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Authors: Marilyn Brant

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
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“I’m counting on that,” he told her and, indeed, she could detect an edge of desperation in his tone. “Without Marcia and the boys here to distract me, I’ve been alone with my thoughts. And, I know it’s my fault and everything, but there are some seriously unresolved things between us, Jenn.”

“Look, David. Now’s not the time to—”

“I know. I know. You don’t have time right this second to discuss this. I get that. But I just wanna know that we
going to discuss it. I can’t wait another eighteen years, babe.” His voice sounded ragged and more tired than she’d thought when he added, “Listen, you were always
golden-haired girl. I keep on thinking about you…. And I need to see you again.”

“You will. I’ll be there in a few weeks.”

“Good. G’night, Jenn. Be careful which bed you fall asleep in, okay?”

She laughed. “Okay, David. Bye.”

She clicked off the phone and exhaled a long slow breath, but she didn’t even have a chance to turn around before hearing the growl of the Bear as he cleared his throat behind her. As she swiveled to face him, it would have been impossible to miss the steady, infuriated look on his face. In the animal kingdom, it would have been the deadly silence of preattack. Michael, no longer hiding in his cave and licking his wounds, was not remotely klutzy for once. He deftly stepped around the coffee table, narrowed his eyes at her and said, “You told me the battery needed to be charged, Jennifer. Quite an interesting conversation to have on a dead cell phone.”

Oh, crap.


Alone in the library loft, Tamara and Aaron still sat on the floor, the dim glow of the jack-o’-lanterns painting thin streams of golden light on the walls of the otherwise darkened room. A few other candles had burned down to stubs, too, creating the warm cocoon of a fireplace, and she and Aaron remained in the middle, like those final smoldering embers.

Aaron, concentrating intently on the delicate process of building a series of card houses and one multistoried tower in the space between them from one of Kip’s card decks, murmured, “Could’ya help me add a wall to my fire department?”

Tamara picked up a card and let it hover dangerously above one of the card fixtures. “Where do you want it?”

“No, not there. That’s the library. Here.” He pointed to an empty spot on the carpet. “I’m just starting to build it.”

She snorted. “What’re you doing? Making an entire village? Should we grab some of Leah’s Precious Moments kiddies to populate it? Maybe a couple who could stand in for the Wieners and give fund-raising orders?”

“You’re laughin’ now,” he said seriously, “but you’re gonna be blown away by my kingdom.”

“I think you mean your kingdom is gonna be blown away. Just one big gust of wind and—”

“You wouldn’t dare,” he said, shooting her a threatening look.

“Oh, yeah? I’m gonna huff…” She took a deep breath and leaned forward mockingly, but the unnaturally high level of oxygen threw off what little sense of balance she had left, and she had to pull away from her jest and sink back against the bookshelf. “Why is the room spinning?”

“Because we’re on a planet that rotates,” he said reasonably. “The earth spins on its axis, making day into night and night into day. And sometimes”—he squinted through one of the windows—“they all kinda blend together.”

She tried to follow his gaze out the window. He seemed to be staring at the moon, but when she strained to look through the one to their left, she saw Jennifer scurrying after Michael down the front walkway. Why would they be leaving before the big horrific event? Not that she blamed them, but still. That was odd.

She glanced out the other window where everyone else had congregated, and she spotted Bridget and Graham in the back, although they were standing about a yard apart from each other. Then she saw Jon playacting some role in the ceremony. A palace guard or something, given his princely status. She rolled her eyes and, finally, just squeezed them shut. She couldn’t stand to witness any more of that chilling outdoor affair but, inside, she wasn’t sure if she could trust what she was seeing either.

She’d passed from
pretty buzzed
unequivocally drunk
an hour ago at least, so everything was very, very fuzzy. With her eyes closed, though, she could let the sensations swirl around within her, not making her nearly as dizzy as when she tried to focus on any one thing. Or any one person.

“I knew you wouldn’t wreck my village,” Aaron confided, knocking all of his card houses over with a sweep of his arm and gathering the cards back into a deck. “You’re not a d-destroyer. You’re really nice.” He laughed briefly. “I hadn’t expected that, actually, since I met Jon first.”

