Scrambled Brains

It was Friday night and Casey was hoping to socialize on his birthday weekend but his junky hand-me-down car was giving him trouble so he asked his mother if he could use Jim's souped up Dodge Charger that was sitting unused in the garage.

Jim was overseas on a temporary Army assignment and he had stored his beloved car at home, leaving orders that his kid brother Casey was not to go near it except to start it every week and drive it around the block once in a while.

Casey was surprised by how little resistance his mother put up regarding the idea.

"Be careful," she said as she walked him to the door. She was an attractive woman in her middle forties although she looked tired from life. "No speeding, no joyriding."

"Don't worry, Mom," a relieved and appreciative Casey replied. "I won't do anything stupid. Jim would kill me."

Mrs. Hale knew her son was a good kid. Ever since his Dad died when he was eleven, Casey had gone out of his way to make sure his widowed mother didn't have to worry about him. He stayed out of trouble, kept a positive attitude, and filled in admirably in his father's absence, not letting his grief manifest into bitterness, anger, and questionable behavior.

It was a challenge being a single mom and becoming responsible as the primary bread winner even with the insurance policy. Jim was six years older than his kid brother and he left for the military after high school graduation to escape the sadness and grief of his father's death. It was Casey who hung tough being left behind to help out his mom who worked hard as the head teller at the Greenville Savings Bank.

Casey did well at school, hung out with good kids, played football and baseball to stay busy, and made sure all the small repairs and upkeep were performed around the house. He worked for his Dad's partner Harry Garrett at Harry and Jack's Appliance Store. Jack was Casey's Dad. He and Harry had bought the bankrupt Hillsboro Appliance Center fifteen years earlier, renamed and revitalized the business, and managed to keep it running at an acceptable profit margin despite the competition from the box and chain stores.

Casey carefully drove Jim's Charger out of the garage. The car was in mint condition, well maintained, with a lot of power, especially compared to the four cylinder old Honda Casey drove. Casey kept the car washed and waxed so it looked brand new even with 11,000 miles on it.

Casey's best friend Bumper Reed came trotting out of his house with a huge grin on his face when he saw the Charger idling in the driveway instead of Casey's junky Civic. Bumper was a burly kid, big enough to star as the football team's fullback and baseball team's catcher. He shaved his head to give him a more rugged tough guy look on the athletic field but he was really a teddy bear of a guy and a good friend, especially since Casey's dad died.

"Wow, look at you, Dude! Bummer laughed. "A man of style."

"Yep!" Casey smiled happily.

The two friends drove around Hillsboro showing off the car and trying to look like they were young men of class and style. When they got bored with that American Graffiti show off attempt, they drove to McDaniel's house up on Hilltop where there was a party going on. Kids who saw the great looking car pull up to the curb were impressed and Casey liked the special attention being seen in the car brought.

The party was hopping but Casey and Bumper both avoided the booze knowing it would get them kicked off the team if they got busted for drinking. Even being seen at the party wasn't the smartest idea but the two athletes liked the satisfaction of being cheered and idolized, especially when the team was playing well. Besides, Casey's ex Jodi Alden was at the party and Casey liked being around her even though she was dating Reggie Higman from Greenville who was now off at college.

It was Jodi who broke it off with Casey at the end of junior year after Higman swept her off her feet during a regional student council convention. Casey was still crazy about Jodi and he didn't mind being her lapdog doormat "still friends" buffoon if it meant he could hang out with her in social circles. Jodi was at the party with her long time best friend Olivia Morse who always treated Casey nicely. Bumper told Casey he should date Olivia on the rebound but that just didn't feel right. Casey liked Olivia and they got along well but Jodi was still the girl for him.

Jodi wore her silky blond hair long to match her long legs and tall frame. She was a beautiful girl with a full figure and sparkling eyes who had captured Casey's heart in junior high. They were inseparable until the unfortunate Higman came along. Olivia was just as pretty but in a different way. She had black hair down to her shoulders and she wasn't as tall or thin as Jodi, but she was more down to earth and even-keeled than Jodi who liked to be the life of the party and the center of attention. Jodi could be high strung and she was more apt to push the envelope, break the rules and test the limits knowing she could get away with it because of her looks, popularity, and family image. Her family was well known in the community and that prestige allowed Jodi to be a bit of a celebrity with her lawyer father very active in local politics and her mother the owner of a well known jewelry store.

Olivia came from a working class family - her Dad was a postal carrier and her mom worked as a secretary at the elementary school. She lived in the flats section of town not far from Casey while Jodi lived in one of the big Victorians in the prestigious Hilltop neighborhood. Casey actually had more meaningful conversations with Olivia who was better read and more interesting that the slightly airheaded Jodi who probably never would have dated Casey if he wasn't a fairly successful and well known jock.

Casey and Bumper high-fived various classmates and admirers as they made the rounds at McDaniel's party. Olivia teased Casey about his New York Jets shirt while Jodi pretended she didn't notice that Casey was there just so she could make him feel a little less worthy. But it was a fun party and Casey had a good time even if Jodi was playing the hard to get tease role to the hilt by alternatively chatting with him and then ignoring him while flirting with other guys.

"You really are a sap, you know," Olivia told him as they socialized in McDaniel's kitchen. They were both leaning up against the kitchen counter, Olivia with a beer, Casey with a Pepsi.

"I know," Casey freely admitted. "I can't help myself."

"I hate seeing you looking so pathetic when you could have half the girls in the school," Olivia said.

"Jodi's the only girl for me," Casey sighed with defeat.

"I think that ship has definitely left the port, Casey," Olivia said gently. She patted his arm. "You deserve better."

Bumper flew into the kitchen. "Hey," he said, trying to keep his voice low as he approached Casey and Olivia. "Sandy Wilson seems to be interested in me and I think I'm going to pursue that possibility," Bumper grinned.

"So I'm on my own for the rest of the evening?" Casey deduced.

"Sorry, pal," Bumper smirked as he nodded to Olivia and then vacated the room almost as quickly as he had arrived.

"On your own, huh?" Olivia said, making a face at him.

"You know what I mean," he replied sheepishly.

"Allow me to leave you on your own," she said as she went off to mingle with others.

"Come on, Olivia!" Casey called after her. "I can't handle so much rejection!"

When Casey was done milling around and socializing, he decided to call it a night and he headed for the door where he was met by Jodi and Olivia who were also leaving.

"We're headed for IHOP in Miller City," Olivia informed Casey. "You wanna come along?"

"What's wrong with Denny's in Greenville?" Casey wondered. "It's closer."

"I like IHOP better," Jodi announced tartly. "Quit your whining."

Casey glanced at Jodi. "You've got the munchies or something? You smoke a few joints in there?"

"Don't worry about me," Jodi replied. "I'm fine."

Casey shrugged as they walked down the front walk. "Fine, IHOP," he said reluctantly.

"Why don't we go with him," Olivia suggested to Jodie with some concern in her voice.

"I can drive," Jodi insisted snottily.

"You can come with me if you want," Casey told Olivia.

"You'd better not," Jodi threatened her friend. "You're with me."

Casey waited for Olivia to decide and when she shrugged and remained standing next to Jodi, Casey headed for his car. "I'll meet you there."

"Oh, look at the wheels you're driving!" an impressed Jodi remarked when she saw Casey walking toward his brother's Dodge Charger. "You must think you're really hot shit now!" she giggled.

"It's just a car," Casey replied.

"Yeah, and I'm just a girl," Jodi replied knowingly. "Christ, Casey, I bet you'd love for me to ride with you."

"Damn straight," he replied. He glanced at her familiar sporty BMW parked across the street. "But I know you like your baby."

