Her mother went on, "Don't try to carry everyone else grief or hardships either. It's okay to feel empathy, just not the heavy burden of grief that is not your own. God can use your tender- heartedness to help someone else who is in the midst of their own sorrow, but not until you have let go and released your heartbreak to God for healing."
These past couple of years she had felt that scorching wind. Joe's death was a shock. He was ready to come home from his tour of duty, and died, not in a battlefield, but in a jeep wreck here on American soil. Before that her dad had died more slowly of cancer, yet his life was too soon gone. Her grandmother's death was expected as well since they all knew her heart wasn't going to keep beating forever. It was a blessing she went in her sleep at home in her own bed. Death could come as a shock, a long suffering, or a quiet release in one's sleep.
He came to her door about five minutes early. He'd been sitting in his car parked outside for thirty minutes praying and getting up his nerve. She answered the door wearing fuzzy pink slippers. When his mouth dropped open, she giggled and said, "Just kidding," before slipping them off and putting on a pair of shoes sitting by the door.
He laughed with her. "The jokes on me. That'll be the last time I tell you what not to wear," he said. It felt good to laugh, real good.
"So where are we going? she asked while buckling her seat belt.
"The Hungry Sea Captain. They have seafood or steaks. Does that sound all right?" He purposefully chose a new restaurant not wanting to accidently pick one that she and Joe had been to together. Abe didn't want to get off on the wrong foot.
"I've heard good things about it. It's new isn't it?"
He looked over at her. Her profile gleamed in the streetlights. He caught himself finally remembering to answer. "Yes, it is. I haven't eaten there either, but hope it's as good as they say."
On the way, he passed a mini-mart that always made him grit his teeth. He wanted to kick himself for coming this way. Well, maybe God was reminding him to get everything out on the table. He took a deep breath. He felt nervous enough already feeling way out of his league. By the time he was upfront tonight, she'd probably never want anything to do with him again.
When they pulled into the restaurant's parking lot, he could hear a sea gull's cry. Abe strummed his fingers on the steering wheel not even taking off his seat belt. He wanted to get this over with. Why waste a good dinner if she wanted him to take her home anyway. Now she was looking expectantly over at him. He'd heard her seat belt slide off.
He cleared his throat. "I was going to wait to tell you this after we had dinner, but now I'm thinking I'd better get it out in the open first." He turned toward her and could see her surprise with a little trepidation thrown in. "You don't recognize me, do you?"
She looked him over with her head cocked chewing on her lip before nodding her head no. "Does the name Abe ring a bell?"
By the sudden intake of breath, he knew she knew. Her hand was over her mouth and her eyes were huge. His hands were gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles even though the car was turned off. "If you want me to take you right home, I will. But I'd appreciate it if you'd be willing to hear me out."
When she didn't speak he took a deep breath and began. "That night several years ago, me and Joe and those other two were just driving around in my car looking for fun. It was hard to come by since the sidewalks were practically rolled up by seven o'clock at night. We'd already seen every movie that was at the cinema. None of us had a real girl friend. I know you and Joe hadn't started dating yet even though he already had his eye on you, just hadn't had the courage to ask you out . Anyway, the other two guys said that they had to use the restroom, so I pulled into the mini-mart. Joe and I were waiting and joking around when those two ran out, jumped in the back and yelled, "Let's get out of here." So I peeled out and made it two blocks before the cops pulled us over. I was so stupid that I hadn't even noticed that they had a case of beer under each of theirarms that they had just stolen. Unfortunately, one of them had a gun tucked in his waistband that we had not idea of. They hauled us all off to jail, as I'm sure Joe told you." She nodded.
"Anyway, I knew it was bad news for us, that we would be kicked off the basketball team, that we'd probably be going to court, then to juvie. Since I was the oldest and the get-away driver, I knew I wouldn't get off. But I did my best to convince the judge that Joe was innocent, and thank the Lord, he let him off. He got to finish the rest of our junior and senior year in high school and play on the team and graduate. I was sent to a juvenile detention work camp where I earned my G.E.D. It wasn't the easiest place to be, but I had much rather be there than in juvenile hall or worse. Since Joe didn't have anything on his record, he was able to enlist."
He went on, "When I got out, I moved to live with my mother further north and finished junior college there and then was able to go on to State and graduated with a degree in horticulture." Abe gave a lopsided grin, "Since I planted so many trees while in the mountains out of Redding at the work camp, I figured I might as well study a little more of what I had already learned the hard way."
He finally had the nerve to look back over at Autumn. Her lips were parted as if wondering what he'd say next. Abe rubbed his neck. "I just wanted to clear the air and not have you blind-sided down the road thinking I was trying to pull the wool over your eyes or something." Still he waited.
Autumn twisted a lock of her hair and looked out where the moonlight lit the waves a little as they broke. "Thank you, Abel for telling me. But if you don't mind, I'm still a little hungry." She looked over at him and smiled. "I'm glad you told me though. I hope you haven't been driving any get-away cars since then."
He whooshed out a huge sigh of relief. "You aren't going to make me turn around and take you home then?"
"No. Should I? I figure if a guy is that willing to fess up the sins of his youth, I should try to be a little understanding. Actually, according to Joe, you both were framed for the other two's misdeeds."
"He told you that?" Able paused as he was unbuckling.
"Yes, and he also told me how you got him off the hook. He was always grateful, but said he somehow had lost track of you and wondered what had become of you."
He stepped around to let her out. She put her hand on his arm walking across the path covered with leaves. It made him feel that all was right with the world. Since he had made dinner reservations, it didn't take long to be seated.
"Right this way." They followed the hostess to a table by the window. The restaurant had a floodlight which lit up the waves.
He cleared his throat with something else he felt he needed to say. "I'm really sorry about Joe. I always figured I'd run into him again especially since I moved back a couple of years ago. And then I heard what happened. I hope you don't mind me talking about him, Autumn. If you'd rather I not..."
