Extra Thursday Fiction: Quarantined Chapters 8 & 9

A little update on Extra Fiction Thursday: after I finish this particular series, I will probably be retiring the extra fiction Thursday and returning to fiction only on Fridays. About today’s chapters: one of these chapters will feature some marital romance. For some readers of clean fiction this “romance” may seem a bit too suggestive, but I feel it’s important to this story to show that passion does and can exist within the bonds of marriage, even in a marriage where the couple has been married a long time. The scene will not include graphic sex, of course (sorry to disappoint those who like reading that. Ha!) but there will definitely be some suggestive sections that won’t be vague about what’sgoing to happen next.

The synopsis of the story: Liam and Maddie Grant are set to sign divorce papers when Liam comes home to tell Maddie he’s been exposed to a new virus that is shutting down the country and part of the world. Now the couple is quarantined in their home and have to face the issues that split them apart and decide if they want to sign the divorce papers or stay together. Across the city, Liam’s brother United States Senator Matthew Grant is quarantined with his wife and children, as well, wondering if his marriage could end up on the same path as his brothers. Matthew also finds himself spending his time in quarantine reflecting on his time as senator and his upcoming re-election campaign.

To catch up on the rest of this story click HERE.


Chapter 8

When the sounds of cartoons filtered through his dreams, Matt knew he had fallen asleep on the living room couch again. He’d been up late, thinking, praying, writing down thoughts he wanted to share with John and Liam when they got back into the office. He’d leaned his head back to think about some projects he knew needed tackling when the Senate was back in session again and then — well, he’d woken up here, in the corner of the sectional with children strewn around him eating cereal out of bowls, toys and comic books spread out on the carpet.

“Hey, Dad,” Tyler mumbled around a mouthful of corn flakes. “Sleep well?”

Matt squinted into the sunlight pouring through the window behind the TV, holding his hand up to block it as he struggled to sit up.

“Um, yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I think so. I don’t know. I don’t even remember falling asleep actually.”

He stood slowly, the pull in his upper back bringing a grimace.

“Where’s your mom?”

“She’s in the bathroom crying,” Lauren said cheerfully. “And her hair looks all funny.”

Matt rubbed his eyes with both hands, willing the heaviness of sleep to leave them. “What? Why is she crying?”

Tyler shrugged, his eyes glued to the cartoon on the TV. “Probably because her hair looks funny.”

“How does it look funny?”

Tyler shrugged, looking at the TV. “I don’t know. Lauren said it looked funny. I don’t want to know so I’m not going to look.”

Matt sighed and stepped over the toys and comic books on his way toward the stairs. “Guys, pick up this mess, okay? If your mom is already crying, she’s going to be crying more when she sees all this.”

Lauren was right. He could see Cassie through a small opening in the bathroom door, sitting on the floor by the tub, crying. Her hair was slicked down across her head, orange colored strands hanging down in front of her face.

“Cassie? What’s going on?”

“Oh! I thought you were still asleep.”

“I woke up and asked where you were. You okay? And what happened to your hair?”

Cassie held up an empty plastic bottle and box of hair dye. “This is what happened.”

“You’re dying your hair? Why?”

Fresh tears poured down Cassie’s cheeks. Her words flowed out of her fast, furious, mixed in between sobs. “I don’t know. Why not? I can’t leave the house to get my hair done and there are all these gray hairs sprouting up in the middle of my head and I wanted to do something to hide them because I don’t want to be old, Matt. But I am old. I’m old and I don’t know how I got here. I’m old and I have stretch marks and you deserve better than this old, run down, fat woman with gray hair who now has orange hair because she was trying to transform from brunette to auburn.”

Matt stared at his crying wife, bleary-eyed, wishing he’d grabbed a cup of coffee before he’d made the journey up the stairs. Liam had been right. It was obvious that even though Cassie had appeared “fine” she was absolutely “not fine.”

Guilt settled in his chest like a heavy stone at the bottom of a lake. Why hadn’t he asked before this if she was okay? If she was really okay?

He drew a deep breath to try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from his mind before he spoke. There were a few times a man shouldn’t speak. One was when they were drunk. Two was when their wife was drunk. Three was when either of them were half asleep. He knew there were many other times but right now he was half asleep and he was afraid to talk and say something wrong. He had to say something, though. He couldn’t simply leave his wife in the middle of the bathroom floor believing she was old, fat and — what else had she called herself? Oh right. Run down.

His knee groaned in protest as he kneeled next to her. To take the weight off of it he slid down on his butt and said cross legged. He didn’t think his wife was old but at that moment, with his aching knees and sore back, he certainly felt old.

“Cassie, hon’ where did you get the idea that you are old or run down?”

“It’s not an idea, it’s a fact.” She choked back a sob. “I don’t know why I was so stupid. I just thought if I could change my hair a little, maybe it would help me feel better, make me feel less…blah. I don’t know.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders, hugged her sideways against him.

“Oh, Cas. I love you. You feel blah because you’re stuck in this house with your preoccupied, self-centered husband with no outlet for your creativity and extrovert personality. There is nothing wrong with you. All this being forced to stay at home has been hard on all of us. I know it’s hard on me too, but we’ve needed this slow down, this wake-up call to what we’ve been missing out on while we were working so hard to . . . I don’t know. Work so hard.”

She sniffed, reaching for the toilet paper roll, ripping a piece off and blowing her nose.

“I just wanted to look nice for you,” she whispered.

He looked down at her, pushing the wet strands of hair from her face. “Cassie, you always look nice for me. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I told you that.”

“It’s okay.” She wiped her eyes. “You’ve been —”

“Being busy is no excuse,” Matt interrupted. “I should have been just as busy showing you and the kids how much I love you.”

He lifted a strand of her hair and studied it. “You know, I think I’ll like having a wife with red hair.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s orange. My hair is going to be orange.”

Picking up the almost empty bottle of hair dye, Matt smiled. “Come on. Let’s finish squirting this in your hair, do whatever we’re supposed to do to let the color get in there, wash it out and see what happens. This could be a lot of fun and what we need right now is some fun. Okay?”

Shelaughed through the tears. “Okay. I guess.”

“I’ll help you finish this up and then why don’t I convince Tyler to watch the girls tonight in the downstairs den. They can have one of those frozen pizzas that came in the grocery delivery. I’ll whip up a delicious dinner for us and we can eat out on the patio, underneath the stars. What do you say? Let me pamper you tonight.”

“I say, ‘let’s hurry up and get this hair done so you can make me dinner and rub my feet tonight,’” Cassie said with a laugh.

Matt narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute. When did I say I would rub your —”

“Well, you said pampering. I just thought I’d give you a suggestion on how.”

Matt smirked and shook his head. “Okay, lady, you win. I’ll rub your feet, but don’t expect me to feed you grapes.”

Cassie leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Oh, no, never grapes. But you can feed me chocolate covered strawberries.”

Matt laughed. “Yes, ma’am.”

***

It was yet another morning since the quarantine had started that Liam woke up disoriented, but this time there was a woman in his bed, and he was relieved to see that the woman was his wife.

After gently sliding himself away from Maddie, making sure her head shifted softly onto the pillow, he sat up, rubbing his hands over his face. Glancing behind him he looked at Maddie still asleep, her hair splayed out around her head on the pillow. He couldn’t stop the smile that tugged at his lips as he watched her sleep. They may not have been in love like they used to be, but she was still beautiful.

His eyes made a path from her closed eyes, down her nose, across her soft lips (slightly parted) her throat (exposed by how her head was tipped back slightly) continuing across her chest and stomach, hips and legs. He hadn’t taken the time to look at his wife in this way for a long time. He realized now that he’d certainly been missing out. He also now realized how much he wished his hands could take the same journey his eyes were taking; how he wished he could gather her close like he had so many times in their marriage and make all the bad years, all the hurts they’d inflicted on each other go away.

Liam forced himself to look away, walking toward the kitchen in search of a cup of coffee. He needed to clear his head. They were as good as divorced. Why was he thinking about her this way now? There was no turning back. They’d fallen apart. They weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, they’d hurt each other too many times and besides, the divorce was what she had wanted, what she still wanted.