"You got that straight," She said proudly. "Too bad it's no longer you!"

Casey didn't know why Jodi had to be so snarly to him since the breakup. It wasn't as if he didn't want to be with her but she took great pleasure in constantly reminding him that he wasn't with her.

"I'll see you at IHOP," Casey sighed with annoyance, wishing Jodi didn't still hold such a spell on him. She really could be a pain in the ass when she wanted to be.

Jodi stopped to chat with a couple of classmates standing on the curb and Casey noticed Olivia looking at him with a resigned almost defeated look on her face as he climbed into the car and headed for the out of the way IHOP nearly twenty miles away.

The interstate was quicker but it was a few miles in the other direction so Casey headed for State Road 43 that was more fun to drive anyway, especially in a responsive car like the Charger that could hug the hills and curves as if it had a magnet keeping it in the proper lane.

Casey was stone sober so he wasn't worried about cops as long as he kept the car within the speed limit. He had the amazing car stereo blaring and he drove along thinking about Jodi and wishing Senior Year could be spent together. Damn Higman from coming along and spoiling his final year of high school.

Casey wasn't paying attention as the headlights in his rear view mirror quickly approached. It wasn't until the car was upon him and then passing in the other lane that he realized it was Jodi's BMW zipping along. Olivia opened the passenger side window with a look of fear on her face and Casey could barely make out what Jodi was screaming over the sounds of the engine, the blowing wind of the cars, and the radios.

"…race…chickenshit…..piece of junk….." Were some of the words Casey made out and when Jodi began to edge ahead, Casey floored the gas pedal of the Charger and the car zoom ahead of Jodi's BMW. There were some hills that prevented Jodi from making a move to pass Casey but she was right on his ass and when Casey realized he was going nearly ninety miles per hour he began to get nervous. He didn't want to get busted for speeding or have an accident with his brother's car. The curve by Myer's Farm was approaching so Casey took his foot off the gas.

He assumed Jodi would slow down too but instead she pulled out into the other lane and raced by him as if he was at a standstill.

"Jesus Christ," Casey said aloud as he watched Jodi's taillights get dimmer ahead of him. He slowed to 65 and he saw the brake lights brighten up on the BMW as it disappeared around the curve.

Casey slowed even more not wanting to risk missing the curve. He couldn't believe Jodi had gone that fast and his heart leaped into his throat when he finally made the turn and saw dust, dirt and smoke on the road ahead of him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw lights off the road and he noticed that several lengths of a pasture fence had been knocked down. He also saw fresh skid marks on the pavement that disappeared off the side of the road.

Casey nailed his brakes and came to a skidding sideways stop, the headlights of his car shining into the field where a twisted pile of metal that was once Jodi's prized BMW rested, having come to a stop on its wheels after rolling over several times.

Casey sprang from his car and raced to the wrecked car. Jodi was pinned in the driver seat, covered in blood. A large piece of a fence post had smashed through the windshield and was embedded in her chest.

"I don't want to die," she weakly gargled to Casey through the smashed window of the driver's door.

The fear on her face scared the hell out of him.

"You're not going to die," a panicked Casey said as he dug his cell phone out of his pocket to call 911.

Olivia was slumped over in the passenger seat, unresponsive. Casey made the near hysterical 911 call reporting the accident and location.

"Hurry!" He pleaded to the 911 Dispatcher.

There were tears in Jodi's eyes as she stared up at him. "I'm sor…" was the last thing she said before she lapsed into unconsciousness.

### ### ###

Casey often went to Springdale's Woods Park on his off day. He worked four twelve hours shifts and then had three days off from making shoe boxes at the Fredrickson Cardboard Company. Getting out into the warm outdoor sun was a nice break from his routine. It was one of his only real pleasures in his otherwise boring and uneventful life and he'd read for hours at one of the picnic tables along the main path or sitting on the stone wall near the duck pond. He liked to people watch too, observing families, older couples, and young teenage romantics enjoying the surroundings. There were ball fields, playgrounds, a small zoo, a refreshment stand, a miniature train, paddle boats, bumper boats, miniature golf and a sprinkling station.

On this particular day, Casey was sitting on a bench in the main entrance area watching people come and go. There was a drop off area for buses and special vehicles and Casey noticed a small white transport van with 'New Horizons Rehabilitation Center' written in red ink on the sides parked in one of the permanent waiting spaces and he watched about a dozen individuals debark from the vehicle, some in wheelchairs or using walkers, others needing assistance to move about.

He was about to look away when one particular individual caught his attention and he found himself staring at her with uncertain interest. She looked familiar for some reason but he couldn't quite place her. She seemed to walk with a funny gait, almost like a tree blowing in a strong wind. She was smiling and helping another person navigate the sidewalk. Casey stood as the group from New Horizons passed by him and he stared at the woman now that she was so close. She glanced politely at him as she walked by assisting the other person and then she gave him a second look over her shoulder as she continued to walk. Casey began to follow her almost as if he was in a trance not quite believing what he was seeing.

The group stopped at the first park display which was a 'you are here' board laying out a map of the park. The person who appeared to be in charge was passing out small maps from a holder on the display and giving quick instructions to the group. Casey stepped up to the woman he had been struck by and he stared with intrigue for a long moment. She looked at him and smiled but she didn't say anything or offer any indication that she knew who he was. The woman apparently in charge of the group finished passing out the maps and she noticed Casey's presence among the group.

"May I help you, Sir?" The leader asked politely as she approached the stranger.

"Is that woman's name Olivia by chance?" Casey quietly asked without taking his eyes off of the woman.

"Yes," the leader acknowledged, sounding slightly surprised. "Do you know her?"

"In a previous life," Casey sighed.

Casey noticed that the entire group was wearing orange 'New Horizon' tee shirts with the rehab center's logo in the center of it.

"Is she Staff or a patient?" He asked the leader.

"We use the word 'resident'," the leader explained. "And she's sort of both. She's a resident but she's improved enough to be an aide as well."

"She had a traumatic brain injury," Casey stated. "How's she doing?"

"It's been a long haul," the leader admitted. "But she's come a long way," she added proudly.

"Does she remember her past?"

"Sir, I shouldn't be talking to you if I don't know who you are," the leader protested.

"My name is Casey Hale," Casey informed the leader. "I grew up with Olivia back in Hillsboro."

The woman nodded with understanding. "She should remember you once you tell her your name," the leader told him. "I'm Becky Fields, by the way," she said. "I'm the Director of Activities at New Horizons."

Casey took her hand in a shake. "You been there long?"

"Eight years," Becky replied. She was middle aged, slightly large for a woman tasked with physical activities, but she was pleasant and friendly.

"So you knew Olivia when she first arrived," Casey remarked.

"Yes, that's why I can appreciate how far she's come," Betsy replied. "Would you like to say hello?"

"Maybe I shouldn't," Casey worried.

"I'm sure it would be okay," Betsy assured him.

"I don't want to upset her," Casey said.

"Olivia doesn't get upset," Becky smiled. "Step over there by the wall. I'll get her away from the others. You need to be aware that her speech has been affected so please don't be upset by the way she talks."

Casey nodded as he stepped away from the group and he watched as Becky spoke to Olivia who turned and smiled at Casey as she slowly approached him, walking like she was on ice skates at the skating ring.

"Hello," Olivia said when she reached Casey.

He noticed that the right side of her face drooped slightly. Her right eye was also 'lazy' and there appeared to be a dent near her temple when the soft breeze blew her hair from her head. Olivia's hair was a sandy brown and cut just below her ears all around her head. She was much thinner than she had been in high school.

