, grab a seat and I'll be back in a minute." When she returned, she was carrying two large photo albums. "I'll give you all the embarrassing stories!" she said giddily.
The first several pages were pretty innocuous: Ryan as a newborn at the hospital, Ryan's first haircut, Ryan's first Christmas. Nothing I could hold over his head. Then I saw a picture of him on a potty trainer.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Oh, you'll enjoy this one. I took forever to potty train him. I remember once I sat in the bathroom for two hours trying to get him to go. I read him Dr. Suess, brought in colouring books.... After two hours, I finally gave up. And what did he do as soon as he left the bathroom? Stood in the hall, pulled his pants down, and peed on the carpet!"
I barely managed to swallow the milk I was drinking without having it come through my nose. "No way! Are you serious?"
"Had to steam clean the carpet twice."
"Oh, this is good." We continued through the first album and onto the second. About half way through, I saw a picture of Ryan with his arm around another guy. "Who's this?" I asked.
She studied the photograph for a moment before answering. "That's Mitch. Did Ryan...?"
"This was taken about a week before he was in the accident. Mitch was like a second son to us. I haven't seen Ryan that happy since he met you." My heart tightened as I remembered Ryan telling me about Mitch in the hospital cafeteria. "He tore himself up for a long time about that, but he's gotten past it. I've got you to thank for that."
"Me?" I asked, somewhat shocked.
"He went down to visit Mitch's grave when he came home over spring break a few months back, and I think he made peace with himself. He told Mitch that he'd met someone very special and that he was sorry that the last thing they did together was fight. He's a different person now. He's got that sparkle in his eyes that I've not seen in a long time."
"I had no idea. This whole time I thought...."
She closed the photo album and put our dishes in the sink. "Now you'd better get to bed. You and Ryan have to get on the road early tomorrow."
"Is this the place?" Ryan asked.
"Well, the address matches, so yeah. It's great, isn't it? Anita's brother owns it, so she managed to cut me a deal." The beach house was everything I was promised. The closest houses were about a hundred feet away on either side, and there was a boardwalk that led from our front porch to the beach. We settled in and headed to the market to get some food for the next few days. Neither of us had any special talents at cooking, so we got a lot of deli meat and hamburger patties.
After dinner we went out to the beach. Ryan sat down, wrapping himself around me from behind. The sky was partly cloudy overhead, and there were distant thunderclouds out over the ocean. For the next three hours we were treated to nature's own fireworks show. Lightening ripped through the sky and illuminated the clouds as the ocean spoke to us through a distant thunder.
Occasionally nature let's you know who's in charge, and you feel very small in her presence. It had happened to me before at the horse farm in Tennessee, and I felt very special that I got another chance to see it again.
The next day was pretty uneventful though. The storm that we'd seen the night before had moved ashore, so we were confined to the house for the day. We sat around watching movies and playing cards until the storm had passed.
"Fancy an evening stroll on the beach?" Ryan asked.
"That sounds wonderful."
We walked out to the ocean and took off our shoes. A flip of the coin decided that we'd go right instead of left. The beach was as peaceful as the night before, minus the distant storm clouds. After about a mile we noticed a group of five or six people standing on the sand dune with flashlights. Ryan suggested that we go check it out.
"Hey, what's going on here?" he asked.
A woman in a brown and green uniform approached us. "We've got a planted sea turtle nest that is getting ready to boil. You two interested in helping?"
"Sounds cool!" I answered.
"I'm Martha Wilson from State Fisheries and Game."
"I'm Charlie Ashby, and this is Ryan Kirkpatrick. We're both here on vacation from Atlanta." She shook our hands and gave us a flashlight.
We spent the next two and a half hours helping the baby turtles into the ocean. Martha explained that the baby turtles used the moon to guide them to the sea. Since the moon wasn't out, her partner was out in a boat about a hundred feet out into the ocean with a bright flourescent light to simulate the moon.
I was surprised at how smoothly the whole operation went. Martha and another volunteer were perched next to the nest to catch the turtles as they came out. After counting them, they let a few loose so that we could lead them down the beach and into the ocean with our flashlights.
Martha got our attention after the turtles stopped coming. "Okay gang, we've hatched ninety-two turtles, and the other thirty-five will probably come tomorrow. Give yourselves a hand." There was a round of applause from the assembled volunteers. Martha went around to personally thank everyone for their efforts. "You two gonna be here tomorrow night?" she asked us.
