Dandelion Sky: Dandelion Series Book 2: Chapter 8

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Chapter Eight
A Time for Every Purpose

"For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil."
~ 1 John 3:8 ~

Groggy with sleep, Jo opened her eyes and dimly wondered why she was awake. Then she felt the heat, and the sticky sweat, and cursed out loud. She sat up in bed and listened for the sound of the air conditioner. Just as she'd thought-- the crazy thing had gone out again, and after her landlord had sworn up and down that it had been fixed. It hadn't mattered that she had a pretty good idea of why the unit kept stopping. Her landlord kept insisting that she stay away from it, and that she should call him if it went out again. Under no circumstances was she to go poking around and-- perish the thought-- actually repair the air conditioner.

Sitting in all that heat, it was hard for Jo to reign in her frustration and weariness. She wasn't asking for world peace, just a good night's sleep without dying in her own bed.

With a loud curse, Jo leaned over and grabbed the phone from its charger to make the dutiful call to her landlord. Of course he wouldn't be awake at this ridiculous hour, and of course, he'd let the call go to voicemail. Jo knew all that beforehand, and was not at all surprised when she was proven right. She left her message anyway, then hung up before cutting loose with a remark about the man's mother. Yeah, she knew she was being harsh, but the guy didn't live in the building, and he wasn't dissolving faster than ice cubes on a hot day.

Jo wondered... If she didn't tell anyone, and repaired the air conditioner anyway, how would her landlord know? If she touched the unit in her apartment though, and a fire later happened, and it came out that she had "fixed it," well, she'd be in water so hot it would put the temperature in this room to shame.

Just how hot was it, anyway? Jo decided she didn't want to know, for it'd only make her misery that much worse. Needing to cool off in a bad way, she took a cold shower, then changed into a dry shirt and cutoff jeans.

She stepped outside and was met with a wave of heat. Ah, Arizona in the summer. At least she didn't have to work in the morning. As much as she enjoyed the unexpected vacation, she wished Mr. Campbell would change his mind and call them back. Four days with nothing to do but study hadn't been healthy for her. It made her impatient to get up and get moving, for life didn't solve itself by sitting on your bottom.

She wanted to work. She missed her work.

Jo started down the sidewalk, intent on not holding still. The air felt heavy and unexpectedly muggy against her skin, and already she was beginning to sweat. Putting one foot in front of the other felt good to her. Forget the heat, it felt right, as though she'd needed to walk all along. Her pace quickened, and she started into a jog. She hadn't gone for a run in ages, and though her body felt tight, she sucked in the hot air and savored the energy, the pace, the motion and rhythm of each stride. She pulled her phone out, and the earbuds she kept tucked in her pocket, and plugged into some music. This felt good, too good to be missed by sleeping through the night. She smiled, loving the fact that the whole neighborhood was hers. This late, it was all hers.

She looked up at the heavens and a splash of wet landed on her nose. Thick clouds passed over a ghostly pale moon, a sight so pretty she found herself grinning. A light but steady rain began, and as the wet sprinkled her face, her thoughts were filled with how she might have missed all this if she had stayed in bed.

Knowing Grandpa, he probably would have said something about the providence of the situation.

But this wasn't God. She had simply lucked out.

The rain kept coming, and not wanting to get drenched, Jo turned to the shelter of the nearby covered bus stop. She slowed as a shadow moved in the darkness, the dim outline of a figure seated on the bench. Too late to turn back and not look like a scared chicken ready for slaughter, Jo readily stepped under the canopy. This was a public space after all, and she had a right to be there. The figure stood, and she realized it was a man. The thought skidded through her that if he was dangerous, she wasn't in the best of situations. She was alone, and in the middle of the night. An image flashed through her of a newspaper with the headline, "Woman Found Strangled After Night Run."

"What are you doing out here?" the man asked. It wasn't an accusation, but more a question of surprise.

The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but Jo couldn't place its owner. She shrugged. As if it was any of this guy's business why she was there.

He stepped into the light of a nearby streetlamp, and her breath caught.

It was Ethan.

To her eyes, he looked more than a little unkempt and somewhat thinner than she last remembered seeing him. He didn't look as though he'd shaved in days, and his hair was so messy he could've just crawled out of bed.

"Crazy rain, isn't it?" he asked.

"It's monsoon season," Jo said with a nod to the street. "What are you doing here?"

"I asked you first."

