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TITLE: Beauty for Ashes Ch4
By Michelle Massaro

Up to this point in the story, we have seen the MC, John, lose his family in a fire and turn his back on God. Up till then, he had been a man of strong faith. Now he is on the road and being plagued by nightmares. The previous chapter ended with John raiding the mini bar of his motel room.

My critique tolerance is high. I am at a point where I feel I can only improve the manuscript through outside perspective- so lay it on me! Thank you!
Ch 4

The thick curtains of the hotel room were good at keeping out the sunlight. I didn’t wake up until noon, the longest I’d slept since That Day. Though my head was splitting and my stomach churned, it was a small price to pay for the hours of dreamless sleep.

I choked down a muffin from the continental breakfast cart in the lobby before checking out of my room. I had no appetite for a decent meal. I took some aspirin for my head, donned my sunglasses, and took off on another long day of driving.

A Volvo drove along beside me for awhile, a young boy grinning at me through the window. He was maybe 4 years old or so I guessed. There was a spirit of adventure in his eyes and I imagined that he thought himself to be on his way to Dinosaur Island or the North Pole to visit Santa’s workshop. I couldn’t help but smile back at him and wave.

A few hours later, my appetite having returned, I stopped at a little restaurant for a sandwich. I parked in the gravel parking lot and put on the brake. A little bell on the door announced my entrance and a big-haired waitress looked up to greet me. She looked like Flo from Mel’s Diner and I half-expected to hear her shout “Kiss my Grits!” when she opened her mouth. Instead she just smiled.

“Welcome to Henry’s Diner! Do you want a table or a booth?”

“The bar’s fine.” I said.

“Alright then. Here’s a menu, just let me know when you’re ready to order.”

“Sure. Do you have a restroom?”

“Well of course! It’s over there on the right.”

In the restroom I splashed some cold water on my face and dried it with a paper towel before assessing my reflection in the mirror. Though the face I saw appeared the same… there was a definite change. I realized it was my eyes. They were empty, vacant. No life in them anymore.

I went back to my seat and placed my order. Flo smiled and prattled on asking about my travels for a few minutes before disappearing. They were quick in bringing my food out to me. Luckily the place was just about empty so I didn’t have to deal with people. I ate my Turkey Club and drank my Pepsi in silence.

Then it happened.

The front door jingled to signal the entrance of a new customer and before I knew it, a pretty blonde was seated at the stool next to me. Out of the corner of my eye the resemblance was uncanny. Her hair was the same length and shade as Hannah’s, her trim figure almost a mirror reflection of my wife’s. I hadn’t meant to stare. It was the shock and disbelief that left me immobilized- my eyes quite literally glued to the vision before me.

“Uh.. hi?”

I snapped out of my delusion the second her voice hit my ears. It was not Hannah’s voice.

“Sorry. You uh, you reminded me of someone.”

“Oh, okay.” She laughed. “Well, I hope that’s not a bad thing.” She paused before making up her mind to continue. “I’m Rosanna.” She extended her hand.

Man, her name even RYHMED with Hanna’s. My sandwich was only half eaten but my appetite and vanished once again.

Curtly I replied, “Nice to meet you Rosanna. If you’ll excuse me…”

I got up quickly, threw down a $20, and practically ran for the door. As it shut behind me I could hear Flo talking to Rosanna inside.

“Sheesh, what’s with that guy? That was kinda weird.”

Weird. Yeah I suppose it was. But weird was my entire existence without Hannah and Katy. Nothing was how it was supposed to be, everything was a mess. I felt like I was living in the Twilight Zone or something.

I sat in my car before heading back out on the road, gathering my thoughts and taking in one shaky breath after another. What had just happened? Even though I was fully awake, the nightmare was calling for me. Pictures of Hannah danced on the edge of my imagination and one by one I pushed them off.

When my breathing was regular I started the engine and headed back out. But the next couple hours of driving were spent in battle- a mental struggle to keep my head clear, my vision devoid of painful scenes too sickening to watch. By the time I spotted the Blue Moon Saloon, I was all too ready to order a bottle of escape.

I took the next exit with my mission clear- to get rid of the tormenting thoughts the only way I knew how.

From the volume of the laughter coming from inside the saloon, I figured that Happy Hour was in full swing. I showed my ID at the entrance and walked through the door. I was assaulted with all kinds of sounds and smells. I’d never been in a place like this and felt a bit uncomfortable. Loud country music pulsated in my ears and a hundred conversations merged into one deafening voice. Smoke hung in the air like a London fog making it difficult to breathe. The place reeked of sweat, alcohol, and stale cigarettes. I scanned the murky room in search of my destination. I had to cram through small spaces between bodies in order to reach the bar. This was not a place for the claustrophobic. Even with people pressed up against me at every side, I was certain someone had deliberately brushed a too-friendly hand across my back as I went by. I focused on the task at hand.

“What can I get you?”

“Uh.. whaddaya recommend?” I asked.

“Depends. Want something sweet, sour, fruity?”

“I don’t know. Just give me something with vodka in it I guess.” I had to shout to be heard.

The bartender deftly poured some liquid from 2 bottles into a shot glass and plunked it down in front of me. “Here, try this one.”

“What is it?”

“It’s called a Chocolate Cake- Citrus vodka and hazelnut. Go ahead.” He coaxed.

Not wanting to embarrass myself, I quickly downed the contents like I’d watched in party scenes on TV. I felt the heat of the alcohol as it slid down my throat and into my stomach before it radiated out down my arms. Oddly it really did taste like chocolate cake. I wasn’t drinking for pleasure. The way I saw it, I didn’t have a choice. It was the only way to not lose my mind with despair. But if I was going to have to use alcohol, I figured I might as well enjoy it the best I could.

