She took the last drag of smoke the cigarette could give before dying out then flicked the stub onto the cold concrete pavement under her feet and crushed the final memory of what was her release onto the sidewalk, adding yet another ugly mark to the imperfect work of underpaid workers. She wasn’t noticeable; a random street-person wouldn’t give her a second thought. Yet she managed to make a lasting impression on those she contacted; it was her eyes, the intensity in her gray-blue green eyes burned with fire she knew she possessed. Her ability to blend into the background stemmed from the power of standing out. Crossing the street she headed to the comic book shop. She used their mailing address from her summer job days, and never thought to change it. Upon entering she was greeted with the smell of comics, the sweet blend of ink and paper. Glossy editions of this era and worn out special ones from the early days of the industry were displayed making her itch to buy them all.
“Morning Luther” she greeted the heavily eye-lined guy behind the cashier
“Hey Jade! Good morning to you too” he gave her his brightest smile.
It still managed to fascinate her how Luther never grew old. She was equally fascinated that when she applied for the summer job he gave it to her no questions asked. All the other places gave her a look that said: “You’re kidding right?! Why would we hire you? “
Despite being immortal Luther gave her the push she needed to grow up. Being a girl in today’s world meant either being a dependent or an independent you could never be in the middle unless you fought tooth and nail for it. Plus, it was hard to shake off the years of “You can’t do it” drilled into her head.
By giving her a job at his store and introducing her to the world of comics; Jade learned the most important thing she never knew before: Expression through art.
At home expression was through raised voices and physical violence.
Feelings were trampled on and belittled, you were told what to feel, never given the chance to know your own mind.
As if every day were the continuation of a war that started years ago waged over a couple of dirty dishes and a messy bed.
Conversations never start at a regular tone unless in sarcasm, they start at level six and grow with bitterness and anger until it no longer is a conversation; it becomes this psychotic blend of violence that had no reason to appear.
The people in her life were separated into two categories: the ones who accept her and the ones who scarred her.
The problem lies in that the abusers are none other than her family and the accepters are the people she chose for herself.
This is not a pity story. It’s a life story of a woman who found her voice.
James couldn’t get the Zac Brown Band song out of his head as he arrived to work that morning. It was on replay
Now I’m knee deep in the water somewhere
Got the blue sky breeze blowin’ wind thru my hair
Only worry in the world
is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise, there’s a fire in the sky
never been so happy
never felt so high
and I think I might’ve found me my own kind of paradise
He knew that he had reached the point in his life where he could take off and go to an exotic place and relax knowing he had no more worries. But he wouldn’t allow himself that luxury. He felt the responsibility of his success more than anyone, he knew what it felt like to be bone-deep cold and starving, the cruelty of the world hadn’t spared him anything. But it made him better knowing that nothing comes cheap and to get to the top you had to forget yourself and your needs.
Being the eldest of nine brothers and sisters wasn’t easy either. Being the one to protect them and their mother after their dad died of pneumonia when he was 35 wasn’t easy either.
So at the age of 15 he learned to appreciate the good he had. A loving family who were the strongest people he knew.
The burden of being responsible became a part of him, like one of his limbs; permanent. While kids his age went out, partied and reveled in their youth; James went to night school and then to college at the age of 17. His mind absorbed every bit of information it came upon, made connections and formed possibilities and ideas that woke him up in the dead of night so he would write them down then fall asleep again just to wake up a little bit later with another.
He took part-time jobs with his brother Oscar to help their mother take care of them. He would often work as an editor for his future college professors who would give him their papers and manuscripts. Or work at the library, digitalizing decades of old records and manuscripts. But it wasn’t enough to keep a house warm and ten bellies far away from hunger.
Books fascinated him. From encyclopedias to fiction he enjoyed them all. He was never without one. Once his mother joked that she’d have to find him a girl who loved books more than he did or he’d never give her a second glance.
The time he missed out on dating was more than made up for when he was in college, since God graced him with charm and looks, girls were always hanging on his every word and asking him for help with their studies, he enjoyed the attention but never let it distract him from his goals.
