November 23, 1995
Trixie slept fitfully. The darkness of the night felt oppressive. She would get up, wander to the windows, sit by the fire, pace the room, then return to the bed to attempt to sleep some more. At three o’clock in the morning, during a turn at the window, she spotted Jim’s car coming up the driveway. After that, sleep became impossible.
All week, Trixie had been obsessing about what to say to Jim. She knew that, despite all their promises to her, the Wheelers would say something to him in order to protect their son and prepare him for Friday’s bombshell. Trixie couldn’t allow that; she had to be the one to speak to him. By six a.m., she couldn’t wait any longer.
She slipped silently out of her room and down the hall to his. Knocking on his bedroom door, some small part of her hoped he didn’t answer or someone else heard her and sent her back to bed. It wouldn’t feel like chickening out if she was stopped by someone else from completing her mission. When Jim answered the door she glanced over her shoulder, half-hoping for an interruption, a last-minute reprieve.
For his part, Jim’s sleep-muddled brain cleared instantly upon seeing her. He realized a visit to his room at this hour had to be important…and wouldn’t go over well with the adults in the house. He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the room, quickly shutting the door behind her. Once she was inside, Jim pulled Trixie into his arms and simply held her.
The unconditional comfort and support warmed Trixie’s heart. Knowing she was about to destroy it all chilled her soul. It would be so much easier to stay in his embrace and forget all about her mission. Instead, she cleared her throat and pulled away.
She paced the room and wrung her hands. “You know how people around here say you’ll do anything I ask you to do?”
Her actions and demeanor filled Jim with a sense of dread, but her words amused him. Leaning back against his door, he smiled and asked, “Do you have a Thanksgiving mystery already?”
The look she gave him was inscrutable as she answered, “The mystery of life.”
She made another circuit of the room. “Would you do anything I asked you to do?”
Realizing she was serious increased Jim’s sense of dread. “Trixie, if you need help I will always help you. If you ask me something crazy, if I’m convinced it’s something you need me to do, I’ll do it. Even if I don’t understand why. But if I think you’re just testing me, no.” He folded his arms across his chest stubbornly. “If I knew what was going on and believed you were wrong, no. If I think you’re walking into danger for no good reason, then no, I’m not going to blindly do whatever you ask.”
Jim glared at her. She stared back, biting her lip and assessing him while reviewing tactics in her mind.
“Fair enough,” she nodded. “But if I could convince you that it was what I needed, emotionally, would you do what I asked? Even if everyone thought what you were doing was wrong?”
The pleading look in her eyes tugged at Jim’s heart. They both knew the answer she wanted to hear was “Yes! Of course!”
Instead, he sighed in exasperation. “Trixie, I already agreed to this stupid, dating-other-people idea! How much more do I need to do to prove myself to you?”
Instantly deflated, Trixie sank to the floor where she stood. “Oh, Jim. This is so much bigger than that.”
Never able to stand seeing her upset, Jim sought to comfort her. It seemed that what she wanted was his promise, but he was afraid to make a blanket promise when he had no idea what was going on.
He sat down beside her. “So convince me.”
A shadow of a smile joined the flicker of hope which sprang to her eyes. Profound sadness replaced it all before she began to speak. “Do you remember when I said I could see forever in your eyes, but not tomorrow?”
Jim nodded. “Of course I do.”
Trixie rubbed her palms on her pajama-clad legs. “I found tomorrow, and I understand why you can’t be a part of it.”
Her voice cracked and she swallowed loudly. Jim didn’t like the sound of this, but he was, as always, more concerned about her than how he felt. He took her hand and squeezed it, offering his strength.
Biting her lip again, she hesitated. “Can I explain with an analogy?”
Mustering all the calm he could, Jim offered a teasing smile. “I don’t know. Can you?”
Trixie stuck out her tongue at him. The teasing relaxed her enough that she was able to launch into her story.
“It’s like there’s this mountain and we all have to get to the other side. There are several different routes with different levels of difficulty.” Her eyes focused on some distant point in some other realm, envisioning this imaginary mountain. “Sometimes people are free to choose their path, and sometimes people are forced to take a certain road…as if there was a landslide that blocked their other choices.”