"No! I mean, it means a lot that someone else remembers him too and isn't afraid to talk about him. Most people talk around the fact that he once was a real person, someone I was engaged to, someone I had dated for so many years." She gazed out at the night and sighed. "Now I wish we had gone ahead and gotten married before he went to boot camp. I would have gladly followed him, but he said he didn't want to uproot me since he wouldn't be there that long, that he would be transferred again for more schooling then shipped out after that. But he never came home after his tour of duty."
"Yeah, it must have been a shock. I ran into his mother and dad the other day. They are the ones who suggested I look you up, believe it or not."
She smiled a wane smile. "Everybody keeps telling me I need to move on, but it's hard."
"Yeah, I know. It's hard to move on after loss."
Autumn looked up, "You've had a loss then too?"
"Nothing like what you've been through, but yeah, I had a girlfriend once who I thought was the one. The night I was going to propose, I found out she went out on me. End of story. You are the first girl I've dated since then. It's hard to get back in the stream, if you know what I mean."
"I do know what you mean. You're the first one I've gone out with too," she laughed nervously. "It still feels a little weird, doesn't it?"
He looked at her where she sat looking gorgeous, grinned and said truthfully, "Not really. Not anymore. I just feel blessed you didn't just drop-kick me to the curb back there. I was glad to get that off my chest."
The waitress came and took their order. They both ordered halibut. A Caesar salad was brought out quickly and their conversation seem to come easily. When he ordered a pint, it made her heart sink to her stomach though.
"So what's the name of your business?"
"Greenland's. My brother works with me. There are a few other employees as well."
"I think I've seen it just north of town, right?"
"Yeah, it's on Ocean Avenue. How about you?"
"I work in the library as an aide. I took classes at the junior college, but kept thinking that I'd be getting married and following Joe to whichever army base he'd get sent to once he came stateside."
She went on. "Right before that, my dad died of cancer and my grandmother passed away two months later. My sister lost a baby and my dog died. I know I shouldn't even mention my dog, but I do miss him. My brother lost his job recently too, and they won't be able to hang onto their house much longer if he can't find work. It's just been a couple of hard years."
Abe remembered her brother who had been a couple of years ahead of them in school. He'd played football and was tough on defense. "Is he willing to do physical labor?"
"Yes, I don't know why not. His last job was running the backhoe and keeping the grounds at the cemetery. He got bumped for a son of someone on the cemetery board. Maybe there was more to it than that, but you know how it goes."
"Sounds like he'd make a great employee at our business. We're looking for someone to run one of the work crews. It helps that he already knows how to use the heavy equipment. Send him on over tomorrow and have him ask for me. The job's his if he wants it."
Autumn gave a little squeal and said, "Do you care if I call him right now?"
"No, go ahead," he was glad to make her so happy. The night was turning out better than he could have imagined. He said a silent, "Thank you, Lord!"
After a minute talking with her brother, she handed him the phone saying, "He has a couple of questions. I told him not to talk too long since we are on a date after all."
That made him mighty happy. She was his date. The girl he had thought was the nicest and prettiest in high school but who his best friend had spoken for first. That had never made his crush go away entirely, however. He spoke for just a few minutes with her brother then hung up.
"He sounds excited about it. We may not be able to pay him as much as he was making before, but I hope he'll find it close to a living wage."
"My sister-in-law has a good job too. Maybe now they can keep their home." This time the tears she blinked back were happy tears. "I can't thank you enough, Abe. Joe always did speak highly of you. I can see why."
He realized his stomach had finally settled down enough that he could enjoy the rest of his dinner. When the waitress came by, he asked for another basket of the good sourdough bread and another glass of ale. Abe wondered why Autumn's eyes got so big, but he watched her lick the butter off her lips when she took a bite of bread. His mind was going somewhere it shouldn't yet as tempting as it was.
Neither of them wanted dessert. Since the wind had died down and they both had warm coats, he asked Autumn if she wanted to walk along the beach. He wished he could take her hand, but didn't know if it was too soon. He took it anyway, and she let him.
"We won't stay out here long, but I like to hear the waves at night when the beach is deserted."
"I know what you mean. Joe and I...Oh, I'm sorry!"
He turned her around to face him. She chewed her lip nervously. "Don't be. I don't expect you to excise all those years out of your life just like that. You should be able to speak freely about him."
But suddenly, he was swallowed by thoughts of just her as he looked down and saw the moonlight reflected in her eyes. His own past disappeared in an instant as if it had never occurred. Maybe someday her first thoughts would be more about him than his buddy. He could be patient.
"You deserve a little more consideration than that, Abe. Just being here with you makes the past recede a little more like the tide going out. Thank you for that."
Her teeth were beginning to chatter so he tucked her hand under his arm and started walking briskly back to the car. "I've got to get you warmed up."
The heater kicked on quickly. By the time he pulled up in front of her house, she had warmed up completely, in more than one way. His brother would be surprised to know how much. But he was the one taken by surprise when he walked her to her door and she stood on her tiptoes brushing a quick kiss on his lips before running inside. He stood stunned watching moths hit and sizzle against the porch light. He knew how they felt.
When Autumn came in, she leaned on the door taking deep breaths. She couldn't believe she'd just done that! She could taste the alcohol on his breath. What was she thinking? It had seemed like an automatic reaction, kissing him goodnight like she had done with Joe. Her mother was sitting in the living room watching her.
"I don't know. I think he's a really nice guy. He even offered Charlie a job at his family landscaping business. Charlie was able to talk to him on the phone and everything. Abe's a Christian, it's evident, but he had a couple of drinks at dinner. That's a game-changer for me. I don't think I can go out with him again, even though it's tempting. You know what happened to Joe. Then there's Charlie. Hopefully my brother's drinking won't jeopardize this new job too."