Something Pastor Josh had said at their wedding popped into his mind as he filled a filter with coffee beans he had ground the night before.

“A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

It was from the Bible. Leviticus? No, maybe it was Ecclesiastes. Liam couldn’t remember. What he could remember was that Pastor Josh had said it while laying his hand over his and Maddie’s hands, which were intertwined as they stood at the front of the church, their friends and family looking on.

Pastor Josh looped the rope around their wrist and hands, binding them together. “These three strands of rope signify that today Liam and Maddie don’t only need each other in their marriage. They need to be unified with God to help them on the tough days and even on the easy days. Today Maddie and Liam make a covenant before all of you to face the trials marriage may bring with the help of God, the other person in their marriage; the only person who can truly bring them through.”

The Keurig breathed out a hushed whoosh, a comforting sound as he waited for the coffee to begin dripping into his cup. He leaned on the counter top, propping his chin on his elbow.

When had he and Maddie let go of that third strand? When had they let go of God and pushed him from their marriage? Maybe it wasn’t so much that they’d pushed God away but that they’d forgotten he was even there. After the last miscarriage Liam’s anger toward God had consumed him to the point he didn’t want to talk about God or to God.

He hadn’t spoken to God since they’d lowered that tiny box in the ground after the last miscarriage. He’d always been afraid what God might say back.

Why bother? he had often thought since the baby’s loss. God’s not there. If he was your little girl and all those other babies would be here today in your arms and not in a grave in the ground.

Lately, though, Liam had been aching for the days he had trusted God, no matter what, no matter how hard life had become. He had trusted God when his dad had been diagnosed with cancer, when his mom had been in that car accident and they thought she’d never wake up again. Each time, though, those outcomes had been good. His dad’s cancer had been cured by surgery and radiation. He’d been in remission for ten years now. His mom woke up and while it was a long road to recovery, she was doing well and most days it was as if the accident never happened.

It was when the outcomes had been bad that Liam had really struggled. He had believed then that God had abandoned him, had walked away from him during the trials. Maybe, though, during those trials God had actually been closer to him than any other time.

He let out a long breath. He hadn’t prayed — really prayed — in years. Almost all of his prayers in recent years had been quick utterances like “God, please let me get to this meeting on time” or “God, be with so-and-so in their difficult time.” He wasn’t even sure if he knew how to pray anymore.

“God,” he whispered, his hands on the counter, his eyes closed. “How do I trust you even when the outcome isn’t what I wanted? Show me. Please. And show me how to accept that Maddie doesn’t want this anymore, doesn’t want me,” his voice cracked with emotion. “anymore. Help me through this. I know I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking for it anyhow.”

Liam swiped the back of his hand across his cheek to wipe away tears he hadn’t expected.

The isolation must be really getting to me. I’m a grown man standing in my kitchen crying.

He had to admit though, the tears, and the prayer, had been therapeutic.

Yes, he’d just prayed for the first time in maybe four years and yes, he might still not find the answers he was seeking, but he felt different, liberated somehow. Somehow, he felt that no matter what happened between him and Maddie, he was going to be okay and so was she.

He walked back toward the bedroom as the coffee brewed and leaned against the door frame. Maddie had curled up on her side, pulled the covers up around her shoulders.

Reddish blond strands were draped across her face and her mouth was about the only part of her visible. He laughed softly at the sight of her, looking almost like a child refusing to get out of bed and greet the day. She never was a morning person, unlike him.

He remembered well that first week they’d been married, after the honeymoon, and how he’d jumped out of bed, made her breakfast and carried it into the bedroom, proud of his efforts. She was buried under the covers, her head completely covered. He had lifted a corner of the comforter and saw her in a fetal position, her hair a mess, but her face beautiful and peaceful. That peaceful look changed when he asked her if she was ready for breakfast. Her beautiful face scrunched up and she somehow curled her body tighter into a fetal position and mumbled something about “sleep” “morning” and “five more minutes.”

She’d eventually woken up and eaten her breakfast half asleep but as the years passed the grumpy mornings and been a bit less romantic and a little more confrontational.

“I know I have to get up for work, Liam!” she shouted more than once, tossing a pillow across the room at him.

But he’d laughed at most of the confrontations, ducking the pillow and sometimes even tossing it back. There were some mornings he returned the pillow by walking it across the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, and trailing his finger tip from the bottom edge of her nightgown, down her leg, hoping she’d wake up and start both of their mornings off right.

The ringtone from his phone startled him from his thoughts and he lunged across the room and snatched it quickly from the bedside table so it wouldn’t wake Maddie. He walked into the living room before answering it.

“Liam”

“Yeah, Tony. Hey.”

He hadn’t expected to hear from his lawyer after being told signing the paperwork would have to wait for two weeks at the earliest.

“You guys hanging in there?”

“As best as can be expected under the circumstances.”

“I know that not being able to sign the paperwork has probably been weighing on you, so I wanted to let you know that we’ve decided that as long as everyone agrees to wear masks, we can sign the papers at the end of this week. Would that work?”

Liam swallowed hard and looked down the hallway. “Um..yeah. Let me ask Maddie if that works for her.”

Tony chuckled. “How’s that been working out?”

Liam winced then laughed softly. “It’s been interesting to say the least.”

“Well, not much longer, buddy. We’ll get these papers signed and get you into your own place as soon as your quarantine is over. Any word on your test yet?”

“No. Not yet. I’m going to be calling the doctor later today to find out what the delay is.”

“Okay, well, keep me updated. If Maddie agrees I’ll clear it with her attorney this afternoon.”

After thanking Tony and saying goodbye, Liam reached for the coffee mug, stirring in cream and sugar. Walking quietly down the hall he peaked into the spare room. The bed was empty and he could hear the shower in the bathroom at the end of the hall. He looked at the empty bed again, an ache spreading across chest as he remembered the feel of her against him the night before.

Back in the kitchen he started breakfast and sipped the coffee. He was plating eggs and bacon and putting another slice of toast in the toaster when he heard the bathroom door open and bare feet against the floor in the hallway.

He would miss the sound of Maddie’s feet in the hallway when the divorce was final.

He noticed a tremble in his hand as he set the mug on the counter. His heart was pounding faster, his breath quickening as he pictured himself signing the papers. He closed his eyes tight against the image, rubbing his hand through his hair as if he could rub it from his mind.

Dear God.

A cold chill slithered through his arms and legs at the same time a piercing ring squealed in his ears. Pain clutched at his chest and gnawing nausea swelled in the pit of his stomach. Touching a hand to his forehead he felt sweat beading there. He tried to draw in a deep breath but it caught there.  

What was going on?

Could it be the virus?

He straightened himself and held his hand out in front of him, his breaths quick, yet shallow. His hand shook violently. Clenching it into a fist he willed the shaking to stop.

His mind raced to make sense of what was happening as he stumbled back against the refrigerator, sliding down it to the cool, gray linoleum. He struggled to drag air into his lungs and blackness encroached across his vision. Even before his head hit the floor, he had completely lost consciousness.

Chapter 9

The children had been ushered upstairs into their parent’s bedroom with pizza, cookies, juice and child-appropriate movies. Matt was in the kitchen cooking dinner and Cassie didn’t have anything to do other than wait. She rubbed her hands together and then ran her hands down her arms, bouncing her foot as she sat in the recliner in the living room. She was too restless to sit and wait. She stepped into the dining room and pulled two candles out of a drawer in the bottom of the china cabinet, placing them in the center of the table.

 A rush of butterflies slid up from her toes and throughout her limbs as she lit the candles, but she couldn’t figure out why. She was simply having dinner with her husband. Her husband of 15-years. The one person, except her mother, who knew her better than anyone.

She had no reason to be nervous. She looked at her hands, saw they were trembling and closed them tight into a fist. Good grief, why was she so nervous? Maybe because this was the first date, so to speak, that she and Matt had had in probably three years. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding her hands against her chest.

