Excerpt: The Long Journey Home
Heat whooshed into Abby Wilder’s cheeks. Humiliation pierced her. She tried to ease the sudden flash of pain.
The two teenaged girls standing in the drug store aisle giggled. The blonde who just moved to town with her family said, AI can’t believe he married her!@
“I know. Mr. Wilder has to sleep with that,” her friend added.
“Eeww!” they said in unison, and then scurried off and out the door.
Her cheeks burned and she kept her head down.
She should be used to the high school girls coming in to scope her out. After all, her husband was the best teacher and kids were curious about his personal life; most notable was why in the world had he chosen plain Jane her.
With a great deal of difficulty, she shook off the offending, persistent remarks. From years of practice under her belt, she willed the heat from her face and eased her breathing.
Abby returned to flipping lazily through a woman’s magazine. Standing behind the old white pharmacy counter, she tapped the end of a pencil against her lips as she waited for more customers to come in. Customers who actually bought something.
It was even slower than normal today. Which left her too much time to speculate on her growing concerns. Cal seemed even more distant than usual. Had she done something wrong again? Or could it just be his end of the school year anxiety? He yearned for his students to do well so he could look even better than he already did.
No, it had to be her.
Try harder. Do more. Maybe then…
Berating herself came easily now. She sighed heavily, shoving the magazine away.
“‘Bout getting to be lunch time, isn’t it, Abby?” George Goodwin asked as he came out from the cavernous white shelves loaded with the names of drugs she couldn’t even begin to pronounce, never mind understand.
Looking over her shoulder at him, she lowered the pencil and asked, “Want something? I don=t mind getting it for you.”
His long, angular face broke into a smile as he brushed the steel gray hair back from his brow. “Nah, I’m fine. But you go ahead and get outta here for a break. Take a long lunch.” He shrugged. “It’s not like we’re going to have a rush or anything.”
For a brief moment, worry chased across his soft, faded blue eyes. Just as abruptly, it disappeared. Her chest tightened at the revealing glimpse.
“You know, Mr. G., that superstore should be outlawed for what it’s done to this town. It’s been stealing business from all the shops along Main Street since it opened six months ago.” She lowered her voice. “You could always sell.” She left the rest unsaid. He didn’t need to be reminded.
But he finished it for her. “I know, my Mary would have wanted me to. Just not the same without her, you know?”
Abby swallowed hard, trying to clear the lump from her throat. Suddenly, an image flashed through her mind: lonesome Mr. Goodwin wandering through each room of his big, old home with too much time on his hands and no one to care for.
“I know,” she whispered softly. Her chest tightened even more.
She raised her gaze to meet his. She held it there for a moment, noting the moisture gathering in his eyes that matched her watery gaze. He nodded and she did the same as they both repeated the phrase, “I know.”
Breaking away from the sad spell, she blinked several times and said, “I think I’ll take you up on that long lunch. I could go home and get a few things done. I’ll bring you back something anyway. You’ve got to eat, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a chuckle in his voice.
The warm morning sun beat down on her as she walked the few blocks home past a growing number of empty brick buildings. With jerky steps, she drew near the now lightly traveled town square.
“Wilder, Texas,” she read the placard. “If only I knew then what I know now.” She shivered and pressed on.
Turning at the last corner, she strolled down her wide side street dotted with quaint neighborhood homes.
Silently, she scolded herself for leaving on the drugstore pale blue jacket. She mentally shrugged, and then swung her purse in her hand and nearly skipped a few steps.
Abby pulled her hair out of the customary low ponytail and shook her head, releasing the long brown strands from the confining style. Breathing in deeply, she savored the scent of freshly mowed grass and the flowery fragrance floating to her on a slight breeze. Lilacs, she guessed.
The sound of a car horn jerked her back to the moment. The red convertible crawled down the street toward her. Behind the wheel, Parker Wentworth drove. His mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes, but she recalled the way he’d look her over in the store, his deep brown eyes finally meeting and holding hers. She flushed at the memory of how it had stirred her.
Now his wide smile brought more warmth to her cheeks. Abby fidgeted with the collar of her white buttoned-down blouse and looked down at her sensible brown loafers.
She wasn’t like the other older women the young man sought out. Romeo, most of them called him after he eventually seduced them and moved on. He was definitely handsome with the long, dark hair and dark smoldering eyes, she admitted.
And his rock hard body wasn’t bad either.
She could only imagine what it felt like, what he felt like. Abby nearly groaned as shame washed over her.
You’re a married woman, for Pete’s sake!
He stopped the car just a few feet away from where she walked.
“Hey, can I give you a ride?” Romeo emphasized the last.
She gulped at the innuendo. Abby clutched the top of the blue jacket. Shaking her head quickly, she walked briskly down the lane.
He chuckled, calling out, “Next time, baby.” Then he gunned the engine and raced off.
Another conquest, that’s all he wants. Because he certainly wouldn’t want little ol’ nothing me.
Abby brushed aside the dagger of worthlessness that shafted through her.
