A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

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Pushing to finish oiling himself, he at last looked in the mirror, forcing a winning smile, then striking several sexy poses. Finally, he pulled a funny face, but he still didn’t feel any better. Arms braced on the very edge of the counter, he hung his head, unable to keep looking at himself, not when he was supposed to go out there and use his body to help his friends market their business. Didn’t they realize what he looked like? The scars were just….

There was a gasp behind him, and he glanced up to see Lilah Anderson watching him from the door of the staff bathroom. She was fully dressed in her violet, queenly outfit, complete with a gold tiara in her molasses-coloured hair.

“Ummm…sorry, I was just sent to get some extra lotion…” she waved vaguely to the cupboard under the ornate sink, a perfect blush staining her ivory cheeks. She cleared her throat, standing straighter. “Are…are you almost ready?”

He sighed, hanging his head again. “I can’t do this. My skin…my body…it’s…” Why did this, of all things, make him wish that he had been anywhere else on the day of the explosion? He was vain, but he wasn’t narcissistic. Lanie’s life meant everything to him, but for the first time, he thought about what that split-second decision might have cost him. He was out of the hospital, sure, but would he ever be the same?

He jumped at a hand on his back. Right on the place where the branch had poked through his skin, fat, and muscle, between his ribs, and into his lung. That particular scar was over-sensitive to touch, and he grunted at the unpleasant strangeness. No one other than medical professionals had ever touched him there. 

“Are you okay, Ben?” Lilah’s soft, earnest voice and enormous, pale violet eyes nearly undid him.

He tried to laugh self-deprecatingly. “Oh, the usual midlife crisis. Feeling the years.”

She didn’t smile, touching the left side of his face, where the scrapes were worse from being dragged on the road. Like some sort of dead animal. Something flashed in his mind like lightning – the memory of lying in the darkness and the dirt, the agony of not knowing where Lanie was. It only lasted for a moment, interrupted by a sharp pain in his back.

“Ben,” Lilah said again with aching tenderness. “Did you see a psychologist while you were in the hospital? To help you deal with the PTSD?”

“I don’t have PTSD. It wasn’t like I was in a war, or anything. It was just a bad party.” It wasn’t the first one that had ended in an explosion. Even though no others had been near that size. And no one he loved had ever been in danger like that.

“PTSD isn’t just about war, Ben. You’ve been through so much trauma. Those four weeks in Somalia were unbelievable, from everything Lanie told us. You almost died so many times. And before that…I remembered what you told me in Chiapas.”

He gazed down at her, heat flooding him at the thought of that one hot night in Mexico. They’d snuck off so that he could show off his knowledge of constellations. Of course, he’d had a lot more on his mind than astronomy.

They’d been sneaking moonlight kisses for weeks, and the summer was almost over. Lilah was slippery, and he wasn’t quite sure how he could reach her. He’d acted a lot like Lanie, he realized now, calculating the best way to take what he wanted from her. But it had been more than that. His feelings for Lilah had run deeper than he’d ever thought possible. This scared him, but he’d pushed down the fear, focusing instead on her tantalizing curves, her addictive kisses, her incredible sweetness. Lilah was perfect in every way, and he did everything he could to charm her. But then, she’d turned the tables on him, just like she did now. Reaching inside of him with that mind of hers, drawing out secrets and thoughts so deep he’d had no idea they were even there. He’d told her everything that night, about his mother and the revolving door of families that his life had become. He’d cried, and she’d held him, and one thing had led to another, and then…

She’d stopped him. I can’t, Ben, she’d said, so gently, pushing him off and straightening her clothes. I made a promise. Not until marriage.

Why? he’d demanded in frustration. It’s just one night out of thousands.

But it’s such a special night. Such a special thing. God created it for husbands and wives to share, to show their devotion and love. It means a lot to me, and it’s not something I take lightly.

He’d been astounded. Sex meant a lot to him, too – it was a way to blow off steam, have fun, and make a connection with someone. A connection that he needed so badly. Really, did it matter who he did it with?

Alright. He’d rolled to his feet, then kneeled in front of her. Marry me.

She’d laughed at first. But he didn’t relent. We’ve been seeing each other for three months now. The summer will be over in a couple of weeks. At the end of it, you and I will be married.

He’d been so stupid. She’d been eighteen, and he’d been twenty-three, really believing that he was a man. That he deserved someone like her. He’d been to church, after all. The Santos family had made sure he went every Sunday, whether he was hungover or coming down from something or not. Sure, he’d become more of a Christmas-and-Easter type of adherent since, but every now and then, the architecture of some church or another would catch his eye, and he’d sit through a service just for the chance to be surrounded by the glory.