"I hope Charlie learned his lesson. I pray your brother's not a problem drinker and needs more help than we all can give him. We'll have to keep praying. And I'll pray for you and Abe that God will give you wisdom."
"At least I think I'm beginning to let go of my past a little more. I just don't want to get involved and have my heart broken again. It's better to back off now I guess."
"I think you are right. I'm proud of you for it. You know your how your dad felt about drinking after the way he was raised with an alcoholic father."
"I remember. I wish Charlie had taken it more to heart though since evidently alcoholism runs in our family. Well, goodnight, mom. Love you." She kissed her mother on the cheek and went to her room to think and prayer some more. She was so disappointed to know that Abel drank because everything else had gone so well. She had such a good time that for a moment there she'd forgotten about his drinking, until she smelled his breath, that is.
When Abe called an hour later, her heart began racing. He asked her out again. In her mind she knew she should turn him down, but what came out of her mouth was a yes. Maybe she could use it as an opportunity to tell him in person why she shouldn't see him anymore. They talked until it was late. She got off the phone feeling half sick. Abel was so likeable, but wasn't someone she wanted to begin a relationship with. So what had she done agreeing to another date? And what kind of message had she sent him kissing him? She was crazy!
Abe came to work whistling. He was startled when Charlie was waiting out front in his truck since Abe was usually the first one there. The eager beaver followed him in nursing a cup of coffee.
"Good morning, Charlie. It's nice to see you again. Why don't we go in my office and you can fill out some papers. I'll need to let my brother know that I offered you the job. He'll be in soon."
Abel was kicking himself by hiring Autumn's brother without checking it with his brother first. It wasn't how they did things. He guessed he was just caught up in the moment with Autumn. He hoped for all their sakes that it would work out.
"At first we'll let you work with one of our crews, but I heard you have some backhoe experience. We have a little bobcat we use for most jobs. It's a fun piece of equipment that I think you'll enjoy."
"Yeah, those are great. It's almost like a kid toy, it's so easy to use," Charlie laughed.
"Here's Juan. He's one of my head guys." Abe made the introduction. The two went off to begin working on one of the job sites as soon as Charlie finished his forms.
"Who was that?" His brother came in just as they were leaving.
Abe rubbed his neck. "That's Autumn's brother, Charlie Gunther. I offered him the job. Sorry, I didn't check with you first. He has some experience though."
Seth just stared at him. "So the date was that good that you're offering her family a piece of Greenland. Wow! That must have been some date."
Abe could only grin at his brother. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. She's already agreed to go out with me again."
Seth hit him with a playful fist on his shoulder. "Way to go, bro!"
"So, you're not mad that I hired Charlie without consulting you first?"
"I'm surprised. I just hope it works out. It might put you in a tough spot with your new girlfriend if we have to let her brother go."
"I think he'll do just fine."
"Let's hope so," Seth said sitting down and turning on his computer.
That weekend when Abe took her to the next restaurant, she cringed. McGinty's was more bar than dinner house. She held up the menu trying to cover her face to hide her disappointment.
"Have you been here before, Abe? What would you recommend?"
"I like their fish and chips, but they have great burgers. Their steaks are excellent too. Get whatever sounds good to you," he responded.
When the waitress came over, of course he ordered beer with his fish and chips. She asked for a diet Pepsi and a fish and chips basket. She was so nervous that she'd be lucky to eat what she ordered.'
"So where do you go to church, Abe?"
"Lakeside Christian. How about you?"
"I attend the Harvest Fellowship Church. I've gone there my whole life," she said looking down.
"Maybe I should try it out."
Several people greeted Abe as they walked by while looking her over enough that made her blush.
"You seem to know a lot of people," she said.
"I come here a lot. As a bachelor, I don't do as much cooking as I probably should. People are pretty friendly here."
"I noticed." As they ate their dinner, she also noticed that he had a couple of beers again.
"Excuse me. I need to use the lady's room." Autumn hurried threading her way through people who were milling around the bar which was open to the dinning room. As soon as she got in the stall, she called her girlfriend .
"Gabby, I need you to come pick me up. Now. Can you do it? Great. Thanks." Autumn told her where she was. "Just call me when you are out front and I'll come right out."
Abe kept glancing over at her as he dipped his cod into the tartar sauce. Finally he said, "Is everything alright, Autumn? You seem to be upset. Did I do say or do something wrong?"
She took a deep breath. He gave her the perfect opening. "Truthfully, I am a little nervous. You see, there's something about Joe's death that most people don't know. It's true that he died on base. He was in a jeep wreck and died while the others were only injured. But they weren't on maneuvers or something. They'd been out drinking, celebrating coming home. I didn't even know that Joe drank. It was just so stupid. Such a waste of life. I promised myself that I'd never go out with someone who drank. I just thought I should tell you in person. I'm sorry, Abe. It's just me."
Her phone rang just then and at a glance she knew it was Gabby. "Thanks for the dinner, but my ride is here." She jumped up from the table and walked as quickly away as she could through the Friday night crowd. A couple of guys tried to get her attention as she practically ran out. By the time she got in her girlfriend's car, she was crying.
"It was awful. I feel like a real heel. It would have been better to tell him on the phone rather than get his hopes up like that on a date. He looked so crushed that I feel terrible, horrible."
Gabby had made her tell her all about her first date and had encouraged her to be upfront this time about not dating someone who drank. "Still, I'm proud of you, sweetie. I know you kinda like him. I mean, that's Abe Green in there. What's not to like? He's handsome, tall, tan, muscular, is his own boss, but I don't have to tell you anything you don't know already. I'm sorry, really sorry, Autumn."