His mother, Evelyn, worked as a nurse and started taking extra shifts when his dad died, which was difficult since she gave birth to his baby sister Violet three months after he passed away.
Luckily her boss was sympathetic and allowed her to enroll Violet, along with Oliver and Noah into the nursery he owned three for the price of one in exchange for extra clinic hours. His mother was efficient and indispensable to the work force and proved worthy of her boss’s confidence in her.
By the time James turned 25 he had built a successful publishing house that published upcoming authors who turned out to be best-sellers, he had the gift of finding great writers who inspired. His mother became the chief nursing officer after getting her graduate degree with a scholarship funded by the hospital. His brother Oscar created a record label that specialized in finding unique voices that moved something within those who heard them. But that didn’t slow down or stop the family of sheer determination from making their mark in the world. They saved every penny the earned and put it in trusts for the younger siblings, built foundations that aimed to teach skills to the less fortunate, people who were just like them that needed the push to realize their inherent potential, and invested the rest by buying land that had promise. They lived modestly, never ostentatious. The only sign of wealth they showed was the worry lines that faded from their faces and the happiness the radiated to those around them. That and the property tax forms they filled, paid and sent for each piece of land they bought every 1st of January.
Now here he was, founder and owner of one of the biggest most successful publishing houses in the world. Yet that didn’t ease the restlessness in his soul.
James knew he was in trouble when his mother called him the next day and woke him up from a dead sleep.
“James Donovan Duke” Uh-oh, whenever a sentence started with his whole name it didn’t bode well “what are you doing with your life? And why are you still asleep?” it was barely 7 am and last time he checked he was doing a great job
“Good morning mother, how are you?”
“Don’t change the subject young man, I’m fine thank you dear”
“Mother, it’s 7 am on a Saturday I’ve had a long week working my eyes out”
“Exactly! When was the last time you had a vacation?”
I spent spring break weekend with you and my brothers and sisters at the ranch.
That’s not what I mean and you know it. You’ve been working too hard for too long, take a vacation, meet a nice girl, fall in love and give me grand-babies, I’m not getting any younger and neither are you” she stopped to take a breath and James got up and made his way to the kitchen and poured a cup of steaming coffee.
“Mama, I don’t know what to tell you, but I am not in the frame of mind to look for a wife any time soon”
“That worries me honey”
“I apologize for worrying you, but there’s nothing to worry about, it’ll happen when the time is right. As for the vacationing I cant afford to leave just yet, we have a few books coming out next month and the work is satisfying yet time-consuming”
“Well, promise me you’ll take a vacation when you’re done?”
“I promise mama, and I’m coming over for dinner tonight, save me a place?”
“Always honey, I love you”
“I love you too, Bye mama”
He ended the call along with his coffee and took a shower, turning on the music on his way down the hall. Kip Moore’s Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck blared through the speakers across his apartment, the perks of working so hard it paid off.
He got dressed and left a note to the housekeeper that he wasn’t going to be needing dinner tonight on his way out.
Jade rushed into work at the Bookstore-slash-coffee-shop she worked at for three days a week, she felt the edge of the darkness closing in on her but when she took a lungful of the smell of fresh bagels and cinnamon tea it retreated, waiting in the corners for her to let her guard down.
Structure. The foundation of her new life, she needed it to survive the daily battle of doubt and insecurity that threatened to swallow her whole. It wasn’t enough that she was physically far from her past, she woke up in a cold sweat with nightmares that were the before part of her life, the pain was still there so was the fear that it all will catch up with her and drag her back into the abyss.
She put her things in the locker and checked herself in the mirror, dabbed lipgloss on her lips and flipped her long ponytail over her shoulder. Satisfied, she opened the store up and smiled to the elderly couple who entered like clockwork every morning.
“Hello Mr. And Mrs. Diamond, how are you this fine morning?”
“Wonderful Jade, you look lovely dear” Mrs. Diamond smiled warmly and Jade felt calm settle over her.
