Her parents had named her Scout because, as her mother put it, “That girl stole the movie from Gregory Peck. Your dad and I liked her spunk.” Growing up, Scout never failed her namesake, either. She loved to entertain her big brother and sister with dreamed up skits and cast them as characters, and even though she was the baby of three, most of the time she acted boss.

But the boss role faded as she grew up. By fifteen, she had secured a boyfriend (but no sex, the O’Regans were strict Catholics) and smoked cigarettes. Friends welcomed her presence at parties after football games in the warm nights on the Florida panhandle. Scout settled within the parameters of feistiness, never crossing over into full-fledged bad girl behavior; although she earned a fair share of groundings, which she skirted around enough to make her parents smile. She amused them, compared to the errors of her siblings. Connie, the oldest O’Regan sibling, had abandoned a promising future in professional golf after years of time and money spent honing her skills to become a middle school teacher, still a topic of dissent between Scout’s parents and a decision her sister now regretted. A few years later, Andy had invested nearly all the profits from his fledgling construction business in dot-com stocks, and the loss of those investments first sent him to their parents for money to bail out his business debts, then to move back home following his bankruptcy. “Scout can never do wrong,” her older brother Andy said that Easter, “while the rest of us fall flat on our faces.”

“What are you talking about? Look at you.” Scout delivered the last line in comedy show style, imitating as best she could the exaggerated Long Island accent of an old Jewish woman. “You’re a real estate king, for Gawd’s sake.” She waved her lit cigarette around for added emphasis. “You should come down to Boca.”

“Orlando, you mean.”

“Well, yeah, Orlando.” Scout giggled and gave the accent up.

“You should think about real estate.”

“Listen to you.” She resumed the heavy accent and snuffed out the cigarette. “You’re like seven savage Jews wrapped in a Catholic body.”

Andy roared, and she felt refreshed and whole. Her brother laughed with his whole body, shoulders quaking, knees jiggling. After a minute his laughing waned, and her brimming-over contentment scurried away.

He was right. Scout had never landed into serious trouble, but she’d also played it safe and without direction. She had collected community college classes here and there, but nothing ever amounted to a degree. Last year she’d finished massage school, a fifteen-week program, but never followed up. Rubbing strangers’ backs for a living didn’t excite her after all. So she kept bartending five nights a week at Pop’s, a Key West-style dive bar in Winter Park which paid the bills. And the problem of Harry wouldn’t go away.

Scout and Harry had dated for four years. Two days before, she’d finally broken up with him. Things had been sweet but boring between them. She foresaw no promising future. He was thirty, five years older than she, a bartender downtown with no aspirations except to play in his band and perhaps one day own a bar of his own.

She had rolled in from work at midnight exhausted, with a torturous headache twisting the crown of her head like the lid of a jar. There was his band, rollicking away in the garage, when he assured her earlier they would definitely move practices to Saturdays. First she blew up at him, the band scattering off into the night. Then she broke up with him, listing the reasons. At least her headache held her back from launching into a rant. Confused at the suddenness, Harry had paced around, picking up the beer bottles and fast food wrappers strewn on the porch as if in last-ditch effort to please her somehow.

“I don’t see how you can be this critical when you’re a bartender, too,” he said.

“I am bartending, but there’re things I want to do.”

“You keep saying you want me to do things, and you’re going to do things, but what are they?” He worriedly stroked his short beard. “You don’t know. It’s like you want me to etch out my plans in stone and say, ‘Here’s my future, like it?’”

“I’m not saying I’m being fair. But I can’t help how I think, and it’s not fair to keep you around while I figure out what I want to do, Harry.” Her voice strained in hoarse frustration. She didn’t want to dissect their problems all night long. They’d been over this so many times before.

“Isn’t it better if we try to work things out together? To motivate one another?”

“In four years, that hasn’t happened.” Scout sighed. “You know what my brother Andy said on the phone last night? ‘Judge people by what they do, Scout, not what they say.’ I’m basing this decision on the facts, and the facts are you love playing in a band and smoking pot and staying up until four a.m. I don’t. It makes you happy, but it doesn’t make me happy.”

