Trail of Discovery

 

Chapter 1

This was the time -- this was the moment, Sarah Pascetti could feel it in her soul. Her chance to embrace life as never before, to escape the darkness that consumed her for too many years. Everything else around her had been torn apart or left behind, yet somewhere a light emerged and like a moth she was drawn to it. He would be there, that much she always knew. Robert Trenton was her friend, always able to reach her when no one else could and soon she would feel his arms around her offering dependable comfort and strength. Afterward, they would reminisce about their friendship and perhaps, this time, she could even let go. For once, she was going to be self-indulgent -- this trip was her salvation.

Anyone looking inside her car would think she was on an overnight trip, nothing more. Except for the discarded Styrofoam cups of coffee long ago consumed for the caffeine boost gained and a bag of M & M's, only a small suitcase of bare essentials and her address book could be seen. The house had been locked and the answering machine left on, not that there was anyone she was expecting to call. No one would be frantic to reach her, a thought that chilled in its reality. So she hastened her exit like a thief in the night and ran to a safe hideaway, towards the only living person who still felt love for her.

As she drove south from Detroit, along Interstate 75, past rural lands and cities she never visited, the street lamps appeared as markers of her life. How had she not seen the warning signs? There must have been some warning sign she missed before her marriage went over the edge? How could a 47 year-old, intelligent and capable college professor be obtuse to the dissolution of her marriage? How did she not see Tony pulling away? How could her husband leave her for someone the age of their daughter? Their daughter's age! The absurdity of the proclamation still mortified her. She'd arrived home to find him standing beside packed suitcases, with a look on his face that conveyed guilt mixed with elation while he asked for her understanding. Did he really believe she would give him her blessing? How incredulous a request to make. She learned all she wanted to of the situation in five minutes time, leaving the remainder of his brief visit filled with futile attempts of comfort. Would things have been different if Jessica had lived? Did anything hurt worse than the loss of her daughter? Somehow, there was comfort in the answer. No. If I survived my daughter's death, this should be a breeze. Her thoughts stayed with her daughter as she spoke aloud, "I miss you Jess, everyday I miss you and wish to God you were still here."

Jessica would have been 23 next week, the 20th of November. It had been six years since Jessie was killed in the car accident that claimed the lives of two other classmates. Sarah's mind drifted back to the phone call that changed their lives in an instant. No longer a family; every moment remained so clear up in their lives until the officer said there had been an accident and her daughter was dead. An accident? How can the end of a precious life be defined in such a way? Like a glass of spilled milk or a dented fender? Three lives were lost and Sarah's was never the same. Her baby, the light of her life, was dead. If ever she wanted to die, it was then. Time hadn't healed the wound. It was suppose to, that's what everyone said, "Give yourself time," yet every day in her classroom she would see something that was a glimmer of Jessie. A smile, a turn of the head, the images would flash in her mind and haunt her. Sometimes, while shopping, she would see a mother and daughter sharing a laugh and well up in tears, unable to move forward. Time had managed to lessen the frequency of her emotional breakdowns yet a day didn't pass that tears didn't fall, nothing lessened the loss of the dearest shining spirit ever to grace her life.

The hardships continued when a year later, her mother died after battling cancer for two years. The protracted nature of the disease was devastating. Her death at least brought an end to tortuous pain and a diminished quality of life. Then four months later, Sarah buried her father. His will to be with his soul mate was stronger than any offer living on earth provided. Sarah's attic was filled with her parent's belongings, neatly tucked to one side. She knew God had her angel, and now her angel had the companionship of her grandparents. If there was any good to be realized from the death of three immediate family members within two years, it was that Heaven held them all. She found comfort in that single thought and clung to it.

The years following Jessie's death were a dense fog. Her mind and body went into robotic routine. She taught her classes, tried to be the dutiful wife, and carried on with the social obligations of her husband's work. All the while, continually withdrawing from life. It certainly held little pleasure and left her hurt, angry and feeling very small. Now this, Tony's announcement of being in love with his secretary. How many times had she seen it portrayed in movies, written in novels and even set in comedic plays? Somehow the pain of her heartbreak wasn't captured in any of them. No Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy swept through the scene with a scripted line to proffer. Her life wasn't reflected in any of it and the isolation of unconquered pain consumed her. Life didn't matter -- her life, her work, everything of the past 26 years was for naught. She thought she had Tony but now knew she didn't matter except to one human being and that's why she had to see him. Robert was the final thread that prevented her tapestry from unraveling. She needed to be held close, by strong caring arms and with eyes of loving regard. To know someone alive on this Earth cared about her and still loved her. Robert would fulfill those needs -- he was the one constant that never let her down.

The last time she actually saw him was at Jessica's funeral, when he offered his condolences and stayed for a few days. Later, letters were written expressing his hope to pull his friend from the deep canyon of depression. She clung to his letters, re-reading them for the words that captured the essence of her soul. Sometimes precocious, as when he sent her books and told her to spill them on the floor, make a mess, then leave it there overnight. She couldn't of course, no sleep would come until she'd collected the books and placed them safely on a shelf. Other times, he reached into her grief to assure her he missed Jessie too. He never backed away from mentioning Jessie's name, or retelling a warm story about her. People avoided the simple act of speaking her daughter's name, much less mentioning anything about their lives prior to her death, preferring to talk on "safe" subjects. Robert was the exception and through his letters seemed to understand the emptiness that consumed her. On the second anniversary of Jessie's death came her favorite, with words that long ago had been memorized,

My dearest Sarah-

I know each day you wake and wonder how life can go on with the pain in your heart. Somehow the thought of the world ending two years ago today makes more sense than surviving with so great a loss. This grief has become a familiar friend, helping you meet the challenge of daily routine. You wear it as a warning to anyone that wants to move you beyond where you exist. Exist Sarah, which is what you are doing so well. Those that love you will continue to love you, but I can stay silent no more.

Do you remember the geese and ducks we saw at the lake on campus? We would watch them change their numbers from a large flock to individual pairs, then the pairs would escort their young around the shoreline, ever watchful for their safety. Remember remarking on the teachings of the parents? Sometimes we would see trouble in the families; young would be missing after a thunderstorm and still the parents continued their task. We would watch them go through the changes of life, feathery down would molt into feathers, and wings would extend to be tested for flight. Finally the day would come where the various families would reunite into a flock, taking to the sky for a long journey. The following spring we would watch the cycle repeat itself. The circle was there, the circle of life included loss, heartbreak, birth, joy, independence and dependence.

The ducks and geese are no different from us. All of us face challenges and only through perseverance do we acquire more joy than sorrow. Shutting down and shutting out only ends joy. If there was ever a word that personified Jessie it was joy. She wouldn't want you shutting out your life through the depth of sorrow over hers. Her love of you, of life, is a model for us to strive towards, reaching out to embrace joy. It's time, Sarah. Time to smile, take a walk, stare at the sky, gaze at the moon, maybe even howl at it. Think of possibilities that are waiting for your touch. Put those wings to flight, you can do it and must. Jessie and I, and all who love you await the possibilities.