And maybe because she needed to tell Matt something she’d wanted to tell him for a month now and she wasn’t sure how he’d respond when she did.

“Dinner is served,” Matt announced, entering the dining room with two plates full of food in his hands.

He laid the plates on the table at empty places next to wine glasses full of ginger ale and gestured for her to sit down.

“Nice touch on the candles,” he said with a smile as they sat.

Good grief, she was still shaking. “Well, I thought it would give us a romantic touch.”

Romance. Something they’d had here and there over the last few years, but not very often. And now here they were, able to be romantic and instead her stomach was in knots and her mind was racing.

Her anxiety faded slowly as she noticed Matt had pulled on a well-fitting blue polo shirt, a pair of snug blue jeans and had even shaven off his four-day stubble. She studied his masculine jawline as he sipped the ginger ale and her heart raced faster as she remembered how many times she’d kissed that jawline on her way to his mouth.

“You okay?” he asked after they’d discussed what movies the kids were watching, what snacks they’d given them, and were halfway through their meal.

“Yes, but I’m nervous,” she confessed. “And I don’t know why.”

She did know why. She simply couldn’t say why. Not yet anyhow.

“Maybe because we’ve barely been alone in months,” Matt said with a laugh.

Cassie winked. “More like years.”

Matt bit his lower lip, watching her as she cut her seasoned chicken into smaller pieces.

“Yeah. It has been years, hasn’t it?”

The warmth of his hand over hers brought her gaze to his. “Cassie, I’m sorry.”

His voice was soft.

Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Why? Dinner is wonderful. I wish I had known you could cook this well or I would have had you cooking more often.”

He shook his head. “No, not that. I’m sorry for everything. For dragging you into this crazy world of politics. For neglecting you and the kids. For focusing on my job so much I lost sight of your needs.”

“Matt, I’m okay, really I —”

“Are you really? Because you always say you’re fine, but I’m worried that you aren’t actually fine.”

Cassie let out a deep breath and smiled. “Well, no, I’m not totally fine. I’m nervous about all of this stuff going on on. I’m nervous about one of us getting sick. I’m nervous about . . .” She rubbed her fingers along the top of the table. “the election and what it will mean for our family if you win again.”

Matt laid his fork down and leaned back in his chair. “I’m worried about it too, to be honest. I’ve been trying to decide if I am doing the right thing running for re-election.” He propped his elbows on the table and pressed his fingers together, tapping the tips of them against his mouth.

“But,” he said finally. “I think, in the end, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve accomplished a lot in our six years here and I know there is more we can accomplish, even if we can’t pass laws. There are other initiatives my influence in the senate can help support and push forward.”

Cassie swallowed a piece of chicken and nodded. “Right. Those are good points.”

“You don’t feel the same, do you?”

“Oh, no, I do. It’s just . . . Well, all of this has put a lot of strain on our family.”

Matt nodded thoughtfully and took a bite of roasted potato. “It has, I know, but there have been good times too. I’m not traveling across the country when sessions are over. We are all here together in the city. That’s at least a couple good things.”

Cassie hadn’t expected to feel such crushing disappointment that Matt wanted to continue his re-election campaign. She knew he was excited about the chance to serve another term; they’d discussed it before. Somehow, though, she had hoped these last two weeks at home had shown him what he’d been missing out on for the sake of his job. She remembered what she had decided a couple of days ago, though. Matt needed more of her and that included more of her support. She’d support him, no matter what, knowing that they would be in it together.

Their conversation moved to less serious topics. The weather, the latest book by their favorite Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, and what movie they could watch later.

Cassie finished her last bite of chicken and stood. “I should wash up before the kids start running down here asking for snacks.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “Cassie, I’m sorry about the whole election conversation. Did I dismiss you too quickly? We can talk about this more. I didn’t mean to —”

“Matt, it’s fine. I’m not upset. I knew you wanted to run for re-election and I’m here to support you no matter what.”

He stood next to her and handed her his plate. “You don’t have to say you are okay with this if you’re not.”

“But I am okay with this. If you feel what this is right then —”

Matt placed his hands on her shoulders, still behind her. “Cassie, this isn’t just about what I think is right. This has to be what we both want.”

Cassie turned the water on in the sink and added dish soap. “It isn’t that I don’t want it, Matt. I’m just nervous. That’s all. With everything going on in the world, it’s just making me more nervous right now. When things settle down, I’ll feel calmer.”

She turned toward him, forcing a smile. “We’re in this together. It’s all going to be fine.”

He kissed her mouth quickly. “Let’s not talk about this right now, okay? This is a night to relax, not stress. We can talk about this some more tomorrow. I’ll help you wash the dishes and then we can pick out a movie.”

Cassie nodded and turned back to face the sink. “Now, that sounds like a plan. Just no Die Hard.”

“No Die Hard? But that’s a totally relaxing movie. And there’s even romance.”

Cassie rolled her eyes.

Matt laughed and stepped behind her, reaching over her shoulder and picking up the pre-rinse sprayer next to the faucet. He pulled it out, examining it. “Do we ever use this thing?”

“I do sometimes, but no, not a lot really.”

“How does it even wo —”

Matt pushed the small button on the back and a spray of water shot from it, striking Cassie in the face.

“Oh my gosh! Cassie! I’m so sorry!”

He snatched a dishtowel from the counter, patting her face dry as she sputtered.

She laughed as she took the towel and finished wiping her face. “Usually you point it toward the dirty dishes, Matt.”

He bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know that button worked so well.”

Cassie snatched the sprayer from him, pointed it toward him and pushed the button, soaking the front of his shirt. “You mean like that?”

Matt’s eyebrows raised, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Um..yeah. Like that.”

He reached for the sprayer, but Cassie leaned away from him. “Oh, no you don’t.”

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence. “I just thought I’d put it back for you.”

“Oh really? I think I can handle that.”

Matt wrapped his hand around Cassie’s as she attempted to lean over the counter and slide the sprayer back into its place.

“Matt. . .”

“Yes?”

They both began laughing as a small struggle ensued and more water sprayed up, covering them both.

“Ah, man, looks like you’re a little wet, Mrs. Grant,” Matt said, his eyes traveling down the shirt clinging to his wife’s chest. “Maybe you need to get out of those clothes and dry off.”

Cassie smirked, letting go of the sprayer. “Very sly, Mr. Grant. Very sly.”

Matt’s smile was broad as he cupped his hand against his wife’s face, tracing her bottom lip with the palm of his thumb. Cassie’s eyes drifted to her husband’s mouth and she hoped he was about to kiss her the way he used to kiss her, before the stress of life made their romantic moments rushed and infrequent.

The ringing of Matt’s cellphone startled them both, but Matt didn’t move away. “It can go to voicemail,” he said softly.

“That’s Liam’s ringtone isn’t it?”

Matt laughed softly as the theme song from Iron Man blared from across the kitchen. “Yeah, but he can’t wait.”

Cassie glanced at the phone as the ringing stopped but then started again almost immediately. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d better check on him, see if he and Maddie are okay? I can go get changed into something more comfortable, check on the kids, and then we can pick up where we left off when I get back.”

Matt sighed, his hand slipping from her face, down her arm and grazing her hip as he lowered it. “Yeah. Okay. But don’t take too long, okay? And bring me a dry shirt, will you?”

Cassie kissed his cheek softly. “No problem. Talk fast.”

“Liam, you have horrible timing,” Matt told his brother when he picked up the phone.

He walked onto the back patio and sat on a fold out lawn chair, leaning back.

Liam wasn’t laughing, though.

His voice was strained.

“Matt. I need to talk.”

“What’s going on? You don’t sound right.”

“I’m in the ER.”

Matt sat up on the edge of the lawn chair, his heart pounding.

“Are you having trouble breathing?”

“Yes, or I was. But it isn’t the virus.

“Then what —”

“Maddie found me on the floor in the kitchen this morning. I had blacked out and was bleeding from my head. She called an ambulance, but they wouldn’t let her ride with me. Something about new protocols with the virus.”

Matt’s eyebrows raised. “What in the world happened? You’re there alone?”

