“Sorry. Sorry,” Celeste mumbled and dug through her pockets and in her purse for cash with a tension-creased forehead. The complaints in the line behind her became louder. Four credit cards failed this time – four! The previous visits, at least one of them worked.
She checked the products already scanned by the cashier and did a mental tally. She didn't carry enough money.
“For goodness sake, would you hurry up?” A high-pitched female voice behind her complained.
Her shoulders slumped and she bit her bottom lip. “Can you please put the…” She scrutinized the groceries again.
“Excuse me, missy,” The man behind her spoke up. His voice suggested a life of hardship and struggle but still carried friendliness and compassion. "Do you need some help with that?"
Tears clouded her gaze. The stranger possessed a kind face, etched with lines and wrinkles. In his weathered and calloused hands, he held out a few bills.
Gratefulness, shame, and righteous anger toward her husband warred inside her. She eyed the stranger. He nodded and smiled, revealing yellow teeth.
Celeste closed her eyes and swallowed her pride. "Thank you," she said, accepting the money.
As Celeste rushed out of the store, she wanted nothing more than to leave the embarrassing scene behind her as soon as possible. She increased her pace, reaching almost a slow jog. The weight of her purse, filled with groceries the Good Samaritan paid for, matched the heaviness in her heart.
What drove Merrick to squander their hard-earned money? Did gambling provide an adrenaline rush? The intoxicating allure of risking it all for a chance at elusive riches? Perhaps it fulfilled a deeper longing, a desperate grasp for the material wealth that always eluded them drove him. Did he believe money would bring them happiness?
Frustration rippled through Celeste's chest and intertwined with the confusion clouding her thoughts. She couldn't comprehend why Merrick chose this path, jeopardizing their financial stability and the sanctity of their union. Lived a deeper yearning within him? Did he carry a profound longing within, one he sought to satiate through the whirlwind of bets and wagers?
Celeste clenched her fists, the pain radiating through her fingers a welcome reprieve, as she yearned for answers. Their marriage, once a sanctuary of shared dreams and whispered promises, now stood on precarious ground. Celeste's heart ached for the love they lost as their lives became entangled in the web of Merrick's addiction.
Later that night, Celeste tossed and turned in her bed– their bed. A bed with an empty side five to six days of the week. She swallowed back tears and checked the alarm clock. Another sleepless hour had passed.
Frustrated, she turned to her stomach and slipped her hand between her legs. Her fingers delved beneath the fabric of her underwear and teased the soft flesh beneath with sensual strokes. Celeste’s eyes fluttered closed. She needed the relief more than ever, but could she– should she do it?
Somehow, it always seemed like a betrayal to Merrick, and she chose not masturbated since they formed a couple. For her, pleasure and intimacy belonged together.
Celeste turned her head. In the dim light that seeped through the curtains, Merrick’s empty pillow seemed to mock her.
Didn’t his betrayal come first?
Her finger circled her clit and her eyes fluttered shut again. Celeste moaned and pressed her pelvis into the mattress, creating more friction. She grew wetter and her breathing sped up. Her mind blanked and worries and negative thoughts disappeared as she plucked and played with the ball of nerves. Her muscles coiled and she arched her back. Her breathing now ragged and loud in the otherwise empty room.
She sucked in a breath, clenched her abdominal muscles, and let the rush of sensations take her. The forceful tugs and pulls threatened to yank her under like a raging current, and the deafening roar of the blood rushing in her ears created a symphony drowning out every other sound.
Her fingers upped their frenzied pace, and she built up the pressure, allowing her body no other options as the sensations tugged at her with irresistible force.
The climax came over her like a raging beast with an insatiable hunger for dominance. Its relentless current dragged her inch by inch towards its untamed depths.
His leg bounced with nervous energy, mirroring the uncertainty taking up residency in Merrick's mind. The hushed murmurs of fellow players, the clinking of chips, and the distinct shuffling of cards filled the dimly lit corner with the poker tables. As he studied the faces of the other players, Merrick’s apprehension grew.
He checked the cards under his hand, and disappointment washed over him. Unsurprisingly, they hadn't changed. The worst hand in poker in the history of ever stared back at him, mocking his hopes of a favorable outcome. He pursed his lips. His chances of winning were slim. Again. This night marked another failure, branding him a fool and a loser.
With a resigned sigh, Merrick pushed back his chair. "Fold," he uttered barely above a whisper, laying his disappointing cards on the table. Discreetly, he tucked the few remaining chips he had left into his pockets, a tangible reminder of his dwindling fortune.