By now Harry’s chest heaved and he broke out in sobs. Scout felt a mixture of guilt and repulsion. The following morning, she was supposed to leave and drive up to the panhandle for Easter with her family. She escaped to the bathroom, popped two Excedrin, tossed toiletries and some clothes in a duffel bag, and grabbed her keys.

“I have to go,” she said, brushing past him to her car. She sped almost the entire way. The headache subsided and was replaced with an endless highway of thoughts.

Was this God punishing her for slipping off the foundation of her upbringing? Moving away from home to live in another city where she fell into a job at a bar, surrounded by drunks, drank a lot herself due to proximity, landed herself a live-in boyfriend who she drank, smoked pot and had sex with—for sure the kind of living her mother had warned her about years ago. When she pictured Harry, she knew on the one hand he had been the love of her life and always would be, gentle and creative, a musician. But too often lately, eating dinner or stopping in for a drink while Harry bartended, she imagined an invisible Godly presence whispering in her ear, Not the one.

Scout believed in holy miracles, performed by angels or the saints. But thus far in life she had experienced little in the way of miraculous changes made by men, and lacked faith in Harry.

*

Easter night around ten o’clock, the entire family clustered in the living room for the annual showing of The Ten Commandments, when there was a knock on the front door. Connie answered it.

“It’s Harry,” she said from the doorway into the living room. “He’s waiting out on the porch.”

“Oh, God.” Scout jumped up from her seat on the carpet and hurried to her sister. “I feel sick.”

“What are you going to do?” Connie asked, arms crossed. She taught middle school and liked answers.

“We can’t talk here with the family. It’s too awkward.” Scout started up the stairway. “I’ll get a sweatshirt.”

Harry suggested they go for a drive a few miles along the beach. As soon as they reached the road leading to the coast she felt suffocated; the drive struck her as ominous, overly romantic. The Gulf shimmered in the moonlight. The sand looked white and silky, like frosting on a cake.

As he drove, Harry drummed the top of the steering wheel and ignored his cell phone when it rang during their conversation. She traced her fingers across the smooth skin of his upper arm, the griffin tattoo grinning back, green and gold, poking out from beneath his sleeve and laughing at her. He talked about how he was going to take some business classes that summer and work on his degree. “Business would be smart, since then I can manage the band,” he said. “And I’m even talking to Eric about becoming partners at the bar.”

“No kidding,” she said.

“Yeah, I figured regardless what happens, you’re absolutely right. I want to do this. I have to get my life together. Be a man, as Dad would say.”

The careful placement of Harry’s speech gave the moment a rehearsed, burdensome feel, as if Harry had accumulated luggage for a journey and asked Scout to come, carry some of the bags with him to wherever he was suddenly going. But Scout felt happy for him, and as the seconds passed, his band playing faintly on the stereo, it seemed as if an aura of comfort and bright optimism anchored her to Harry. Instead of driving with one hand on the wheel, looking out the window, hitting playback on the band tape incessantly as he usually did, Harry sat upright, both hands on the wheel, glancing over at her.

“I love you. I want to make you happy. Let’s do it right.”

Suddenly something else beside the waves and water glimmered before her.

Oh, God, a ring.

Later she would explain to her girlfriends in Orlando that when a man tells you he loves you and has a ring, you say yes. Her girlfriends exchanged glances and nodded in agreement, murmuring like a nest of cooing doves, “Of course, of course. You say yes.”

*

Scout let Harry spend the night in a guest bedroom, and he drove back to Orlando the next day. She and Andy argued.

“One minute you dump the guy, next you want to marry him?” Andy said. “I like Harry, but he’s a flip-flopper. Like John Kerry before the election. And it’s even more obvious you need to break away from the guy because he’s turning you into a flipper, too.”

“Don’t say that,” she pleaded.

“Did you even stop to think what you were doing, accepting the ring?”