“Yeah and the doctor just left the exam room. All the tests are clear. And I’m negative for the virus. He said I had a panic attack. I’m just waiting to be discharged.”

“A panic attack? Why? What’s going on? Did something trigger it?”

Did Maddie try to kill you? No, Matt, don’t ask him that.

“I was thinking of signing divorce papers right before I hit the floor. Tony called this morning and said we could come in Friday to finalize the paperwork.”

Matt’s concern faded to amusement, though he didn’t want his brother to know that. Even though Liam couldn’t see him he hid a grin behind his hand instinctively.

 He cleared his throat, doing his best to sound sober and concerned. “Oh. Okay. Well, what do you think that means?”

Liam groaned into the phone. “Shut up, Matt. You know what it means.”

Matt smothered a laugh behind his hand. “Do I? Maybe you should tell me what it means.”

“Stop gloating. I know you’re enjoying my misery.”

“Enjoying your misery? I’m just glad that you’re taking time to think through this and work through your feelings, little bro.” He laughed softly. “But I would say that if you can’t handle thinking of signing divorce papers without hyperventilating, it might mean you don’t want this divorce.”

“Yeah, I got that, Matt.” Liam sighed. “But now what do I do? Maddie wants this divorce.”

“Does she?”

“Yeah. She’s the one who asked for it, so I know she wants it.”

Matt shrugged. “Maybe she thought you wanted it.”

During the silence from the other end of the phone Matt heard Cassie’s footsteps in the kitchen.

“I have to go,” Liam said finally. “I’ll call you back later, okay?”

Matt turned to watch Cassie open the patio door and walk toward him. “Okay, but a lot later.”

“Huh?”

“I said call back a lot later. The kids are upstairs watching movies. Cassie and I are downstairs. Alone.”

“Wha — Oh. I see. Well, good luck, big bro.”

“Thanks.” Cassie tied her dark blue robe closed at the front. “The same to you. How are you getting home? Maddie coming to get you?”

“No. I’m calling a taxi. Maddie managed to get my wallet to me before the ambulance pulled out. I can’t believe I’ve been here all day being tested. Anyhow, Maddie’s been texting me. I’m going to let her know I’m on my way home.”

The brothers said their goodbyes and Matt slide his finger over the end button and then flicking the silent mode before he laid it face down on the floor of the patio.

Cassie tossed Matt a white T-shirt and he caught it with one hand. “Is he okay? What did you mean about how he was getting home?”

“He’s in the ER.”

“Oh my gosh! What happened? Did the doctor confirm his diagnosis?”

“He’s negative. It’s not the virus. It’s the divorce. The doctor said he was having a panic attack”

Cassie sat on the edge of the lawn chair, next to him. “Oh wow. It’s finally hit him, hasn’t it?”

Matt nodded. “He doesn’t want this divorce.”

Cassie tipped her head back and sighed. “Yes! I’ve been hoping one of them would come to their senses.”

“Me too. I’ll give him a call later and see how it’s going. How are the kids?”

“They’re asleep.”

Matt laughed and shook his head. “Really? This early? You mean all it takes to get them to sleep is putting a movie on and tossing them into our bed? I wish we’d known that before.”

Matt pushed Cassie’s hair back from her neck, leaned forward and kissed the skin he exposed. He pulled back and looked at her with a smile. “Well, then, I guess we can pick up where we left off before my brother interrupted us.”

She focused on the warmth of his mouth against her skin, a contented smile pulling her mouth upward. Moving herself until she was sitting across his lap, one leg on each side of him, she slid her hands in his hair as he continued to kiss her neck, closing her eyes.

Both of his hands slid up her legs slowly, tenderly, toward her back as his mouth trailed along the nape of her neck. A rush of intoxicating desire exploded in his chest when his hands met bare skin where he thought he’d find cotton. He pulled back and looked at her with wide eyes.

“I do believe you’re not wearing anything underneath this robe, Mrs. Grant.”

“Oh, Mr. Grant how astute of you to notice. I see you haven’t lost all of your observational skills after all these years.”

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as his hands continued the journey across her skin, up her back, across her front, pulling open the robe a little more as he pressed his lips to hers.

“Should we retire to the boudoir, my lady?” he asked hoarsely a few moments later, his body pulsating with a mounting need to feel her – all of her – against him.

His heart raced at her breath hot against his ear, her two-word answer sending him over the edge. “Yes, please.”

His heart sank at his next thought. “The kids are in our room. Asleep.”

“Oh.” She pushed her lower lip out.

He pulled her robe closed and jerked his head to one side. “Come on, follow me. I’ve got an idea.”

She stood slowly. “Matt. . .”

“Trust me.”

He tightened his hand around hers and tugged at her arm. When he opened the door to the garage she pulled back. “Matt. What in the wo—”

He turned toward her before she could say anything else, pulling her into the garage and covering her mouth with his. Sliding his hands down her back, he placed them on either side of her waist, lifting her onto the hood of the black BMW he’d bought when he’d landed that first big job as an attorney all those years ago.

He unhooked her robe, letting it fall open. She gasped as kissed her throat, her neck and then gently nibbled on her earlobe, his hands sliding down her bare back.

“We’re going to dent the hood of this car,” Cassie whispered against his ear.

“It’s just a car, Cassie,” Matt answered, sliding his arms behind her and pulling her against him. “Being with you is much more important than a car.”

Closing her eyes, lost in the caresses of her husband’s mouth and hands Cassie forgot about what she’d been nervous about before. She knew she’d have to talk to him eventually, but it could wait. She slid her hands up his now bare back. Oh, yes. It could wait.

Fiction Friday: A New Beginning, Chapter 2 Part I

Just issuing a “warning” again: If you haven’t read the first part of Blanche’s story, A Story to Tell, you might not want to read A New Beginning, which is the second part of her story. You can find the first part of Blanche’s story on Kindle or in Paperback, on Amazon (after December 17 it will be on all ebook readers and on other paperback sellers). However, you don’t have to read the first part to be able to enjoy A New Beginning.

As always, this is the first draft of a story. There will be typos and in the future, there will be changes made, some small, some large and as before I plan to publish the complete story later as an ebook. Also, sorry about the lack of indentations at the beginning of paragraphs. I can’t seem to figure out how to make that happen in WordPress.


Light, Shadows & Magic (2)Chapter 2

Standing on the front steps of the church, Daddy was sliding his fingers into his front shirt pocket while he looked out over the parking lot and pulling them out again. He looked lost and I knew why. He missed the pipe Mama had talked him into giving up three months earlier, and was reaching for it out of habit. I’d seen him do it many times before.

He was still struggling with what to do with himself when the women in his life left him waiting. In the past, he’d pass the time loading the tobacco, lighting the pipe and puffing away, starring into space and thinking, or if he was at home, reading a book or the paper. I almost felt sorry for him. Mama had recently read in Life Magazine about smoking being dangerous and she wasn’t about to watch him smoke his way into an early grave, she told him one night after dinner.

I watched from the church lobby as John Hatch walked through the front door and stood next to Daddy, sliding a cigar from his front shirt pocket and sticking it in the corner of his mouth as he dug in his jacket pocket for a lighter.

“Still no pipe, eh, Alan?”

“Nope.”

“You know you can stand up to your wife, right? You are the man of the house.”

“Yeah. I know. I just – well, I don’t want to. Plus, she’s probably right. Smoking probably isn’t healthy, like those doctors have been saying.”

John flicked the lighter and held the flame to the end of the cigar. He sucked in a long drag, blew a plume of smoke from his nose and mouth and let out a long, contented sigh.

“There are few pleasures left in life at our age, Alan, and no one is going to tell me what I can’t smoke or drink. Besides, all those studies are usually bunk anyhow. They’ll come out with a new one next year that will tell us all that smoking is actually healthy. Those scientists and doctors are always changing their minds.”

Daddy watched John with what looked to me like an envious expression.  He nodded as John spoke.

Someone bumped against my arm and I watched as John’s wife Barbara stepped briskly through the front door, snatched the cigar from her husband’s hand and tossed it over the stair railing.

