"WHAT in the HELL are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about that idiotic thing you said to me! Telling me you don't care about what I have to say while you're 'busy,' and by the way, playing video games does NOT count as busy!"
Jenna and Brian were standing in their living room across from one another, shouting. It was another in a rash of fights they'd been having lately, and Jenna was at her wit's end.
"If I had even an ounce of brains left in my skull I'd leave your sorry ass here and spend the night with Layla until you appreciate me again!"
"If you want to go so bad, then GO! Whatever, it's not like I can stop you anymore."
"ANYMORE? When did I ever leave you to begin with?"
"Every time this happens, Jen, EVERY TIME you jump to the 'maybe I should go to Layla's' card. Well I've had enough of it. If you want to go live with your girlfriend so badly, then just go, and leave me in peace!"
Jenna's jaw dropped as her husband threw up his hands and planted himself in his recliner, facing away from her. Tears welled in her eyes, and before she thought of something clever to snap back, she simply turned away and stomped toward their bedroom, fully intending on packing a bag and leaving for Layla's.
As she angrily threw her clothes into her overnight bag, she thought about calling Layla to tell her she was on her way, but faltered. Did she actually want to leave? No. She wanted Brian to see that she wouldn't stand for being ignored or disrespected. It had been so long since he'd shown her any appreciation. She assumed it had to do with work, but he didn't like to talk about it much, but he was fine with taking it out on her when she said or did anything that rubbed him the wrong way.
Without meaning to, she began to cry in earnest. She loved her husband, there was no doubt about that, but it was rough patches like these that made her think it would be easier to give up and walk away then to actually work on fixing it. It wasn't the best way to approach the problem, and even though she could never imagine actually leaving her husband, it was still one of those persistent thoughts that she entertained briefly during these spats.
After a few minutes of crying alone on the bed, she felt Brian's presence. She glanced up through glassy, tear stained goggles to see her husband filling the doorway. His arms were crossed as he leaned against the wall, his face a mixture of anger, sadness, and regret.
"I don't want you to leave," he muttered. "I'm sorry that I told you I didn't care what you had to say. And believe me my video games are not that important to me. You are so important to me, and I do appreciate you and respect you. I don't like making you cry. I love you."
She wiped the tears away as she looked at him. "What's going on, Brian? Why are you so irritable and angry all the time? I feel like I've been walking on eggshells since…" Jenna's voice left her. She looked up at Brian right then, and saw him trying in vain to look away, clenching and unclenching his jaw as he tried, unsuccessfully, to fight back the tears that one by one, escaped his brimming eyes.
"Brian, why won't you talk to me about it?" she whispered, all hostile feelings fleeing as she was overwhelmed with feelings of hurt and sadness that her husband was in such pain.
He shook his head for a second, appearing as though he was trying to steady his voice before he answered her. "Because you were mourning for a long time, and I was so anxious to be there for you, to make you feel better, that I guess I just forgot to deal with it. And then, I don't know, I was angry with you for being able to deal with it and move on, when I was still sitting here, upset and hurt and…" he took a deep breath and continued, "and so disappointed."
Jenna popped up from the bed and ran to her husband, throwing her arms around his waist. He wrapped his broad, strong arms around her and clutched her tightly. "I'm so sorry you didn't get to be a daddy," she whispered. "I am so sorry."
Brian said nothing. Jenna heard him sniffle a few times before he bent his head down, kissed her head, and then laid his face against her hair. Jenna was comfortable with her husband, enjoying the prolonged embrace, feeling the tense muscles of Brian's back begin to relax. Things were unwinding, quietly, carefully, while they stood holding each other. And finally, for one perfect moment of serendipity, their breathing was in sync.
Derek seemed stumped. Jenna had given him a simple question and had expected a pretty simple answer, but he was flummoxed.
"So do I take your silence as a no… or what?" she asked, unable to tolerate the quiet much longer.
He blinked a couple times and shook his head as though trying to force some words from his mouth. "Uh… well, I guess I just didn't expect that question, at least, not for a while," he said, and then chuckled a bit. "But to answer you, I guess I've always pictured my future with kids, sure." Jenna nodded in response and sighed heavily. "Why do you ask?"
"About four years ago, we…" she paused, inhaled one more courageous breath, and continued, "I was pregnant. Brian and I were expecting, and for about two months we were ecstatic. We had names picked out, we were buying furniture and clothes and planning and then… well, I had some pain while I was at work which caused me to have another dizzy spell where I fainted. By the time they got me to the hospital, I had lost the baby."
