Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chapters 56 & 57

 Chapter 56
   Over the course of the next week, I ignored Colin, and Colin ignored me. “If he calls,” I said to Elaine, “I’m not in. OK?
  “Sure thing, Boss,” Elaine replied, probably wondering what the man had done. But no calls came. 

  “If a call comes in for me from a Margaret Grant,” Colin told his student assistant, “I don’t want to take it. Understood?”
  “Understood, Professor Murphy.” But no calls came in.

  By Friday, I was exhausted from working hard and from working harder to ignore my feelings. I made a dinner date with Sharon at Café J, my treat. Over the seafood crepes, I poured it out to Sharon, who looked at me quizzically. “So, what, my dear, seems to be the problem? He’s a great guy, and he’s obviously crazy about you. And you’re crazy about him. So?”
   “So, I don’t want to be crazy about him. I don’t want to complicate my life. I don’t want to ... you know, want him all the time.”
Sharon looked at me and said gently, “Jim’s been gone almost two years.”
   “I know that!” I said sharply. Then ashamed, I quietly said, “I know, Phelps. And I loved him and we were happy.”
“So you’re thinking how can you love another man? How can you betray Jim like that? Right?”
   “No. Yes. Oh, I don’t know! It feels different with Colin and not at all like the love I felt for Jim. How can it be a betrayal, but how can it not be?”
    “It’s not a betrayal. What you feel for Colin—isn’t it like what you first felt for Jim? All giddy and silly and unfocused when you first dated? You know, that first flush of lust and craziness?”
Surprised, I looked at my friend and said, “What? No, Jim and I just sort of drifted into it ... we were friends, remember, and he graduated from law school and it was just the right time to settle down. So we got engaged, got married. You know, we were just right for each other.”
Sharon dropped her eyes and poked at her salad. 
   “What?! You didn’t think we were right for each other? I thought you liked Jim? You were my maid of honor, remember?”
“Yes, and I knew you loved him in a way, and I know you were happy with him, but I never did think it was true love.”
   “True love? What the hell is true love? We were happy. We were faithful. We enjoyed each other and we raised two spectacular boys. What more is there?” I asked angrily.
   “Now, listen, Maggie. I’ve been your friend since college, and I know you. You’re a creative passionate girl, woman, and you channeled that into a successful traditional marriage with traditional Jim.” 
   I opened my mouth to protest, but Sharon waved me off. “And there’s nothing wrong with traditional. You were happy, for God’s sake. How many people actually have a chance to be happy like that? Damn few, if you ask me. Damn few.”
   “So?” I said, still a little irritated even though I agreed with everything Sharon had said so far. 
   “So, fate has given you the opportunity to perhaps experience more than just happy. And I think you should take the opportunity to see if it’s there.”
“More than happy? What does that mean?”
   “It means to have found your soul mate. To have found such a bond with another human being that it transcends all understanding. That you know you are totally, completely in sync with that person.”
“Like you and me and Carol?” I asked tentatively.
   “Yes, exactly. What we have is special and rare. Except when you find a soul mate who is the opposite sex, it’s even more. More than happy. More than special.”
   “More, Maggie. Exquisitely more. With Doug, it’s ... I don’t know how to put it into words ... it’s ... it’s magic all the time. Quiet magic knowing he’s sitting beside me in church. Happy magic when he’s cooking for me ... and explosive, divine magic every time we make love. More, Maggie, more. I don’t think you had more with Jim, did you?”
   “I ... I don’t know. We were happy.”
    “I know you were happy, dearest. I’m not saying you weren’t. But ... let me ask you this... twenty years ago, if you’d had to choose between remaining with Jim or remaining friends with Carol and me, would you have chosen Jim?”
   “Don’t be silly, Phelps, I couldn’t choose. The boys.”
   “Forget you have children. I’m talking about if it was just Jim, and, oh, let’s say Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy came and told you to no longer be friends with us or no longer live with Jim. Would you do that? Could you choose Jim over us? Honestly?”
   I looked at her hard and didn’t answer. Would I have allowed my love for Jim to keep me away from my best friends? Was my bond with him stronger than my bond with Sharon and Carol?
“If the Blue Fairy had asked me to choose,” Sharon said quietly, “I would choose Doug.”
   I looked at her sharply, suddenly wounded. “You would?”
   “In a heartbeat, Maggie. Of course it would never happen, ever. We’re talking hypothetical here. But, even hypothetically, if you couldn’t say you would’ve chosen Jim in a heartbeat, then there’s no way in the world he was your soul mate.”
   I was stunned. Soul mate? Sharon and Doug had something more special than I’d had with Jim? More than the friendship the three girlfriends have? Of course there was the sex, but magic sitting next to each other? In the kitchen?   
   What about Carol? Did she feel that way about Robert? Now that I really thought about it, Carol had stayed away from Texas for him, and she loved Texas more than both Sharon and me combined, which was saying a lot. And they do seem to have the same sense of constant excitement that exists between Sharon and Doug. I had always secretly envied that spark, hadn’t I? That inexplicable something in couples you catch glimpses of here and there. It was rare, wasn’t it?
Does it exist between my sons and their wives? I hope so. I’d have to look closer.
   But with Jim? I had loved Jim and we were happy, dammit. We were! But no, I reluctantly had to admit, there wasn’t more. If there’d been no children, and I had to choose, I knew who I’d have chosen ... in a heartbeat.
   Suddenly sad, and no longer hungry, I picked at my food. Sharon knew she had struck a sensitive cord, brought up long-buried feelings, but maybe that was what I needed right now. Brutal honesty in order to move forward.  
   She took my hand, saying gently, “Maybe, just maybe, you have a chance to find a soul mate this time and have a different type of love.”

