Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 26: A Spark, and a Leap

Chapter 26: A Spark, and a Leap

27 February 2019, Wednesday 10:25 AM

Sandra hated all of the attention. Yet, there she was, in a wheelchair with an airport employee who was now responsible for getting her onboard and safely tucked into her seat in First Class.

"I'm sure my husband can manage it," she said, a little more bite to her voice than she intended, as the young man helped William get her into the wheelchair.

The fellow now looked nervous, and William stepped in. "Sandra, let the man do his job." He nodded at the airline worker, and soon they were all three on their way to the departure gate.

It wasn't that Sandra didn't appreciate the effort people spent on her. It was that she despised needing the help. William understood that, but others likely didn't. Sandra bit her tongue and allowed William to take the lead. She knew he would get the job done, and ruffle fewer feathers in the process than she could.

Soon enough she was onboard and safely buckled in. William was at her side, and he smiled at her. "Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?" He put a hand on her leg, and he flinched. She knew the muscles there were beginning to thin and atrophy. The lack of full contractions, thanks to the nerve damage meant they were shrinking.

"I'm fine, dear." In truth she was cold, but she could see the sheen of sweat on William's face. It was easy to see that he was hot, and the fact that she wasn't would be a point of worry for him. She didn't want him to worry about her any more than he already did.

He looked her straight in the eye and rejected what she told him. "Your leg is freezing." He stood up in the aisle and stopped the flow of first-class passengers. He motioned at a nearby attendant. "Excuse me. Can you get a blanket for my wife?"

Sandra watched as William simply took command. She never thought it could happen, that he had it in him. True, she loved and adored him. But, as time went on, she found a new emotion which described her feelings for William - respect.

That was different. He showed himself to be a cooly competent man if only allowed to grow into the role. He had turned into a formidable ally and advocate for her. And for the first time in her life, she felt as if she had a partner. That William was not merely a man under her employment, who also happened to be her husband. But, instead, that they were a team. It was no longer her vineyard, it was theirs.

He took the blanket given to him, and he gently wrapped Sandra's legs with the soft and thick material. She watched him as he did. He acted as if he were a professional at whatever he did, and his attentiveness never wavered. He finished and sat back down next to her. "Better?"

Sandra nodded. "Yes. Thank you."

The plane soon filled to capacity. Sandra looked out of the window as the aircraft began to taxi to the runway for take off. As the final checks on the machine occurred just before they were going to accelerate to leave the grip of the Earth, William reached, and he took her hand in his own.

"You know, I'm really proud of you, Sandra."

She blinked, and she turned and looked at him. William stared back at her, his brown eyes honest and unguarded. Sandra shook her head. "Why?"

William smiled, and the purity of it shined as bright as anything Sandra had ever seen. "Because our son got to hug his mom yesterday." William silently teared but his expression didn't change. "I always knew she was there, but I'm not sure Grant knew she still existed."

Sandra swallowed, and she struggled. She couldn't take that remarkable and mesmerizing gaze of William's, so she turned her face toward the window. She thought about what he said. With her face still pointed away, she quietly asked a question. "Am I really so awful?"

"Awful? No." William's hand gently squeezed hers. "You're strong. You're amazing. You're talented and intelligent." He reached up and put a hand, warm and caring on the back of her neck. "And now, you're showing our son how much he means to you. It's what he needs. And it's what you need. That's why I'm proud of you. I know it's scary for you to show him this side. But you are. And I love you for it."

Sandra didn't respond verbally. She didn't know if she could. Instead, she squeezed the hand that still rested in her lap. And she continued to look out of the window at the world, until it became a blur of color, light, and shadow, as they streaked up into the sky.

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28 February 2019, Thursday 8:17 PM

Grant watched Troy as the tall man paced. His friend, Beth, had called an hour ago. She was close, and she should arrive any minute now. Wednesday morning, when Grant got up for work, Troy filled him in on Beth's impending visit.

Thanks to a late season snow storm in Pennsylvania, she was delayed a few hours. But it allowed her to take a break and get some sleep. As it was, she drove nearly eighteen hours straight to get to them.

