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What if?

Phil Kane reversed course in Orlando and decided to return to Citrus County to find Ellen Galasko, his long-lost love, and clear up the mystery of whether Philip Galasko is really his son. Too many things don't make sense to the old police officer, and he hopes to find answers at a restaurant in Ozello. He hears a wheelchair pull alongside his table, and he turns to find Ellen Galasko looking back at him.

CHAPTER 8

Time, Phil noted, had not been kind to Ellen.

"Well, are you just going to stand there and gawk at me, or are you gonna buy me a drink?" Ellen asked.

Phil quickly regained his composure and he sat down. "I'm sorry. Please, what can I get for you?" he said, waving his hand for the waitress, who was standing near the bartender, both watching Phil and Ellen.

Ellen tilted back her head and laughed. "I thought you knew _ I own this joint. So, big spender, dinner's on me. So, tell me, Phil, howya been? It's been years."

Phil took a deep drink from his beer mug, collecting his thoughts.

"Nothing worth writing about," he said, trying to sound nonchalant. "But what about you. What happened?"

"Oh, you mean this thing?" she said, patting the armrests on the wheelchair. She told Phil about the car accident and the operations that followed. The chair was only temporary, she said.

Phil took advantage of her long story to size her up as she spoke. The graying hair, the pallid skin, the edge to her voice and her very being. What had happened to the sweet young girl he had loved so long ago? What had turned her into the stranger who now sat before him?

Without warning, Ellen asked, "Did you have anything to do with Philip getting arrested last night?"

Phil turned his head away from the accusing stare and reached for his beer again. This time, he bumped the mug handle and sloshed foam on the table. As he reached for napkins to wipe up the spill, he looked back into her eyes.

"You know, Ellen, I'm a cop," he said. "Well, I was one. And when I smell a rat . . . let's just say that I had a hunch and the local sheriff's office put the rest together. I'm sorry. This isn't the way I'd hope to see you again. There was a time when you were the love of my life, and I just wanted to find out what went wrong with us."

Ellen ran a wrinkled hand through her thinning, gray hair. "Back then, I was so in love with you, Phil. When my folks said we were moving to Florida, I just couldn't handle the thought of losing you. So I picked a fight with you. Ah, I don't know. Maybe I needed to give myself a reason to be mad instead of being sad."

"I was devastated," he said. Phil rubbed his temples to ease the tension that was forming a knot there. "You left a longing in me, and I filled it by marrying the first girl I asked who said yes."

As he spoke the truth, he began to see it as if for the first time. Hattie could never have competed with the memories of Ellen that he had in his heart. He had put Ellen on such a pedestal that no other woman stood a chance in his life. For the first time, he understood Hattie's pain.

Looking back at Ellen, he was awash in emotions, none of which he wanted to share with Ellen at the moment. He tried to shift the subject.

"Anyway, we are who we are and we've done what we've done," Phil said. "So, do we really have a son? And how did he get mixed up in drugs?"

Ellen looked out the fogged window. Her life had been as twisted and cruel as Ozello Trail _ and, like the road, a dead end.

"Phil, it first started years ago when I married Bob Stillman, an older man who was a shrimper in these parts. The shrimping business made us a good living for a time, but Bob, he wanted to make a killing fast. He heard about a guy in Miami who used the shrimp boats to haul in drugs from freighters out in the gulf, and he decided to get in on the action."

Phil listened quietly while Ellen spoke. He noticed that she was careful not to mention her own involvement in the drug business, but her omission did nothing to change the impression he was forming.

As he stared at her, Phil tried to recapture the feelings he had for her not more than a day or so ago. Now, it was as if they had never existed, as if someone had cut open his heart and pulled Ellen out.

Ellen jolted him back into the conversation when she said, "You're right to suspect that Philip isn't your son. He's not. But I had a reason for saying that he was."

Lowering her voice and leaning in closer to Phil so the other diners wouldn't overhear, Ellen continued.

"When Philip was 15 or so, Bob started taking him on his so-called shrimping trips. I didn't like it, but we were so deeply involved that I didn't care. But when Bob disappeared, I was scared that I would lose Philip, too. Unfortunately, Philip turned out to be just like his father, and when we got another boat, the smuggling just picked up where it had left off.

"As for me," she said, leaning back in her wheelchair, "I went back to using my maiden name _ Philip changed his last name, too _ and bought this restaurant. I'm trying to distance myself from the past."

Phil just nodded as the cold wave of Ellen's life washed over him.

"When Ben called, we had a long talk and he caught me up on your life, how your wife just died and your career as a cop. The more we talked about you, the more clear it all became to me.

"I saw a chance to end the denying and stop the drug dealing that had taken my husband and was threatening to eat up my son, too. I just couldn't turn my own boy in, but I knew that you being a cop through and through, you'd be able to do it for me.

"All I had to do," she said, "was to figure out a way to get you down here. Reckon my idea worked."

Phil just stared at Ellen as the silence enveloped them. He saw all of the wasted years that he had spent pining for a memory that was no longer Ellen.

Finally, he stood and reached into his pocket for car keys. "I'll be right back," he said.

"He walked across the oyster shell parking lot to his rental car, unlocked the door and grabbed the black leather weekend bag that Philip Galasko had given him. He looked inside and the $10,000 was all there, in crisp new bills.

He felt numb. Not even the sharp, burning stings of the no-see-ums affected him.

He drew in a breath and walked back to the restaurant.

"Here," he said, as he arrived at the table where Ellen waited. With a thud, the case hit the table. Use this to get your son a good lawyer."

Without another word, he turned and walked out the door. He didn't look back.

Phil Kane was finally ready to go home. He'd had enough of Florida.

On the flight home, he wondered, had he not been so intent on carrying a torch for Ellen all of these years, could he and Hattie have been happier?

At one time, he had loved Hattie. Now, with Ellen finally out of his system, maybe he could love her again.

He found his car where he had parked it at the Newark airport. It roared to life, and soon he was on the turnpike. But instead of heading home, he got off the exit for the cemetery.

As he stood in front of Hattie's gravestone, he twisted the gold band off his left hand.

Phil kneeled and dug a little hole in the earth next to her granite marker. He placed his wedding band in it and patted the dirt back over it.

"I'll see you in heaven, Hattie," he said, rising on aching legs.

A gust of wind blew open his coat collar, and he wrapped his arms around his shoulders to cover up. For the first time in what seemed like forever, he could feel Hattie's warmth.

About the author

Robert Kirk was born in 1972 in the city people call the Big Easy, New Orleans. He moved to Citrus County in 1974 and has lived here since, except for a few years away in the Navy, including during the Persian Gulf War. After his military service was finished, Robert moved back to Citrus County and has worked in various construction-related jobs. He has enrolled at Central Florida Community College, where he hopes to earn an associate's degree in journalism then enroll in the University of South Florida. He hopes one day to become a professional writer.

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