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Authors: Kimberla Lawson Roby

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BOOK: The Perfect Marriage
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I
t had all happened so quickly. Not just Dixon’s death but everything leading up to it. Dixon had left Derrek a message, Derrek
had called him back shortly thereafter, Derrek, Denise, and Mackenzie had gone over to the hospital, and now Dixon was gone.
Not more than a few hours had passed from beginning to end, yet none of this seemed real. Certainly not to Derrek, of course,
but Denise still couldn’t fathom any of what had happened either: her brother-in-law had passed before turning forty. The
loss of a loved one was never easy, but as Denise observed her husband from across the room, she could tell he was in a daze.
She doubted he could hear any of what was being said, even though the house was pretty full, because all he did was stare
into space.

Once the funeral home had picked up the body, Denise had insisted that Sam and Nina come back to their house, and Denise’s
parents had driven over, as well. Michelle was there also. They’d even ordered takeout from Derrek’s favorite Mexican restaurant,
although with the exception of Mackenzie and Denise’s parents, no one had eaten very much. Derrek had never so much as gone
into the kitchen, and Denise wondered what she could say or do to help him. She’d tried talking to him and consoling him the
best way she knew how, but so far nothing was working.

Sam rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. He sat between Nina and Michelle on the sofa in the family
room. “Gosh…I can’t believe my best friend is gone. He’s really, really gone.”

Nina looked at him with tears streaming down her face but didn’t say anything. Everyone else got quiet, too.

Denise wasn’t sure what to say either, so she walked over to Derrek. “Honey, why don’t you let me fix you something to eat?
You haven’t had a thing for hours.”

Derrek shook his head, no, but never looked at her.

“What about something to drink?”

He shook his head again but barely.

He was deeply hurt, and Denise hated seeing him like this. He was in pretty bad shape, and she wasn’t sure what it would take
to lift his spirits. She knew the old phrase, “time heals all wounds,” was true to a certain extent, but she wondered how
much time it would in fact take for Derrek to accept the loss of his brother. More than that, she wondered how long it would
take for him to forgive himself for not speaking to Dixon for years.

Wilma, Denise’s mother, who had the looks and class of the amazing Nancy Wilson, stood up. “Denise, honey, do you want me
to put the food away for you?”

“That would be great, Mom.”

Mackenzie pushed herself up from the ottoman she was sitting on. “I’ll help you, Granny.”

“Me, too, Mom,” Michelle said. Michelle had called Wilma Mom almost the entire time she’d been best friends with Denise. She
looked as fabulous as always; her hair was cut short with not a strand out of place and her clothes fit her toned body perfectly.

Wilma smiled. “Good. I’ll take all the help I can get.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Charles asked his daughter. Denise’s father was every bit of six-foot-three, and Denise didn’t
know of anyone who had a younger, finer looking dad in his sixties than she did.

“No, Daddy, but thanks.”

“What about you, son?” he said to Derrek.

Charles waited for Derrek to respond, but all he did was nod his head and burst into tears.

Nina sniffled a couple of times herself and got to her feet. “Denise, can I speak to you privately?”

“Of course. Let’s go in the study.”

Nina followed her and as soon as they walked inside a room filled with three walls of built-in bookcases, Denise shut the
door.

Nina stood silently for a few seconds, then began to weep again. Denise hugged her but wondered what was wrong. There was
no question she was suffering a tremendous loss, but she seemed to be upset about something else, too.

“I know it hurts, but in time you’ll start to feel better,” Denise said.

Nina slightly pulled away. “Thank you for inviting me here because without Dixon, I’d be home alone. It’s really hard not
being near my parents and brothers in Boston, so I’m really glad to be here with all of you. Dixon’s family.”

“I understand, and we’re here for you for as long as you need us.”

“I really appreciate that,” she said, sniffling. “The reason I wanted to talk to you is because even though I have a small
life insurance policy on Dixon, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for any upfront costs.”

“No worries. We’ll do whatever we need to.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. Derrek wouldn’t want it any other way.”

“I can pay you back as soon as the check…” Her words trailed off and tears rolled again. “I’m sorry…but this is so embarrassing.
Dixon and I have lived together all this time but we have nothing, Denise.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to explain anything.”

“No, I feel like I have to tell you the truth. Especially, since I’m having to ask you for money and you don’t even know me.”

Denise leaned against the desk.