I'll be calling you this weekend to check on your journey. Remember the invitation to visit is open and I'd love to show you the countryside of life.

Be good to yourself until I can takeover.

Love always,

Robert

She hadn't been good to herself. Had she disappointed him too? The thought of failure consumed her to the point she slowed her car to a stop on the highway's shoulder as tears welled in her eyes. Oh Robert, I know you'll be there, it's just I'm so lost. All I feel is hurt and incredible emptiness. You're my only hope. Tenaciously she held onto the hope Robert offered. Sarah's thoughts ambled down their lane of shared memories, of separate lives that took many turns and yet their faith in each other never faltered. His words reached her and brought her back from the deep ravine, offering a guiding hand and finding the one trail that would take them home. She wiped the tears that had fallen down her cheeks and remembered his faith in her as she pulled back onto the highway. "I'm coming Robert, I coming to your country home and to the love I've always found with you."

She was traveling to his home in Nashville that though unseen held more meaning than her own. He'd described it so thoroughly, its gable roof line, the porch, and all the stories of his garden. She began to laugh at his description of the rabbit family that feasted on his bumper crop of vegetables, mastering every erected fence he placed in their path. His words made the adventures of Peter Rabbit come to life in the antics of his furry nemesis. Then there was the letter telling her of the chickadees nesting in a box he'd placed in a nearby tree. Robert was able to personalize the birds as close friends, updating her on their daily trips to and from the nest enough that she could hear their musical notes of song. His songwriting career flourished with beautiful words about human frailty, intimately writing of life's peaks and valleys.

It had been six years since they had seen one another in person, but she knew he hadn't changed. He would still be the handsome man with shoulders that were broad and strong, his arms would reach out and pull her into an immense hug. The man could always give the best hugs -- the kind that nearly drew the breath from your lungs. She smiled at the thought, and checked her reflection in the rear view mirror. I've changed. Dark circles and creases appeared briefly in her reflection as she traveled under the highway lamps. She sat back into the driver's seat, resting her head against the headrest, wondering if that's why Tony left. Have I changed so much? No longer a partner in life, his partner? Have I grown so old and worn that abandonment seemed his only recourse? Or did my grief, my lack of passion for life suffocate his love for me? There was recognition in Tony's action as she repeated the thought. Maybe she was to blame for the state of their marriage. Perhaps in some way, she drove him to seek comfort elsewhere by shutting down her heart. Her contemplation was interrupted by the sound of static blaring from the car's speakers. The radio lost its signal again so her fingers moved the dial until another station could be clearly heard.

The years seemed to pass so quickly in her mind. Her friendship with Robert began when both attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She laughed at the thought of their first meeting. It was the first day of classes and running late to English Literature, she crashed into him. Her books went flying in all directions and captured the attention of the students nearby. She cringed with embarrassment and moved quickly to collect her belongings. "You know, I don't think the Professor expects us to bring every book we'll read this semester to the first day of class." Robert bent to assist her efforts but as he handed her books to her she became mesmerized by his eyes. The books fell right through her hands. Again, he gathered up her books and this time carried them to a seat in the lecture hall for her. After class, they shared a walk to the campus fountain, before departing different directions for their next class. "Will you be able to manage these?" He had asked her teasingly and her crush on him was well underway. She could talk to him about anything and felt so comfortable in his presence. They studied together, debated issues and discussed literary characters. He would read poetry to her, bringing the words to life with a full spectrum of colors. His voice resonated the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Shakespeare. Maybe that's why she fell in love with English Literature as the association was so strongly linked to her best friend.

It all seemed so long ago yet her mind fast forwarded through the highlights, remembering the best of times; falling in love, making a lifetime commitment with plans for a bright future, buying their first home, giving birth to Jessie and even planning her daughter's high school graduation party. Tony so willingly closed the book on their entire life, as if it didn't exist and for that she was angry. What a fool he was to believe happiness could be found telling old stories to a young bride.

Ta-dump. Ta-dump. The sound made by her car tires against the pavement breaks brought her attention back to the road with greater determination for the journey's end. Her foot pressed against the gas pedal to increase her speed by another mile or two to catch up with the tractor-trailer up ahead.

The highway was marked with signs to inform drivers what could be found at exits and she hoped this next one would find an open gas station. The deep darkness of night was waning to the sun's slow return to the horizon. She had driven for 15 hours straight, stopping only for gas and sharing the interstate with tractor-trailers. Her eyes were beginning to burn yet Sarah still managed to see the billboard advertising 24-hour service at the next exit. The sight of the open station provided the refueling both her car and body needed. She pulled up alongside the pump, hearing the creak of her car door mesh with the sounds of her body straightening for the first time in hours. Her fingers awkwardly grasped the pump, finding the latch that allowed her to look for other energy items. The attendant provided her with change for the vending machines and the key to the rest room. Once back inside her car, she popped the tab on the first of her sodas and checked her newly acquired map as well as the time. She should be at his home by nine in the morning if the roads remained clear. Smiling now, she thought of the surprise she would see on his face when he came to the door.

 

Chapter 2

The radio had become her lifeline, every now and again, a song would play and Sarah would wonder if Robert had written it. It was a game she'd learned long ago and served to keep him even closer now. Her adrenaline was increasing with every decrease in the miles marked on the interstate signs. A turn on a county road then another into the residential area, her level of excitement far out-shadowed any other emotion. Twenty-five years had somehow dissolved during her journey; both were in their twenties and life held nothing but promise. She reconfirmed the address from his letter and looked again at the map; no calling for directions, no clue to her arrival, her hastily decided plan was finally coming to fruition.

Sarah spotted his house from the pictures he'd sent yet still reconfirmed the number on the mailbox. It was an older two-story Cape Cod styled home with wood siding painted in pale blue. There appeared to be a wrap-around porch with rocking chairs huddled together. Sarah could see an area that looked like the remains of a garden, with evidence of weathered plants long ago gone dormant for the cooler months of winter. His truck, so she presumed, was parked by the back door. Be home, Robert, please. It was all she could think of, to the point of becoming her mantra; so much of her sanity was resting on his presence. She rang the doorbell and knocked, then waited to hear any sign of life inside.

"Who the hell is at my door at this hour?"

She knocked again, recognizing his voice but wanting to see his face. Her enthusiasm could barely be contained not to yell back at him. As he opened the door, his fatigued face reacted with disbelief. "Sarah?" His hair stood in all directions while his eyes slowly responded to the sight before him. The expression on his face made the drive worthwhile and screaming with delight, she moved forward to collect her long-sought hug.

"Surprised you, didn't I? You always said I was welcome to visit, well, here I am!"