Rounding the last corner, she caught sight of her two-story house. She forced her mind away from Romeo and focused on the repairs the big, creamy white home needed.
Some sprucing up, she thought, glad of a pleasing diversion as she ran through the mental list of supplies that she needed to get next time she popped into the hardware store.
Then her gaze flickered to the half-hidden white ’57 Chevy in the drive. She sucked in a shaky breath. Her steps faltered. A queasiness settled in her belly.
“What’s he doing home? Did he forget his lunch again?” she wondered aloud, fiddling with the rubber band and quickly tying her hair back. She brushed a hand over her head, making sure no strands stuck out. Next, she smoothed her fingers over her navy blue knee-length cotton skirt.
A part of her wanted to turn around and run. An image of Mr. G. sprang into her mind. She’d promised him lunch and by the too lean, lanky looks of him lately he’d been skipping meals.
Gingerly, she let herself into the squeaky screen door off of the kitchen. Silence greeted her.
“Eerie,” she whispered, shivering a little.
Entering the sparkling blue and white country kitchen, she scanned the room for any signs of occupancy. It seemed as if nothing had been disturbed from when she left it only a few short hours ago.
She waited for a sign of relief, but none came. Crossing to the nearby counter, she set her navy purse down. Shrugging off one shoulder of her jacket, she halted. Thinking better of it, she put it back on.
Biting her lip, she wondered if she should just stay here and put together a hearty meal for Mr. G. But what if she’d irritate Cal? Which would upset him more: going to find him and making her presence known or making too much noise in the kitchen and having him storm in because she didn’t tell him she was in the house? Her belly clutched, making her wince.
Pressing a hand to her stomach, Abby wished she’d bought some antacids before leaving the store.
Something held her back from calling out to Cal. Unease grew as she walked through the tidy, sparse rooms on the bottom floor, trying to get a glimpse around each corner before she entered. A part of her seemed to view it all as a stranger would. Disconnected. Emotionless. His book-lined office was the last place on the first floor she checked. “Nothing moved, nothing out of place,” she said softly, frowning. “Strange.”
Taking a deep breath, she approached the stairs, reluctant to break this fragile, eerily quiet existence. But something urged her on.
At the top of the wooden stairs, she stood for a moment, hesitant. Still no noise came from anywhere, but her feet appeared to have a mind of their own and she moved to the partly opened bedroom door.
Peeking inside, she gulped. The fresh mint green sheets she’d put on the bed this morning were exposed and wrinkled. The colorful quilt she used as a bedspread lay crumpled at the edge of the mattress.
She spanned the room through the narrow twelve-inch opening. Her gaze landed on the heap of clothes on the floor and she nearly gasped out loud. Her chest felt like a hundred-pound weight had just slammed into her. Blood roared in her ears.
No! It can’t be!
Abby shook her head and blinked several times, hoping to erase the image in front of her. No good. It remained there each time she looked again and again. This wasn’t a dream.
From a distance, she heard Cal=s voice over the spray of the shower. “Hey, shake a leg in there, will ya? We’ve got to get back to school. You, of all people, can’t afford to miss any more classes. And I’ve got a meeting with one of your favorite teachers, Mr. Perkins,” he snickered. A hint of bitterness clouded it. His laughter continued as he entered the bedroom from the adjoining bathroom.
Bile rose in her throat.
Frightened she’d be discovered, Abby backed away one slow step at a time.
“Did you hear something?” His voice lost all its humor. “Be quiet. Don’t say a word, understand?”
Oh, my God, he’s going to find me.
Gingerly, Abby walked backwards to the guest bedroom a few feet down the hall, increasingly grateful for her sturdy, no-nonsense soundless shoes. Once in the room, she squeezed in behind the open door and the wall. She longed to gulp in some fresh air, but didn’t dare make a peep.
His footsteps were on the landing. “Abby,” he called. “Is that you?” Unmistakable anger tinged his question.
Please, God, don’t let him find me.
He moved down the hall and stopped at the guest room doorway. She nearly jumped when she saw his face through the crack near the door hinges. All he had to do was turn his head slightly and he’d discover her hiding place. He scanned the room. His heavy breathing, clenched jaw, and growing red face made the blood drain from her.
Perspiration dotted her brow, and then, in the confined stuffy space, it trickled down her body. Her palms grew sweaty.
Could he smell fear? Please no.
He cussed under his breath, and then marched out of the room and to the next one down.
Abby longed to gasp for a breath or two, but thought better of it. Clutching her hands together, she nearly cried aloud.
My purse! Oh my God! I left it on the counter. What if he finds it?
Her knees began to quiver uncontrollably. Dizziness took hold.
It must have been fifteen minutes while Cal searched the upstairs rooms. He whispered sharp commands to his lover and the sound of rustling clothes and bed linens floated to her. Not once did she hear the lover speak. Hurried footsteps on the stairs rose to her. The screen door squeaked. And finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the car roared away.
Thank God he didn’t find my purse.
A mixture of relief at not being discovered and shock reverberated through her body.