Jo tried hard not to smile, even though there wasn't a trace of good humor in his face. "My AC is out, so I went for a run," she explained.

"In the middle of the night?"

"Better while it's dark, than in the heat of the day."

Ethan grunted. "What a place." He said it like someone who wasn't even trying to carry a polite conversation. "First you bake in the dry heat, then when you try to leave, it finally rains just enough to cool things down and make it barely livable. How do you guys manage it? Aren't you tired of being in the middle of absolutely nowhere?"

"Wait one moment," Jo said, coming to the defense of her home. "We happen to like it here."

"You would," Ethan muttered.

"If you don't want to be here, then you should go."

"I'm about to." Ethan gestured to the rain and laughed. "Unless my luck changes, and the roads get washed out, and I'm stuck in this miserable hole in the ground forever."

"We are not a hole in the ground." Jo folded her arms, and took measure of the sick face, the look of absolute misery in his eyes.

When he looked away, Jo felt a pang of remorse.

"I'm sorry you're having a bad day."

"A very bad day," he agreed, "but give it time, it's not over yet. It'll get worse."

"It's after midnight, but there's always today," Jo pointed out. "With the foul mood you're in, I'm sure you'll be able to make it as miserable as yesterday." When he said nothing, she kicked at the concrete sidewalk. "So you're leaving?" she asked.

He nodded.

"How was your family reunion?"

"It's not over," he said with a half laugh, "only they're calling it a vacation, just minus the fun."

"Then it's not over? Won't they miss you?"

Ethan gave her a bland look.

"You don't care?"

"I don't," he said with a shrug. "Which is why I'm leaving before the vacation is over, which is why I'm waiting for a taxi."

Jo nodded as though she understood. The guy had a Ferrari. Why wasn't he driving it? And what about his family? They had been so worried about him that she actually envied him.

There was nothing to lose, so Jo decided to just come right out and ask. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, doing great. I make the people I love cry, and I'm probably an alcoholic. But other than that, I'm fine. Never been better."

Unsure of how to answer, Jo found herself backing away.

Ethan bowed his head. There was a heaviness about him that made her heart ache. He looked lost, and in need of comfort, but she had none to give. She had no encouragement to offer, and the words she could think of, she didn't want to say.

"My life is seriously messed up, Jo." He said it as fact, and not something up for debate.

At least on that point, Jo could agree. "If it's so bad, then stop drinking," she said simply.

"I have."

"Then stop again, until you stop for good."

"It doesn't work-- not for me, not for my dad, and it certainly never worked for my mom."

"No one pours that alcohol down your throat, but you," Jo pushed back. "Stop hurting your family. They're going crazy over this. I even had a call from Mr. Campbell because he was looking for you. You need to stop."

"Thanks," Ethan said dryly. "I never realized it was just that easy."

"Oh," Jo breathed, and stepped back. "You're all the same, aren't you? Long on excuse, but short on courage."

"Hey. Who do you think you are, telling me how to live my life?"

"I'm no one," she said with a shake of her head, "but I'm also not the one waiting for a taxi in the middle of the night." She folded her arms. She'd only come to rest a while, not get caught up in self-made pity and a mid-life crisis. The guy had everything, and here he was, parked at a bus stop, crying over his difficult life? Poor him.

For one long drawn-out moment, Ethan said nothing at all.

"So," he said at last, "how have you been?"

"What do you mean, 'How have I been?' You never showed up for our date."

"I came. I came late, but I did come."

"You did--" she nodded-- "hours after you said you would."

"Then you were home."

"I was." Jo felt no shame at all for admitting that. It had hurt, and she didn't mind letting him know it.

"You could have opened the door."

"And you could have remembered to show up on time."

"Hey, I slept in. It was an accident-- as in, I didn't do it on purpose."

Jo glanced at him, saw his nerdy shoulder slump and tried not to smile. She was angry with him, and didn't want to start liking him all over again.

"I'm sorry," he said with a shrug.

She gave him a small acknowledging nod, and let it pass.

"So," Ethan said again.

She pinned him with a look, and he held up his hands in full surrender.

"I was only going to ask who it was that hurt you so badly? It felt like I stepped on a raw nerve somewhere."

Jo sighed.

"It had to be someone you loved," Ethan guessed. "I'm right, aren't I? It's like a cloud just fell over your face, and it's not because of the rain."

She looked at him, and he backed away a little.