His shoulders drooped, pulled down by the weight of disappointment and the realization the pursuit of fleeting thrills had only deepened the void in his life. As he maneuvered through the crowd of nail-biting, cheering, and drinking people, Merrick couldn't escape the nagging feeling something was missing. Surrounded by the cacophony of sounds from the casino floor, emptiness and loneliness overwhelmed him. The slot machines rattled, bells dinged, and lights flashed in a frenetic dance of allure. Yet, the excitement eluded him, leaving him yearning for something more substantial.
Retirement ushered in a new phase of his life but also unearthed an unsettling emptiness. The thrill of the chase and the camaraderie he once cherished as a detective had been replaced by silence and monotony. The familiarity of his former life seemed like a distant memory, leaving him searching for a sense of purpose retirement failed to provide.
Within a month of his retirement, as if sensing his restlessness, Thomas extended an invitation for a poker night. Eager for an opportunity to escape the relentless gnawing at his core and to meet with one of his friends from the force, Merrick accepted like a rookie cop on their first bust.
In the world of cards and bets, he found a temporary reprieve from the void taking hold of his spirit. Initially.
He left the casino and turned up his collar against the biting wind.
Merrick stuffed his hands in his pockets and started the long, lonely walk toward the subway. A distant church clock announced the time. At least Celeste would be asleep when he arrived home.
Merrick fixed his gaze on the half-empty bowl of oatmeal before him. It was easier than talking with Celeste. The morning sunlight streamed through the window and cast a soft glow on the room. An awkward silence hung like a heavy stench in the room, suffocating any attempts at conversation.
Celeste finished her breakfast without a word and was mending some of his clothes.
He stirred his spoon through the unappealing oatmeal, the scrape of metal against China the only sound. The silence stretched on. Merrick took a sip of coffee. The dark, warm liquid offered a momentary respite from negativity and guilt.
With another hesitant glance at his wife, he unfolded the newspaper. The pages crackled in his hands. He scanned the headlines, his mind seeking distraction from the unease in the air. However, his thoughts kept drifting back to the previous night. Disappointment and regrets weighing heavily on his conscience.
Melancholy settled upon him. The pages seemed to be filled with a cascade of bad news, echoing his already somber mood. The front page carried reports of a struggling economy, with uncertain financial prospects. He read about an increase in crime rates, a stark reminder of the darkness he dedicated his career to fighting against and how he no longer was a part of that noble cause.
The sports headlines displayed another loss for his favorite team. In the midst of it all, an article highlighted the destruction caused by a recent natural disaster, underscoring the fragility of life and the unpredictable challenges that lie ahead. The newspaper seemed to be a collection of stories that mirrored Merrick's glum mood.
He was half in mind to toss the paper as something unusual caught his attention. At the center of the newspaper sat a size-thirteen, golden envelope tucked inside the folds. It gleamed under the morning light. The gleaming gold formed a stark contrast to the somber atmosphere that enveloped him. Merrick's curiosity piqued as he reached for it. His fingers with anticipation, and his heartbeat sped up.
The envelope lay cool against his skin as he traced its edges. It held a sense of mystery, an unspoken promise of something significant waiting to be discovered. His heart quickened with anticipation as he opened the envelope.
Blinking as he read the words printed on the inside card, Merrick struggled to believe each sentence filled with the promise of a grand adventure. The words described a treasure hunt, an opportunity for him to embark on a journey that would test his resolve but offer a reward of immeasurable value. It required no monetary cost, only his time and effort. It seemed an answer to his every prayer. This treasure hunt presented a chance to salvage what seemed lost, to prove his commitment to Celeste and their shared future.
Merrick eyes scanned the words written on the paper. The first clue seemed deceptively simple, yet it held the key to the first search.
"Where memories reside, seek a familiar face. Look for the spot where you first embraced."
A smile tugged at the corners of Merrick's lips as he remembered their first awkward fumbling. How innocent they were back then in high school. His eyebrows furrowed. Had it been the school yard, behind the bleachers, the hallway?
With the clue put away in his breast pocket, Merrick walked the three-mile distance to their old high school. A smile curved his lips as he exhaled a breath of anticipation. He quickened his pace and crossed the threshold of the familiar building. Memories cascaded over him, like the waves of an incoming sea.