"Troy, calm down." Grant smiled at him. "You're winding yourself up. Relax." Grant patted the seat on the couch next to him. "Come on, sit down."

Troy bit his lip, and he shook his head. "I'm fine." Grant almost laughed as Troy unconsciously wrung his hands. "I'm just excited, you know? It has been so long. I just want everything to …"

There was a knock, and Troy froze. Then he jerked, and he took two giant steps down the hallway to the door. Grant shook his head, and he stood up.

Troy opened the door. A woman, bundled from the falling snow stood in the doorway.

"Beth!" Troy flung his arms around her, and he lifted her off of her feet.

She laughed and coughed as he squeezed her. "Put, -wheeze- put me down!"

Troy did, and she caught her breath with a laugh. She dropped her two bags, and she gave Troy a hug of her own. "Oh, damn. It's so good to see you!"

Grant smiled at them, and he waited. Troy pushed back, and he looked at her, almost as if he couldn't quite believe she was there, in front of him. Finally, Grant cleared his throat, and Troy looked down the hall at him. Then his eyes widened. "Oh!" He pushed Beth down the hall toward Grant. "Beth, this is my boyfriend, Grant. Grant, this is Beth, John's sister, and my friend."

The woman smiled. She extended one hand to Grant, and she pulled off her scarf with the other. "It's very nice to meet you, Grant."

Grant grinned at her. "Likewise. I can take your scarf and your coat."

"Thank you." She handed the items to Grant, and she took a relieved breath, and she looked around the room. "Wow. I never thought I'd see this little house again."

Troy stepped up beside her. "I know. Same here."

Beth leveled her gaze at him. "You gonna tell me about all of that? About where you disappeared to, and how you came to live back in the place you started?"

Troy nodded. "Yes. Here, let's sit, and I'll tell you all about it."

The two of them took seats on the couch, and Grant stepped into the kitchen. "I'm going to make some hot chocolate. And there might be peppermint schnapps for anybody who wants some."

"Ohhh, Troy! You need to hang on to this man!" Beth held up her hand, apparently interested in hot chocolate with schnapps. Troy grinned, and he nodded at Grant.

Grant got busy preparing the drinks in the kitchen while the two of them caught up. Periodically, Grant heard Beth ask various questions about Troy's life after John died, and in particular after the bank took the house and he disappeared.

Grant finished with the drinks, and he put a dollop of whipped cream on top of all of them. Then he walked carefully with all three mugs in his hands.

Beth looked up from Troy as Grant stood beside the couch and she gratefully took a mug. "Oh yes. Now, this looks like a fine cup of hot chocolate." She smiled, her teeth perfect. "Thank you, Grant."

"You're welcome." Grant handed Troy his drink, then he sat in the armchair near the couch. "I'm glad you made it okay. The roads aren't the best right now."

"Ugh, you're tellin' me!" She waved her hand toward the front door. "And my little tiny Kia isn't the best for ice and snow either!"

Troy and Beth continued to talk. It was well after eleven PM when the number of yawns got to the point where they made it difficult to continue.

Beth stood up, and she smiled, sleepy, but happy. "Boys, thank you for havin' me." She nodded. "I truly do appreciate it."

"Of course." Grant smiled, and he motioned at the stairs. "Your room is the first bedroom. If you need anything just let us know."

"Will do." She picked up her two bags. "I'll see you both tomorrow." She winked at Grant. "Though, I hope you won't be offended if I don't get up to see you off for work."

Grant laughed. "No, I won't be offended."

She grinned. "G'night fellas."

Beth took her bags upstairs, and they heard the bedroom door shut. Troy looked at Grant. And he slowly smiled.

Grant laughed. "What is that smile for?"

Troy shook his head. "It's just amazing to me." He looked back up the stairs toward the closed door. "She's exactly as I remember." His expression turned wistful. "I should have done this a long time ago - contacted her, that is."

Grant stifled a yawn, and he put his arm around Troy's shoulders. "Well, she's here now." He shook Troy gently back and forth. "Come on. Let's go to bed. You two can spend all day tomorrow together since you rescheduled your jobs to next week."