Still, she remained motionless while she tortured herself with images of what she’d witnessed and what she could only imagine had happened right before she’d arrived.
She gagged once, and then again. Suddenly she shoved the door away, and then fell to her knees. She gasped in great big gulps of air, fighting the waves of nausea. Her mind raced with the horrible, ugly truth she’d denied for so long. Her husband was having an affair. Worse yet, he was screwing one of his students.
To Abby, the rest of the day seemed to go by in an odd blur. On the outside, most people thought she was a little distracted or so they said and chuckled at it. But inside, she was a mass of confusion.
Who? How long? Why hadn’t I figured it out before now?
Mr. Goodwin eyed her speculatively when she came back empty-handed a short time after leaving. “Is something wrong?”
His worried tone registered and all she could do was nod. She remembered the sandwich she’d hastily made for him and dug it out of the large pocket in her work jacket. Her hand trembled as she held it out to him.
He took it, glancing down at the squished sandwich wrapped in wax paper. “Want to talk about it?” he asked, his lowered voice filled with concern.
She sucked in a painful breath and shook her head, thankful that he honored her wishes not to discuss it right now. They both sensed if she ever needed to, she could always go to him.
When one of Goodwin Drugs afterschool helpers called in sick, Abby hastily volunteered to work a double shift. The longer she could avoid going back home, the better.
Throughout the long day and into the evening, she felt Mr. G.=s quizzical frown follow her on more than one occasion.
At closing time, he scratched the back of his head, saying, “I wish Mary was here. She’d know just the right thing to say to you.”
For the first time since returning to the store, she looked him in the eye. “I don’t think even she could help right now.” It ached to even talk.
He sighed loudly. “I’ll give you a ride home.”
Out in her driveway, she sat huddled in the passenger seat, just staring at the large old house with warm lights shining from the living room. Just this morning she thought of it as a place she belonged. Now, she knew she never really had. How sad for her.
With the car still running, Mr. G. said, “You don’t have to go in if you don=t want to.”
She half sighed, half laughed. Yet on the inside, she quaked. “And take the easy way out?”
He chuckled. “No, you never did that, did you? Lord, when I think of how you first came to town–”
“Yep, Cal’s bride,” she said wistfully, mourning that young girl filled with hopes and dreams.
“It wasn’t you. His folks had the apron strings wrapped so tight around him he never could live the life he wanted.”
“So he rebelled the only way he knew how, by marrying an outsider.”
Mr. G. rubbed a finger along his top lip. “And no one in this town…his town ever let you forget.”
Cal, his parents, their friends, and the townspeople in the small community the Wilder family had founded more than a hundred fifty years ago had made her feel unwelcome from the beginning and not much had changed since. They’d assumed her husband, the last in the long line of descendants, would marry one of their own. Poor Bethany Simcock. The beauty queen had been heartbroken.
“You didn’t hold it against me. You and Mrs. G.”
“I remember the day you walked into the store.”
Lonely and at loose ends, she’d wandered through town in those first few weeks of arriving. Going into Goodwin Drugs that day had changed everything. There she’d found Mrs. G. behind the soda fountain and had been immediately drawn to the older, cheery woman, who had taken Abby under her wing. Abby had taken the job they’d offered her and blossomed being around the elderly couple.
For the first time in her life, Abby felt cared for. Being bounced around foster homes as a child, she’d always craved a loving presence. She thought she had found it with Cal, but soon discovered the truth. He’d only married her to get back at his parents. Oh, she was an asset to his teaching career and had been pleasing enough to pass most tests. But still there was this underlying disapproval everywhere she went. Especially having to live under the same roof as his angry parents.
“Mrs. G. was fussing at you about something or other.” She chuckled and he joined in. “But it was all in fun. She could never get mad at you, you know?”
“Me with her either.” She heard the smile in his voice. “Yep, Abby girl, I recall Mary telling me later you looked at her with those big hazel eyes of yours and her heart just melted. Aw, how she really loved to giggle with you.”
“Boy, she could do that, couldn’t she?”
“Not in a bad way, though.”
“Nah, my Mary didn’t have a mean bone in her body. Never met a stranger. But you were special.”
“Fast friends. Forever friends,” she whispered hoarsely.
His voice caught, and then he cleared his throat. “No one else would have done what you did for us.”
“You two loved me like no one else ever had.” You saved me. Moisture gathered in her eyes at their kindness over the years.
Reaching over, he patted her hand. The warmth seemed to finally penetrate the cold darkness that had invaded her this afternoon. She turned her hand over, clutching his.
“IYI may need to talk sometime.” But not if it puts you in harm’s way.
“When you’re ready.”
With great trepidation, Abby left the safe confines of Mr. G.=s old Ford and made her way to the back door.
The strangeness of it all rested heavy on her mind as she opened the squeaky screen door once again.
Was it just a few hours ago that I was here and my life changed? No, just your perception. A voice deep inside hurled the cold, dark truth.
Holding her breath, she stepped over the threshold and back into the lie.