As he stepped into the hallowed halls, Merrick's gaze roved over the lockers lining the corridor, his fingers grazing their metal surfaces. He inhaled the mingling scents of chalk dust and nostalgia.
A passing student glanced at Merrick.
He held up his hand. "Excuse me," he called out, prompting the student to halt. "I'm looking for old pictures. Is there a photo wall or something?"
The student's eyes widened with intrigue. "Ah, you must be talking about the hall of fame. It's down the hallway, just past the cafeteria. You can't miss it."
Merrick nodded. "Thank you," he replied as the student scuttle away toward a classroom.
Purposefully, Merrick strode down the corridor. Around him teenage drama and aspirations filled the air and his senses. The big dreams and high hopes made him smile. He had been such a teenager once.
As he approached the designated spot, Merrick's gaze swept across the photographs lining the walls. The faces of generations past stared back at him, their smiles immortalized in fading ink.
He leaned in closer and studied each picture. Brody, the perpetual troublemaker, made him wonder how life had unfolded for him. A profound sadness washed over him as he spotted Danielle and Parker, who had been as close as Merrick and Celeste were. Tragically, they lost their lives in a devastating car crash less than a year after graduation.
A voice from behind caught his attention. "Are you searching for someone in particular?" a kind voice behind him inquired.
"Yes," Merrick replied and turned around. "I'm looking for my wife. We both attended this school until 1989."
The teacher's eyes sparkled. "You’ve met here and are still together," she mused. "That’s wonderful."
Merrick nodded, and shame crept up from his gut like bile.
“You’re at the right spot. This is the 1989 graduation class. Keep searching and good luck.”
“Thank you.” Merrick scanned the pictures, his gaze moving from one to another until a photograph caught his attention. Young and gorgeous, nestled amidst the sea of captured memories, Celeste shyly smiled at the spectator. Love and longing washed over him. He fell in love with her from the moment her eyes met. A love that had blossomed within these walls and grown over the years since.
With care he lifted the frame, hoping to find the next clue, but found nothing. Perplexed, he blinked and searched for his own picture, and –again– found nothing. Taken aback, he decided to delve deeper into the building. Did the clue hold a more cryptic meaning?
He wandered through the hallways, peeking into classrooms, scanning bulletin boards, and even venturing into the school's archives. Each step led him further into a maze of memories, on an endless goose chase.
It wasn’t until he passed the library when he remembered their first kiss. As Merrick stepped into the library, the sight of sturdy bookshelves lining the walls and marching across the floor in neat rows enveloped him. He marveled at the curling shelves creating intimate reading nooks and study areas. A front desk, manned by an elderly man and two students, buzzed with activity as they scanned books, checked them out, and assisted patrons with their inquiries.
The air carried the faint scent of crisp paper and musty carpet, adding to the distinctive library ambiance. Merrick wandered through the reference section, running his fingers along the spines of thick dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, and historical texts. Students sat at tables, engrossed in their studies. The rhythmic tap-tap of fingers on keyboards and the soft flip of pages filled the air, accompanied by occasional coughs and throat clearing.
He ascended the staircase, the thud of his footsteps overhead echoing in his ears. Passing by the magazine corner, he caught glimpses of glossy periodicals showcasing a variety of topics. Banners and signs about literacy and the importance of reading adorned the walls, adding splashes of color to the otherwise neutral tones of the library.
As Merrick ventured deeper into the library, his steps guided by a growing sense of curiosity, he at last reached the books holding a special meaning to their past—the thriller section. The bookshelves towered before him, their contents beckoning him into a world of suspense and intrigue.
It was here, in this secluded section, where their lips had first met in a stolen moment of passion and excitement.
His gaze fell upon the iconic title, "The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris, resting among its peers. Merrick reached out and pulled the book from the shelf.
With a steady hand, Merrick opened the book to its first page. As his eyes scanned the familiar words. The story within those pages had captivated them both. Their shared fascination formed an unbreakable bond and deepened their connection.
Merrick's fingers glided over the sentences, his mind drifting into the narrative's depths. He was transported back to the days when they would discuss the plot twists and analyze the complex motivations of the characters. It had been more than just a book—they had delved into its pages together, unraveling its mysteries side by side.
He flipped the pages in search of the chapter where Clarice's skills and determination are put to the ultimate test and she must draw upon all her training, intelligence, and courage to outwit and survive Buffalo Bill's sadistic games.
The moment of internal and external struggle, where Clarice's resolve is pushed to its limits, and she must confront her own fears and vulnerabilities had been what drove Merrick into pursuing a law enforcement career.