She just nodded her head while wiping her tears away. "I didn't think breaking up on a second date would hurt so much. I'm sorry I went out with him again. It wasn't right to lead him on like that. I'm a heel."
Her phone rang. She checked who it was, then turned it off.
"Was that him?" Gabby asked.
"You might have to talk to him one more time. You can tell him how sorry you feel, but don't give in, sweetie. Just think about what drinking did to Joe, and is doing to your brother Charlie. In hindsight, it's probably a big part of what happened to my marriage. I know alcohol contributed to my husband straying. It made him weak, and he gave into temptation while I was home thinking everything was just rosy. That's not the life you want."
"Thanks, Gabby. You're a great friend." They were outside her house.
When Autumn came in her mom called out, "You're home soon. Did you tell him?"
"Yes. I'm really sad though. Really, really sad." She went into her room and shut her door. These four walls were her refuge but now seemed more like a prison. Sometimes she wished she had her own place, but then knew her loneliness would multiply and make it unendurable. She lay down on her bed planting her face into her pillow and cried more of those useless tears, tears for all her losses. Now she had one more. Abe.
Her phone kept ringing. Even though she had turned off her ringer, she could hear it vibrate. After the fifth time, she sighed and picked it up. "Hello, Abe. I'm so sorry to have it end like this, but it's a deal-breaker for me, you know. I should have probably told you on the phone before our date, but I was chicken. I thought perhaps it was more honorable to tell you to your face, but I know now it was wrong. I'm really sorry."
"Hey, I don't have to drink. It's never been a problem for me. I can take it or leave it. Really. I understand where you're coming from."
Abe sounded convincing. Too convincing. She had to stay strong. "Okay then. Call me in six months when you haven't had a drink, then I'll go out with you. Like I said, it's a deal-breaker." And she hung up. The phone was silent then. Her sobs were muffled into her pillow.
Abe was stunned as he sat in his apartment. He thought they really had something special going. "I mean, she kissed me. Then she drops me?" He growled. "I'm not going through this again. I'm swearing off women, for sure. That's it!" His dog always was quick to pick up on his emotions and laid her head down on his lap with a whine. "You're the only female I ever want to be around, Belle," he said rubbing her ears. He'd rather smash his fist into something, but petting his dog calmed him down some, except for his heart where a new hurt weighed down crushing the one that was already there.
Thanksgiving was bad enough, but then Autumn went through another painful Christmas with her mom. It still seemed like her dad should walk through the door at any minute. She missed her grandma too, but she especially missed Joe. Charlie and Mariah came over. Then her sister June and her husband Dan dropped in. She could see the sadness on her sister's face wishing she'd been holding a baby by now. Her due date had been Dec. 3.
"We're a pretty pathetic group," she mumbled to her mother.
"At least Charlie's happy. He loves his new job."
"I just hope he doesn't go drinking with his new boss," she said bitterly.
Charlie didn't seem to notice everyone else moroseness. He wouldn't stop talking about how great Greenland was. About the bobcat. About jobs they did. About how pleased his bosses were with him and the pay raise he would get after three months there.
"Do they take you out for a beer ever?" As soon as she said it, Autumn wished she'd kept her mouth shut.
Her brother narrowed his eyes at her. "What's it to you, Miss Perfect? No, I've never been out drinking with them. As a matter of fact, when we have grabbed at bite together, I've never seen them drinking at all. Even the company Christmas party was no-alcohol affair."
"Good." She stuffed her mouth with a big bite of an iced Christmas cookie.
"Mariah told us you quit, Charlie. I'm proud of you," her mother said softly.
"Thanks. It wasn't easy, but my wife said she didn't want to have kids if that was how I was going to be. So I quit." He said it as if it wasn't a big deal, but it was. Her mother hadn't told her.
"Speaking of which, Mariah and I do want to make an announcement. She's expecting!" No wonder Charlie had been so excited. Mariah beamed.
Her mother went over to hug them both. June tried to smile, but ended up running to hide her tears in the bathroom. Her loss was too raw. Her husband though was gentleman enough to shake Charlie's hand and congratulate them.
When Autumn went to hug Charlie, she said, "Sorry. What I said was uncalled for." He looked at her and said, "If it's any consolation, Seth said his brother Abe hasn't shaken off the funk you left him with. I guess you really got under his skin, sis," and he grinned.
Autumn couldn't think about Abe. Instead, she forced herself to think about how Christmas wasn't about warm fuzzies with a happy family scene because hers was more broken than whole. Jesus came anyway even when life wasn't picture perfect, not even for his own family.
Any baby was worth a celebration, so Autumn went and hugged Mariah and was truly happy for her. She tried not to think about how it could have been. It could have been her with a child if she had gone ahead and married Joe before he left for the military. Maybe he wouldn't have gone out drinking with his buddies if she had been there. If only...
Autumn went with her mother to catch some of the after Christmas sales, but ended up drinking coffee by herself in the coffee shop waiting for her mom to finish. She was blowing on the hot cup when she noticed him walk in the door. He didn't see her. Maybe he would get his to go. But no. He was walking right by her to find an empty table on the patio. She looked down hoping he wouldn't notice her. But he stopped.
"Hey, Autumn. " He just stood there until he came up with something else to say. "I hope you had a good Christmas."
"You too." She glanced up then away. "Charlie sure likes his job. That's all he could talk about, that and about the new baby on the way, of course."
"Your brother is a good employee. We're glad to have him on the crew."
She forced a smile. "Nice to see you, Abel."
He nodded and went on by.
Her heart had fallen into her stomach making her feel sick. How could someone she went on only a couple of dates with get to her like this? She had to be crazy.
Then it took her by total surprise then when he came back to stand by her table. "Autumn, can I sit here? I'd like to talk to you."
"Sure," was all she could manage to say.
He sat his cup down looked her straight in the eyes. She couldn't look away.
