Life Resumed

by SW MO Hermit

Copyright© 2012 by SW MO Hermit

Romantic Story: Three souls damaged by 911 and the aftermath come to grips with their new circumstances, find love and another path in life.

Caution: This Romantic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Romantic   Heterosexual   .

Carl was walking down the busy street talking to his wife on his cell phone. He was late and had called to apologize to her. Carl was a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard and Executive Officer of a small Cutter stationed in New York City. He had a meeting that ran longer than he anticipated and was late getting off his ship. Now he was on his way to the World Trade Center to meet his wife and parents. While they had waited on him to finish his meeting Charlotte had taken them to her office to show them where she worked and discuss some investments with them. She worked as an investment advisor and wanted to provide them with some information on what her company believed would be the next hot investment.

"Honey I'm only about seven blocks away now. Why don't you all meet me in the lobby and we'll take off from there. I have the rest of the week free." Carl heard a whistling roar and looked up. There, just over his head was a huge aircraft flying low. It didn't appear to be in any trouble but it was way too low and heading straight for the North Tower.

"JEEEZUS," Carl shouted.

"What's the matter Honey," asked Charlotte.

Carl didn't even have time to answer. He watched in horror as the huge aircraft slammed into the building. Fire and debris exploded everywhere. Almost as an afterthought Carl noticed Charlotte was no longer on the line with him. In a panic he slid his phone into his pocket and took off in a dead run heading for the building. He was dodging people who were standing staring in shock. He heard sirens wailing in the distance, getting closer and closer as he ran. He got within a block of the building and encountered police officers. Even after he explained where he was going and why they refused to let him pass.

In desperation Carl called Charlotte's phone, then his parents over and over. He never received an answer. Police began pushing bystanders back farther away from the building fearing a collapse and falling debris. Another roar was heard and all around stood and watched in horror as yet another large airliner approached then flew into the South tower. Another large explosion occurred and yet more debris showered the surrounding area. Now people were running from the conflagration in fear. Carl and many others just stood and stared at the carnage in shock. He felt empty inside and yet, he felt deep surging anger filling his gut. How could this have happened? He knew his life as he had known it was over. Somehow he knew his wife and their unborn child were no more, gone in a fiery explosion along with his parents. Somehow, he had felt the wrench in his psyche when the life was blotted from his wife and parents.

Carl watched as fire trucks and ambulances, police cars and rescue equipment began to clog the streets. He saw many cases of bravery as he watched firefighters and policemen rush into the burning building. When they returned from within they were sometimes guiding, sometimes carrying survivors from the burning sky scraper. Many times Carl attempted to approach and was turned back by officers. Finally he did what he could, he guided some of those who did escape to a safer area and tried to console them albeit with little success.

Within an hour and a half the towers had collapsed and thousands of lives were forever altered, many snuffed out at the whim of a lunatic. Carl and others with friends and family in the towers wandered around in shock, finally ending up at one of the many centers set up to help with grief, rescue, emergency medical treatment and counseling.

Carl did not know what to do. He had his duty but he needed desperately to know about his family, perhaps to help, to find them. He heard the announcement that Al-Qaeda and someone named bin Laden claimed responsibility. Like all Americans he was outraged.

Carl was torn between his duty to his country and his love for and fear for the safety of his wife and parents. He had answered his phone some time before and knew he was supposed to return to his ship. He had been told it had been ordered to sail as soon as the majority of the crew returned from liberty in answer to the recall.

Finally, knowing he could do nothing for his family in the center to which he had been directed Carl let his duty guide his actions and made his way back to his ship. Duty was all Carl had left now. Duty and a deep soul destroying sense of loss and anger, of hatred, soul destroying hatred, for the animals who would do something like this. The first plane had impacted the building almost directly on line with his wife's office. She had told him she was there while he was talking to her and he knew in his heart she had not gotten out.

