It was early Sunday afternoon when my doorbell rang. I was somewhat surprised since I hadn't told anyone where I was living. My shock only increased when I opened the door. Standing in the hallway were my wife, her parents, sister, and brother-in-law.
I resisted my first impulse to quickly slam the door. I had been raised better than that. Besides, I thought the world of my mother and father-in-law, Chester and Dottie Hanson, as well as their younger daughter, Marian. I would never deliberately be rude to them. My wife, Debbie, on the other hand, created emotions in me that were far less charitable. Slamming the door in her face would have been my pleasure.
"Jack! We are here to discuss this problem in a civilized manner. Mom, Dad, and Marian felt they might be able to help me get to the bottom of this situation. Dave is just naturally included in family affairs. Please let us in," insisted Debbie, with no doubt that I would acquiesce.
I shrugged and stepped aside to let them all in. I didn't have enough furniture for everyone to sit, so I carried two chairs from my kitchenette for Dave and me to use. Then I carried a six pack of soda and another of beer into the room and set them on the shaky combination of plastic and wood that passed for an end table.
"Everyone can help themselves to soda or beer. It's all I have to offer," I concluded as I popped the top on an MGD.
"You must know that we are here to try to find a reason for your unforgivable actions," began Debbie. "None of us thought you were the type to sneak around and lie. We'd like to know why you did, and if you have come to your senses yet?"
Debbie's tone irritated the shit out of immediately, but I avoided blurting my response. I mulled her question over instead. I looked at Dottie and I relaxed. She was tense and wringing her hands. It was apparent that she was upset and I didn't want to make her more so. I turned my gaze to Chester and saw some anger in his face. That came as no surprise. He was a good man and felt his family was the most important thing in his life. I noticed that Marian's eyes were moist as she watched me. Dave was reading the label on his beer can and didn't look in my direction. I knew enough of how the family operated to be certain that Dave was pretty much forced to attend this gathering and wasn't here because he wanted to be.
"Well, Debbie, I'm sorry to be such a disappointment to your entire family, but that doesn't change anything. I'm going forward with the divorce. Your lawyer can discuss the details with mine. This drama is not necessary, or helpful," I added.
"You're going to throw away almost twenty years of marriage for some slut?" demanded Debbie. "That just isn't like you, Jack. You've always been responsible and level headed. You've never shirked your duties as a father and provider before. This makes no sense at all!"
"You can blame it on the old "middle-aged crazies" if you like, Debbie," I retorted. "You can blame it on drug use, excessive drinking, blackmail, or aliens, if it helps make more sense to you. The final result is that I am divorcing you, regardless of the reason, or whether it is logical to you. Just accept it."
"Jack," interjected Chester. "We've hired a private detective to find out what has been going on with you. He's only been working for us a couple days, but he quickly notified us of your new address. He has not, however, been able to find anything out about any woman you might be interested in. Does one even exist?"
This was a surprise! I should have known that Chester wouldn't accept the situation easily. He wanted facts, and names, so he had hired a private dick. I tried to quickly recall my actions of the previous two days; trying to remember everything I may have done, and everyplace I had gone. I couldn't remember doing anything that would have given my situation away. I had not discussed my personal business with anyone. There was nothing that anyone could have discovered about me, except where I was now living.
"I don't know whether to be more insulted that you are calling me a liar, Chester, or that you don't seem to think I'm capable of finding a female that would find me acceptable," I replied calmly. "I don't have to explain my actions to anyone. I especially don't have to tell you with whom I'm smitten. If there were another woman, she would be a lady, and I wouldn't drag her name into this shit-storm."
"Chester didn't intend to imply that you were a liar, or that you would not be a wonderful catch for any intelligent woman, Jack. It's more that no one that knows you, and I mean no one, can believe you have betrayed your marriage vows," responded Dottie in a conciliatory manner. "You have always been the strong, supportive husband and father. This desire for a divorce is way out of character for you. We 're concerned for many reasons."
"I understand your confusion, Dottie. I would give anything to not hurt you or Chester, but things happen and people change. With the utmost respect for both of you, I am telling you that I no longer want to be married to your daughter," I croaked out with a suddenly very dry throat. "You all need to accept that fact."