   Sharon only hoped this man was good enough for her ... if not, if he hurt her, well, he’d have to answer to her and to Carol, and they were a powerful force in defense of their dearest friend. 
Chapter 57
   By six o’clock on Saturday, it was almost dark, and I was still working and extremely tired, wishing I hadn’t decided to come in for a few hours to work and wishing I hadn’t walked, but there had been a good reason — the annual Carol of Lights was that night and traffic would be as bad as on game days, at least at this end of campus. I would stay for the hour-long procession and ceremony and then head home on foot. Luckily, it was a fairly warm day in December, but I’d brought my heavy coat just in case. I’d learned no matter what the weather was in Lubbock, it was always cooler at night. 
  The Carol of Lights is a festive tradition at Texas Tech that began long before I was a student. Thirteen buildings facing Memorial Circle and the two esplanades, plus those in the science quadrangle, are outlined in more than 25,000 red, white and orange lights, creating a breathtaking holiday display of the Spanish-mission style arches and façades.
   Students, faculty and Lubbock citizens flock to Memorial Circle to watch and listen as the Saddle Tramps march in procession from Broadway Street at the east end of the esplanade, up around the circle and to the front of the Chemistry Building. This building’s double staircase — two majestic marble flights of stairs rising away from each other and doubling back to the large first floor balcony — made the perfect setting for the celebration stage, with a two-story greenery wreath as a backdrop.
   Each year around 6:30 p.m., all the lights in and around these buildings are turned off to highlight the dramatic procession. Decked out in white electric lights, Texas Tech’s black stallion mascot, ridden by the Masked Rider, slowly leads the Saddle Tramps as they parade up both sides of the esplanade from Broadway, past the Will Rogers statue, around Memorial Circle and into the adjoining science quad. Each Tramp carries a glowing red torch, held high, standing out against the darkened buildings. Luminarios–paper bags filled with sand and lighted candles–lined the circle where the giant Christmas tree stands, waiting to show it’s thousands of matching lights. 
   I was told it normally takes about 20 minutes for the procession. From the carillon in the west tower of the Administration Building, Christmas carols are played throughout the march. Once the procession ends, the president of the Student Residence Halls Association welcomes everyone and introduces the University Choir and a soloist, who delight the crowd with their talents. Finally, the Texas Tech Trombone Band plays a fanfare, and at the climax, the holiday lights are dramatically turned on with one switch. The spectacle is always worth the wait.
  Doug was directing the band Saturday night, and Sharon was nearby, assisting where she could. I had not planned to meet up with them.
   Donning my coat, I left the building before the lights were turned out. I was right, I thought as I stepped outside, it was getting chilly, but not as cold as when we were seniors. That year temperatures had been so low the brass band didn’t perform for fear of lips being frozen to the instruments. It hadn’t mattered, because the crowds were sparse — not even one-percent of the normal crowd braved the sub-freezing temperatures. Turned out they were the smart ones. All three of us girls came down with colds immediately afterward, and coughed and sniffed through finals and the holidays.
   Saturday night, however, the temperature was in the high 40s, so although the coat was needed, it was a fairly pleasant evening. 

