Claire shook the spray of liquid from her hand, laughing. “Jeez, take it easy. I didn’t realize you’d already been drinking.” She checked the glass for signs of damage before lifting it to her lips. Mary’s toast carried liberal enthusiasm.
“In your honor, babe.” Mary leaned forward. “Seriously, Claire. This is fabulous. You nailed it.”
Claire grinned. “About time, too.”
After months of wishy-washy deliberation, the Whitfield Library Board had finally agreed to launch a capital campaign to raise money for renovations. The improvements would bring the woefully inadequate children’s section into the new century with computers and E-readers, reading nooks and a storytelling stage in a book-themed setting to inspire little minds and imaginations. Claire had spent an exhausting two years working on the project, building her case, researching ideas and putting together a proposal. She’d earned a toast.
“Did you see Jessup’s face when you were making your presentation?” Mary asked, her laughter rising to a spirited cackle. “His tight little ass was all puckered and he was ready to bombard you with his usual roadblocks. Then, I swear the guy almost smiled.” She slapped the table. “When he nodded, I knew he was hooked.”
Claire had seen it all right. She’d damn-near fainted at the podium when he didn’t ask a single question. “I don’t know what kind of spell came over him, but I’m not gonna argue. Now all we need is money.”
“No problem. It’s time to turn on the charm, girlfriend. And if all else fails, there’s always South Broadway. I hear Saturday nights are busy down there.”
Claire smacked Mary’s leg with her shoe. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She wouldn’t be resorting to prostitution, but Claire knew some finagling and sucking up would be necessary. Raising this kind of cash wouldn’t be easy.
It would take a lot of time, and she might have to call in a few favors. Still, she was determined to make it happen. She’d put the library project on hold while she helped bring Hospice services to the community. Letting people die with dignity had trumped giving them books to read. But with Hospice up and running, she wanted to move ahead with the library before something else got in the way. There was always something else.
“So, I guess the rest of my to-do list is going to the back burner,” she told Mary. “Everything except the new deck. We’re finally moving on that. Stan’s got someone coming out to measure this week. I think he’s kind of excited about it. Soon as it’s done, we’ll have you and Grant over.”
“Just name the day. We’re wide open until school starts up again.”
Claire shook a pen at her. “Don’t plan on me for school activities this year. I mean it. Do not volunteer me for anything. And I may miss a few book clubs. Can’t imagine when I’ll have time to read.”
“Rather ironic, don’t you think,” Mary drawled. “Too busy building a library to read a book?”
Claire sputtered out a laugh. “Okay, okay. I’ll try.”
“You have to come to the next one, anyway, because it’s your turn to bring goodies. No wait, maybe you’re supposed to bring wine. I’ll have to check the list.”
“Oh, don’t bother. I’ll bring both. It’s not like we can have too much of either. What I really ought to bring is a big bag of Depends. I swear I laughed so hard last time I almost peed my pants.”
“Right there with you. Jane was in rare form that night.”
“I haven’t talked to her for a few days. Do you know if she got the motorcycle out of her kitchen sink?”
“Well, I haven’t heard about any murders in town recently . . . and she did threaten lethal action.”
“With good cause,” Claire added, shaking her head.
The laughter died in her throat when she looked past Mary to see Stan striding toward them. What in the world was he doing here? In an instant, Claire’s blood turned to ice. Her husband’s face was tight and drawn, his eyes fearful.
There could be only one reason for that look, for him tracking her down like this. No. Oh, God. Claire bolted out of her chair with a strangled cry. “Something’s happened.”
He moved in close, his fingers closing around her arm.
Her heart pounded. “What?”
She looked at him, the man who’d been her husband for thirty-two years, and felt only disgust. No, not only. There was contempt, anger. Hatred?
“I don’t love you anymore,” he said, his voice stilted and unnatural, as if he were reading the line. “I’ve already seen an attorney. You’ll get papers.”
Though the words hit her like a punch in the gut, she refused to let him know it. Papers. A few pieces of paper full of formal ‘whereases’ and ‘heretofores’ wouldn’t tell the real story – that he’d found someone younger and thinner, someone whose face and breasts hadn’t yet suffered the effects of gravity. Bastard.
With shaking hands, she lit a cigarette, and exhaled in his direction. Through the haze, she regarded him with a cool stare.
“Then get out of my house.”
He pushed back the chair, scraping it against the tiled floor. As usual. He could never move the chairs without that nerve-jarring scrape of metal against the surface. The beautiful designer tile they’d so painstakingly chosen – scratched and marred. Like everything else.