Most people, unless they were very drunk, weren’t honest with her about their first impressions of her husband, which were almost always negative. When Aaron moved into the neighborhood last year, she could see the wariness in Aaron’s eyes when Jon introduced them. Maybe she’d tried to be extra nice to Aaron at first because he was so transparent in his caution. Or maybe it was because there was something very much anti-Jon about him. Two very different Princes…

“Appearances can be deceiving, remember?” she told him. “S-So can relationships.”

She sensed Aaron was struggling to extract her meaning as he balanced the card deck on top of an empty Appletini glass and inched his body over by hers. Soon, he was sitting so close to her that his princely robes touched her peasant blouse. This made her breath inexplicably quicken and, as she shook her head to try to break the enchantment, one of her long Rapunzel braids flopped forward and grazed his elbow.

He lifted it up, the fake strands gingerly pinched between two of his fingers. “This isn’t you. I wanna see your real hair.” He dropped the braid. “I
your real hair.”

“Yeah?” She blinked at him, the irritation and general discomfort of the wig suddenly poking through her consciousness. She couldn’t wait to be rid of it and began to peel it off just as the library’s grandfather clock struck midnight, the chimes reverberating through the entire wing of the house, empty except for the two of them.

Aaron glanced at his watch. “That’s weird. I’ve got five-past-twelve. The Wieners’ clock is off.”

“Or yours is,” Tamara shot back, finally freeing her auburn waves from the confinement of their bobby pins and the itchy heat of the Rapunzel wig. There were so many mixed up fairy-tale symbols in the house, she’d long since lost track of which should go with which story. In her head and outside it, it was all chaos and disorder—nothing was certain or logical except for her determination not to pretend anymore.

He tugged off his watch and handed it to her. “It’s totally right. You check it out later.” Then he heaved off his Prince crown and ran his fingers through his blond hair. “‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,’” he quoted, grinning at her. “I’m sick of that thing.”

She giggled. “A man who can recite from
Henry IV
even when he’s drunk? Who are you, Aaron?”

“I’m your neighbor,” he said. “‘Do onto your neighbor as you would have them do onto you.’ Or something like that.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be “unto” you?”

“Not in my book, and certainly not tonight.”

Tamara wasn’t quite sure how to take that, so she just said, “First Shakespeare and now warped biblical references? Way to go, show-off.”

“But I’m not a show-off. I’m not trying to impress anyone,” he insisted, looking closely at her, his fingertips skimming through the twisted ends of her real hair, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, his body flush against hers.

In a moment she couldn’t have anticipated until a couple of seconds before it happened, he closed the gap between them and touched his wet lips to her dry ones. The swirl of sensation she’d experienced before intensified and deepened with his kiss. It was like the sounds and the colors and the scents became pulses of feeling. All of her sensory input was channeled into the minute indentations of their lips pressed together in the semidarkness. She wanted to live forever in that tiny but infinitely wonderful space.

Some jolt of sound, however—a cry from outside as the ax swung down upon the hapless Wolf?—distracted them both. For Tamara it was merely a momentary intrusion. She turned her face up toward Aaron’s again. But he stopped and pulled away from her.

“Oh, my God,” he murmured. “I’m sorry. I can’t fucking believe I did that.”

He groaned and wrenched himself off the carpeted floor, strode toward the door and stumbled down the stairs. She had no idea where he went or if he’d be back, but she felt the bitterness of his absence immediately. The last of the light and the warmth was sucked from the room.

She still clutched Aaron’s watch in her hand a half hour (maybe more?) later when Jon prodded her to standing. “Time to go home, wench,” her husband said with the voice of vague boredom, although she supposed he was trying to be amusing. She was aware of trailing after him to their car and dozing off on the short drive home. She did not see Aaron’s car in his driveway or any lights on in his house when they passed by, and she was too tired to fight her way through the mental confusion of the evening before bed.

But as she slipped Aaron’s watch into her skirt pocket, a motion unseen by Jon, she knew she wouldn’t have to check the time for accuracy. Numbers were meaningless. Half the watch’s face might as well read “Before” and the other half “After.”