“Abby, is that you? Are you finally home?” His rich velvety voice oozed through the air.
I wonder if that’s the voice he used to get his student into bed? How long had it been going on? Is that the reason for my unease lately? Had I sensed it? Who is she anyway?
Abby had to know her. She mentally went through the small school’s student body. It could be any number of girls who fawned over Cal. What would her parents say or do if they ever found out? He should be arrested for what he’s doing. As her mind reeled with unanswered questions, a weight as heavy as a boulder sat in her belly.
What the hell am I going to do?
“Abby!” His tone sharpened.
She pulled up short. Shaking her head, she called out to him.
She cringed at the sound of his heavy footsteps coming down the hall. Going to the refrigerator, she yanked open the door just as he entered the kitchen.
“Have dinner yet?” Her voice came out high and anxious.
“Yeah, I heated up the meatloaf.”
It was a perfectly calm answer, but Abby thought she read disapproval in it.
“One of the kids called in sick. I didn’t want Mr. G. having to run the store on his own.” Defensiveness tinged her voice.
“That old coot needs to hang it up. Can’t he see his time has come and gone? You’re not helping by catering to his every whim, either. And I didn’t say anything.” Irritation rang in his. “You always think I’m attacking you.”
That’s because you always do.
Peering over the top of the refrigerator door, she gulped hard, looking at him for the first time. Not very tall, but he had an impressive air about his compact body. His curly light brown hair seemed more unruly than normal, as if he’d been running his hands through it. Nice handsome face with wide gray eyes, she observed, as if just meeting him.
Then it dawned on her as she replayed the last few months over and over again as if she’d turned the knob on a movie projector. His distance, the increased verbal thrashings, the many overnight trips, the frequent grooming, losing weight…it all added up. He’d been screwing the girl for a long time now.
“I didn’t say you did say anything,” she said, trying to clamp down on the raging sense of betrayal. After all I’ve done. After all I’ve given up.
“Good Lord, Abigail, you are such a baby. Childish, inept…shall I go on? When are you going to grow up?”
Tension swooped into her body, stealing all semblance of normal movement. She jerked; the glass bottles on the door clacked together, and then she banged the door shut. Her facial muscles stiffened, pain shooting up through her temples.
She wanted to shout out. When are you going to grow up? “I am not a child.” How many times had she told him and his now deceased parents that?
“Could have fooled me,” he sneered. “Imbecile.”
She longed to lash out at him, longed to take the knife from the drawer and just stab that smug look off of his face. Heat rolled through her.
“Well, Mr. Holier-than-thou-Professor…no, wait, you’re not a professor, are you? That’s right, the University of Texas wouldn’t accept you, would they?” She got the reaction she wanted and knew she’d stooped to being disgustingly childish as his face contorted and the muscle along his clenched jaw jumped. A wave of power washed over her. Coyly, she put a hand over her mouth, and then took it away saying, “Oh, my bad.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him ball his hands into fists, the grip squeezing so tight his knuckles grew white. She braced herself.
“Stupid bitch!” He swore, raising his hands and shaking them at her, and then stormed out of the room.
She realized she’d pushed the limits as never before just so she wouldn’t have to talk to him, never mind look at him any more tonight.
In the distance, she heard the office door slam shut, rattling the glass cupboard doors behind her. She shivered in a mixture of fear and relief.
On wobbly legs, Abby made her way to the nearest chair, and then plopped down. She covered her mouth with her shaky hands, suppressing the bubbling giggle rising in her throat. A part of her rejoiced at her audacity to stand up to him.
I can’t believe I just did that.
He’d spend the night in there pacing, ranting, and drinking. The storm would rage onward. And she wouldn’t have to be in his presence. She had another excuse to move back into the guest bedroom.
She sent up a silent prayer of thanks for not having to sleep beside the son-of-a-bitch with his clammy body and irritating snores. And if her luck held out, it would be weeks before he came near her again. Their little tug-of-wars usually lasted longer and longer as time went on.
If only that could last forever, she thought wistfully. If only she had the nerve to push the limits even more…
God, I wish he were dead.
Abby leaned her forehead against the cool metal door of her steel gray work locker. Nearly a week later, her head still pounded with questions. No answers came.
No sense of peace.
Trying to ward off another wave of gripping anxiety, she jerked upright.
Abby dialed the combination and popped open the locker door. The metal vibration scraped along her already raw nerves. Reaching in, she grabbed her pale blue jacket off the hook. She stilled.
In the back, she spotted the mirror she kept hanging there. She sucked in a shaky breath, knowing behind it lay her cry for help. A thick letter attached to the back held her deep, dark secrets.
If anything should happen to me, go after Cal Wilder…it began. After each incident she’d note the date and scratch out a few more details.
Tears blurred her eyes. Her reflection begged for her attention. This time she refused to look away. Meeting her own watery gaze in the revealing image, her heart clutched in her chest.
How long are you going to keep taking this? Isn’t seventeen years long enough? What would Cal do if I confronted him? Deny it, of course. But, physically, what would he do?