"I know it hasn't been six months yet, but I want you to know that I've thought a lot about what you said. It's not just about what you've gone through, but God had already been convicting me about my witness. Anybody in that whole place where I took you out to eat wouldn't have known I was a Christian. I look exactly the same to them as I did before I got saved. I doubt any of them have a clue because I haven't shown them a reason to. I was too busy still trying to fit in with the old crowd, with my old friends. But I've decided not to drink any more. Not socially, nor at home. I went home after our date and poured out every can and bottle I had and haven't had a drink since. I had to finally admit to myself that I drank on our dates because I was so scared to talk with you that I foolishly thought drinking would help me loosen up around you. I'll also admit it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be to give it all up. I had not realized what a habit it was, what a big part of my life it had become. So, whether or not you give me a second chance, I'm still not going to drink any more." He took a deep breath. "So that's all I've got to say," before adding with a slight grin, "unless you're willing to give me another chance."
She stared at him with shock. Autumn didn't know what to say. Finally she gathered her wits about her and said, "Thank you, Abe. I appreciate you being honest with me. Can I think about it? You can call me tonight though, okay"
He grinned. "I've wanted to call you every night since you rightfully broke it off with me, well, except that night when you left me at the restaurant. I took it pretty hard and was mad thinking you were just another heart-breaker. You don't know how often I almost called after that."
She blushed. "The last thing I want to do is break your heart. I don't think either one of us want to do that to each other again. It's too painful." She swallowed hard, but admitted, "It was hard on me too. It was silly after less than two dates that it hurt so much."
"You make me feel better. I knew you weren't heartless, but I still took it pretty hard. It just seems like we have something special going on between us, I think. My feelings haven't changed, well except making it true that distance makes the heart grow fonder." He stood up and said, "Thanks for listening to me, Autumn. I'll be calling you. I've got to get back to work though." He winked and left not even remembering to take his cup with him.
That night after a long walk with her phone in her pocket, Autumn waited in her room. And waited. No phone call. She made sure her phone was charged. She finally gave up at midnight and turned it off. "So much for second changes," she said softly before hardening her heart.
That next night after work, she saw Charlie had dropped by. "Hi, bro. How's Greenland?" she said with a little too much bitterness.
"Ahh, not so good. I came by to tell you that Abe was in an accident yesterday afternoon. The hole he was digging caved in, and he fell in with the bobcat and all. It rolled over on him trapping him for awhile before someone found him."
Autumn paled. "How is he now? Why didn't you let me know yesterday?" Of course she thought the worst. Wasn't that what always happened to those she cared about?
"He's going to be okay, they think. They stabilized him, treated him for hyperthermia and some broken ribs and a punctured lung. It's the head injury that they are most concerned about. They think the scoop got him when he landed. He's sedated for now. I thought you might want to go with me to see him, sis. I actually didn't know about it until a little while ago since his brother hasn't been to work either. I guess Seth's been sticking pretty close to Abe's side."
"Let's go." Her coat was still on so she beat him out the door.
His brother was sitting beside Abe. Seth greeted them and smiled at her. "He was a pretty happy guy at lunch yesterday after having coffee with you."
Autumn couldn't return his friendly smile as she searched Abe's face. He had some discoloration, but nothing else notable except his heavy breathing in a deep sleep. She couldn't help but pick up his hand and put it between her two cold ones.
"The doc said to go ahead and talk to him, that he might be able to hear some of it even though he's too sedated to respond. Hey, Charlie, why don't we go get a cup of coffee. I might get a bite to eat in the cafeteria too, if you don't mind staying with him, Autumn."
"Of course." She tried to smile, but didn't quite manage it.
"Hey, boss. If you get bucked off your Bobcat, you got to get back on and ride it, you know. But I'll talk to you later. I'm sure you'd rather listen to my sister anyway," Charlie said in a booming voice that was too loud for the hospital room.
Once they were gone, Autumn scooted the chair up while still hanging onto his hand with one of hers. With her other hand, she stroked his face down his cheek and across the stubble on his chin. She couldn't stop the tears from flowing though. "Don't you dare scare me like that, Abe! Don't you know I always expect the worst? Prove me wrong and get better, all the way better, and fast! You owe me another date anyway, buddy. If you had called, I would have told you, but no, you get yourself bunged up and in the hospital. Of course, I was pretty mad at you when you didn't call me last night though. I waited up till midnight, then gave up. I was mad at you all day today too for not calling me like you said you would. I guess I should have known to check the hospital." She could be wrong, but she thought she saw a flicker in his eyelids as if he tried to open them.
"You know you forgot your cup of coffee when you left yesterday. Don't worry, I drank it for you. I don't understand someone ordering it just black when they are at a specialty coffee shop though. I had to at least pour some cream in it." She was rambling, but at least she had stopped crying.
"I think I should be the one to pick the next place we eat. It will be my treat. How about that Italian restaurant on 32nd street? Or maybe that Greek restaurant downtown. We could take in a movie too, but I don't know what's playing. I don't even know what kind of movie you like, westerns or action, or chick flicks..." Was he trying to smile?
"I think you can hear me just fine, mister. I see that smirk. Don't try to hide it." There, his lips did quirk a little. "Yeah, you can't fool me with that stoic man-look. You just are pretending to sleep, but can hear every word I'm saying making a fool of myself here having a one-sided conversation."
He squeezed her hand. "Abe! You are listening to me rant like a fool. Maybe you can wake up soon and talk to me. I'll bet some nurse would even bring you a cup of coffee since you probably haven't had one for a couple of days now. It's probably just a caffeine headache you're nursing. By the way, I wonder who's been taking care of your dog? I'll have to ask Seth when he comes back. We have a nice fenced yard for her if you need me to take her to my house until you go back home again. I'd probably have better luck at talking with your dog than talking to you. At least she'd look at me with those puppy eyes...Hey! You opened your eyes!"
