By Roy L. Pickering Jr.

The inside was dark. Dedric saw no evidence that anyone was in the house. Perhaps he had been misled. Someone might have been playing a cruel practical joke on him.

If what he feared to discover turned out to be what was found, he could not claim that he was never warned. His brother had expressed disapproval of Terri from day one, predicting that she was guaranteed trouble, urging him to end the relationship before he inevitably got hurt.

Dedric trusted his brother's wisdom and judgment above all others. Their parents had both died young, within a year of each other, their mother of cancer and their father taken in a car accident. From that point on, Franklin served quadruple duty as brother, father, mother, and best friend. Dedric knew that Franklin would never steer him wrong. Their bond went beyond that of blood. They would kill or die for each other without hesitation if the occasion ever called for it.

There were few matters on which the brothers held a difference of opinion. Although separated in age by five years, their lines of thought often matched as if they were identical twins. Dedric and Franklin saw the world in the same light, as if through a single pair of eyes.

Then Terri entered the picture and brought an end to their matching sets of mind. Dedric was convinced that no other woman could inspire an equal measure of passion in him. His addiction to her touch was beyond cure. Her supposed flaws vehemently pointed out by Franklin were inconsequential. All that mattered to Dedric was his desire for Terri. He made himself deaf to what his brother had to say about her, calmly accepted that his love for Terri was beyond Franklin's ability to comprehend.

To the best of Dedric's knowledge, in forty years his brother had never been in a serious long term relationship with any woman. Casual liaisons lasting no more than a few weeks seemed to serve him just fine. Franklin fiercely guarded his freedom, believed that settling down and starting a family would spoil the freewheeling way of life he had chosen for himself. Dedric once shared his brother's views about the potential pitfalls of monogamy, matrimony, and parenthood, but they were swiftly revised upon meeting Terri. He saw his future in her eyes and it was good, it was complete.

"I love her," he told his brother as soon as he recognized it to be true, believing this would make Franklin realize that all arguments against Terri were futile.

"I know you do, Dedric. That's why you should end it now, when you have nothing but good feelings about her. Because trust me, that will change. She'll chew up your precious love and spit it back in your face. She'll ruin all of your pleasant memories of her and leave you with bitterness and disillusionment in its place. Get out while you haven't been damaged yet. Get out before she shows you her other side."

"What other side?"

"That's something you can only learn for yourself. But nobody needs that cruel a lesson. Spare yourself what's to come."

"Where are you getting this melodramatic nonsense from, Franklin? Since when have you been able to see into the future?"

"Since Mom and Dad died and left me no choice."

Dedric could offer no rebuttal, for Franklin's claim was not without validity. He did not own a magic crystal ball or deck of prophetic cards, yet Franklin had frequently demonstrated an uncanny knack for predicting when action on Dedric's part would yield unfortunate results. After several such incidents, Dedric decided he was best off when heeding his brother's well meaning advice.

"I know you're trying to look out for me," Dedric said. "I know you only want what's best for me. You've always had my back. So if you can give me one specific, concrete, unambiguous reason why I should break things off with Terri, I'll do just that. Otherwise, while I appreciate your concern, I'd prefer that you kept your feelings about her to yourself."

Dedric waited nervously for his brother's response. He feared that Franklin would call his bluff and state a perfectly logical reason for why he should leave Terri. Yet it turned out that Franklin had nothing more to say on the subject. He didn't give his blessing, but nor did he continue to condemn.

Three months later, Dedric asked Terri to marry him. Five years down the road they owned a home in which they were raising two children, Patrick and Melinda. Both of them in different ways had inherited the startling beauty of their mother, the kind that dared passersby not to take notice and show appreciation. Dedric adored his children and cherished his wife to the full capacity of his extremely grateful heart. His life had exceeded all reasonable expectations for it.

So why was he sitting in his car on this starless night, parked outside the dark house of a stranger, waiting to see what might be revealed to him? He wanted to start the car up and go back home to his children, but cat killing curiosity kept him still. Terri was out of town on a business trip and would not be returning until the next day. Patrick and Melinda were being watched by their regular baby sitter, Nicole. He'd had to pay her double because his request for her service came at the last minute. Dedric had expected to be in the comfort of his home tonight, laughing, playing, and sharing in the joy his kids naturally exuded. But these plans changed when he found the note that had been left in his mailbox. The contents of that note directed him to where he now sat. It stated that if he waited patiently, something of utmost importance about his marriage would be made known to him. Patient was not how Dedric would have described himself as he sat and stared into the night. Yet he continued to wait, for having come this far, he figured he might as well see it through to whatever the end would be.

A bright light momentarily blinded him. It emanated from a car driving slowly down the street. The vehicle turned into the driveway of the house that Dedric had been instructed to watch. This odd game in which he was a mere playing piece appeared to be nearing its conclusion.

Two figures emerged from the car. Neither of them faced Dedric's vantage point from across the street. It was only possible for him to make out that one of them was a tall man, the other, a shapely woman. They entered the house.