Troy nodded. "Yeah." He put his arm around Grant. "I'm looking forward to it."

The two men walked side by side up the stairs. And as they passed the closed guest room door, a raucous snore could be heard from the room.

Troy laughed, his hand over his mouth as Grant stared in amazement at the door. Troy bit his lip, and he shook his head. "Nope. Not changed at all."

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01 March 2019, Friday 4:51 PM

Grant finished out his work week. And after the emotional rollercoaster with his mother, he had a sincere and deep need for some social time and fun with friends. Additionally, Beth wanted to see the whole crew again. She had met Brian, Natalie, Aaron, and Georgette a few times over the years that John and Troy lived in the house. And she was very excited to hear about a gathering which included them.

Beth planned to spend a week with them. Grant was happy to have her. He knew Troy was beyond thrilled to reconnect, and Grant was curious about the man that Troy detailed in the journal. His little sister was a great window into who John was.

Grant told Rhett yesterday early in the morning about his plan for a party, and Rhett seemed very excited. "Another game night?" Rhett's smile reached all the way to his eyes. "Yeah. That sounds amazing. The same folks, right?"

"Yeah. Oh, and Troy's friend from Georgia, Beth." Grant watched Rhett's face. He knew the man struggled with new people in certain settings. And he didn't want Rhett surprised to find someone he didn't know there.

Rhett did pause a moment, but he nodded. "Okay. Cool. Yeah, count me in!"

Grant, Troy, and despite their protests, Beth, all prepared for the arrival of their guests. Beth refused to sit around while the guys cooked and cleaned. "I know I'm the picture of 'strong woman,' but I still know how to operate a stove!" She grinned at Grant as she slid a baking dish of new potatoes topped with a layer of spice-rubbed chicken breasts into the oven.

And, predictably there was a knock on the door about ten minutes before they were set to begin.

"That'll be Aaron." Troy wiped his hands on the towel over his shoulder, and he started for the door.

"Here, let me," Beth smirked. She walked down the hall, and she opened the door.

Grant heard Aaron's surprised voice. "Beth! Oh my god!" Beth's response was cut off in a huff of air as the wiry redhead lifted her up in a hug.

She laughed and smacked her palms against Aaron's shoulders. "Put me down!" After a moment Aaron did.

Georgette smiled at her. "Beth, it's great to see you!" The women hugged, and Beth pushed back to look critically at her. Georgette laughed. "Yes, I'm pregnant."

"Oh, finally! I know you were both trying for a long time!" There was a little celebration between the women, and then the group moved into the living room. Aaron took their bag of snacks into the kitchen. While the ladies talked, he started unpacking goat cheese, olives, crackers, and pickles.

Grant leaned over and snagged a green olive. He smiled at Aaron. "Hey. How's it going?"

Aaron grinned. "It's good." He nodded at Beth as she waved her hands around and spoke to Georgette. "It's great to see Beth!" His eyes found Troy as the lanky man stood near Beth and Georgette. "Troy decided it was time to reconnect?"

Grant nodded. "Yeah. As soon as he contacted her, she dropped everything, and drove straight here." He smiled at the group. "It's obvious she means a lot to him, and the other way around too. I'm thankful he has wonderful people in his life."

Aaron nodded, then he turned his head to look at Grant. "You know, that includes you." He smiled. "It's good to see him getting taken care of, man."

Grant laughed. "I don't know about that. Lately, he has been the one to take care of me."

"That's what it's all about." Aaron nodded, and he patted Grant on the back. Then he narrowed his eyes as Grant picked up a cracker and some cheese. "Are you going to let me take this into the living room, or are you gonna eat it all before I can even serve it?"

Grant smirked. "Fine." Aaron smiled, obviously joking with him. He took the serving platter into the living room, and he put it on the coffee table.

Another knock came at the door, and Grant walked around the bar counter. He opened the door.

Natalie, Brian, and Rhett all stood outside. They arrived at the same time, and they all grinned at him.

"Hey!" Grant stood aside. "Come on in, all of you."