“Are you out here smoking on church property?” she asked indignantly.

“Well, I – well, I –“ John stammered.

“John Hatch! Really!”

Barbara shook her head and shot John a scolding scowl on her way past him.  “That’s so disrespectful,” she mumbled as she stomped down the stairs.

“You know, John, you can stand — ” Daddy started.

“Yeah, yeah. Well, sometimes it’s just not worth the battle. Have a good day, Alan.”

Daddy winked at me through the doorway as John walked down the stairs looking defeated and I smiled back at him, shaking my head as I tried not to laugh.

Jackson tugged at my hand.

“When we going to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Sam’s?” he asked. “I’m hungry. That preacher just kept going on and on and – “

“That’s enough Jackson,” I said, glancing up at Pastor Steele, who was standing by the door, watching Jackson and stifling a laugh behind his hand.

Mama walked toward me, her purse looped over her arm, her Bible tucked against her chest under the other arm. “Are we ready to head on over to Emmy’s for some lunch?”

I felt my stomach tighten. I truly hoped the planned afternoon lunch at Emmy’s was nothing more than her attempt to introduce her cousin to some people in town and not to “fix me up” in some way. She’d promised me it wasn’t, but maybe she’d changed her mind since then.

Emmy’s parents, James and Ellie Stanton, were already at Emmy’s house when we arrived.

Ellie, her greying hair cut short and curled in a tight perm, hugged me as I walked inside. “Blanche, sweetie, so happy you could make it.”

She ruffled Jackson’s hair. “And look at you, you’re getting’ so big!”

“Hey, Mrs. Stanton! I’m six now!”

“I know you are! I can’t even believe it. Just three more months and you’ll be in my class in school! I can’t wait to see you every day.”

Jackson grinned and then darted past Ellie to pet the Stanton’s aging terrier.

Ellie was the kindergarten teacher at Dalton Elementary. She’d taken the job shortly after her family had moved here from North Carolina when her husband took a job at the local DuPont plant. When James was laid off three years year after they arrived, he started a construction business, relying on the skills he’d learned as a young man when he had worked for a local construction company in high school.

“Emmy’s in the kitchen and I’m sure Edith and Jimmy will he here soon,” James said as he closed the front door behind us.

In the kitchen Emmy was standing at the counter, slicing carrots for the salad. When she saw me, she laid her knife down and walked over to hug me, then gestured to a tall, broad shouldered man leaning against the counter. I hadn’t noticed him until I’d stepped all the way through the kitchen doorway.

“You remember J.T., don’t you, Blanche?”

The man standing before me looked nothing like the little boy I remembered from my childhood. I remembered a scrawny child with a long neck and narrow chin, reddish brown hair that stuck out in all directions, and a face that begged to be slapped. This man was muscular with a square, masculine jawline. The blue eyes were in sharp contrast to dark brown, almost black hair. His smile was inviting and warm, far removed from the childish smirk I remembered.

He held out his hand. “Hey, Blanche. I go by Judson now actually. J.T. is what my family still calls me though.”

“Ah, yes, family nicknames,” I said as I took his hand. “Always a challenge to shake.”

His hand was warm around mine, his palms rough from what I imagined were years of working construction.

“Actually, I’ve seen you since we were kids, but you probably don’t remember,” he said.

He was right. I didn’t remember meeting him since we were older. I was sure I would have remembered him if I had. That charming smile, coupled with a well filled out chest and arms weren’t something that could easily be forgotten as far as I was concerned.

“Oh?”

“At your sister’s wedding. We had a deep conversation about the lack of diversity in the desserts of our respective regions of the country. I was up visiting for a couple of weeks with my parents and Emmy had invited me to tag along.”

Suddenly I remembered the exchange – an exchange held when I was in the midst of one of the most confusing times of my life, imprisoned in a loveless, abusive marriage and unsure what to do about it. My distracted mindset would have accounted for my failure to notice Judson’s appearance at the time.

“Yes, we did!” I said. “Cottage cheese fruit salad for us up north and red velvet cake for the South.”

I chose not to add how I’d admired his sweet personality and his smooth Southern accent the day I had briefly spoke with him at Edith’s reception, wishing my husband had been as sweet.

Judson laughed. “That’s right. See? It was very memorable and deep.”

I laughed and then realized we were still holding hands. I pulled my hand away and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Emmy watching me with a sly grin. I refused to look at her fully, promising myself that if she was watching me for the reason I thought she was, I’d bow out of this lunch early and give her a piece of my mind later.

“Do you need any help in here?” I asked Emmy.

She tossed the carrots into the salad bowl with the lettuce and turned to check the roast in the oven. “I’ve got everything under control for once. Why don’t you two head out to the living room to visit with Sam and everyone else?”

Emmy’s husband was already entertaining my parents and his in-laws with stories from his job as a deputy for the county sheriff department. His brown eyes were glistening with the exhilaration of regaling friends with his occupational escapades.

“I’m not even kidding,” he said, shaking his head. “I pulled up to the accident and the guy is just sitting there on the ground, empty beer cans all around him. He’s bleeding from the head and I said, ‘Sir, have you been drinking tonight?’ He looks up at me and in a slurred voice says, ‘No, sir, officer, sir. I don’t even drink. Not me. Noooo, sir.’ Meanwhile he wreaks of alcohol, I’m crunching empty beer cans under my boots, and his motorcycle is wrapped around a tree.

“He can’t even stand up for the sobriety tests, he was nowhere near his nose and he was zig zagging everywhere. I said, ‘Sir, you’re sure you haven’t been drinking? It would be easier if you just told the truth.’ He says, ‘Sir, I am a staunch teetotaler. I would never, ever, ever…’ and that’s when he tripped and blacked out at my feet. We loaded him into the back of the squad car and threw him in the cell for the night to dry out.”

Edith and Jimmy arrived in the middle of Sam’s next story. After everyone was introduced, Emmy’s roast with steamed potatoes and carrots was served.

Emmy stood at her chair at the end of the table and our gazes all shifted to look at her as the meal finished. “So, everyone, I’m sure you’re wondering why I invited you all today and yes, partially, I invited you to meet J.T. and welcome him to our little town, but I – we –“ She reached for Sam’s hand before continuing, squeezing her fingers tight around his. “also have some other news I want to share with you. Sam and I are . . . expecting!”

An audible celebration filled the room and hugs were given. I was elated at the idea of my best friend having a baby, but I also felt a twinge of sadness, knowing the news might be difficult for at least one person in the room. From across the table I saw Edith’s smile fade briefly as she swallowed hard and I knew she was trying to hold back the tears. The smile returned as quickly as it had faded, though, as she stood to hug Emmy.

“I’m so happy for you!” Any sign of the tears were now gone, and I knew she was happy for Emmy, but I also knew there was an ache deep inside her.

After dinner, Emmy served her mother’s famous double chocolate cake and then everyone stood and stretched, patting bellies, and settled in the living room to resume discussions they’d started around the table. Jackson settled in the middle of it all, on the floor with the toy trucks he’d brought with him. The soft hums of pretend engines acted as background noise for conversations about memories of the year before when President Kennedy had been shot, the Civil Rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s latest speech.

I carried my glass of lemonade onto Emmy’s front porch for some fresh air, sitting on the porch swing to admire the afternoon sun glistening off the surface of the stream running alongside Emmy and Sam’s front yard. Next to the stream was a small path that led to a gazebo where Emmy and Sam could sit and overlook their property, complete with a small chicken coup out back and a barn to house a horse and a few pigs.

Emmy and Sam had moved to this small rural homestead two years ago, opting to live outside of the small-town atmosphere where Emmy had spent most of her junior high and high school years, living with her parents in a large home on Main Street. She was now living in the country, five miles away from my parents’ home, and we were as close friends as we’d been before I’d left with Hank. We spent our evenings either on the phone or taking a walk in the country to talk and laugh. During the days, Emmy visited me at my shop on her breaks from her job as the secretary for her dad’s construction company or we had lunch at D’s Diner down the street.