"We'll be here," I said.
Ryan looked out over the ocean for a moment before turning back to Martha. "What's gonna happen to them now?"
"The baby turtles have a lot of predators in the wild. Some of them will make it, most of them won't. Hopefully the ones that do will come back here to nest. That's just the way it works."
"Mother Nature strikes again," I commented.
Three and a half years have passed since Ryan and I saw the miracle of life unfold before us on the beach that night. We'd been back every year, but we never got a chance to see the turtles again.
A lot has happened since then though. Ryan and I had both graduated, and I had gotten a promotion to Manager of the MIS department after Anita left to "pursue opportunities outside the company." I had the honour of being the youngest manager in the bank. Ryan had begun working with a local landscaping firm and was enjoying his work immensely.
Stacey and Darren broke up after our return from Florida, but she met Billy soon after and three months later they were married. After the wedding, they both moved to Houston. Sam decided to stay in Atlanta. Her parents had given her the house as a graduation present, and she'd gotten a job with a local advertising firm.
Mom and I are much closer than we ever were before, and Ryan and I were still very happily together. Things have gone pretty smoothly in the time that passed... until today.
I was sitting in my office reading my email when I got a phone call from my Group Manager. William oversaw my department and all of the other departments that supported bank operations. Since he wasn't a computer person, he generally left me alone. So when I was summoned to his office, I knew it was serious—not bad, just serious.
"What's going on?" I asked when I got to his office.
"Dennis wants to talk to you," he replied. Dennis, the Vice President, was the highest ranking officer in the Atlanta office. He's a very charismatic man who was well respected throughout the bank. He made it a point to learn the name of every employee in the bank—a tall order with over a thousand of us.
William must have seen the concern as we approached Dennis's office. "Be patient," he said, before turning his attention to the secretary. "Julie, are they ready for us?"
"You can go on in. They're expecting you," she said.
Inside I saw Dennis sitting at his desk and Cristine, the Director of Operations, seated next to him. I was a little nervous before, but this was getting me downright stressed out.
"Charlie!" Dennis said. "Good to see you again!" Dennis hit the speakerphone button and called his secretary. "Julie, did you find a free conference room for us?"
"Yes sir. There is a Supervisor meeting in Conference Room 3A at two-thirty, but it's free until then."
"Thanks Julie," he said, ending the call. "Charlie, let's go!"
Dennis picked up a thick folder and walked out of the office. "Oh God," I thought, "I'm getting fired. They're giving me the sac. Why else would I be meeting with all of them?"
William obviously saw the worry on my face and once again reassured me to be patient. When we got to the conference room, the three of them sat down on one side of the table, making it obvious that I was to sit across from them. Dennis placed the folder in front of him and flipped through its contents before beginning.
"Charlie, how much do you know about our home office in Chicago?"
This threw me for a loop. I was expecting a goodbye speech. "Um... I know that we're at capacity in our current space and that we've been searching for alternate sights. I got to visit a few prospective locations when I went up there for the manager's conference this past summer."
"Very good. What isn't public knowledge yet is that we've chosen a location and are due to move in June, six and a half months from now. The new location is in an office park that is still, for the most part, under construction. It should be finished in late April. That's the good news.
"The bad news, however, is that Nina, who is William's counterpart in Chicago, has decided to resign so that she can go back to school and pursue a graduate degree. We've convinced her to stay with us until we can find a replacement, but she wants to leave before the move.
"I've been following your career very carefully over the last several months. Your work in moving us to the new network operating system has been invaluable, and your insights on enhancing our online account access have helped reduce customer call volume by four percent.
"Now we could hire someone from outside to fill Nina's position, but it would take them months to learn our systems. To try and do that in the middle of moving six hundred and fifty employees to a new office invites disaster. We'd only be setting some up for failure.
"What this boils down to is that I want you in Chicago to replace Nina. I've talked with William and Cristine about this, and even though you're young and have only been with us for about four years, they think you're ready for this. We need you and your project management skills in charge of this move. What do you think?"
It took me a minute to process what he had said. "Wow. This is an honour. I guess I'd like to know a little more about the project and what's involved."
"Well, if you decide to accept the promotion, we'll need you there by late March. Everything else you need to know is right here." He dug through the folder and handed me a sealed package marked "Confidential."
"I'd need an answer by mid-January. Are you taking any time off for the Christmas holidays?"