"Here you are, all right. Come on in and let me put some coffee on. What -- have you been driving all night?"

"Uh-huh. I had to see you, to get a hug in person. Any plans for the next couple of days?"

"You're staying?" Before he finished, she was nodding yes.

"If your offer is still open?" Sarah knew it would be.

"Of course, you're welcome to stay, I'm just a little surprised. Why didn't you write, or call?"

"And miss your face? Not a chance! You look great, even for just waking up. I was just thinking how the years have gone by since our college days. Do you ever think of them?"

"What has you thinking back that far? What's going on? Are you okay?" Robert pulled her inside, moving her towards the sofa.

"I'm fine I just needed to see you. Can't a friend come for a visit without worry?" She kept the energy going, using all the adrenaline her body could muster.

"Of course, I'm glad you're here. Let me put some coffee on." Robert moved into the kitchen, adding a few more scoops of coffee and water into the waiting contraption. He knew he needed it but his friend seemed wired already. Joining her on the sofa, he took her hand into his, carefully studying her face, seeing the fatigue and the absence of her wedding ring. "Now, tell me, why would you drive through the night to visit? Why not be safe and divide the driving time, or fly?"

"It's just -- I needed a spur-of the-moment trip, that's all. I wanted to see you. You know how much I've always loved you, right?"

"Yes, and if I were straight there would never have been a Tony, I can assure you of that." Her face dropped when he mentioned his name. He knew it. Something terrible must have happened for her to be in such a state of mind to drive through the night. Robert rose to retrieve two coffee mugs, filled them with coffee and handed one to her as he sat back into the sofa. "Need a shoulder?"

Her smile dropped as she reacted to his question. "How did you know?" Before her question was asked, Robert quickly encircled her with his free arm and pulled her to his chest.

"Talk or don't, it's your call, but I knew you didn't drive through the night to ask me if I thought about our college days. And as for my plans, I'm fairly free, a couple of obligations this week, but there's always room for more and stay longer if you want." The hug was strong, offering all the support and love he could convey as he pulled her close and placed a kiss on top of her head. They stayed that way until most of their first cup of coffee was consumed. Robert rose from the quiet embrace to retrieve refills, and upon his return noted Sarah's demeanor had changed. She was so capable of burying pain, blocking it out and leaving others to believe all was well, all the while losing her tangible hold on reality. He stood before her and offered a change of scene. "Why don't we clean up, and venture into the Smokies for a hike? Get some fresh air, what do you say?"

"Okay. Let me go get my suitcase from my car." Her fingers held onto his proffered hand that soon found its place around her shoulders. The two never stopped touching one another as they walked outside to collect her belongings.

He peeked into the trunk of her car with astonishment. "This is all you brought?"

"Well, if I need anything else, I'll go buy it. But I brought jeans, and my boots. Any chance you took up riding?"

"Just because I live in the Country Music Capital doesn't mean I sit on top of a horse. But if you want to ride, I have a good friend who has a few horses."

"I have to admit that I would welcome it, though I wish I could convince you to join me. Riding gives you such a feeling of independence. It's wonderful, and most horses are amenable to the whole thing you know."

"I'll give my friend a call, but no, you will not get me to join you. Stop looking at me that way! It won't work. I'm going to head upstairs and clean up. There's another bathroom right through that room to the left. If you forgot to pack anything, just ask, okay?"

She nodded and he climbed the stairs. Alone, with the shower beating down on him, he thought of her. What could have happened with Tony? What made her drive through the night? She looked like a lost child, grateful for the reunion with a parent, the security of protective arms in a frightening world. She'd always been lean but now she was downright skin and bones, with dark circles under blood-shot eyes; the effects of stress readily apparent. He hadn't missed the remark about independence either, something major had definitely gone wrong. He pulled on jeans, a corduroy shirt and hiking boots, before descending the stairs where he found her out on the front porch, sitting with her face to the morning sun. Her sunglasses hid her eyes, though the angle of her head indicated she was either asleep or lost in thoughts. With all the caffeine in her, he thought it had to be the later. She had on her old Levi jacket, the one she always wore back in college. There was more gray in her hair and her face held a few character lines, but he still considered her the most beautiful woman he'd ever met. Then he noticed her sneakers -- not the trendy walking or running shoes so often worn now, hers were the classic Keds. His laughter brought her head to look in his direction as she asked, "What's funny?"

"You. Sitting there in your blue jean jacket and red sneakers, a classic if ever there was one. It's so great to see you." She moved to stand beside him and collected another hug.

"I really need this, thank you." She said it so softly that Robert thought he imagined it. He pulled away from their embrace enough to see a tear running from under her sunglasses, then gathered her into another strong hug. His hand moved behind her head, cradling her, swaying her in his arms. "It's good to hold you again. I'm glad you came." She clung to him, though he wouldn't let go, sensing the fragility of her spirit. Several minutes passed before he offered, "Shall we head to the mountains?" He felt her face nod against his chest and slowly, she pulled herself away from his grasp.

They took his pickup truck and were headed back onto the main road before it dawned on him. "How did you find my house, anyway? You've never been here."

"Contrary to the skills of men, I can ask for directions and read a map. I had your address so it wasn't that difficult. I'm just glad you were home."

"Me too."

A silence fell over the two as Robert drove part highway, part county roads. Sarah stared out the window, content to be a passenger. His response was all she had hoped for, and it was warm being in his company again. Their friendship seemed to have the ability to pick up right where they left off, so comfortable and assured. Robert turned his truck onto a back road that wound its way around the mountain. Their journey ended with what appeared to be a small area of gravel that served as a parking space.

"Shall we? This is my favorite trail and not too many know about this spot."

"How did you ever find it to begin with?" She asked as she exited his truck.

He grabbed a couple walking sticks from the back of the truck and handed one to her. Before answering, he strapped a water bottle around his waist. "Through a friend."

They soon were hiking a back portion of the foothills with the trail proving to be a vigorous hike. About an hour into their climb, Robert stopped near a large rock for a water break. The site offered a dry place to sit and a spectacular view. The steep ravine was full of amber hues from the fallen leaves of sweet gum, sycamore and oak trees, mixed with the occasional red of dogwoods that created a picture-perfect view of late autumn. They hadn't rested long before Sarah began to talk of Tony's departure. Anger still filled her words over the foolishness of her soon-to-be ex-husband. Robert just listened, and offered hugs at appropriate moments. By the end of her story, a sense of calm settled in though he wasn't convinced the chapter was closed.

Their descent down the trail was solemn and by the time they reached his truck, Sarah was ready to succumb to exhaustion. She fell asleep on his shoulder before they reached his home, so he carried her inside and placed her on top of the bed in his guest bedroom. Robert placed the covers over her after removing her red sneakers, and for a moment, stood and watched her face. He knew she would crash once the caffeine worked itself out of her body, perhaps even sleep for a few hours. It was the real reason he suggested the hike. Her friendship meant everything to him, and he hadn't lost sight of the way she ran to him when her world collapsed. He pulled the curtains to darken the room and before turning out the light, caught sight of Jessie's face from a framed photograph on the wall. "Don't worry angel, I'll take care of her. Sleep tight." He closed the door behind him as he exited the room.

