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The Old Flame
Lisa Criss Griffin
She blazed back into Jackson’s life like a magnificent sunrise, full of life, exuberance and laughter. Her parents had named her aptly. Gloria. Gloria King. He was pleasantly surprised she remembered him. His former classmates gazed at his name tag, sincerely trying to put his name with his face. Most of them attempted to make polite conversation before moving on. The most awkward moment of his high school reunion so far, had been when Greg Jones looked at his name tag and sputtered his surprise indelicately.
“Jackson Meade. Jack…son Meeeede. What the…? I thought you were dead, man!”
Greg peered up at him over his bifocals and squinted, seemingly unconvinced. He sipped on his drink before clapping Jackson’s arm, congratulating him on being alive. Before Jackson could respond, Greg walked away, a slight stagger in his step. Jackson sought refuge at a table with his back to the wall after that experience. He held no grudge. After all, it had been forty years since he had seen any of these people.
Jackson had moved back to town temporarily to care for his elderly father. His wife of nearly thirty-five years passed away three years ago, and their two children inevitably moved away as lucrative employment opportunities presented themselves. To cope with his inconsolable grief over Lila’s death, Jackson devoted himself to his career and a rigorous schedule of daily physical workouts at home. Financially, it had been great for him. Socially, it was a disaster. Eventually, people stopped calling or dropping by. He told himself he didn’t mind. But he did. Jackson was lonely, and it was his own fault.
So here he was, at his fortieth high school reunion, trying to make a connection with someone, anyone, out of his past. His father had encouraged him to come, realizing Jackson needed a life beyond the walls of their family home. He knew he wasn’t trying very hard, but the truth was he barely knew the people he had met so far. The crowd he was part of in high school had either not arrived yet, or heck…maybe they were all dead. He had no way of knowing.
An unexpected slap on the tabletop jolted Jackson out of his reverie.
“Jackson! Jackson Meade! How are ya, man? It’s me! Mike Mendenhall. Awww…surely you remember me. The madcap M&M brothers? We should have been in way more trouble over the years for the stunts we pulled!”
“Hot damn, Mike! It is great to see you! It has been too long…way too long! Here, pull up a seat before I convince myself I’m attending the wrong reunion. Seriously, I barely remember any of these people. Have you seen any of the old gang here?”
“No, not yet, other than you. Carl, Dan and Rob died, all in various accidents years ago. Others, like yourself, moved away. I run into Gary Holt and Junior Nance sometimes. Beth Graves-Grant is a lawyer here in town. Gloria King owns and operates a popular beauty salon by the park downtown. She usually trims up what is left of my hair when it gets too shaggy. Since my wife Ellen died, I don’t go as much as I probably should.”
“I sure am sorry to hear that. So you actually married little Ellen King? Gloria’s younger sister? You dog, you. She was always sweet on you. I am very sorry to hear of her passing, my friend. My sweet wife Lila died three years ago. We were married almost thirty-five years. I confess, I have been absolutely lost without her.”
The two old friends locked eyes in mutual understanding, both men relieved to have reconnected with a kindred soul.
“So what brings you back to our old stomping ground, Jack?”
“My Dad needs some help. I promised him years ago I would do what I could to help him stay in his home as he got older. He was adamant about living in their home after Mom died. It has been nice being back, although you are the first person I have reconnected with since I moved here.”
Jackson felt her presence before she reached the table and joined the two friends. It was like a delicious ray of sunshine plopping into the chair next to him, casting a brilliant and delighted smile his way. His breath caught in his throat as their eyes met. He swallowed nervously, unable to believe the sudden tingle of excitement in his belly. Gloria. She was still so frickin gorgeous! Older like all of them, but time had been kind to Gloria. He nervously clenched his hands together under the table, overwhelmed by feelings he thought were long dead throbbing through his well toned body.
“Jackson? I haven’t seen you since…high school, I guess. How are you? What have you been doing? You look great, although you could use a professional haircut.”
Jackson made a valiant effort to pull himself together while Gloria laughed softly, radiating her innate zest for life into the atmosphere.
“Hi, Gloria. It certainly has been a long time. It is wonderful to see you! I recently moved back to town to help out my Dad. I was just telling Mike how nice it is to run into old friends.”
“Last I heard, you married and moved away…to Georgia?”
“Close. Lila and I lived in Tennessee for about thirty-five years. She died three years ago.”
Gloria touched his arm gently, her green eyes mirroring the sincere compassion in her heart for her old flame.
“I am so sorry, Jack. I always hoped you were happy and were doing well. Honestly, I never thought we would ever see you again. It seemed like you simply disappeared from the surface of the planet after you moved away.”
Her soft touch raced through his body like fire. What the hell was wrong with him? This felt like high school all over again. Jack was not prepared for his intense reaction to her touch, to her very presence. He hoped his enormous attraction to her was not obvious. He glanced over at Mike, silently pleading for help. All he got was a knowing grin in return.