Nina breathed in and exhaled. “The reason we have no money is because Dixon was addicted to crack.”

Denise covered her mouth. “Oh my God.”

“He abused drugs for nearly two years but then earlier this year I told him that if he didn’t get help, I was leaving. And
thankfully, that’s when he went to rehab.”

“I’m stunned, Nina.”

“I wanted to leave him so many times, but Denise I loved him so much and I just kept praying he would stop.”

“Well, the good news is that he finally did.”

“Yeah…but now he’s dead. He’s gone.”

Nina began shedding more tears but then someone knocked on the door.

Denise strolled toward it. “Yes?”

It was her father. “Hey, I hate to interrupt, but I need to chat with you for a minute.”

Nina started toward the door. “That’s fine, Mr. King. We were pretty much finished, anyway.”

When Nina shut the door behind her, Denise said, “What is it, Dad?”

“Look, I’m not sure what it’s gonna take to snap your husband out of that funk he’s in, but you need to have a talk with him.
The two of you have a funeral to plan, and you can’t do that if he’s moping around crying like a baby. I’ve watched you over
the last hour, and you’ve got to stop babying him, Denise. You’ve got to make him man up.”

Denise’s chest tightened, and she was mortified. Although she shouldn’t have really been surprised because, sadly, this was
the way her father had always been. The man had no compassion or sympathy for anyone who showed signs of weakness.

“You’ve got to pull yourself together,” he continued before Denise could say anything. “You’ve got to stand up and be the
strong woman I taught you to be and then push your husband out of this rut he’s fallen in. Get him back on his feet. It’s
not like he’d even spoken to his brother for years anyhow, so life goes on.”

“I know, Daddy, but Derrek is really having a tough time with this. He regrets not talking to his brother for all that time,
and now Dixon is dead. But I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“Your husband is weak just like his old man. I’ve always told you that, and seeing him the way he is tonight has finally confirmed
it.”

“Daddy, please try to understand.”

“Well, I just hope he’s not planning to do all that crying at the funeral because two of my closest friends will likely be
there: the CEO where Derrek works and also one of the hospital board members. And I don’t wanna be embarrassed.”

Denise stared at her father but knew it wasn’t worth trying to reason with him. He judged and criticized everyone, and all
Denise wanted was for him to leave—leave the room so she could settle her racing nerves in peace. Her father always tended
to have this effect on her. Thankfully, Mackenzie knocked at the door and opened it.

“Mom, Daddy just went upstairs, and he’s so sad.”

Denise faced her father. “Daddy, I have to go.”

“That’s fine, but just remember what I said.”

Denise hurried up to the master bedroom, and the first thing she saw was Derrek sitting on the side of the bed, weeping.

She sat down and hugged him. “Honey, I know this is hard, and I’m so sorry.”

“Baby…this…is…unbearable. It hurts so, so much.”

“I know.”

“Oh my God,” he said, letting her go. “I’ll never forgive myself for treating my brother so horribly.”

Denise had known all along that this was the thought that had been eating away at Derrek.

“Why couldn’t I have just answered the phone when he first started calling? And why didn’t he call me when he first learned
about his cancer?”

“I don’t know, honey, but at least you got to talk to him today. At least both of you apologized and forgave each other.”

Derrek got up and went over to the window, looking out at the backyard. “But it wasn’t the same as if we’d made things right
when he was well.”

Denise walked up behind him. “Honey, why don’t you lie down? You really need to rest.”

“I can’t. Baby, my brother is gone. He’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And you know what else?” he said, turning
and looking at her. “I wish I were dead, too. A part of me is already gone, anyhow, so what difference will it make?”

“Honey, please. You can’t mean that. What about Mackenzie and me?”

Derrek quickly moved away from her. “I’m sorry, but I need to get out of here.”

“To go where?”

“I need this pain to go away.”

“But leaving won’t help anything.”

“Baby, I can’t handle this. I can’t go the rest of the night feeling like this. So, I’ll be back, okay?”

Denise could see in his eyes what he was planning, and while she didn’t want Derrek knowing that she still used Vicodin and
did cocaine, she knew she had to stop him from leaving the house. He was in no condition to drive, and what replayed over
and over in her mind was his statement about wishing he were dead. She was pretty sure she knew him better than that—he clearly
wasn’t the suicidal type—but she also knew he wasn’t himself right now. He wasn’t thinking logically, and she had to do something.