She was now living in the After.

After Midnight

Sunday, October 31

ridget and Graham drove in silence to Jennifer and Michael’s house to pick up their kids, the goriness of the show still making Bridget shudder involuntarily, even though she knew it was all fake blood and feigned screams.

Graham, who had been studying her from a safe distance ever since he overheard Dr. Nina’s comments, didn’t press her for an explanation yet, which she appreciated. She’d tell him the truth about her luncheon with Dr. Luke, of course—nothing had happened!—but there were other issues they ought to discuss. And, really, Bridget had no idea how to form those clusters of dissatisfaction into coherent and, above all, fair talking points.

The drive was short and, when they got there, their visit even shorter. Jennifer sat on the front steps, as if waiting for them. She was still in her Goldilocks costume, and she looked paler than normal. Bridget was about to ask if she was feeling all right and if Michael was there, but Jennifer wasn’t wasting time with chitchat.

“The kids are all asleep,” Jennifer whispered. “Even Cassandra and Shelby dozed off. So why don’t you let them all stay overnight? No need to wake everybody up. We’ll send them home first thing in the morning, okay?”

“Are you sure?” Bridget said. “Having three extra children in your house is a lot of wor—”

“I’m sure,” Jennifer interrupted. And there was such an acutely distraught look in her eyes that Bridget didn’t dare disagree. “You two have a nice night. A romantic one,” Jennifer continued with a very forced-looking smile. “I’ll talk to you later.”

Then, with a quick squeeze of Bridget’s arm that seemed to implore her to
Jennifer waved them off and hurried into her house.

Bridget glanced at Graham.

He swallowed and said, “Well, okay then. Let’s go home.” He gazed at her sadly. “I’ll put on some coffee and we can talk.”

She nodded, and when they got home, she had steeled her resolve to be as open and as honest as she possibly could. Graham was her
after all. Sure, he could be frustrating, and so often she felt as though he didn’t see her, but he didn’t deserve to be lied to. Or even to have information withheld from him.

She tugged off her red cloak, sat down at the kitchen table and faced him. “I’m sorry,” she began. “I should’ve told you about Dr. Luke asking me to lunch. It was just as a thank-you for the meals I brought into the office, and nothing at all happened between us,” she hastened to assure him. “But I still could’ve mentioned it, and I didn’t.”

“Why?” Graham asked her. “Why didn’t you mention it? D’ya think I wouldn’t care? Or that I’d care too much?”

“I’m not sure,” she confessed. “Both of those possibilities scared me.” She studied the tight line of his jaw, the worried creases on his forehead. “What
you have thought?”

“I would’ve wanted to know why he asked you out. His intentions, you know? And what yours were when you said yes to it. If it’d just been some meal with a friend, you wouldn’t have hidden it.” He shrugged. “So, what I would’ve thought—and what I
think—is that there’s more to the story, Bridget. And that, even if nothing happened, you’ve got some kind of
for this guy.” He glanced away from her. “Coffee’s ready.”

She bit her lip. “Graham, I—” She watched him pour a cup for each of them, but she couldn’t bring herself to drink any of hers yet. “There isn’t a
. We’re really just frien—”

“Yeah, yeah. ‘Just friends.’ I heard you before. But, hold that thought for a sec and tell me something. Where’d the idea to add extra work hours come from? You suddenly were thinking we needed more money? You were already planning on changing up your work schedule just a couple of months after you started? Why didn’t you tell me about

She knew she had to tread carefully over this issue or he’d be insulted. Graham had always been a good and solid provider, but they weren’t swimming in extra cash. And they had needs as a family now that they hadn’t in years past. “No, honey, I’m not changing anything yet. I was asked about it, but I hadn’t really explored the idea a whole lot. At first I thought Dr. Jim and Dr. Luke approached me about going full time just to be nice or, maybe, because they liked my cooking. But they’ve brought it up a few different times now, and they seem serious about wanting someone in the office who’s almost always there. Plus, one of the other receptionists is pregnant and likely to reduce her hours in a few months.”