When Carl crossed from the pier onto his ship he looked like a walking dead man. His once pristine white uniform was soiled and smudged from the dirt and debris in the air. The Officer of the Deck looked shocked at the way his Executive Officer looked. After returning his salute and giving permission to board the LtJG stepped to Carl and asked if he was ok. Carl just ignored him and walked past him and up to his stateroom. Carl left the door open and collapsed onto his bunk. Shortly thereafter the Captain knocked on his door and walked into the room without an invitation. Carl slowly stood and took what could barely be called a position of attention.

The Captain looked at Carl and asked, "Carl what's wrong? The OOD (Officer of the Deck) said you had returned in a filthy uniform. He said you had not even acknowledged him when you brushed past him. Awww Shit! Charlotte?"

Carl stared at his Captain with his haunted eyes and nodded his head. He said, "Yeah, I was talking to her on the phone when the first one hit. It cut off and if it hit where they say, where I thought, it was almost directly on her office. My parents were with her. I saw it. I was only about six blocks away."

"Carl, stay here. We have orders to sortie but we can get the ship out without you."

Carl looked at his Captain and muttered, "Aye, Aye Sir," then collapsed onto his bunk. He sat leaning with his elbows on his knees. He never even heard the speakers as they gave orders for getting underway. He never even heard his friends come into the room or leave once more. He sat all night, never moving except to go to the head. He stared into space and remembered his childhood with his parents, his finding and falling in love with Charlotte, their love and lovemaking, their happiness when she told him she was pregnant with their first child. Now his life was in ashes—ashes and rubble from a ruined building born from the hate of a maniacal barbarian and his cohorts.

The next morning a steward brought him some coffee and breakfast from the wardroom. Carl did not remember eating or drinking his coffee but he must have. Later he noticed his dishes were empty. Shortly after breakfast the Captain once more came into the room.

"Carl," the Captain said. "I know you've had a terrible loss. I understand that but I need, this ship and crew need a fully functioning Executive Officer. If you can't get it together I'll have to relieve you. I know it hurts, hell, I can't imagine how you must be hurting right now but we need you working for us. For all intents and purposes this country is at war now. We have a job to do. We need to get the Bastards that did this to your family and attacked our country. I've had the Doc get you some sleeping pills. I want you to take them and get some rest then if you can't work for me we'll have to do something."

Carl took the pills and collapsed onto his bunk. He didn't know another thing until after ten that evening. He woke rested but hollow inside. He showered, got in uniform and made his way to the bridge.

Over the course of the next three days Carl began to function better but he was never up to his prior efficiency. Finally Carl's tour as Executive Officer was over. Rather than assume a command as was normal Carl was assigned to shore duty for the remainder of his obligation. Rather than try to make the Coast Guard a career as he had planned before Charlotte died, Carl chose to leave active duty. He spent the remainder of his obligation ashore and was mustered out of the Coast Guard several months later a broken, empty man, a shell of his prior self.

Like many U.S. Citizens, hell, like many people the world over Carl harbored a deep visceral hatred for Al Qaeda and those who supported them. He was able to function but that was all. He was a shell of his former self albeit a much more well off man than before. After collecting insurance on his wife and parent's as well as the small stipend paid to those who lost someone in the attack Carl had over two million dollars. He also inherited his parent's estate as he was an only child. That amounted to a share of a small older 40 room hotel and pier on Key West, FL and a 60 foot Catamaran. His parents were retired and lived on the Catamaran. Several years previously they and another couple, Carl's Godparents, had purchased the land and Hotel. Each couple had a suite in the hotel to live in and use of the pier. His Godparents managed the business for years then when they retired they closed it. Now the resort was just used as a residence. Most upkeep was deferred, property maintenance was minimal.

Carl stayed in the New York area until he sold his home. From time to time friends would drop by and try to cheer him up. Some of the neighbor ladies made sure he ate occasionally. After his home sold he went to Key West since he had nowhere else to go. When his Godparents picked him up at the airport they could not believe how Carl looked. They almost didn't recognize him. He was thin, emaciated and pasty looking. He had large dark spots under his eyes and a vacant expression constantly on his face.