They stomped off the wet and mud and wiped their shoes on the welcome mat. Then after some hugs and greetings, they entered.

"Beth!" Natalie's eyes widened when she saw the woman as she spoke to the group. Soon both she and Brian were smiling and laughing along with her.

Grant watched them, then he looked over at Rhett.

Rhett stared at Beth for a moment, then he looked down at the ground. Grant could see the stress on his face. Grant stepped next to the small man, and he put a hand on his back. "Hey. Let me introduce you."

Rhett's eyes found Grant's and he nodded. "Okay." He took a breath and seemed to steel himself. "Let's do it."

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01 March 2019, Friday 5:02 PM

Rhett felt the reassuring hand of Grant on his back, and he stepped forward.

He watched as she laughed with the group, and as old connections strengthened once again. Then she turned her eyes on him.

They were a stunning light brown color, and they contrasted with her smooth, dark skin. She stood an inch taller than Rhett, at 5'6". She was neither fat nor thin, but somewhere in a comfortable, healthy middle. Her black hair was cut into a short, yet feminine style, and it framed her face perfectly.

Rhett had what he was going to say in his head. He repeated it over and over before they stepped up to greet her. But it was gone. He stared at her, and the moment lengthened.

For her part, Beth blinked, then she smiled at him. "Hello." She held out her hand. "I'm Beth."

Rhett was on what he called 'socially acceptable autopilot.' He reached and took her hand. "I'm Rhett."

Her hand was warm, and contact with her seem to fire a part of his brain that didn't often see use. He licked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. "Ah. I'm going to grab a glass of water." He still held her hand, and he looked into her eyes. "Did uh, did you want anything?"

Her smile broadened. "Why, thank you. A glass of red wine would be lovely."

"Okay." He forced himself to release her. "I'll, uh, I'll be right back."

He turned and walked toward the kitchen. On the way, he looked over his shoulder, and he saw her watching him. Rhett nearly crashed into the kitchen bar, but he managed to avoid sprawling on the kitchen floor and making a fool of himself. He stood inside the kitchen, and he hid behind the wall cabinet out of view of the living room.

He took a breath to steady himself, and he grabbed a bottle of wine off of the mounted wine rack in the kitchen.

'Wine sounds good right about now.' He chuckled to himself, and he opened the bottle. Then he poured two glasses of wine. As soon as he did, he took a long drink from one of the glasses.

He set the glass back on the counter and refilled it. 'Okay.' He breathed and tried to relax. 'Okay. The lady is waiting for her wine. Don't hide in here.'

Rhett nodded to himself, and he convinced his feet to move. And he walked, glasses in hand, back into the living room.

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01 March 2019, Friday 5:11 PM

Grant watched as Rhett came back into the living room. At first, he thought perhaps Rhett was merely shy and awkward around Beth due to his anxiety. But, as he saw them interact he realized it was more than that.

'Rhett likes her.' Grant sipped his own drink, and he stood a few feet away with Brian and Troy as they talked. He glanced over at Beth and Rhett again, and they remained close together. He saw Beth look away after Rhett handed her the wine, a small smile on her face. 'Oh, and Beth likes him.' It was apparent to him, as plain as if they had announced it.

Rhett stood near Beth and Grant watched as he spoke to her. Rhett's eyes were focused, interested, and there was an intensity to them that Grant typically saw when Rhett talked about something that he found passion in.

Beth was smiley, and Grant observed as she replied. Grant was amazed by her. It was almost as if she could sense Rhett's personality and his preferences, and she dialed her boisterousness down for him. It was still Beth. But she was instinctively easing Rhett into getting to know her. Grant did something similar when he interacted with new people, but Beth was in deep conversation with a man who suffered from social anxiety, and they had only just met. She was one of the rare people who had mastered the art of the social chimera (see definition at the end of the chapter).

Troy caught Grant's eye, and he nodded. He knew that Troy wanted to speak to him. "Excuse me." Grant peeled off, and Troy followed him, leaving Brian to nibble on appetizers.