"Husband? Boyfriend?" he guessed. His eyes narrowed. "Was it your father?"

Jo's chin came up in full defiance. "It's none of your business."

"Your father, okay." Ethan went back to watching the rain in silence.

"I never said it was my father."

Ethan smiled, and scratched at a spot on his elbow. "I can read you like a book."

"You don't know me well enough for that."

"Whatever you say," he shrugged. "So when did he start drinking?"

"Who?" Jo asked.

"Your father."

"Leave my father out of this. We were talking about your problem, not his."

Arms limp, Ethan sat down on the bench. Jo wanted to move, to leave that dark pull of gravity that had formed around him, and escape back into her own orbit. He was trouble. She needed to get away from him and then thank herself for showing such good sense.

"Look--" Jo blew out a breath-- "your problem is yours, okay? Don't make it mine, or your family's. It's yours. You've got to own up to it."

A smile sounded in Ethan's voice. "Then you don't believe in being gentle when someone asks for help?"

"My being gentle isn't going to help you one bit," Jo said with a shake of her head. "Unless you make some big changes in your attitude, you're pretty much toast where you're sitting."

"Thanks a lot."

"You're not really asking for help," Jo said outright. "What you want is a pity party, and I'm not bringing the balloons. I have my own problems, and they never got any better by spilling my guts out to a stranger."

"You're not a stranger." In the darkness, Ethan sat forward on the bench, and she sensed, rather than saw that he was looking at her. "You're brushing me off, aren't you?"

"Very perceptive." Jo stepped forward, held out a hand, and judged that the rain had stopped enough to make her getaway. Not that it had been raining much in the first place, but still, she needed an excuse for why she had stayed even this long. "You'll be all right." She looked back at Ethan and saw him holding his head in his hands. "You've got a family. They're worried about you, so stop being selfish and go home and let them feel better."

"You do not know me."

"A moment ago, you just said we weren't strangers. You can't have it both ways."

"Man." Ethan exhaled the word as though he'd been holding it for some time. "My life is a series of poorly timed jokes, and I always turn out to be the punch line. Why is God always pushing me away?"

"There is no God," she said flatly.

Ethan gave a hollow laugh. "Are you having a bad night, or are you always like this?"

Jo stepped out from under the bus stop canopy and checked the skies. "I was having a pretty good night until--"

"Until you stopped to talk to me," Ethan finished.

"I did not stop to talk. I was coming in out of the rain."

Ethan's silence hinted at disbelief.

"Are you going home, or not?" she asked.

"I'm waiting for my taxi."

Jo sighed. "Suit yourself. Just don't go breaking their heart because you've got a problem that's bigger than they know how to deal with. It's your mess, not theirs."

He shook his head. "Whatever."

Since that pretty much summed things up, Jo turned and left without saying goodbye. She couldn't leave there fast enough.

How many times had she blamed her mother for putting up with her father's weaknesses, his many excuses, or his lack of courage in the face of life? Hey, life was hard; it was a fact, and if you couldn't accept it, then you'd better get out of the way of those who could. Stop whining, stop complaining, and stop blaming others for the decisions you made.

It's your mess, your pain-- face it and stop being a coward. Why didn't you face it, Dad?

The guilt and the anger stirred inside Jo, and she slowed as the hurt started to tumble out. She fought it, and tried to shove it back into the recesses of her mind, but it spilled out before her in one long, slick red stain.

Trembling in the damp night air, Jo wept.

* * * *

Man, he hadn't needed that. Ethan let loose with a curse, and felt no satisfaction as it went unheard in the empty streets. If he'd wanted to feel bad, he would've watched ASPCA commercials, or rubbed salt into a paper cut. Or both. He pushed off the bench as a lone taxi came down the street. About time it showed up. The car pulled to the curb, the driver rolled down the window and called to Ethan.

Ethan studied the taxi, then stared down at his own damp sneakers. His ride was here; it was time to go. He studied the wet street, looked up and saw the dark rolling clouds overhead.

"You're the one who called for a taxi, aren't you?" the man asked.

Ethan looked at him, and wondered if the man was happy being a taxi driver. Did he have big looming troubles overshadowing his life, or was alcoholism something that only afflicted the unlucky like himself?

"Going or staying?" the driver asked.

Shaking his head, Ethan pulled money from his pocket, and handed it through the open window to the driver. "Sorry to call you out here for nothing."