Carl's wife and parents were some of the bodies never recovered from the disaster site so Carl had no closure, no one to lay to rest. He had a memorial erected to his parents and wife in the family cemetery plot in Missouri but he could not feel closure because he knew they were not there. He was lost and alone in the world. He withdrew from his friends and just sat in his parent's suite or on the Catamaran. Florida had never been his home. He was born and raised in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. His parents had retired and moved to Florida after he and Charlotte married. They had sold his childhood home so he didn't even have that small amount of comfort to go back to.

Carl sank into deeper and deeper depression. He did not eat well; he lost weight and quit caring for his personal hygiene. In short, Carl was slowly starving himself to death. Dottie Persons and her husband Tolliver did what they could for Carl. They were his God Parents and his parent's best friends as well as co-owners of Carl's home. Dottie particularly watched over Carl. She felt he was the son they never had and spent literally hours sitting with him, forcing him to eat the small amount of food he did consume.

Dottie bullied Carl into accompanying her to town shopping occasionally and forced him to sit in the yard with her watching boats come and go. Occasionally she would get Carl to go into town alone on an errand. Many times while coming or going Carl would see another man about his age sitting outside a small run down house about a quarter of a mile down the road from his hotel. This man looked worse than Carl did if that was possible. His eyes looked haunted, he was gaunt and emaciated. His left arm was withered and shorter than the right one. His right leg was twisted and when he walked he moved slowly with a terrible limp. He was always unshaven, his hair a greasy unkempt mess. His clothes, those that he wore, looked dirty, wrinkled, as if he had slept in them.

One morning Carl was on yet another errand for Dottie when he saw the young man wrestling with a very pretty but pale looking woman. It looked like he was trying to wrestle her to the ground. She was screaming at him and trying to hit him while at the same time it looked like she was trying to get away from the man.

Carl rode his bicycle off the path—most people rode bikes for short errands where he lived—and as far into the unkempt yard as he could. He jumped from the bike and ran to the struggling couple. "Let her go asshole," Carl yelled as he pushed between the struggling couple and separated them. He pushed the man back and, being unsteady on his feet, the young man fell into the yard.

The man looked up at Carl and snarled, "You fucking asshole. You feel like showing what a big man you are by picking on a useless cripple too? Well, go on; push me around again if it makes you feel better."

By this time the young woman had rushed past Carl and was kneeling beside the man. She reached out toward him and he turned his wrath on her once again. "Damn you, why don't you just leave me alone? I don't need your sympathy or your help. I'm a damn cripple and nothing you or anyone else can do will change that. At least let me have a few drinks in peace."

The young woman began crying once more and said, "Mark I know you're not able to do what you used to do and I know it's your money you spend on the booze but if you don't cut back and maybe help with some of the expenses we're going to lose our home. We're over a month behind on the rent now and I barely have enough left to buy food for the rest of the month until your next check gets here. You know I've been trying to find another job but it's tough in this economy."

Carl was just standing trying to decide what to do, whether to just go on about his business or wait to be sure Mark didn't try to hit the woman again. Mark saw Carl was still watching and turned his wrath on him once more. He got slowly to his feet and lurched toward Carl. He raised his hand to strike as he snarled, "I thought I told you to get lost asshole. Or are you just going to stand around and gloat because you're all in one piece and I'm a cripple. What, ya want to see more falls so you can laugh it up at the bar when you tell your damn friends about how you pushed the dumb cripple around? Well you tell them the damn Taliban didn't kill me and neither will your jokes."

When he finished talking Mark took a swing at Carl. Carl stepped back when Mark swung and pushed him slightly causing him to fall to the ground. He just lay there shaking with his anger. When he looked up at Carl there was hurt, acceptance and despair visible in his eyes.