"Hi, Olivia," Casey replied nervously. "Do you remember me?"

She shook her head no.

He sucked in his breath. "My name is Casey Hale."

She searched his face for a long moment. "Friend you are?" She asked with some confusion.

"Yes," he smiled. "Back in Hillsboro."

"Olivia is name mine," she said.

"I know," he said. "We went to school together."

"Hurricanes?" She asked, still searching his face.

"Yes." He was excited that she was getting it.

"Football play you," she said with a smile.

"Baseball too," he grinned.

"49 Number were you,"

"That's right!" Casey marveled.

Betsy smiled. "She knows you," she reported. "Olivia's thoughts, emotions, and most memories before the accident are in there. She just has a hard time verbalizing her thoughts in the correct order."

"It's nice seeing you again, Liv," Casey said with welcomed relief.

Olivia smiled. "Seeing you nice too again."

"I'm glad you're doing so well," he smiled, his voice becoming shaky. "I was worried."

"Fine am I," Olivia replied. "Too you?"

"I'm doing okay," he lied.

She raised her hand out and held his arm near the wrist. "Fault not yours."

Casey felt a lump well in his throat and his eyes watered up. "Most would disagree with you, Liv."

"See again me come," Oliva said. Then she blushed. "Know you what mean I." She pointed to the New Horizons van in the distance. "There see me come."

"You want me to come visit you?" Casey asked with surprise.

"Please," she smiled. "Yes."

"I don't think your parents would want that," Casey sighed.

"Parents only Sunday come," she said. "Worry don't."

Casey glanced at Betsy. "Do you know who I am?"

"I'm beginning to figure it out," Betsy replied. "The boy from the accident?"

He nodded. "So maybe it wouldn't be appropriate for me to visit."

"Listen, Olivia is an adult," Betsy stated. "She can have anybody she wants visit. She wants to see you again. I wouldn't stay away if you want to see her."

"Wouldn't it be ironic that the only person who might believe me is the one person who matters most?" Casey remarked.

Olivia threw herself into him, gave him an unexpected hug, and kissed him on his cheek. "Work I must," she said. "Promise you see me come."

They both blushed at the repeated unintended sexual innuendo.

"I'll visit," Casey assured her, feeling flushed and somewhat dazed bumping into her so unexpectedly after so many torturous years.

Olivia smiled as she rejoined the group and left the area, walking as if she had sponges in her shoes. Casey sighed knowing her speech, her face, and her gait were all the result of what happened that night. He tried not to think about it but it was hard to forget and now that Olivia had appeared out of nowhere it all came rushing back as if it happened yesterday and not five years ago.

Casey returned to the main entrance and sat on the wall to process what had just happened. He never expected to see Olivia again and he wasn't sure if the sweat glistening on his arms was a result of the warm sun or what had just happened to him. He felt a shiver crawl down his spine and he looked up at the sky, sucking in his breath and slowly letting it out.

### ### ###

The Miller City and State Police arrived within minutes of Casey's 911 call that night but it felt like hours. Casey stood transfixed staring at Jodi and Olivia unconscious in the twisted wreck of a car. He hardly remembered the cops arriving, soon followed by a fire engine and two ambulances.

Paramedics worked on the girls while the firemen cut away the twisted metal and pried open mangled doors to free the accident victims from the wreckage. Olivia looked like a rag doll as they put her on a gurney and rushed her away, an air mask over her mouth. The emergency personnel had to be more careful with Jodi who had the projectile lodged in her chest which was covered in blood.

One of the state cops escorted Casey out of the pasture and took his statement by the side of the road as several other officers took measurements of skid marks and tried to reconstruct the accident scene.

Although shaky and stunned numb, Casey had no reason to lie. He explained how they were headed for the IHOP in Miller City with him having left Hillsboro first. The girls caught up to him in the BMW and both cars sped along the open stretches but when he slowed down for the approaching hilly curve, Jodi blew past him and continued at a high rate of speed.

"She was doing at least a hundred," the cop guessed.

Casey said he was cold sober and he agreed to a breathalyzer test on the spot. He said he couldn't verify if Jodi had been drinking earlier (although he was pretty sure she had been).

The cops let him leave the accident scene and Casey headed for the Blue County Medical Center in Greenville with his heart pumping in his chest. He had called his mother and Bumper who were waiting for him when he arrived in the Emergency Room. A helicopter was just leaving from the helicopter pad on the roof of the hospital and it turned out that was Olivia being medevaced to a specialty hospital for patients with severe brain injuries.

Walking into ER lobby, Casey heard hysterical crying coming from one of the bays inside the ER when the doors opened. Casey's pale faced red eyed mother was escorted through the doors by Bumper who looked shell shocked.

"Mom?" Casey asked with fear.

His mother gave him a hug. "I'm sorry, Casey, but she's gone," Her mother sobbed.

"Gone?" Casey asked with confusion.

"Jodi," Bumper explained.

"She died?" Casey asked with disbelief as if it was all a nightmare.

"I'm afraid so," his mother cried, holding him tight.

Casey took a step toward the ER doors but Bumper held him back.

"You shouldn't go in there," Bumper warned. "Her parents are pretty freaked out."

"I…." Casey didn't know what he could possibly say.

"We should go," Casey's mother said, pulling her son toward the door. "We don't need any scenes. Let the family have their privacy."

Word of the accident spread quickly over social media, the news, and the internet. Several kids erected a memorial in the field where the car had been towed from overnight. Police came to Casey's house to ask more questions. Bumper also showed up to offer moral support and update Casey and his mom on the situation. Rumors were running rampant with many believing Casey was responsible for Jodi's death.

The accident findings were inconclusive as far as the Police investigation went. Witnesses at the party confirmed that Casey left first but there were no witnesses along Route 43 to verify Casey's version of the story. Olivia would remain in a coma for nearly three months and when she finally regained consciousness she had no memory of the night in question.

By then, Casey had been charged with speeding, reckless driving, driving to endanger, drag racing, and vehicular manslaughter. Coach Anderson of the football team came to his house the day after the accident and suggested that Casey not play for the next game or two.

When Casey arrived at school that Monday morning, he was summoned to the Principal's Office and he was told that attending classes at the school was not a good idea. Many students were upset and Casey's safety could be at risk. Bumper acted as an unofficial liaison with the Aldens and Morses and he informed Casey that his presence was not desired at Jodi's wake or funeral service (although Casey snuck into the choir loft for the funeral).

The Hales' house was egged and vandalized several times over the next few weeks. Reggie Higman and his friends harassed Casey whenever he left the house, calling him a murderer.

Mrs. Hale met with administrators from St. Anne's Catholic School, The Sun Rise Lake School for Boys, and the Blue County Charter School to see if Casey could transfer to one of those schools to finish his senior year, but Casey elected to drop out of school and get his GED. His name had been front page news and everybody in Blue County knew he was involved in the car accident that killed Attorney Alden's daughter.

Casey's life had fallen apart overnight. He went from admired athlete and respected classmate to scuz ball killer and very few people believed his story and, even if they did, they still held him accountable for Jodi's death, claiming that she never would have been speeding too if Casey hadn't played along. Casey became a prisoner in his own house, unable to go anywhere without being harassed, threatened, stared at, or rebuked.

Casey spent years building his reputation but his dream of a successful, productive, and contented senior year was destroyed in one momentary flash of smoke and burnt rubber.

The Hillsboro Hurricanes won without him in uniform. The fictionalized stories of the accident become a part of the school folklore. The class dedicated the yearbook to Jodi and a wonderful portrait of her was hung in one the school hallways with a plaque underneath it. Bumper said he heard endless tales of the accident for the rest of the year.