 

Chapter 3

Robert met Bruce Cooper through the use of one of his songs by the country's beloved Julie Weston. The song about heartbreak sold a million copies fifteen years ago and went gold the third week after its release as a single. Everyone called him "Coop" and though once headed for stardom at the beginning of his musical career, he now operated a production company of high regard. Coop was famous for his success in connecting songwriters with singers that brought the lyrics to their fullest glory. The depth of talent found under contract with Coop's company was the envy of many record producers. Artists were loyal to Coop, not only for his affable demeanor, but his integrity in an industry besieged with backstabbing and ruthless tactics. The line between business and friendship was often crossed with Coop standing by his clients through good times and bad. For Coop, the bad times hit hard the past couple of years and his friends did their best to keep his spirit up. Robert visited often and much of the time the two stared into the Smokies without talking. Just recently, Coop seemed to be recapturing some of his old self, willing to move forward with his life and embracing friends with greater appreciation.

"Hey Coop, Robert. How are you?" The first few minutes were spent hearing about the new artist Coop had signed though a plea for Robert to give him a new song wasn't far behind. After listening and responding when necessary, Robert reached the point of his call. "Listen Coop, I need a favor. Thanks, it's for a friend actually who wants to go riding. Do you think I could bring her over and you could let her ride at your place?" He knew Coop would agree and soon heard "Anytime" but also a request -- Coop wanted to make sure first hand Robert's friend could ride, and determine which horse would be best. "Thanks Coop, see you tomorrow at 10:30 then."

Sarah woke to the feel of a strange bed, the touch of a bedspread unfamiliar and in complete darkness. It took her more than a few moments to remember where she was, and longer still for her fingers to find a light. When the room was lit, the images were startling. Her eyes took in all the photos that filled the room -- the walls were covered with them, spanning a few decades in time. She saw herself from college, then pregnant, and later with Jessie. The photos on the wall revealed as much as those that weren't. She chuckled when she realized Tony was absent from any of the photographs, but there were lots of famous faces as well, all in casual clothes or with headsets on from what must have been a recording session. She found herself smiling at the way Robert treasured these memories. The abundance of memories and friends were fitting for the man she knew and loved. She freshened up in the bathroom and upon exiting ran into him. "How long have you been standing there?"

"Long enough to remember you always took forever in the bathroom." He hugged her and gave her a kiss on the head. "Slept well, I trust?"

"Very well. How long have I been asleep?"

"Oh, about 7 hours, not that I didn't think you might sleep through the entire night. Hungry?"

"Starved. Shall we go out? I'll treat."

"Let's save that for another night. I made us dinner tonight."

He walked her over to the table, holding the chair for her as she took her seat. An opened bottle of cabernet was sitting on the candlelit table, with garnet liquid filling the bowls of two goblets. "You're ahead of me I see, hasn't that always been the way?"

"Chef's prerogative to sample the wine and add a little wine into the sauce."

"This looks wonderful. I'll clean up afterwards, to make up for my sleeping through the preparation."

Robert returned to the table carrying a bowl and basket, setting each onto the wood surface. "Won't be much to clean up and you are my guest so cheers, here's to us." The glasses clinked as they touched, followed by each sipping the wine with a smile of satisfaction. A salad was beside each of their dinner plates, while linguine topped with tomato sauce waited for their attention. Sarah moved her plate forward as the hot noodles hung in the air from the serving tongs in Robert's hands. Her fingers retrieved a slice of warm bread, eager for the chance to dunk it into the marinara sauce, insuring that not a drop would be wasted.

"You always have been an excellent cook. Is this a family recipe; the sauce tastes wonderful."

"No, from this summer's crop of tomatoes actually, and the basil and parsley are from there too. But did I tell you that I found Nana's recipe book amongst Mom's things? We'd have to convert a few of the measurements to make any real use of it."

"Such as?"

"Oh, there's a recipe for Sweet Cake that calls for a can of applesauce. Does that mean a canning jar full or one of the small glass jars sold? If a store-bought jar, then how many ounces? See what I mean? Still, it's nice to have."

"Any other mementos here from your mother or grandmother?"

"Not much was offered beyond the family bible and a few photographs." Her eyes moved around the room, looking to see any of the items and, puzzled by the lack of any, returned to meet his gaze. Instead, Robert changed the subject, "So onto other topics, how do you like the wine?" He held the glass in his hand for a moment, swirling the contents to smell the bouquet, then let the taste linger in his mouth before swallowing. There was a wine shop not ten miles from his house where he'd drop by and purchase whatever the clerk recommended. That's how he met David, over an invitation to a wine tasting, and this bottle was amongst the last of the vintage wine that remained in Robert's possession. His reminisce was interrupted by the sound of Sarah's response.

"Excellent but a far cry from our Boones Farm days, isn't it? Oh what was the name of that stuff you had me drink? Strawberry Wine?" Her laughter was contagious as was his hand finding hers to hold at that moment.

"Oh that's right, but it was only in an effort to keep you away from the hard liquor. You were such a lush back then! Just the thought of strawberry wine prompts a gag reflex now, doesn't it? Remember Professor Martin? The way he'd walk into class shouting the words from a chapter few in the auditorium had bothered to read the night before, except you; you were always prepared."

Sarah squeezed his fingers, releasing her hand slowly as it changed into an accusing finger point. "And you, you were just as prepared, it's just you didn't bring the book to class."

"Every book for every class." His voice added emphasis to "every" with the full knowledge her reaction would be immediate.

"No! I was not carrying my books to every class beyond the first week and you know it. I just needed the book we were reading for my notes, not all of us have memorized the contents of all writings known to mankind."

His face continued to mock her and she protested his allegation. "Now you're just being outrageous for the sake of trying in vain to win the argument."

"Am not."

"Is that all? How profound! Eight years of college education and the best retort you can proffer is ‘am not'?"

Her eyes narrowed from the laughter and her voice offered little of the jovial spirit of moments ago. "I wasn't arguing with you."

"Hey no, you misunderstood Sarah. Come on, you know better than that, or you should." His hand found hers again before he moved to her side, cradling her as he saw the tears form. "Are these for me?"

"No, of course not, I'm just a little emotional of late I guess but this too shall pass." After dinner, they sat on the steps to his back porch, staring up at the stars, sipping the last remnants of the wine. From the silent comfort found in the setting, Sarah spoke reverently. "Jessie's up there, one of those stars is her, I just know it." Her exhale was audible as a faint sigh emanated from her mouth. "I still ache for her. There's not a day goes by that I don't want her here."