“It deserves some more thought, I know,” she said. “But it’s only an engagement. It’s early, I can always back out. Please, Andy, I really want to give this a chance.”

“There’s not much time.” Andy said. “Bad habits are hard to break. And you and Harry are a bad habit. Of course, all this is entirely up to you, and I could be totally wrong about the situation. I’m only saying this because I’m purely looking out for your best interest, and that’s how you should look at it, too. But you need to be away from him for a while to really figure out what you think.”

Andy left the room, and Scout curled up on the bed and drew the pillow between her knees. Coming home felt so nice and familiar. She supposed that was what compelled her to want life to work with Harry. How much danger lurked in the comforts of love and security? She heard her mother calling to her sister to find the electric blanket for Daddy, his back hurt, and would she please put the cat out on the porch? She knew she had said yes to Harry because she wanted to. The moment had just seemed right. The world had shifted inside her, and it was as if she stepped outside of herself and whispered, “You’re getting older.” Not a sinister comment, but it struck clear and true as a dart. She could make a home with Harry, be a wife. Numb that irritating thorn that kept poking her in the side all these years to achieve more, when love was what really mattered. The poking hadn’t done anything to arouse a dormant passion or light a fire.

Oh, she’d do something different. She’d start by quitting smoking and changing jobs.

*

They set a date for the end of November that year and began planning right away. There was much to organize. Both the O’Regan and Conner families were huge, and Scout insisted on a Catholic service. The guest list topped two-fifty, counting all the friends between them.

For two months after they announced the engagement, Harry and Scout slid into a pre-honeymoon. They made love twice a day and gazed into each other’s eyes for long periods of time. Scout stopped smoking. Harry stopped smoking pot. He reeled out of bed at seven a.m. to attend business classes. He set up health insurance, something Scout had bugged him about for years. They slowed down at houses for sale and collected info sheets from the plastic tubes.

They also started pre-marriage counseling with Father Tom at St. Margaret Mary.

After three meetings, he said, “My advice to you is not to rush into this. In my view, and I’m tempted to put this lightly, but my experience begs me to do just the opposite, I must stress that your relationship needs work before you enter the marriage union.”

“What do you mean?” Scout demanded.

“I think we’re doing quite well, actually,” Harry said. “How do you mean, Father?”

“Simply put, you’re not ready. Yes, you might feel in love, but spiritually, you’re on completely different pages, and that can break a relationship.”

“Can’t it be worked on as we go through the counseling?” Scout asked.

“Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see. You have plenty of time if marriage is truly intended for the both of you.”

In the car, Scout exploded. “What did he mean, ‘spiritually on different pages’?” She rummaged around the car looking for an old cigarette hiding somewhere, but didn’t find any. She popped a stale cough drop in her mouth instead. “What the hell did you say to him when he talked to you in private?”

Harry shrugged. “I didn’t grow up like you. I don’t know if I believe in God, is one thing. All this Catholicism stuff is such doctrine-this and tradition-that bullshit.”

“It’s really important to me,” she said. They hadn’t talked about any issues lately, other than the wedding and Harry’s becoming a partner at the bar. They really hadn’t talked about children, either, but she knew they both wanted some. Unless he had changed his mind about that, too, and not told her.

“I thought you believed in God, at least,” she said. “You know how important my faith is to me.”

“Is it?” he asked. The honesty in his voice shocked her. “Scout, I really never realized. The whole four years we’ve dated, you’ve only gone to church on holidays. We have sex all the time and you take the pill. Isn’t the church against that?”

“Yeah,” she said with a sorrowful laugh. “Call me a bad Catholic. It’s who I am now, but in the future, I want to raise my kids the right way. Send them to Catholic school.”

“Now we’re talking money.” Harry threw one hand in the air and drove with the other. “Great. I’m glad you’re letting me in on this, finally. Before you know it, I’ll have a crazy religious nut as a wife, going to mass every day.”

“Please respect my beliefs,” Scout retorted.

“Well, when you start ‘respecting your beliefs’ yourself, maybe I will.”

“My faith is a private thing.”