The young woman walked up to Carl and touched his arm. She looked him in the eyes and said, "Thank you for your help sir. I think I can handle him now. This was really mostly my fault. I had a conversation with the landlord about the back rent this morning. He threatened to turn us out in the street if it wasn't paid and I'm afraid I took it out on Mark. He was planning on making a career in the Army and then he got hit his third week in Afghanistan. He was so proud; he had just been promoted to Staff Sergeant. Now he believes all he has to look forward to is life as a cripple, someone that people pity."

"At least he got to give the damn rag heads some payback before he got hit. I'd give anything to be able to get some payback for what those rag headed bastards did to my family and our country," Carl said.

Carl looked down at Mark once more and felt a surge of anger rush through him. Before he could think he said, "Dammit Sergeant, Man UP. You've got your whole life ahead of you and you still have your family. Sure you can't do everything you could do before but you can still work and have a pretty good life. You can have a wife and kids and tell them you at least were able to do something about the Taliban and Al Qaida before you got hurt. Those bastards took everything I had to live for away from me. Now get your shit together and get on with your life."

Mark and Nicole stood and watched in shock as Carl walked away from them, picked up his bike and rode away. They both saw the tears streaming down his face. The rest of the evening Nicole and Mark separately thought about Carl and what he said.

The next morning Nicole began walking up the beach asking the few people she met and knew if they knew anything about Carl. This was harder to do than it should have been because she neither knew his name nor where he lived. All she had to go on was a memory of seeing him most often coming from the east and carrying items he had purchased back in that direction. She recognized the lady that sometimes accompanied him but had no idea where she lived either.

Finally, nearly half mile from her small rental home Nicole found someone who thought they knew who she was talking about. The woman Nicole was talking to told her a young man meeting her description came to live near there about five months before. She had heard he lost his family at the World Trade Center. He had been a Coast Guard Officer and had requested separation shortly after the attack. He then moved to the Keys and took up residence in his deceased parent's home. She said his deceased parent's had owned part of the old Hotel about a quarter mile from her house. All he seemed to do every day now was sit, drink and stare into space. As far as she knew the only friends he had were Tolliver and Dottie Persons whom he lived with.

While she was walking back toward her house Nicole saw Carl sitting on the stern of a huge Catamaran tied up to the hotel pier. He stared at her as if he didn't even know her. She did not think about it, she just walked up the brow and onto the boat. When she got to where he was sitting Carl looked up at her with bleary eyes. She saw the bottle beside him and smothered her disgust. It appeared he was trying to crawl into a bottle just like her brother.

Carl looked her over with a frown and a questioning look. He thought she looked familiar but where did he know her from? He barked, "What?" and sat looking at her as she decided whether to talk to him or just leave. Nicole knew she didn't need to become involved with another damaged soul but there was something about Carl that called out to her. Perhaps she could see the man he once was, perhaps it was something else. In any event she chose to stay in spite of his rudeness.

Finally, Nicole said, "I saw you sitting here while I was walking. I wanted to tell you Thank You again for what you did for me yesterday. It wasn't necessary. All Mark was trying to do was keep me from hitting him but you didn't know that. Not many men would have intervened and I appreciate what you did."

"Yeah, OK," Carl muttered. He turned his head from her and stared out across the pier once more, already dismissing her from his mind. Without looking he reached once more for his bottle.

Nicole stood in shock, indeed with a little hurt. She started to leave then she felt a blaze of anger surge through her. If what she had been told was correct this man was or at least had been a Coast Guard Officer. He was educated and had most of his life ahead of him just as Mark did. He was giving up and ruining his health.

Nicole gave in to her anger and began yelling at Carl. "You asshole," she said. "I've spent all morning asking about you, trying to find out about the man who came to my rescue yesterday. I know about your family and the World Trade Center. What I don't know is what the hell is wrong with you! You have the same problem Mark has. You got hurt, you lost something very precious to you and you blame the world for it. Just look at yourself. Think about what you told Mark yesterday. Are you any different than he is? Get over it and move on with your life. Like you told him you have a lot to live for if you would only try."