"Of course she's up there, and naturally you still grieve for her. Sarah, it's a circle, remember? Life is a circle and we will see her when it's our turn. For now, she's in a wonderful place. No pain, no hurt, no disappointment, just eternal love. I remember her smile, that warmth that was you, coming through her. What do you remember most about her?"

"Oh, there are so many things. Her first illness, her laugh, how hard she always tried, how smart she was, but you're right, it was her warmth that stands out. You just felt good in her company. I lost a daughter and a friend. For what? A careless driver. Can you imagine how wonderful she would be as an adult? Full of intelligence, warmth and humor -- the world would have been her oyster. Not a day goes by that I don't talk to her; she's aged right with me, in my mind. I can't imagine a greater love."

He held his glass to hers, then lifted it to the stars, "Jessie, we love you." They both drank in homage and fell silent for a while after that. Robert stood first and helped her to her feet, "Let's take a stroll. You haven't seen the remains of my garden." A full moon shone overhead as he pointed out the area of the herb garden, beside it laid the remains of a vegetable garden. When they returned to the house, he told her about their outing for the morning, and suggested she get a good night's sleep.

"Robert? Would you hold me?" Her face had that lost child look again and he pulled her close to hear her whisper, "I don't want to be alone."

"You're not alone. I'm always here for you, always. Besides, you know I could never refuse you anything."

"I need you."

"Tell you what, you go get ready for bed and climb under my covers. I'll be up in a couple of minutes." She nodded her head then moved across the room, grateful for his comfort and love. Robert locked up his house, and then climbed the stairs to his room where a smiling face waited for his arrival. After a few minutes in the bathroom, he joined her in bed and wrapped her to his chest.

"This is perfect, just what I drove through the night for."

"I get that all the time. Good night Sarah." Though she nodded off quickly, Robert could not. She was taking Tony's departure much too lightly, of this he was certain. He remembered the depth of her depression for years following Jessie's death, even continuing to this day, so how could the demise of her 26-year marriage come to be so readily accepted? How could he help her confront this? Maybe tomorrow would be a day of answers.

 

Chapter 4

The sun had been up for some time, judging by the amount of light coming into his room. Robert looked at the clock and realized they only had an hour to get to Coop's. "Hey, Sarah, wake up. Come on, time to meet a horse."

She turned towards him and placed a kiss upon his neck. "Thank you, for taking me in, for holding me when I needed you."

"You never doubted it, did you?"

"No, but the thought occurred to me that I might be inconveniencing you."

"You? Not at all, I'm glad you're here. Now, we have to be out of here in less than 20 minutes. Can you do that? Be out of the bathroom and dressed in such a short time?" His voice was teasing, but serious too.

"I bet I beat you. See you when you are ready." Having delivered the challenging remark, she jumped out of his bed and raced downstairs to the guest room. Fifteen minutes later, they both entered his living room.

"Well done! Now that I know you can manage to spend less time getting ready, I may challenge you again. For now, are you hungry?" His face revealed a smirk, as he teased her usual tardiness.

Sarah chose to ignore his first remark and respond only to the thought of breakfast. "Not really, you?"

"No, we can get coffee at Coop's. Let's go cowgirl."

They climbed into his truck and made their way along both highway and country road until the scenic passage turned into one impressive ranch after another. This was a side of Nashville Sarah had never imagined. The homes weren't big, pretentious things, just large enough for comfortable entertaining and yet it was the quality of the stables that appealed to her. Robert turned into a driveway that extended quite a ways before they reached a beautiful fieldstone and timber home. Large glass windows overlooked the mountains and there were two barns, one above the other just off from the house. She ran to the horses just as soon as the truck came to a halt.

Robert's voice hollered out, "Coop, it's good to see you again. That excited woman over there is my friend Sarah, from outside Detroit. She's visiting me for a bit." The two men shook hands and walked to where Sarah was stroking a horse at the fence line.

"Sarah, I'd like to introduce you to my good friend, Bruce Cooper. Coop, this is Sarah Pascetti."

"It's nice to meet you, what a beautiful place you have here. It looks absolutely perfect, so in keeping with the spirit of the land."

"Thank you, and welcome. That's Mystic Night who's enjoying your attention. Champion Quarter Horse and National Cutting Horse Champion of 1993. He's quite the lady's man, if you get my drift."

"Yes, I can see why. How many horses do you have?"

"Oh, right now we've got six mares, 3 geldings, and him. When was the last time you rode?"

"It's been about six years, and I know this sounds self-serving, but I am experienced. I've ridden both English and Western, and won at the Detroit Horse Show three consecutive years in open jumping so I promise you can trust me with one of your horses. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity, I wish I could convince Robert to join me."

They both eyed Robert with Coop laughing. "You didn't tell her about your five-minute ride?"

"No."

"You told me you don't ride, that you wouldn't get up on a horse!" She turned to challenge him, hitting his arm as she spoke.

"And I won't, ever again." His eyes met hers and she knew that look of stubborn resolve meant no amount of pleading would alter his decision.

"Well, I was hoping for your company, but I can see your mind is set. Bruce, which horse would you like me to prove to you I can ride?"

"It's Coop, and I guess that's pretty accurate. Let's head towards the barn, Jimmy should have Imagination tacked and ready to try out. He's a good horse. We only have western saddles here."

When they reached the barn, she noted two horses saddled. "Jimmy, this is Sarah. Lead out her mount will you, and I'll get mine." Sarah nodded then offered a smile of hello to the lanky man, following him to the open area on the barn's backside. Without hesitation both riders mounted up. Jimmy helped Sarah adjust the stirrups, checking the cinch one last time. "Robert, we'll be back in a bit. Go inside the house and make yourself comfortable at the piano. Tap out a hit for me, will you?" Coop reined his horse away from the barn, leaving Sarah to follow suit.

"Sarah, I thought I would just show you the grounds and then if you feel comfortable, let you go it alone. All set?"

"Ready."

They both walked off towards the fenced pastures with Coop providing a brief descriptive of the land. Sarah noted the horses they encountered in pastures along the way. "I thought you said you had ten horses. There's at least that out in the far pasture."

"Well, I lease the property to a friend for his horses. His are mostly two year olds waiting to grow up. Mine are closer to the barn. So how do you like Imagination so far?"

"He's great, a handsome horse. Could we try another gait besides a walk?"

"Sure, holler when you want to slow up." Robert prodded his mount into a lope, and soon he knew he would be passed by the faster stride of Imagination. At the end of the pasture fence line, Sarah pulled up her mount to a walk and was soon joined by Coop. She had a good seat in the saddle, her legs remaining at Imagination's side. Coop was satisfied that she could, in fact, ride quite well.

"That was great. What a beautiful gait he has, did he compete as well?"

"Nope, just a pleasure horse, but a nice pleasure horse. Let's head to the right and follow the edge of the woods."