Derek rubbed her arm, smiling sympathetically. "I'm so sorry," he told her.
She returned his smile and clutched his hand tightly. "It's not your fault, but thank you. I've had my time to grieve over the loss, and Brian had a rough patch with it as well. But I told you this because I don't want there to be anything unspoken between us."
"And yet you predicated it with a question about children. What happened with your miscarriage?" he asked, his voice full of concern.
"Nothing drastic," she replied, recalling what had been said, trying to script it out in her head before repeating it back to Derek. "It was just a miscarriage, not caused by any one thing or any problem with me, but I was still nervous about trying to get pregnant again. So I wanted to warn you in advance – "
"There's no need to warn me, Jen," he told her. "This isn't something that's a deal breaker for me. Not even close."
Jenna peered up at Derek, her eyes glossy with emotion as she asked, "Are you sure?"
He nodded, gathering her into his arms protectively, rubbing his hand soothingly down her back. "I am. You are what I want, and no one else. You've had a few traumatic events in your past, but who hasn't? All of that experience has shaped you into the woman I fell in love with, and nothing is going to change that." He kissed the top of her head. "Besides, children are a far way down the road. Let's cross that bridge if and when we come to it, alright?"
"Alright," she conceded, closing her eyes as she fell into his warming embrace. It felt good to have him here, loving her and taking care of her when she was still so unsure of so many things.
What was she to do about Derek, though? In truth, her feelings ran deep, but could she honestly look him in the eye and tell him she loved him? She didn't want to lie to him when she didn't feel it quite yet…
They leaned back on the couch, Jenna still wrapped tightly in Derek's arms as they held each other, the emotions passing between them different and yet entirely the same. Jenna found her weariness hit her full force as they lay together in this position for a while.
Just before she dosed off, Jenna had the fleeting thought that this was something she'd love to do with him for the rest of her life.
"Okay, let's practice this change again!" Marcus screamed from the middle of the auditorium. "You're still five seconds late for your entrance, Laura, and you know that five seconds of dead stage time is like ten years to a ticketholder!"
Jenna was up to her eyeballs in chaos the next day at work. Last night she and Derek had fallen asleep together on the couch, and they dozed peacefully until around six in the morning, when they both awoke with a start and scrambled to get ready for the workday. Jenna had wanted to be back to the theater by five, but she was grateful for the extra couple hours of sleep and for her company.
Among other things tossing around Jenna's jumbled skull was the conversation she'd shared the night before with Derek. During any other normal week at Dancing Masks Jenna would have gone straight to Layla, Sara, and Amelia to tell them all about what happened the night before with Derek. Unfortunately, his proclamation of love had to fall during show week, and barely a word could be spoken among the girls. Jenna would have to save it for either a quick bite at lunch or an unwinding girl's night after opening weekend. She preferred the latter, as she would have more time to spill her guts and share juicy details when they weren't under a crushing deadline for a performance.
When Jenna arrived, most of the crew was already there, setting things up on the prepared stage. Luckily, American Idiot was a one act musical with one large set that had changing props to indicate different locations. However, there was a lot to the changing set design upstage, with couches, mattresses, and even a mock tour bus that had to be pushed by crew members during the song 'Holiday.' It was madness.
The cast had arrived in droves around eight in the morning, toting store bought coffees and quick, hand held breakfasts so they could get down to work. As the show was only a couple of days away, Sara had enacted her famous, yet eccentric 'no speaking' rule to preserve her voice for show time. While Jenna loved her friend dearly, it was still a huge additional pain in her ass every show. They'd gotten used to adjusting Sara's mikes and everything the day before her rule came into effect, but there were sometimes last minute glitches, and no one could emulate Sara's singing, it was one of a kind. There were moments when Jenna pleaded on bended knee to get Sara's help, but she steadfastly refused. She'd simply written on a piece of paper, stating to Jenna that she'd help her when the show was imminent, meaning within the hour leading up to it. This particular instance had caused an incredible amount of stress between the friends, one in which they didn't speak for a week. They eventually compromised with the afternoon before show opening, if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they should try and make sure that everything was all set before opening night, because Sara really didn't have time to soothe her vocals again before each additional performance.
Once everyone was there, they ran through the show, costumes and all to make sure there was no costume or prop adjustments that needed to be done. There were a few snags here and there, and it wouldn't have been such an inconvenience were they not always under this pressure. This was the life Jenna had chosen. Her degree would have allowed her access to taking over and running a simple bed and breakfast at some point down the road, but she wanted to be part of her friends' dreams. She offered to do stage managing, since she'd done a bit in high school and college and had enjoyed the experience.