“Well guys, who wants a drink? I think there is punch…most likely spiked if ole Greg had anything to do with it, cola or bottled water. Any takers?”
“I’ll take a cola.”
“Water for me, thanks.”
The two men watched as Gloria made her way through the crowd towards the refreshments. Mike caught Jack’s eye.
“You know she is single, Jack.”
“Erm…no, I didn’t know. Why?”
“She married briefly, but he was highly abusive. She divorced the sob right before he was killed in a motorcycle accident. She never remarried. I can’t really blame her though. The man brutalized her unmercifully. Just between you and me, it is a miracle she is still so upbeat, but that is Gloria. She is always a ray of sunshine, although I haven’t seen her glow like this since you two were an item.”
“Yes, really. And you might want to put your eyeballs back into your head and pull your tongue off of the floor, my man.”
“Oh no! Was I that obvious?”
“Only to someone who has seen that reaction before. Remember high school? You two were crazy about each other. And back then, it really showed. Too bad you left town for college.”
“It wasn’t just that. Her father really didn’t like me. He pulled me aside, told me I wasn’t good enough for his daughter and to stay the hell away from her. He may have had a point. I was pretty wild back then. Funny how having to work your way through college will teach you some responsibility. I had calmed down a lot by the time I met Lila. She was so great, Mike. I miss her. And I miss having someone to share my life with. I mean, I love my Dad, but it is not the same thing.”
“You should go get that haircut, man. Then ask her out for coffee…maybe dinner, a movie.”
“I haven’t dated in thirty-eight years, Mike.”
“Well, it is high time you tried. Just get a haircut and take it from there. The worst thing that could happen would be a damn fine haircut, even if she says no. Do it, Jack! You really have nothing to lose.”
Gloria returned with their drinks and a couple of plates filled with snacks. The three old friends found themselves reminiscing and laughing about old times. Before they knew it, the organizers were herding everyone out the door. The three of them exchanged their contact information before parting ways.
Jack walked Gloria to her car as a safety precaution, even though it was a reasonably safe part of town. Gloria found her keys and unlocked the car door before she turned to say good night. Their eyes locked, and without warning, they were both transported back into the irresistible magic of their high school days. It was all Jack could do to not lean forward and kiss her familiar, soft lips. Gloria rewarded him with one of her radiant smiles. She reached up and ran her delicate fingers through his thick, silver mane.
“You could use a trim. Come see me soon, okay?”
“I will. I promise.”
Jack stood in the parking lot, watching her drive away. He was already in way over his head. She still had the power to crush his heart if she wanted to. The possibility was terrifying, yet immensely exciting. Life coursed through his veins as he drove home. He hadn’t realized how dead the last three years of his life had been until Gloria unexpectedly walked back into his life and dazzled him tonight. Once home, he checked on his sleeping father before rolling into bed. He stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. It was well after four in the morning before he finally drifted off into a fitful slumber, dreaming of a time long past, when he and Gloria were out of their minds in love.
The little bell on the front door tinkled a friendly greeting as Jackson stepped across the threshold and into the entryway of the salon. Gloria was busy rinsing a client’s hair, but flashed him a delighted smile. He returned the smile and found a seat. He couldn’t help but watch her as she dried and styled her client’s hair. She was certainly talented in her profession.
Her happy customer finally left. Jackson stood in fervent anticipation of the feel of Gloria’s delicate hands caressing his head for the next thirty minutes or so. The front door unexpectedly banged open, the attached bell clanging in protest. A disheveled man barreled in, brandishing a knife.
“Give me all your cash, bitch, or I’ll slash you the hell up!!!”
Gloria froze in place, shocked by the violent intrusion.
“I ain’t got all day, woman. Move it! Move it!”
The thug stepped toward Gloria aggressively, the wicked looking knife flashing in his hand. He knocked a delightfully feminine display of delicate jewelry and handcrafted floral cards off of the front counter for emphasis as he bore down on his victim. He never saw the airborne chair that took him down, or the muscular man that pinned him to the floor. Jackson viciously stomped the hand clutching the blade. The sickening sound of crunching bone accompanied the thief’s surprised scream of pain. Jackson snatched the knife and held it to the man’s neck as he pressed his full weight into the perpetrator’s back with his knee.
“Hold still, asshole, or this blade will slit your worthless jugular. Gloria, get something to bind his arms with…a cord, tape…whatever you have.”
The thug struggled, trying to see who he was dealing with. Jackson made a shallow slice on the man’s neck. His icy blue eyes froze the perpetrator in place as the man realized Jackson would kill him if he had to. The sound of duct tape being pulled off the big roll in Gloria’s hands brought a smile to Jackson’s lips.
