Chapter 6

Joe's 'coming out of the closet' was his last tryst with Austin. With Jason's schedule in flux, Morning Joe time was too dangerous and soon Steph and Julie were out of school for the summer too. All three teenagers worked their summer jobs, but the schedules were too haphazard for Joe and Austin to risk any quality time together. They'd wave to one another when Steph walked across the street at night to sleep at Julie's but that was about it.

The Parringtons took a week's vacation to Martha's Vineyard and Julie invited Steph along which only intensified Joe's torture. The house felt extra empty without Steph around and the mornings were doubly lonely without the Morning Joe experience. Joe missed Austin terribly and as each summer day ticked by on the calendar Joe felt more distant and removed from their Morning Joe time.

Would Austin get used to her days without him? Would their affair die out with time and distance? It was the best thing really – but not so easy to accept.

Summers don't last forever and as August began to wane Joe fantasied about Morning Joe time should the opportunity arise. But then Steph dropped her bombshell one night at dinner.

"Dad, I think I'm old enough now that I don't need Austin and Julie babysitting me anymore," she announced.

"Oh?" Joe asked with surprise.

"I think I should be able to sleep here at night, in my own bed, in my own house," Steph stated with authority.

"Really?" He father asked. "You won't be afraid or lonely?"

"I'm not a kid anymore, Dad," Steph protested. "The doors are locked. I have a cell. The Parringtons can keep an eye out from across the street."

Joe didn't have a legitimate counter to her argument. It actually made perfect sense and he wanted Steph to be comfortable with whatever situation she found herself in. The poor kid had already been through enough. "Okay," he said. "That's fine."

"Thanks, Dad," she smiled. "I'll let Julie and Austin know. We can start tonight."

"Nobody besides Julie and Austin in the house when I'm not here," Joe reminded her.

"I know, Dad," Steph said, rolling her eyes.

Joe figured there could still be Morning Joe time. He'd just sneak over to Austin's house once the girls and Jason headed off for school in the morning. But then Senior Dispatcher Charlene Diamond suffered a massive heart attack and she decided to immediately retire due to health reasons.

Joe was the next senior person in the pecking order and the Department offered him the full time Monday – Friday daytime dispatcher position. There was no way Joe could turn down the opportunity. It would return his life to a normal routine and allow him to be a more present parent to Steph even though she was getting older and would be spending more time socializing with her friends away from the house.

Of course, with the new shift, the opportunity for Morning Joe time was now lost and Joe felt deep pangs of regret and loss. He told Steph the good news of the shift change knowing she would quickly pass the information on to Austin and Julie.

Joe worked his final overnight shift on the Friday before school started and he began his new daytime shift that Monday morning. School started two days later, but Joe was already at the Dispatch Center by the time Steph walked across the street to the Parrington's for her ride to school each morning

While Joe was relieved that the affair was apparently over, he was overwhelmed by sadness and guilt – mostly because he never got the chance to say goodbye to Austin and to thank her for being there for him. He knew he'd never get over his experience with Austin helping him through a period of grief and sorrow but he didn't want to punish himself for it either.

Joe could now stop lying to himself for the wrong he was committing. He no longer had Austin to rely on for his sexual lust and he knew he had to move on and let it all ago. Austin was a married woman with children and responsibilities and he had been selfish to take advantage of her in his pain and loneliness. He didn't want to have to examine his morality or his sins. He just wanted to move on even though he knew he would never be able to forget what he shared and experienced with Austin.

Joe stayed busy to help ease the withdrawal and emptiness. He'd come home from work and cook multi-course dinners for Steph. He worked up the courage to begin the tedious task of slowly packing up Maryanne's clothing and other belongings for donations to local charities. Steph helped with that project which was a therapeutic process for both of them. Joe went to Steph's various school activities. He picked up an extra weekend shift when he knew Steph had plans.

And yet Joe remained haunted. He'd find himself standing in the upstairs hallway window looking out at Austin's house to see if he'd catch a glimpse of her. He wondered what her thoughts were about him and them. There hadn't been any texts or calls – just a couple of 'Austin says hi' from Steph which only confused him more.

Would Joe be able to move forward in a healthy healing way and perhaps meet someone new (and available) without guilt and regret? He still battled with bouts of sadness and shame when he thought about Austin and their illicit time together. He wondered if he'd ever experience that level of intensity again, both of them grieving and hurting and relying on the other for emotional support and sexual escape.

The weeks rolled by and Joe slowly healed from the wounds of his broken affair with Austin. He missed her and their Morning Joe time but it was over between them and he needed to move on - or at least forget about their trysts.

Joe had just finished his shift when Police Chief Hugh O'Reilly called him into The Chief's office. Also there was a woman in her mid-thirties - Joe was certain he had never met her before.

"Ms. Marshall, this is Joe Doleva, the dispatcher on duty that night in question," Chief O'Reilly said.

"It's nice to meet you," Ms. Marshall said, extending her hand.

She was an attractive woman, tall with long brown hair and a thin face. Joe accepted her hand in a polite shake.

"Do you remember the call you got several months ago from the woman trying to order a pizza?" Ms. Marshall asked.

"Yes," Joe said.

"That was me," she reported.

"Oh," Joe said with understanding. "Well, it's nice to meet you. I hope things turned out okay for you."

"They did," she said happily. "Thanks to you. You probably saved my life that night."

"Oh, I don't thin….."

"Trust me," she interrupted. "Thank you for taking me seriously and for knowing what to do."

"You're welcome," Joe said, knowing there was no point arguing with her.

"And yes, things did turn out okay for me," Ms. Marshall said. "He's long gone, I've been in support groups and other healthful and helpful situations, and I'm doing very well at my job at Blue County Coffee Roasters."

"That's good to hear," Joe said. "Congratulations."

"Well then," Chief O'Reilly spoke up. "Ms. Marshall just wanted to thank you, Joe."

"I appreciate that," Joe replied. "Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Marshall."

"Betsy," she said, giving Joe a long look. "And thank you."

"Okay," Chief O'Reilly said, showing both of them toward the door. "I'm glad you two met. Joe, keep up the good work. Ms. Marshall, thank you for your feedback and best of luck to you."

"Thanks, Chief," Joe said.

"Yes," Betsy agreed. "Thank you for arranging this."

Joe and Betsy left the Chief's office and Joe escorted the woman toward the main door of the police station.

"I never got my pizza," Betsy said with a smile.

"Huh?" Joe asked with confusion as they walked.

"That pepperoni and sausage pizza I ordered from you that night," she said. "It was never delivered."

Joe smiled, amazed that someone (besides Austin) was actually flirting with him. "Well, we could meet up at the Greenville Pizza House and get it," he suggested.

"Friday night? Betsy asked as they stepped outside the Police Station.

"How does 7:00 work for you?" Joe asked.

"That would be great," she said. "Thanks. I really like pizza."

"And coffee?"

"I love coffee!"

"In the morning?"

"Anytime."

"That's good," Joe said. "Me too."

A/N – Some might be disappointed that Austin simply disappears from the story but I wanted her sudden exit to be symbolic – that's how most affairs end – without real closure. And I wanted Joe to be able to move on too. As for Austin, you'll have to write your own conclusion.