Now, she was the pinnacle of crises for cast and crew alike. She ran the entire backstage during each and every performance, had to block most of the plays (with help from her director on that one, thankfully), supervised costume, prop, and set changes (this time with help from Ryan). The benefit of being a smaller theatre company was that everyone pitched in where help was needed, and during performances, when the other crew members weren't busy with their own tasks, they aided in getting the actors changed and out to the stage on time. Jenna was always eternally grateful for their help and made sure to show her appreciation in some form after every performance was finished.
Marcus was in a particularly sour mood today, but she was accustomed to this so close to show time. She knew how to handle his mood swings, and adjusted accordingly. She got Laura out of her costume, sent her back onstage, and they tried it again. This time, they finished in record time and sent her back out.
Breathing a sigh of relief before someone handed her something else, Jenna leaned up against the wall separating the backstage from the rest of the house and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to calm her frazzled nerves. There was so much going on all at the same time and she thought for sure she was going to have a nervous breakdown if things didn't change soon.
It was at that moment that Damon made his presence known by barking at her cast.
"What the hell do you idiots think you're doing to my choreography? What, I leave for two days and one of your moron directors decides to change things up on me? I can't believe this nonsense! We're scrapping the entire dance and I'll come up with something new."
That was the absolute last straw. Calling the cast and crew idiots and morons was one thing, but he was not going to try and choreograph a new dance so close to show time. Her actors onstage and crew backstage were stressed enough as it was. It was time to do something about this maniac.
She stormed out on the stage, front and center, directly facing Damon, whose ugly little face was scrunched up in anger and his arms flailing every which way until she stood there, hands on her hips, the heat of her own fury radiating off of her skin. He faltered, arms in mid-air as he turned his red hot gaze onto hers, and hissed, "What do you think you're doing?"
"There is no way in hell you are choreographing another dance forty-eight hours before opening, Damon. I will have you fired before you'll put that kind of stress on my cast and crew. You'll zip your big ugly mouth shut, watch the dancing we had to adjust for the parameters of the stage and the props we have going in and out, and you'll fucking like it."
Everything was silent for a moment. Damon said nothing, Jenna said nothing. She felt the blood pumping through her veins, her heart a nervous flutter in her chest. These scathing words flying from her mouth were so many years in the making. After a beat, Damon started approaching the stage slowly, methodically, his hateful eyes narrowed on her. She stared him down just as hard, walking to the side of the stage to come down to his level, face to face with him.
Once they were a few feet apart, Damon spoke. "How dare you, little missy? I am an artist. I am a damned good artist, at that, and you can't afford to lose me. Even if you had the juice to actually get rid of me, I highly doubt you could convince your boss to even okay it. She wants me here. I'm the best around. So if I say I want a new routine by opening, I'm going to get one, got it?"
Jenna wanted to smack him, but clenched her fists at her side and breathed through the rage before speaking again. "Number one, Mr. Damned Artist, you are not the best around, you're the only one around. Layla doesn't want to hire someone who has to travel more than fifty miles to help us out, but she's not unwilling. Number two, you are not a good artist and we can afford to lose you. Marcus, as it turns out, was a hell of a dancer back in the day and has offered to choreograph some stuff while you were too busy, I don't know, doing the work of your father, Satan, to participate. And number three," she said, taking a step closer to him, wanting him to hear every single word of this, inches from his ears. "Let there be no mistake, pretty dancing boy, that I am an owner of this theatre. Layla may be in charge of the hiring, but you can damn well be sure that if I ever found a need to fire someone for any reason, she would back me up. I've dealt with you this far and if you try to go around me, you'll be out on your ass so fast you won't know a two-step from a foxtrot."
He rolled his eyes at her, took a step closer to her as well, and said the most unimaginable words she'd ever heard a man utter in her entire life. "Why would I listen to the word of a hysterical war widow whose jarhead husband didn't even have the sense to not get himself killed?"
The audible gasp in the auditorium was deafening, but Jenna had nanoseconds to process it before her frustration, hurt, and blinding fury finally got the better of her, and she smacked Damon so hard across the face that the sheer force stung her hand and he cried out in pain.
Unable to formulate any words after this, she backed away from Damon, turned toward the open door, and stormed out with as much class as she could muster before she left the auditorium and burst into tears, slumped against the wall. She sobbed as quietly as possible before someone burst out to check on her or happened down the hall and saw her in a crumpled, pathetic mess.