He gave a sideways grin. And said in a hoarse voice, "What a guy has to do to get a girl's attention."
"You've got mine." She smiled. "But really, if you are too tired, I'll let you go back to sleep. I'm just glad you came out of it okay. You really gave me a scare!"
"Thanks for coming," was all he managed to say before drifting off again.
This time Autumn did not try to talk with him, letting him sleep and was happy just to hold his hand. She put her head against the cool side rail and breathed a pray of thanks to God for helping him. She didn't think she could have taken another tragedy.
When Charlie and Seth came back, they spoke quietly after she told him how he had woken up and talked. Autumn asked about his dog.
Charlie offered, "I can go get her and take her to my mom's house. They have a nice yard she can run around in. My mom's even cool about letting dogs in the house and up on the furniture."
Seth handed over the keys to Abe's condo. "That would be a lot easier than running back and forth letting the poor thing in and out. It was a good thing he had taken Belle on the job yesterday though. It was her barking that lead someone to find my brother. My apartment won't allow pets or else I'd keep her there," he said.
"Ready to go, sis?"
"I'd like to stay, if it's okay with you, Seth," she said.
"Well, if you want to, then I could go home, take a shower, and check up on a couple things in the office. Thanks."
Later that evening, a very pregnant young woman burst into the room ignoring where Autumn sat holding Abe's hand, She cried out, "Oh, Abel! I just heard you were hurt. It made me realize again how much I still love you!" She threw herself over his chest, not a feat easily done considering her pregnant belly and the side rail being in the way.
"Be careful! He's got broken ribs..." she warned hearing Abe grunt and seeing his eyes fly open.
"Oh, sorry, babe." Then she shoved her self off making the patient groan even more in pain. Then the woman turned her glare at her. "But who are you?"
"His girlfriend," Autumn said a little too smugly.
Just then a guy strode in visibly angry! "Woman, you don't belong here. You are married to me!"
Seth was on the guy's heels, but stopped in the door calling, "We need security here!"
The man was trying to shove the woman out, but she was holding tightly to the railing. Abe's eyes were wide open now.
"I think you both need to leave," Seth said. "Abel's moved on, Shannon..."
"He just needs to know that I still want him!"
The man looked ready to slap her, but a security guard came and stood between them. "You two need to come with me before I have to call the cops. You can walk away from here now, or the hospital will press charges."
Seth closed the door and began to laugh. Autumn soon joined him after the initial shock wore off. Abe fought to not laugh because it hurt too much.
"Stop! You too are giving me pain with all your laughter at my expense."
That just seemed to make Seth chortle more, but as bad as Autumn felt, it was hard to stop. So she did what she could, and leaned gently over and kissed Abe.
"Uhh, I think I'll go make sure the guard got them to leave." Seth went out and shut the door.
"That was nice. I think I could use a little more of that medicine to make me feel better."
Autumn let down the side rail that dug into her ribs and kissed him more fully when his hand reached over and pulled her back towards him. Neither of them heard the door open. But it caught Abel's eye. A woman Autumn did not know was just standing there.
"Hey, mom. I wondered if you'd make it down here to see me."
"I came as soon as your little brother remembered to call me, but I can see you're busy," she tried to keep a straight face, but a smile broke out. "Seth just told me what happened," and she giggled.
"No laughing allowed. It hurts me to laugh. That silly woman pushed on my ribs with all her pregnant strength."
Autumn could not hold back a few more chuckles remembering her shock at the scene the woman made. "Her loss, my gain," she finally said.
"Mom, this is Autumn. Autumn this is my mother Carol."
"Nice to meet you," Autumn grinned.
"Not as nice as it is for me to meet you," Carol smiled back. "It's nice to see my son so well taken care of." She took his other hand. "But seriously, if she hurt you, maybe you need more pain meds."'
"I can leave you two alone, if you like," Autumn offered.
"No!" they both said together.
"Please stay," Abe pleaded.
"Just so you know, I just had to try that sleeping beauty routine, you know, to see if it really worked to wake you up."
"I think the chest compressions woke me up, but the other was much nicer," he said with a wink.
"He's been mostly sleeping. They said that's normal because of the meds they gave to sedate him. He will have a M.R.I. soon, according to the nurse," Autumn told his mother. "They are pleased though that he is awake and talking, making sense that is."
"Abe told me he had met someone special, but I didn't know if you were still available," she prodded.
"We just began talking again after Christmas. Then this happened. From events in my past, I guess I expected the worst, but God is good. I was so relieved that he was going to be okay that it was hard not to throw myself at him like someone else I just saw."
He squeezed her hand. "Yeah, this is the one, mom, the one I told you about."
"Well, I'm happy for you then," she said as she gently patted his cheek. "You deserve a little happiness, big guy. Just no more stunts like this. You gave us all a scare."
Seth was back. "Hey, mom, I guess you met Autumn."
"Yes, I'm glad too."
Seth grinned. "And we both thought he was a helpless cause."
"Stop it! Don't make me laugh again," Abe warned. A nurse had come in and was adding more pain meds to his I.V.
The nurse said smirking, "I heard about your visitors. You know how the hospital gossip makes its rounds."
This time it was Autumn squeezing his hand. That made Abe look over at her. Their gazes locked and they became lost to the others in the room.
"So, you're picking the next restaurant, you said?" He asked looking pretty happy.
"You were listening! Yes, I'll take you to the Italian place. Maybe we can all go to celebrate when you get out of the hospital."
"Or maybe, we can go just the two of us as a date."
"I see how we rate, mom. First we get invited then uninvited to dinner," Seth teased.
"It's my turn to pick and choose. So you are both invited!" Autumn insisted.
"Ahh, then I'll do the next date. It'll be a surprise," Abe conceded.