I ordered another.

Soon my muscles began to relax, the tension ebbing away. I didn’t have the strength or focus for rage and agony. Though the sadness remained, this was the better alternative. This was something more manageable. A few more of these and I would be able to quit thinking altogether.

I hadn’t realized I was moving my head to the beat of the music. I felt much more at home in this atmosphere now. The music wasn’t half bad. People were dancing, laughing, and having a good time. It would be good for me to interact with humanity a bit. I looked up from the stain on the counter that I’d been studying all night and greeted a couple faces around me. A giggling girl lost her balance and started to fall over. The man next to her grabbed her elbow to steady her but she took him down with her. The two of them started laughing at themselves, their friends joining in. I couldn’t stop the chuckle from escaping my own lips. The sound of it was both foreign and shockingly natural. I liked the way I felt. I felt more myself than I ever had. Lights were dancing, people were smiling. A month ago I would have judged this place as being a den of sin and the people in it as corrupt. Now I saw the truth- these were human beings simply enjoying life. They were having a good time, celebrating being alive in the midst of all the negativity in the world. What was so wrong with that? Nothing whatsoever.

After spending another hour basking in the good vibes of the Blue Moon Saloon, I shuffled out to my car. It was late enough that there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and a hotel was inviting me to stay just a couple blocks down the street. I couldn’t leave my car in the parking lot of the saloon. It would probably not have been there come morning. So I decided I was fine to drive the short distance to the hotel.

“Wow.” I laughed to myself. It was funny the way I was unable to keep the car parallel with the double lines of the street. I would definitely not do this in traffic! But luckily the lanes were deserted so I was okay. A few minutes later I pulled safely into the parking lot of the hotel.

The room here wasn’t quite as clean but was just as tacky as the previous night’s room. The blue bedspread was worn and faded, and the brown carpet looked filthy. My head was spinning and I was ready to drop onto the bed and sleep the rest of the night away. But I decided on just one drink from the mini bar first. Just to make sure I wouldn’t dream.

The next morning was like the previous one. I had a headache and felt a bit queasy. After eating a small breakfast I checked out of the hotel. Back on the highway, I was struck by how far from home I already felt after just a couple days. Looking out the window I watched the sky stretch on forever, the mostly flat landscape stretched over the earth like brown upholstery. Every so often I’d pass a small farmhouse, sitting all alone in the middle of a tawny ocean. I thought about what that would be like- to live out here in the middle of nowhere. Too secluded, I decided. I mean, some privacy is nice; but I wouldn’t like being permanently cut off from the rest of the world. Where was I anyways? I’d only been on the road for two and a half days but had already driven through Illinois and Missouri. I’d gone well over 800 miles to get to this flat wasteland of Ellsworth, Kansas. I still hadn’t a clue where I was headed and I didn’t really care as long as it was away from Indiana. If I didn’t make too many pit stops I should be able to get to Sherman at the edge of the state by nightfall. I was in a hurry and I didn’t even really know why. I just felt I couldn’t put enough distance between me and the memory of them, as if maybe if I got far enough away the pain would be easier to bear.

That night was spent pretty much like the night before. A different bar, a different drink maybe, but the same escape- the same fuzzy swirling head and dampened memories. I could even laugh once in awhile with the booze. In fact, the next several days were all spent the same way- long lonely hours on the highway followed by nights at whatever bar I found myself in. It had quickly become a routine.

I had passed through Colorado and Utah and was entering Nevada. I was almost to the coast and still had no plans of what I’d do when I got there. I had to decide where to go from here now. I settled on heading toward Las Vegas. Maybe I could work myself up to having a bit of a good time. Maybe. The next day’s destination decided, I turned in for the night.

From somewhere in the darkness of night, Hannah’s voice drifted to my ears...

“John. John, where are you? I need you! What are you doing? I miss you John, don’t leave me! Come back! Come back to me John!”

“Hannah!” I woke with a start. There were beads of sweat on my forehead; my heart was thrashing in my chest, lungs working in overdrive. I felt sick. I threw back the sheets and ran for the bathroom. After spewing the contents of that night’s revelries, I stayed crumpled on the white tiled floor. “Hannah.” I said over and over. With shame I thought of what she would think if she saw me right now. But she wasn’t here and I would never be the same man I’d once been. I got up and rinsed out my mouth before climbing back in bed. I clung to the pillow and closed my eyes.

Hannah’s image was still so clearly in my mind. She was standing, Katy in her arms, encircled by a ring of yellow-white flames. But the fire wasn’t hungry. It kept its distance, casting a beautiful glow on Hannah’s skin. She was wearing a stunning white silk dress. A gentle breeze outlined her shape. She was dazzling. She looked like an angel. But of course I’d always thought so.

I thought I’d conquered the nightmares, but now I feared I’d never be free. The image was painfully beautiful. I wanted so badly to reach out and take her in my arms. I wanted to answer her- “I’m here Hannah! I’m right here!” But she was already gone. Forever gone. I would never feel her soft lips on mine, never experience the smell of her smooth skin, never run my fingers through her silken hair or gaze into her piercing blue eyes.

And little Katy would forever be just 4 weeks old. I’d never hear her say “Da-da” or help her take her first steps. There would be no tricycles, no piggy back rides. She too, was lost forever.

A ragged sob came up from deep within me and bubbled over out of my lips. “Oh, why why why?” I moaned. A stream of expletives pierced through the dark room. I raided the mini bar, my consistent friend, and spent the next half hour miserably trying to deaden my senses. But still I could hear her… “What are you doing?”

“I miss you Hannah”.

I finally fell asleep again.

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