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The Steve Burkes Haters Club
By Dave Franco

Penny faced Steve, holding his hands as the minister took a moment to prepare for the wedding vows. She looked into Steve’s eyes. He looked so happy, so eager to be with her for the rest of his life. She recognized the feeling because she knew it so well. And there, in those brief moments, her mind slipped away into the past, to a time she never could have believed would lead to this.

• • •

Steve was driving, not saying a word. Penny was in the passenger seat of the truck, going over and over in her mind the stupidity of saying yes to her girlfriend who wanted to set her up on this blind date—one that would last an entire weekend.

So far, it was a disaster. They were like oil and water. Steve was too tongue-tied to talk which made the four-hour trip to the desert feel like it would never end. At the next stop, Penny finally took her girlfriend aside, who was following with her boyfriend in another truck, and laid down the law.

“You either tell him he has to talk, or I’m pulling the plug on this little trip.”

Her friend did what she was told. Steve promised he would start talking. Only, once he started, he never shut up. It was then that something happened. Penny found herself charmed by Steve and slowly falling for the shy, scared guy who was fighting through it all to be what she hoped for.

By the trip’s end, Penny and Steve found themselves madly in love with each other.

By the trip’s end, Penny and Steve found themselves madly in love with each other. They were inseparable from that moment on. Even the fact that he was just 21 years old and already a father to a little girl, Melissa, it didn’t matter to Penny. He was perfect for her. She wanted to be his forever.

Even his drug use didn’t deter her. His habit became hers too, and together, they got high every chance they could. If it means we can be together, I have no problem with it, she thought. Steve coursed through Penny’s veins, anyways. What was one more intoxicant?

When they got married, the drugging continued without either giving it a second thought—it was their thing. However, when Penny got pregnant she knew their days of drugging had come to an end.

“Just until the baby comes,” Steve said, when Penny asked how much longer he was going to dope.
“Why can’t you stop now?” she pressed. “I stopped. You can do it.”
“Just until the baby comes—I promise. I’ll stop. You’ll see.”

When their son was born, Steve’s drug use did not waver, not one bit.

Penny, absolutely unwilling to entertain the idea of her baby living in the same house with a meth head, began to push the issue. Steve did not take kindly to the pressure. They fought bitterly. Their marriage was coming apart.

Amid the fighting and proclamations of love and promises to change, Penny and Steve split up, got back together, moved out and then moved in together nearly 200 times. Each time, Steve returned to his meth and once he did, all deals were off—until they couldn’t be without each other anymore and moved back in together again. It was hell.

Finally, they parted for good. Penny had to come to terms with the fact that her one true love had jilted her for his one true love: crystal meth. In the months and years to come, the hurt began to grow into deep-seeded hate for Steve. He had broken every promise he had made to her. He wasn’t a husband, he wasn’t a father, he wasn’t a provider and now he wasn’t even in their lives. He moved away and didn’t tell her where. He sent no checks to help with their son. And Penny was ticked off.

Calls to the San Diego Child Support offices, whose responsibility it was to extract child support payments from Steve, led her down a never-ending rabbit hole. She got nothing out of him and no satisfaction of retribution. This went on for years and it only heightened her loathing.

Her best friends, Jackie, Julie, and Helen would come by to console her. It soon turned into an opportunity to pile on the memory of Steve, the biggest loser they knew. “Let’s do this again,” Penny said, realizing that it scratched where it itched.

The girls did get together again, and then again, and the vitriol would start right where they left off. “We’re now the Steve Burke Haters Club,” Jackie said.
“That’s right,” said Penny. “And I’m the president.”

Penny threw herself into running a business and soon her home cleaning service was wildly successful. She began to buy up everything her heart desired. Between her nice cars and jewelry, her busy vacation schedule and her house on the right side of the tracks, she was living the dream—no matter that she still didn’t feel happy or vindicated for all that she had been through. She would have to get to that later.

Seventeen years went by and Penny was still the president of the Steve Burke Haters Club. Anger had become the drug that kept her going.

One day her dad called to say that he had prostate cancer. It was aggressive and time was short. Her dad had always been the brightest spot in her life; her strength. Every time she was with him, she was a little girl again—the ultimate daddy’s girl. She couldn’t bear the thought of being without him.

Everything that she had put her hope in had let her down.