"Kids like to bullshit and create drama," He explained to the homebound Casey, a captive in his own house. "You would have thought Jodi was Princess Di the way they idolize her now."

Casey knew in his heart that he would always be blamed for Jodi's death (and Olivia's serious brain injury). He took responsibility for his part – he raced the BMW along the straightaway stretches but nobody seemed to care (or held her accountable) that Jodi was the one who passed him and flew like a bat out of hell around the sharp curve.

Casey's mother (with help from Harry) hired a lawyer and got the most serious charges against her son tossed out. The Aldens weren't interested in having a trial knowing the issue of Jodi's drinking would come up (Lawyer Alden had the Blood Alcohol Level finding sealed) so Casey's attorney was able to plea bargain a deal. Casey pleaded guilty to speeding and driving to endanger and surrendered his license for two years but avoiding a court trial was a victory, even though the Aldens and their supporters continued to rake Casey over the coals publically, calling him a menace and a danger to society.

Olivia's parents were not as publically outspoken about the case or hostile toward Casey but they made it clear to Bumper that they would appreciate it if Casey left them alone and not visit the long term brain injury hospital where Olivia was ever so slowly recovering.

Because Casey couldn't convince others of his own story he became part of the mythology of Jodi Alden's death. It bothered him that his reputation was so maligned and that falsehoods became truth in lore but there was nothing he could about it. It became clear that Casey really had no other choice but to leave town to escape the rumors, retaliations, gossip, innuendos, and ill will that followed him wherever he went.

His paternal Aunt Helen lived in Springdale which was thirty-five miles down the interstate from Hillsboro, far enough to give the haggard and haunted Casey some space and distance from his past. His mother had stayed close to Aunt Helen after Jack's death, mostly because both women were widowed at a relatively young age and had a lot in common.

Casey hated quitting his job at Harry and Jack's and leaving his hometown which he loved but he needed to continue his life journey in a place that freed him from his past and the tragedy of a trauma that haunted him like a ghost. He knew if he stayed in Hillsboro he'd perish in depressing despair and guilt.

Aunt Helen's house was located in the northern Springdale section of town, a former Italian neighborhood overrun by the immigrant community a generation ago. The houses were mostly aging ranches and bungalows with junked cars rotting in driveways, couches left on front porches, and recycle bins never brought in from the curb. Helen's home was near the end of the street, across from an alley of abandoned cars and falling down garages. A couple of houses on the other end of the block were boarded up and the rest were neglected and run down with lawns in need of a mow and dirt patches left by packs of playing children.

Uncle Dave's Mercury sat unused in the garage for years after his death and by the time Casey could drive again the car was no longer salvageable. Aunt Helen let herself go after her husband died. She was twenty-five pounds overweight, drank too much, and smoked endlessly when Casey moved in and she didn't get much better in the ensuing years. She suffered from hoarding and the house was full of boxes stuffed with junk, piles of newspapers and magazines, tag sale purchases she never used, and extra furniture that got in the way. The house needed work. The bathroom was full of mold and the kitchen floor sagged. The disarray of the house only added to Casey's multi-year funk and miserable outlook on life.

Aunt Helen was a clerk at the neighborhood Dollar Store on the strip a few blocks from the house and when she wasn't working Casey usually found her on the couch complaining about her aching back as she sat in a haze of smoke watching reality television shows.

Harry had a connection which was how Casey got the job making shoe boxes. He was homesick and dejected for the first year of his existence in Springdale and that mood morphed into a general maze of sad acceptance as time went on. His mother met somebody and eventually sold the house in Hillsboro to escape the cloud that hung over her life, moving to Greenville where not as many people realized she was the mother of the guy who killed that girl.

Casey tried to adapt to his new life but he struggled to recover from the tragedy that changed everything and he basically lived a weary, defeated, lonely life, showing up for work as required and coming home to a drunken housemate aunt who never got over her husband's death. They shared something in common in that they both were overwhelmed by loss and tragedy. Uncle Dave was shot dead in a bar room confrontation and Casey had killed his ex girlfriend.

Strangely, in a house of chaos, Casey kept his bedroom amazingly clean, organized, neat, and normal. His bed was always immaculately made, his belongings were always put away, and the room was cheerfully decorated. It was his only escape from misery and it was the one place he felt normal even though he could never quell the memories of that night.

Casey wasn't sure why he brought his sports trophies and other honors with him from Hillsboro. Perhaps it reminded him of a time that felt real and romantic compared to his now mundane, sad, and lonely life. In his fantasies he is still playing football and baseball for the Hillsboro Hurricanes and Jodi is cheering him on. After games, they make love by the Blue River and she is always smiling and happy.

Woods Park was about the only place he considered a getaway from the misery that was his life. He had no backup plan when he moved to Springdale and although sometimes he thought about going back to school as Plan B to his current existence but he never seemed to have the motivation to follow through. His life was destined to be what it presently was forever – his penance for killing Jodi Alden.

Casey knew he was wasting his life away but he no longer believed in himself and his fantasies of the past were lost in the reality of the present that offered no real future for him.

Perhaps if his junk Honda had started that night he wouldn't be living with Aunt Helen in Springdale working a dead end job. He probably would have gone to the IHOP as a passenger in Jodi's car not wanting to drive his undependable Honda that far that late at night. If it hadn't been his birthday weekend he wouldn't have asked his mother to let him take the Charger out and Jodi never would have been drag racing down Route 43 that night.

He never had a birthday celebration after that fateful night. He forgot it was his birthday that terrible weekend and each birthday afterward only served as a reminder of that night and he didn't like to think about it. His mother respected his wish not to remember his birthday and instead acknowledged his 'half' birthday six months later each year.

Had the Honda started that night perhaps nothing would have gone wrong with his life. His path would have been a different one and while he knew Jodi would never take him back at least she would still be alive and Olivia wouldn't be brain damaged. Maybe Casey would be a middle manager at Harry and Jack's Appliance Store by now if his fortunes had not turned into misfortunes.

Casey didn't know he was putting everything on the line when he left McDaniel's party in the Charger but why would he? It was just another night in the high school life and his story was similar to most, a young person about to start his journey toward whatever awaited him beyond high school. But then Jodi flew by him like a race car driver and everything changed - his life ripped to shreds.

Casey assumed he was going to be successful. He had survived the ordeal of his father's death and he thought he might become a hero during his last year of playing football and baseball. His life had meaning and purpose putting on a uniform but all that vanished in a cow field and now he knew nothing but failure with no way out of the misery that was his life.

He still had nightmares of that night and those fears, haunts, and pains kept him submerged in the deepest part of hell on Earth. There was no horizon and there was no hope because once goals, dreams and fantasies are lost they can never be found. At least that's what Casey believed after that terrible night.

Casey consciously placed himself in a self-assigned witness protection program as a shield for himself. He hadn't been back to Hillsboro since the day his mother drove him to Aunt Helen's house, adamant about not wanting to bump into anybody he once knew. Even Bumper had faded out of his life and was now living in San Diego serving his second tour in the Navy.

Casey erased every hope and fantasy he'd ever thought about from his through process in an attempt at self-survival. As long as he never thought about Hillsboro and the past he was protected from the memories even though Jodi (and Olivia) never left his psyche.

Although he was perpetually sad, Casey still managed to function. He was a skilled and dedicated worker, well liked by his co-workers. He was polite to people in the neighborhood, particularly younger kids. He didn't drink even though Aunt Helen reminded him almost on a daily basis he had every reason to.