“Thank you, we have a lovely selection of croissants this morning and Jeremiah made blackberry and lemon marmalade to go with them. Would you like some?”
“Oh, yes that sound divine” Mr. Diamond replied as he helped his wife of 45 years into her seat “And some Chamomile tea dear”
“Right away sir”
She placed the order with Jeremiah who was placing the fluffy soft pastries on the counter to take care of the customers and moved to the book side of the store, turned on the computer and checked her email, She loved her job, it was exactly what she needed every day. Peace, pastries and Books.
She had a few inquiries about her new jewelry line but not the email she was anticipating. Jade was a jewelry maker, and every year the Jewels & Art community hosted and exclusive fair. She was fortunate to be one of the newcomers last year at the fair and was able to feature a few pieces. This year when she handed in her application and samples she was hoping to get an exclusive invitation which would mean her own booth and a bigger sale. She dreamed of owning her own boutique someday, until then she sold online and through referrals, this fair was going to be her big break, becoming known in the jewelry world and leaving her mark. They were scheduled to send her a reply this week she already started on the collection with the “Build it and they will come” mind-frame.
The door tinged as someone entered the shop, Jade looked up into the deepest blue eyes and something tingled inside her. She had to take a breath before speaking.
“Good morning” He beat her to it
“Good morning, how may I help you?”
“I’d like a cream cheese everything bagel and cinnamon tea please” James was a regular, but the woman behind the counter was new.
“Would you like it toasted?”Jade inquired as she sliced the bagel in half
“Sure, Where’s Jeremiah?” he asked looking around
“He’s taking the bookstore shift today, he makes the best pastries, including this one”
“Yes, I have breakfast here almost everyday, You must be new, I’m James” he gave her his best smile and she felt its intensity all the way into her bones.
“I’m Jade, delighted to meet you, I’m usually at the bookstore side, Jeremiah will take over the business after his parents so he’s familiarizing himself with all its aspects” she studied him under her lashes as she wrapped his bagel, he was tall, much taller than her average 5’4’’ and had the body of an athlete, lean and sturdy. His shirt was soft and stretched across broad shoulders. Jeans that encased strong long legs. She looked up as she handed him his order, his hands brushed hers and she felt the oddest tingle and noticed how his face was one to be painted and hung in a gallery. All strong angles and high cheekbones, dark eyebrows and even darker eyelashes framing beautiful eyes that she could drown in, inky heavy black hair all mussed up as if begging to be run through with her fingertips fell over the side of his forehead and made her think of starry warm nights and whispered nothings.
“It’s very nice to meet you too Jade, She brought her attention back to the task at hand and smoothly said: “That’ll be 5 dollars and 45 cents” as if she wasn’t cataloguing his face like an idiot
“Here’s six-fifty, keep the change”
“Thank you, have a wonderful day”
“You’re welcome, you too” James waved to Jeremiah on his way out.
James arrived work on monday in a crisp suit, refreshed after a weekend spent with his family and ready for the weekly board meeting. Every Monday morning first reader’s pick out their favorites from the slush pile of manuscripts submitted the week before. This group of fresh faced bookworms helped him discover talented writers of this generation. They were a colorful bunch, that bonded over beautiful prose which transported its readers to a different world and poems that carved rivers in the hardest of hearts. James chose them based on individuality and reading range. He had decided since the first memory of a book being placed in his hands that rigidity inhibits creativity and wonder. He sought out new genres and encouraged his staff to do so, to go out of their comfort zones and be led on an experience that could change their lives and keep changing until one day find themselves as new beings. When his company first began he would seek out poetry clubs and coffee houses that hosted spoken word listen to the voices of the people who would be the future of the industry. His business card would be slipped into the hands of the poets and authors he shook hands with encouraging them to send in their favorite pieces. He would comb through piles of entries with his assistant, an intern from the community college a block away, who became his VP. The memories filled him with pride and joy. It was worth the sweat and sleepless nights to see his family comfortable and safe, no longer worrying about the next meal and the winter cold. Remembering the events of the weekend made James smile, he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that his kid siblings were growing up. It seemed like yesterday Violet and Olive were newborn babies with set of lungs that never tired of screaming through the night, now they were a fiery 15 year old duo on a mission to drive their mother up the wall and succeeding with flying colors. Noah was always the silent one, but since his growth spurt and the looks he inherited from their father he was growing into a different sort of silent altogether, the one that exuded charisma and attracted girls like moths to a flame. They were ten different people who shared a love that knew no bounds, a mother that gave them the strength to pave their own paths and a friendship that was honest and full of joy. The house was different with the youngest six dominating the space: Charlie, Charlotte, Oliver, Noah and the twins Violet and Olive and the eldest four living on their own: James, Oscar, Bella and Lily.
