Authors: Max Ellendale
"When I got out of the hospital the first time, I walked
around downtown Portland. There was this boy. He was looking for his sister who
was on drugs. He was just a kid looking for his sister, someone he cared about
a lot. I didn't even
for you, Jilly. I just
you left on your own accord. That I wasn't good enough and wasn't what you
needed. Or wanted." My voice cracked at the end and I couldn't hold on to
myself anymore. I let the blankness go and choked on a sob. "I keep
thinking that if I just looked for you, if I made any effort, I could've
stopped him before it got too bad for you."
"One day, one hour with him was 'too bad,' Jess. Nothing you
could've done would've stopped that. It was my choice to leave. I knew what I
was going back to, but I also knew what I risked leaving. I figured, one day,
he'd get bored of me and I could just leave. He'd forget about you by then and
I could come back." She paused to caress my face while a fresh set of
tears streaked her cheeks.
"Did you really believe that he'd hurt me?" I cried
softly and she pulled me against her. For once, I let her comfort me, but not
for too long.
"I've seen what he was capable of. I just got so scared when
I saw him. I just...I had to."
"I know. I saw you with him. You were so afraid. For me more
than anything." I sniffled and ran my fingers through her hair.
"We're equal. No one's worse than the other so stop thinking
it," she said as if she could read my mind.
"Except I killed him."
"And I killed you. By accident." Her words silenced both
of us and she guided my head to her shoulder. Our fingers laced together
between us and she pressed her lips to my knuckles. "He deserved to die.
"Neither do you."
"If it's any consolation, he's killed someone before. Maybe
more than one person. He got off on double-jeopardy."
"You never told me that." I met her gaze again and her
expression grew somber.
"Never seemed important before."
"I think South Dakota will be nice," I said and pulled
the blanket over us.
"It will be." We shifted positions and she placed her
head on my shoulder the way she had every night since our return home. I
wrapped my arms around her and focused on the warmth of her breath against my
"I love you. More than anything."
I couldn't see it but I felt her smile. That was all I really
It took us longer to finish the white borders than it did to paint
the entire room. Jilly frustrated herself over her shaky hands and forced me to
do most of the trim work while she scoured the kitchen. By mid-day, we'd had a
clean kitchen and lunch delivered by the local deli. We sat on the floor in the
living room and shared a tuna wrap.
"I don't want to buy groceries," she said.
"We'll go together next time." I laughed a little bit
and she grinned.
"Are you sure you don't want to sublet this place?" she
asked, crumpling up a wrapper.
"It'll be fine just left as it is. Maybe when we come for visits
or something," I said.
"Yeah. And so we don't have to move shit out."
"I don't really want to take anything anyway. Other than our
time together, this place has been a source of emptiness and pain."
"Except for the studio."
"You'll have a better studio in the loft space in the new
"I didn't really think about it."
Buying an unoccupied, newly built home in the middle of the woods
when you have the full payment upfront is a lot easier than it appears. There
wasn't the long wait for the other owners to leave or bank contracts for a
mortgage. The sale didn't deplete our accounts by any means, which is what
happens to people who hoard money because they can't find a better use for it.
Jilly and I packed some clothes in the car, my guns, the laptop,
toiletries, and she insisted on some of my paintings. I let her and off we went
to a house we only saw via virtual tour in an SUV that had barely five thousand
miles on it. We picked a good time to drive halfway across the country, in the early
blooming period of spring. Minty greens coated the tree tops, making them look
like puffy vibrations from a distance. Occasionally we'd come across a cherry
blossom or patch of wildflowers along the roadside. We didn't say much for the
first few hours of the drive. Jilly slept most of the time and occasionally
she'd jump, waking herself on and off.
We stopped for gas and food, and took turns driving. By the time
we hit Ohio, my thoughts slowed enough to make better sense.
"When I went to this club down in Portland, there was a
dancer there called The Ginger Man. This redhead dressed as a guy, but dapper
like from the 1920s," I said seemingly at random.
"Oh yeah. I saw a poster for that. It was at the burlesque
place." She perked up, turning in her seat to face me.
"I thought she was you and rushed the stage when she was
leaving. But it turned out she was wearing a wig and the bouncers threw me
out." I laughed a little bit as I thought about it.
"You did what?" Her eyes bugged out and she laughed,
too. "Jess, that's hysterical. I can just envision it."
"It definitely wasn't funny at the time but it kind of is
now. She wasn't as pretty as you are, not in the least."
"Are you saying you want me to cross-dress and strip for
you?" She wagged her brows at me and I shoved her shoulder playfully.
"It seems so. I went to about twenty places to watch naked
girls parade around on stage."
"I thought you didn't look for me?" Her brow furrowed
and I glanced away from the road to her.
"You knew I used to dance in places like that. Why else would
you go there? Have you ever gone before?"
"So you looked for me."
"But I didn't…"
"What were you going in there for? Hoping to see me prance on
I thought about what she said and dropped my head back against the
seat. It didn't seem like my motives at the time. They were way more
destructive. "I did hope that."
"What would you have done?"
"Rushed you and got bounced out." Again I laughed a
little and she nearly giggled.
"I would've paid good money to see that."
"I would've paid good money to see
"You got me now. For free."
"We have each other. At a high price for us both," I
said and she reached over to squeeze my hand.
"Are you ever going to sleep with me again?" she asked
out of nowhere. "You haven't. I've been back almost a month."