“Baby, I know you’re upset, but I have everything you need right here.”

Derrek glared at her. This made her prepare for the worst, but to her surprise, all he said was, “Coke?”

“Yes.”

“Where is it?”

She was thankful she’d brought her new stash inside the house and had put it away before heading to the hospital. “In the
lower right-hand drawer.”

Derrek never said a word and calmly sat down in the high-back chair. Denise strolled over to the armoire and pulled out a
sandwich-size baggie and passed it to him. He didn’t even ask for a straw to snort it with. He simply scooped out a tad of
the powder with the tip of his finger, lifted it to his nose, and inhaled it. He did this twice, closed his eyes and leaned
back into the chair. He acted as though he’d never felt better. He was happy, and that’s all Denise wanted.

A
month had passed since the funeral and while Derrek had finally returned to work just a few days ago, he’d practically had
to drag himself out of bed every day to go there. At first, he’d wondered if he’d ever feel well enough to go out of the house
again, what with all the depression he’d been struggling with, but last week he’d decided it was best that he at least try
to get back to some of his daily responsibilities. Still, though, with each passing hour he sometimes felt like dying, and
he could now officially say that he’d never felt more hopeless. He just couldn’t shake his regretful feelings about Dixon
or accept the fact that he simply hadn’t been there for his brother the way he should have. He’d severed ties with him because
of money, one of the main things Derrek still couldn’t get beyond, and now it was too late. His brother was dead, and there
wasn’t a thing he could do to bring him back. There was nothing he could say and no amount he could pay to fix this, and the
mere thought of these realities was devastating.

Then, if that wasn’t enough, Derrek also couldn’t stop thinking about the cruel thoughts he’d had just before listening to
Dixon’s voicemail. He’d been thinking how when he got out of the shower, he would finally call Dixon back to set him straight
once and for all, so he’d never have to hear from him again. This, of course, bothered Derrek more than anything because in
a matter of hours, Dixon had passed away, Derrek’s wish had come true, and his angry words would haunt him forever. Worse,
their own mother hadn’t even attended her son’s funeral, even though their father had found her and told her the day and time
of it. It wasn’t like Derrek had wanted to see his mother, anyway—or even his father again for that matter—but he still couldn’t
imagine any mother not wanting to see her son one last time before he was buried.

There was also something else, too, though, that broke Derrek’s heart: the very candid, yet disturbing letter Dixon had written
and left for him in a sealed envelope. Nina had given it to Derrek the day after Dixon’s funeral, and now Derrek pulled it
from his briefcase. He’d read it no less than twenty times, but he still couldn’t believe what Dixon’s life had been like
over the last three years.

Derrek removed the two-page, handwritten letter from the envelope and unfolded it.

My dear brother,

If you’re reading this letter, it means I’ve passed on, and while I’m hoping and praying we finally got a chance to talk and
see each other before that happened, I still wanted to write this letter just in case we didn’t. For the most part, I’m not
even sure where to begin, so I’ll just start by saying how terribly sorry I am for the way things turned out between us. I
was dead wrong for the way I constantly abused your kindness over the years, and I am profusely sorry for not paying you back
your money. What I did was uncalled for, and I hope you can somehow find it in your heart to forgive me.

The other thing I wanted to tell you was that these last three years of my life have been the worst. I went from finding out
I had cancer, which Nina will tell you more about, to doing something you and I both swore we’d never do. I started using
drugs. First I dabbled a little with marijuana, then I ended up trying a little cocaine, but it wasn’t long before I moved
on to smoking crack. To this day, I still don’t know exactly why or how I resorted to all of this, except I think I’d finally
come to a point where I simply couldn’t take all the sad feelings anymore. After that last phone call you and I had, I couldn’t
eat or sleep, and I barely said more than a few words to anyone, including Nina. I was a total mess, and all I knew back then
was that I needed something to take my mind off of everything. I wanted to forget about all my problems and all the regret
I was feeling, and the next thing I knew I was using. I was caught up in a way like you could never imagine, and my addiction
practically ruined both my life and Nina’s.