She stood up then, trying to straighten herself up, for fear of Damon bursting out and confronting her again. She didn't want him to see that his words had weakened her.
Yet it wasn't the words, necessarily, that had her sobbing. It was the culmination of all the things she was keeping bay. Derek's love, Brian's absence, Damon's annoyance… all of it, she had tried so hard to ignore it, act as though it wasn't happening. She was running from her problems, her life, the complications that were just too messy and frustrating to face.
Before she had another chance to get herself in order, the door to the auditorium burst open and Jenna looked up to see the last person she ever expected.
It was Derek.
The moment she saw him she burst into tears again, and without saying a word he pulled her close and held her as she sobbed onto the lapel of his designer suit. He petted her hair, not speaking as she let it all out. She wanted so badly to be normal again, to just be in love with someone and hopeful about the future. She wanted to be happy, and if she couldn't be happy with Brian, why couldn't she be happy with Derek?
They pulled apart, Derek place a soft kiss on her forehead before asking if she was all right.
In response, Jenna stepped out of his arms and wrapped her own around herself tightly. "Derek, I know what you said to me last night, and everything we talked about… but I just… I can't give you what you need."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, puzzled. "You told me last night that you had strong feelings, too, that you wanted a future. You asked me if I wanted kids, for god's sake!"
"I know, I know," she nodded, whispering. "I just… I've got so much in my mind that is attacking itself, so many things that I'm running from, and I need to deal with them."
"I'm a problem you have to deal with?" he asked, his voice dripping with hurt.
It nearly broke her heart in two when she heard him in pain. This was not something she wanted. She wanted him to be happy, and she wanted him to be happy with her. She would have given anything for every feeling she had coursing through her body to just disappear so she could give herself to this man completely and without the baggage of her traumatic past.
"No, that's not what I meant," she said, sighing. A few more tears coursed down her cheeks as she tried to gather her thoughts. It didn't matter. No matter what she said, he wasn't going to understand this. There was no way he could. "I've been trying to tell myself I'm okay with being alone, not having Brian around, but every time I'm with you, Derek, I feel this crushing guilt. Like I'm forgetting Brian, like his memories are no longer important to me. I used to think about him all the time, and now I can barely spare a thought for him."
"Honestly, Jenna, I feel for you. I really do. I can't imagine the pain of losing a loved one, someone you spent your days and nights with, and I will never truly understand what you go through. But I can tell you this," he said, taking a step closer to her, his arms now crossed in front of him as well. Jenna knew this stance. They were both in defensive, fighting positions. It was going to get ugly before it ever got any better. "If Brian ever really loved you like you said he did, he would never want you to sit around for a year and a half, pining for him when you're intelligent enough to know he's not coming back. If it were me and I had given you my life but it was taken away from us, I would want you to be happy. Whether that means moving on with someone else or on your own, it doesn't matter. You deserve happiness and closure just as much as anyone else does. What makes you so different? Why bother making yourself feel more stressed and pressured by allowing the guilt to weigh on you? Do you really think Brian cares that you're with me?"
Jenna knew Derek's words were true, and that if she were the one who had passed, she would have wanted Brian to move on and be happy, but the fact remained that she still felt awful about the circumstances, and she didn't know exactly how to assuage the mounting guilt whenever she was in Derek's proximity.
"I understand all that, Derek, and I agree with you, but I just can't help that feeling of shame when I'm with you, like I'm going to replace all of my memories of him with you, and he'll be gone and forgotten."
"How could you ever think that? And do you honestly think I would encourage it? I understand that he was part of your life, and I'll never forget how much you miss him. But don't beat yourself up because you were one of the lucky few people in this world to meet two soul mates in one lifetime," he said, finally loosening his arms and stepping toward her, grabbing her arm to pull her closer. She chose not to fight it. "Jenna, I love you. I don't want to lose you."
Regrettably, Jenna backed away from him, dropping his hand as tears poured down her cheeks. "I just can't right now, Derek. I'm so sorry."
His teal eyes flashed angrily, as though the calm waters of the Caribbean had been interrupted by a rainstorm. He adopted a defiant stance once again, glaring at her as he spit out, "Do you even love me, Jenna? Because if you don't, I'll leave and never come back, but if you're just afraid to tell me because you think you're somehow betraying a dead spouse, you need to tell me now. I need to know where you are in this."
There was a pause so tense Jenna felt herself nearly choking on it. She tried to inhale through the extreme emotion and stress plaguing her, but she could barely even face her own feelings, much less try and deal with Derek's right now. She felt clouded and hazy, not sure where her footing was. The last time she'd felt like this was the few days following Brian's death. The level of grief was insurmountable, and for Derek, she was feeling it.