"Yes sir. I'm leaving on Tuesday, Christmas Eve, and coming back to work on January sixth."
"Why don't you take today, Friday, and Monday off too. That will give you a few extra days to think about it," he said, getting up out of his chair. He reached across the table to shake my hand, "I'm looking forward to your answer."
I took off about an hour and a half after the meeting. When I got home I found Sam in Stacey's old bedroom, which we had converted, into an office.
"What are you doin' home?" I asked as I plopped down onto the sofa.
"I arranged to work from home for the last few days before Christmas vacation. What about you?"
"The Vice President of the bank gave me a few extra days off."
"Why'd he do that?" she asked.
"He's trying to butter me up. Long story."
She turned around to the desk and closed her laptop. "I've got time," she said.
I sighed and closed my eyes. "They want to give me a promotion. They want to make me a Group Manager."
"Wow! Congratulations! But you don't seem too excited by this."
"They want me to be a Group Manager in Chicago."
"Yeah," I mumbled.
She got up from her chair and joined me on the couch. "So what's the deal?"
"The current Group Manager is resigning and she wants to be gone before they move to the new office in June. They want me to replace her. I've got to go through this packet to find out the rest."
"Well, why don't you do that now, and if you wanna talk about it, we can go to dinner tonight."
"Okay," I said, getting up from the couch. "Hey, has Ryan called?"
"Yeah, he's still stuck at the jobsite in Birmingham. He said he should be back late Sunday evening, then he's leaving for Macon on Monday night."
"Thanks. I'm gonna head upstairs."
I spent the next few hours going through all the paperwork Dennis had given me, taking notes and looking over schematics of the new building. The location they chose seemed impressive, and it was much larger than the current space. If I did take the job, I'd have my work cut out for me. At some point I dozed off. Sam woke up at six o'clock to grab dinner. We went to the sushi restaurant where Ryan and I had our first date. As soon as we'd ordered, Sam began pumping me for information.
"Well, I'd get a fat raise, a cost of living adjustment, and they would pay for me to move up there. They'd also pay for a place to stay until I could find a more permanent residence.
"The move looks like it's going to be a bear though. The new building is nice, but they want to replace their servers with new ones and—get this—buy new computers for everyone. The machines they have now are four and five years old and can't handle the workload."
"Sounds like you'd have a full plate," commented Sam.
"If I took the job. The offer is tempting, and the money is very nice, but..."
"What are you gonna do about that?" she asked.
"That is the $64,000 question. I don't know."
"You need to put a ring on that boy's finger," she said, looking at me intently. I sighed and slumped in my chair. "Charlie, you won't know unless you try. But remember an important part to any relationship is compromise. There has to be some give and take. I'm sure he'll recognize what an amazing opportunity this is for you—"
"So I'm just supposed to ask him to drop everything and follow me?" I asked, cutting her off. "How fair is that? He's lived in Georgia his entire life! He's got a great job here. Am I supposed to ask him to give all that up?"
"Hey, calm down. You don't need to get mad at me over this!"
She was right. I was a bit out of line. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be taking this out on you. I'm just venting."
"That's okay. Why don't we drop it for now? Our food is here."
I did nothing but mope around for the next few days. I hadn't seen Ryan in two weeks, but a part of me was dreading his return. I was already in bed and asleep by the time he made it to my house Sunday night, and he was gone when I woke up the next morning, which I was thankful for. He left me a note saying that he'd stop by before heading out to Macon for the holidays. He showed up on my doorstep just after five.
I walked into the living room ahead of Ryan. Sam started to get up but I gave her a pleading look and mouthed the words, "Please stay." She nodded and sat back down.
"I'm glad you're back," I told him. "It seemed like a lot longer than three weeks."
"Believe me, I'm glad to be back. I never thought we'd finish that job. I finally get the guy to sign off on everything saying he's satisfied, and what does he do this morning? He calls me at work and starts complaining about how wrong everything is. I was on the phone with him for two hours before I turned him over to the president of the company. It ruined my whole day."
It felt very artificial. Everything did. Having him there. Sitting on the couch with him. Talking to him. I was so filled with dread, and I knew he would pick up on it before too long.
"When do you have to leave?" I asked.
"Mom wants me there before too late, so I've got to get on the road by seven."
"Oh," was all I could say.
"So Ryan, tell me about this project. What did you have to do?" asked Sam.