Carl felt anger blast through him. How dare she talk to him like that? This woman hadn't lost her spouse, her parents. What did she know about it? He opened his mouth to snarl at her but she continued her diatribe.

"No, if anything, you're better off than Mark is. At least you weren't injured. You have the rest of your life ahead of you and no injuries to limit what you can do. I heard you were an Officer. You could have got your shit together and maybe done something about what those bastards did. At least you could have continued in your position and helped keep our country safe but you just quit and ran away to cry in your booze. Maybe next time you want to chew someone out you should look in the mirror and do it!"

Nicole turned and stomped down the boat to the brow and onto the pier. Carl sat in shock. Long after she was gone he remembered her words, her anger and even the tears he saw running down her cheeks. He was seething but Carl had always been an honest man. He was deeply moved and embarrassed by the contempt he saw in her eyes. What Nicole had said was true but ... Dammit all he had ever wanted was wrenched from him. Charlotte was perfect, his soul mate and they were so happy. With a start he realized something else. Al Qaida had taken her from him but HE had taken the rest of his life from himself. HE had just quit and left the only career he had ever been interested in. He was a quitter. At least Mark had gone down fighting. Carl had just walked away from what was left of his life.

Dottie had been outside sitting around the pool when she saw Nicole go onto the boat. She had seen the young woman off and on for several months and remembered she lived nearby. Dottie smiled to herself. Perhaps Carl had met her and something was developing. Perhaps the young woman would succeed in pulling him from his despair and out of his grief.

Dottie was shocked and a little worried when she heard Nicole yelling at Carl. Dottie was about halfway to the boat when Nicole stormed off and almost ran down the beach path toward her home. Her face was red and her expression showed her anger. Dottie was worried about how Carl had taken what she heard Nicole say. Much of what Nicole said was what Dottie had been thinking but had been scared to say to Carl. He needed to hear those words but was he ready for them?

Dottie walked to the edge of the unkempt yard and stood watching Carl. He seemed upset, yet there was a different look on his face. He looked thoughtful. Dottie felt hope surge in her chest and turned back to her chair and the book she had been reading. She thought she had recognized the young woman and made a mental note to look her up in the next day or two to see how she had met Carl. Dottie felt a little guilty also because she recalled her brother was a disabled veteran and she had heard they were having trouble paying their rent. Maybe she could kill two or three birds with one stone. She would have to talk to Tolliver this evening to see what he thought about her idea.

Early the next morning Dottie was sitting poolside with her first cup of coffee when she once again saw Nicole walking along the path. She watched as she went onto the Catamaran and listened as she knocked on the door and asked if anyone was there. She knew Carl was sleeping in his apartment but Nicole did not know that. Dottie decided this would be a good opportunity to visit with the woman and rose to meet her at the Catamaran.

Nicole had already left the boat and was coming up the path when Dottie got to the head of it. She smiled and said, "Good morning. I saw you talking to Carl yesterday. Did you come back to see him or is there something I could do for you?"

Nicole blushed faintly and said, "Oh, I hope I didn't upset you. I'm afraid I lost my temper and said some things I shouldn't have said. I was hoping to find him and apologize. He helped me the day before and I stopped to thank him again when I saw him on the boat yesterday. He had been drinking and I'm afraid I said some things I shouldn't have..."

Dottie smiled and said, "I heard what you said and except for the reference to your brother you didn't say anything I hadn't wanted to say to him. He needed to hear what you had to say. I'm not sure he wanted to hear it but he needed to hear it. I'm afraid he's still in his apartment. Would you like to have some coffee with me while we wait for him to get up?"

"Oh, I couldn't. I don't want to impose. I can come back later but I'm afraid I didn't sleep well because of what I said and I wanted to apologize."

"Nonsense! I have plenty of coffee and it's a beautiful morning. Come on, have a cup and enjoy it with me. Besides I want to know how you met Carl."