"Your dime," the man shrugged. He drove off leaving Ethan to wonder what on earth he had just done.

He'd wanted to leave, hadn't he?

"Idiot." Ethan kicked at the sidewalk, and started for the Campbells' home. What had possessed him to send that taxi away? Now he was stuck. Now he had to face a worried family and maybe get yelled at by Matty or Aiden. Since Matty didn't often raise his voice, it would probably be Aiden. Whatever made up the inner workings of Aiden Campbell, it allowed for booming words and a withering stare. For a change, Ethan wished the old buzzard would leave him alone.

Calling him a buzzard was probably unkind-- not that Ethan cared-- but the thought stuck in his mind and he found it hard to shake. Unkind? Seriously? Why should it matter what Ethan called Aiden in private? It wasn't as though he liked the guy. Ethan would hug a spiny barbed cactus before he ever put his arms around Aiden and called him grandpa.

Rounding the corner, Ethan was deep in thought when he stopped in his tracks.

Farther down the sidewalk stood Jo, her back to Ethan, her fists clenched at her sides.

His first impulse was to go back the way he had come, for the last thing he wanted was a repeat of the bus stop. As he started to leave, he noticed the hunched-over posture. He blinked to be sure he was seeing right.

No way. Jo was crying?

Though Ethan's feet wanted to move, he stayed planted where he was. Jo had seemed to him a pillar of unmovable determination. Every cell of her being had been bent on making his life even more miserable than it already was, and now look at her-- tears. It made him wonder if his problems paled in comparison with hers, but it wasn't likely. For all of her sadness, or whatever it was that was making her cry, she most likely wasn't an alcoholic trying to pull out of a terminal nosedive. No, whatever her problems, they couldn't be as bad as his.

As Ethan quietly retraced his steps, and took the long route home, he couldn't help but wonder what was making her sad. Maybe guilt over giving him a hard time? Not hardly. She didn't seem to him to be the sentimental type, easily given to fits of remorse and regret. She was full speed ahead, no breaks. That was Jo.

Or rather, that might be Jo. He had a hunch though that he was right.

He'd give a lot to know her better, and not just the outer stuff that everyone saw, but also the things that made up her insides, and made her who she was. Why was she crying, and why had she all but jumped down his throat the moment he'd let on that he was hurting? Weren't women supposed to be compassionate, or sympathetic, or something? Especially a pretty girl whose head could be turned by an Italian sports car. It was in her best interest to be nice to him, so why hadn't she?

He again wondered if he might be responsible for all those tears. It made him pause, and consider going back.

But go back to what? She was too angry to talk to right now, and besides, she probably wasn't crying because of him. She was too tough to allow any man to knock her down so easily. It made sense that he was the victim, and not her.

Not Jo.

Ethan was so caught up in speculation and wild guesses about Jo, that he stepped inside the Campbells' house without thinking twice. It wasn't until he noticed the light on in the kitchen that he realized someone might be awake. Since Ethan couldn't pretend that he wasn't there, he walked into the kitchen to face whatever was waiting for him; whatever it was, it couldn't be worse than the verbal lashing he'd gotten from Jo.

The moment Ethan saw Aiden, Ethan wanted to take it all back. It could get worse, and was about to. He quietly moved away, but it was too late.

"Who's there?" Aiden asked in his over-gruff voice.

"It's only me." Ethan pushed into the kitchen as Aiden poured hot coffee into a large mug with a brightly painted blue and yellow Stearman. "What are you doing up so late?" Ethan asked in as unhurried, and unflustered a tone as he could manage.

"I was about to ask you the same thing." Aiden went to the fridge in his terry robe and navy blue slippers, and shoved the door open.

Though he looked rather comical, Ethan held back from saying it out loud.

"I couldn't sleep," Aiden said, as he rummaged through the fridge. "Too much coffee before bedtime will do that. I suppose it serves me right." Aiden looked over his shoulder at Ethan. "And you?"

"Just needed some air." Ethan worked to give a careless, never-you-mind shrug. Good thing for him he hadn't bothered to pack his bags, or else there'd be no room to fake or bluff. As it was, Ethan didn't know if he'd been found out or not. "Anything in there good enough to eat?" Ethan asked, opting to shift the topic to something safer. When his stomach rumbled, he was reminded that he couldn't remember the last time he had eaten.

Aiden gestured to the fridge. "If you can find anything that someone like you would like, then help yourself."