"Well, I didn't do any of the design work for this one, but I was in charge of the project though. It involved a new office complex in the suburbs of Birmingham…"
I stopped paying attention after that—not because I didn't find it interesting. There were just too many things going on in my mind. I tried to distract myself with the television. I could see the pictures and hear the sounds, but my mind was too agitated to put the two together. I sat like that for a while as Sam and Ryan continued chatting.
The ringing of the phone brought me back to reality. Sam picked up the cordless from the floor next to her chair. "Hello? Stacey! How are you? …and Billy? …oh great! Hey, hold on." Sam covered the phone with her hand. "Hey guys, I'm gonna take this one upstairs. Ryan, pop up and say goodbye if you leave before I get back."
She gave me a rather intense look before galloping up the stairs. I tried to find something to do with myself. Something to say to postpone the impending conversation.
"Ryan, are you thirsty? Do you want something to drink?"
He gave me an odd look. "Well... sure. Some water would be fine." I leapt from the couch and went into the kitchen. Standing before the sink, I tried some deep breathing to calm my nerves.
"You okay? You've been in here for almost five minutes," I heard him say from behind me. I spun around and saw him leaning against the doorway to the living room.
"Oh... um... fine... ya know..."
"No, something's not right."
"Oh no, everything's fine."
"Charlie, don't even bother lying to me. You're no good at it. Now I know that something's bothering you, and I saw the look Sam gave you before she went upstairs. What is it?"
I pointed at the table. "Grab a seat." Turning towards the cabinet, I picked up two glasses and filled them with water. I handed him his glass and sat down.
I really wanted to start talking, but the words wouldn't come. Seconds of silence became minutes of silence as we sat there—him staring at me and me staring at the table.
"Charlie, will you tell me what's the matter?" he asked, sounding rather impatient.
"This is... this is very hard for me," I whispered. I started to feel the familiar tightening in my chest whenever I get emotional. "Ryan, you're the best thing that has ever happened to me. You've done more for me that you can possibly imagine. These last... almost four years have been amazing, and I really don't know where I'd be if you hadn't been there to experience them with me. And now... I'm in a place where I have to choose." There was a lump in my throat that almost prevented me from finishing my sentence.
"Charlie, what are you talking about?"
"The Vice President called me into his office today. He... he wants to give me a promotion."
"That's good Charlie, but I don't see what that has to do with us."
"He wants to promote me to Group Manager of Operations...."
"Yeah, and?" he asked.
I don't know what kind of reaction I was expecting, but I was surprised that I didn't get one at all. He sat there looking me with a blank stare. I felt the silence return. It felt almost palpable, like I could reach out and touch it. It was suffocating.
"I um... it's a pretty big opportunity for me. I'd be in charge of the office relocation and...." I tried, but I couldn't will myself to continue speaking. There was still no reaction from him.
After a minute though, his expression changed slightly. He spoke in a very flat and deliberate voice. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm trying to process it all. I'm still in shock that they would pick me for this. I'm only twenty-four, and they want me.... It's an unbelievable opportunity—"
Ryan jumped up from his chair, interrupting me. "Is it so unbelievable that it's worth giving up on us?" he asked, his voice raised. I sat there in shock, unable to speak. Words were stirring around in my chest but couldn't find their way to the surface. "Well, is it? Do you have any idea how hard I've worked to get where I am today? Have you even thought about how much I've invested in this relationship? And you just want to throw that away so you can become some big shot in Chicago? How can you ask that of me?"
He threw his hands up in the air. "No. I can't deal with this right now." He turned around and walked out of the kitchen.
I got up and followed him, almost tripping over my own feet. "Where are you going?" I asked through the newly formed tears.
"I'm getting in my car and driving to Macon." With that, he walked to the door, opened it, and slammed it behind him.
Hearing the door slam, Sam bolted down the stairs. I was still standing in the living room. I couldn't move. As soon as she touched me I collapsed started sobbing hysterically. Sam guided me to the sofa and held me. Despite the vice grip on my chest, I managed to speak.
"I didn't get...."
"Charlie, breathe. That's right. In and out. In and out. Now tell me what happened."
"He asked me what was bothering me. So I told him about work, but before I could finish my explanation—before I could explain things, he just blew up and left.
"Oh Sam," I said, clutching onto her, "I'm so scared."
Doh! Another cliffhanger! Chapter 12 is coming soon though! Worry not!