She didn’t move until the door snapped shut behind him. Then she wandered into the living room and lay down on the sofa, her head resting against the arm. Fine. She could use a little peace and quiet. She closed her eyes, but the sound of the clock tick-tocking from its place on the wall grew loud and annoying. Had that thing been a wedding gift? It was plenty old enough, for sure. Reaching down, she pulled off a shoe and flung it in the direction of the clock. It hiccoughed. Then resumed its rhythmic beat.
Irritation flared, and she threw the other shoe fiercely at the face of the offending appliance. The needles bent, and the clock swayed against the wall, but again, the sound resumed.
“Why can’t you give me some goddamned peace?” she screamed, getting up from the sofa. That clock had been in the same spot for years, its ticking and chirping telling her when to do this, when to do that every minute of every single day. In one fluid movement she yanked the clock from the wall and smashed it against the tile, finally silencing it as bits of wood and metal flew across the floor.
Claire saw Reggie, her fat tomcat, duck under the leather side chair. Briefly, she thought about coaxing him out. Reassuring him. But it required too much effort. Then again, she thought, maybe she could join him. Wouldn’t it be nice to just duck and hide when shit came crashing down? Too bad she wouldn’t fit under the chair.
With a deep drag on the cigarette clutched between her lips, she marched back to the sofa and flopped herself down. Why would she need to know what time it was? It didn’t matter. She had nowhere to go. No schedule. No one to fix supper for. Nothing was required of her.
She was free.
Claire closed her eyes until warm ashes dropped onto her chest. With a start, she brushed the ashes away. She swung her feet to the carpet, and jabbed the butt of the cigarette against the glass dish on the coffee table, then padded into the kitchen for another. She withdrew one from its package, but changed her mind. Tossing it onto the table, she turned and headed for the cupboard instead, stopping to give the remains of the clock another quick shove with her foot as she passed it.
From the cupboard she selected a favorite wine glass, one of the good ones with the twisted blue stems. She filled it with Merlot and sipped, leaning against the counter.
Would he tell the childr– She stopped herself. Would he tell Elise? Or did he expect her to do it?
Elise would be sad, Claire supposed, but that was it. With two young children of her own, Elise wouldn’t have time to worry about her parents’ problems.
The bastard. He’d waited until Ben was gone. Ben would’ve hated him for it. He would’ve called him out. He would’ve looked after her. Ben. Oh, God.
She choked on a sip of wine, but took another drink, her shoulders shaking. Slowly, she slid down the smooth cherry cupboard until she hit the floor. She curled up, sobbing. What else could happen to her? Everything was gone.
“There!” She screamed into the silence. “That’s it. You’ve taken everything. There’s nothing left. Now leave me alone. Just leave me the hell alone.”
She slept in Ben’s room that night, surrounded by his memory, his things. Unable to think of anything else, she gazed at his mementos. School trophies stood solemnly on the shelves. His clothes hung in the closet. Photographs and posters sagged on the walls. The expensive speakers he’d wanted so badly for his music system collected dust on top of the dresser.
It’d been two years since the death of her beloved son. Two years since she’d died inside. She’d made no changes to his room. And she never would. This was Ben’s room. His things. They belonged here. They belonged to her, and she loved them. She touched them, held them, smelled them. Would never part with them.
The hateful memento, the one stuffed inside a drawer, she couldn’t part with either. Nor could she stand the sight of it. Her eyes shifted to the tall dresser across the room. Even thinking of it made her stomach clench, bile rise in her throat. They’d handed her the flag at the funeral as if it were a glorious thing – an adequate substitute for a strong, handsome, intelligent, kind flesh-and-blood young man. Full of pomp and circumstance, they’d carefully folded it with white-gloved hands, tucked and smoothed it, and presented it to her as if it were a priceless treasure.
She’d accepted it, as decorum required she must, but she’d wanted to smash the thing into the ground, to rip it to shreds.
Claire had survived that day the only way she could – on autopilot. A robot of good breeding with years of solid training in social graces and etiquette took over the task, while she, the mother Claire, remained shrouded in a frozen fog.
She’d done it then. She could do it again. Call in the robot. Go through the motions. Do the tasks required of her. Say the right things when someone extended sympathy or sent a card.
Stan told her she needed help – that she wasn’t “handling it” well, wasn’t coping. Wasn’t getting over it. Getting over it?