“Pretty fucking private.” Harry fetched his CD book from the back seat, steering with one hand, and paged through it on his lap. He popped a disc in the player. Music from his band bellowed out, and he cranked the volume up at the first guitar notes.

As they headed home, Scout let the bitterness of his attitude permeate the air between them until she could nearly taste it on her tongue. She swallowed hard. It’s the truth, she thought. You’d better learn to live with it.

*

Scout switched jobs in October, a month before the nuptials, to bartending at Houston’s, an upscale restaurant overlooking a lake in Winter Park. She wore sleek black pants and a white cuffed shirt to work, but to her surprise more men hit on her here than at her previous job. Wealthy, good-looking men. She had hardly spoken to Andy since the argument at Easter and even then the conversations consisted of surface topics and minute family business, so Andy had left it alone, waiting for her to pick up the phone if she wanted to talk in depth. But several regulars who came to the bar mentioned careers in real estate a number of times. She considered signing up for the sales associate course and bought a few books, but still found herself caught up in the wedding. Backing out would be difficult and probably costly now: three hundred guests, band, and hotel rented for the reception. Her beautiful dress had gone through the final fitting. Her friends at Pop’s threw her a shower, and there was the family shower as well. Gifts piled up from Pier One, Target, Burdines.

Harry and Scout attended their final pre-marriage counseling session with Father Tom, who again proclaimed his hesitations about marrying the couple. When Harry went to bring around the car, Scout waited with the priest.

“Father,” she said. “Tell me again the time frame for getting an annulment.”

He reached out and gripped her shoulder firmly. “Do the honorable thing, my dear, if you’re having such feelings. Going ahead with it under such pretense is false.”

Washing glasses in the sink with the barmaid one night at work, Scout felt a sharp pain and tore her hand from the water. Suds and blood. A piece of broken glass had given her a deep cut at the joint right above the engagement ring. The manager whisked her into the backroom, brought out the first aid kit, and after ten minutes of putting pressure on the cut, the bleeding stopped.

The following morning, Scout awoke and couldn’t feel her finger above the cut. She had slept with it aired out, no bandage, but it felt cut off from circulation, like waking up to feel a dead arm in the middle of the night. When she wiggled it, tapped it with her other finger, she felt a few tingles, then nothing. She called the restaurant, and the manager sent her to a clinic under workman’s comp.

“It’s not that deep and probably didn’t need stitches,” the doctor told her. “What you’re feeling is some superficial nerve damage. It should come back, just give it time.” He bandaged it up and told her to keep it dry.

The knobby bandage made a strange contrast to the diamond ring below on the finger. After a week, the cut had healed, yet the numbness remained. The thickness of the cut made it impossible for her to take off her ring as she usually did to clean house or work. The simple annoyance of a numb finger surprised Scout and bothered her more as the days passed. The finger couldn’t feel anything: wine glasses, the scarves she bought as bridesmaids’ gifts, lingerie given as a gift from Harry. As best she could, she pushed the finger out of her mind.

*

Three weeks before the wedding, Harry told her he hadn’t signed up for school in the spring. He wasn’t going. The band wanted to go on the road and travel Florida playing gigs.

Scout started setting aside money from work in an envelope marked “Real Estate” just in case Harry found it.

One week before the wedding, Scout discovered Harry hadn’t paid his health insurance premiums the past two months.

They spent the night before the wedding at her parents’, each in separate bedrooms on opposite sides of the house. Her mother had just put up the Christmas decorations early due to all the relatives coming into town for the wedding. Strands of cranberries and evergreen sprigs crept along the banister and fireplace. She had dug out her old Bible, a gift from her parents for high school commencement, and stayed up, skimming through it in a last-minute attempt to squelch jumpy nerves. Harry slipped into her room, barefoot, and climbed into bed next to her. For a few minutes he lay sprawled out, staring at the ceiling, while she pretended to read.

“I don’t know if we should be doing this,” he said in a low voice. He rolled onto his side so that he faced her. “You haven’t been feeling right. I don’t feel right, either.”