"Jack, if you are afraid to admit you made a mistake and want to come back, I'll forgive you," sobbed Debbie. "I'll never throw this indiscretion in your face or use it to turn the kids against you. I promise."
How about that? Debbie was willing to forgive me! She would take back her wayward husband. Her declaration caught me off guard. I had to ask the question.
"Why, Debbie? Why would you forgive me and take me back into your arms and bed?"
"W ... why?" repeated Debbie. "Because we belong together, Jack. Because we promised each other almost twenty years ago to remain as one. Because the kids need a father! That's why, Jack."
I saw Marian flinch a little at her sister's response. We must have noticed the same thing. Debbie's reasons lacked any conviction.
"That's it, Debbie?' I questioned. "You would take me back because we made a vow to each other? Not because you actually love me? You say the kids need me, as if I will suddenly stop seeing them when we are divorced. They are old enough to bear this burden quite well. They'll be on their own in a couple years. Even so, I will not forsake them. Don't kid yourself there. I'll still be a major part of my kids' lives. That, I promise."
"Of course, I love you, Jack!" declared Debbie. "It's just that you're behaving so foolishly. I simply don't want to pretend that I'm not upset, and hurt, by your actions of late. You have left me, probably for another woman. How am I supposed to feel much love for you in a situation like that? You can't love me, and that hurts. It hurts a lot!"
"I have always loved you, Debbie. I still do, but it isn't enough anymore. I have to get on with my life before it passes me by. I suggest you do the same. I think this meeting is pretty much over," I stated sadly.
Debbie, Marian, and Dottie were crying and wiping their eyes with tissues as I opened the door. Chester had a scowl and Dave just appeared to be relieved. As Marian moved to the door, she stopped to hug me. I had always gotten along very well with Debbie's little sister and I felt terrible that I had not, in her eyes, lived up to expectations. It was my hope she would never understand.
Debbie was the last to leave. She looked truly sad as she moved close and seemed to look into my soul. She appeared to be totally at a loss. She searched my face for some sort of a sign, or something. I just nodded and guided her by the elbow to the door.
As soon as I managed to close and lock the door, I went to the medicine cabinet and took a couple pain relievers. Then I lay down on my bed, exhausted mentally and physically. Eventually, I fell asleep.
Luckily for me, work was very busy. I have no idea how I would have made it through the next few weeks if I didn't have something to keep my mind off my personal problems. I did spend some time trying to determine if anyone was following me. I took different roads to and from work. Now and then I would take a hard turn without signaling my intentions. I never saw any cars swerve to follow. Either the PI was off my tail, or he was very good.
It was a Thursday night, over two weeks from the day Debbie's family had turned up at my door for that conference, when I received a call from Marian on my cell. I had changed phones and had a new number, so I was surprised that she had my number. My two sons were the only ones I had given it to, so it was obvious that Marian had cajoled it from one of them.
"Jack!" cried Marian into the mouthpiece. "Danni is missing! She never came home from school today. I've called around and no one has seen her. She never stays away from home without calling! Have you seen her, by any chance?"
Danni was Marian's fourteen year old daughter. She was a pretty girl, but very shy and quiet. She had an older brother and a younger sister, but she had always been my favorite. From the time she was able to walk, she would run to me and wrap her little arms around my legs. Marian, Dottie, and Debbie often commented on how Danni wouldn't give anyone else the time of day, but she always came to me. As she grew older, our bond only strengthened. I always took the time to ask her about her school and her friends. I played soccer with her and showed her how to catch a softball. Whenever we were at a family gathering, Danni was usually somewhere close to me.
"No, Marian, I haven't," I answered worriedly. "I guess you've tried her cell phone? Did you try any of her teachers at school? They might know something. Has she been healthy?"
"She's been unusually quiet and withdrawn lately. Something is bothering her, but she wouldn't tell me what it is, Jack. I was even thinking of asking you to talk to her. She always responded to you," sobbed Marian. "Can you think of anywhere she might be?"
"I can't, Marian," I responded. "I'll take a ride around and see if I can find out anything. Call me as soon as you hear from her. I'll do the same if I find her."
"Thanks, Jack!" sobbed Marian. "I knew you'd help."