“It’s like you aren’t even here anymore,” he’d complained again and again.
He didn’t understand that the day-to-day activities and responsibilities that filled her life were so inane, so inconsequential. Meaningless.
And so he’d turned to another woman. Presumably one who was alive, and not filled with pain and anger. A woman who felt something more than loss. A woman who could share his bed and not feel the absurdity and automation of it.
The call she expected came the following day. Almost evening. She couldn’t explain why she’d waited for the phone to ring rather than making the call herself.
“Yes, honey. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Oh, fine. Have you heard from your dad?”
“Yes. He called this afternoon. Are you doing okay?”
“I suppose I feel a little tired today. It was a bit of a surprise, you know.”
There was hesitation. A small silence.
“Was it? You didn’t have any idea?”
“Of course not. I thought your father and I would grow old together. But, apparently, he made other plans. I found out last night.”
Claire heard the deep intake of breath on the other end of the line.
“What are you going to do?” came the response, finally.
“Do? Well, there’s really nothing I can do. He’s already seen an attorney, and the ball is rolling, so to speak.”
“No, I mean, on your own. Will you stay there? Get a job? What are you thinking?”
“Little too early to tell, honey. I don’t know that I have to do anything. Other than hire a good lawyer.”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t get ugly.”
“What’s to get ugly? We divide our assets, and it’s all done. We start over. Simple.” She reached for a cigarette and lighter.
“Mom, it’s never simple. What about all the property and the house, and your investments? What about Grandma?”
“Elise, I don’t know about all that. That’s what lawyers get paid for. I have no idea what he’ll do about Grandma.”
“Well, do you need anything? Do you want me to come down for a visit? Help you sort through anything?”
“Of course, I’d love for you to visit anytime. Do you have a free weekend?”
Another heavy sigh.
“I’m not sure. I’ll look at my calendar. Maybe I could get away for an overnight. I’d have to bring the kids, though. And that’s a lot of noise and commotion. You sure you’re up for that?”
“Elise. I’d love to see them. Just let me know.”
She inhaled deeply. If the children came, she’d have to go outside to smoke. Even in her own home, she wasn’t permitted to smoke around her grandchildren.
“Okay, well, take care of yourself. Don’t forget to eat.”
Claire laughed at that. “Haven’t thought much about it, but I’m sure I can manage to feed myself even if I don’t have to get a meal on the table for anyone else.”
It dawned on her that if her husband had died, she’d be inundated with casseroles and dishes from people all over town. But since he’d simply walked out on her, she was left. Alone.
She glanced at the wall where the clock used to be. Was it past dinnertime already? It didn’t matter. She didn’t feel like eating.
“Dad said you didn’t really talk last night, so he wasn’t sure if you were very upset.”
Her thoughts snapped back to the call. “Oh, did he expect me to break down crying and screaming or beg him to stay?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“Well, when someone marches in and announces they no longer love you after you’ve borne and raised their children and picked up after them for over thirty years, it’s a bit of a shock. I guess I’m not sure how I’m supposed to act.”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“You know he was cheating on me, don’t you? There’s another woman.”
“No, he didn’t say anything like that. He wanted me to check on you and make sure you’re all right.”
“Ah, so that you’ll believe he’s not the cheating liar he really is.”
“Mom, I told you, I don’t want this to get ugly, and I don’t want to be caught in the middle of a he-said, she-said. I don’t have the time or energy for it. I’m really sorry this is happening, but I can’t take sides.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Claire knew her daughter better than that. Elise would watch from the sidelines. From both sides. She despised confrontation. There would be no support from her.
“I should probably get going, Mom. It’s about suppertime. I’ll check in with you in a couple of days and let you know if it looks like I’ll have any free time.”
“All right, then. My love to everyone.”
She hung up, but kept her hand on the phone. Was Stan beginning to spread the word? Claire had stayed home, in and out of sleep all day. She hadn’t told a soul. Telling would make it real. It would also make her the talk of the town. A hot news item. She shuddered, thinking of . . . the gossip. Whitfield could be a kind and generous community, but the fact remained, the higher the news dangled on the status ladder, the harder the fall, which made the news that much more captivating.
She took a deep breath. Better tell Mary. An ally she could count on.
Mothers, Daughters, Recovery, Alcoholism, Divorce, Small town, Friends
The Storm Within is the first book in a trilogy about three women who are good friends living in a small ficticious Kansas town.
Available in paperback and digital formats at Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com, AppleStore and other online retailers.