She was the main person I had relied on for support during the darkest days after I left Hank, other than Miss Mazie and my friend’s Hannah and Buffy, who I had called often since I’d left.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

I looked up to see the sun hitting Judson’s blue eyes as he stepped onto the porch with a glass of lemonade.

“Of course, not. There’s plenty of room on the front porch.”

Judson smiled and I felt an odd rush in my stomach. Shifting my gaze back to the stream, I willed the feeling away. I didn’t know anything about the man Judson was now and I refused to be swept up by physical attraction like I had been with Hank all those years ago.

Judson leaned back against the railing of the porch and took a sip of the lemonade. “So, tell me Blanche, what have you been up to all these years?”

How did a divorced single mom who’d run away with an older man two weeks before her senior year of high school answer such a question? Lie or be honest? I chose to be what I hadn’t been for so long – honest and blunt.

“I dropped out of school, ran away with an older man, got married, had a son and got divorced. Now I live with my parents and my son and work as a dressmaker. I also write a column about smalltown life for the local newspaper.” I paused to sip from the glass of lemonade, winking at Judson over the edge of the glass. “That’s my Rebel Without a Cause story. So, how about you, J.T. Waignwright. What have you been doing all these years?”

I pronounced Judson’s name with an over exaggerated Southern accent and a slight wag of my head, grinning.

Judson choked back a laugh and I thought he was going to spit lemonade out his mouth and nose. He coughed and then grinned. “Well, okay then. That’s one way to fill me in. I can tell that you’re no longer the shy little girl I remember from my childhood.”

I laughed. “Definitely not shy. Sometimes life forces us to change to survive.”

Judson studied me for a moment, then smiled as his eyes trailed from my face down the rest of me and back to my face again. “You’re also not the scrawny wisp of a girl with the big hair anymore. I remember Emmy telling me at the reception who you were, and I didn’t believe it. You had definitely changed –.” His grin widened. “For the better.”

I felt my muscles tense at his comments. I hoped he wasn’t trying to flirt. I wasn’t interested in flirting. I leaned my head against my hand, my elbow propped on the arm of the swing, remembering how tough my life had been at the time of the reception. “I wasn’t in the best place in my life back then.”

Judson nodded. “You didn’t look very happy that day.” His eyes focused on mine, his expression serious. “But you still looked lovely in that lavender dress with the purple lilies tucked in your hair.”

Warmth rushed from my chest into my cheeks as I lifted my head and studied his face for a few moments before abruptly looking past him at the oak tree in the front yard. I hoped my cheeks weren’t showing the embarrassment I felt. How had he remembered what I was wearing that day or what kind of flowers were in my hair?

“Thank you,” I mumbled, unsure how to handle the compliment.

Judson cleared his throat and sat up on the porch railing, leaning back against the support post.

“So, what about me? What have I been up to, you asked. Well, I played football in high school. It knocked that obnoxious attitude I’d had as a young kid out of me – I’m sure you remember that attitude from the summers I spent here with Emmy. I was named quarterback of the year for the state of North Carolina my senior year. My dad was sure I was on my way to play college ball, complete with scholarships.

“He already had my life mapped out for me. He was sure I’d have a stellar football career, earn my business degree and then follow him into the world of supermarkets – opening them, running them and making sure his chain grew. I got that scholarship, started playing ball at the University of North Carolina, and I even started business school, but I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t what I wanted. None of it. I hated football and I hated business school. I quit the football team and dropped out of college. I thought Dad was going to have a stroke.”

He laughed at the memory and took another drink of lemonade.

“I wanted to go to a trade school to learn how to build things, like Uncle James. It was a hobby of mine in high school that had started to become more of a passion. Daddy kicked me out of the house, so I got a job at a tobacco farm and moved into a run-down apartment over some guy’s garage. I paid my own way through trade school. When I wasn’t in class, I was in the fields and when I wasn’t in the fields I was in class or studying. It was a two-year program and when I was done training, I was offered a job with a local construction company. I worked there about a year, but when I told Uncle James about my interest in running my own construction company one day, he offered to let me come up here and work with him for awhile, learn the ropes. Since my dad was barely talking to me, I took the offer and here I am.”

He spread his arms out, bowed slightly and smiled.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he said.

“Well, welcome,” I said. “I hope it all works out the way you hope.”

He sat next to me on the swing, leaned back and draped his arm over the back of the swing.

“So, what’s everyone do for fun around here?” he asked. “I’m not sure I’ll have much time for fun with all the jobs Uncle James has lined up in the next few months but if I do, I’d like to know what I can look forward to.”

I snorted out a laugh. “This is Bentley County. There isn’t much to do for fun. You could tip some cows I guess.”

Judson grinned. “Tipping cows sure sounds like a good time to me, unless one gets tipped on me. But come on. There must be a theater, a dance hall or two, something like that.”

“Yes, there is a theater and sometimes there are dances at the fire hall. And there is a drive-in about an hour north in New York state.”

Judson turned his body toward me and leaned forward slightly.

“So, tell me, Blanche Robbins, what do you do for fun?”

I barely had time to even ponder the question, let alone answer it.

“Mama?” Jackson’s voice called to me from the living room. “Aunt Edith says to ask you if I can have some ice cream.”

I smiled and winked, nodding toward the front door. “Fun? What’s that? I’m a mama. There’s no time for fun.”

“Yes!” I called through the open screen door. “Tell Aunt Edith you can have some ice cream.”

Judson was still watching me, still smiling. “Well, Blanche, if you ever find that you do some time for fun, I’d be much obliged if you’d let me know so maybe we can search this county high and low for something fun to do together.”

There was no question now Judson T. Waignwright was flirting with me. I cleared my throat and stood.

“I think I’ll have some ice cream with Jackson.”

I left Judson sitting on the porch swing, hoping he took my departure exactly as I meant it – a signal to him that I wasn’t interested in any romantic gestures he might be making.

Fiction Friday: A New Beginning Chapter 1

This is a warning: If you haven’t read the first part of Blanche’s story, A Story to Tell, you might not want to read A New Beginning, which is the second part of her story. You can find the first part of Blanche’s story on Kindle or in Paperback, on Amazon (after December 17 it will be on all ebook readers and on other paperback sellers). However, you don’t have to read the first part to be able to enjoy A New Beginning.

As always, this is the first draft of a story. There will be typos and in the future, there will be changes made, some small, some large and as before I plan to publish the complete story later as an ebook.

You can find links to each chapter HERE, or at the top of the page.


 

Light, Shadows & Magic (2)Five years later I could still vividly remember the moment I broke Hank Hakes’ nose with my foot after he broke mine with his fist. I still heard the sick crunch of his bones under my heel like it was yesterday and could still clearly see in my mind his glazed eyes before they closed and his face fell into a pool of blood on the carpet.

I knew if I didn’t remember how Hank had beat me and I had fought back, I might let my walls down, and then my son and I would be left vulnerable again. I wasn’t about to let that happen.

Maybe that’s why I was so uncomfortable when my best friend Emmy Lambert said she couldn’t wait for me to meet her cousin from North Carolina. The truth was, I had met J.T. Waignwright years before, when we were both children, and the memory wasn’t one that overwhelmed with me an interest to meet him again. He’d been a scrawny kid with big ears, messy brown hair, and freckles all over his dirt-smudged nose. He had also been loud, obnoxious and downright rude. Imagining that in a 27-year-old man wasn’t making the meeting any more appealing for me.

“This isn’t an attempt to set you up, Blanche, I promise,” Emmy insisted. “J.T. is moving up to work with daddy in his construction business and I just want to introduce him to some people up here. I’ve invited your sister and brother-in-law and your parents too.”

I finally agreed to attend the dinner, hoping Emmy would change the subject.

Emmy tapped her finger against her chin, her eyes focused on the ceiling. “But, if I was setting you up, J.T. would definitely be a good one. He’s handsome, well-built, a former football player, and Southern, which is always a plus. . . .”

I knew Emmy had added the Southern reference because she was originally from North Carolina as well.

