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Authors: Kimberla Lawson Roby

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BOOK: The Perfect Marriage
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D
enise hit the button on the overhead console of her car, the one programmed to the garage, and waited for the door to roll
up. Her mother was parked far to the side, and Denise had sort of suspected she might still be there when she got home. It
was the reason Denise quickly pulled down the sun visor with the lighted mirror and did a nose check. After meeting Butch
in their normal spot, she’d driven farther around the park to a more secluded area and snorted a couple of lines of cocaine.
She’d instantly felt better and more like herself, and she was glad she’d made the decision to call him. She was thankful
Butch had given her what she needed on credit.

Denise twitched her nose, sniffed a couple of times and pushed the visor back up. Then, she eased into the garage, got out,
and went into the house. Mackenzie and her grandmother were sitting at the island eating pizza.

Denise strolled over to her mom, who had a weird look plastered across her face, and embraced her. “Thanks so much for picking
up Mac.”

“I was happy to do it. Always glad to spend time with my grandbaby.”

Mackenzie smiled and hugged Denise. “So Mom, did you ever talk to Dad?”

“No, I didn’t. He must be really busy.”

“Honey,” Wilma said to her granddaughter, “why don’t you run upstairs to your room so I can speak to your mom?”

Mackenzie gazed at her grandmother in a fearful sort of way, and Denise didn’t like it. Mackenzie eventually stood and left
the room, but she didn’t seem too happy about it.

“Have a seat,” Wilma said.

Denise sat across from her mother, wondering what this was about.

“Honey, why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That Derrek had lost his job.”

Denise’s body went numb. Why had Mackenzie done that? Why had she told her grandmother any of what was happening in their
household?

“I guess I didn’t know how to.”

“But why?”

“I know how much Daddy expects of me and Derrek, so I just didn’t want you to know. Plus, Derrek will be back working in no
time.”

“But why was he let go? Is the hospital downsizing?”

Denise didn’t want to add her mother to the list of people she told lies to, but there was no way she was telling her Derrek
had been fired. “Yes, they’re cutting back in all the administrative departments, and Derrek was one of the first they laid
off.”

“After all the time he’s put in there? How awful.”

“I know. He was pretty upset by it, and so was I. But, Mom…I’m begging you, please don’t tell Daddy about this.”

“But what if he can help in some way? Your father has a lot of connections.”

“I know, Mom, but I want us to figure this out on our own.”

“But I just think—”

“Mom, please. Please don’t say anything to him.”

Wilma sighed. “If you insist. But I still think it’s a mistake not to tell him.”

“We’re going to be fine. Derrek has a wonderful background, and I’m sure he’ll find something very soon.”

“I hope that’s true because if he doesn’t, what will you do for money? How will you pay your bills?”

Denise had been tearing her brain out all afternoon trying to figure out that very thing, but she would never let her mother
know how worried she was. She certainly would never admit that her pension fund was gone and that they had no savings whatsoever
at their bank. So she lied again.

“We’ll manage, Mom. We’ll do whatever we have to do, even if it means using our savings.”

“Well, at least you have that to fall back on, and that makes me feel a whole lot better about things.”

Denise reached across the table and grabbed her mother’s hands. “Please don’t worry about us.”

“You’re my baby, and I love all three of you, so I can’t help it. But I’m going to trust and believe that everything will
be okay.”

Denise smiled, but deep down, she couldn’t have been more troubled or worried because not only did they not have any cash,
Derrek was now using crack, she had no idea where he was, and she’d purchased a bag of cocaine on credit. And sadly, her gut
told her things would only get worse. It was practically inevitable.

  

“Derrek, where in the hell have you been?” Denise yelled as loudly as she could. “Do you realize it’s six in the morning?
I’ve been calling you for hours.”

Tears flooded Derrek’s face, but he dragged himself closer to Denise and slumped to his knees. “Baby, I’m so, so sorry. Oh
God, I really messed up this time.”

Derrek grabbed her around her waist and laid his head against her stomach. But Denise pushed him away from her because yesterday
morning when he’d fallen to his knees, saying he’d “messed up,” he’d dropped the bomb about being fired. She also wondered
why he was back calling her baby again.