With him ahead of her and feeling more relaxed in his company, Sarah began to notice her surroundings, and her host. He sat square in the saddle, obviously very comfortable there. She guessed he was in his mid-fifties, probably about 6 feet tall and seemed an amiable sort. He didn't effuse with enthusiasm but there was a steadiness to him she liked. The view of the mountains was breathtaking and the reason they were called the Smokey Mountains clearly evident by the haze that surrounded the crevices like moats. His horse was obviously a Quarter Horse by its conformation, a big dark bay gelding that seemed as at ease as its owner, who simply called him "Brute". They made the perfect picture of a cowboy and horse, each equally well mannered.

"Coop, how long have you lived here?"

"25 years last spring. We watched the others fill in around us, and were able to grab an extra forty acres before land prices soared. No place I'd rather live though, those mountains are daily reminders of how small we are on the face of this earth. They'll still be here long after we're gone."

"Well, it certainly is breathtaking. You and your wife are very blessed."

"Thank you, I feel blessed, but my wife passed away two years ago. It's her horse you're riding." He didn't stop to face her as he spoke, just kept Brute walking along the trail.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear of your loss. I lost my daughter six years ago. Robert's helped me try to deal with my grief."

Coop stopped his horse and Sarah followed his lead. "He's a good friend. That must have been rough, losing your daughter."

"Yes, it nearly destroyed me. There seems to be an acceptable timeframe established for grief and I guess I've exceeded it. I still miss her so and no amount of time seems to have helped. I'm sure you miss your wife. Do you have any children?"

"No, we were never blessed with children so I guess that's why the horses. Annie loved them and competed on the cutting horse circuit. To watch her cut a calf from the herd was like watching perfection in motion, she and Mystic were great together; they seemed to instinctively anticipate the moves of calves and fall into an easy rhythm, but that horse you're riding was her favorite. For all the glory of Mystic, it was Imagination that captured her heart. I remember the first day she found him and called me all excited, hoping I'd say yes to one more horse in our barn." He was smiling with remembrance. "You let me ramble. Shall we go on?"

"Coop, I enjoyed hearing you speak of your wife and of Imagination. To be honest, I'm flattered that you let me ride him. I think though, we'd better get going or I will have monopolized far too much of your time and imposed myself upon your hospitality beyond reasonable limits."

Coop nodded his head and led her towards a well-concealed trail into the woods. Sarah became even more grateful for his company as she would never have found the opening, much less followed it without his leadership. The scenery was filled with young trees struggling for existence amongst the native stand of pines, oaks and dogwoods. The riders stopped by a stream to let their horses drink. For Sarah, it was an opportunity to tell Coop of her work and that she was on Thanksgiving break but intended to ask for additional time off. Robert had been kind enough to let her stay remain open-ended.

"Well, feel free to come out here and ride as often as you want. It's no bother and you'd be doin' Jimmy a favor. He has to ride whatever horse doesn't get ridden daily."

"You mean it? I'd love to! It's wonderful to ride again. But you're sure it's not an intrusion?"

"No, not at all. You're welcome to come out as often as you like. Let's ride on so I can show you the split in the trail that takes you off my property."

Once they arrived to the trail's fork, Coop told her about the national forest to the left, and his property continuing along to the right. "This trail takes you up to the other side of the pasture with the two year olds. It's about another hour, you game or should we head back?"

"If you're willing so am I. I guess if Robert becomes bored he'll head out and leave me a note. I know I'm in good hands." She cast a brief smile towards him then turned Imagination onto the trail.

Coop led them through a slender trail that journeyed through the woods for quite some time before they crossed the stream again, exiting upon a beautiful field. He made special note of the wildflowers that normally blanketed the area in summer. Sarah could easily imagine how pretty the sight would be with gold, pink and blue hues mixed amongst the green of field grasses. There was another stand of trees as the trail looped its way through the varied terrain before the fence line came into view. Now that they were back in the open again, the young horses came running towards them, filled with curiosity and kicking up their heels.

Coop chuckled as their eyes watched the herd approach. "That will wear off in another year, but it's a good-looking bunch, I'll give 'em that."

"They go through so many changes at this age, don't they? So full of excitement and testing themselves."

"Those first three years are crucial to makin' a good horse a great horse. I enjoy watchin' those foals. I should have three this spring, if Mystic's done it right."

"Perhaps you could show me the mares on another visit? I see Robert on your porch, so I guess he didn't get bored."

"I hope he wrote a song. I've wanted one for a while now. Maybe we gave him enough time."

"Has he had a block or something?"

"Or something, I guess. It's been over several months since he last submitted a piece or was willing to work with another writer. I know there's something on his mind but he's not opening up to me. It's got me stumped."

"I had no idea."

Jimmy was waiting for the riders return to the barn, and smiled upon hearing the glowing reports from their guest. Coop invited Sarah to the house for refreshments where Robert waited to greet them. He could see by Sarah's face she had a great time and the expression on Coop's face looked enthused as well. There seemed to be a budding friendship growing between two of the people he valued most in life, a thought that provided tremendous comfort. Sarah ambled around the room, which was an oasis of country charm; rough-hewn lumber mixed with fieldstone and glass, and the comfort of overstuffed furniture begging for her presence. They ended up staying for lunch with Coop serving as a congenial host.

The couple departed shortly afterwards, with Sarah promising to return very soon for another ride. Robert just smiled and wondered at the possibilities as they made their way home. Sarah scooted over to sit next to him, placing her hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for arranging this wonderful day. It was perfect, except of course, for you not joining us on the ride. What are your plans for the next few days? I don't want to interrupt or intrude on your schedule."

"I'm glad you had a great time and as a matter of fact, would you accompany me to this songwriters gala reception I have tomorrow evening? It's kind of a required thing to keep your name known in the industry. Then some friends have invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at their home. You are welcome to join me there too, but beyond that, I have no plans."

"Good, then we can spend a lot of time together. Maybe I can get you to play me something on the piano. I love listening to you, almost as much as being held by you." She reached to touch his face with her hand.

He put his arm around her shoulders to pull her even closer. "You had a good ride?"

"It was terrific and I was grateful for Coop's company. I would have gotten lost for sure. The trail is certainly obscured from view, until you are right at its entrance. I thought he was giving me some gentle, subdued horse, but was I wrong. Did you know Imagination was his wife's horse? What a compliment!"

"No, I didn't remember that, so did Coop tell you about Annie's death?"

"Only that she died two years ago. What happened?"

"Ovarian cancer, just like your mother. She struggled with it for years before the disease won the fight. They had a wonderful marriage, a true partnership of souls. Coop was a mess after Annie's death, but he's got a lot of friends and we all made sure to keep his spirits up. He looked better today than I've seen him in three years. He's a good person; I'm glad to see you two hit it off."