She shivered at the scenario that ran through her mind over and over again.
The last time she’d challenged him, she wore the bruises for weeks. Right after his mother had passed away five years ago, she’d dared to broach the subject of going back to school for her degree.
After all, she’d taken care of his ailing parents for almost a dozen years. First struggling with his combative father until his death, and then his mother. Without the role of caregiver, she had time on her hands. And the demands of his jealous, antagonistic mother would finally cease to come between them, Abby had thought.
Naively, she’d argued her point. He’d dismissed her once, twice. But not the last time when she nearly begged.
The memory of his words shook her till this day. “You ever cross me again and I’ll kill you, bitch! Not just you but anyone who ever dares to help you do it. Got it, you pathetic loser?” he’d spat.
Rubbing her side, she swore her ribs still ached from the blows he’d delivered that day. Thankfully, the Goodwins hadn’t questioned her story of falling down the stairs. But their raised eyebrows and looks they’d exchanged clearly said they knew the truth. Once she’d recovered, the couple had offered her more evening hours at the store. Their motive, although obvious, had never crossed their lips. But Abby had known it was their way of protecting her from Cal’s wrath. She wouldn’t be there at night when he was there after his workday ended.
And just over a year ago when Mrs. G. had grown sick, Abby had literally ended up camping out in the Goodwins’ guest room, tending to the ailing woman for months.
To the small town, Cal had appeared as the generous, self-sacrificing husband, allowing his wife to care for the beloved woman. Since that had brought him an outpouring of attention, he’d lapped it up.
In private, whatever time he’d snagged with her, his demands grew even more. Domestically, he’d required her to do everything she’d done previously. The house had to be spotless, his shirts ironed just so, his slacks creased perfectly…
Sexually, he’d take her whenever she came home. He’d taken full advantage of her, doing things he’d never done before, positions she’d never even knew existed, and forcing her on her knees time and time again to service him. All so she could please him and be allowed to care for her friend.
And still she wasn’t good enough for him.
Sighing heavily, she clutched the jacket in her grasp, yanking it from the confining space. She slammed the door shut. Just then she heard something-no, someone. Mr. G.
Rushing past the row of lockers and around the corner, she called out, “Mr. G., you all right?” Abby came upon him in the back office near the stock room. His pale face and glassy eyes stared vacantly back at her.
He nodded toward the chair alongside the big bulky green metal desk. “Sit a spell, will ya?”
“Let me get you some water first.” She was back with a bottle of ice-cold water from the cooler. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she recalled the one other time he looked like this.
She had everything she could do to keep the contents of her belly from coming up. She pressed a hand to her aching stomach, thinking she should have taken her ulcer medication like the doctor told her to.
Grabbing two paper cups, she poured them both some water. Sipping gingerly, she welcomed the fresh, crisp taste cleansing her mouth.
“Sheriff came by today,” Mr. G. said absently.
Abby inhaled her next sip and started choking. It took a few moments to get her breath back. “Why? Did heYdoes he suspect…” she trailed off, unable to give voice to her fear.
He shook his head briefly. “No need to worry, my dear. Well, not about that…Mary.” He seemed to lose his focus, staring upward and placing his hands together as if in prayer.
He pulled himself back to gaze at her. Moisture gathered in the corners of his eyes. “Damn people, trying to steal everything out from under me. The house. They want the house, Abby girl. How can I lose it? It’s all I have left of Mary. Fifty-five years and the city decides it likes my land, so they’re trying to claim eminent domain. Gonna tear it down and rip right through the land and straighten out the crooked road. Have you ever heard of such a thing? We wanted to die in that house together. She went first; now it’s for me to die in.” He rambled on as the enormity of it hit her.
Since his wife’s death eight months ago, he’d practically shrunk to a shadow of himself. His weight had dropped as his appetite became nonexistent. He’d lost interest in most things. She figured he’d kept the business out of loyalty to his old cronies and for a place to feel as if he mattered. His mind wasn’t as sharp as it once was, but he wasn’t feeble by any means.
The house remained his safe haven, where he could talk to his deceased wife, pick up a treasured object and reminisce, and recall far-off memories of all that had transpired in the lovely home on the hill.
“Progress, hah!” He snorted. “It’s them damn big businesses. They want to get a better connector road so they can have all these people drive right to their door.”
Feeling like throwing up before seemed nothing compared to now. “How awful,” she whispered hoarsely.
“All I want is to die in peace. But will they let me? No,” he answered his own question.
She wished he wouldn’t talk about dying. He was like a grandfather to her and she’d been heartbroken at Mrs. G.’s rapid decline from the cancer chumping away at her body, and then death. They’d both been devastated. Now he’d been dealt this travesty. Surely he couldn’t withstand the loss of his home, too.
Studying him, she noted his complexion becoming pasty and gray. Alarm shot through her.
“Mr. G., did you talk to Marvin about this? He’s handled all your legal things over the years. Maybe he can help.” She fought hard to keep the panic from creeping into her voice.