Anyway, I guess the good news is that I finally agreed to get help, partly because Nina threatened to leave me, so I thank
God for that. Of course, now that I have cancer again and my doctors have given me only a short time to live, I wish I hadn’t
wasted so much time getting high. I wish I’d found another way to deal with all the pain I was feeling, but now it’s too late.
The other thing I regret is not doing everything I could to help Mom and Dad. I know you and I made a pact many years ago
to never have anything to do with either of them, but D, I have to tell you…if I had it to do over, I would spend my life
trying to get them into treatment. I would do whatever I had to to help them because I now know firsthand what it feels like
to want a fix so badly you’ll do just about anything to get it. I know what it feels like to love crack so much that you don’t
care about anyone or anything around you. All you want is to feel better. You want your pain to go away by any means necessary,
and you just can’t seem to stop yourself.

Derrek didn’t bother reading the last few lines of Dixon’s letter because it was that particular part that Derrek wasn’t too
happy about. Dixon had made a request of Derrek, the kind of request he would never be able to honor, so he folded the letter
back up and slipped it inside the envelope. Then he leaned back in his chair in tears. No matter how many times he read his
brother’s words, they were still pretty hard to digest. Even when Denise had finally told him about the conversation she’d
had with Nina the night Dixon had died and how Dixon’s drug use was the reason they had no money, Derrek still hadn’t been
able to figure it out. Not when Dixon knew full well what drugs could do to a person. Not when they’d both seen how severely
crack had destroyed their parents.

On the other hand, though, Derrek understood completely why his brother had taken such a strong liking to all of the above:
It was like he’d said, he’d wanted the pain to go away. He’d needed something to mask reality and fill his voids. Yes, Derrek,
especially now, understood exactly what his brother had been going through and why he’d made the decisions he had.

Derrek sat for a few minutes longer and without warning, he burst into tears all over again. He covered his face with both
hands, sobbing uncontrollably. He did this for what seemed like minutes but then he got up from his desk, strolled over to
his door and locked it. When he returned to his seat, he opened his briefcase again and pulled out a plastic baggie of coke.
He poured a bit of it on top of a black hospital three-ring binder and pulled out a razor blade to cut his line with. He much
preferred using a mirror but since he didn’t want to take a chance of having it shatter inside his briefcase, he never carried
one around. It was okay, though, because he’d discovered that the binder worked just as well when he was at work, anyway.

He pulled out a rolled-up dollar bill, lowered it to the line of cocaine and snorted it. He leaned back, closed his eyes and
within three or four minutes his high was in effect. He smiled even, because already he felt a hundred percent better. No
pain, no worries, no tears, and life was good. He wished he could feel this way forever, but after another ten minutes passed,
there was a knock at his door. Derrek’s eyes sprang open, he sat up straight and hurried to put everything away. “Just a minute,”
he said, closing his briefcase and forcing it under his desk. Then he stood, wiped his nose as thoroughly as he could and
went over and opened the door. His heart thumped madly when he saw John, the hospital CFO, standing before him with a strange
look on his face.

“Please come in,” Derrek said, trying to act as normal as possible.

John walked in and took a seat. “So how are things going?”

“Fine,” Derrek told him but didn’t like the look of suspicion on his boss’s face.

“Well, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because you don’t seem fine. You seem out of sorts and as much as I hate having
to say this, your work is slipping.”

Derrek’s heart beat wildly. “I know, and I’m very sorry for that. I guess I’m still having a hard time dealing with the loss
of my brother, but I promise you things are going to be different. Starting today.”

“Maybe you need a little more time off.”

“No, not at all. I’ll be fine. I’m going to pull myself together and do what I have to do.”

John acted as though he didn’t believe a word he was saying. “You also don’t look too well, Derrek. Are you maybe coming down
with something? Your forehead is even sweating.”

Over the last month, Derrek had noticed the sweating thing himself, and although he knew it was likely a symptom of his cocaine
use, he said, “Yes, I think I might be getting a cold.”

“Then, maybe you should take the rest of the week off.”

“Well, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll leave now but just for the rest of today. Once I get a full night’s rest, I’ll
be good.”

John stood up. “I hope so, and if you find that you need more time, just call me.”

“I will, and thanks so much for understanding.”

As soon as John left, Derrek sighed deeply; partly because he was relieved John was gone, but mostly because John had totally
ruined his high. Derrek had been in such a good place emotionally before John had showed up at his door, so now he debated
what he should do: snort another line right now or just wait until he got home, especially since no one would be there this
early in the day.

He thought about his options a bit longer, weighing one against another, but then he made a decision.

“Home it is,” he said.

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