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The Blank Canvas by Amanda Black

An excerpt from


The Blank Canvas

Chapter 1

Lily had no idea what time it was.

She had been lying there on the hallway floor for the better part of the evening, barely noticing when the light began to dim through the windows. Her eyes were swollen and red, completely drained of any moisture, and her top lip was puffy and sore from being contorted into various shapes as she wailed out her heartbreak.

He was gone.

Her beautiful Ethan had left, taking everything with him, including her heart.

When she was finally able to process anything other than that, she thought back to their good-bye that morning and wanted to smack herself for not seeing the signs. He had been so insatiable, so clingy. It had been his body’s way of preparing to let her go.

That thought only set off another round of dry sobs, causing her to clutch her chest at the pain of knowing he would never be in her arms again. Her entire body felt sore and raw, and in the back of her mind she wondered how long she could curl up there before someone came looking for her.

Suddenly, an obnoxious noise broke through her lament, and after a few moments of looking around hopefully, she realized that it was coming from her pocket—and she recognized the ringtone. Fishing it out quickly and sitting up in the darkness, she lifted it to her ear and answered.

“Hello?” she croaked.

“Whoa, babe, did I wake you up?” Scott chuckled on the other end.

“No,” she replied gruffly, “why?”

“You sound like hell, that’s why. Is something wrong?”

“No, I just…think I might be coming down with a cold or something,” she lied quickly, coughing a few times to clear her throat. “What did you need?”

“Oh, well, I was finally able to get some free time tonight. Dad fell asleep earlier than I thought he would, so he’s not barking in my face anymore.” Lily knew he really meant Sam Walker had passed out drunk exceptionally early that night. “Did you still want me to come over?”

Lily glanced through the open doorway into the dark living room and was hit with a fresh wave of panic. Panic that her horrible crying jag was going to be the last memory she ever had of this wonderful, crappy old apartment. She didn’t want that, but she had no idea what to do about it. At that point, her body was so frazzled and exhausted that she could barely think straight.

“Well…” She didn’t even want to think about seeing Scott at that point, but she’d promised herself that she would end things with her fiancé as soon as possible rather than keep him dangling any longer. She figured that she already had her heart ripped out, so how much worse could the day get from there? Might as well tackle things while she was feeling numb. “Yeah, that’s fine. Only I’m not at home. Why don’t you head over to the house and I’ll meet you there?”

“Okay, sure. See you in a bit.”

* * *

Less than fifteen minutes later, Lily pulled into her driveway only to find that Scott had beaten her there and was sitting on the front steps with his head hung low, looking like a scolded child awaiting his punishment.

As she walked toward him, she couldn’t stop from thinking about all of his good qualities that she was about to throw away. Scott was sensible. He was dependable. He would never leave her without looking back. He wanted to marry her. Scott was quite possibly the best offer she would ever get.

I could try to be better, Lily thought to herself in a brief flash of doubt. She could refocus her attention and be more enthusiastic. She could be the woman he deserved.

But she also knew that no matter how hard she tried for him, she would be miserable—and living a lie.

“Hey, babe,” he said quietly when she had reached the bottom of the steps. “So how mad are you?”

“I’m not mad at all,” she replied.

“Really?” he said with a smile, jumping off the steps to sweep her up in a huge bear hug. “Mmm, you smell good. God, I missed you.”

Lily couldn’t help thinking that she smelled good because she had foolishly showered off every remaining trace of Ethan’s scent. Now she would never smell him deep in her skin again. She’d never be able to curl into his pillow and fall asleep while she breathed him into her.

“Um, thanks.” She forced a tight smile as he put her down, shoving her rogue thoughts back into the dark corners of her mind before they made her cry again.

“Okay,” he sighed at her tone. “Let me have it. You are pissed at me, aren’t you? Be honest.”

“No. Honestly, I’m not.” The truth was she had barely remembered he even existed while he was gone.

“Well, pissed or not, I’m sorry that I was gone so long.” He reached up and stroked the back of his fingers down her cheek. It was a gesture she used to find endearing, but now it only made her want to jump away. His fingers weren’t the right fingers.

“I believe you,” she said stiffly. “Let’s go inside.” She unlocked the door and held it open for him as he followed her into the house.

“I don’t have any excuse, really,” he admitted, a slight blush tinting his cheeks. “It just felt so damn good to be of use at that shop. Does that make any sense?” He looked at her quickly for confirmation before continuing. “Those were some great guys, Lil. I mean, I really like Ryan and the gang, but there just isn’t enough work here to keep us all busy, you know? I really felt in my element there.” He thought for a minute before adding, “They seemed really sorry to see me go. It was…nice, I guess. First time I felt like a real mechanic.”