“Marvin? No, no, I didn’t think. You=re the first one I’ve said anything to after the sheriff left.”
“We’ll fight it, of course,” she said and watched the twin dots of pink color his cheeks.
“I’ll call him now. He’s got to find a way.”
Abby waited and listened to the one-sided conversation. She froze inside as she overheard Mr. G. pleading for just a little while longer, that’s all he asked for. That’s all he needed. Did he know something he wasn’t telling her? She couldn’t lose him, too.
“Abby!” Cal shouted.
She cringed, the knot in her belly tightened once again.
“Can’t you do anything right? All I ask is to have a clean, freshly ironed shirt every day. Is that asking a lot?” Cal’s raised voice thundered through the house as he raced downstairs and into the living room.
She dropped the blouse in her grasp and the needle and thread to her lap, and then clutched the arms of the chair she sat in. Bracing herself once again.
He waved his white shirt in front of him as if he held a flag. “See this? This is unacceptable.”
“Yes, Cal,” she said in a neutral tone, not revealing any emotion to him. She longed to rub her middle to ease her churning belly.
“Yes, Cal,” he mimicked her, his face screwed up in an ugly sneer. “Is that all you have to say for yourself?”
She remained silent.
At her non-reaction, he raged. “You disgust me, do you hear me?”
Yes and the neighbors probably do, too. Shame stung her.
Abby saw his arm cock back and then the white fabric sail through the air, smacking her in the face. She jerked back at the slap of material. Tentatively, she removed it from her eyes and gently gathered it in her hands.
He swooped close, clamping his hand around her wrist, squeezing hard.
Pain shot through her. But she didn’t visibly wince. After years of practice, she schooled her features. She’d realized long ago that he took great pleasure in her reactions. She’d never give him that luxury again.
His face contorted even more.
I wish all his beloved students and fans could see him now, like I see him.
“I want that hand-washed and impeccably ironed by the time I come back.” He flung her hand away, and then stormed out of the house, the back door squeaking and slamming in protest.
Sitting completely still, she didn’t dare move until she heard the roar of the engine in the still night air and the squeal of brakes as he backed up and raced off down the street.
Rubbing her sore wrist, she stared helplessly down at the now wrinkled shirt.
“How can I keep going on like this?” she wondered aloud. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the images flashed through her mind.
For the last two weeks, Abby had moved like a robot through her life. If Cal didn’t complain about something or other, he barely spoke and was home less and less. Her mind wandered with the possibilities of where he was and who he was with. When home, his temper simmered just below the surface and he was quick to snap.
“Worthless. Incompetent. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he’d complained.
Her wrists and arms bore more than one bruise from his too-tight grip. And one mark sat in the middle of her back from where he shoved her into a doorframe, knocking the wind out of her.
On the outside, she went to work and conducted herself like a good wife, but on the inside sat a ball of turmoil constantly burning in her middle. There was no one she could turn to for help. Mr. G. needed her strength now, not her problems. And she’d never really had any real girlfriends before. Cal had seen to that.
She hadn’t told a soul about Cal’s affair. It ate at her. Secrets always did do that to Abby.
Forcing herself to get up and iron his shirt once again, Abby wished the memories would stop. But they came, unbidden and ruthless now.
Cal had painstakingly molded her into the bride he’d expected her to be. Gone were the things she’d come to know and love, including any resemblance to the Abby she’d been. In its place remained a pale, weak imitation of a woman who only wanted to please the man she loved. If only she could make him happy, then maybe he’d love her more.
Always she fell short. Short of his expectations, his parents’ standards, and her own desperate need to fit in.
The Goodwins showed her another side. Not being able to have children, they had doted on Abby and she on them. The years had flown by and they’d grown closer still. The one sticking point was Cal didn’t care for them and they didn’t care for him.
They’d been smart enough to see through him as a young man and hated the fact that she was stuck with the insidious verbal torture, passed down from his parents. She covered the bruises, hiding the rest that they hadn’t guessed at or at least hadn’t voiced to her.
It didn’t matter to Abby that Cal didn’t like the couple. She’d do anything for the pair. And she had done the ultimate deed for them both. No one knew it but the three of them. And, if Abby had her way, no one else would ever know.
Thursday began like any other day for Abby.
She waited patiently in the guest room bed for Cal to putter around the house, and then leave for school.
He’d made it known years ago he disliked having to deal with her in the mornings. That was sweet relief for her. She fixed his lunch the night before and all he had to do was grab the brown paper sack from the refrigerator.
When he remembered to, of course.
Finally, she heard the door squeak shut. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Freedom,” she whispered as she flung the covers off of her and got ready for her day.
Coming down the stairs just ten minutes later, she glanced at the counter. A ripple of anxiety slithered through her. “Damn,” she muttered, seeing his lunch sack sitting there. “He forgot again.” She worried that he’d blame her as he always did.
What would he do to me this time? She shuddered.
Thinking quickly, she snatched up the bag and headed out the door. If she could just catch him in the parking lot at school, everything would be all right. He usually lingered there, talking to the milling students who weren’t quite ready to go into the building yet. He loved that part of the day, or so he’d told her, because he had them captivated by his wit, charm, and knowledge. He had them in the palms of his hands, he’d boast.