“Emmy, you know I’m not interested in dating anyone.”

“Okay. Okay. I was just saying…in case you change your mind.”

“I can assure you, I won’t, Emmy.”

Emmy sighed. “Blanche, you have to get back on the dating horse some day.”

“Do I really? Jackson and I are happy the way things are now. We don’t need anyone messing things up for us.”

“But what if a man simply adds to your happiness? Not every man is like Hank, you know.”

I handed Emmy the papers Daddy had asked me to drop off for Emmy’s father and smiled. “That’s something we can discuss another time. I’m meeting Edith back at the shop for a dress fitting.”

Stepping out onto the street into the sunlight I paused and smiled, shaking my head as I laughed at how Emmy had tried to “sell me” on her cousin. I knew she meant well and wanted to see me happy, but I was among the few in my life who didn’t feel I needed a man to make me happy.

Not long after my conversation with Emmy, I was in my small sewing shop with my older sister while she tried on the dress I had made her.

“Oh, Blanche! I just love the dress!”

Edith twirled in front of me, the bottom of the dress swirling around her in a blur of dark red.

She slid her hands down the front and resting them on her hips, she admired herself in the full-length mirror. “Do you think Jimmy will like it?”

I stuck the pin I had been holding between my lips into the pincushion next to the sewing table and stood, admiring the view of my older sister filling out the dress I’d made for her. I didn’t have to look at how it fit her to know her husband was going to love the dress she was wearing.

“He likes anything you wear, you know that. You could wear a garbage bag and he’d fall all over himself trying to get to you.”

Edith tipped her head back and laughed, dark curls spilling across her bare shoulders. “You think so? Even with all this weight I have on my hips?”

“I know so.”

Edith turned, admired herself in the mirror by looking back over her shoulder, eyes traveling down below her waist.

“It doesn’t make my – “

“Your bottom is fine,” I said with a laugh. “But I can loosen the fabric a little in that area if you like.”

Edith wrinkled her nose and tipped her head to one side as she studied her reflection. “Nah, I think this is going to work fine for our anniversary dinner. More than fine. You’ve done such a beautiful job, Blanche. Thank you so much.”

Edith had always been beautiful, but she never seemed to believe it. As a teen and young adult, she’d always needed some sort of reassurance that she was beautiful and wanted. At one time in our lives that reassurance came from the attention of boys – lots of boys. But six years ago, Edith began to see herself through the eyes of someone more important than the next boy in line – God. When she realized God loved her for who she was – faults and all – her opinion of herself shifted and she began to understand that she was loved – not for what she did or how she looked, but for who she was inside. Even with that realization Edith still had days she worried about her appearance. What was different now was that she worried exclusively about how one specific person saw her – her husband, and one-time high school sweetheart, Jimmy Sickler.

I unfurled a roll of fabric, spreading it across the cutting table. “Allie Davenport wants a summer dress in this fabric, what do you think?”

Edith snorted, tipped her chin up slightly and looked at herself in the mirror, pulling the top of the dress slightly down to reveal her shoulders

“I think Allie should worry more about the fact that everyone in town knows she’s running around behind Larry’s back with Jason Taylor than a summer dress.”

“Edith! That’s awful!”

“I know it’s awful. Larry proposed to her only a month ago – she’s going to break his heart.”

Edith had changed a lot since we were children, especially after she had started attending church more and even more so when she married Jimmy, but she still possessed a tendency to gossip and judge.

“God’s still working on me,” she liked to remind me.

I knew what she meant. God had been working on me as well in the last five years and he still had a lot of work to do. There were many days I looked at myself in the mirror, measuring tape hanging around my neck, pencil tucked behind my ear, and laughed at the irony of someone who had once hated sewing now working as a dressmaker. As a teenager, I couldn’t thread a needle, let alone create an entire fashionable outfit for the women in town or hem pants for the men. While I had once silently cursed the idea of attending sewing classes with my mom and sister, sewing was now supporting me and my 6-year old son Jackson.

“So, why do you think Emmy wants you to meet her cousin?” Edith asked, still admiring the dress in the mirror.

“She says she just wants to reintroduce him to us so he knows some people in town now that he’s moved up here to work with her dad,” I said. “But she’s probably like everyone else who thinks Blanche needs a man to fix her life.”

Edith frowned as she turned to look at me, then pursed her lips together in a disapproving expression. “Everyone? I’ve never said you need a man to fix you, so not everyone says that.”

I sighed as I folded the fabric for Allie’s dress and laid it on a shelf behind me. “Well, Mama and Daddy and Emmy then. Not you. Still, I don’t know why they all don’t understand that I like life the way it is right now. I’m content. Jackson is happy. We’re doing well.”

Edith folded her arms and leaned back against the sewing table, a smile tugging at her lips. “And you don’t have to let anyone in and risk being hurt again. Good plan.”

I playfully tossed a rolled-up piece of tissue paper at her. “Hush your mouth, as Emmy always says.”

Edith laughed. ‘Well, it’s true and you know it is.”

The front door to the shop opened and our father stepped inside, briefcase in hand, grinning as he saw Edith trying to reach to unzip the dress from behind.

“Well, you look nice, Edith,” he said. “Special occasion?”

Edith smirked and shook her head, tugging at the zipper. “Daddy…you know it’s Jimmy and my anniversary next week.”

“Oh? Is it? You’ve only mentioned it ten times in the last few days. I must have forgot.”

Edith playfully slapped her hand against Daddy’s shoulder as she walked past him toward the changing room. “Very funny, Daddy.”

“You ready to head home, kid?” he asked me. “Mama’s making fried chicken for dinner and I bet she’d love a break from that crazy kid of yours.”

I laughed, knowing my mama never called my son crazy and loved the days she was able to spend with him, playing with him, cooking him lunch and helping him prepare for Kindergarten, which he would start attending in a few months.

“I’m anxious to see him,” I said, gathering my measuring tape, scissors, and extra thread spools and shoving them in the top drawer of the sewing table. “But I doubt Mama wants a break from him.”

Daddy smiled. “I have to agree. She does love that boy.”

Edith stepped out of the dressing room in a button-up pink shirt and a flared light blue skirt, hooking her long, curly hair into a ponytail. “Speaking of being anxious to see someone, I’ve got a husband to head home to and cook up some dinner for.”

She hugged me quickly and kissed Daddy’s cheek. “Thanks again, Blanche. I’ll swing by next week to pick it up. I don’t want Jimmy to see it until that night.”

Locking the door to the shop, I thought about how I’d spent the first year after my divorce floundering, trying to get my footing as a single mom at the age of 20. I stayed home with Mama, helping her cook and clean and care for Jackson, but rarely left home, even for church, keeping myself emotionally locked up in the solitude of shame. Eventually, I took a part-time job at the library, began attending church again and visiting the sewing circle meetings with Mama on Wednesday nights. I also started writing a column for the local newspaper.

I’d left the library job when Doris Thompson asked me if I’d be interested in helping her in the sewing shop. I agreed and a year later Doris semi-retired, working three days a week at first and then one day. Six months ago, she’d signed the business over to me and remained on as landlord only, collecting a reasonable monthly rent from me.

“I have to stop and drop my column off to Stanley before we head out,” I called to Daddy over my shoulder, walking down the sidewalk and sliding a folded stack of papers out of my handbag.

Daddy grunted and looked disgusted as he opened the driver’s side door. “I’ll wait for you in the car. I can only feign politeness for so long with that man.”

I grinned as I walked, remembering Daddy’s dinner rant a few months ago about editor Stanley Jasper’s editorial about the war in Vietnam.

“What’s that fool even talking about, saying we should get involved in the conflict over there?” Daddy said, fuming as he read the paper. “There is no way we should be sending our boys over there. Who does that man think he is? Moves in here from the city and then acts like he knows it all. I am telling you – I have half a mind to go into that office and tell that editor what an ignoramus he is.”

And Daddy did go into the newspaper office, but he came out even angrier than when he’d gone in. Stanley’s name was off-limits most days and Daddy wasn’t thrilled with me submitting a column to the newspaper but said maybe my lifestyle column would help to offset the drivel Stanley typed out on the opinion page each Sunday.