Ten seconds later, the room downstairs that faced the street was illuminated. Dedric squinted in attempt to peer through the partially sheer living room curtains. This was pure torture. He wondered if he was supposed to ring the doorbell to find out who was inside. It had not taken a detective to determine from the note that Terri was the most likely suspect. Yet he refused to believe until actually presented with proof in the flesh that she was stepping out on him. The only evidence he possessed so far was a vaguely worded letter, and shadows behind curtains in an unknown house.

Walking up to the house became unnecessary when the living room curtain was spread open and Dedric found himself staring at a familiar face, that of his brother. Behind Franklin stood Terri. The curtain was closed as suddenly as it had been opened. In a state of shock, Dedric watched the silhouette of his brother and wife embracing each other and passionately kissing.

An overload of emotions bombarded Dedric's senses, violently crashing into one another. For a period that may have lasted five seconds or may have taken five minutes to transpire, everything went blank. The next thing Dedric became aware of was being on the road, driving to what had once been his home, but was now strictly the physical structure that his kids happened to be in. He knew he needed to get to them as soon as possible. All other thoughts were kept from entering his mind by inbred instinct for self preservation. He was desperate to claim the last remaining evidence of innocence in a world suddenly spiraling out of control.

More than a year passed before Dedric spoke to his brother again. Much had changed in that time, even more had been learned, and of course, a great deal lost. On the night that would forever be seared in his brain, Dedric's willingness to trust became a casualty of love. In the avalanche of voice messages left by Franklin in the days, weeks and months to follow, the full truth was laid out. Dedric's grasp threatened to crush his cell phone into jagged shards as he listened to the brutal story unfold.

Franklin and Terri had run into each other in a mall a few days after Dedric introduced his brother to his new girlfriend. They decided to have lunch together. Over buffalo wings and nachos, Terri cast her intoxicating spell. Franklin fought his base impulses the best he could, but his resolve weakened by the second. Their affair began after dessert, consummated in a nearby motel room. Franklin planned with every thrust for this to be a one time only act of betrayal, but as Terri dug her nails into his back and her poison seeped into his bloodstream, he realized that he was hooked. Escape from her exquisite caresses would not be coming easily, or any time soon.

Other meeting places were added to their itinerary, including the home of Franklin's friend Albert, who frequently traveled. He swore to himself each time that it would be the last, but continued to break every oath. Franklin's shame was gargantuan, yet it failed to override his desire for Terri. He wanted to believe that his weakness was exclusively of the flesh, that lust alone dictated his wretched behavior. But he was eventually forced to concede that he had fallen in love.

Franklin was taken by surprise the day his brother told him that he and Terri were getting married. He was not sure how to feel when Terri told him this did not mean they would have to stop seeing each other on the side. The concoction brewed in his gut was a sordid mixture of guilt and gratitude. Terri's rationale was sadistically and selfishly reasoned. She wanted both of them. Dedric would surely make an excellent husband and father, so she agreed to marry him without hesitation. She took great pleasure in her clandestine affair with Franklin, so she chose not to end it. Franklin's prayed to a God he didn't believe in for the strength to walk away from his sister-in-law and lover, but her smile and touch and ability to drink him in with her bottomless gray eyes annihilated his will power.

In time, Franklin no longer wished to show restraint for his brother's sake. Instead, he longed to be the one and only man in Terri's life. He wanted her to divorce Dedric and commit to him alone. Franklin hated himself for feeling this way, yet it grew stronger day by day, consuming him, torturing him. At long last he expressed his true feelings.

Terri would have nothing of Franklin's plan. Although not monogamous by nature, she enjoyed being Dedric's wife. Not especially maternal, she nonetheless took pride in the existence of her children. Franklin had been led to believe, though perhaps he led himself to the conclusion, that Terri was not overly attached to her husband or her children. He suspected that she simply did not mind them being around, and that was sufficient motivation for her to keep them in place. Franklin had also fallen under the impression that his own bond with Terri was ironclad. He was convinced that she could not survive without him, and knew for a solemn fact that he would be a wreck without her.

In truth, Terri was perfectly content with the status quo, her husband and children at home, her lover wherever and whenever they were able to manage. Franklin dealt with these unfulfilling circumstances the best he could for as long as he could muster. Then one day he awoke to the knowledge that he could no longer do so. Shortly after he typed up a note and placed it in his brother's mailbox to put change in motion. It was either that, or else go mad.

When Terri arrived home the afternoon following Dedric's discovery, he was waiting for her in the family room. A suitcase filled with his most essential belongings sat beside him. Their children were not in the house. Patrick and Melinda were staying with Nicole. When he was done confronting his wife, Dedric intended to pick the children up from their sitter's home. He would then bring them to a not yet determined location and start his life over from scratch. The house he would leave to Terri. Other than their children, he wanted no part of anything associated with her. She had already been relegated to a past that would be put as far behind him as possible, the sooner the better. All that remained to do here was say goodbye. His words were spoken calmly, concisely, with finality in every syllable.

"I gave you my heart. I don't know why that wasn't enough for you, why you threw my love away like a piece of trash. I suppose you and my brother deserve each other, and it's just my bad luck that it's at my expense. You were everything to me, Terri. Now you're nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. I hate to admit that you'll always haunt me. The way I felt about you changed me in ways that can never change back. And the way you hurt me did the same. I fell in love with you, even though I knew deep down that you were incapable of truly returning it. I tried to make you happy. That was my choice. So is this."

