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Steady as She Goes

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The story of Colleen Blessed's life came in two parts.


There was the time before her father died. And then there was everything else.


Before her father died she was a child. Her memories of that time were vague, even though she had been well into her teens. There were flashes, in sepia wash, of getting dressed up for church and dancing in recitals wearing second-hand sequins. Passing pink-penned notes under the table during class and laying on her bed with an open book dreaming of the amazing freedom that lay outside the claustrophobic confines of life in Hamilton.


And then the phone rang.


After her father died she was an adult. Within an hour her life had crashed around her like a house of cards hit by a gust of wind. She no longer played in the clouds and dreamed. She had to rebuild her life one day at a time, one card at a time. Moving carefully, precisely, following her own plans which detailed each new placement of a card, dictated the next step in her schooling and then her career. Trying as hard as she could to build a new life that couldn't be tumbled. Always rushing, running, terrified of the unknown factors that might blow in and destroy her. She didn't have it in her to pick up the pieces again.


She worried, sometimes, that this left her cold. All around her all her life people managed to fall in love, start families and be happy at least some of the time. It wasn't that she minded, not very much. When she wanted a man for the night she could find a man for the night. But she always wondered what it felt like to want the same man for longer than a few weeks, to feel the safety of knowing someone would always be there at the end of the day because her home was his home and his home was her home.


Her longest relationship was four months. No, that wasn't true. Her longest relationship was with Duff, but that was different. Duff was different, special.


He had been waiting for them at the hospital. He said the same things as everyone else: this was a tragedy, he was sorry for their loss, her father had been a good man. But unlike everyone else, when Duff said these things Colleen believed him.


While her mother wept Duff had taken her for cocoa in the cafeteria. He sipped a smuggled beer and waited for her to cry. But she was never that sort of girl and looked him straight in the eye instead, challenging him to be the sort of man her father had always described him as. Duff McArdle, self-made hero of Hamilton. He didn't look like much, just an unimposing man sitting in a torn vinyl seat in a crummy cafeteria sipping beer.


“Drink your cocoa,” he had advised her kindly.


She had balked at that, took it for the inherent condescension of the old to the young. She had lifted her chin even higher and narrowed her eyes and decided right then and there that if her father had died for this man, then this man had better prove to be every bit as good as people said he was. And she promised herself that whatever it took, she would find out and if she had to she would make it so her father hadn't died in an unworthy cause.


“I don't drink cocoa. I'm not a child. And one day, Mr. McArdle, I will run your businesses, better than you ever did.”


His eyebrows had risen, and she waited to defend herself against his solicitous response. One which never came. Instead his unruly eyebrows slowly fell back and he had replied, in a low sincere voice: “Yes, I believe you will at that.” And he fumbled in the sports bag he had been carrying. “Sorry about the cocoa, but I always find it does me a world of good when I'm troubled. At least I did,” he added thoughtfully, “until I discovered the hootch. To be honest after that it's all a bit of a blur, but I certainly do feel better about things.”


He sat back up with another bottle of beer. “But if we're going to go into business, we'd better drink to it proper with the good old Canadian juice. Mind you, some folks'll swear on spit and a handshake, but I never trust a man I can't drink with. Or woman, as the case may be. Anyone can hock a good bogie, 'specially when they've had one or two, but not many can look you in the eye and lie to you after they've knocked back a few back.” And he keyed open the second bottle and handed it to her. They clinked rims and Colleen had never looked back.


She studied, she graduated and she worked for Duff. She build her card castle high and she delighted to find herself well matched for the challenges that came along with the type of businesses Duff ran. It wasn't perfect, she wasn't perfect, but they held their own and she was starting to feel pretty secure. Maybe not quite happy but happiness wasn't for her. She was content, and she was capable, and she had Duff and that was enough.


Until a little whisper of wind tickled her ear. Brett Parker. A couple years earlier and she wouldn't have played, would have blocked him out entirely to protect what she had, what was hers. But by the time their paths crossed she was growing restless. She enjoyed the extra challenge, the harmless games that let her stretch her skills and take the gambles that you need to take to succeed in the business world. She enjoyed him.


In almost every respect he was the worst man she had ever met. Yet the longer he stayed the more she expected him to be there and when he wasn't she felt alone in a way she had never felt before.


She started to understand, a little bit, how everyone else did it: the love, the family, the measures of happiness. It was a little corner she found in her heart where she could go and feel safe, like she remembered feeling before her father died. She started to believe that the cliches about 'missing halves' were true and this was hers.


She was wrong.


And that was okay. It hurt like anything but at least she had dreamed. At least she'd proven to herself that she still could. Her house of cards was rebuilt: imperfect but solid. Strong, like she had made herself. Strong enough to withstand a breeze, like she was strong enough to recognize the storm coming and shut the door.


Brett Parker had been in her life, and now Brett Parker was out of her life. Simple as that.


Except sometimes she crept into the rafters at Copps Coliseum and watched him while he watched a practice. And sometimes she would stand in the owner's box with Duff (Parker only ever watched from the stands, anymore) and he would glance up and catch her eye. And just for a second she would be taken back to that person she had been before her father died.


And then one night a woman sat next to Parker, and when the Steelheads won he kissed her. Colleen spent the rest of the night wondering if the problem with them hadn't just been him or if it really was her who was broken beyond repair.


Duff had followed her into the rafters, poured her a larger glass of cakeboy juice and told her Parker's new girl was nice enough, but didn't seem quite right – for one thing, she had asked him where he got his manicures. She downed her drink and held out her glass for more.


She told herself it didn't matter. She had all she needed out of life. She was content, she was capable, and she still had Duff.


The story of Colleen Blessed's life came in two parts.


There was the time before her father died. And then there was everything else.