“Maybe we can just postpone it somehow,” she said. “Give ourselves until Christmas or something.” Even as she said it, backing out seemed foolish and impossible with everything paid for. Her stomach in knots, she let out a deep, shaky breath.

“Well, if you don’t want to, I’ll back you up. I know I love you, that hasn’t changed at all, just that maybe Father Tom was right. We rushed it.”

She stared down, paralyzed with fear, the tiny Bible print like alien symbols. “Do you think that’s all it is?” she asked.

“Oh, I do. Once it’s all over, the family thing’s done with, we’ll be fine. Too much pressure, you know?” Harry rubbed the top of her head. “It’s my fault for rushing into it. I’m sorry for that. And backing out now would be foolish.”

Scout had never before known a numbness so gripping as that which she felt the following day, not in her finger, but in her core. It made her recall the plastic ice packs her mother used to put in her school lunch box next to the thermos to keep it cold. Just go through with it, she coached herself as her father held her arm before going down the aisle.

The calm numbness inside Scout remained with her all through the ceremony and reception, and into the night. Only afterward did Scout feel it breaking up, melting and releasing fluid panic in its wake. During their honeymoon in St. Augustine, she couldn’t relax. Harry so turned her off that she forced herself to make love to him and felt sick to her stomach afterward because it was a lie. She couldn’t wait to get back to the comfortable routine of Orlando, even though they were supposed to look at houses before Christmas and she dreaded the upheaval of a further settling endeavor.

But the new job failed to excite her. Their unchanged routine stuck.

Five days before Christmas, Harry and Scout had still not decided on their holiday plans. Harry wanted Scout to join his family for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and thought they could drive up to spend New Year’s with her family. They argued because Scout didn’t want to, said she couldn’t face his extended family of relatives this soon after the big wedding. Harry lingered at the door after doing errands one day, wearing an expression that said his own unhappiness in the marriage might have finally set in. Stretched out underneath a blanket on the couch, Scout muted the TV and waited for him to speak.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, slumping down heavily on the couch near her socked feet. “We can go to your parents, if you want. Whatever will make you happy.”

“I don’t know what’s going to make me happy, Harry.” The seconds following those words seemed to drag. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I need more time with my family.” Her sister and mother might be able to help her understand these feelings if she spoke to them, and wasn’t it an adjustment to the huge decision they had made?

“I hope that’s all it is, because something with us definitely isn’t right.”

“I’m so sorry, Harry.” Scout wished for tears to spring, but they wouldn’t come, even though she felt deeply sad right then.

“What are you apologizing for? I’m not blaming you for anything,” Harry said. He took her hand in his and stroked the top of the wedding ring, as if searching for a magical genie capable of making difficulty disappear.

“What I want right now,” she said, “is to go home and spend Christmas with my family by myself. I think it’s the best thing to do.”

“Probably the only thing, right now. Maybe after the holidays we should talk to Father Tom,” he said. He looked at the far wall as if peering at something in the distance. “For more counseling.”

Scout nodded. “We should do that.” But all she thought of was an annulment. The word sounded elegant and ceremonial when it rolled off her tongue to her girlfriends on the phone, the first ones to learn of her shameful feelings. Annulment, the graceful funeral of a marriage, a miscarriage of events, so less terrible in sound and meaning compared to divorce. It spoke of a mishandling of judgments, misguided minds, utterly void of sin, and Scout yearned for a smoothing over of the trouble she had allowed herself to fall into, at the expense of Harry and their families. Quiet. Quick. Done.

“Hurry up if you’re going to do it,” Andy said on the phone late that night.

*

The decision weighed heavily on her mind over the next two days. She could either accept Harry or change the situation, which meant facing the pain of dissolution and hurting Harry more than she had ever thought she would. On Christmas Eve, she got up before dawn and packed a suitcase to go home. With the busyness of the wedding festivities and honeymoon, neither of them had bothered to so much as buy a wreath for the front door or hang multi-colored lights. Harry would leave to spend Christmas with his parents after seeing Scout off.