The two women sat and began talking. Nicole explained how she and Carl met and Dottie told her more about Carl and her fears for him. Nicole finally said, "I really need to be going. Our landlord evicted Mark and me. Today is our last day here and I have to move on. I think we have enough money for gas to get us to Miami. I have a cousin there that has agreed to put us up for a week or so until we decide what we are going to do." She started crying and continued, "I really hate to leave. Living here was our parents dream. We kept their house after they died but lost it because even together we didn't make enough to pay the mortgage after Mark was injured. The man that bought it let us keep living there in the guest house and pay rent but after I lost my job we can't even afford that."

Nicole stood and smiled down at Dottie. She said, "Please tell Carl I'm sorry for what I said. I need to go now. Thanks for the coffee."

Dottie stood and reached for Nicole. She laid her hand on Nicole's arm and said, "Wait please. There are too many homeless people in this country and I hate for that to happen to you. Besides, the thought of turning a disabled veteran out in the streets just makes the thought worse to me. I have a proposition for you. This used to be a hotel as you know but when we got older we got tired of operating it. We quit taking guests almost three years ago and now just use it as our home. There are thirty four rooms just going to waste. Why don't you and Mark move into two of them? They are all still furnished and most have a refrigerator and microwave."

"Oh, we couldn't. We can barely buy food with his pension after he sneaks out money for his booze. I know we couldn't pay you enough rent to even live in one room for a month much less two."

Once again the two women sat and had another discussion. This time the discussion was somewhat spirited with Nicole refusing to let Dottie give her and Mark the rooms rent free and Dottie insisting she was going to do that. Finally Dottie had an idea Nicole could live with. Nicole agreed she would work around the motel doing yard work, cleaning both apartments and running errands as payment for their rooms. She finally left, still not seeing Carl, to get Mark and their belongings.

When Nicole returned to the motel with Mark Dottie met them in the office with a smile. She had her keys with her and led them up the stairs to the rooms. She explained legally Carl owned half and she and her husband Tolliver owned the other half. They had informally agreed to 'split' the building by wings. Carl's wing was the east one, theirs the west. Downstairs the lobby, restaurant and bar were in the center and were 'common ground'. Upstairs were rooms running the length of the front and down both ends of the "U" shaped building. The pool was in the courtyard between the wings of the building. They had kept it and the Hot Tub operating for their personal use. Mark and Nicole were welcome to use them also.

For some reason Nicole liked the room on the east wing near the bay and Mark the one on the west wing overlooking the bay. Both had balconies overlooking the garden and were bright and cheerful. Of course both were very dusty and musty smelling because they had not been used in almost three years but Nicole set to work correcting that problem. She even managed to get Mark to help some cleaning his room.

It was three days before Nicole saw Carl and then the meeting didn't go well. She had cleaned hers and Marks rooms the day they moved in. The next day she cleaned Dottie's and Tolliver's apartment. She was going to do Carl's that day. She waited until nearly eleven a.m. then gave up waiting on him. She knocked on his door until he finally answered. He was sleep tousled and bleary eyed when he opened the door.

Nicole could see clutter everywhere in the room behind him. She sighed to herself and thought 'at least it isn't the pigsty I expected'. Carl looked at her for a moment then snarled, "What do you want? Do you always just come barging in where you're not needed waking people up?"

Nicole felt another surge of anger and clenched her jaws, fighting the harsh words she wanted to speak down. She looked Carl in the eye and said, "I'm here to clean your apartment. Dottie hired me to clean and take care of the place and I intend to do just that. I'm supposed to clean and do the yard work in return for a room for myself and Mark. We were evicted from our house because we could not afford to pay the rent and Dottie let us live here and work for our rent."

Nicole pushed past Carl carrying her cleaning supplies. She sat them down in the kitchen and looked around her trying to decide where to start. Finally she decided to strip the beds and do the bedroom and bathroom first then move into the rest of the house. She turned to Carl and said, "I'm going to start on the Master Suite. If you want to dress do it now."