"What do you mean, someone like me?"

"Vegan, or vegetarian, or whatever it is you call yourself. Seems to me, you're only willing to eat the things that can't run away from you."

"Over-simplistic," Ethan smiled, "but I suppose accurate. While you, on the other hand, kill innocent animals because you like the taste of their flesh."

"The way you make it sound, I'll eat anything just for the fun of it." Aiden parked himself on a tall bar stool and coolly watched as Ethan pulled veggies from the crisper drawer. "Just because I don't hold with the same things you do, doesn't make me somehow cruel, or without feeling."

"You buy the products made from the mistreatment of animals, don't you?" Ethan opened and searched the cupboards as he talked. "I'm only pointing out that it's not very socially aware of you."

"Oh, I've never claimed to be any of that," Aiden said with a chuckle. "Bottom cupboard-- on the left."

"What?"

"That's where you'll find the bread. How can it be wrong to eat what the Good Lord said we should have dominion over in the first place?"

"That's the basis for every excuse ever made to deplete the earth of her resources. It's ours, God gave it to us, we can do whatever we want so shut up and sit down." Ethan stacked tomatoes and lettuce on seven-grain whole-wheat goodness, then added a thick layer of mustard. "Where was I?" Ethan asked.

"I was depleting the earth."

"You're making a joke of this, but I'm dead serious. This is something I feel very strongly about."

"Let me guess," Aiden said with a discerning eye. "You came to this great conclusion after meeting the woman of your dreams."

Ethan was about to deny it, but Aiden looked as though he already had his answer. The man had guessed right, but since Ethan didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing it, he moved on to something more useful. Aiden had warned him off once before, but Ethan was in the mood for risk. "What do you know about Jo Mack?" Ethan asked.

Aiden slanted him a one-eyed look. "Why do you want to know?"

"Do I have to have a reason? She's my friend, and I want to know more about her."

"Then ask Jo."

"Come on, I don't want a betrayal of confidence, just some basic information like family and friends. Matty said you knew her grandpa. From what Jo told me, her grandpa sounded like a force to be reckoned with."

"He was that," Aiden said with a nod. "I never met Ray Donaldson in person, but I certainly knew of him. From time to time, I'd find Ray in the news, retelling his story to anyone who would hear him out. I felt sorry for the man, but I admired him. It took courage to face what he did, and not throw in the towel. God only knows how I would've reacted, or what I would have done, if it had been my family."

"Why? What happened to them?"

"Ray was a God-fearing man," Aiden said with a decided nod of his head. "He would have walked through fire and hell to save his daughter, if he could've."

"What happened to his daughter?" Ethan asked. He tried to ignore the sound of someone coming from the hallway. He wanted to know more, and Aiden was about to spill what he knew-- Ethan could feel it coming.

Aiden motioned to the boy walking into the kitchen. "You, young man, are supposed to be asleep."

"I woke up," Peter said with a wide-mouthed yawn. He looked at Aiden, then at Ethan with something close to confusion. "You guys do know it's three in the morning, right?"

"Yeah, we know." Ethan did everything he could to rein in his impatience, for Aiden was making noises about going to bed. How could that man sleep? Ethan had questions. Sleep was the last thing on his mind. "What happened to Ray's daughter, and does it have anything to do with your not wanting me to see Jo?"

"You stay away from her--" Aiden jabbed a finger in Ethan's direction. "She's been through enough, and before you ask any more questions, that's all I'm going to say about it. If you want to know more, find out for yourself." He waved off Ethan, told the boys goodnight, and then shuffled off to the master bedroom in his navy plaid slippers.

"You forgot your mug," Ethan called after him, but the man was long gone, leaving Ethan to stare at his sleepy young nephew. Ethan sighed. "What's up, Pete?"

"Are you going to eat that sandwich?" Peter asked.

"That was my plan. Why? Are you hungry?" Ethan motioned to the boy, and they settled on the bar stools at the counter. Ethan cut the sandwich in half, and gave Peter his share. In the mood to talk, Ethan asked about school, and Peter's friends-- the usual questions grownups pepper children with-- and Peter obliged by telling him about the kid who could squirt milk from his nose. Ethan wasn't at all impressed.

"Now if you had said milk and Cheerios," Ethan explained, "that would have won some real respect. Anyone can do milk. Just sayin'."

Peter grinned. "I don't care what they say, you're funny, Uncle Ethan."