"Well, you've got all this time to lie around and think up a special one, son," his mother added.
"Well, I already took her to McGinty's," he laughed then grimaced forgetting his injured ribs.
"You didn't. Tell me it ain't so, Abe!" His brother acted like he would faint and collapsed into a chair.
"It wasn't the best night, I'll have to admit," Abe winked at Autumn. It's taken a few months for her to get over that date."
"I don't wonder," his mother agreed. "At least you can't do any worse than that."
"Speaking of eating, why don't I go with your mother to get something to eat while Seth is here, and then I'll come back. They told me the recliner makes into a bed so I can stay here with you tonight, Abe."
They left before Seth could tease her about spending the night with his brother. You could see how his mind was working. He'd have to raze Abe instead.
"The hospital cafeteria's not that bad, if it's still open. If not, there's a hamburger place a half a block away," Autumn said.
"I think the cafeteria closed a while ago. Let's walk to the other place. It will be fine."
When they were seated and had ordered, Carol broke the little bit of uncomfortable silence. "I hope you don't mind, but Abe confided in me at Christmas about when he dated you. I'm so glad you took the stand you did. The boys' father was a heavy drinker. He was able to work hard all day and then would drink himself into oblivion at night. It didn't leave much room for him to be a father other than a bad example. He died of complications from that abuse to his body. I've been a single mom since Abe was in high school."
"I didn't know. You see, we are just beginning to know each other," Autumn admitted. She was frankly embarrassed that she did not know that about him.
"He doesn't like to talk about his father because there weren't many happy memories. When they were very little, it had not gotten out of hand yet. But by the time they were school age, it wasn't pleasant to be around him. His was more verbally abusive, not physical. Sadly, it made the boys not want to come home so they hung out with friends more. Our home wasn't one they wanted to bring their friends over to. It's a huge regret in my life. I wish now that I had felt secure enough to have separated from their father when they were young." She sighed. "I'm amazed that they turned out as well as they did. Even that time Abe was in the juvenile work camp, he handled it well. His dad died while he was there."
Their food arrived, and Autumn hardly noticed what she ate. "I think Abe is a fine man and sincere in his decision to not drink. I believe him."
"Yes. I do too," his mother agreed. "When Abe sets out to do something, he does it. Just like getting his college degree, and building his business. Seth has helped, but Abe was the driving force in it."
"My brother certainly loves working for them," she said while dipping a fry in some ketchup.
"I meant to tell you how sorry I am about Joe. He was the only friend Abe ever had over. He sure loved that kid. I can't imagine your grief."
"Thanks. It's been tough. Abe's the first one I've dated since. We met for coffee the first time, but since then we've only gone out on two dates, and one was a bomb when I left him high and dry. I don't know if he told you about that," Autumn explained.
"Yes, he was pretty upset. He told me. I was surprised he was so heart-broken over it after such a short time with you, but now I can see why. His eyes really light up when he sees you. Well, you can't imagine how happy I am he's not with that other piece of work you saw trapes through his room. Oh my!" Carol laughed.
"Somehow, I didn't feel threatened by her," Autumn smiled. "But I certainly will pray for her. I can't help but wonder how those two will patch things up before their baby comes."
"It's sad, I know. But at least it's not our drama any more. I think she's having a little buyer's remorse wishing she hadn't traded her older model in. Perhaps she should have kicked the tires a little more on her new pick first."
It made Autumn think about what her mother said about trying to catch all the leaves, an impossible task, how she could only hold onto her own griefs. Autumn called her mother to let her know she was staying the night in the hospital, then she and Carol walked back together.
"I think my mom would like you, Carol. You two would get along great," she said.
"I remember her. She was always nice to me at school events." Carol sighed. "I'm pretty tired from my drive down, so if it's okay with you, I'll just tell him goodnight and go back with Seth to his place. Then in the morning, we can spell you. Maybe by then we'll have some answers about how soon he'll be getting out."
"Sounds good. He might already be back to sleep and won't even know I'm there," Autumn thought aloud.
"Could be. But when you're in a hospital and do wake up, it is sure nice to know that someone is there for you. I appreciate it, Autumn. By the way, when his father was in the hospital those last days, he did pray with our pastor for salvation so that's a comfort. In that little time left, I could tell a difference in him. I'm just sorry that Abe wasn't there to see it."
"I'm glad to hear that. I'm sure that gives you peace of mind."
"But then after he was gone, I decided it was better for the boys and me to start over somewhere with a clean slate, away from the bad memories of their dad and away from those who still thought badly of Abe because of that incident that had him sent away. So that's when we moved," Carol said.
"And that's where Abe went to the junior college when he got out. I'm just glad your sons came back here to begin their business." Autumn was just now realizing how grateful she was.
He was asleep when they went back and so was Seth who had spent the previous night in the hospital with his brother. His mother shook him awake. "Let's go, Seth. You need a good night's sleep."
They just waved their goodnights as she prepared the recliner-foldout bed. A nurse who came in to check his vitals glanced over and smiled. "I'll bring you another blanket.
In fact, she brought her one that had been warmed. As long as the day had been, Autumn still wasn't sleepy. So many things floated through her mind. It was like a merry go round, up and down and around and around twirling with thoughts of Abe.
He was released the next day when the M.R.I. came back with positive news. His mother was going to stay a few days making sure he was okay. Autumn and her mother invited them to eat supper one night with them. Just like she thought, the two mothers hit it off and acted like old friends. That left her alone with Abe in conversation.
"Do you want to go sit in the back yard with your dog?" she asked.
"Sure. I can't seem to get enough fresh air after breathing all that closed in stale air in the hospital."
"So, where do you think this is going," he surprised her by asking.
"I'm not dating you just so I can be treated with nice dinners, even though I appreciate it, Abe." It was easy slipping back to the name Joe called him by. "I think we both are thinking of the future and seeing where this relationship leads," she answered sincerely.