Few knew his story and he rarely talked about the incident even though it would be part of him for the rest of his life. Sometimes he became paranoid, thinking people were talking about him behind his back. When he was feeling vulnerable and particularly haunted he seemed to shrink further into himself. His shoulders would sag and he walked like he was a wilted dying tree. He often wished he could be spared from the humiliation of his past, the false accusations, the guilt, the sorrow, and the loneliness. He wished that life had been kinder to him and that he wasn't only known for an accident late on a Friday night. There was no happiness in his days and there was no hope for a future.

Casey supposed there was a chance that God might smile down on him and that things would turn his way and that his life would become different but he didn't hold out much hope for that to happen. Often times, he sat alone in his bedroom with his head in his hands trying desperately to shake off the emotional pain he constantly felt but with little success. His eyes looked worn and tired and he had fallen into the unfortunate habit of grinding his teeth.

Casey never bothered to get his license back. Springdale had a dependable bus transportation system and he could walk to most places that he wanted to go (not that he went to many places). Work was less than a mile away and Woods Park was within walking distance too. He used to walk Helen's annoying poodle Muffy before she died and sometimes Casey thought Helen grieved the loss of the dog more than she did Uncle Dave.

Casey liked to take walks to try to clear his mind hoping he could somehow clear his mind of the ghosts of the past and that he would finally be free from his burdens but no matter how far he walked the haunts stayed with him. He wished the Ghost of Jodi would take him by the hand and offer him guidance and wisdom, something he so desperately needed and wanted. He wished he could be stronger and that he could have what most people took for granted: peace of mind, a free conscious, and a functioning heart.

### ### ###

Casey thought about Olivia for days after he unexpectedly bumped into her at Woods Park. He wasn't sure if seeing her again was a good thing or a bad thing. He was glad that she was doing as well as could be reasonably expected after suffering such a traumatic brain injury and he was amazed that she seemed happy to see him. She must have heard all the stories that blamed and faulted Casey for Jodi's death and Olivia's injury yet she was kind, sympathetic and friendly to him. She was the first person not to look at him suspiciously or show a hint of doubt in her voice even though Casey knew Liv didn't want to get into the car with Jodi that night.

Bumper had been Casey's closest ally and defender in the aftermath of the accident but even he was brazen enough to ask Casey months later "Are you sure you didn't egg Jodi on?"

Casey's mother would defend Casey to her dying breath but the accident took a toll on her too and she was the one who came up with the idea of him leaving town to live with Aunt Helen. Now she was with a new man and Casey rarely saw her anymore. He was alone and adrift and Olivia's (droopy) smiling face and good cheer gave him a surprise lift. He wanted to be around that positive energy again.

But how could he visit her? What would her family think if they knew he was anywhere near her? And what if her mood was different when he saw her again? He couldn't handle her rejection even if he deserved it.

It took Casey a few more days of thinking and weighing his option before he finally decided to take a trip to the New Horizons facility which was located about a half hour west of Springdale, but on the bus route. He thought it might be useful to speak with the director of the program before he saw Olivia just in case there were any issues or concerns. He didn't want to cause any problems for Olivia or trouble for himself.

The New Horizons Rehabilitation Center was a small campus of several brick buildings, some modern, others clearly much older. The bus dropped Casey off in front of the main gate and he walked up the front walk to the administrative building which was cheerfully decorated and modernly styled. The receptionist led him to the Administrator's Office and Casey saw the gold nameplate on the door: Dr. Anne Davis, M.D., Ph.D, MA.

Dr. Davis was a pleasant but professional woman who didn't waste much time with introductions or idle chat.

"Becky Fields told me about your encounter with Olivia," Dr. Davis said as she sat behind her desk.

Casey was sitting across from her. There was a large window behind her looking out at the grounds behind the administrative building. She wore her gray hair up in a bun and she was well dressed.

"She was the last person I ever expected to see again," Casey admitted nervously.

"You're not comfortable with this," Dr. Davis guessed.

"Most people believe it's my fault that she's even here," he sighed.

"Is it?" Dr. Davis bluntly wanted to know.

"Not directly," Casey revealed. "I wasn't in the car."

"But you feel responsible?"

"Yes," Casey said. "If I wasn't out on the road that night our friend who was driving probably wouldn't have had the accident."

"There's no way of ever knowing any of that," Dr. Davis replied. "Besides, Betsy said Olivia invited you to come see her."

"That's why I wanted to talk to you," Casey said. "I don't want to do anything wrong."

"Mr. Hale," Dr. Davis sighed, leaning over the desk to make her point. "You're not eighteen anymore. You don't have to worry about this."

"Her family hates me," he was quick to point out.

"I'm sure they've moved beyond most of their initial grief, shock and anger," Dr. Davis replied. "They seem like nice people to me. Now, why do you feel it's necessary to talk to me before you visit with Olivia?"

"Well," Casey said, clearing his throat. "Is there anything I should know?" He asked. "I mean, I heard the speech challenges. I saw her gait. And her droopy face. Is there anything else from your perspective I should know about?"

"Olivia has recovered nicely from the severity of her cognitive injuries," the Doctor reported. "She has no recollection of the accident. She had lost some of her identity, her sense of modesty, and as you heard her ability to communicate sensibly. Her thoughts are clear but she has difficulty putting sentences together. Sometimes she has to use word association to get it right, especially with common names. We've worked with her on some of the other issues. She continues to improve."

"So she's going to get even better?"

"She'll never be the same as she was," Dr. Davis told him. "There was a period of post-traumatic amnesia followed by the slow and incomplete recovery of her cognitive function. But there have been personality changes too."

"What do you mean?" Casey wondered.

"Her emotions were affected," The Doctor said. "She rarely gets angry. She's unusually cheerful. She had trouble with boundaries. She thought nothing about walking around naked. Didn't have any sense of modesty but considering the gloomy prognosis Olivia was first given I think she has made remarkable progress."

"That's encouraging," Casey replied.

"Olivia has worked well with her therapists," Dr. Davis reported. "She has been patient, unassuming, sympathetic, hard-working, pleasant and positive. I think you'll find her to be inspiring but please be aware that she is not the same person you once knew."

"Maybe I shouldn't see her," Casey sighed. "Maybe I should just stay away."

"You could," Dr. Davis replied. "That would be your right and it might even be the easy thing to do. But do you really want to just walk away?" She challenged.

"No," Casey admitted. "I want to be her friend."

"Then go see her," Dr. Davis advised. "She doesn't get a whole lot of visitors other than her family."

"Thanks, Doctor," Casey said as he stood. "I appreciate your time."

"And I appreciate your concern, Mr. Hale," she said sincerely as she stood too and offered him her hand. "Maybe Olivia can help you find the answers you've been looking for all this time."

Casey was surprised by her remark but he wasn't about to deny her inference. "Thanks, Doctor." He could feel her eyes on him as he left the office.

The receptionist gave Casey directions to Olivia's "quarters" which were located in a small one floor dormitory type building with twelve efficiency apartments for higher functioning residents.

The building was well maintained, handsome, and clean, the walls painted oyster white throughout the building. The doors were white with black numbers on them and photographs of each resident, perhaps to help them find their right apartment. Casey sucked in his breath and knocked on the Door of Apartment 8 while glancing at the cheerful photo of her that was smiling back at him.

"Moment wait!" Her heard her call from the other side of the door.

Casey smiled at the sound of her voice and the funny way she spoke now.

The door opened and Casey saw that Olivia was dressed in a white bathrobe even though it was two o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Then he remembered what the doctor said about Olivia being freely nude and he wondered if she had been prancing around naked before his arrival. Why was he suddenly having such perverted thoughts?