Abby said sourly, “Yeah, and anywhere else you wanted them.”
In the back of her mind, she knew she had to get to the school as fast as she possibly could. Still in her long-sleeve T-shirt and workout pants she’d worn to bed, she dug her bike out of the garage and set off quickly down the driveway.
She hated the bike; it represented all the things he’d stopped her from doing. Cal never allowed her to drive, claiming he could only afford one car and of course that was for him. Trying to make something of herself was difficult enough with his constant demands and negative comments. But, without a car, she’d been held back from completing her education. Something he brought up rather frequently, mocking her for being so dumb.
“Good for nothing. Idiot,” he often said.
As thoughts raged through her mind, she pedaled faster and faster down the road and toward the school only a few miles away.
“Worthless. Stupid bitch!”
She’d been the one to buy the bike and sneak it home one day. His mother had seen her putting it away and immediately passed that information on to Cal. The memory of his fury haunted her to this day. It hadn’t been so much of what he said; he said very little. It was what he’d done. Behind their closed bedroom door, he’d struck her, knocking her to the floor. He pounced on her and wrapped his hands around her neck, squeezing so tightly. She could still feel the pressure of his fingers digging into her throat. She gasped for air as she tried to pry his grip loose. When he didn’t budge, she thought she’d die.
Funny, she had his mother to thank for saving her life. The old woman had hobbled to their room, pounding on the door with her cane. “Cal, Cal, what’s going on in there? Don’t forget we need her to take care of me and your daddy.”
The mark on Abby’s neck lasted for weeks. She’d gotten good at discovering how to wrap a scarf five or six different ways. After that, Cal would hit her where no one could see the evidence. Well, until the day she’d begged to go back to school…
The bike was the first time. After that, whenever his parents were around he’d mostly use words. Oh, and how he could fling those. Sometimes she wondered if the words hurt more. At least she could brace herself when he hit her, and the bruises would eventually disappear. Well, until the next time…
But each word he’d carelessly thrown at her, hitting their mark, they eroded just a little bit more of who she’d thought she’d been. Until now, there was very little left. Over the years, they’d wounded her more deeply and lasted a hell of a lot longer than any punch had.
But lately he seemed more dangerous when he attacked her verbally and physically. As if a spring released itself a little bit more each time, he seemed to come unwound. The vacant, wild look in his eyes whenever a rampage would hit frightened her. A heavy weight pressed on her chest. Was he going to be able to control himself the next time or the time after that?
When is enough enough? When is it going to be too much for you? When he kills you?
Moisture gathered in her eyes now, blurring her vision. As the droplets dripped onto her cheeks, the breeze whipped them across her skin, making the hot salty tears sting her flesh.
“Oh, my God, is that what I’m waiting for? For him to kill me and get it over with?” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “Because he will, you know-he’ll kill you. It’s just a matter of time.” She’d seen so many news stories lately of spouses killing the other for no real reason. “He’ll kill me sooner, if he knows I know about his affair with his student. Just so I won’t tell anyone.” She gasped at another startling insight. “Not just me, but he’ll think Mr. G. knows, too.”
Anything to save his sterling reputation.
She slowed down, and then in a bush-covered area, she pulled over. With her long sleeve she swiped the moisture away, but it was soon replaced with more tears streaming down her face. She covered her mouth with her hand, trying to stop the sobs. The bike nearly tumbled from beneath her, the pedal jabbing her shin.
In the distance, she thought she heard a car motor. Embarrassed to be seen balling on the side of the road and shaking at the thought of Cal’s anger if someone should find her and tell him, she dragged the bike under the bush. Laying it on its side, she hunkered down beside it until the car zoomed by.
Stop your crying. Don’t look like an idiot.
Time slowly passed and no car sped by. Abby sat there for long moments, clutching Cal’s lunch sack in her fist. Looking up and down the road for the vehicle, she raised her eyebrows at seeing nothing in either direction.
“Where’s it coming from?” She craned her neck to hear.
Suddenly, she realized it was coming from somewhere behind her. Jerking around, she peered through the twigs and leaves on the bushes and spotted a white car less than a hundred feet away. It sat on a little narrow dirt strip off a road, tucked away and out of sight from the main throughway.
Squinting, she’d tried to make out the occupants more clearly. Roughly, she scrubbed her still watery eyes and leaned forward to get a better look. Her heart picked up speed, racing faster than when she’d pedaled the bike. Half-crawling, she pushed the offending branches aside and moved along the cold, damp ground. Her knees smashed into rocks and briars, but she pressed onward.
The older white car looked terribly familiar. Her breath caught in the back of her throat.
Blood roared in her ears and her mouth went dry. Her grip at first tightened, and then loosened. The sack dropped to the ground.
