Key-Key was only half-listening as Rose chirped on. She had video called her friend for help setting up her new sewing machine. But she just could not seem to concentrate.
Her hand caressed the cold plastic with a smile. Bree was not wrong. She did not get Christmas presents. This was only her second one ever.
Growing up, her father had preached against the commercialization of his savior’s birth. He had never allowed any form of frivolity. No tree or lights or decorations. No stockings, no Christmas dinner, and certainly no presents. She remembered well the sermon on Satan and Santa.
No, the only other gift she had ever received was a beaded bracelet that Brian had brought home from Iraq. He had given it to her that night. She had been so blown away that she had thrown herself into his arms. She had only meant to kiss his cheek. But well, she could never regret the rest. He had given her a far more precious gift that night. His last.
“Are you okay, Key-Key?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, Rose. I guess I’m just too excited to focus right now. Maybe we should do this another time?”
Her friend smiled back at her from the phone screen, “Sure, no problem.”
Keisha reached to push the button as the other woman continued, “You know I’m always happy to listen. If you need to talk, that is.”
She forced that smile. She was forcing fewer of them these days, usually only around him. And genuine ones were more common, too. She did indeed have so much to be grateful for this year. As hard as this year had been, this past month had been… miraculous?
“Thanks, Rose, I know you mean that.” But after a lifetime of keeping all her feelings inside, except with Bree, of course, old habits were hard to break.
“Like I said, no problem. But if you don’t mind a piece of unsolicited advice, you should wipe those tears away and splash a bit of water on your face before anyone else sees you.”
Keisha was surprised when she reached up and touched her face to discover the moisture. How long had she been crying? Why hadn’t her friend said anything before? “Thanks,” she mumbled, but she could not bring herself to look at the phone.
“You know, there’s nothing wrong with shedding a few tears. Heck, I bet I even know where you could find a nice, solid shoulder to cry on.”
They were veering into dangerous territory now. Key-Key was more shocked than her friend when she blurted out, “It’s not like that with me and Travis. I don’t know how much he told you or Chad, but this is just an arrangement. Between friends. To help us get back on our feet and so we didn’t end up homeless. That’s all.”
“Yeah, I heard that line from him, too, sweetie. You know that I have a tiny bit of experience with ‘arranged’ marriages. And trust me, there is more going on in yours than either of you want to admit. I know this is none of my business, but we care. About both of you – all of you. And we just want to see you happy.”
Keisha started to shake her head, to deny Rose’s words, but she couldn’t. Sure, this whole thing might have begun as some legalized agreement that was mutually beneficial, but it had become more than that somewhere along the way. At least for her. But what if…
“What if he doesn’t feel the same way?”
She was not expecting the peels of laughter that greeted her question. She was unsure whether to be offended or join in on some joke that she did not even get. “What’s so funny?”
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“That man has been in love with you for as long as Chad has known him.”
Key-Key shook her head, “No, that’s not possible. I mean, I know they’ve been friends for years…”
“Ever since Travis came back. They met at Milly’s Diner and got to talk about the Corps. As Chad says, it was just two old bachelors, reliving their days of glory and sharing the pain. But, sweetie, even then, Trav was always going on about you and that Angel. What ya’ll were doing, what you talked about on the phone, and his worries for you both.”
“That’s what friends do…”
“Yes, it is, to a point. But my husband knows what it is to love someone you think you can never have. And he recognized that pain in Travis. It was another bond they shared.” Her friend paused, and Keisha would have sworn Rose wiped a tear from her own eyes, but maybe the video was just fuzzy.
“Then Grace and I came back into his life. Don’t get me wrong, Travis was happy for him. I mean, he was one of the few people that Chad could count on when things got rough for us. Travis was there for our family. He put his life on the line to bring Grace and me safely home. And we owe him for that.”
“You have a good man, Key-Key. But I don’t think I need to tell you that, do I? I think you learned that three years ago. That’s why ya’ll stayed in touch, isn’t it?”
Keisha could not answer her friend. Those tears were back, and they were clogging her throat. So, she nodded her head as she swiped at them with the back of her hand and fought to get the words out. “But what is there to do about it?”
Rose’s eyes twinkled, “Well, let me tell you a secret. Our guys, they’re men of honor. And duty. They have this code about doing the right thing. But sometimes that right thing is not so clear to them.”
“Yeah, I get that. So, what do I do?”
“That’s simple. You seduce your husband.”
Key-Key almost choked at those words as she shook her head in denial. “I…I…I couldn’t,” she mumbled.
“Trust me, it ain’t that hard. They only need a tiny push in the right direction.”
“But…but what if he doesn’t…” She could not even get the words out.
“Oh, sweetie, trust me, that man does. He just needs a little encouragement to act on it.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know where to even begin…”
“And that’s what friends are for. I think you need to start the New Year off with a bang. Just leave it up to us. We’ll arrange everything.”
“We?” But Rose had not waited. Once she had the green light, she was off the phone and up to heavens only knew what mischief.
Keisha was left to stew. Was this a good idea? Things were good. Bree was happier than she had ever known her child. They had a wonderful and secure place to live. She did not need to work to make ends meet. The food on the table was fresher and more nutritious than she had ever been able to afford in the food desert that was her neighborhood in Atlanta. It was a life that she had been afraid even to imagine.
And Rose was right. Something was missing. She was not happy. Every time she looked at him or thought about the man, there was some ache inside that only got worse every day. But was it worth the risk? What if she messed all this up for her Angel? What if Rose was wrong and Travis didn’t feel the same?
But what if he did? Would she be able to live, never knowing the answer to that question? With this void growing bigger every day? Yeah, she had loads to lose. But she had more to gain. And the truth was she could not see going on like this for the rest of her life. No, it was better to find out the truth. One way or the other.