“That’s great, Scott.” She smiled again, and it was her first genuine smile of the night. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him this excited about anything, including her.

“So, where were you when I called?” he finally asked, glancing around after the room grew quiet.

“Well…” Lily took a deep breath. “I just found out that the apartment over the dance studio is available again.”

“Available for what?” he sneered. “Demolition?”

“It’s not that bad,” she said, fidgeting nervously. “The right furniture could really make it a cute place.”

“I don’t know if I could ever picture anything cute there, sorry.”

“Well, I think it’s full of…potential.” She wanted to say memories—vivid memories that lived in every corner of the room. Quick flashes shot through her mind: Ethan, shirtless and painting… Ethan, rolling around on the floor with her after smearing her body with colors… Ethan, preparing her lovingly for something she would never trust another man enough to do.

“Eh,” he shrugged, sitting down in her dad’s recliner with a practiced movement.

“Well, I’m going to take it,” she said decisively.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why?” she demanded.

“Well, it’s right over that damn dance studio, for one, and you know you would hear a bunch of old farts doing the two-step all night.”

Lily knew for a fact that he was wrong: you could hear lovers doing the waltz. She shut her eyes against the onslaught of memories as Scott continued. “Second, it’s a dump! It probably looks like some squatter’s paradise, or a crack house!”

“Oh, whatever! It’s nowhere near that bad.” She rolled her eyes, unable to hide her frustration.

“Lily, I really don’t understand why you want the place.”

“I thought it would make a nice apartment for me,” she whispered. “I’m tired of living with my dad. I need my own space.” What she didn’t say was that she needed to keep just one last piece of Ethan alive.

What? That doesn’t even make any sense!” he bellowed, standing up again so he could look her in the eye. “Why the hell would you get an apartment—especially that piece of shit—so soon before the wedding? Why would you bother moving out now when we’re only going to move to my house after we get married?”

Lily stopped pacing around anxiously and stared at him, her expression as shocked as if he’d slapped her in the face. She’d been about to tell him that she was getting an apartment because there wouldn’t be a wedding, but his words interrupted that train of thought.

“Excuse me—what did you say? We’re going to do what?”

“Move to my house?” He said as if it were a question, unable to see why she was so upset.

“And when, exactly, did we decide that?”

“That’s what I’ve always planned for us. You knew that.”

“Uh, no, I most definitely did not!” she snapped. “Where the hell did you picture us living all this time, the garage?” It wasn’t even about her getting the apartment anymore; she was absolutely livid that he’d been planning their entire life for them for over a year and never once said a word about it.

“No, in my house. My room is big enough for us.”

“Scott, your room isn’t big enough for you!” Suddenly she realized what he was really saying, and she sucked in a breath. “Wait a minute—you thought we would live with your father?!”

“Who the hell is gonna take care of him if we don’t?” he screamed, his own emotions bubbling to the surface. Sam was always a sore spot with Scott, a burden he chose to carry through life even though it made him miserable.

“How about rehab, for starters?” she yelled back, knowing that she was treading in dangerous waters, but not caring anymore. She knew that she was striking out in pain and anger, and it had probably been the worst possible time to start this conversation, but the dam had broken and she wasn’t going to keep quiet anymore.

“Don’t go there,” he said with a warning tone in his voice.

“Oh, I think it’s way past time that I went there, Scott.”

She felt the truth in her words the moment they left her lips. She knew now, without any remaining doubt, that she really did need to end it, even without the beautiful new man who had interrupted her life. This wasn’t going to work, no matter how much she might try to force it. She couldn’t go through life smiling and nodding blankly while she was hollow on the inside.

“You know what my dad’s like,” he stated simply, as if that was all the explanation she needed. She did know what Sam was like, and she also knew that Scott was only going to grow more bitter by the day if he kept letting himself be a slave to his father—just as she had let herself become one to George. At least her father was somewhat gracious about it; the only thing Sam knew how to do was bark orders and get drunk.

“Yeah, I do. And I know you need to get the hell out of there before you become just like him.”

“I can’t just abandon him like that, Lily! I’m all he has left!”

“Well that’s only because your mother was smart enough to take off! Why should you be stuck with your life on hold?”

“I’m not stuck—I’m helping him. He needs me. And don’t bring my mother into this,” he growled.

“Scott!” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Your father was an abusive, overbearing jerk to her until she finally gave up and left. And you know what? I don’t blame her! Your dad is a prick! He always was, even before the stroke!”

Scott reached out and grabbed her by the arms roughly, shaking her as he screamed in her face. “Don’t you dare fucking bring up the stroke! My dad lost everything after that! His dignity, his wife! I’m the only one he’s got!”