And there, at the start of the chapter sat a single sheet of paper with neatly typed lines.
“Follow the path of memories, step by step,
To find the treasure where your feet once met.
A dedication of joy, laughter, and cheer,
The place where we celebrated, year after year.
Recall the dance, the rhythm, and the grooves,
To find the spot where this song's treasure behooves.
Come on now, let the beat guide your way,
Where good times and laughter forever will stay."
After a quick bite to eat, Merrick found himself at the location of his first date with Celeste and a popular disco in the eighties. Bittersweet nostalgia enveloped him as he retraced their steps, recalling the nervous excitement filling the air that night. If he closed his eyes, he might smell the leather from his new jacket. He grinned at the memory of his Celeste in leggings and legwarmers with an oversized sweater in neon colors.
She’d been so dammed cute and sexy back then. Hell, she still was cute and sexy and a hell of a woman.
His gut clenched as he realized how much he loved her and how bad he let her down with his gambling. Unable to continue, he staggered and braced himself with one hand against the brick wall of the seemingly abandoned building.
A young man on a bike halted beside him with squeaking breaks. “Are you all right, sir?”
Merrick waved him off. “Yeah, yeah, fine. Just a dizzy spell.” Half-turning, he sagged against the wall and tried to control his breathing. Tears stung the back of his eyes.
The young man cocked his head and gave Merrick a ones-over as if to be sure he wouldn’t crumple. Abandoning his scrutiny, he climbed back on the bike and continued his journey.
Merrick watched him until he disappeared around the corner. He scanned the building that once was a thriving disco. His eyes lingering on the boarded-up windows and the graffiti. What kind of treasure hunt would lead him to places of his past.
Realization smacked him right in the face. “I’m an idiot.” He fumbled into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Money or fame never had been the stakes of this challenge. He made four phone calls, leaving the most important for last, before he resumed the hunt for clues. Determination to do his woman proud for once steeled his core and he strode on with renewed purpose.
Merrick's heart pounded in his chest as he stepped into the familiar restaurant, its ambiance enveloping him in a wave of nostalgia. It had been over three decades since he stood here, with pounding heart, awaiting Celeste's answer to his proposal. Glancing around, he spotted her sitting at their favorite table, her face unreadable.
Waving off the host, Merrick approached his wife and took in every detail. Her lovely face was etched with time. Lines of worry and laughter gave character to her previously unblemished beauty. His gaze met hers, and he swallowed against the emotions threatening to overwhelm him. Was it too late? She was here, so that had to be a positive sign. The small square object in his pocket suddenly weighed a ton.
Inhaling, Merrick found the courage to speak. "Celeste–" he began, his voice tinged with regret– "I'm truly sorry about the gambling. I've realized the harm it has caused, not just to our finances but also to our relationship."
Her bottom lip wobbled, and she blinked back tears.
His eyes never leaving hers, Merrick continued. "I've made an appointment with a therapist. There’s a waiting list, but he’s going to help me overcome this addiction. And I've called Thomas and told him I won't step foot in a casino ever again."
His heart raced as he waited for Celeste's reaction, hoping for a glimmer of forgiveness.
One lonely tear trickled down her lovely face, but her eyes softened, and her mouth relaxed into a tentative smile.
Deriving hope from her soft expression, he sank to his knees and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small velvet box, the same one he cherished all these years. Opening it, he revealed the ring. The one he found at the last location and the same one he slid on her fingers all these years ago.
The weight of his love and regret pressed down on him, as he spoke the words that held his deepest desires and hopes. "Celeste," he croaked. Merrick had to clear his throat before he could continue. "Since the day I first proposed to you, my love for you has grown stronger and stronger. It has weathered storms, faced trials, and yet, it remains unwavering. You are my anchor, the light that guides me, and my soulmate. My heart has never stopped beating for you, even when my actions faltered."
He reached out, his hand finding hers, and intertwined their fingers.
"Through all the years, through all the mistakes that I have made, there is one truth that has remained unchanged: You are the center of my world. My heart almost stopped beating when I found the ring." Merrick's voice quivered.
"Please, baby, please. In this very place where I first asked for your hand, I kneel before you once more. Will you honor me, Celeste, by becoming my wife once again?"
As his words lingered in the air, silence engulfed the restaurant. Every eye was drawn to the couple, their hearts collectively holding their breath, as Merrick waited for the response that would shape their future.