“Tape his wrists, then his ankles, honey.”
The man started to struggle slightly, then thought better of it as the knife pricked his tender skin. A small drop of blood trickled down the curve of the thug’s neck, hanging suspended for a moment before plopping onto the floor. The thief cursed, muttering threats as Gloria trussed him up. She ripped off another piece of duct tape and slapped it across his foul mouth.
“Nicely done!” Jackson exclaimed in admiration. “Now, call 911 before this knife accidentally slips any further.”
The cops arrived quickly, removing the frustrated perpetrator from the premises. The two of them gave their statements to the police and waited for the go ahead before cleaning up the mess the thug had made in the salon. Gloria finished the restoration of her front counter display before walking to the front door and locking both the door and the deadbolt. She turned her store sign over to read “closed,” then closed the shades covering her front windows. It was surprisingly dark in the room.
Gloria flipped a switch behind the main counter. The darkened ceiling illuminated the salon with tiny twinkling lights, reminding Jackson of the summer nights they used to spend together enjoying the majestic enormity of the star-studded sky overhead. She slid into the safety of his arms. He could feel her trembling, and pulled her close. They pressed into each other, old memories and intense feelings washing over them as they embraced. Jackson dared to press slow, tender kisses into her fragrant hair, before tilting her head up slowly towards his lips.
He searched her lovely green eyes before gently claiming her softly parted lips with his own. The kiss almost buckled his knees. It felt like Gloria was kissing his very heart, and he never wanted it to end. Her kisses had always had this effect on him…he had forgotten the intensity of the emotions and promises inherent in their kisses. He breathed her name reverently as his kisses moved from her velvety lips to her eyes. He gently kissed each eye, surprised to taste a salty tear escaping down her soft cheek.
“What’s the matter, babe? Are you injured? Did I squeeze you too hard and accidentally hurt you? Tell me what is wrong, Gloria.”
“No, no. It is nothing like that, Jack. I…I never thought I would ever feel this way again for a man. You don’t know…you don’t know about the monster I was married to after you left. He was brutal, and I was young and terrified. I finally found the courage to divorce him.”
Gloria released a ragged sigh filled with emotion.
“He was coming here to kill me after the divorce was final when he wrecked his motorcycle. He died instantly when he hit the old oak tree in the bend of Sandy Creek Road headfirst. The fool never wore a helmet. It was not a pretty scene, according to the papers. I haven’t met anyone I wanted to explore an intimate relationship with since that awful time in my life.”
Gloria backed away and caught Jack’s gaze with her own, her entire being seeming to glow under the ambiance of the twinkling overhead lights. He stiffened slightly, terrified she was getting ready to cut him out of her life. She leaned forward and slid her arms around his neck. He felt her gently toying with the hair at the nape of his neck, before huskily whispering in his ear.
“Until now, Jack. Until now.”
His lips sought hers once again, drinking in the sweet nectar of their rekindled love for each other. They were so entwined and caught up in one another, it took a moment for the loud banging on the front door to register.
“Gloria! Gloria King! Open up! Open the door for heaven’s sake! Are you okay? It’s Mike Mendenhall and Sargent Derek Hurley from the city police department. Are you all right? We are worried about you. Open the door for crying out loud!”
Jack and Gloria pulled apart reluctantly, their eyes speaking volumes to each other. The couple turned and made their way to the door. The banging continued as Gloria fumbled for the light switch.
“Persistent old cuss, isn’t he? But a true friend, Jack. And only a friend.”
Gloria unlocked the door and opened it. Jack’s hand tightened around her shoulder protectively. Mike stepped in and stopped, instantly aware he had interrupted something. The cop spoke first.
“We thought we’d better do a welfare check on you after all the trouble here today. Are you okay, ma’am? Is everything alright?”
Gloria beamed up into Jackson’s concerned face, the glow of their renewed love sending waves of joyful energy all around the entrance of the salon.
“Yes, yes…we are okay, and everything is fine…better than fine now that Jack is home.”
The two men nodded in acknowledgment, shutting the door behind them. Mike walked away, silently rejoicing for the obvious happiness of his childhood friends.
Jack pulled Gloria back into his arms, his eyes filled with emotion.
“I give you my solemn pledge I will never intentionally hurt you, Gloria. With all my heart, I desire you for my own. I never believed I would feel like this again…ever! I love you, babe.”
“I don’t think I ever stopped loving you, Jack. Ever.”
“Ohhhh, my beloved girl. I will protect you and care for you as long as we live. Everything will be alright, honey. I promise you, everything will be alright.”
And for the first time in a very long time, Gloria truly believed it. She leaned forward into Jackson’s loving embrace. Everything was going to be better than okay. They finally had their chance for a fabulous future…together. For as long as they both still lived.
Copyright ©️ 2022 Lisa Criss Griffin
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