"Derek, I can't say it right now. I'm so sorry."
He nodded, looking down at the floor and then back up to her. "You know, I really did have hope for this. You're the first woman in a long time that I've even thought about a future with, but if you'd rather live in the past, that's your burden. I won't have it anymore, Jenna. I'm sorry."
Before she could say a word to keep him, Derek had turned his back on her, and without looking back, left the auditorium and her life.
Jenna was awash with the sadness of losing yet another man and she slumped back down on the floor again, sobbing.
The auditorium door burst open again, and Jenna knew instinctively it was her friends by peering at their shoes. Amelia bent down to Jenna's level and wrapped her arms around her friend, while Layla was saying, "I can't believe he said that. I'm glad I wasn't in there to hear it, but you'll be happy to know that he's gone now. We won't have to deal with him again, Jen. I hope that makes you feel better."
She shook her head, her arms now wrapped around her friend's neck, her sobs buried into Amelia's curly strawberry blonde hair. She continued in this vain for some time, her friends silent and supportive, but finally, Jenna lifted her head and told her friends, "I think I lost Derek forever."
At this point, Layla and Sara lowered themselves down to Amelia and Jenna, wrapped their arms around her, and allowed her to grieve for so many things.
Several hours later, Jenna had cleaned herself up and was grateful to Layla for getting rid of Damon (as was the rest of the cast and crew) so she could get on with her work in peace. She and Marcus coordinated the responsibilities of getting the show ready as well as taking over the choreography that was already set in place. Damon, thankfully, had not changed a thing, so they were able to instruct the cast to stick to the same routine as before.
Things seemed to be moving a lot more smoothly, and yet Jenna's heart felt as though it were being wrenched from her chest. She wanted Derek back. She wanted to go after him and tell him she was wrong, she was sorry, and that she wanted to be with him. Would he help her try and get rid of this insane guilt? Would he at least understand? Could he even do all that for her?
It didn't matter. He'd made up his mind, and there was nothing more she could do to change it back. He had given her a very simple question to answer, and her answer had been nothing but. Who would want to put up with the ambiguity?
"Okay, folks, let's try that one again, and this time Jenna's going to time your entrances," Marcus announced to the actors on the stage. They moved about, getting to their respective locations on the stage before he called action again. Jenna sat down on the table, trying to erase the pervasive thoughts just behind her eyes so she could get down to business.
The number ran again, Jenna counting each entrance and exit, marking any problems in tempo or movement, but saw very few glitches. This was a good sign. Everyone on stage was fluid, the band was on beat, and things were coming together in Jenna's physical world.
Now only if that sentiment could be met inside her head.
Shrugging the words away from her ears, she turned to walk backstage, carrying her clipboard close to her chest. As soon as she opened the door, she was met by the bustle of a crew frantically trying to get prepared. It was no different than usual, but in all the chaos, Jenna felt a migraine starting.
She navigated her way through, checking with the head of each technical area, marking down any difficulties or last minute problems that her people were coming across. She moved on to Amelia and Ryan, who were putting the finishing touches on the backdrop. Ryan was doing yet another run through of the television sets planted in the backdrop, making sure that the reel of the video they had streaming was on time, precise, and in the correct order. He tweaked any of them that were fuzzy or not running the quality level he'd prefer, and as far as Jenna knew, everything else was running smoothly. She checked it off her list and moved on to the lighting and sound technicians to check with them.
"Okay, so all the spotlight cues are timed and ready to go?" she asked. They nodded in agreement. "And your filters are set up and ready to go when we need the ambience?" They nodded again, and she thanked them and turned away to let them get back to work. As someone ran up to her asking for her assistance, Jenna heard her phone start to ring.
"Hold on, Eddie, I need to get this," she told him, seeing it was a number unknown to her cell phone. Frowning, she answered, "Hello?"
"Hello, is this Miss Jenna Reeves?" an unfamiliar male voice asked over the phone.
Even more confused, she answered, "Yes. Who may I ask is calling?"
"This is County West Hospital calling. We have a patient admitted who had you listed on his phone as an emergency contact." Jenna's eyebrows shot into her hairline. What man in their right mind would list her as an emergency contact?
"All right, who is your patient?" she asked, gulping nervously.
Cold fear and panic swept through Jenna's body. Derek was in the hospital? She was his emergency contact? What was she going to do?
"W-what happened?" she squeaked.
"There was an accident."