The driver’s side window was halfway down. She watched as Cal=s profile came into focus. A flash of white teeth meant he was smiling about something. Then she gazed on in horror as someone’s large hands grazed Cal’s chest and thick arms came around him, circling his neck. Cal leaned into the other person, cupping their head. The other person’s long brown hair obscured her view. Then they kissed.
Abby swallowed hard, once, twice, even a third time. But nothing helped. Silently, she retched, spilling the watery contents of her belly onto the ground in front of her.
Wiping away the spittle with the back of her sleeve, she glanced up, certain she’d seen what she’d just thought she’d seen. She’d discovered the unmistakable secret Cal had been keeping. Her blood ran cold.
Her husband was kissing a boy.
Abby fumbled backwards, scurrying on her hands and propelling herself with her feet. Hitting the metal bike frame, she fell back.
The air whooshed from her lungs and the cold steel dug into her exposed flesh on her lower back. She grit her teeth, clamping down on the bolt of pain. With a flick of her hand, she brushed her stinging flesh, coming away with a swatch of blood. Quickly, she wiped it on the front of her shirt.
Do not cry out, she scolded herself, highly aware that Cal and his lover embraced only a short distance away.
Gingerly she shifted, carefully extracting herself from the bike and slowly moving farther away from the scene of the crime.
With his lunch sack forgotten, she picked up the bike and, crouching, she wheeled it away. When she’d gotten twenty feet down the side of the road, she ignored the stab of pain and jumped on the bike and pedaled furiously toward home.
Her mind reeled with ugly thoughts of what she’d just seen. But the sane part flipped back to the day she’d walked in on him. He’d been frolicking with the boy that day, she realized, jerking the handlebars. The bike weaved and she quickly righted it and pushed onward.
Clarity was something Mrs. G. claimed came to you when you were faced with the most awful news. As if everything else faded away but what needed to be done. Of course, Mrs. G. had been given a death sentence.
And so had Abby.
Part of her died the moment she absorbed the shocking truth of the scope of her husband’s infidelity.
How could he do that to the boy? How awful! How shocking! He should be thrown in jail for what he was doing with a minor!
Yet another part of her had come alive.
The paralysis of the last few weeks fell away. And as if her mind were a computer, Abby’s thoughts whirled with options, quickly discarding the unreasonable and exploring the more feasible ones. The possibilities seemed endless. The choices almost reachable as never before.
Then she’d always come back to Mr. G.
What if he’d be in danger from Cal?
Death. Birth. Which one would she choose in the end?
A few minutes later, Abby had no idea how she’d gotten to the house in one piece. She dropped the bike to the ground; metal crashed on concrete. In the house, she moved as if she was floating above her own body.
On instinct, she marched to their bedroom. Over the course of the last few weeks, she’d only been in here on as few occasions as possible, averting her eyes from the offending piece of furniture. But now she stared at the bed where he’d taken the boy. On their bed!
Heat and pain gathered inside, working up to her chest. The weight of her rage pressed down on her. That bed, her crisp clean sheets-all of it represented his vile, unfaithful heart.
Shaking uncontrollably now, she finally released a long, guttural scream. Clenching her fists, she rushed to the bed and pounded it over and over again and she continued to shriek. Tears streamed down her face.
Abby clawed at the beautiful comforter, bunching it up, and then ripping it off the bed. When she saw the sheets, she tore at them, yanking up the mattress in the process. She whipped the linens off, and then tossed them down somewhere behind her.
The bare cream-colored mattress lay eschewed in front of her. She racked her fingernails over the surface; nothing pierced the thick covering. Grabbing the nearby bedside lamp, she smashed it on the corner of the bedside table. Breaking glass shattered the air. Abby swung the broken lamp; the jagged sharp edges ripped through the padding. Shreds lay before her, yet still she didn’t stop.
“How many times, Cal? How many others? How many times did you cheat on me? How many times did you cheat me, cheat me out of a freakin’ life, you bastard?” She screamed as the tears continued to flow.
Swinging too low one time, she sliced through her T-shirt and into her left arm. Searing pain shot through her. Dropping the broken lamp, Abby grabbed at the growing trickle of blood.
“Damn,” she hissed, her eyes burning even more.
Quickly, she looked around for something to stop the blood. She spied a pillow by her feet and snatched it up, pressing it on the cut.
The enormity of what she’d done hit her full force. Slumping down to the floor, she clutched the pillow to her arm and began sobbing uncontrollably.
“What the hell am I going to do?” she cried over and over again. It felt as if a torrent of emotion had unleashed itself. Now she alternated between crying and gasping for breath.
She had no idea how long she’d stayed that way, only that she tugged the pillow out of its casing and wrapped the pillowcase around her arm to stem the increasing flow of blood.
Staring at the blood soaked cloth, Abby slowly returned to her senses. Gazing around the room, she blinked away the tears, stunned to realize she’d done so much damage. In flinging the linens around, she’d swept the entire contents off the furniture and the brush, comb, jewelry case, books, and all of Cal’s personal things littered the floor.
With the chaotic scene, calm returned.
“I know what I have to do now,” she whispered softly, steely resolve taking hold.