Colin hadn’t called me —  in fact it had been several days since I’d seen or heard from him, the day my family left. Maybe the problem had solved itself. I thought perhaps he’d lost interest, and I wouldn’t have to worry about the “more” — about whether it might be there or not. It hurt — to love and not be loved in return — to a much greater extent than I imagined it would. Another lesson learned, right Lord? 
   But wait. What lesson was this, I asked God one night. That I shouldn’t expect further happiness in my life? Shouldn’t expect the “more”? I gave up trying to analyze — feelings were so hard to categorize into facts — and instead concentrated on work and completing my Christmas shopping to take my mind off of the possibilities of “more.”
Problem was, it wasn’t working. 

   Joining the growing throngs finding places to stand for the Carol of Lights ceremony – only the Saddle Tramps and dignitaries had chairs – I crossed the circle, ending up on the northwest side to get a good view of my building when the lights were switched on. I’ve always thought the detail of lights on the towers made up the most spectacular part of the display. 
   At the first site of the red torches, I smiled remembering processions from decades ago. It was still a magical sight. When the parading Saddle Tramps came around Memorial Circle, I strained to see Jamie. As president, he would either be the first or the last. There he was! Marching proudly, just behind the Masked Rider on the south side of the circle. I watched him reach the science quad, and all but his torch disappeared behind the crowd. I knew once reaching the area below the stage, torches are extinguished in large barrels of water and marchers sit down with dignitaries. Standing up on tiptoe to see when his torch was put out, my view was suddenly blocked by a dark brown suede jacket. I looked up and, even in the dark, could see green eyes smiling down at me. 
   “Hello, Margaret Riley Grant,” Colin said rather loudly to be heard over the carillon, pulling his hand out of his pocket and offering it to me for a shake. 
   I was surprised to see him, but recovered, smiled, took his hand firmly in mine, and returned the greeting, “Professor Cailean Patrick Murphy.” I tried to pull away, but he held my hand tightly.
  “I’ve missed you,” he said.
  “Have you?” I asked, still lovingly looking in his eyes, happier to see him than I wanted to be. 
  “Every day for the last week ... and every night for longer.” He let the moment stretch out and my insides turned over, the warmth of his touch radiating up my arm and scoring a direct hit on my heart before moving decidedly lower. 
   “Did your family get home all right?” he asked. 
  “What? Oh, yes. They did. Thank you.”
   He let go of my hand and moved to stand to my right, arm casually behind my waist, eyes looking over the crowd toward the stage. “Did you see Jamie?”
I gulped, then took a deep breath. Okay, I thought, we’ll see where this goes. “I did. Right up front, on the other side. He looked good. Shouldn’t you be up there with the Tramps or something?”
   “Why, do you want me to leave?” He asked, looking down at me. 
   “NO!” I said too quickly and too loudly. Then I took another deep breath and said more calmly, “No. You can stay. I only thought this might be an activity where the Saddle Tramp sponsor was busy, that’s all.”
   “Nope, I was with them this afternoon for moral support but they’re big boys and have this down pat, just like most of their events. Speaking of which, Margaret Grant, the Saddle Tramps annual Red Rose Formal is Saturday after next. Dinner and dancing. I wondered if you’d like to join me?”
    I smiled, delighted, and then frowned, “Saturday after next?”
“Yep. You already have plans?” He sounded surprised and a little hurt. He should have asked me sooner, should have called right after Thanksgiving, but then he was too busy brooding.
He’d brooded for a week over wanting her, over the surprise feelings of wanting to be with her when her family was there — of wanting to be a part of them all. To shake that wanting, or so he’d hoped, he’d called Dixie for dinner last week, but much to the lady’s chagrin, he hadn’t talked much and dropped her off at her door before 9:30. It hadn’t felt right, and he was more miserable than ever.    
   Yesterday, after another sleepless night of thinking about Maggie and how, or if, she was supposed to fit in his life, he’d finally decided he needed to stop being so gentle and see what happened. He knew all women loved to be romanced, and he certainly knew how to pour on the charm, more successfully than most. Formal attire, flowers and a cozy hotel room afterward. It had always worked before. The Red Rose Formal might be the perfect time, if he could wait that long.

