Roberto and I stood up to leave Charlotte's office. I reached down to open the door, but jerked my hand back as if the door knob were too hot to touch.
Until two hours ago, I'd felt safe and comfortable in my cocoon. But Charlotte's news ignited and burned it to the ground, leaving me in the ashes. More than a caterpillar, I wasn't yet a butterfly. Now I was terrified I might never become one.
We turned to face Charlotte again. Her smooth brown face made me sigh as I remembered those rich chocolate bars that had just become a past luxury. How many of the other things I'd taken for granted the past several years would I be denied now?
"Men, I can't tell you that everything's going to be all right," Charlotte said, her voice cracking. "Things will probably never be the same again, but you already know that." If she meant for those words to create a mirage of hope, she wasn't as brilliant as I'd given her credit for. "I'll pull you out of this mess as unscathed as possible."
Yeah, right! Unscathed and totally broke. You've never had to go from having everything to having nothing. I was too self-concerned to grasp that she was losing everything, too. Charlotte, something like this shouldn't happen to twenty-two-year-old nice guys like Roberto and me. Especially when it's not our fault.
But Charlotte wasn't to blame. She'd once been our boss at the Shop Thru. As our accountant now, she'd done her best to protect us. If not for her astuteness, we'd be in worse trouble. We owed her everything, and yet we had nothing to pay her with anymore.
I don't recall who finally opened the door, but I almost stumbled into the hallway. Not only had both of my legs and feet fallen asleep while sitting still so long and so intently, but my bottom as well.
No one laughed at me, though.
Still reeling from the news about Investments Unlimited, I realized I no longer had my red plastic Extreme Gulp mug—the one I never went anywhere without. I'd taken it with me into Charlotte's office earlier that morning. It must still be sitting on the floor.
I hoped Charlotte wouldn't need to hock that mug. The writing on the front had all but disappeared after years of repeated washing, and I assumed that would make it worthless to anyone but me.
But I wouldn't go back for it. Not now. I couldn't face Charlotte's pained expression again.
After shaking my legs to restore the circulation, I stood in the hallway, uncertain what to do next.
Roberto knew, though.
I overheard him on the phone with Gloria. He'd reverted from his normal, picturesque English to excitable, lightning speed, probably-more-than-picturesque Spanish. I'd mastered a fair number of Spanish words since Roberto and I became best friends five years earlier, but I didn't recognize many of the ones he spoke today.
I was probably better off that way.
Flying home today from the west coast, Chrissie would be inaccessible even by cell phone. Her itinerary was so tightly scheduled that she'd probably have to run—literally—to make her connecting flights in both Chicago and Atlanta.
I'd break the news to her in person that evening. When I'd be inescapably conscious of the fact it would adversely affect our wedding plans. Not to mention our living arrangements. I'm glad I hadn't thought about those problems any sooner than I did.
I needed to unwind. To think. To stop thinking. To pretend that today was just a horrendous nightmare I would soon awaken from. If I hadn't been avoiding God as much as possible, I would've prayed.
Most of all, though, I needed to go somewhere quiet to sort things out.
By the time I reached the inside door to the garage of our rental house—we'd provided Charlotte office space in one of our spare rooms—my emotional temperature had risen from surprised to shell-shocked, from disillusionment to intense anger. I couldn't have been any closer to over the top.
I'd have to keep from slamming the door as hard as I could. A repair now would be catastrophic because we needed to get every penny of our security deposit back.
But Geoffrey, no longer dressed in his formal butlerwear, reached the door first and opened it for me. I sighed. This final courtesy was his gift to me. I tried to smile at him, and he tried smiling back, but neither of us had any reason to look convincingly cheerful.
I opened the door of my red Miata and lowered myself to the seat I'd grown so fond of. The convertible top was already down.
But then I started fretting. In order to settle everything, would I have to give up...?
No! I'd surely get to keep my "baby"! I'd give up my Extreme Gulp mug. Even my spare one. But not my red Miata...