Grant and Troy went into the kitchen. Once at the bar counter where they could look into the living room, but away from the ears of the others, Troy leaned toward him. "I think Beth might want a piece of Rhett." He grinned at Grant, and he glanced back into the living room. At that moment, Beth laughed at something Rhett said, and she put a hand on his shoulder, while the other held her half-empty wine glass.

"I think the feeling is mutual." Grant took another sip, and he followed Troy's gaze. Beth chose that moment to look toward the kitchen, and she saw both men staring at them. Rhett's back was to the guys. Beth only smiled, just slightly, then she looked back to Rhett.

"We totally got caught." Troy chuckled, and he put an arm around Grant's shoulders.

"Yup. Beth doesn't seem too worried about it though." Grant smiled at Troy. "Come on. Dinner should be done. I'll pull it out, and they can serve themselves."

Dinner was indeed finished. While Grant handled that, Troy got stacks of plates down for the group. Soon, everyone amicably lined up, assembly-line style. And after they had gotten their food, they sat around the coffee table. Grant noticed the group saved a couple of spots on the couch. He looked at Brian and Natalie as they scooted down for Rhett and Beth. Brian winked at Grant.  It appeared that the interest Rhett and Beth shared in each other wasn't lost on the friends.

Grant settled on one of the kitchen chairs he took into the living room. He looked over at Georgette who parked herself in the overstuffed armchair. She looked almost as if she would burst as she watched Beth and Rhett. Aaron sat next to her in another kitchen chair, leaned over and he put his hand on her leg. He whispered to her and smiled. Grant nearly laughed. It was obvious Aaron was counseling her against announcing to the world how cute of a couple Beth and Rhett would make.

Grant sighed. He was happy, amused, and he could feel the stress of the last few days let up a bit. It was still there, and it would be. But the time with friends helped.

"Doing good?"

Grant looked over at Troy, and the tall man gazed at him. Grant nodded. "I am." His eyes swept over the room. "It's good to have everyone over, and to relax a little."

Troy smiled, and he rubbed Grant's neck affectionately. He leaned and kissed Grant on the side of his face. Troy's beard rubbed against the skin there, and Grant grinned at the sensation. "Good. I'm glad." He picked up his fork, and he speared a crispy potato on his plate that rested on his lap.

Grant followed Troy's lead, and soon all of the friends chatted and ate. It wasn't long before they finished with dinner, and Rhett stood up.

"I'll handle dishes." He held out his hand for plates. "I wasn't able to bring anything, so it's the price I pay."

Beth wiped her mouth. "Oh, let me help." Rhett didn't decline, and when the two of them left the living room, all of the friends looked at one another.

Aaron finally rolled his eyes. "Okay, say it, but quietly."

"OH MY GOD, THEY ARE SO CUTE!" Georgette said, her voice in a stage whisper. All of the friends chuckled at her, but there were nods around the room.

Conversation sparked again among them as they moved the kitchen chairs back into their proper spots, and helped clean up the living room. When Grant went into the kitchen with his chair, he looked over at Rhett and Beth as they stood at the sink. Their shoulders almost touched, and he was certain each could feel the body heat of the other.

Grant forced himself to leave the kitchen. And as he turned to go, he let his lips pull into a smile.

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01 March 2019, Friday 8:46 PM

The evening wasn't precisely winding down for the group, but it had moved from games to talking and catching up.

Troy watched Beth and Rhett. He had known her to date, and he knew her tastes. So it was a little bit of a surprise for him to see her so interested in the small, usually quiet man. But there was no mistaking - she was interested.

At the moment Brian and Beth chatted while Rhett and Troy listened in.

"How's the job, Brian? You still at the elementary school?" Beth took another sip of her wine as she sat on the couch.

Brian nodded. "Yep. Still teaching the third graders." He eyed Beth. "How close are you, anyway? I know you were pretty deep into the program the last time we saw you."

"I'm done. I'm just waiting on the credentialing process."

"Oh, cool." Brian smiled at her. "It's such a relief, huh?"

"Well, it would be." Beth sighed and shook her head. "All I can find is part-time work, even after I get certified." She laughed. "And you know as well as I do, part-time work on a teacher's salary isn't going to cut it."