As I drove around the area, I tried to imagine what could have happened to Danni. I stopped at her softball coach's house to ask if she had seen Danni in school that day, and if she seemed okay then.
"I didn't see her today, Jack" replied a concerned Mrs. Mack. "We had a water main break in the middle school this morning. The kids were released early. As you know, her family lives close enough for her to walk home. I have no idea why she didn't get there."
I thanked Mrs. Mack for the information and went back to my car. I decided to ride by the school and then drive the route Danni would have taken as she walked to her house. I soon arrived in front of the school and drove slowly toward Danni's home. I saw nothing unusual. I did see numerous cars, including Debbie's, parked in Marian's driveway. Knowing Marian would have called me if Danni had shown up, I kept driving.
By this time, darkness had fallen and an almost full moon had risen. Half a mile beyond Marian's house was a wooded tract of about a hundred acres. As I was passing it, I recalled how Danni had insisted I walk down there with her one Sunday afternoon. She led me along a path to a very elaborate tree stand a deer hunter had erected. It was more like a small condo twenty feet above the forest floor. It had four walls and a roof, along with window openings on every side. I had climbed up the ladder with her and looked around.
Two chairs and a small army cot comprised the furniture. Cans of beans and bottles of water were stored in a small pantry-like shelf. Danni mentioned that it was her private place, like her fortress of solitude. She would go there when dealing with her siblings, friends, or parents just became too much for her. She told me that no one else in her family knew about the little shelter.
Since I was out of options, I parked the car and found the path that led to that tree. As I climbed the ladder, I knew a sense of foreboding. I found Danni, apparently sleeping on the cot, but I couldn't get any response from her when I tried to shake her awake!
I put my ear by her mouth and detected very shallow breathing. Then, in a beam of moonlight, I saw a prescription bottle! There wasn't enough light for me to read the lettering. I realized that the situation wasn't good. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed 911. I briefly explained my fears, as well as my location. The paramedics were about twenty minutes away, so I told them I would drive to meet them in an attempt to save time. The dispatcher told me not to move Danni, just in case she had suffered any physical injuries.
I told him that I'd meet the paramedics on route 92, a few miles south of the town ball field and hung up the phone. I placed the empty pill bottle in my pocket, gently draped Danni over my shoulder and climbed carefully down the ladder. I pushed as fast as I dared through the dense woods to my car and then sped off to meet the ambulance.
A few minutes later, I stopped and flashed my headlights when I saw the ambulance approaching in the other lane. Soon Danni was loaded and the paramedics were working feverishly over her as the rescue vehicle raced toward the hospital. I had given them the empty prescription bottle in hopes it would aid in Danni's treatment. As I followed, I dialed Marian's number. She sounded frantic when she answered.
"Jack! Have you heard from Danni? Have you found her? Please, Jack, tell me you found her!" pleaded Marian.
"Marian, she's in an ambulance on her way to County Hospital. I can't tell you anything else, except it's pretty serious and you need to get there as soon as possible!" I urged.
"County Hospital!" cried Marian before she began sobbing so hard she couldn't speak.
"Jack, this is Debbie. What happened to Danni? Where was she? How did you find her?" she questioned nonstop.
"Debbie, all you need to know is that Danni is seriously ill and on her way to County Hospital. The paramedics are doing everything they can, but someone needs to get Marian to the hospital safely, but as soon as possible!" I stated as I turned off the phone to concentrate on driving.
I waited outside the emergency room. Since Danni was a minor and her parents had called to say they were on their way, I wasn't given any information. I was pacing the floor when a police officer sought me out. I was still answering his questions what appeared to be every in-law I had boiled into the waiting room. As soon as the cop finished his questions, I was besieged by Danni's family.
"I found Danni in a deer stand that is actually more like a small house in the Anderson woods below your home. I remembered that she showed it to me once a couple years ago. It was the only place I could think to look. She was there, but in a near coma. Next to her was an empty prescription bottle. I called the ambulance and met them on route 92. Then I called Marian, and that's all I know. You need to talk to the doctors and nurses for any more information," I concluded.