"It hurts you when I touch you…"
"No it doesn't…"
"It does. I make you cry."
"You don't make me cry—"
"I do. Like I used to. Every time we made love in the first
six months we were together, you'd cry after," I said.
"But I was happy every time," she said.
"I know. But your tears aren't happy now." I gripped the
steering wheel tighter as my throat squeezed down on a lump. She leaned across
the console to put her head on my shoulder. I wrapped my arm around her and we drove
on in silence for awhile.
At the end of our first twelve hours, she patted my leg and sat
up. "My turn. Pull over."
"No you're not. You're getting tired. C'mon."
I obliged and pulled over at the next rest stop. We took a
bathroom break, bought some snacks, and piled back in the car. Jillian fed me a
cheese-covered nacho before she started the engine.
"Not bad for out of a metal thing at the Seven Eleven,"
I said through all the crunching.
"Nope. Not bad at all. Now eat your healthy hotdog and have a
"Yes, Mommy." I smirked and she laughed, swatting my
thigh before pulling back on to the road.
I watched her while she drove, with the electronic voice of the
GPS in the background, and took note of how she smiled when she knew I was watching.
The gentle sideways glance she'd shoot at me every now and then. I thought
about the things we'd do in South Dakota and how I planned to teach her how to
shoot. A rifle and a pistol should improve her confidence. I wanted nothing
more than for her to be safe. Always.
"Go to sleep," she said with a grin. "Quit staring
"Shut up." I laughed, a real one, and pulled the blanket
up over my shoulders.
When I opened my eyes again, the orangey glow of sunrise made
Jillian's hair even more ginger. She looked calmer than I'd seen her in weeks.
I wondered if it was because she didn't know I was watching her. The road ahead
of us seemed endless. At first, straight and meeting the horizon, then flanked
by mountains and trees.
"Almost there," I said, my voice all groggy.
"Just a few hours," she said, digging around in the cup
holder then handing me my cell phone. "It's charged and on. I paid it when
we stopped at the last gas station. Call your mother."
"I already did. She wasn't home." A smirk curved her
lips and I snatched the phone from her.
"I did." She laughed and smacked my arm.
"You ready to swap?" I said as I sat up, stretching a
"Not yet. Does the new place have furniture? We don't have
sheets. Or a bed."
"It has some. They partially furnished it for show and sale.
They let us keep it. A bed is coming on Thursday and I already ordered sheets
"You do all this stuff in the middle of the night when I'm
asleep and don't know anything," she said.
"Surprising you is nice."
"Yeah." She glanced at me with a smile. "It
Just before sunset, I drove the car up the long driveway. It was
paved though had turnoffs that weren't. The SUV handled the terrain perfectly.
We twisted and curved through dense forest, following the road to our new
property. Jillian sat at the edge of her seat when the house came into view.
Dark wood, four gables, a two-car garage, and a long front porch greeted us
like a warm hug. Jillian flew out of the car and I followed her. She spun in a
complete circle, taking in the view. The sky, a blue dome above the treetops,
almost seemed to smile.
"Check out the back," I told her when she turned to me,
tears brimming her eyes. My heart leapt with joy when I saw her happiness
again. The genuine kind that told me I'd done the right thing. With a hop in
her step, she hurried around the side of the house and I followed. She skid to
a halt where the driveway met the grass. A vast wooden fence squared the
immediate area around the house, lending focus to the deck that jutted out from
the back. The leveled area beside it sat primed for a pool that hadn't been
erected yet. The octagon deck on the other side had a stone grill and a pretty
patio set perched on it.
The earth curved and the backyard dipped with it. A giant chimney
stretched from the highest peak of the house to the ground. Jilly stood there,
staring in awe, while I listened to the rushing sound of the creek at the
bottom of the hill. I walked to the fence line to watch the crystal clear water
rumble over the bed of stones.
"This isn't real," Jilly said when she caught up to me.
"It's a dream."
"It's not, baby." I took her hand and she squeezed.
"Wait until you see the inside."
"I can't wait."
Every structure inside was matching dark wood, shined to
perfection. The house smelled fresh and clean, like sharpened cedar and new
upholstery. Marble countertops covered all the surfaces in the kitchen,
including the island in the center. French doors opened to one of the decks and
looked out into the acres of woodland behind it.
"Jess, this is the most amazing house in the world," she
said as we both gazed up at the high ceiling where the stone hearth met the
"And it's all yours, Jilly."
, not just mine. We bought this together with
work." She turned to me, taking both of my hands in
hers. "And I love it."
." My smile, wider than I had in a
long time, felt like it came from inside of me rather than just on the surface.
Jilly's exuberance livened me up along with the change in scenery.
"I love you, too," she said, cupping my face and pulling
me into a frenzied kiss. In the beginning, I fumbled through it the same way I
had the first time she kissed me. Heat rushed my insides as if she'd leaned me
backward into a tropical waterfall. I hadn't realized how cold I was until that
When the kiss ended, I rested my forehead against hers and closed
my eyes. I stroked her hair and she held me to her. I'm not sure how long we
stayed there, but it was long enough for my heart to pound and my face to warm
like the rest of me.
"Let's light a fire," she said. "Do you know
"I do. Will you check the water, make sure it runs, and the
toilets? We have to call the realtor to confirm that we're here."
"Okay, but if I'm not back in ten minutes, come find
me," she said, kissing my forehead before releasing me.
"I will." I laughed and she fluttered her way down the
Today, I felt like I'd done something right.