She noticed he had changed the subject from playing the piano. Now she stared at him, trying to find any hint as to why he wasn't writing. He looked healthy. "Robert, we've spent most of the time since my arrival discussing me, how are you doing?"

"Great, I'm doing just great. Thanks for asking." He gave her a quick glance then continued to focus on the road. "Listen, this thing tomorrow night is kind of fancy. Have you a dress in that meager suitcase you brought?"

"No, but I'll pick up one. Once we get home, give me directions to the closest Mall, will you?"

"We'll head there now. It's no more than a few miles up the road and gives me a chance to make you the belle of the ball."

Sarah rolled her eyes at him for the thought was too ridiculous for response. Still, she was appreciative for Robert's knowledge on what one wore to such an event, the likes of which she was certain she'd never seen.

 

Chapter 5

Sarah took a final glance into the mirror and for the first time in several years liked the reflected image. The haunted look from years of depressive withdrawal seemed to dissipate, allowing her eyes to brighten while a gentle smile formed at the corners of her lips. A renewal of human spirit, a metamorphous had begun and all through the patient understanding of a beloved friend. She'd forgotten how possessed Robert could become on a shopping adventure. There were several shops that had a possible accessory yet until the dress of inspiration was found, the shoes, jewelry and hairstyle would have to wait their turn. Decades passed since the friends ventured down fashion lane but their ability to laugh at preposterous possibilities was alive and well. Sales clerks were caught up in their frivolous behavior, amused by the affectionate antics of the couple. Sarah took one last glance in the mirror, satisfied that pins and hairspray would keep her upswept hair in place for the night. Her exit from the guestroom found Robert waiting. His smile matched hers with words of praise to follow, as each was dressed more formally then seen in the past.

Their entrance to the party found a full house with little room for navigation. Robert stayed by Sarah's side, though at times the push of the crowd made it difficult. The volume of noise seemed in conflict with the intimacy of the paired off couples scattered about the room. Conversation reverberated off ivory and burgundy trimmed walls while the center of the room yielded a huge ice sculpture carved to resemble the symbol of a treble clef. Her eyes took in the frenzied scene, a stark contrast to any university social back home. Artists and producers would approach Robert, thanking him for a past song while hoping for another. There was an ongoing repartee between the two friends that made the room seem less intimidating for Sarah. Robert would point out someone from a collected group and predict who would be the storyteller, who would laugh the loudest and who would look for acceptance first amongst the participants. It was clear a university professor from Detroit offered little interest to the occupants of the room, with the exception of an annoying photographer who repeatedly seemed to find opportunities to capture the two for photographs. Robert was gracious to everyone, though Sarah noted no enthusiasm, not sincere enthusiasm in his demeanor.

The couple had circulated the room, grabbed a few appetizers and a beverage when Coop walked over to join them. Sarah was surprised to see the change a suit of clothes made to Coop's appearance; she hadn't noticed how blue his eyes were until they focused their gaze upon her, nor the broad smile that seemed to encompass his face. Robert excused himself for a few minutes, knowing Sarah would be well attended by Coop.

"You look beautiful. A wondrous sight for these old eyes." The gold sequined dress perfectly complimented the highlights of her chestnut hair and seemed to illuminate the essence of her soul.

"Oh, I can't imagine your eyes are much older than mine. Thank you for the compliment though, and may I return one to you? You look very handsome tonight."

"Well, I clean up every now and again for these pony shows."

"Is that what you call them? I must admit to things being a bit more chaotic then I imagined. It seems like a lot of greeting and maneuvering."

Laughing, Coop gazed about the room then responded, "Truer words have never been spoken. It is a chance to jiggle the interest of industry types, more than the promoted salute to songwriters. Tell me, are you always this insightful?"

Sarah was laughing now, as she thought over his inquiry. "Perhaps on everything except my personal life, then the obvious plumb evades me!"

"Anyone here you want to meet? Do you even listen to country music?" His eyes moved across the room to take in the famous faces, searching for one that might be of interest to her.

"Sometimes. To be honest, only when I'm searching for one of Robert's songs, I love the way he expresses the most heartfelt of emotions. So no, I have no ‘star' I wish to meet. I've met the two most important people in this room." She clicked her glass to his as she spoke and shared a smile.

Coop moved close to her and lowered his voice, in case he would be overheard. Once there, he captured the fragrance of the simplest of perfumes, not noticeable until he leaned down to speak close to her ear. "Why don't we grab Robert and get out of here. We've showed our faces long enough. I've got no business to conduct, and I'm guessing neither does Robert."

"Sounds great." Their plan was mired by the arrival of Billy Paris, a singer known to many but the woman he hoped to impress.

"Coop! You ol' dog, great to see you again. Hey there, how ya doin'?" His hand moved from Coop's to Sarah's as he waited for the recognition his rise to stardom provided.

"I'm well, thank you." Sarah looked at him quizzically and then moved her gaze back to the blue-eyed gentleman on her right.

Coop would have let the moment last but didn't want Sarah to have the impression he lacked manners so the introductions were made, though nothing more than names were provided. Somehow he knew Billy would be more than willing to enlighten Sarah of his celebrated vocal career. The newest male country singer had two songs from his debut album reach the top ten list, so his career was soaring like a rocket.

"I haven't seen you at these events before, are you new in town? Looking to record?"

"Heavens no, I'm visiting a friend. I gather you are something of a celebrity?"

"Yes ‘um, I've recorded a hit or two. Any of my songs one of your favorites?"

"Well, I'm afraid I don't normally listen to country music. Do you write your own songs?"

"No but once I record them they are mine, forever linked." He stared at her as only a true believer could when speaking the gospel of self-love.

She tried to suppress the laugh that was growing inside and might have succeeded had it not been for the look she caught in Coop's eyes. "I'm sure the songwriters have a bit more to say on that don't you? I mean, just because Bing Crosby sang White Christmas didn't mean Irving Berlin's beautiful song couldn't be sung by another performer."

"Who? Elvis recorded that song, if it's the one I'm thinking of, or was that ‘Blue Christmas'?" His hand moved to his forehead, rubbing the ache that developed from thinking too hard. "Well, back to my songs, we crossed over to pop with ‘My Heaven' or ‘Dancin' by the River', you must have heard one of those? My Heaven was on the charts for four weeks!"

"No, I'm sorry, I only turn on the radio to hear Robert's songs."

He wanted to ask who Robert was but knew whoever he was couldn't be competition. His amazement at her lack of knowledge left him unnerved and wanting her all the more. "Well, what was the last CD you bought?"

"Oh, I think Yo Yo Ma's performance of Brahms. My favorites are orchestral performances of Pachelbel and Mozart." She could see his mind trying to understand her but hitting roadblocks.

"Oh, never mind that, you want to go have dinner or what? Tonight a bunch of us are getting together, my publicist, agent, you can come too Coop." He didn't slow down enough to notice the narrowing eye Coop cast his way.