Trixie glanced at him to see if he was following her train of thought. Jim frowned in concentration but motioned for her to continue.
“So if your friend’s only option was to take a rough and dangerous path, and you had a choice between traveling with your friend or taking an easier path, what would you do?”
The look on Jim’s face came very close to saying she was stupid to ask. “That’s a no-brainer. I’d go with my friend.”
She gave him a soft smile. “Of course you would. And that’s the problem.”
“Why would that be a problem?” Jim was highly insulted.
Trixie stared at her fingers as she wrung her hands. “You can go over the mountain in the sunlight or you can travel with me.”
“With you. Always.” Jim’s voice was firm and he spoke without hesitation, despite the ice gripping his heart.
Trixie’s response was just as swift and sure. “NO!”
She took a deep breath and reached for his hands. Her grip was strong and desperate. “The other side of that mountain is our forever. My path goes through a deep, dark tunnel. I need you to go over the mountain, get to the end of the tunnel, and guide me from there. Be the light at the end of my tunnel.”
Jim resisted. “I can help you better if I’m at your side.”
Trixie shook her head. “Not this time. Not this tunnel.”
He was about to argue when he remembered that she had had a lot of doctors’ appointments lately. The color drained from his face as icy fear flooded his soul.
Knowing he was starting to see where she was going, Trixie’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want you in this tunnel. I don’t want you anywhere near this darkness.”
Jim could barely breathe. He shook his head, trying to deny what was happening.
“Listen to me!” she begged. “I want you to stay in the light. I want you to be the light at the end of my tunnel. I want you to be my motivation…my reason to live.”
Hearing those words caused them both pain. They held on for dear life, nearly breaking each other’s hands.
Crying now, she swore, “I promise you, we will have our forever. I will get through and find my way to you. I promise you!”
He tried to breathe. The only thing that penetrated the haze of his misery was the pain in her eyes. “Trixie…”
“Jim, I mean it.” She pleaded, “You can’t deal with this darkness. The path in the light won’t be easy, but it won’t destroy you. But this would. If I even speak the stupid word out loud right now, it will shatter you.”
He wrapped his arms around her and crushed her to his chest. Kissing her forehead, he battled for coherent thought. “I hear your analogy, and I get it, but I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do in the real world.”
“Go away.” In contrast to her words, she wound her arms around him. He tightened his hold on her.
“Go back to school, tune us out. Face the truth, that you can’t handle this.” Her voice was thick with tears. “I can’t help you through this, so go lean on Chelsea, Preacher, and your other friends. Everyone but the Bob-Whites, please. I can’t go through this alone and I need them. But I don’t want you to be alone, either. And I just know that we can’t do this together. We just can’t.”
Becoming aware of his own tears, Jim swallowed. “If I abandon you at a time like this, the Bob-Whites will never forgive me.”
“If you don’t, it will kill us both.”
Jim looked into her eyes and saw her absolute conviction and the accompanying terror. It didn’t matter if Trixie was right or wrong, because of how strongly she believed what she was saying.
He realized that the only thing he could do to help her was to go along with her crazy idea. When the thought of running away brought a wave of relief crashing over him, he also realized she was right. Once again, Trixie knew what was best for both of them despite its unconventionality.
Cupping her face with his hands, he wiped her tears with his thumbs. Gently he kissed her lips. Then he made his own promise. “Yes, Trixie. If you ask me to do something, no matter how crazy the request, I’ll do it.”
Trixie smiled through her tears. “Thank you.” Then she bit her lip and frowned. “I know this is going to be hard. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t!” Jim commanded fiercely. “Don’t you dare apologize. Just keep your promise.”
“I will.” Trixie placed her hand over his heart. “I want forever with you. I’m going to fight for that. And I’m going to win.”
Jim smiled. “I believe you. I believe in you.”
He stood up and pulled her to her feet and into a hug. Trembling, he dared to ask, “Tell me?”
She wasn’t going to go into detail, and she definitely wasn’t going to use the C-word. “Brain tumor. Bad kind.”
