It's amazing what a man can do when he has no choice.
Like chopping wood with a big-ass axe. I'd run short of firewood a few times last winter, and the old pot belly stove in my cabin needed to be fed on a regular basis once the cold set in. Winter in the North Georgia mountains was short, but it could be as moody as an angsty teenager. That's why I was drenched in sweat, and my arms were beginning to ache as I split log after log. But I welcomed the pain. It was a penance, of sorts.
Four p.m. on a hot day in mid-August probably wasn't the best time to be chopping wood but keeping my hands busy calmed my mind and kept me from returning the phone call I was dreading.
I hefted the axe and swung, enjoying the sharp cracking sound the log made as it split. This was some real lumberjack stuff. I tossed the wood on the growing pile and adjusted the plastic glasses I wore to protect my eyes from flying debris. Considering my attire-jeans, work boots, the lightweight plaid shirt, not to mention my bushy blond beard-I probably looked like a modern-day Paul Bunyan. All that was missing was a woolen cap and suspenders.
The truth was, I was beginning to enjoy this simple life-chopping wood, living in a rustic cabin in the middle of a forest, and earning a living by working with my hands.
I didn't miss being a billionaire at all.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket, mocking me. I didn't have to look to know who it was. I knew when Dad's voicemail came through six hours earlier that it would be another round of pointless arguments. Cell reception was spotty this deep in the woods, and I'd been too busy working all day to return the call sooner.
Well, that was my story and I was sticking to it. I caught the call just before it went to voicemail.
"Hey, Dad. What's up?"
"Right now, I'm about to have dinner with a client so I'll get to the point. I need your final answer soon. You've had enough time to nurse your wounds, Gib. Time to man up and get back to work."
Damn. He doesn't get it. I set down the axe and walked up the steps to my cabin. It gave me a moment to squelch the anxiety swirling in my stomach.
After my world fell apart, I took off on my motorcycle and ended up here in Tilly, Georgia. It's the perfect place to hide out. Small town, gorgeous scenery, and tons of solitude. I may stay here forever, as Gib Cole, local handyman. I was born John G. Colebank III, heir to the Colebank fortune, but that person no longer exists. At least in my mind. But my father hasn't accepted that fact yet. I took a calming breath and stilled my growing anxiety.
"You forget I'm a grown man, not some lovesick teenager. And frankly, I'm appalled you'd make light of the situation. You know what happened. It's nothing to joke about."
The moment of silence on the line followed by a sigh, told me my point had hit home.
"I'm not making light of it, son. It's just…I can't give you much more time. Our line of work demands constant attention, especially now that it's booming. I need to know if you're on board for the long haul or not."
My reply died on my lips. This was so not the way I'd wanted my life to go. It had been over a year since that awful day when my world shattered. I had made a decision that ended in tragedy, and I had since taken full responsibility for it.
It didn't mean I was ready or willing to go on as though it had never happened. I also knew I probably wouldn't stay in Tilly for the rest of my life, but I couldn't see going back to being who I was before.
I cleared my throat of the lump that was forming and took a breath.
"I can't give you an answer right now. I'm sorry. I'm just starting to feel like myself again."
That was a lie because I no longer felt at all like the man I was long ago. The eldest son and heir to a luxury resort and vacation rental empire; an ambitious, power-hungry player who lived for the conquest, be it financial or sexual. That man had faded into the ethers. Gone were the fine suits and devoted staff to take care of my every need. I no longer had women falling all over me, eager for a moment in the spotlight or for the pretty things I'd toss their way.
Now I wore jeans and work boots and cooked my own meals. I had no interest in relationships and kept pretty much to myself. Hell, I didn't even have Internet at the cabin, and my phone was a cheap prepaid thing. I was better off alone since I had nothing left to offer anyone.
Exasperation laced my father's tone, but his next words gave me what I was hoping for-more time.
"You have until your birthday to decide. If you're not on board by then, I'm cutting you off."
It could be an empty threat, but with my father, any outcome was possible. John Colebank II hadn't become one of the richest men in Atlanta by playing nice or by making idle threats. I was one of the few people who would stand up to him, and only when necessary.
It seemed this was one of those times. Still, I tried to rein in the sarcasm in my voice. No need to be disrespectful.
"I've already done that myself, haven't I?"
"You know what I mean. Don't be a smart ass. I have to go. We'll talk later."
The crisis was averted. For now. My next birthday, my fortieth, was several months away.
I let out a long sigh, more of a groan really, and entered the cabin. The now-familiar scent of musty wood enveloped me like a favorite old blanket. I laid the phone on the counter and walked to the kitchen. I had no appetite so I grabbed a beer from the fridge and took it to the back deck.
A panorama of colors greeted me. Rolling hills as far as I could see peppered by a mosaic of changing leaves. Deep green with flecks of orange and red were a preview of the spectacular display that would be here, come October. A breeze rustled the nearby trees, cooling me. The mood had changed again.
I had cut myself off from my family and their fortune the day I called to say I wouldn't be coming home, nor keeping my position at the company. They had been furious, shocked, confused. My grief over the death of my wife and our unborn child was understandable. After all, my family had been grieving too. But it was obvious my sudden withdrawal from the world made no sense to anyone else but me.
It was simply something I had to do.
I'd wandered in to Tilly one day, a broken man. For some reason, the place called to me. Sanctuary was what my soul needed, and the mountains provided that in abundance. I used some of my own money to rent the cabin, and then to buy an old truck and some tools, paying cash for all of it. From then on, I have lived on what I made from odd jobs around town and haven't touched the millions stashed away in my personal bank accounts and stock portfolio.
Just like that, I started a new life. It was as though the tragedy of my past had never happened.
Now if I could only convince myself to believe it.