Brian nodded. "Hrm. It's too bad you're not local." He shrugged. "It's not posted yet, but I know we're going to have a spot open up in a couple of months. Full time. It'll be for our first graders."

Beth stared at him. "Really?" He nodded, and she looked down at her wine glass.

Georgette cleared her throat, still parked in her armchair. Aaron made a face, but there was no stopping her this time. "What would it take for you to teach here, Beth?"

Beth considered, and she looked at Georgette. "I'd have to be credentialed in Vermont."

"As credentialing goes, it's not bad," Brian said, and he rubbed his chin. "But, the school will want to hire someone who's going to stick around."

Beth blinked. Then she took a breath and laughed. "I can't," she bit her lip, "I can't believe I'm considering this."

Brian took another drink then he eyed her. "What if I feel out the hiring committee? I've got a little pull, and I could find out if there is anybody else in line for the spot." He sighed. "Honestly, we're going to lose a couple of teachers in the next year or so to retirement. So we're scrambling a bit to fill the spots." He smiled, the expression a little devious. "Also, you'd be helping the school system check off their 'diversity requirement.'"

Beth laughed. And then she grinned at him. "What? There aren't already young black women all over the Barre school system?" She and Brian shared a chuckle, and she went back to looking down into the wine in her glass.

Troy was hopeful as she thought. He would love to have her close by. He knew she was challenged by her family in Georgia. Not quite the same way as John was, but she was far more liberal than her brothers and sisters, and she was vocal about it. It meant difficult times for the Erikson family and for her.

Troy also noticed Rhett. The man sat very quietly next to Beth. And he too stared down at his wine. He waited, just like the rest of them for her response, with a surprising amount of anticipation in his gaze.

After a moment, Beth nodded slightly to herself. She looked up at Brian. "If you tell me, there's a good chance of getting hired for the spot, full time, then I'll start working on credentialing." She shook her head. "I've got most of it handled already, I'm sure, thanks to doing it recently for Georgia. But, it all costs money. So I'm going to have to raise the cash first. Not sure I'll have time to get it done."

"How much?" Troy said before he even thought it through.

Brian smiled. "It's only $200 here, for the Level I credential. Which is the one you'd need."

Beth goggled. "What?!" She blew out a surprised breath. "Holy damnation." Her eyes shifted as she thought and she rubbed her mouth.

"I'll cover it," Troy said. Beth looked at him.

Before she could say anything, Grant piped up. "You can use this address for the credentialing. I'm sure you'll need a local one for it." Troy loved the dark-haired man, but at that moment his heart almost exploded with his thankfulness.

The woman laughed, and she leaned back to look up at the ceiling. "Oh my god." She bit her lip, and she shook her head. "I can't believe this. I came here to see you, Troy." She sat back up. "And here you all are," she looked around the group, "just doin' what it is that you always do."

"Oh?" Natalie smiled, and she rested her arm, easily and naturally around Brian's broad shoulders. "And what is it that we always do?"

Beth chuckled. "You take care of each other, and me." She gazed at Troy. "And I've missed that - a lot."

Rhett stared at her. "So, you'll consider it? You're going to stay?"

She looked into Rhett's hopeful, blue eyes. "I will." She tilted her head and looked openly at Rhett. "I've got more than one reason to at least give it a shot."

Troy watched as Rhett flushed red, but the man grinned fiercely, and he nodded, and he looked back at her. "Sounds good."

Beth laughed again, incredulous, and happy. She held up her wine glass. "To crazy friends!"

Troy leaned forward, and he and the group all touched glasses and echoed her toast.

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Social Chimera - This is a definition I invented to explain how I function among different groups of people. I can be a redneck when in a social situation which demands it, or I can flex different mental muscles and speak to academics, geeks, artistic types, or partiers. It happens naturally, and it helps me to integrate into various social groups/situations. Beth and Grant both have this talent, though, Beth is on another level.  Others might call this "social intelligence" but that's so damn boring!


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

And thank you for reading! 

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