She tried to be quiet and had almost finished packing, cramming the last of her toiletries in big Ziploc baggies, when Harry rolled over and lifted his head, squinting in the glare of the lamplight.

She squeezed onto the edge of the bed. “I know this is going to feel strange for me to say, but I really want you to have a great Christmas,” she said.

“Doesn’t feel much like Christmas with you and me, does it?” Harry buried his face in his pillow.

Scout toyed with her engagement ring, partnered now with the wedding band. Even though her finger remained numb, the rings felt constricting, like a belt pulled too tight.

“I should have realized we weren’t ready before making this into a huge, screwed up mess. I’m so, so sorry,” she said.

“You’re beating yourself up over it,” he said. “We both made an honest mistake.”

She shook her head. “We didn’t even have any Christmas music to play this year.” Scout forced a smile and squared her shoulders. “It’s all packed up with the decorations. Hey, imagine if your band made a Christmas album? I’d love to hear that. Danny and you singing: ‘You better watch out, you better not cry.’” A sinking feeling suddenly gripped her inside. She desperately wanted to make Harry laugh, anything but hurt him, and she always did a great impression of Danny, with his bewitching David Bowie-like singing voice. “Santa Claus is coming to town,” she drawled, then laughed, hoping for a light-hearted response.

Harry tossed off the covers and clasped her arm. “Don’t go.”

“I’ve got to go, honey,” she said. She looked back at him, smoothing the bedspread back over his chest. Taking a few deep breaths, she hoped to curb the sickness mounting in her gut but to no avail. “And I know it’s no Christmas present, but I want to ask for an annulment as soon as I get back. I thought about it even before we got married and didn’t tell you.” There, she had said it.

Scout grabbed both rings and pulled them off, turning them over to rest in the palm of her hand. Then she tucked the wedding band into her pocket but rested the engagement ring on the nightstand. “I want to give this back to you,” she said.

Harry covered his face with his hands. “It’s yours. Who am I going to give it to?”

“Then keep it.” She jerked on her coat and scarf, zipped shut her suitcase. When she crossed the hardwood floor, her boots made a too-loud clacking sound, heightening the silence filling the space around them. “I’ll call you when I get home,” she said in the doorway.

For almost the entire six-hour drive, she imagined Harry’s cries of angst. Something’s still not hitting me right, she thought. Damn it, why won’t it come? She wanted the torrents of tears, the wracking sobs. The ice pack had frozen again inside and refused to thaw out. Her finger had regained more feeling, but for the most part stayed numb, like a joke.

On a similar day in late January when the annulment went through, Scout crawled in her car packed with essentials. Her girlfriends had agreed to mail her other things later, and she didn’t have much after spending days returning all the wedding gifts. She had decided to return to Tallahassee and move back in with her parents until she got on her feet. Driving, she smoked cigarettes and listened to old music she hadn’t put on in years, since before she met Harry. Enya, the Indigo Girls. Approaching her hometown, however, she felt the first sense of lightness from within. She wasn’t going to burden herself with the guilt. Letting go of Harry, of the whole marriage, remained the better thing to do. In time, he would be okay and happier for it. Inching her hand alongside the steering wheel, she thought she felt a slight tingling sensation in her finger, indicating the numbness, perhaps, abating, although she felt grateful that it had stayed numb for giving back the ring to Harry. If she could only give herself permission, let go of the guilt and regret, she might move on easily.

The following day in Tallahassee, Scout arrived early to the real estate school to sign up for the sales associate course. The final step left to complete was the state background check, and the secretary led Scout to a stand in the corner to complete the fingerprinting. When the woman pressed her deadened ring finger to the inkpad, Scout winced, and then sucked in her breath as pain shot up her finger, through her hand and up her arm. She hung her head so her hair fell in front of her face and hid the tears, but the woman was busy finishing the process with her other hand and didn’t notice. The finger throbbed and ached, alive.

VANESSA BLAKESLEE’s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, and Green Mountains Review, among many others, and her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. An alumnus of both the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ conferences, she also earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.