Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Got a Secret . . . Can You Keep It? (part Twenty-five)
Melinda stared back at Paul while his words bandied around in her head. She was mine . . . until I lost her to Mark.
Melinda felt as though her insides had been hollowed out, and what remained was a delicate shell that might shatter at any moment. She wanted to beg Paul to care for her, to hold her together, but she couldn't because he was her downfall.
From the moment they'd met at Dr. Schuyler's office, Melinda had been obsessed with the hushed sexual power Paul Jeffries exuded. He never seemed bothered by her ruined face, often forcing her hand down when she tried to cover it and stroking the gnarled skin gently with the pads of his fingers. He called her beautiful and pursued her relentlessly until she agreed to have dinner with him, followed by skating and movies and picnics in the park—then one day a quietly brilliant ring nestled in a velvet box.
Paul lifted Melinda to new heights, bringing her a joy she thought forever eradicated by scorched rubber, shards of glass, twisted metal, and a flood of crimson. He held her through the nightmares when she awoke bathed in sweat and made sure she continued her therapy. He was the one who encouraged her not to pursue facial reconstruction when the doctors said it would take years of grueling procedures to see little benefit. And it was Paul who returned to the site of the accident with her, year after year, letting her cry and rail over the loss of her beloved sister.
“You stood there with me—comforted me. You lost her, too, but you never said a word.” Melinda balled her fists against the sides of her head, reveling in the tugging of hair against her scalp because at least it was something real. “You said it wasn't my fault.” The words are almost too bitter to utter.
Paul, who'd been watching Melinda carefully as she worked through the memories, abruptly became animated. “It wasn't, Mindy! You had no control over some truck driver having a seizure!” He crawled across the damp grass and crouched a foot away, allowing her space.
Melinda leaped to her feet and stalked over to the split-rail fence, leaning heavily on its damp roughness. The golden rays of the rising sun cast a glow over one end of the field, painting tree leaves and the soft carpet of grass with the warmth of a new day, yet Melinda and Paul remained in darkness, trapped beneath the weight of the past.
“I was supposed to be driving that day!” Melinda's voice was raw. She thought of Marietta posing in front of an art display a few weeks before the accident sporting a smooth new haircut and bit down on the inside of her cheek.
Paul came up behind her. When his hands cupped her shoulders, she fought not to flinch and almost won. “Why weren't you?” he asked.
“You know why!”
“Why weren't you?”
“I had a migraine . . . kept throwing up.” She remained poised there with Paul at her back, telling him things he already knew.
“Could you have driven like that?”
“If we'd waited until I felt better . . . or left sooner . . . or stopped for gas.”
Paul's hands tightened on Melinda's shoulders, and the warmth of his breath ghosted over her ear. “It wasn't your fault.”
Melinda stared into space, seeing nothing of their surroundings. Inside, she was alight with dawning connections, new realization. She reached up and clawed at Paul's hands, digging in hard. “Why did you choose me?” Her whispered words held a new kind of pain.
“I fell in love with you.”
“When did you know who I was?”
“From the beginning. The resemblance was uncanny.”
“Like my underage niece?”
“That's not fair. Janice is young yet. Yes, there's a resemblance, but I had no idea!”
Melinda let go of his hands and rounded on him. “Really? Her last name never clued you in?”
Paul floundered, closing his eyes and sighing. “I didn't know her last name at first, and I honestly didn't want to put it all together once I did.”
“How convenient.” Melinda slammed her palms against his chest. “Why did you do it, Paul? Why wasn't I enough for you?” Tears slid down her cheeks as she gave in to the sinking feeling permeating her soul. She was so tired. Never a day went by that she didn't think of Marietta or relive their accident in her dreams.
“You were! But you withdrew from me. You were cold and distracted . . . always steeping in your shroud of guilt.”
“My shroud of guilt?”
“I didn't know how to reach you anymore. And then . . . I met Janice. It was a terrible mistake.”
“You met Janice—the best parts of me and Marietta rolled up into one nubile, young maiden, huh? Forbidden fruit, anyone? Helped you forget the dead woman you pined after and the broken substitute you settled for?” Melinda's voice rose to a shriek.
“That's not true! I fell in love with you. Marietta and I . . . never worked. She was too flighty, and once she met Mark, she never had eyes for anyone else.”
“Well, I feel so much better now!”
Melinda looked around wildly, searching for a way out. The pain surging through her had become too much. She spotted the gun lying in the grass a few feet away and edged in that direction.
“I was infatuated with Marietta, but I fell in love with you.”
“Why? Because I was so dependent and you knew there'd never be any competition to fight off? Who'd want this?” Melinda flashed her scars at him.
“No! That's ridiculous!”
A few more inches.
“Yeah, it is.”
She placed her boot over the gun. “And Janice? What does she mean to you?”
Paul floundered. “I—”
Melinda moved her foot, bent down, and snatched the gun. The weight of it in her hand was a comfort because it offered her the control she'd never had.
“What the hell are you doing?” Paul's eyes widened. “Hoffstra! Somebody!”
Melinda removed the safety and snugged the gun beneath her chin.
“No! Don't do this! Don't you leave me!”
The golden rays had almost reached their patch of grass. Melinda smiled and stepped into the light, allowing the sun to kiss her skin. “Goodbye, Paul.”
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook
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