"Well, we already have plans but thank you just the same." Her eyes shifted to Coop's confirming the declination. "Coop, hadn't we better be going to make our dinner reservations?"

Coop picked up the hint and offered his apologies that a previous commitment didn't allow them to expand their group. Billy was left watching the golden goddess leave the room without so much as a phone number and yet, being a man who treasured his own company above anyone else's, the loss of one vision was quickly replaced by another.

Coop and Sarah searched the room unsuccessfully for Robert, then left to continue their efforts in another room. Coop checked the men's room in vain with the friends still at a loss for where Robert could be found. Just as they were getting ready to exit the building to check Robert's truck, he walked up behind them. "Well, you two look ready to go."

"We've been looking for you, and hoping you were ready to leave this chaos for dinner?" Sarah looked into his eyes and saw confusion, something wasn't right; his brow was beaded with sweat, his manner edgy. Sarah's eyes left him only long enough to observe anyone from where he came, yet seeing nothing that struck her as unusual, her eyes returned to Robert. He definitely appeared tormented by something; maybe being surrounded by the pressures of writing another hit, but whatever happened in the past thirty minutes had Robert's face showing stress. "Robert, let's blow this pop stand and have a night of friendship. What do you say?" Her voice reflected the smile on her face, and her arm was around his, hoping to escort him out. Robert nodded his head in agreement.

Looking at Robert with concern, Coop added, "Anyone else we should invite?"

"Nope. Let's hit the road."

"Shall we take my car and I'll bring you back or drive both vehicles to the restaurant?"

"Let's take both for now, then we don't have to come back this way. That's assuming we are headed where I think we are, Scott's?" Robert's hand moved behind Sarah's waist and pressed her to move towards the exit.

"Yep. All right, I'll see you there in a few minutes." Coop's car was waiting near the front door, and he waved as he drove past them.

Robert escorted Sarah back to his truck, opening the door for her.

"Where were you? What's going on?" She asked, while stopping his arm from closing the door.

"Just out, that's all."

"No, this is me and I saw confusion in those hazel eyes of yours. What's behind them, talk to me?"

"Yes, but later, when we are by ourselves, maybe on another walk, all right?"

She moved her hand from his arm to his face, "All right."

They drove in silence, listening to classical music on the public radio station and Sarah didn't miss the significance of it. He wanted no reminders of country music, of songs he couldn't compose. She would devote tomorrow to finding out why, or die of exhaustion hiking with him. This much she knew, her friend was troubled and needed her. Her own troubles suddenly seemed insignificant.

The restaurant was on the older side of town, made of brick and spanning three levels that overlooked the Cumberland River. Renowned for steaks and a ‘Who's Who' amongst Nashville's finest, the restaurant offered ambience with oak furniture and leaded glass refracting the light. It was the type of restaurant that enveloped its occupants the moment they entered. There was cordiality about the room, decorated in blues and greens. Sarah had a feeling Coop would look right at home as a regular customer and she was right. He was seated at a corner booth, waiting to greet them. Robert assisted Sarah to her seat and sat opposite her, with Coop in the middle. The three filled the evening with stories of days gone by, of loved ones at their best and worst. Sarah learned of the recordings that took place in the insulated walls of Coop's second barn, making music and memories for generations to come. The barn became famous, but started out as an economical means of boosting his fledgling production company. Protracted sessions found Annie serving up meals that could feed many on a shoestring budget. Sleepovers were common, with visitors crashing on the floorboards or the coveted comfort of a nearby sofa. Spouses and partners were invited to spend the day, participants in the big family atmosphere where pastures served as ball fields for impromptu football or baseball games. Sarah enjoyed watching Coop interact with Robert, hearing of the early days that formed the threads for a lifelong friendship, not unlike the bond she shared with Robert.

Robert couldn't help but watch his friend fall in love though he said nothing; certain Sarah was oblivious to the growing sentiment of Coop's heart. It was somehow fitting that the two friends he held most dear would meet one another now. Perhaps this was all part of a master plan, and...but he wouldn't let his mind continue, better to continue to focus on the happiness that good friends provided.

Their conversation lasted long after the sounds of a tenor saxophone stopped drifting down from the third floor lounge. With great reluctance, they hugged their good-byes with Sarah taking the opportunity to whisper something to Coop, and though Robert didn't catch it, he recognized disappointment in Coop's eyes.

Sarah and Robert drove home in silence though Sarah sat next to him, her head on his shoulder and arm around his waist, hopeful the reflections of the night would prompt his revelation as to what happened during his absence. Their arrival home came with Robert's announcement that he was beat and ready for bed. Sarah agreed but wondered where she should sleep. Something told her to crowd his space, to be there to catch every look for clues. "Do you prefer I sleep in the guest room, or am I allowed another night?" She tried to ask lightly, disguising any hint of concern from her voice.

He pulled her hand and led her towards the stairs to his room. "You know I could never say no to you. But we'll talk another time, I'm too tired tonight."

"Okay, I'll freshen up downstairs and then be up, all right? Thank you, for taking me with you, the party was very illuminating and the dinner exceptional." He just nodded and continued towards his room.

She wanted to look at the pictures again, hopeful for clues of someone consistently in them that was at the party tonight, someone that Robert might have been involved with, who was the reason for his confusion. He seemed like a hurt, lost boy, trying to hide his feelings and be strong for everyone but himself. She wanted to reach him, help him the way he had helped her time and again. Six months Coop said, so whatever happened was recent. Most of the photos on the wall seemed to span decades, yet the faces for the most part were unfamiliar to her. Maybe Coop can help, she thought, as it was evident they were good friends. But then, Coop said he tried to find out and could learn nothing from Robert. Whatever it was, Robert was keeping it to himself. Her search of the pictures was abandoned in hopes she would know more tomorrow.

By the time she freshened up and went to his room, Robert was in bed already sound asleep. Quietly, she slipped under the covers, and then turned to watch his face. It was a great face and Robert was right, if he had been straight there would not have been a Tony. As she thought of her husband, she realized the hurt was gone. Tony was an idiot, true, but she was very comfortable in Robert's care, like an old sweatshirt that is grabbed over any new one. She felt very complete here with him. It had been since before Jessica's death that she felt this whole. Maybe all she really needed was to believe someone shared her grief and was willing to let her work through it. Robert needed her as much as she needed him. Sarah wondered how many years it had been since someone needed her. Jessie; her thoughts always came back to her daughter. Sarah conducted a silent conversation with her daughter. Never one-sided, these conversations always found her daughter's active participation. Peace and comfort was gained from their chats and Sarah never doubted Jessie's spirit remained with her to provide comfort. "We need to help Robert now Jess." Jessie smiled, nodding her head in approval of her mother's newfound mission.

 

© 1999 Copyright held by the author.

 

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