Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

CHAPTER 1

“I swear to God, if you don't leave me alone, I'm going to file a restraining order against you,” I screamed in the middle of the grocery store. Faces turned to look at me, most of them lined with the telltale signs of age. Wrinkled mouths pursed angrily and older men in polo shirts snorted gruffly. I adjusted my stained tank top and tried to hide my flannel pajama pants behind my cart. “Stop calling me, Gary,” I said, lowering my voice to a whisper. Yelling wasn't helping; it had yet to get him off my case. All I was doing was pissing off the other early morning shoppers. Normally I wouldn't have come out at this time, but I needed alcohol. Hard alcohol. I was thinking Jägermeister.

“But I love you,” he told me as I rolled my eyes and tried to keep to the edge of the cereal aisle. When we'd first broken up, all I'd wanted was for Gary to call. Now I couldn't get him to stop. “I want to be with you, Theresa. I'm sorry.” He paused and I could hear him breathing against the receiver. “Look, I didn't mean what I said, please. Let's just get back together.” I shook my head, not caring that he wasn't there to see me. If I never saw Gary's face again, that would be more than enough for me. The things he'd said, the things he'd threatened, I would never forget those. I had given him a second chance and that had been one too many.

“I'm hanging up now, Gary. Don't call me again.” I ended the call and threw the phone in my purse. It promptly started ringing again. I pulled it back out, turned it to silent and put it away. Thirty missed calls in two days. Incredible. I wrote it off as simple desperation. I knew what it was like to be lonely. It wasn't easy, especially not for someone as emotionally shallow as Gary Harper.

I grabbed a couple boxes of cereal without looking at them and tossed them into the cart. Purple, red, pink. As long as they were colorful, Rhea would eat them. I smiled. Rhea was like the wick that kept me burning. Without her, I would've gone out a long time ago. But you still need oil, I thought as I turned the corner and forced myself to go down the next aisle. I was not checking out at eight in the morning with a few boxes of cereal and a bottle of Jäger. If I was going to keep my dignity in check, I was going to at least pretend I was here to buy the week's groceries. Somehow I made it into the ice cream aisle without realizing it, and stood staring at the pints of chocolate. If I was going to spend New Year's Eve by myself, I might as well enjoy it. I opened the glass door to the freezer and pulled out several cartons, refusing to look at the calorie counts on the back. It wasn't like it mattered anyway. I was thirty-two, single, and hopelessly alone.

With a sigh, I continued my shopping and was halfway across the parking lot, grocery bags in hand when I saw him. Gary was leaning against my car with his arms crossed over his chest. I paused near the cart return and debated turning around and heading back into the store when he saw me. He raced over and rescued one of the drooping bags from my tired arms.

“God, Theresa,” he said with a chuckle. “What have you got in there?” I walked quickly ahead of him and unlocked the trunk. I tossed my bag in first and whirled to face him.

“You can't keep doing this,” I said as I stared him down. He was still handsome, of course, but in a shallow way. I knew what kind of person lurked behind those warm, brown eyes, the rush of anger that had clenched that perfect, square jaw. I'd been afraid he was going to hit me, really afraid. That was something I was never going to go through again. I had the gun to prove it. It was stashed in a drawer at home, brand new and unused. I was going to learn how to use it someday soon, but I hadn't yet gotten around to it. Seeing him in the parking lot made me wish I'd already done that. “This is getting weird, Gary. How did you even know I was here?” He put the grocery bag in the trunk and stepped back, hands up like he was trying to prove his own innocence.

“I didn't know you were here,” he said with a shrug. “I just stopped in to pick up some things and saw your car, that's all. Come on, Theresa, what do you take for me?” He tried to reach out and touch me, but I pulled away.

“That's enough, Gary,” I said as I moved around to the driver's side of the Camry. “Just sign the divorce papers and let's be done with this.” I didn't wait for him to answer, just climbed into the vehicle and started the car. With barely a glance in his direction, I pulled out of the space and left the parking lot. Five minutes later, when I checked my phone, I already had two missed calls. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I wondered as I saw that the most recent was from Gary. With a sigh, I skipped past it and returned the other call.