As the weeks wore on in Chiapas, he began attending Bible study with Lilah, and going to the services with her. And the more he saw the depth of her faith and the pureness of her soul – he’d felt dirtier and dirtier, and that tickle of fear had become a choking vice around his throat.

On the second-last day of the trip, he’d snuck away, leaving a short note for her, and fled for Rome.

“I’m really sorry, Lilah.”

Things had been so busy at Lanie’s house that he hadn’t really gotten a chance to talk to her. It had been eleven years, and he hadn’t really thought about seeing her again, and what he would say. But although there was so much and yet not enough to say, the least he could do was let her know how much he regretted what he’d done to her.

She smiled, but it was bitter-sweet. “I was young, and not the smartest, Ben. You were my first love, but you weren’t my last.” Though her words were sure, her eyes flickered slightly. “You taught me a lot. As painful as that summer was, I learned so much about myself, and I pulled closer to Jesus, and I’m grateful for that.”

He supposed he’d learned a lot about himself, too. That he couldn’t be trusted, or counted on, and that he’d always hurt those he cared about the most. “I’m sorry about what happened with Steven, too. How long were you guys married for?”

“Five years. Ironic, isn’t it? I’m a marriage and family counsellor, and my husband left me.” She laughed. “He said our marriage was too perfect. I did everything I could to make him happy, to be everything for him, and he accused me of over-engineering everything. Apparently, I emasculated him, and he said that there was no room in the marriage for mistakes, or for him, if I knew everything.”

“Lots of people say that I think I know everything, too,” he confided.

“Yeah. And now, when I try to ask him for child support, he tells me that my big brain should be able to pay for it.”

Anger flashed in him at a man abandoning his child. “Shouldn’t you be able to fight him on it? He can’t just decide not to pay.”

“I know. Audrey keeps saying I should petition to have his wages garnished, but I just don’t want things to get ugly. I don’t want to try and orchestrate things again. If there’s a chance for us…”  she shook her head. “No one really gets it. Not even my parents, and, well, I’m sure you can imagine how they feel about divorce. Except, apparently, when it comes to me. That’s why I never told them about what happened in Mexico with you.”

He reached past his anger to see the woman standing in front of him. “You’re still in love with him.”

She fiddled with the end of the braid hanging over one bare, creamy, shoulder. “He’s my husband. I made a promise.”

“I can understand that, then. I’ve been learning a lot about promises, too. It’s not easy to keep them sometimes.”

“But a promise isn’t a promise if you can take it back,” she finished, just like that night in Mexico when she’d explained her faith to him.

They smiled at each other, the years a canyon between them, made a little smaller by the tether of love. Not for each other anymore, but just as powerful as when they were young.

“I wish someone cared about me the way you care about Lanie,” she murmured, tucking a lock of his hair behind his ear. “Seeing you two together really reminds me of what it was like for him and I in the early days, when I thought I’d found my partner for life. Don’t take her for granted, Ben. Remember that she needs to be reminded how devoted you are to her. She should feel special with you every day.”

He took her hands. “Steven is crazy. So was I. If you do let go of him, there will definitely be someone who will see you for the amazing woman that you are.

Lilah smiled wistfully. “Well, my liege.” she motioned to the costume hanging on the hook by the door. “If we don’t get between Annalise and John, who knows what we’ll be walking into. It looked like they wanted to work on that daughter that Annalise never seems to get. It’s up to us to keep it PG out there.”

And he was back to square one. “That’s what I was about to tell you. I don’t think I’m what they’re looking for, after all.”

She touched his oiled bicep. “Since when have you ever been self-conscious?”

“I’m not self-conscious, I’m just thinking of the quality of the pictures. I’ve done this before, you know.”

“Yes, I know. I’ve seen some of your prints. And you get more handsome with age. And these – ” she traced a row of jagged marks on his lower back “ – just make you look like a fierce, indestructible king.”

The way her eyes flitted over him, then darkened slightly, made him believe her. Slowly, he smiled, liking the sound of that. He loved having his picture taken, and didn’t want to let his misgivings get in the way of one of the joys of his life. This was going to be fun. And the chocolate…Taking her hand, he kissed it, gratified by that lovely flush. He might have changed, but he still had skills.

“Let’s do it.”

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