Refusing to be silent in the face of his rage, Lily kept going. “So because he ruined his body with meth and emotionally abused your mother so much she abandoned her own son to save herself, you’re bound to him forever?”

“Shut up!”

“No, I won’t,” she said more calmly than she felt. “Just because she made the mistake of leaving you here with him doesn’t mean that you are stuck here forever. I understand wanting to help him through a hard time, but he has done nothing in all these years but get worse! Why do you think my father can’t stand to be around him anymore? They used to be best friends, for God’s sake, and now whenever I mention Sam’s name my dad gets sad. He tried so hard to talk him into getting help. It broke his heart to watch him become what he is today. When your mother left, that was the last straw. I think he’s always blamed himself for not doing more for you. Hell, I’m pretty sure that’s why he wants us to get married so badly.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that he loves you like a son, and he’s hoping that I’ll scoop you up and take care of you the way that I took care of him. I’m pretty sure he’s hoping that I’d get you out of that situation, not get myself sucked into it.”

“But it would be better with you there, I just know it. My dad likes you! He’s on his best behavior when you’re there. And you’re a nurse. You could help me take care of him.”

“Are you even listening to yourself? Do you hear what you’re saying?” Lily couldn’t believe that after she’d spent so much time dreaming of a life in which she wasn’t waiting on someone hand and foot, her own fiancé had been planning on signing her up for indentured servitude.

He let go of her and stepped back, dropping his gaze to the floor. When he spoke again, it was a quiet whisper. “You’re acting like I’m some kind of monster just because I want to help my dad.”

Lily felt her heart go out to him, finally seeing just how confused and misguided he had become. Closing the gap between them, she hugged him and put his head on her shoulder. Stroking his hair, she sighed before finally speaking.

“Scott, you’re not a monster. You love him, I know that. But what you’re doing now isn’t helping him. He needs real help, not the kind you can give him. And if he refuses that, there’s no reason you should throw your life away making runs to the liquor store for him and helping him to bed every night. And it’s totally unfair to expect me to throw my life away.”

“Then what? What do I do? I thought I had everything worked out, but now I don’t have a clue.” She could hear him swallowing a lump in his throat. “I really thought you were the answer.” He seemed to finally understand.

“I know,” she whispered. “But this just isn’t right. I think you know that now as much as I do.”

He looked at her, slowly reaching up to cup her chin. “I really do love you, you know.”

“And I love you. I always have. But I don’t think either one of us feels the kind of love we’re supposed to feel. We’re like best buddies. You deserve to go somewhere and find a girl who will love you with her whole heart.”

“But everything is so much easier with you,” he chuckled. “We hardly ever fight and you put up with my shit.”

Lily smiled softly, but her eyes were sad. “That’s because there’s no passion between us, sweetie. I know that now.” Her mind flashed through so many heated encounters with Ethan that she lost count. “When that kind of passion is there, it makes the fighting and nagging worth it, because the good times are so much better.”

“I’ve never had that before,” he said quietly. “I just thought that we clicked so well that it had to work.”

“We would have been comfortable, but deep down we both would have been bored to death.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He looked at her for a moment before leaning down and kissing her softly. They both knew it was nothing more than a friendly gesture, the comfort of a good friend. “So what happens now?”

Lily reached into her pocket and pulled out the ring she had hardly ever worn. “You should have this back,” she whispered, holding her open hand out to him. “You saved up a long time for it. I’m sure you could use the money for a fresh start.”

“Wow,” he sighed, taking the ring from her small hand. “I can’t believe this is really happening.” He turned it over in his huge fingers, watching the slight sparkle from the small stone. “Do you really think I can start over?”

Lily stood up on her tiptoes, kissing him soundly on the cheek. “Absolutely. I think you can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to try.”

“Thanks, Lil.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

* * *

A little over an hour later, Lily sat alone in her father’s kitchen. She still felt completely raw, as if her entire body had been turned inside out, but she was pleased to notice a new lightness in her chest. She hadn’t realized just how much the guilt of stringing Scott along had been weighing her down, and she was happy that they were able to end things so amicably.

A part of her wondered if she should have come clean about her affair, but she couldn’t find any reason to hurt him more than necessary. If it had come down to it—if he hadn’t been so understanding and had demanded another reason—she would have told him. But as it was, she was just happy it was finally over. She knew that telling him anything more now would only serve to lessen her guilt, and in her mind that guilt was her own punishment to bear.

She looked around the dark kitchen, food the furthest thing from her mind, and wondered what she was going do now. She had finally started down a new path, but she wouldn’t be able to spend it with the person she cared most about. Sighing deeply, she pushed back her tears and forced herself to think about the topic at hand.

George.

She knew he would be home any minute, so she spent what quiet time she had left preparing herself for the inevitable confrontation.