I aimed the remote control at the sensor and waited for the garage door to open fully before turning the key in the ignition and stepping lightly on the gas pedal. No matter how bad things were, I wasn't about to commit suicide over my reversal of fortune.
Not even accidentally.
I backed out carefully—my Miata didn't have a single scratch—but, once I reached the street, I shifted into first gear and accelerated so quickly I thought my baby would rocket into orbit. The fuel gauge dipped sharply as if the system was about to jettison an empty gas tank.
No, that would never do. Despite my anger, I'd have to drive economically now. I'd have to avoid being stopped, too. Policemen who'd looked the other way before might not be so tolerant now, and a ticket would be an unjustifiable expense.
The car barely needed steering to reach my destination. I'd driven there almost daily for months.
Within minutes, I was sitting at the crest of the steep hill overlooking the river. I'd never figured out why a pot-holed road that had last been paved decades ago came to this point and stopped, but this parking place had become my place of solitude. Since I couldn't talk with Chrissie until evening, I craved solitude more than ever.
I craved my Extreme Gulp, too. Oh, to drown my concerns in 52 ounces of Diet Pepsi!
I set the parking brake and looked downhill. Boats of every size and shape moved to and fro along the river, but—except for the occasional tooting of horns a gust of wind blew into my ear—they were too far away to hear.
Although a cacophony of bird calls normally surrounded me upon my arrival, the fowls of the air apparently sensed my mood that day and remained silent for their own good.
A squirrel that was scampering back and forth beside the car infuriated me so much I threw an unopened newspaper in his direction. I missed. Good thing for him; it was a five-pound Sunday paper. After flying open upon landing it was already blowing everywhere. I would salvage my litter before returning home if I cared enough to.
Alone at last, I sat without moving for several minutes.
But the peace this spot had always brought me scampered off this time when it saw me coming and left me agonizing in the turbulence of Charlotte's news.
Charlotte, why did you wait until today to tell us your suspicions?
On the other hand, would sharing them earlier have changed anything? Most likely, what had only been Charlotte's suspicions before would've turned my stomach into a missile test site. I would have found some reason to blame myself, and then another of my frequent guilt attacks would have barraged me in earnest.
Every day would have been worse than the one before, and the uncertainty would have played havoc with every important relationship in my life.
"So who's to blame for this mess?" I said aloud. Who really?
Although someone else's wrongdoing had caused this disaster, the problem hadn't begun there. But where? What distant fluttering of butterfly wings was ultimately responsible for today's disaster?
Then it came to me.
I'd never expected my honest answer to a yes-or-no question at church to get me into so much trouble at home. But, more important, I couldn't have anticipated that responding with four words instead of one would also mark the beginning of a revolution that might put me in bondage for the rest of my life.
"Doggone you, Mrs. Gardner!" I said to the squirrel that had just scrambled onto the hood of my car, his cheeks swollen mumpishly with a nut he'd picked up after I shooed him off moments before.
He crouched low, balancing the nut on a wiper blade, and stared at me through the dirty windshield as if to say, "My name's not Mrs. Gardner, man."
"Goldie Gardner!" I screamed louder, throwing the driver's door wide open and climbing out as if trying to escape a burning building. The squirrel made a beeline for the safety of a nearby tree, leaving the nut to spin and plunge from the hood, finally rolling between the car's front wheels.
"This is your fault, Goldie! If you hadn't said 'Seek and you will find,' I would've remained miserable only for the duration of adolescence. But, thanks to you, I escaped that wretchedness a few years early only to feel more wretched now. I don't like what my seeking has found!"
I couldn't admit it then, but Goldie wasn't at fault. As angry as I was, I wanted—I needed—to blame anyone but myself. Goldie wasn't responsible for the life I'd been living. And she hadn't suggested that I seek after the things I did.
The wrong things.
But she did change my outlook. Drastically. And that change was the first flutter of wings that set off an avalanche of events I might never escape the repercussions of.