A week later, The memories choked Jade as she fell asleep. The darkness managed to hold onto her, sinking its claws into her skin. She tried to shake it off, to stop the roll of the memory film that was her past from pulling her into the abyss. She pulled air into her lungs hopelessly urging them to fill to expand and replace the smoke-filled images that haunted her for the past nine years. It was hard work and Jade was at sea with her thoughts, reliving everything she ran away from, moment by moment until her body shut down, her breathing labored and her pillow soaked from the tears she shed.
Desperation. It’s a catalyst, a changer. It gives those living in fear the courage to get up and change their fate. It gave Jade the strength to become the master of her life. No longer a victim of circumstances. Years of hiding under her bed, covering her ears to silence the violence erupting all around her. You’re Next was the message being repeated to her. You’re turn is coming and there is no way out. So at 14 she knew what she had to do: Become invisible and save every penny. Her 15th birthday was the day she dreaded, it was the day she’d be taken on a “test-drive” by her step-father. She marked down the days; in order for her for her plan to work she gad to cut it close, leaving a few days prior. Her family was waiting for her turn with bated breath. Her step-father would thank her mother for providing such beautiful daughters for them to live off; her mother would nod regally like it was her due. She knew the morning her mother came into her room face overdone with maquillage and freshly painted nails, the scent of hairspray and vintage cigarettes like a second skin encasing her when her mother hugged her it was awkward and burned Jade’s nostrils and raised bile in her throat in disgust, that she would be leaving that day, before nightfall and not look back. She had saved enough money to get far enough away that they wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of looking for her. She wished she could take her sisters with her, but they were dead inside; broken. That was what she would look like if she stayed. So being the youngest she worried about herself from now on. So she concentrated on her plan, stopped washing her face and purposely forgot to shower until her hair tangled and crusted. Her mother would “tut-tut” and tell her she wouldn’t get good tips looking like a sewage rat but she had good bones and her mother promised she would scrub her until she shone.
It didn’t count as sleep, it was a place between a coma and lights-out. Waking startled and shivering hours later with the sun rise, she took a moment to remember where she was. The warm rays drifting through her curtains assured her that it was just a dream. She padded inter bathroom and took a hot shower, the water warming her all the way down to her weary bones. She eyed her aromatherapy oils lining the bathtub and chose lavender to soothe her and wrapped herself in her towel, she then sat on her bed and dried herself off. The light reflected off the bottle as she set it on her night stand, her hands shook as she held her warmed massage bowl and poured ten drops of the gold-tinged liquid with an ounce of clear sweet almond oil then swirled her fingertips through, warming the contents of the porcelain bowl and mixing them into a healing liquid. She scooped some onto her palms and rubbed them onto her skin, starting with her arms, massaging its magic and spreading it over her body, she rubbed the soreness from her neck. Taking her time while concentrating on pressure points and hidden aches, she stopped at her chest circulating her palm on the point above her heart trying to reach where it ached the most, she moved onto her belly and legs, her soles tingled and she moved her hands over them circulating her blood stream and feeling the effects of the oil rushing through her. She finished with a few drops on her temples and behind her ears. The aroma calmed her nerves and chased away the anxiety and stress. She hummed to herself as she massaged, a relaxing hymn she heard sung by the gypsy living next door. She pulled on her softest shirtdress and brushed her long tresses then French braided them. As she sat at her dresser she catalogued her face while rubbing lotion onto it. Her reflection blinked back at her, a vision of beauty masking the pain that shone in her eyes. I will not cry today she resolved and smiled at herself, feeling empowered and stronger with every passing day gave her will the boost to keep moving and shake off the remnants of darkness away. A few swipes of mascara and eyeliner on her eyes and sheer lipgloss accentuating her full cherry lips and she was ready to leave for work. Her starry blue leggings were hanging off the foot of the bed, she pulled them over her long legs and put on her favorite flats. Slinging her leather bag over her shoulder she walked out of the apartment feeling alive and new.