He walked into the kitchen about ten minutes later, surprised to find her waiting for him in a silent house with a mug of hot cocoa in her hand. It was still fairly full, since her diminished appetite had only allowed her a few sips, but she figured it might be helpful to have something to do with her hands during the upcoming conversation.

“Lil?” he asked, sensing something was up. “What’s going on?”

“Pull up a chair,” she said as calmly as possible, trying to keep her voice from wavering.

“All right,” he said hesitantly. Once he was seated across from her, he sighed loudly. “Want to tell me what this is all about?”

“Listen. I have some news, and I don’t think it should wait.”

“Are you pregnant?” he asked, a slight enthusiastic edge to his voice.

“No!” she gasped. “God, no! Why on earth would you think that?”

“Well, you said you had news. Forgive me for jumping to conclusions. So? Whatcha got for me?”

Lily took a deep breath. “I’m moving out.”

There was a beat of silence. “Oh,” he replied quietly. “So soon?”

“Soon? Dad, it’s been three years.”

“I know. I guess I just figured you two would wait until closer to the wedding. So, where are you guys going to live?”

“Actually, that’s the other part of my news. I’m moving out alone. The engagement is off.”

“Are you all right?” he asked quickly. “What happened? Did you fight? Did he hurt you? Do I need to kick his ass?”

“Slow down, Dad. Take a breath.”

“Tell me what happened, Lil.”

“We ended it.”

“Care to be more specific?” George asked sarcastically.

“We both agreed that we aren’t the right people for each other. There wasn’t any one thing that happened, Dad. We aren’t mad at each other, there was no big fight. We just aren’t together anymore.”

“Not right for each other?” he yelled. “What are you talking about? You two are a perfect couple!”

“Not even close, Dad.”

“I just don’t get it,” George sighed, running his hands through his hair. “He’s a great kid, Lily. He’s always treated you well.”

“If you love him so much, why don’t you marry him, then?” she snapped, regretting it instantly when he winced. “Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. But you’re supposed to care about what I want and need, and it’s not Scott. It hasn’t been for a long time, and I finally found the courage to admit it to him. I didn’t think we had any business getting married when we just weren’t in love.”

“But he loved you. That was easy to see.”

“Yes, he loved me. And I loved him. But it wasn’t the right kind of love, Dad. I hope you understand because I need that to be enough for you.”

“I’m sorry, this is just a lot to take in. You swear you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine. And so is Scott, don’t worry. I know you care about him. You can still hang out with him whenever you want. I won’t mind. But I’m not going to be here to bust my ass making you both dinner anymore.”

“You mean you’re still moving out? Why?”

“Dad, really? I’m almost thirty, single, and living with my father. It’s time for me to be on my own.”

“But…but who’s gonna help me out around here? You know my leg still bothers me.”

“Your leg is fine. You’ve just gotten used to having me wait on you hand and foot, and now you don’t like the thought of going back to what it was like before. Well, if I remember correctly, you used to whine and moan when I first moved in, telling me over and over again how you somehow managed to get by on your own for over twenty years without my help. Now’s your chance to prove it.”

Lily could see him blinking rapidly, and on closer inspection, she noticed that his eyes looked watery.

“That’s not it,” he whispered, swallowing a lump in his throat. “I’ll be fine. I admit I’ve gotten a little lazy around here, but I think I can remember how to use the microwave. It’s just that I’m really going to miss you around here. I love you, Lil.”

She could probably count on one hand how many times she had heard her father say that.

“I love you, too. And it’s not like I’m going back to Minnesota and you’ll never see me again. I’m just moving into an apartment across town. I’ll even have you over for Sunday breakfast someday.”

“I guess that’s not so bad,” he said. Lily watched as his thick mustache twitched at the corners, eventually turning up into a smile. “At least you’ll finally get those damn cats out of here.”

“Hey! Don’t knock the Fraggle twins. I know you secretly love them.”

After a few uncomfortable moments of silence he glanced at his watch. “I should probably be getting to bed. I have to be at the school early tomorrow.” He stood up from the table, wiping at his eyes quickly when he thought she wasn’t looking. As he turned to leave, he stopped and looked at her one more time. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay, kiddo?”

“Yeah, Dad. I think everything is going to be just fine.”

She almost believed it.

After George went to bed, she slowly made her way upstairs and got ready to turn in herself. It wasn’t until she was settled underneath the covers that she finally lost control of her thoughts, allowing all of the memories to come flooding back again.

Ethan, holding her tightly in the dark, stroking her bare shoulders and kissing her softly.

Ethan, waking her up in the middle of the night with his wandering fingers.

Ethan, smiling and laughing as she tickled him playfully.

When she couldn’t take any more, Lily rolled over onto her side and cried herself to sleep.

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