He grinned and snuck a kiss. "I think if I could just look at your pretty face every day the rest of my life I'd be happy. But I can't help but think that God has so much more in store for us. I'd like to think we're becoming best friends with a little extra thrown in," he said with a wink.
"I think so too. Your mother told me about your dad, by the way. We had a nice talk at the restaurant when you were in the hospital."
"Yeah, I was going to tell you, but we just haven't had much time. At least I know what kind of man I don't want to become. I can't believe I still thought it was okay to drink after his example. He didn't start out to be that way. Mom has told me how fun he was when they met and even how happy he was when we were born. It just caught up with him. I don't ever want to go down that road." Abe shuddered. "My mom has been great. I really admire her. I know she wishes she could do it over and maybe should have left my dad for our sakes, but I am proud of her for sticking it out. If she hadn't I doubt my dad would have been willing to accept the Lord at the end. He's in heaven because of her life witness. I'm sure it didn't seem to her like it was having any impact, but it did, not just in his life, but in ours."
"My dad's father was like that, but he was a violent alcoholic. My dad swore he'd never risk drinking and end up like him. That's another reason why I had determined never to date someone who drank. My dad drilled it into us to beware the dangers, how the best choice was to never drink. I don't know if Charlie ever shared with you, but he was starting to drink too much. He was surly to be around when he drank. We are all glad he quit."
"Yeah, Charlie told me about it once. It helped me see even more of where you were coming from."
"Yeah, determining to date someone who didn't drink left some lean pickings. It is so prevalent, even among Christians. That is sad to me."
"I've heard arguments on both sides, but as for me, I know I'm better off not drinking even if you had never given me the time of day again. But I'm thankful to God you have given me another chance."
"It was you or old Mr. Schubert, my church janitor. You are the only two single gentlemen I know who don't drink."
"Ha! That's good to know how I rate," he laughed and cringed. "It still hurts a little when I do that. I heard an old rodeo cowboy say that broken ribs were some of the most painful injuries he had, and believe you me, that guy had enough broken bones to set a doctor up a good practice."
"I still want to take your mom out to dinner with us before she leaves. Maybe tomorrow night?"
They had come back in just as their mothers were leaving. The two women had decided to take an evening stroll leaving Abe and Autumn alone to do a little catching up in the smooch department.
"I'm sure my mother would appreciate an invite to dinner, but I don't want to talk about my mother right now," and he kissed her soundly.
When she caught her breath, she confessed, "You know, I had the perfect wedding planned for Joe and me. It was going to be a big church affair with three bridesmaids three groomsmen and a catered reception. But I don't want to do that any more. When and if I get married, I want it to be simple. I want it to be about the vows and not about entertaining the guests by putting on a beautiful show with flowers and candles and food. I want just immediate family. I still have the dress, but I wouldn't even care if I wore something simple. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I guess I'm just figuring out what are the most important things in life. Life doesn't have guarantees. Everything can change so quickly. It's like it was silly to wait all those years like Joe and I did. It didn't get us anywhere."
Abe tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I hear what you are saying. I'm glad God preserved me from making a terrible choice with Shannon. I don't know what I was thinking! Just lonely, I guess. What a disaster that would have been! But I think now that we're a little older with a little more wisdom under our belts because of life events, we have a better perspective. Trying to hold onto time is like sand running through your fingers. Some things don't need waiting around forever to know they are right."
Autumn knew they were talking around their relationship without actually saying what was on both their minds. "Well, I'm looking forward to this surprise date you are cooking up for me."
Able grinned, "Wouldn't you like to know what I've decided."
When they went out to dinner at the Italian place with their mothers and Seth, Charlie and Mariah joined them. Autumn even asked her girlfriend Gabby to come to round out the seating. She couldn't help but see the way that Seth kept looking over at her while Gabby worked hard at pretending that she didn't notice.
His mother left the next morning. Abe went back to work though confined to the office. He had time to plan their special date by looking ideas up on the internet. It was perfect. He asked Gabby to help him pull it off.
The following Saturday, it was a crisp blue sky, chilly but not too windy. Everything was set. He had the picnic hamper hidden in the trunk. It was filled with the best the Greek restaurant had to offer. Gabby had arranged other things to be just so and left just before they arrived after messaging him that no one else was there to disturb the setup.
When they drove out of the city limits, Autumn was curious. "Where are we going?"
"The state park? Here?"
He pulled into the empty parking lot. It was early enough that no one else had come Besides, not many came during the colder winter months. Leaves were still everywhere. Being on the coast, a few still hung on with their display of colors.
"I have a picnic hamper in the trunk, but first I want to take a walk," he told her.
As they walked holding hands, she stopped before a heart-shaped pile of leaves. "Oh, look what someone did! How clever."
But as they walked on, her eyes grew wide with surprise. there was twine tied between trees and leaves hung from it with hearts cut out or they were hanging from twigs. Finally, when they reached a picnic table set off from the rest, a string of leaves were hung with the words spelling, "love."
"You did this? I can't believe it!'
"I asked Gabby to help me pull it off, but yes. But more than the reminder of the fragility of the leaves, I want us to catch what we can to enjoy what God has given to us in each other. I love you, Autumn. I want to marry you and share a beautiful life with you. And I don't want to wait forever. I'd get down on my knees, but my ribs might protest too much, so here is an engagement ring if you are willing."
"Yes! I'm more than willing, Abe." He was slipping the ring on her finger. "I love you too. I knew I loved you as soon as I heard you were hurt and realized I didn't want to live without you in my life. I don't want to wait very long either. That accident of yours reminded me again how fragile life is."
As she tried to catch a falling leaf, he caught her up in a kiss of promise, one that would last for all seasons.
"The grass withers, the flower fades,