Ethan stopped short of asking who had said he wasn't, but let it slide. Why ask for insult where there was none?

After debating the merits of superhuman skills, and which they would choose if they could, Peter went back to the room he shared with Matty and Dylan. Now alone, Ethan scrounged the kitchen for anything that wasn't nailed down. The half sandwich had only served to sharpen his hunger, and now that he was aware of it, he ate all he could.

The first chance Ethan got, he would google Jo's grandfather. Whoever Ray was, Aiden had felt strongly enough to try and protect Jo. It didn't bother Ethan so much that Aiden was trying to protect her, but it was the from whom that Ethan minded. He wasn't a slathering monster out to scare and frighten. He was just interested, that's all, and if Aiden thought that was enough to get alarmed and stubborn about, then so be it. Ethan wasn't a threat to anyone except maybe to himself.

If that made any sense.

After eating as much as he could keep down, Ethan climbed into bed with his smartphone. On the other side of the room, Ryan sawed logs in his sleep like a fully-fledged lumberjack out to level an entire forest. At least someone was resting, for it had seemed to Ethan that too many people had been awake at one time or another that night. What were the chances of Jo, Aiden, Peter, and himself being awake at such an unreal hour, and being in each other's path? They couldn't have run into each other better if they had planned it.

Propping an extra pillow under his head, Ethan tapped the browser on his smartphone and typed in Ray Donaldson's name. A list of mostly news articles appeared, the first concerning a fundraiser that Ray had helped put together to benefit a battered women's shelter in Phoenix. From Aiden's comment about Ray being unable to walk through fire and hell to save his daughter, it made sense. It suggested that Jo's mom had been a battered wife. The next search result was an obituary listing the family members who had preceded Ray in death. They included Ray's parents, his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and a grandson. The only surviving family member listed was Josephine Mack. Though Ethan wasn't sure why, none of it really surprised him, for Jo had reminded him of a person who was most likely on her own. He'd had the strong impression that her grandfather had raised her, or at the very least, that he'd been a strong presence in her life.

The obituary said nothing more, so Ethan tapped on a related link at the bottom of the screen. When the page loaded, his eyes fell on the headline and Ethan's heart dropped to his feet.

Phoenix Man Kills Family Before Hanging Himself

Authorities say Jerry Mack, 43, a longtime Phoenix resident, bludgeoned his family with a baseball bat before hanging himself in the family's backyard. In a note addressed to the police, Jerry claimed full responsibility for killing his wife, his three-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter as they slept in their beds. Financial issues were cited as the cause.


"No way." Ethan sat up in bed, and re-read the article, then backtracked to the search results. The news accounts were dated, and said pretty much the same thing, only with added updates on the condition of the little girl, Josephine, who had survived against all odds and had clung to life in the hospital. Jo's father had tried to kill her; in his suicide letter, it was obvious that he'd thought he had, but wow. What must that be like for Jo? To know that her father had done the best he could to end her life, and to do it so brutally? A baseball bat in her sleep? Ethan shivered. He tried to imagine her ordeal, but it was beyond him, his thoughts didn't even know where to start. Aside from Ray, Jo had lost her entire family. They had been her world, and that world had been taken from her in one night.

And God had allowed it. What had God been thinking? Once again, He had a lot to answer for.

Ethan wished he had gotten Jo's number, for he wanted to call and apologize for being such an idiot at the bus stop. Yes, she had been the one to rake him over the coals, and not the other way around, but she must have had her reasons. Her family had been killed, and by her father-- she was entitled to be angry. With a reason like that, Ethan figured she could get away with a lot.

Maybe Aiden would give him Jo's phone number. If begging didn't work, Ethan figured a bribe might be worth a try. Would Aiden really hold out against a cool million? The thought made Ethan grin. It'd be worth making the offer, just to see what the man would do.

Ethan knew he was deluding himself with hope, for when Aiden was set and determined about something, dynamite wouldn't be enough to make him budge.

It made Ethan want to fight back and defend himself. He would never cause Jo pain, but then, when he had not given his girlfriends aggravation or anger of one kind or another? He was a changed person though. He had money. He had touched his last drop of liquor, and was turning over a new flower, or leaf, or whatever they called it. He knew the song and dance, for he'd heard it often enough from others. We all deserve a second chance, second shot at life-- that kind of thing. It was inspirational hogwash, but hey, he wasn't knocking it. After all he'd been through in the last few days, a new life sounded pretty good right about now.