At that moment a nurse came out of the emergency room and the group converged on her. I took the opportunity to slip out to my car, and then return to my dingy apartment. When I got there, I had a couple beers and went to bed. Sleep did not come easily as I worried about the beautiful teen girl. Why did she do it? Would she recover? I sincerely hoped that I had found her in time.
It seemed like I had just fallen asleep when the doorbell rang, and rang, and rang. I staggered to the living room and pulled the door open. Before I could even identify the bell ringer, I was grabbed in an embrace. I gradually realized that Dottie was the person hugging me. Chester and Debbie stood behind her in the doorway. Since Dottie wasn't forming any coherent words, Chester decided to fill me in.
"Danni is out of danger! Dottie demanded that we stop in and thank you personally. Jack, all of us in the family are indebted to you. If you hadn't found Danni when you did, the outcome would have been much different and far worse," managed Chester with obvious emotion. "You saved her life, Jack!"
I felt tears trickle down my cheeks as I hugged Dottie back. I had done something positive for Marian and her parents, as well as saved a wonderful girl's life. It helped lift the burden of guilt caused by my demanding a divorce from their daughter.
I noticed that Debbie was looking through the open door into my bedroom. My rumpled bed was clearly visible, and noticeably empty. I realized that Debbie was probably looking for my lover. She wouldn't find her here.
Then Debbie stepped into the room and suggested," Jack, this horrible event is bringing us, our family, closer together. A very negative occurrence can sometimes be turned around and create some very good things. This can be one of those times, Jack. Why don't you come back home, where you belong? You've had your space, your fling; I suppose we could call it. This could be the time to forgive and forget."
"Debbie, you surprise me. It's difficult to believe that you would forgive me so easily. I don't think I could be so generous, if the shoe were on the other foot. How could you live with a person you don't even trust?" I wondered.
"Jack, if you tell me it won't happen again, I'll have to believe you. I think you've learned how important family is to you," reasoned Debbie. "I'm not happy about your actions of late, but I'm willing to work to get past it."
"I guess that's the difference between you and me, Debbie. I believe there are definite boundaries in a marriage, or any partnership. Both spouses have to agree on them, as well as abide by them," I added. "Our marriage is beyond repair now. We need to move on with our lives now and not waste time looking at what was, or what might have been."
Debbie sobbed as she spun around and hurried from the room. Dottie had pulled back and looked at me like I had two heads. Chester's face was red and his ire was obvious.
"You always were stubborn, Jack," observed Dottie. "You were always honorable and trustworthy, too."
"Well, Dottie, it looks like I've changed, and apparently not for the better," I shrugged.
"I wonder about that, Jack," responded Dottie as she slowly shook her head. "I really wonder about that."
After Debbie and her parents had left, I decided to shower and get ready for work. It was still early and I had managed very little sleep, but I didn't want to waste a sick day when I felt like shit. Sick days were for golf and baseball games.
It was just after three that afternoon when I received a call from Marian. She was extremely grateful for my efforts in saving Danni.
"Jack, I don't know what's going on with you and Debbie, and I'm not going to even ask you about it. I just want you to know that you can do no wrong as far as Danni and I are concerned. I have no words to describe my feelings," gushed Marian.
"Believe me, Marian, I am flattered that you thought of me in your time of need, and delighted that I was able to help Danni. She's a beautiful girl and pretty much the daughter I never had. There is nothing I wouldn't do for her."
"That's why I called, Jack. I have another favor to ask. Danni is supposed to come home tomorrow. She's refusing and won't tell anyone why. She wants to live with you, Jack," revealed Marian. "Do you have any idea what's going on?"
"This is a complete surprise to me, Marian. We've always gotten along well, but I've never given her any reason to think she could leave her family and live with me. There is certainly nothing romantic between Danni and me, in case you're thinking that!" I stated bluntly.
"It crossed my mind. I'm ashamed to admit that, Jack. But once I considered everything I know about you, I knew you would never take advantage of a sweet young girl, or any woman, for that matter. You don't even have a girl friend, do you? You don't want to tell anyone the real problem, whatever it may be," asserted Marian.
"Marian, I can only reiterate that my behavior with Danni has always been completely appropriate. I will strongly resent any suggestion, by anyone, that it was not. I am sure Danni will collaborate it."