Her husband raised his eyebrows at this. “Oh?”

Bridget felt a fresh jab of guilt. She had known about Pamela’s pregnancy for a few weeks but hadn’t mentioned this detail to Graham. She had been given the information in private and tried to convince herself that she hadn’t wanted to break Pamela’s confidence by blabbing about it. Of course, that was a total excuse. Pamela would have understood her need to discuss the idea with her husband. Really, Bridget had just wanted to wait because, well, up until now, Graham hadn’t really been listening to her.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I wouldn’t have agreed to anything without talking with you first. I was just trying to figure out how many expenses we might have coming up balanced against my duties with the kids at home. I don’t want to shortchange them on either time or experiences.”

Graham crossed his arms. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if Cassandra wants to sign up for dance classes again this winter, I want her to be able to do it. Her ballet teachers think she shows a lot of promise.” Bridget shrugged. Their daughter was leaner and more willowy than she’d ever been. The idea of wearing those tight and pointy toe shoes for any length of time sounded like a form of ancient foot-binding torture to Bridget, but Cassandra seemed to like it. “And Evan is having fewer and fewer stomach cramps on this new diet, so he may need special foods and some extra doctor appointments, even if we’ve found the solution to his problem. Then there’s Keaton…” She just let this thought trail off because even Graham knew how Keaton always needed them to buy him new things. A new soccer uniform because he’d accidentally ripped holes in the first one. A new retainer because he’d managed to toss his old one out with his lunch one day. A new set of fine-point markers because he’d loaned out his school set and never gotten it back.

Of course, there were also her own fantasies of adding cooking school tuition to the family expense list, but she didn’t mention that either. She wasn’t prepared to push it too far that night.

“I want the kids to have everything they need,” she told him, “but I also don’t want to be so scattered between work and home responsibilities that I’m not there for them. It’s been a little trickier to juggle the two this fall than I thought.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Graham took a big gulp of his coffee and winced. “I think you made a bunch of choices already.”

Now it was Bridget’s turn to ask what he meant.

“You like being at work. You’re happy there. At home, you kinda zone out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you spend half as much time trying to impress
as you do the people in your office. Although all your efforts don’t seem to be winning over that witchy woman we saw tonight.”

She sighed. “Dr. Nina. No.”

“And what she said about you and this Luke guy”—he raised his eyebrows at her—“makes it sound like you two are kinda a couple or something. Or at least real obvious about wanting to be.”

She swallowed. “That’s not how it is at all. I wish you’d go in there and meet him. Then you’d see.” Graham was a man of habit and still went to the same dentist he’d had as a teenager, even though that meant a forty-five-minute drive. He’d never so much as visited Smiley Dental. “I think Dr. Luke is a really nice guy. He’s funny and thoughtful and smart but not in a show-offy way. He’s good at his job. And friendly. Everyone else likes him a lot, too.”

Her husband’s eyes narrowed. “So, he takes
everyone else
out for private lunches?”

“No,” she said quickly. Then amended, “Well, I don’t know, actually. I don’t think so.” She was finally ready for a shot of caffeine. She let the heat from the mug burn her fingertips for a moment before releasing her grip. Still too hot. “I—I appreciate him. Qualities about him, like the way he listens to me,” she admitted.

“And I don’t listen to you?”

Ah. There was the big question. The even bigger question was whether she was going to tell him the truth.

She forced herself to take a sip of her scalding coffee, just to stall. She wanted to shrug off Graham’s query, but nothing would change if she did. And, actually, thanks to Nina’s big mouth, she was beginning to see that her office behavior was, perhaps, not what she’d imagined it’d been. That through no fault of Dr. Luke’s, she’d been under his spell a little bit, and maybe the only way to break the enchantment would be to speak fully and honestly to her husband about that relationship, and what it meant to her.

“You…you’re less interested in some of the things I like to talk about,” she managed to say. “I feel like I’m boring you sometimes.”

“Like when?” His posture stiffened. “Like when you’re describing all those weird foreign foods? Is that what you talk about so much with your dentist friend?”