“Derrek, what are you talking about?”

“Baby, I didn’t mean it,” he sobbed. “But I couldn’t stop. I tried, but I just couldn’t.”

“Stop what?”

“Gambling.”

Denise scrunched her face. “Gambling? What kind of gambling?”

Derrek struggled and got up and brought his hands together in the praying position. “Baby, what I have to tell you…it’s real
bad.”

Denise drew in a deep breath and covered her mouth. “Wait a minute. Where did you get money to gamble?”

Derrek burst into tears all over again. “From…from…the credit union.”

“Oh no,” Denise said, tears already streaming down both sides of her face. “No, Derrek…please tell me you didn’t. Not Mackenzie’s
college money.”

“I didn’t mean it, baby. I swear.”

“How much of it did you spend?”

Derrek pressed both his temples with his hands and held his head down.

“How much, Derrek?” she screamed.

“All of it.”

Denise dropped down on the bed, thinking about that year Derrek had become obsessed with the state lottery. “Oh no. Dear God,
please don’t let it be. Derrek, are you telling me you spent twenty thousand dollars on scratch-off tickets?”

Derrek walked over and kneeled down in front of her again. “No…I mean, yes, I did spend some of it on scratch-offs, and I
bought a little dope from Butch, but that’s not where most of it went.”

Denise’s patience was wearing thin. “Well then what happened to it, Derrek?”

“Warren and I went to the casino.”

“The casino? Are you crazy?”

“I know, baby, and I’m sorry. I have a problem, and I know it. I need help.”

“No, what you need is to get off of me,” she shouted and shoved him away from her.

Derrek fell over.

Denise stood up. “I don’t believe this. You actually withdrew the entire balance and took it with you?”

“No, I only took two thousand,” he said, pulling himself up and sitting on the bed.

“Okay, then I guess I don’t understand.”

“That’s because, baby…it’s complicated.”

“Then, I wish you’d explain it.”

Tears rolled down Derrek’s cheeks. “I only took two thousand, but when I lost it, Warren hooked me up with this loan shark.”

“I should have known Warren had somethin’ to do with this.”

Derrek sniffled. “He introduced us and the next thing I knew, I kept playing those slots and then the blackjack tables and
the money was gone.”

“But I still don’t get how you spent all of Mackenzie’s money if you only took two thousand dollars with you. It doesn’t make
any sense.”

“Baby, the only reason I was able to keep playing is because I kept borrowing money from D.C. He’s the loan shark I just told
you about.”

“And this D.C. person just assumed you were good for it? The man just casually loaned you thousands of dollars not knowing
if you could pay it back?”

“He knew because I showed him the credit union receipt. It had the balance on it.”

Denise stared at him. She knew it was her husband she was looking at, but the man who was speaking to her was a total stranger.
The man she was gazing at now was a complete fool who didn’t have a brain in his head. How could he have done something like
this? How could he steal Mackenzie’s money and then throw it away on nothing?

“When is he expecting his money?” she asked. Not that this would change how much Derrek owed him, but a part of her was hoping
they’d be able to make payments.

“First thing in the morning. He lives ninety miles away in some city called Mitchell, so he’s going to spend the night at
a hotel near the casino. He’s meeting me at the credit union at nine.”

“Wow, Derrek. Wow. And if you don’t pay him?”

“Baby, that’s not even an option. Warren said that D.C. isn’t someone to be played with. There’s even a rumor about him killing
people over his money.”

“So not only have you thrown away Mackenzie’s money, you’ve put our lives in danger?”

“All I have to do is pay him, and it’s over.”

Denise tossed him a dirty look. “Yeah, you got that right, it is over. Between you and me.”

“Baby, please don’t say that. I made a huge mistake, but you have to take some of the blame, too. I’ve thought about that
a lot, and now I realize that’s why I was so angry at you today.”

Denise widened her eyes with rage.
What?
“Take some of the blame? Why?”