Even though he was braced for her response, it still felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Struggling for breath, he choked, “Brian doesn’t know?”
Trixie could see his struggle. She could feel the need to help him, wanting to support him at all costs, consuming her. If he stayed, she would be focused solely on him. “There’ll be a family meeting on Friday to inform everyone. Please don’t be at that meeting.”
He looked down into her worried eyes and realized that her allegorical description of the tunnel and the mountain wasn’t meant to be purely symbolic. He needed to be physically absent, far enough away that she could neither see nor feel his fear. Although it cost him, he promised, “I’ll be gone.”
Gnawing on her bottom lip, she hedged, “I really didn’t want to ruin anyone’s Thanksgiving…”
Jim offered, “If you’d kept that worried expression on your face all day, I would have obsessed about getting the truth from you anyway.”
“You and everyone else,” she snorted and rolled her eyes. “Why do you think I’m staying here all day?”
They had drifted apart, and she was back to pacing the room while he was once again standing still and watching her. The normalcy of it struck him as somehow wrong when their world was in such upheaval. Then his thoughts drifted towards all the “normal” moments of the day ahead. “I can’t pretend to be okay all day, and I shouldn’t stay with you. I should leave.”
“But where will you go?” she wailed, eyes wide and worried. “And did you even sleep?”
Jim’s face grew stern. “I should ask you the same question. And wasn’t the entire point here to keep you from worrying about me?”
Trixie barely refrained from stamping her foot. “I can’t help it!”
“So I see,” Jim said. His face softened and his eyes misted over. “I love you for that.” He took a deep breath and stood tall and determined. “But I would rather have forever than today.”
Trixie said nothing, but one large tear made its way down her cheek.
Jim stepped over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Go get some sleep, Trixie.” He kissed her forehead and then tugged on his favorite curl. “I’ll see you on the other side of the tunnel.”
Trixie turned to go, but stopped at the door, keeping her back to him. “We will have forever.” Then she slipped away.
Jim plopped down on the side of his bed and buried his face in his hands. A vision of his father’s grave appeared before his eyes. The letters of Winthrop Frayne’s name began to morph into the name of Beatrix Belden. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear the vision.
Jumping up, he paced the room and ran his hands through his hair. That brought to mind a memory of his mother. She had been sleeping on the sofa when he arrived home from school. He had knelt beside her and stroked her blonde curls, their shine dulled by her medication. He ended up with a fistful of hair. His horrified gasp had wakened her and she’d opened her eyes. He remembered seeing the worry in her eyes when she saw the fear on his face. Suddenly the memory of Katje Frayne Jones’ worried blue eyes turned into the sight of Trixie’s worried blue eyes, and in his mind the fistful of hair became his favorite curl.
The room grew warm and the walls started to close in on him, or so it seemed. He had to escape, to get away from here and go somewhere he could breathe.
Damn Trixie for knowing him so well, anyway.
When he had arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, he’d been wired and unable to sleep. Instead, he’d unpacked and reorganized his things with a neatness that bordered on obsessive. Now he grabbed his suitcase and began to throw things into it haphazardly.
When it was full, he closed it and grabbed his keys, prepared to flee. He threw open his bedroom door and ran… straight into his father, who was dressed to go riding. Eyes wild, Jim pushed away from him and turned towards the stairs.
“Jim, wait!” Matt called out, worry in his voice and a frown on his face. “Where are you going?”
“Away!” Jim turned, his anguish written all over his face. “Leave me alone, Dad. Just… take care of her.” His voice broke on the last words, and he ran down the stairs.
Matt watched him go, his heart breaking. Ever since hearing Trixie’s diagnosis he’d worried about how this would affect his son. He had known Jim would be upset, devastated even, but he’d never expected him to run away. He wondered how long he should wait and how much space he should give him before attempting to reel him in.
Giving up on the notion of clearing his head with a refreshing ride in the preserve, Matt returned to his bedroom. He had learned long ago the value of communication with his wife, but in the last month he had discovered it to be a vital necessity. He desperately needed to inform Maddie of the latest ulcer-inducing development in their saga.
And hopefully I can manage the next chapter by March! Enjoy the Journey...