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “See? That’s exactly what I mean. I love describing those ‘weird foreign foods.’ I love making them, too. But you don’t want to hear about it. You don’t want to eat it. You give the kids permission, by having that attitude, to treat me the same way and to be judgmental about something I’m really excited about. And, Graham, I’m sick of it.” She pushed away her coffee cup and looked him in the eye. “I’m really lonely at home. I try to support all four of you, but none of you can do the same for me. I’m just wallpaper in the house most of the time. Wallpaper that does a lot of cleaning and chauffeuring. So, yeah. I don’t just like going to work, I
it. I’m a
there. I’m someone that nice and smart people listen to and respect. And, no. No, you don’t listen to me. And you haven’t in

He stared at her silently for more seconds than she felt comfortable with, his ceramic mug weighting down his hands until he finally set it on the table. He inhaled deeply, opened his mouth to speak and then shut it. Several other seconds went by before he tried it again. “I didn’t know you felt that way,” he said, bowing his head. “I guess what I want out of life, my idea of a good day, is kinda simple. I do my job, come home, have a nice normal meal with my family, watch some TV and go to bed with my wife. Nothing complicated and nothing different from what I’ve always wanted. Maybe you need more than that. Maybe I’m holding you back from getting it.”

He looked so sad sitting there, she wanted to tell him that everything was okay. That she wanted him to be just the way he was. That it’d all be all right. But that was only partially true and she’d vowed to be fully honest this time.

“Graham, you’re not holding me back.” She would have liked to stretch her hands across the table and grasp his, but he’d leaned away. “I made choices about what to do with my life that were based on a lot of things. Most of them I don’t regret at all. I love you and the kids. I’m glad to be able to be here for you all. But they’re growing up and my role in their life is changing. I need—” She hesitated, trying to think of how to explain it. “I need something more than just blindly going through my day and getting work done. I need to have beautiful-smelling flowers in my house. I need to make really interesting meals sometimes. I need to be able to be passionate about something and not have the people I love most ridicule me.”

She saw him swallow and nod very slightly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I wasn’t trying to put you down. I just wasn’t—”

“I know.” She sighed. “And I wasn’t trying to deceive you or keep secrets from you. I was only trying to find a way to be happier. And Dr. Luke is
to me. He wants to hear about appetizers like Smoked Veal and Cucumber Tartlets or Asian Asparagus Rolls.”

Graham winced and then tried to mask it. She noticed anyway. “I, uh, I’m not such a big veggie fan,” he said, “but w-we can try them if you want. I’ll tell the kids they have to eat a couple of bites, and maybe…who knows? I’m sure they’ll be great.” He shot her a forced grin.

She laughed for the first time in hours. He was trying hard, but he looked kind of green at the idea of eating asparagus. Graham hated asparagus even more than Keaton hated shrimp. “That’s okay,” she told him. “I don’t have to make something like that. Something I
you’ll despise. And maybe it’s too much to ask the kids to eat lots of unusual things anyway, beyond one or two new side dishes a week.” She paused and finally reached across their kitchen table for his warm, rough hands. He reached back and grabbed her fingers tight. “But maybe you and I could try to have dinner out every once in a while. Maybe we could go someplace sort of romantic, where we could talk and taste-test a few new things.”

“Things made with beef?” Graham asked, his tone hopeful.

“Sure,” she said.

Though there were many other questions left unasked, and a great many marital issues that hadn’t yet been brought to the table to discuss, this was a start. One quiet, honest moment in their own house. A moment that—at least temporarily—tore down one of the unhealthy walls of silence between them and made an attempt at repairing some of the neglect and inattention that had been dogging them for a decade or more.

And, as a pleasant side effect of their candor, it turned out they had a rather romantic night after all.


In Jennifer’s neck of the Deep Dark Woods, Michael had completely shut her out. There was no chitchat over coffee at
kitchen table and, while she was frustrated by this, the observer in her couldn’t help but analyze it. Pick it apart. Examine the implications. Why wasn’t her husband doing his usual
routine? Where was the drama? The bad poetic lines?

BOOK: Friday Mornings at Nine
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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