“Because everything was fine until that night Dixon died and you gave me that cocaine. Before that, I was drug-free and had
been going to my support group meetings religiously. But then you gave me that cocaine, and things have been downhill ever
since.”

Denise’s face tightened. “Don’t…you…dare…blame this on me, Derrek! You’re the one who brought that crap into the house in
the first place. I had never even touched cocaine until I found it hidden in our closet.”

“I know that, but then I left it alone. I thought we’d both left it alone until that night you gave me some, and that’s when
I realized you’d never stopped. You lied to me Denise, so both of us are at fault.”

Denise stabbed Derrek in his forehead with her finger. “No,
you’re
the one at fault. You’re the one who started this cocaine thing, started using crack—yeah, I know all about that—and then
gambled all our daughter’s money away. This is all your fault, Derrek, and I’ll never forgive you for it.”

“Oh, so, what you’re telling me is that you’re done using drugs? That if I searched through this room, I wouldn’t find a single
Vicodin, bag of cocaine, or anything? Is that what you’re sayin’?”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you, and I want you out of here.” Denise snatched the alarm clock from the nightstand
and tossed it at him. “Get out!” she screamed, now hurling a picture frame at him.

“Mom! Dad!” Mackenzie shrieked, rushing into the room. “Please don’t fight. Please,” she begged, weeping loudly.

Denise stopped in her tracks and set Derrek’s wooden watch box back on the dresser. She’d been planning to fling that at him,
too, along with anything else she could find, if that’s what it would take to make him leave. She wanted him gone, and she
meant it.

“Honey, I’m sorry we woke you,” Denise said. “I’m sorry you had to witness any of this.”

“But it’s okay. Daddy did a terrible thing, but all that matters is that you love each other and we’re still a family.”

Clearly, Mackenzie had heard their entire argument, and Denise hated that. She hated this whole fiasco.

“Mom, please,” Mackenzie said, hugging her. “Please don’t make Daddy leave. Please let’s just forget about all this.”

Denise held her daughter closely. “Honey, your dad and I are having a lot of problems right now, but I promise you everything
is going to be fine. And no matter what happens, we’ll never stop loving you.”

“I know that, Mom, but I don’t want you to stop loving each other, either. I want you to stop doing all those drugs, so things
can be normal again.”

Derrek looked at Denise, but she rolled her eyes at him. “Sweetie, I want you to go back to your room, okay?”

“But, Mom—”

“Honey, please. Just go to your room, and I’ll come see you in a few minutes.”

Mackenzie gazed at her mom and dad, her face soaked with tears, and left.

Denise closed the door and folded her arms. “You know what, Derrek? I’m not sure I can stay married to you after all this,
but the very least you could do is replace Mackenzie’s money. You can take it from your retirement account.”

“No, Denise, actually I can’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s gone.”

Denise’s heart pounded. “Gone where?”

“I gambled it all away at the casino. It’s been gone for months.”

A
nother day had passed, yet here Denise was strolling back and forth through the bedroom still not speaking to Derrek. He knew
he’d made a ton of terrible mistakes, but why couldn’t she see that he was human and that this was what humans did? No one
was perfect, everyone fell short every now and then, so why did she expect him to be any different? Why couldn’t she just
love him and forgive him the way God expected a wife to do? Had it been Denise who had gambled all their money away, sure
he would have been upset and disappointed, but eventually he would have forgiven her and moved on. His first thought was that
maybe all Denise needed was a little more time to accept what had happened, but it was the look in her eyes that told him
otherwise. The way she gawked at him would have been considered frightening by most people’s standards, and she acted as though
she were repulsed by him. She acted as though they barely knew each other and more like they were opponents in a wrestling
match.