Carl stood glaring at her. He was so shocked at her actions and statement he was at a loss for further words. Finally he said, "I didn't need any help and Dottie had no right to send you here. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."

Nicole laughed and looked around once more then said, "Yeah, right. If that's the case why does your apartment look like this? Why do you look like death warmed over and why are you as skinny and weak as you are? I'd say you needed help and I'm here to give it. Besides, I have to do this to pay my rent and I intend to do it whether you want me to or not. If you won't let me do it now I'll just come back when you're gone and do it then."

"Shit. Fuck," said Carl. He grabbed his bottle and walked angrily out the door. He lay in a hammock tied to trees near the pool, took a long pull on his scotch and lay back. Before long he drifted off to sleep once more. Nicole turned and began her task. Except for a fast lunch she worked until nearly six p.m. before fatigue forced her to stop. She was still not satisfied with the condition of the apartment but decided to finish it the next day.

It was well after dark before Carl came wandering back from wherever he had spent the day. He was not completely drunk but like most days he was well over the legal Blood Alcohol limit had he been driving. When he entered his apartment he stopped and stared. He could not believe how much better it looked. He felt yet another surge of sorrow and disgust at himself for letting it go as he had. Now he had made a really pretty nice woman wallow in his mess to make it better. Oh, well, he'd think about that more later. He stumbled into his bedroom and collapsed onto his bed. He fell to sleep almost immediately.

The next morning Nicole once more woke Carl about mid morning. She once again just walked past him and resumed cleaning where she had left off the night before. This time all Carl did was sigh in exasperation. He watched her for a moment then made a pot of coffee. When it finished he filled a large insulated cup and took it and a box of nearly hard donuts out to his hammock.

After lunch Carl was still sitting in the shade. Nicole came down from her room and began working in the courtyard. She was weeding, pruning and digging out dead vegetation. Carl watched as sweat ran down her face and her clothes became waterlogged. She was trying to dig out and uproot a small palm tree that had died. It would wiggle but not come out of its hole. She wrapped her hands around the tree once more and pulled. Carl could see the strain and effort she was exerting. All at once her hands slipped. Nicole let out a little squeak and rocked backward. She fell on her ass and then rolled to her back, her legs shooting up into the air. She had a shocked expression on her face, and then almost immediately it was followed by a look of chagrin and anger.

When Carl saw Nicole fall and the look on her face he couldn't help it. He broke out in a deep laugh. Nicole turned and glared at him. He was walking toward her and before she could say anything he held his hand out to help her up. He said, "Come on. Let me help you with that before you fall again and land on something without all that padding and really hurt yourself."

Nicole was shocked. Her face turned red and her mouth dropped open then the humor of the situation hit her and she laughed too. The two young people worked together for nearly a half hour before they got the tree out and the hole filled in. Both were muddy and sweaty when they finished.

Carl took her hand and led her over to the shower swimmers were supposed to use before entering the pool. He unceremoniously pushed her under the showerhead and turned on the water. He bent and rubbed down her feet and legs as the cool water sluiced over them. Nicole squealed at first when the cool water hit her but she acclimated and began rubbing the worst of the dirt off her upper body.

After Nicole was cleaner Carl stood and cleaned himself also. He smiled at Nicole once more and took a long run and dove into the pool. He swam a lap then turned on his back and just floated in the water in the deep end. Nicole watched as he seemed to go to sleep. Finally she walked into the pool also and relaxed draped over a pool noodle. The water was heavenly, just the right temperature to cool and relax.

Nicole floated a while then with reluctance she walked from the pool and climbed the stairs to her room and a hot shower. She decided she was done for the day. Carl was still floating the last time she looked out the window at the pool. He had been there for over an hour and it was dusk.