Twenty-four months later, the cancer took him as if it were in a hurry to remove him from her life. Everything that she had put her hope in had let her down. The love of her life was gone. Her riches failed miserably to bring any joy. Her beloved father was no longer there to tell her everything was going to be OK.

She burst into tears the day her dad died and she didn’t stop crying for an entire year. She wore sunglasses every day for 12 months, rain or shine, to cover up her wet, swollen eyes and veins that appeared near the surface by her eye sockets.

She lay inside her home with the curtains drawn, so depressed that she could barely get herself off the couch. The radio was playing. She looked about the room wondering if it was going to be another day of just laying and looking. All of a sudden, a song came on that she had never heard before. It was Faith Hill, singing, I Surrender All.

Surrendering to Jesus was foreign to her, but the idea, just the mere idea of giving over her life to Christ, felt like her only hope. She gave her life, her hurts, her expectations, her dreams of love to the only one who could really love her.

Suddenly she began to experience a resounding echo that knocked around her soul. You have to forgive Steve, it said. It’s time you let go.

She ignored it. It had been 18 years, after all.

Penny, her son, and Steve’s daughter, Melissa, now 21, to whom she was mom, plus a few friends, including the vice president of the Steve Burke Haters club, Jackie, were vacationing in Lake Havasu as they did every year. Only this year, Melissa wouldn’t stop talking about her dad.

“Can we not talk about that man, please,” Penny asked. But Melissa continued. Then she turned the references a little more direct.
“You should really talk to him. I think it would do the both of you a lot of good,” she said.
“I’m not talking to him—that’s ridiculous. Now, please. Knock it off.”

They were on the far side of the lake, shopping, when once again, Melissa brought up her dad and then pulled out her phone to call him—right in front of Penny.

“What are you doing?” she said angrily. “You’re just calling him out of the blue?”
“Yeah,” Melissa answered, “he just lives around the corner.”
Penny was stunned. “What?”
Melissa began to speak. “Hi dad, how’s it going…”

Immediately, Penny felt all the old anger pulsing through her, as if it was the very first day. “Give me that phone,” she said as she yanked it from Melissa’s hand.

“Steve? Guess who? This is Penny. I’ve got a few things I want to tell you. I’ll be right over.” Click. “Where does he live?”
“Way to go!” Jackie yelled as they got in the car and Penny screeched out of the parking lot. “This is going to be great. He’s finally going to get what’s coming to him. I wouldn’t want to be Steve Burke in a few minutes.”

“Darn right,” Penny said as she stepped on it. Arriving at his address, Penny opened and then slammed the door and then walked with fury toward the house. Just then, Steve walked out skinny, glassy-eyed and high. “Steve?” she said.
He looked at her with fear.
“Steve…will you forgive me?” Her eyes widened. What did I just say?
Steve looked at her again only this time, completely confused.
“Will you forgive me for how much I have hated you? I need you to forgive me like I know I need to forgive you."

Still it felt like she wasn’t saying it, like it was someone or something else pulsing through her. She turned to walk away and suddenly found that her body couldn’t get her back down the driveway. Her legs began to buckle. The pent up hate gushing from her body rendered it nearly useless. Then just as quickly, she felt light, as if being carried to the car. Once there, she got inside.

“So…wait. What did you say?” Jackie wanted to know.
Penny started up the car and then burst into tears. “I forgave him and asked him to forgive me.”
“What? You did what? You can’t do that!” Jackie screamed at her. “After what he did to you? You’re not going to do that!”
Jackie yelled at Penny all the way to the border patrol at the California-Arizona boarder. All Penny could say in reply was, “This is not about me. This is all about Jesus. Jesus has changed me.”

“Where are you coming from?” said the boarder patrol agent.
“Hell,” said Penny.
“Where are you going?”
“To freedom.”

As a favor to Penny, her pastor drove from San Diego to Arizona to visit Steve and lay hands on him. Steve’s 37-year addiction to meth was broken immediately. He gave his life to Christ. Penny and Steve were remarried 28 years after they first said their wedding vows in 1986. They attend Rock Church.

As the vice president of the Steve Burke Haters Club, Jackie was so angered by what Penny did that day, she refused to talk to her. After making up three years later, Penny got to witness Jackie dedicate her life to Christ just six months before she died of meningitis. She was 52 years old.