Olivia had a blank look on her face as she stared at her visitor but Casey could tell from her eye movement that she was processing the information.

"Stengal?" She said.

Casey remembered the doctor mentioning word association and he grinned. "Casey," he said.

Olivia laughed and gave him a hug. "Hello!" She said. "Coming thanks for."

He nodded as he held her longer than he probably should have. She felt so soft and warm and cuddly and it had been so long since he smelled a woman or been close to one that he wanted to cry in her arms.

"In come," she said, stepping back and making a sweeping motion with her hand. "Visit."

Casey nodded okay and followed Olivia into the apartment which was strikingly neat and organized yet surprisingly bland in appearance with generic furniture and bare walls. There were some family photographs on the bookshelf and mantle but not much else to give the apartment a sense of Olivia's personality. He noticed some jigsaw puzzles, children puzzle toys, and some drawing material on the coffee table. There was also a huge dictionary that was open on a nearby chair.

"Sit," Olivia said, gesturing to the couch. "You are how?"

"I'm okay," Casey smiled as he took a seat.

"Eat something?" She asked. "Drink?"

"No, I'm fine," he told her.

She nodded and sat next to him on the couch. "Time long," she said after she studied him for a long moment. "See no."

"Five years," Casey acknowledged. "Until the other day at the park. It was so great to see you."

Olivia smiled and neither one said anything for a long moment.

"How are you doing?" Casey asked.

"Okay I am," she assured him. "Die before might. Now okay. Glad am I."

Casey nodded with understanding.

"Nice everybody," she explained. "People here good."

'That's good," Casey said.

"Don't much remember," she sighed. "Accident after even," she remarked. "Memories not sure so first at. Dreams strange." She had to stop and think after each thought came out. "Real not or self. Foggy.

"It doesn't really matter, I guess," Casey told her. "You look good," he said with encouragement.

"Thanks," she grinned. "Too you."

"Do you really remember me, Olivia?" He worried.

"Friend good," she said. "Jodi liked."

"Until she met Higman," Casey sighed unhappily.

"Liked you still," Olivia told him.

Casey felt incredibly sad all of a sudden. Olivia rubbed his leg.

"Fault not you," she said. "Jodi drive often fast."

"They still blamed me," he sighed.

"Remember night wish I that," Olivia said.

"It's okay," Casey said. "You have enough problems to worry about."

She smiled. "Guess I."

"So, you've gotten through the worst part," Casey said.

"Road long," she confirmed. "Learn everything new. Walk. Talk. Potty." She pointed to her temple. "Sure make crazy not."

Casey laughed. "Don't worry, you're not crazy," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I am though."

"You not," she said with authority. "Nice always."

"Thanks," he said.

"Me talk not. Funny walk." She pointed to her face. "Funny look."

"You're as beautiful as you ever were," he assured her.

She smiled.

Casey gestured to the puzzles and shrugged.

"Learn always," she explained. "Brain work." She pointed at the dictionary. "Words important."

He nodded with understanding.

"All over learn," she said. "No kids other though. On one one. Hard work. Frustrating. Better get. Dumb not I."

"Of course not," he agreed.

"Lots exercise mental," she said. "Therapy too. Work hard. Hope better get more."

"You will," he promised.

She pointed to the lap top on the kitchen counter. "Writing easier much not. Can't process," she explained, pointing to her head. "Here up Know I." Then she pointed to her lips and then to her fingers, making typing motions. "Harder way this."

"Maybe not forever though," Casey offered.

She pointed to the flat screen television on the wall. "TV helps," she said. "Listen words. New Learn."

"Who would have thought watching television would be a good thing!?" Casey joked.

"Old memories easy," she said with a smile. "School. Play. Fun. Remember I." She pointed to the television again. "Shows old. Like I."

"You remember watching them the first time," Casey realized.

She smiled and nodded her head. "Memories fun."

"I'm glad," Casey said.

"Family great," she said. "Love. Happiness. Support. Belief."

Casey nodded.

"But baby treat me," she sighed. "Little kid feel."

"It's only because they care so much," he said. "I'm sure it's been hard on them."

She nodded in agreement. "Hard still."

"I know," he said. "But they're there for you and that's what counts the most."

"Mother yours?"

"She's with a guy in Greenville," Casey said, almost feeling embarrassed. "I don't see her much anymore. I live in Springdale with my aunt."

"Hillsboro no?" She asked with surprise.

Casey shook his head no. "I wasn't the most liked kid around after the accident," he said.

"Sucks that," Olivia stated forcefully.

"Human nature," Casey shrugged.

"Alone?" She said, searching for the right words. "Lonely. Girlfriend no?"

"I've been on my own," Casey told her with a forced smile.

"Perseverance," she said with encouragement. "Option failure not."

He looked at her and shook his head sadly. "Jesus. I think you're doing better than I am," he said with some embarrassment.

"Try I," she said. "Hard always. Give up can't."

"Is that why you're working here too?" He asked. "To help others?"

"Happy others happy me means," she confirmed.

"You always were a people person," Casey smiled.

"Understand I people with injury heads," she said. "Know they I know."

"You're doing good," Casey said.

"I talk experiences mine," she said. "See they do. Offer hope I."

"You sure do," Casey said.

"Injury brain embarrassing," Oliva said. "Things weird. Uncomfortable. I kids scare. Laugh some. Can't personal take."

"The brain controls so many things," Casey told her. "When its damaged, strange things can happen."

She nodded and made the crazy sign by the side of her head. "Think people."

"Well, people who act that way are losers," Casey said.

"Problems physical too," Olivia sighed. She gestured toward between her legs. "Bladder sometimes."

"Sorry," Casey said.

She pointed to her eyes. "Blurry sometimes." Then to her ear. "Ringing." Then she pointed back between her legs. "Sex happening not."

Casey blushed. "It will when you meet the right guy."

She stared at him, her eyes glistening. "So hope."

"You were always friendly with everybody," Casey said.

"Hard now," Olivia admitted. "Talk can't right. Impatient people. Listen don't want."

"I'm listening," he said, patting her on the thigh.

"Drink now something?" Olivia smiled as she stood. "Thirsty I."

"What do you have?" Casey asked.

"Soda," she answered. "Water."

"Lemonade," he finished.

She nodded yes. "Tea iced."

"What kind of soda?"

"Coke. Sprite. Beer Root."

"I'll have a root beer," he said, following her into the kitchenette

"Scrambled Brains," Olivia said, rolling her eyes.

"Remember when we'd go to Johnny C's after school for Fries and cokes?" He asked. "Me and Jodi. You and Bumper if you weren't dating somebody."

She smiled. "Johnny's. Place good. Miss it."

"Me too," Casey said as he took the soda can from her. She had a water bottle in her hand which she also had taken from the refrigerator.

"Names hard remember," Olivia said. "Date who I?"

"Well, the big heart throb was Alex Grumbar."

"Dumbell," Olivia said.

Casey laughed as he leaned against the counter taking a sip from the bottle.

"Other guy. Mason?"

"Perry," Casey grinned. "Perry Williams."

She nodded. "Matter now not."

"Guess not," Casey agreed.

"Brains scrambled frustrating," Olivia sighed. "Know don't better get." She was leaning against the counter next to him and for a brief moment Casey had a flashback to McDaniel's party when they were so effortless shooting the shit that night. "Hard word determined better get," she said.

"Do you remember anything about that night?" Casey had to ask.

She shook her head no. "Cloudy accident after. Things confusing. Unable to uncloud. Sadness Jodie about. You missed."

"Even after all this time, it still seems surreal to me sometimes," Casey revealed.

"Me too," Olivia said with a shrug. "Bad dream."