Warmth engulfed her as she entered the bakery; vanilla and chocolate filled her senses and awakened her appetite. She found Jeremiah -the baker- covered in flour at the counter making drool-worthy pastries. She sat on the counter opposite and concentrated on the movement of his hands as he rolled out the dough onto the warm marble top. Mesmerized by the soothing hum of early morning singing the place to peaceful wakefulness. The sound of flour tossed onto the dough, the butter brushed onto its surface, the roll of the rolling pin gently coaxing the dough into its lightness. The bubbling gooey goodness simmering on the stove sending wafts of blueberry vanilla aroma into her lungs. The gently rays drifting in from the picture windows glistening onto the dough. It was the part of the day she loved the most, the time she felt at peace with the world. They fell into this rhythm Jeremiah and her, she would arrive super early to watch him prepare the delicacies of the day and she would watch and clean after him. They were the siblings that shared no blood. He picked up the cutter and sliced into the soft buttered sheet. He had porcelain bowls brimming with filling, organized from tooth-achingly sweet to heart-warningly savory; orange cinnamon, peach and mascarpone, chocolate ganache, fresh-mint mixed in chocolate chips, strawberry jam, blueberry lavender jelly, feta cheese mint mix, cheddar cheese with diced tart pear, creamy spinach and cooked spicy chicken and cashews. Jade tasted them each resisting the urge to moan in delight as each flavor burst into her mouth, sending waves of ecstasy throughout her body. Jeremiah winked at her as She went back to her perch and continued to watch him scooping morsels of heaven onto each strip, then rolling them into perfect crescents. Jeremiah glanced over at Jade as he worked and saw that she was somewhere far away, smiling at her expression; he knew how good he was and was proud of it, having graduated at the top of his class in France at Ferrandi, The French School of Culinary Arts, in both the French Pastry and the French Cuisine courses, he then interned at a pastry boutique run by a Family that had bloodlines running back to King Henry I of France which concentrated on classical French pastries, creations he had only read about in literature and couldn’t imagine would appear under the ministrations of his mentors from swirling creams as light as clouds and puff pastry that melted on the tongue. Jeremiah then moved onto chocolates and interned at Monsieur Jean-Paul Hevin’s shop where he dived into the world of chocolates, it was Willy Wonka’s factory for adults; ganaches made to entice, rich truffles that soothed the deepest hurts filled silver bowls, bars, chocolate based macaroons and pastries meant for indulgence lined trays on the displays. By the end of a long day there wasn’t a scrap left. Customers had waited patiently to buy the treats they’d share with loved ones or enjoy by oneself on cool parisian nights next to the fire wrapped around an enchanting book.
From his experience in the world of exquisite food, he discovered that it was a form of therapy for the makers and the indulgers, a way to revive the senses and escape reality into a world of flavor and joy. He understood that for Jade; watching him every morning prepare delectable treats was helping her heal. She never told him her story but he gave her the care and space she needed for her to open up. He finished with the last croissant and lined them up on the greased trays into the oven, he checked the timer then turned to Jade.
“Hi, Honey” he smiled; she was lost in her thoughts again and he wished he could help take away the sadness in her eyes but somehow knew it wasn’t going to be him, so he accepted that fact and managed to become her brother. Breathing deeply he started clearing the counter tops and wiping them down.
“Hey, I’ll do that” She said silently from behind him.