   “I do have plans, as a matter of fact,” I said. “Ben’s youngest is playing Mary in the Christmas pageant and I promised to be there. It’s Saturday after next. I’m sorry, Colin. Really.” And I was. Despite my better judgement, I wanted to continue the relationship ... see where this new love I felt led. I was thrilled he seemed to want the same.
  “Okay,” he said casually, looking back toward the stage, but disappointment was evident on the face I could barely see in the dark. “Maybe before Christmas weekend.” We lowered their voices as the procession and carillon had ended. The emcee was thanking the crowd for their attendance. The choir should be next, I thought.
“Definitely before Christmas break. What about this weekend, though?” I said boldly. If he could ask, I could, too. And I did want to see what developed. 
    “Sorry, I’m out of town Friday until late Sunday. Sean and I are flying to Chicago ... Dad’s 75th birthday. I shipped the cabinet yesterday.”  
         He hadn’t been back home in a couple of years, and this date wasn’t one he was willing to break ... even for the possibility of moving to the next level with Maggie.

   “Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten. I’m glad you finished it,” I said, wondering if he’d been working on it for the last week and that’s why he hadn’t called. “Then we’ll just wait until just before Christmas,” Maggie said. “I’m heading to Dallas for Christmas week, but don’t have to leave until Friday.”
He turned to smile at me and confirm their date, and something caught his eye. He looked back up at the source, and in the darkened campus found a light coming from just above the trees ... an orange glow.
I turned to look too, and seeing the distinctive light, knew immediately what it meant.
Colin grabbed my elbow, steering me toward the Administration Building, even as I turned and headed that way. As we pushed through the crowed, I pulled my phone from my belt, pushing the speed button I’d programmed after Halloween, and said, “Fire ... East tower of the Admin Building. Hurry!” 