The newspaper office was buzzing with the noise of reporters on the phone, typewriter keys clicking, the press in the back running, and sports reporters commenting on the latest home run by Mickey Mantel.

“Latest column, Blanche?”

Reporter Jerry Simms looked up from his typewriter, sliding a pencil behind his ear. He jerked his head toward Stanley’s office door on the other side of the office. “You know the drill. Hand it to Stanley so he knows it’s here.”

Stanley wasn’t originally from Dalton. He’d grown up in Philadelphia and was a transplant, referred to by many in the county as a “flatlander,” a term used affectionately when people agreed with him and with a sneer when they disagreed with him.

Stanley’s brown hair was speckled with gray and disheveled, as usual. His jawline was unshaven, circles darkened the skin under his eyes, and his clothes were wrinkled, his shirt untucked.  He was sitting where he usually was when I come in to drop off my column, behind his desk in the middle of a cloud of cigar smoke. Leaning back in a large leather chair, his feet were propped on top of the desk, a sheet of paper in one hand, the cigar in the other. He moved the paper to one side as I stepped inside the door and stuffed the cigar in the corner of his mouth.

“Good column last week, Blanche,” he said around the cigar. “I never thought I’d get so caught up in the story of a pregnant cat.” He shrugged and pulled the cigar from his mouth, holding it between his index finger and thumb. “Small town people eat that stuff up. Who knew?”

I wasn’t sure if the comment about small-town people was meant to be a compliment but I chose to accept it as one since it was as close as Stanley was probably going to get about a column he saw as “soft news.” In journalism lingo, soft news was considered low priority and traditionally thought of as inferior to the harder news. From what I could see, though, it was often the “soft news” that created more of a buzz at the local diner in a small town each morning.

“Well, this week we have an update on the cat and her kittens,” I said. “I’m sure the small-town folk you speak of will love that too.”

The newspaper’s typesetter Minnie Wilkes sashayed her way into the office and snatched the column from the top of Stanley’s desk.

She turned and looked at me with bright green eyes and long, dark eyelashes, made even darker by heavy, black eyeliner and brown eye shadow. “Hey, Blanche. I love typesetting your column. It’s way more interesting than the political stuff Stanley writes.”

Stanley rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Minnie. Your opinion is duly noted, though not asked for.”

Minnie winked at me as she walked out of the office again.

Stanley stuffed the cigar back in his mouth and moved the stack of papers he was holding back in front of his face.

“Keep up the folksy stuff, Blanche. It sells papers. And that’s what we’re in the business of doing, selling papers.”

Outside the office, standing in the sunlight I looked out at the town I’d gone to high school in and sighed. In front of me was the town square, a gazebo in the middle of it. Behind it was one of the oldest banks in the state, Community State Bank, and next to the bank was the Dalton Theatre, built-in 1893 and only slightly renovated since then. Down the other end of the street next to me was Bert’s Pharmacy and a few blocks over was Holden’s Supermarket. Across the street from the supermarket was the post office and two blocks away from the post office was the building where I’d spent many of my days after school, waiting for Daddy to finish at the office and drive us home  – The Dalton Public Library.

I’d never felt like I’d fit in at school or in this town and that feeling was even more prominent after I’d left Hank and returned. There were days I was sure I could feel the judging eyes of people on me when I walked into Bert’s Pharmacy or Holden’s Supermarket when really the feeling was probably something I’d conjured up in my own mind. Since coming home I had earned a General Education Diploma, started attending church again, was running my own business, writing for the local paper, and slowly working my way back into the community.

I still struggled with feeling out of place, still kept my eyes downcast most of the time, but more and more I was able to raise my eyes and see kind expressions and nods of greeting. It was beginning to feel like maybe I wasn’t the outcast I’d always thought I was.

“So, Blanche. . .”

Anytime Daddy started a sentence with “So, Blanche. . .” I knew he was about to suggest something I needed to do or should have done.

“Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking . . .”

I knew then the conversation was going to be an uncomfortable one. A ‘So, Blanche’ and an ‘I’ve been thinking….’ in less than thirty seconds? This was going to be interesting.

“Yes?”

“I think I should teach you how to drive so you can have a little more freedom.”

I let my breath out in a heavy sigh.

“You’re almost 25, Blanche,” Daddy continued. “You’ve been home five years now. I don’t mind driving you where you need to go, but I think it’s time you start, you know, spreading your wings a little bit, gaining some independence. I love having you and Jackson living with us, you know that but someday, well, you will – or you could – you might – meet someone and . . .”

“Daddy . . .”

“Well, you might. I mean there are plenty of eligible, good men in this county and it is possible you will, you know . . . Ah. You might want to drive out and meet him somewhere or – “

I could tell Daddy was nervous by the high number of “you knows” he was uttering. I knew he and Mama were “old school” and felt Jackson needed both a father and a mother, but I wasn’t willing to marry someone just to look good to others or fulfill my parents’ wish that I be a married mother instead of a single one.

It was hard for me to believe it had been five years since I had left Hank and returned home with a one-year-old on my hip and a heart full of hurt.  In the same way, I could remember the night I fought back, I could still hear the gunshot echoing in my parents’ house the night I thought Daddy had killed Hank.

“Y-you could have killed me, you crazy old man!” Hank had sputtered in disbelief, looking at the ground in front of his feet in shock.

“I could have, and I still can,” Daddy told him. “Now go before I have to.”

When the taillights faded into the darkness that night I closed my eyes against the tears and wondered if Hank would try to come back again someday. He never did. His mama told me one day when I took Jackson to see her, like I did every week, that she’d got a letter from Hank a year after I’d left him, saying he was moving out west. That was the last she’d heard from him. I knew it broke her heart that her oldest son never contacted her, but I could tell that seeing Jackson helped relieve the pain. I’d seen Hank once before he left to go out West, but he hadn’t seen me, and I never told my family about it. I didn’t know if I ever would.

“I’ll think about the driving lessons,” I told Daddy, hoping he would change the subject now.

“Well, you know, that’s all I can ask, I guess,” Daddy said, clearing his throat, looking at the road in front of him.

I looked out at the road too, watching as the paved road faded to dirt, dust billowing around the car as Daddy turned down the road that would take us home. I closed my eyes, tired from the long day, but also fighting back thoughts and emotions I had tried to bury for five years.

I was still consumed with an inability to forgive Hank or myself for all that had happened after I’d run away with him at the age of 17. I despised myself for letting him abuse me with his mouth and his hands. The times Hank shouted me down or tightened his hands around my wrist or arm seemed to finally give him the power his abusive father had stripped from him during his childhood.

The night I left him, he’d shoved me against a table, dragged me by my hair and tried to stop me from leaving our apartment with our son by grabbing my leg and yanking me to the floor. When I fought back and broke away, I ran to my friend Miss Mazie’s house and never looked back.

More than fighting to forgive myself for leaving with Hank, I couldn’t seem to find a way to forgive myself for the danger I’d put Jackson in by staying with Hank; how I’d caused Jackson to have a life without a father.

In that first year after I left Hank, life unfolded around me like a movie I was a part of but had no say in. I came home to my parents, a father who had barely spoken to me in three years, and a mother who welcomed me with open arms but somehow blamed herself for my smashed in nose and bruised face. I pushed the emotion of those years with Hank deep inside me and the darkness of it all lingered in the darkest caverns of my heart for two years, eventually leaving me in a state of emotional numbness.

Slowly I began to feel again – laugh again, trust again, hope again, at least when it came to my family and my future. I had no interest in a romantic relationship of any kind, though and still didn’t. I wasn’t about to let anyone break down the walls I had built around my life and heart, walls to protect me, but more importantly Jackson. I had exposed my son to darkness and pain once before. I refused to do it again.

I wouldn’t let my guard down for someone who could shatter the life I’d built for us like Hank almost had. Protecting Jackson, giving him a life free of hurt was my only goal and I made sure I stayed away from anyone who could threaten our security.