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Rearview Mirror - Chapter 1
Chapter One

“Is this a separate address?” The UPS truck idled in the driveway. The driver waited for her to confirm the address, comparing it to the one on his electronic tablet.

Liz stared at him as he rose from his seat. The driver’s tall frame was adorned with brown shorts, his logoed shirt, and ankle socks to match.

“Yes, I subdivided the land. You can leave it for them on the front porch.”

“Thank you,” he called back. He disappeared into the back of the truck, emerging with a box. She watched his long legs take the stairs of the porch two at a time. He slid the box across the slatted boards and ran back to his truck. He settled into his seat, grinding the gears. He waved to her as he barreled down the driveway. For the driver, it was all routine. Liz had a routine once, and so did Duane. Their routines had meshed well, thriving through an eight-year marriage. Dust spewed from behind the tires, clouding her peaceful view of the fresh, blooming fields. For early May the air was already sultry.

Duane had been gone for four months, passing away eight months after his diagnosis. He’d left a hole that Liz tiptoed around every day, in fear that if she fell in she’d never be able to find her way out. The tick in Duane’s back had led to a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. Duane gave it all he could. The doctor had been honest, saying it was a complex cancer—“a tough disease,” he called it. 

 One induction blast of chemo and two consequent treatments had finally taken him down. Even though the doctor told them, since Duane hadn’t been symptomatic, he’d have more time, as the months rolled on his health quickly deteriorated. The disease had been festering for too long. If it hadn’t been for that tick, they would’ve never known what was going on inside his body.

The fifty acres they’d owned had been bought with big plans. Liz’s life was at a virtual standstill. She had quit her job as a librarian to be with Duane during his last months. Her boss, Roger, had encouraged her to come back. She tried. After three days Liz left her keys on the circulation desk before leaving for lunch and never returned, ignoring Roger’s pleading messages on her voice mail.

She had half of Duane’s pension coming in from the steelworkers union and access to his annuity. His life insurance was substantial, but Liz couldn’t blow through all that money just trying to survive. She’d made the decision to subdivide her and Duane’s land, selling twenty acres to two men who’d recently relocated from California. What led them to the small town of Cedar Mills, New Jersey, Liz had no idea.

They were an odd pair. One was a white-collar worker, a lawyer who was well-dressed and carried a briefcase. His name was Ben Neilson. His housemate, Noah Finley, looked to work a job much like Duane’s, a blue-collar tradesman maybe. She knew nothing about them, only their names. Her lawyer had handled the sale. She’d often contemplated whether they were gay, not that it would matter to her.

A balmy breeze blew across the field, rustling the lush, dripping branches of the willows that occupied the backyard. Liz reached underneath the cushion on the back porch swing and pulled out the small tin box.

Duane’s medicinal marijuana stash seemed endless. What she’d do once it ran out was unknown to her. She’d been relying on it too much. Liz had never used drugs, but when Duane got sick they’d both picked it up. Smoking dope was the only thing they were able to do together in the end. She removed one of the neatly rolled cigarettes and lit it.

Pungent smoke swirled around her as she inhaled deeply. Her throat burned as the anesthetizing compounds raced through her body, numbing any pain that often lurked. Liz’s grief was like a monster that needed to be kept caged. She was petrified of what might escape if she were to open the door.

The sound of a smooth engine drew near. She shifted her gaze, her reactions hampered from an impending high. A dark-green Range Rover moved over the stones, pulling alongside the quaint Cape Cod that was adjacent to her backyard, a hundred yards away. Duane had called it the carriage house. It’d sat vacant for years. They’d thought of renting it or maybe selling it, which is what she’d chosen to do.

Ben and Noah had already begun their renovations. Liz often witnessed them carrying lumber and other accoutrements into the house. The car door slammed. The package! Liz jumped off the swing, her body now suddenly wired. The marijuana had a habit of doing that. Usually she’d feel calm and at ease, but at times that paranoia would come, overwhelming her. She slinked to the other side of the porch, hiding in the corner.

She lifted the joint to her lips, taking another mind-blowing drag. The paper wilted, burning black at the glowing tip. The smoke expanded in her lungs. Liz stifled a cough, watching her new neighbor retrieve the package off his porch.

Ben’s tall, lean frame bent down to pick up the box. Dark waves of styled hair made his sharply structured face complete. The glare of the sun rebounded off his sunglasses. He unlocked the front door and set the box inside but didn’t enter the house. Liz lifted a finger to her mouth, gnawing on a nail.

Liz’s altered state had led to carelessness. She should have gone inside where she had hid all winter, feeling the need to avoid any type of interaction. He turned suddenly, catching her huddled in the corner of the porch. While he set his briefcase down, Liz quickly crushed out the joint in the soil of a nearby spider plant. Ben descended the porch stairs, making his way across the shared dirt lane.

“Hi,” he called, waving. He trekked across her yard. Liz felt her face cringe in embarrassment. Her yard was ravaged, just like everything else in her life. Residual dead leaves had made a home around her rose bushes, strangling any life out of her flower beds. The grass was yellow and brittle, yearning for fertilizer and a tender hand.

Why is he coming over here? Liz’s heart jumped into her throat, her pulse now racing as she watched him climb the stairs at the end of her back porch. The gentle breeze lifted his cobalt-blue tie. Once under the canopy, Ben removed his glasses. Vibrant blue eyes flashed at her, the color of faded denim. He extended his hand.

“I want to apologize,” he said, smiling. Tiny wrinkles around his eyes deepened his soft expression. A light layer of growth was neatly trimmed around his chin and mouth. He resembled a cologne or clothing ad. Tommy Hilfiger came to mind. “I’ve been meaning to come over.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Liz said. Her fingers braided with his quickly before withdrawing back into the comfort zone inside her pocket. His masculine scent enveloped her. He smelled exactly the way he looked—expensive. She could see the joint stuck in the soil under the plant’s leaves. She moved into his line of vision.

“I want to express my condolences,” Ben said kindly. His face went blank with seriousness.

“I appreciate that.” Liz forced a smile, pained again with the never-ending farce. “How’re things going over there?” she asked, needing to change the subject. She was somewhat curious about them as well as their renovations. Ben glanced back at the house and then rerouted his eyes back to hers. His brows rose.

“Not too bad, it’s coming along. Maybe you should stop by sometime and see it.” He paused. He fussed with his tie, as if feeling trapped in his white-collar attire. “Then you could meet Noah.” Ben shifted his weight. Liz’s eyes fell to his feet, his dress shoes now  dusty with dry earth. He cleared his throat, dragging her attention back to his face. “You like wine?”

“Yes,” she stammered, swallowing through a dry throat. I’ve become a social invalid. He’d scared her straight, her heart drumming relentlessly. “I do.”

“Red or white?” Ben asked. He smiled, flashing a set of impeccable teeth, his demeanor friendly.

“Both.” Liz laughed.

“Well, okay then.” He chuckled. “Once we sweep up and put away the belt sanders and power drills, will you come over?” He rubbed his chin. His fingers dragged over the shallow growth of beard. Liz fought the heat that was building, spreading over her skin. Was it the weather, the dope, or him?

“Sure,” she answered quickly.

“Great. Well, let me go put my play clothes on.” He laughed, scratching his head. “I’ll speak to you soon, Liz.” It sounded as if he were ending an incoming call to his office. Ben turned and strolled across the long porch, bolting down the stairs. Liz watched him walk back to his own yard, their grass much greener than hers. 

Copyright 2008 2013 - Justine C Szot
Email Justine at justine@jc-hotreads.com
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