“Theresa, don't say a word,” Jamie said as a chorus of 'Mom!'s echoed in the background. “I've only got a minute. All of Joel's family is here for the barbeque.”

“I'm not intruding on your family time, Jamie,” I protested before she could ask again. She shushed me and shouted something about cupcakes to the assorted children that were no doubt driving her completely nuts.

“That's not what I'm calling for. It's like beating a dead horse trying to get you to come over here.” I heard quite a few ewws in response to her idiom. “Is Rhea with Glen tonight?” I wrinkled my face as I pulled into my driveway and turned off the car.

“Rhea is spending the week in Hawaii with Glen,” I said as I tried not to sound disappointed. Glen had three other daughters; I only had one. The least he could've done was let her spend the holiday with me. Sometimes, I had the feeling that Glen would be happy if something were to happen to me. I wasn't Rhea's biological mother after all. If I gave him the chance, he'd slap his new wife's name on the adoption papers before the ink was even dry on my death certificate. It was not a good feeling. I had one crazy ex-husband and one vindictive one.

“Great,” Jamie said as I climbed out of the car and opened the trunk. “Then you're free tonight?” I grunted noncommittally, unsure where this was going. “Then let me set you up. Joel's friend, Stuart, is in town and he's – ” I groaned.

“Stop playing romantic comedy cliché roulette with my life,” I said as I tucked the phone against my shoulder and grabbed a bag in each hand. My big hips came in handy, working in unison with my elbows to create a shelf for the groceries as I struggled to shut the trunk. “You set me up with Gary and look where that went.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said as she put something in her mouth and tried to talk around it. “It led to a marriage.”

“It lasted six months,” I said as I set the bags down on my front porch and tried to reason with Jamie. It wasn't easy: she was a prosecutor for a living. “And now he's calling me a hundred times a day and 'bumping',” I made little quotes with my fingers even though there was no one there to see. My neighbors probably thought I was crazy. “Into me at the grocery store.”

“So he's stalking you?” she asked, but she didn't sound concerned. It was the first time I had thought of Gary in that way. It would not be the last. “All the more reason to go out with Stuart tonight.”

“I already have a date with a pint of ice cream and a glass of Jäger.”

“Now who's romantic comedy cliché?” she asked, pulling whatever it was she'd put in her mouth, out. It was probably a lollipop. Jamie had some oral fixation issues that were a frequented topic on girls' night and, according to her, the reason she had such a peaceful marriage. Long as he returns the favor, she'd always say.

“I'm not romantic comedy cliché,” I said as I finally got the door unlocked. “More like tearful drama cliché.” Jamie sighed and I could just visualize her, dark hair pulled back, eyes narrowed and rolling. “Besides, think about what you're saying. Stuart. Stuart. Think about calling that out in bed. I just can't imagine screaming Stuart in the throes of passion.” I slid the bags of groceries into the house and went inside, locking the door behind me.

“Then call him Stu,” she said as I heard Joel shouting behind her about Kool-Aid on the carpet. “Just say yes or I'm going to have to call him back and tell him not to pick you up at your place tonight at six.” I groaned and slid down the wood of the door, already fishing around in the grocery bag for my Jäger. I was going to need it to get through another blind date. I twisted the top off, took a swig and sighed my deep, heavy, I give up sigh. “Perfect,” Jamie said as she kissed the receiver and put the lollipop back in her mouth. “Tall, dark, and handsome will see you at your door, dressed to kill.” She paused. “Goddamn it, boys, don't put cold meat on the grill.” I smiled as Jamie returned her attention back to me. “I gotta go. Men these days don't even know how to barbeque right. What's wrong with society today?” She ended the call on that note as I stood up and tried to convince myself that I was going to have a good night.

“I should've just gone to the damned barbeque,” I said to no one as I picked up the groceries and tried to figure out what the hell I was going to wear.