Derrek watched as she passed by the chaise he was sitting on and wondered what he could say to make her talk to him. He certainly
didn’t want to bring up anything relating to money because now that he’d met D.C. at the credit union yesterday morning and
cleaned out what was left of Mackenzie’s college fund, he knew Denise was more furious than before. Then, if that hadn’t been
enough, he’d broken the news about his 401(k) plan to her. He just couldn’t understand what had come over him a few months
ago, but what he did know was that it had taken only one visit to the casino and he was hooked. He’d always stayed away from
places like that but then one evening after work, Warren had encouraged him to tag along with him and a couple of other guys,
and Derrek had agreed. He’d loved the adrenaline rush, along with the excitement of winning—which he now knew had been nothing
more than beginner’s luck—but from that day on, he’d looked forward to sneaking out to the casino every chance he’d gotten.
He’d gone as much as he could with Warren, but then it hadn’t been long before he’d begun missing a day here and a day there
from work, so he could slip off and play a few slot machines. He hadn’t realized he had a problem until he’d received a pension
statement, showing that his retirement savings balance was zero and that he’d now have to pay it all back through a rather
large monthly payroll deduction. Denise handled the finances in their house, but for whatever reason, she’d never paid close
attention to his retirement fund. He guessed because she’d assumed it wasn’t necessary.

Denise slipped on the blazer to her pantsuit and reached for her briefcase.

Derrek locked his fingers together. “Baby, how long are you going to keep this up? You haven’t said one word to me since yesterday
morning, and now today it’s no different.”

Denise searched through her handbag but never looked his way.

“Baby, I know I was wrong, and I know it’s gonna take a lot of work to get us out of this mess we’re in, but we can do it.
We can do it together.”

Denise closed her handbag and started for the doorway.

Derrek left the chaise and stood in front of it.

Denise frowned. “Will you please get out of my way? I know
you
have all the time in the world to sit here talking about nothing, but I have a job to get to.”

“I know that, baby, but I really need to talk to you. I want you to know how sorry I am, and how I never meant to hurt you
or Mackenzie. And, baby…I’m through doing drugs.”

“You must think I’m a fool. You were out past eleven o’clock last night, yet you’re standing here claiming you don’t do drugs
anymore? Derrek, please.”

“Baby, I won’t even lie to you. Warren and another friend of ours smoked up the rest of what I bought from Butch, but when
I left there I promised myself that was the end. I thought long and hard about Mackenzie and my responsibility to her as a
father, and I’m finished.”

“Yeah, whatever. Now, will you please move so I can go?”

“Not until you talk to me.”

“About what?” She frowned.

“Us working things out. And how it’s time you gave up drugs, too. It’s time we both start going back to those NA meetings.”

“Over my dead body. I’m never going back to that place again, so you can just forget that.”

“So I guess you don’t care about our daughter and her plea for us to stop what we’re doing? You’re just gonna keep poppin’
prescription drugs and snortin’ cocaine no matter what.”

“I can stop on my own, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

“When?”

“When I’m good and ready. And anyway, as you can see, I’m not like you. I didn’t lose my job, I didn’t gamble away thousands
of dollars, and I certainly didn’t steal from my own child. Not to mention, I’m not the product of two low-life junkies.”

Denise’s words slashed his heart in two. He’d never heard her speak so maliciously to anyone, and he was very hurt by it.
She was consumed with fury, and if he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn she wanted to inflict bodily harm on him. He
was also glad Mackenzie had ridden to school with Alexis this morning, because he would never want her to overhear any of
this.

“Gosh,” he finally replied. “I can’t believe you said that.”

“Oh yeah? And I can’t believe you turned out to be such a loser. All these years, I thought I knew you, but now I realize
I never did. So much for the
perfect
marriage I thought we had.”

Derrek walked away from her, mumbling. “Hmmph, that’s part of the reason we’re having these problems.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“No, tell me.”

“Just leave it alone, Denise.”

“Oh, so now I’m Denise again, huh? Why don’t you man up and just say what you have to say.”

“Okay, I will. This whole perfect marriage–perfect life thing is part of the reason we both started using in the first place.”

Denise dropped her briefcase and purse onto the bed. “And how is that, Derrek?”

“You know exactly what I mean. This great desire you’ve always had to please your father and do whatever he expects. Everything
is about appearances with him, so the two of us have always had to act like a couple of robots.”

Denise laughed out loud. “Don’t you
dare
blame my father for your mistakes. You’re the one who made all those stupid choices.”