The next morning Nicole cleaned Dottie's apartment. She finished about eleven a.m. and went back to the courtyard to resume her labors there. Shortly after she started Carl came out with his coffee and a breakfast sandwich. He sat in his hammock and watched her as she labored away. After he finished his breakfast Carl stood and moved toward Nicole. Without saying anything he picked up the dead vegetation and pruned limbs and carried them to the refuse pile for her. They worked in silence until almost 1p.m. when Nicole stood, wiped her face and said, "Thank you Carl. I appreciate the help. I'm breaking for lunch now. See you later."

Carl's expression could, perhaps, have been called a smile even if it did look more like a grimace. He didn't say anything, just walked to the shower, cleaned off and once again dove into the pool. Nicole watched him dive in and glanced up at Mark's room. She was going to clean it in the afternoon. She was surprised to see him still sitting watching the courtyard. She had seen him there several times while she was working and expected to see him collapsed in his chair half drunk once more but he looked almost sober.

Over the course of the next two weeks Nicole worked her way around the grounds. She first did all she could to make the courtyard neat then worked toward the front of the building cleaning and pruning the rest of the flower beds too. Many days Carl would help her and once even Mark helped for a short time. Carl still drank more than she would like but at least he was only drinking in the evenings after they quit work. He would sit in the courtyard and look around with a pleased expression while he sipped from his bottle. She hadn't seen him drunk now for several days.

Finally she had done all she could do for the grounds and she began cleaning the office, lobby, restaurant and bar areas. To her surprise one day both Mark and Carl showed up and began helping her move the heavier furniture. They carried the heavy items to the dumpster, fetched her clean water and generally made themselves useful. At lunch Carl disappeared for a short time and returned with a bag of sandwiches from the local deli. He placed them on a table and walked into the bar. He opened one of the coolers and pulled a six pack from it.

The three young people sat and began eating and enjoying their beer. Nicole was almost afraid to say anything but finally she spoke. "Thank you both but ... Why are you doing this. It's MY job."

Carl and Mark looked at each other and they both began to talk. Mark said, "Sis I can't let you pay for all my room with your work and besides, you needed the help. I'm sorry I've been such a shit."

Nicole was already tearing up when she heard Carl speaking. He said, "It's my home too and my building partly. You and Dottie and Tolliver have been doing all the work. You were right. I need to Man Up and do my share too. Besides, like Mark said, you needed the help. You would have never gotten that tree out by yourself." He laughed and continued, "Besides, you put on a good show when you fall on your ass."

"Well, never mind. Thank you both." Nicole was quiet during the rest of the meal. She was thinking about the past couple of weeks. She realized not only had Carl been helping more and drinking less but that Mark also was drinking less. He still mostly sat and stared into space but he was not drunk as much or as badly. He had also taken to keeping his apartment cleaner than he had in the past. She felt her spirit soar as she contemplated the improvements the two men had made in their lives.

It took four more days to get the public area of the building cleaned to Nicole's satisfaction. It sparkled now. On two of the days Mark or Carl or both of them showed up sometime during the day to help. On the final day both of the men were helping her carry and arrange the furniture once more. They finished mid afternoon. Nicole was smiling, her face glowing while she stood in the door to the restaurant, hands on her hips and looked around with pride. She could almost see guests filling the tables, laughing and enjoying their meals and drinks. She sighed and turned from the completed rooms thinking she would clean the unused rooms next even though Dottie told her she didn't have to.

Over the course of the next week Nicole began using the kitchen to prepare meals for her and Mark. They only used their rooms' refrigerators for cool drinks and the microwaves to heat snacks. Shortly after she had moved in she had realized the bar cooler and one of the restaurant freezers and refrigerators were kept in use for Tolliver, Dottie and Carl's overflow food and drink. They still used the business discount to purchase much of their food and drink in large quantities.

One evening Nicole invited Tolliver, Dottie and Carl to dine with her and Mark. She went all out on the meal preparing Scallops New Brunswick, rice pilaf and asparagus with Béarnaise sauce. They also had a nice garden salad and hot homemade French bread to go with it.

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