Casey nodded with understanding.

"Life forever changed," Olivia said.

"Everybody says you have a positive attitude about it," Casey remarked.

"Choice what have?" She asked. "Can't worry. Forward move."

"Good girl," Casey encouraged.

"Tired get. Fatigue. Energy know. Sleep lot sometimes. Stops never."

"I'm sorry it can be hard sometimes," Casey said.

"Alive happy be," she said. "Acceptance important. No parties pity. Enjoy have what. Dead not. Is Jodi."

Casey stared at her for a long moment, impressed by her remarkable outlook.

"Never might be once was person," she admitted. "Maybe new better?"

"Maybe," Casey smiled.

"Saw hospital other," Olivia said. "Worse me. Talk no. Walk no. Coma. Scrabbled total. Sad very. Bad no so for me much."

"I guess," Casey said.

"See come," she said motioning for him to follow her into the other room.

Casey followed and she pulled a photo album from a drawer in the coffee table. They both sat on the couch and Olivia opened the photo book up and the first shot was a group photo of her, Jodi, Casey and Bumper.

"Miss," she said.

It was still hard for him to look at photographs of Jodi. "Yeah," Casey said.

"Funeral you go?" She asked, looking at him with interest.

"I sneaked in," Casey told her. "Her family was very angry with me. I wasn't welcomed. I watched from the choir loft. It was very sad and difficult. "

"Second chance me," Olivia said. "Waste it why? Live fullest life."

"Look, I really need to tell you something," Casey said seriously, looking her in the eyes with intensity.

"What?" She asked innocently.

"You didn't want to get in the car with Jodi that night," Casey revealed. "You didn't come out and say it but I could tell by the look on your face that you would have rather gone with me."

"Fault not yours still," Olivia replied. "Choice make I."

"I feel really guilty about it," Casey groaned, falling back on the couch.

"Don't," Olivia said, leaning into him and resting her head on his shoulder.

"I never thought I'd see you again," Casey said. "But I really needed to tell you that."

She sighed. "Dead walking are you?" She asked, looking up into his face.

"It hasn't been easy," Casey admitted, surprised that there were tears in his eyes.

"Let go you need," she advised. "Life live."

Casey wiped the tears from his eyes. "Thanks, Liv," he said. "It's nice to have a friend again."

"Friend I?" She grinned. "Nice."

He smiled and gave her a hug before standing from the couch. "I should go," he said. "The bus schedule gets weird later in the afternoon."

"Again see me come?" She asked hopefully as she stood as well.

"Of course," he promised, ignoring the unintended sexual innuendo. "What are friends for?"

She smiled as she walked Casey to the door and he felt like a burden had been lifted off his shoulders as he rode the bus back to Springdale.

### ### ###

Casey rode the bus to New Horizons on his off days (except Sundays, of course) and spent quality time with Olivia. He wasn't sure who was helping who more – her spending time with him, or him spending time with her.

He read to her and he had her read back although Olivia explained that even though she knew what the words meant she couldn't get them out of her mouth the right way. Singing came easier to her for some reason so they spent time singing to the radio and CDs.

They took walks around the New Horizon's campus and because Olivia was considered a Level I Resident she was allowed to leave the grounds on her own so she and Casey took trips to the mall for a movie or lunch and it was fun to have a social life again (both of them).

Casey got used to the way Olivia spoke and as they spent more time together it became easier for him to figure out what she wanted without her having to try to say too much. She was quite animated in her body motions and facial expressions and she loved to laugh, something Casey had forgotten how to do in the past five years.

It struck him as ironic that it was Olivia who had learned to live life to the fullest even though she wasn't quite full herself while he had spent five years feeling sorry for himself and hiding out in the witness protection program without much to show for it other than loneliness and a need to be forgiven.

"If it was my fault and I had caused the accident, would you forgive me?" Casey asked Olivia one afternoon during one of their walks.

"Yes," she said, wrapping her arm in his.

He liked it when she was physically affectionate with him. It made him feel human again and her simple "Yes" response made him somehow feel freed from some of the burdens of the past. That the guilt trips and bitterness of those in Hillsboro who had made him the scapegoat for the tragedy that killed one hometown sweetheart and maimed another. For the first time since that night, Casey was actually beginning to feel like he had something to look forward to when he visited with Olivia who made his days feel important again.

Living with Aunt Helen continued to be a challenge. She drank too much and smoked too much and was generally a negative person as her grief as a widow long ago turned to embittered resentment toward life. When Casey was also miserable, it was easy to wallow along side Helen but now that he was feeling a little bit of hope and encouragement for the first time in a long time, coming home to the moody Helen every night was becoming increasingly difficult. Olivia was the most positive person he had ever known living with a severe traumatic brain injury so it was hard to feel too sorry for Helen (or for himself for that matter).

Casey would often come home from work to find Helen passed out on the couch. He would frequently roust her and help her up the stairs to bed, with her mumbling above poor dead Dave, or Casey's poor dead father, or that poor dead girl from the accident. In the past, Casey would agree with her – life sucked and there was no reason to have hope – but now that the energetic Olivia had returned to his life, Casey had a hard time listening to Helen's drunken ramblings and he had to bite his tongue not to say 'Uncle Dave died ten years ago – move on for Christ sakes."

Casey noticed that his nightmares of that night had all but stopped since hanging out with Olivia again and on those increasingly rare nights when Jodi made an appearance in his sleep dreams, she was now in the supporting cast role instead of the familiar starring lead. Instead of haunting him and taunting him like in dreams past when Jodi was either coming on to him or making fun of him, she was now on the outside begging Casey to pay attention to her instead of focusing on Olivia.

"She's with me," was Jodi's oft repeated tag line but Casey knew that was no longer true.

Lately, Olivia had been with him – both in his dreams and in his reality, and it had been a blessing.

One evening, Casey came home from his twelve hour shift at work to find the television blaring and Aunt Helen slumped on the couch as usual.

"Wake up and go to sleep, Helen," Casey told her, as he often did.

Usually, Helen mumbled something and he'd help her to her feet but on this night she remained silent as Casey turned off the television and it wasn't until he poked her that he realized she was stiff. Turning on the lights, Casey observed Helen's blue skin and wide open eyes and for a second he had a flash back to the accident when Jodi looked at him with her dying eyes.

Helen's passing was his first dealing with death since Jodi died and Casey felt all sorts of emotions running through his system as he and his mother made the funeral arrangements and dealt with the estate lawyer. In her wisdom, Helen had willed the house to Casey who now had a place to live of his own, even though the property needed a lot of work.

Once the funeral was done and Helen was buried, Casey could focus on his new life. He applied to have his license restored after five years of not driving. With Helen's car available, Casey would have much easier access to visiting Olivia at New Horizons. He had to take a full driver's license exam ($30 for the learner's permit exam, $20 for the road test) and pay a $500 reinstatement fee.

Casey still didn't drive that much, but he liked the freedom of visiting Olivia when he wanted and not when the bus schedule dictated. He was a nervous driver now with memories of his last driving experience fresh in his mind whenever he got behind the wheel.

Helen's house was a mess and it was going to take a lot of work to clean it up and out. Casey was appreciative when Olivia volunteered to help him on the ongoing project and she started coming to the house to work on organizing Helen's endless junk stored and strewn throughout the house. Casey rented a dumpster that sat in the driveway and he and Olivia spent days dragging junk out of the house for disposal.

"Junk lots of," Olivia would comment.

One day, the worked until nearly midnight cleaning out junk and when Casey told Olivia that he'd drive her back to New Horizons, she shook her head no.

"Stay here I," she announced. "Here Like I."