Maybe Jo was that second chance.

Ethan started to get off the bed, to go annoy Aiden until he gave him Jo's number, but Ethan paused. So he got her number. Then what? What do you say to a person who'd survived the unimaginable? Hey, how about going out with me? It sounded a little crass to his ears, and he hadn't even said it yet.

Ethan stayed where he was.

Though it had all happened twenty-five years ago, Ethan guessed that Jo still felt it each and every single moment of her life, no matter how far from that day she got. If it had been his family... Man, Ethan didn't even want to go there. To live in a world without his brothers and sister was unimaginable. It was a world with only cruelty, a world without hope or happiness. How did she do it? How did Jo get up every day, and not kill herself? He struggled like crazy to stay in the good fight, and all he faced was maybe alcoholism.

Ethan caught himself. There were no maybes about it-- he was an alcoholic. No doubt about it. If it was a disease, then he'd get help to treat it; if it was a lifestyle, he'd find another way to live; if it was hereditary, then he'd fund some medical experiment to filter those faulty genes from his DNA. He doubted the DNA thing was possible, but that was beside the point. Whatever he needed to do to get sober, and stay that way, he would do.

And Jo could help him do it. If she could survive a murderous father, then surely she could survive a very probable rocky relationship with an alcoholic multi-millionaire.

The thought struck him as rather cold, not to mention problematic. How could she save him, when she couldn't even save herself? Had she looked all right to him? He remembered the tightly clenched fists, the toxic anger that had screamed pain.

She was not all right. She probably had more pain in that skinny little body of hers, than all of his family put together. Which was saying a lot, for Ethan and his brothers and sister had come from some seriously messed up people.

He almost wished he hadn't found out about Jo, for he not only had no idea of what to say to her, he was also clueless about what to do. Not that it was really a problem, for she wasn't even on speaking terms with him right now. From the way she'd acted, Ethan wouldn't be surprised if he never heard from her again. If a fast car and boatloads of money hadn't been able to give him more favor with Jo, then his was a lost cause.

He was a lost a cause.

Ethan's current mess, and his future life blurred before him into one great car wreck where he would most likely die because he'd been drinking, and had climbed into that new toy of his. If he was honest with himself, that's where he figured he would end up-- as a cautionary tale to others living the fast life with no limits, or anything else to hold them back. He could even see Matty doing public service activism the way Ray had done, to bring social awareness to a problem that would never go away. Battered wives. Jo's mom had been killed with a bat. Ethan smothered a laugh, and wondered how terrible a person it made him to see humor in the irony.

So he was worse than awful. Jo could save him. Maybe. With her obvious courage beside him, he could forget all his own troubles. Maybe. They could make each other happy while they ran as fast and as hard as they could from the ghosts that were chasing them. He might even be good for her as she experienced all the good things that life had to offer. As Aiden himself had said, she'd been through enough. Why not try throwing money at it, and see what happened? Surely it was better to be depressed and rich, than miserable and poor.

Ethan shut his eyes and knew he was grasping at air.

She was over him. She wouldn't have ripped into him the way she had, if she was holding out hope that something might come of their relationship, brief though it was. Man. He was thinking crazy, deluding himself, trying to convince himself that there was hope where there was none.

He tossed aside his phone and stared into the darkness of the bedroom. Ryan still snored like he didn't have a care in the world, and maybe he didn't-- at least, not any real ones that mattered. The real suffering was going on over here, in this bed.

It wasn't fair. Why should Ryan sleep while the world was falling apart by the seams? Ethan hurled a pillow at his brother. To his dismay, Ryan rolled over, and went back to sleep. That kid. He could sleep through anything. Ethan envied him. He envied Jo, and the pain she was in. If he had all that excuse for misbehavior, he wouldn't waste it on school, or becoming an A & P mechanic. He'd see how far and how fast he could lose himself in wild women, expensive booze, and the fastest cars he could get his hands on. And no one, not even Matty, would be able to tell him to stop, and actually expect him to obey. They'd be too apologetic because he was a survivor with more pain than any one of them could ever imagine. Yes, with pain like Jo's--

Ethan stopped. If he'd been in Jo's place, Matty wouldn't be there to shake his head and yet sympathize, for Matty would be dead, killed with the rest of their family.

The absurdity of Ethan's thoughts shamed him. He wanted a drink, and yet he loathed himself for that want.