Dedric stood up. He paused to look at the family portrait hanging on the wall. In the picture the four of them would always be young, and happy, and united. By all appearances, their harmony was immune from erosion. The department store photograph had become proof positive that the intention of the invention of the camera was to lie.

His focus zoomed in on Patrick. He did not want to recognize the strong resemblance that his son bore to his brother, did not want to think about what this implied. But it had been made clear to him that what he wanted did not matter. So he considered for a terrible moment the possibility that either one of his children had not been fathered by him. Then he put the thought permanently out of mind, for pondering it would do neither him nor his children any good. Dedric turned away from the photograph and walked away from his wife of five enchanted years. He left his home without taking a single look back.

Minutes after Dedric's departure, Terri found the anonymous note that had exposed her affair with Franklin. She picked it up from the coffee table and crumbled it in anger. Then she picked up the telephone, called Franklin, and put an end to their affair. He strenuously protested, denying that he had written the note. He suggested that an outsider who found out about them must have done it. Terri needed no proof of Franklin's duplicity. Seeing the printed ink on paper was enough to convince her. There was nothing he could say that would change her mind.

"You should have left well enough alone, Franklin."

"For the last time, I had nothing to do with it. I know I said I wanted to come clean and tell Dedric about us. I believed we would all be better off if everything was out in the open. But I respected your wishes and kept my mouth shut."

"Too bad you couldn't keep your fingers off the keyboard," said Terri acidly.

"Why does it even matter? Dedric has stepped aside. There's no reason for secrecy and lies anymore. Why would you want to leave me when there are finally no more obstacles between us? My brother may never speak to me again. That's eating me up inside. All I have left is you, Terri. We love each other. We should be together."

"I'm done with love for now. It always gets too messy. Goodbye, Franklin."

"Terri, wait, just listen to me. I . Terri? Terri, are you still there?"

She was not. Franklin called her back several times but she refused to pick up the phone. He suspected that she had unplugged it. It was as easy for her to abandon him as it was for her to silence the ringing of a phone she did not wish to hear. Terri was a decisive woman who usually got what she wanted, and she had decided that she no longer wanted Franklin.

He was not willing to let her go quite so easily. His intention was to head over to her house. Terri would not be able to deny what they meant to each other when they were standing face to face. They set each other's souls on fire, and the conflagration could not be doused on a whim. This mess could be fixed. Franklin took three steps on the road to reclaim her, then stopped. A photograph on the mantel had caught his notice and frozen him in place. It had been taken on a fishing trip three years earlier. Franklin and Dedric stood side by side with the brilliant midday sun gleaming upon them, proudly displaying their catches of the day.

Franklin sat down, placed his head between his hands, and spent the better part of the next hour unleashing a torrent of tears. He spoke four words aloud to himself, repeating them again and again.

"What have I done?"

Fourteen months to the day, Franklin picked up his phone and dialed Dedric's cell number. He had been calling his brother with regularity three times a week since Dedric and his kids picked up and left. They now lived on the other side of the Holland Tunnel, having abandoned the sleepless city of waking dreams in favor of New Jersey. Other than their geographic region of residence, Franklin knew precious little about what was going on in the lives of his brother, nephew, and niece. But they were never far from his thoughts, especially Dedric.

For the first couple months after exposing his affair with Terri, Franklin's nights were restlessly spent staring at his bedroom ceiling in search for either sleep or morning. He was dually tormented by Terri's refusal to see him and by guilt over his betrayal of Dedric. In time, his craving of Terri slowly and then more rapidly began to subside until all that was left was a faint ember of desire. That's how he learned that remorse possessed far more stamina than passion. Franklin faced the somber thought every day that he would never be able to make things right again between him and his brother. This did not keep him from trying.

Impotently he dialed with clockwork precision to express his sorrow. When he called from a recognizable number like home, or work, or his cell phone, Dedric never answered. Sometimes Franklin would call from a pay phone, and every so often, Dedric picked up. Franklin would manage to blurt out little more than "I'm so sorry" before Dedric hung up.

On the fourteenth month anniversary of the day Dedric moved out of his home, he changed the pattern and remained on the line. He listened to everything that Franklin had to say, allowed his brother to apologize in full until he was nearly out of breath from the exertion. Then he spoke to Franklin for the final time.

"We don't get to choose what we want most, only whether or not to act on it. I love you, bro."

Franklin listened to the click that immediately followed, then the dial tone indicating that he was no longer in contact with his brother. This was just fine with Franklin, for he could think of nothing further to say. His supply of words had been exhausted, as was his capacity to look at himself in the mirror. Unfortunately, he could not rid the world of mirrors. So he put down the phone and picked up the revolver that lay on the desk in front of him. He placed the barrel in his mouth, his finger on the trigger, and closed his eyes. Franklin was done with love, and shame, and desire, and regret, and hurt, and words. All he wanted was to banish his reflection.

Copyright 2006 Roy L. Pickering Jr.

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