"You sure?" Casey asked with surprise.

She nodded her head yes.

It had been three months since they bumped into each other at Woods Park. They had renewed their friendship and taken it to a whole new level. In some ways, being with Olivia was like being with a whole new person and Casey had enjoyed getting to know the new Olivia.

They had been friendly and relaxed in their interactions. Olivia was an affectionate and demonstrative person in that regard so she was always holding Casey's hand, or wrapping her arm around his waist, or rubbing her hand across his face. She had taken to kissing him goodbye when he dropped her at her New Horizons apartment and now she was telling him that she was willing to stay with him at his house.

"Right guy you," Olivia told him.

"Where do you want to sleep?" Casey asked, suddenly feeling nervous. "Couch? Helen's room?" He didn't want to be bold enough to suggest his room.

"Right guy you," Olivia repeated heading for the stairs. "Fine your room."

It suddenly struck Casey as inconceivable that Jodi was the last woman he had been with, nearly six years earlier. It was during spring break junior year the last time they made love (she met Higman the next week) and that bittersweet memory was what kept his love for Jodi alive. But Jodi was dead and Olivia was alive and that's all Casey could think to himself as he followed Liv up the stairs.

She knew the house, of course, having been cleaning it for nearly a week and she made herself right at home as she went into the bathroom to freshen up. Casey heard the shower running as he changed out of his dirty sweaty clothes from all the work in his bedroom and Olivia strolled into the room stark naked not to long after. Casey remembered Dr. Davis mentioning how Olivia had no sense of modesty boundaries and here it was on full display.

She had a wonderful body, shapely, and well formed, with round breasts and a ball of pubic hair. She smiled as she slipped under the covers.

"Wait you shower," she said.

"Sure," Casey replied, trying to act as if he saw a beautiful nude woman every day.

His heart was racing as he retreated to the bathroom and took a quick shower. He wrapped himself in a towel (he wasn't quite as modesty free as Olivia!) as he returned to the bedroom and he almost burst into laughter when he saw that Olivia had fallen asleep under the covers.

Casey turned off the lights and let his towel fall to the floor as he slid under the covers and nestled himself against Olivia's naked form as he too quickly feel asleep, feeling safe, secure, warm, and enjoined for the first time in his life. This was actually the first time he shared a bed with a woman through the night.

His rendezvous' with Jodi were usually in the car or in her bedroom in the afternoons when the house was empty. They never spent an entire night together as high school sex was mostly the act and not so much the intimacy.

Now, lying naked next to Olivia in the bed, feeling her warmth, smelling her hair, and drifting off to sleep with his arms wrapped around her waist, made Casey realize that he was experiencing something entirely new and special for the first time in his life. He slept as peacefully as a baby, probably for the first time since he and Jodi last made love.

### ### ###

When Casey awoke in the morning, the bed was empty but he could hear Olivia singing from down the hall. She had a lovely singing voice (she was in the chorus in high school) but she butchered the lyrics of whatever song she was singing, sometimes with humorous results.

Casey felt revived and relaxed as he climbed out of the bed. He wrapped himself in the discarded towel from the night before and quietly walked down the hall. The bathroom door was open and he peeked to see a still naked Olivia sitting on the commode doing her duties while her feet bounced up and down to the cadence beat of the song she was attempting to sing.

Casey smiled to himself while running his hand through his hair not quite believing any of this was really happening.

"Morning good!" Olivia exclaimed when she saw Casey standing in the doorway. He felt awkwardly nervousness watching her sitting on the throne, especially when she started wiping both sides of herself.

"Well sleep?" She asked as she went about her personal hygiene.

"Yes," He admitted cheerfully. "Very well."

"Great," she said happily as she stood, flushed the toilet, and went to the sink to wash her hands, apparently oblivious to her nudity.

Casey couldn't help but smile at the strangeness of it all and he let out a small laugh as he stepped into the bathroom.

"What?" She asked, a smirk on her face.

"Nothing," he grinned, feeling a new found contentment for the first time in his life.

Casey actually went to the commode and relieved himself, keeping the towel around his waist while standing with his back to her as his urine echoed into the toilet bowl, his member peeking out from under the towel.

"Feel better now?" Olivia asked, still facing the vanity mirror when he was done taking the leak and he flushed the toilet again.

"Yes," he admitted when he was done.

He turned to see her lovely backside as she brushed her hair out with her hand in the mirror.

"Day new," Olivia smiled as she looked at him through the reflection of the mirror. "Start new."

He nodded with agreement and followed her back into the bedroom.

"Do you like it here?" He asked as Olivia took a seat on the foot of the bed, putting her arms behind her to stay sitting up on the bed.

"Much very," she smiled. "Like you me here?"

"Very much," he answered.

"Good," She said, reaching up and pulling the towel off his waist. "See want."

"Oh?" Casey tried not to feel embarrassed although he felt his cheeks blushing. He sat next to her still naked on the bed, trying not to feel distracted by their mutual nudeness. Olivia had a silly grin on her face and Casey felt safe enough to lean over and kiss her on the neck. She closed her eyes and let out a contented breath.

"Long so," she sighed dreamingly. "Forever wait."

They looked into each other's eyes and Casey was reminded how beautiful hers were, even with the droopy one that somehow added a certain sexiness to her, as if she was permanently winking at him.

"Long how friend been we?" She asked.

"Third grade," Casey verified.

"Friend good?" She wanted to know.

He nodded yes. "You were always there for me," he told her. "Especially after Jodi dumped me junior year. You made sure I felt okay about myself and you reminded me that I was still a good and worthy person."

Casey was surprised that he no longer felt awkward sitting naked next to the nude Olivia. In a surprising way, he suddenly felt free and unburdened.

"Jodi nice not," she sighed. "Hurt you."

"It doesn't matter anymore," Casey realized.

"Me does it," she said. "Liked you then."

Casey lifted an eyebrow when he heard her admission. "You liked me back then?" he asked with surprise.

"Not simple say to then," she said. "Complicated Jodi."

"Yeah, she would have an issue with it, I'm sure," Casey agreed. "She wanted to keep me on her string even after she dumped me."

"You let you," Olivia pointed out.

Casey laughed at her point. "That I did," he admitted.

"You sap," Olivia announced.

Casey bit his lower lip, feeling strangely flattered by her observation. After all these years it felt good to admit that he had been a fool when it came to Jodi. He still missed her and he felt guilty that she was dead but if that night had never happened she'd still most likely be out of his life, probably married to some upper middle class college grad with a good job and a well off family. Casey still felt sad about her but maybe it was time to stop feeling guilty about what happened. She was the one who raced her car like she had no concept of speed.

He dropped his head, thinking about the image of Jodi sitting in the wreck with the fence post impaled in her chest. Had he ever really been in love with her or was it the idea of high school romance and companionship that made him think he was? And now with Olivia sitting naked next to him was she supposed to represent the naked truth about his life?

He felt Olivia wrap her arms around him. She kissed his forehead and rubbed his shoulder.

"Okay it's," she whispered.

Somehow, Casey actually believed her. He leaned into her and kissed her. Her lips were soft, warm and welcoming. He had been so empty of emotion for so long he wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel now. Was he able to feel anything?

"What about your family?" He worried.

"Deal with it they have will," she said, pushing him back on the bed and gently sliding on top of him. "See me come?" She asked seductively.

"You're already here," he said.

"That's mean not I what," she said.

"Oh," Casey smirked. "I get what you mean!"

"Scrambled brains!" Olivia said, rolling her eyes.

"We can scramble something else," Casey smiled.

"Love you I," Olivia told him, giving him a kiss.