He hated himself for even thinking of his own problems when Jo clearly had more going on in her life than he did.

It was no use.

They were both going down the toilet, the water was spinning, and would soon flush them both.

Lost in his thoughts, Ethan fell asleep as the weariness of the last few days knocked him out.

Sleep pulled him under and he began to dream. Darkness hovered around him, cruel and brooding, a swirl of nothingness punctuated with pain. He saw himself in an unlit place, something hot and wet sticking to his skin. He could hear crying, a child wailing at the top of its lungs. He had no physical sense of pain, and yet it was all around him.

A second scream jolted Ethan awake.

He gulped in air and tried to calm his racing heart.

What a nightmare.

He'd been reading too many of those awful articles about the Mack family, although none of them had said anything like what he'd seen in his dream. Ethan cursed himself. His imagination had not only gotten the better of him, it had ruled him completely. His was nothing to Jo's ordeal, but he had survived a few hard days himself, and his body was tired, and craving strong drink. What had he expected-- dreams of painted carousel horses with light fanciful music? And after what he'd just read?

Disgusted, Ethan went back to sleep.

Once more, he saw himself in the dark place, and felt the hot wetness cling to him. He heard the heartrending scream. Gasping for breath, Ethan woke up and fought to get out of bed before he got stuck in that dark dream again.

What on earth was going on?

He paced the length of the room, and wished that morning would come so Ryan would get up and distract him from what he'd just seen. He needed family around him, someone to confirm that the world was not as black as in those hellish dreams.

Exhausted, Ethan got down on the floor rather than risk climbing into that bed again. Why was God doing this to him? Why was he seeing those things, and twice? The same exact dream, as visceral and as real as anything he had ever lived through himself-- twice. What did it mean? Was it Jo? Please God, let it not be Jo. The thought plagued Ethan. He wished morning would come, and yet he feared that when it did, he would be faced with the same problems as before. Only now, they came with nightmares. Surely they would go away.

Light began to peep around the bedroom blinds as Ethan stretched out on the carpet. Though he hated those dreams with a passion, sleep finally won out.

* * * *

Pacing the length of her apartment, Jo tried to calm her nerves so she could get some rest. The night had started out fine, even wonderful, and then Ethan had to go and ruin it for her. Just because Ethan couldn't hold his life together, didn't mean he had to go and knock the pins out from under hers. Why couldn't she have chosen a different street, another bus stop to take shelter under? Why did she even have to find shelter in the first place? It wasn't as though the rain had been all that bad. If only she'd been willing to get a little wet, Ethan might have been avoided.

Jo fought to calm herself. What a mess he'd caused. It would take time to sort through all the pieces in her head, and put them back into those mental boxes-- the ones she kept filed away under "Do not open." It did no good to dwell on the past, on the things that couldn't be changed. If she started to think of all the what-ifs, and what-might-of-beens, it would drive her stark raving mad.

One by one, Jo went through her memories with the care of someone picking through broken glass. She did it slowly, gently, and with all the deliberation she could muster.

Morning came and went, and by the afternoon, Jo felt calm enough to shower and change. Unless Mr. Campbell decided to call everyone back to work, she figured she would spend the remainder of the day nose-deep in textbooks.

Sleep was out of the question.

She wondered what Ethan was doing. He was probably halfway home to San Francisco by now, or holed up in Phoenix somewhere, drinking himself to death.

It was time he understood that tomorrow wasn't promised to anyone. There was nothing that said it would come, that after the night, the sun would rise and fill the sky with light. There was no certainty in any of it, nothing to hang her hat on and say this is what I believe, and this is why. With all the awful randomness of life, it surprised her more people didn't outright admit that there was no grand plan, no purpose for anything that happened. It was all chance, just an absent God playing dice with the universe.

Let the world blow itself apart, she was here to work and get her license. She would put everything where it belonged, a life neatly organized and disciplined. There would be no weakness, no excuses, no running to hide in corners. That had been her father's path, but not hers.

Not Jo's.

More determined than ever, Jo went back to her studies and focused on what was in front of her. If her mind wandered a little, and she found herself wondering about Ethan, she didn't wonder for long. She kept forcing her thoughts back to her studies.

Life was tough. He would get over it.

He had to. There was no other choice.

It took Jo an hour before she realized she had been staring at the same page without reading a single word.


"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance..."
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3, 4 ~

end of chapter
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