  The thousands who’d come to watch the Carol of Lights were focusing their attention to the west, to the stage where the choir sang. Only a few had seen the fire and that was only after Colin and I had pushed our way through them, hurriedly heading in that direction. 
  “Boom!” One of the tower windows shattered from the heat, and more of the crowd turned around at the noise. By the time Colin and I reached the building, all the windows had blown out, and leaping flames were dramatically visible against the darkened building and the clear, cold night sky. 
   I pulled out my keys to unlock the east door, directly below the fire, desperately trying to remember the fire system in the old building. Ceilings had been dropped to add HVAC, and at the same time a sprinkler system. But up in the tower? There must not be a detector up there because no alarm was sounding or flashing. 
   Because the campus lights were out, we had to feel our way up the dark stairs to the tower’s door on the third floor. Colin knew the construction of the tower was mainly brick and concrete, but if the fire was lower in the tower stairs or in the attic storage area, it could quickly spread to the main building doing major damage. He hoped the filthy old carpeting had already been removed in the “clubhouse,” but he hadn’t received a recent update on the cleaning project. He, too, tried to think if there was a fire extinguisher near the tower. 
   Reaching the third floor landing, we heard sirens getting closer. Colin moved up the narrow stairs, reached for the door handle, key ready, then pulled away quickly. It was hot ... not scalding, yet, so he wasn’t burned. Placing his palms gingerly on the thin narrow door, it definitely felt more than warm to the touch. If he opened it, he could create a backdraft, but larger than the one that had burned Sharon. The sudden rush of oxygen to the fire would surely flash onto the entire landing. Or would it with the upstairs windows already blown out? We couldn’t be sure. We’d have to wait for the firefighters.
   Only then did I think of the cleanup. I knew the Saddle Tramps were working to get finished by the new year but didn’t know how far along they were. Maybe, just maybe, this fire was accidental — the result of something the Tramps did or didn’t do — paint thinner, oily rags? 
        Please don’t let it be another arson fire, I prayed.  
   Two campus police officers came bounding up the stairs, extinguishers in hand, and insisted Colin and I go back outside, which we were glad to do after warning of the possible danger at the door. Reaching the east outside entrance as fire engines and more campus police drove up, Colin and I moved away from the activity. I called my staff, and Colin called Jamie.
“Hold the Tramps there, next to the stage,” he told Jamie. “I’m coming through the crowd. Who’s in charge of the renovations? Josh? Okay, the fire captain will probably need to speak to him. Thanks.” He disappeared into the crowds as I looked for the best place to set up the media area. What a mess, with all the spectators for Carol of Lights!
   The ladder truck raised equipment high up against the clay tiled roof, and firefighters began pouring water into the tower through the shattered windows. Another crew disappeared into the building with a second hose.   
   Turning their attention to the fire activity, the Carol of Lights audience was no longer interested in the ceremony, and it was ended. Campus police moved the barricades previously blocking traffic, now using them to hold people back from the Administration Building. 
   Within 45 minutes, the fire was out, the smoke had dissipated and most of the crowd had departed along with the reporters who wanted to make the 10 o’clock news. I worked the media line with frequent updates of what I knew, which wasn’t much. I promised to put out an updated statement as soon as I was able to obtain more from Chief Callahan, who’d once again called me Sweetheart, but this time with a twinkle in his eye. Once again I’d told him off, but with a grin. We were fast becoming friends. 
   Ricky and Susan were upstairs working on a general release for the website — firemen had given the all-clear signal for the main building and the lights were back on. President Parker had come by but didn’t want to appear on camera, so I handled it all. Bennett Boyle made a brief appearance after the reporters had left but said nothing to me. I heard him tell Chief Callahan he didn’t want to go up to see the damage. 
“Send me photos,” he’d told the campus police chief before turning briskly away. “And not through the computer.”
    Once my media duties were complete, I talked to the arson chief. His preliminary inspection of the fire was complete. Power had been restored to all the buildings shortly after the fire trucks arrived, and floodlights were now being set up in the tower. Water dripped down the stairwell, still trickling out the door to the soggy grass. I stood to the side of the door, attempting to stay out of the  mud.   
“The tower door was hot when we got here,” I said to the chief. “Did the fire burn the entire stairwell, too?”
“No,” he said. “Only the landing at the top. When firefighters entered the tower stairwell, they found a large space heater just inside the narrow door on the first tower landing–turned up to high. Interestingly, it was connected to a lantern battery. That’s what made the door warm.” 
The blaze upstairs had burned hot enough to destroy the wooden platform and shatter all the windows, he said, but the heater at the bottom of the tower stairs had nothing in front of it to catch on fire ... it was only hot enough to heat the door, not set it on fire. It was almost as if the arsonist didn’t want anyone to open the door until the fire upstairs was fully developed ... or until it was out. Did the arsonist understand now about backdrafts? Had this heater been a warning to wait? An arsonist who didn’t want someone to get hurt ... this time? 
  Josh was the Saddle Tramp in charge of the cleanup. He told the fire captain he and a crew of Tramps had ripped the old carpet up last week and piled it up under the platform. They were going to haul it away this weekend.
  “What about the plaques and memorabilia?” Colin had asked. 
    It was Jamie who spoke. “I took them down a couple weeks ago, right after you told us to clean the place. They’re at the house in boxes in the garage.”
   “At least they’re safe,” Colin said. “That’s something.” He sent the young men home, saying they’d talk the next day.
   Chief Callahan talked at length with the fire department officials. He relayed to Colin and me that the attic storage was undamaged, the tower level the only area blistered and black. He thought the metal trap door to the bells would have to be replaced as would the window panes, the twisted metal ladder and the platform. A charred pile of debris lay on the floor where the platform and old carpeting had been.
   From the description, Colin knew that new plaster, paint and a rebuilt platform would add significantly to their clean-up budget ... but perhaps the university would now pay for it all with fire insurance funds. In any event, all of this would have to wait until engineers had thoroughly studied the tower to make certain it was still structurally sound.  
It was late into the night when I allowed Colin to walk me home. He promised to call me before the weekend, then headed out to his truck on the other side of campus. Once home, I called Sharon’s cell phone and Doug answered.
Yes, they were home now, too, he said. Sharon had been a little shaken, but he’d put her to work helping him get musicians and their unused instruments back to the music building and all accounted for, so they were not around to watch the fire being put out. She’d gone to bed, and Doug was sure she’d be fine. Maggie promised to call her in the morning. 
Another fire. And it ruined the Carol of Lights. How sad for the entire community.

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