“Yeah, but maybe if I’d felt a little more comfortable about seeing a psychologist—and I’m talking years ago—I never would
have started doing drugs. I knew I had all these issues from childhood I was dealing with, but you were more worried about
what people would think if they found out I was in counseling. You said that as long as we loved each other, I would be fine,
so I left the whole idea of it alone.”

“Wow, so you’re gonna use some long-lost conversation from more than ten years ago? You’re using that as a way to excuse your
actions?”

“No. All I’m trying to say is that you and I are both using drugs because of some very deep-rooted childhood issues. I’ve
got issues, and so do you.”

“Speak for yourself, because I’m fine.”

“Really? So you’re okay with the fact that when you were seven, you walked in on your father and two of your mother’s cousins?
Yet to this day, you’ve never even told her about it. At every family gathering, those women smile in your mom’s face, knowing
good and well they slept with her husband. Let alone how pathetic it is that your father would even consider sleeping with
two women at the same time and in the same bed he shared with his wife.”

Denise grabbed her briefcase again. “I don’t wanna talk about this.”

“Well, I do,” Derrek said, walking over and blocking the door. “And I guess you’re also okay with the fact that you were eighteen
before you
accidentally
found out you were adopted? And even then, your father did everything he could to try to cover it up.”

Denise’s eyes watered. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because, baby, it’s time you dealt with all your skeletons. It’s time you stopped pretending that you had the perfect childhood
and that our lives just couldn’t be better. We’re both very messed up, and we have to do something. We have to fix
us
before we can fix anything else.”

“No, Derrek,
you’re
messed up because your parents have been strung out for years, and you don’t have a relationship with them. But it’s like
I just told you, I’m fine.”

“You’re fine, huh?”

“Yes.” Denise spoke with solid conviction.

“So I guess it doesn’t matter that you used to cry yourself to sleep whenever your father came home drunk and beat your mother.
And you and I both know he’s likely
still
doing it. Your uppity, high-class father who’s a partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in Chicago. And none of
that matters to you?”

“Why are you using things I shared with you in confidence? Why are you using my personal business against me?”

“I’m just trying to get you to see that hiding all these family secrets and pretending that they didn’t happen isn’t good.”

Denise shook her head in disbelief, backed away from him, grabbed her purse, and rushed toward the bathroom. Derrek ran behind
her. As she stepped into the room where the toilet was, she attempted to shut the door, but Derrek barricaded it with his
foot.

“Baby, no! You’re not doing drugs today.”

“Derrek, please leave me alone!”

Derrek struggled to pull her purse away from her. “No, I said you’re not doing this.”

Denise flung her arms wildly, striking him across his face and chest.

“Baby, I said no.” Derrek jerked the purse completely out of her hand and the contents scattered across the floor.

As soon as Denise spotted her bag of cocaine she dived toward it, but Derrek hit the floor next to her and snatched it up.

Denise grabbed hold of it, both of them panting and tussling back and forth, trying to take control. Finally, Derrek jerked
it as hard as he could, got up and went back to the toilet, poured out every speck of cocaine, and flushed it.

“Are you crazy?” Denise screamed.

“Baby, you need help. We both do.”

“I hate you! I hate that I ever married you.”

Derrek tried to slow his breathing and heard the phone ringing. With all the commotion, he wasn’t sure if he should answer
it or not, but he went to see who was calling. He frowned when he saw the name of Mackenzie’s school displayed on the Caller
ID screen.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Shaw?” a woman said in a panic. “This is Mrs. Donaldson, the school principal.”

“Yes.”

“Mackenzie passed out in the hallway and an ambulance is rushing her to the hospital. So, you need to get over there as fast
as you can.”

“Was she conscious before she left?”

“No…she wasn’t. And they’re taking her to Covington Memorial. I know you work there, and it’s also the closest hospital to
our school.”

“Thank you so much for calling. We’re on our way.”

Derrek dropped the phone on the bed—the same phone he’d spoken to Dixon on the night he had died—and a sub-zero chill swept
through him.

“Dear Lord, please, don’t let this be happening again. Please don’t take my daughter.”

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