Winter Flower, Chapter 6-1. Erin.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers. Click here to read previous chapters.
I stood at the window, one hand resting against the wall, and watched as the school bus carried Sam away. Cole had been at the restaurant for an hour already, and I had yet another endless day ahead of me. Would today be the day? Would I open my laptop, pick a city, look through the ads and discover my daughter? Would the police call and tell me they’d finally found her body? Would the phone ring, and it would be her on the other end?
Brenna’s absence from our lives had left an open wound that refused to heal, a wound that was aggravated every holiday, every milestone, every day we didn’t know what had happened to her. Sometimes I hated myself, because there were days when I almost hoped she were dead. At least then we would know. I’d gone through every possible scenario in my mind, from Brenna living it up somewhere happy, to … well … the worst.
What was the worst? All too real possibilities. Trafficked. Prostitution. Torture. Drugs. My mind could fill in all the possibilities, all the dangers, all the hideous and unimaginable (but not really unimaginable) things.
Maybe today. My eyes dropped to my laptop. The computer sat on the scarred coffee table, waiting for me to begin yet another day … yet another day that would end with me weeping or vomiting or drinking just a little bit too much.
I would search later. Today, I needed to get out of this house.
It’s not that I hadn’t searched for work before. I had. I’d applied for jobs at Fort McClellan, at the General Dynamics plant, at the car dealerships and a hundred doctors’ offices, realtors and accountants. I’d reached out to Jim, Cole’s Dad, to see if he could connect me with someone at Fort McClellan for a job. But so far, I hadn’t had any luck. I needed to get out, stop applying for jobs over the Internet, and start walking into places. If for no other reason than to pull myself a step or two out of this despair before I drank myself to death.
I showered then took extra care putting on makeup and a conservative floral dress. On the way out the door I picked up the leather portfolio which contained copies of my resume. My resume, unfortunately, was sparse. My last full-time job had been with Alliance for Justice, a position I left in 1998, right before Sam was born. I had loved that job. But the economics just didn’t work … the job didn’t pay that well, and Cole’s paid a lot more. When the kids were very young, it just made sense for me to stay home with them, and when they got to be teenagers, somehow I just never went back. I had stayed involved in some things, volunteer work along with involvement at the PTA at the kids’ schools. But that was about it.
Unfortunately, that didn’t cut it for experience in a depressed job market. Eventually something would come, but in the meantime, we were stuck living on Cole’s salary from the restaurant … which wasn’t enough.
I drove to the mall first. Most of the businesses in the mall were just opening up for the day or still had their gates down. On top of that, at least half a dozen of the stores in the mall were vacant. The economy here, like much of the rest of the country, was hurting.
For the next three hours, I systematically went from one store to the next, asking for applications and to talk with managers. For the people I spoke with, it was clear this was routine … a lot of people approached them every day looking for work. I didn’t get any enthusiasm at all, but I did get applications. I carried them out to the car, got in, and left to drive to the nearby Starbucks. The Waffle House was actually closer, but I really didn’t want to see Cole right now.
Maybe it was time for a peace offering. Things had been so difficult between us for so long, I barely knew how to talk to him anymore. I felt like I didn’t even know him half the time. It wasn’t just Brenna’s disappearance or the months he’d spent in jail right after. It wasn’t even the affair, though that, more than anything else, had wrecked our marriage. We were already in bad shape long before he got involved with Teagan Campbell.
I honestly didn’t know if I was ever going to forgive him. We went through a lot of therapy together, and I’d gone to plenty on my own. At least until Cole lost his job and our health insurance lapsed.
Waffle House had health insurance, but it was pretty minimal … and it certainly didn’t cover therapy.
Okay, then. I would try. Instead of turning left, to go down to the Starbucks, I turned right. Two minutes later, I arrived at the brown shoebox-shaped restaurant with its towering yellow sign. I parked in front of the restaurant and sat in my seat for a moment looking in. Cole stood at the grill, wearing a ridiculous paper hat, his hands moving as he cooked an order.
Sometimes I forgot how big of a change he’d struggled through. Yes, I gave up my career. But he lost his against his will. And as much as he hated this job and was exhausted by it, he still got up and went to work every day. I was feeling more charitable toward him right now than I had in a long time. I grabbed my portfolio and headed inside.
The first thing I noticed walking in was that the air-conditioning had been fixed. For the last three weeks it hadn’t been working at all, during the hottest part of the year. Cole’s boss was really awful about taking care of maintenance things, even when he knew it was going to hurt traffic at the restaurant. Cole usually tried to stay loyal to the guy, because he’d given Cole a chance despite the felony conviction. While I agreed with that, gratitude only went so far. No one was going to stay and eat in a restaurant where the temperature was over a hundred degrees, and the sales hit would take a big chunk out of Cole’s paycheck. And to be honest, Cole’s boss hadn’t had a lot of choice in giving Cole a chance—not when their senior vice president was Cole’s best friend. If your boss’s boss called you up and said, “Give this guy a chance,” are you going to say no?
The inside of the restaurant had a vaguely 1970s decor: wood paneling, large globe lights, and orange vinyl seats. It always gave me a headache coming in this place.
Maybe more so today than normal. Cole didn’t see me. He had his back to the front door as he was cooking. Next to him, standing a lot closer than I would like, was one of his waitresses. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties, with long brown hair. Even though the Waffle House uniforms were tacky and shapeless, she’d tied her apron tight to emphasize the curves at her waist and breasts. She was about an inch from my husband, leaning her head back and looking up at him as she talked. The smile on her face was already starting to piss me off.
“Look, Julie, I said no.” Oh, I thought. That was Cole’s annoyed voice. He continued, “It’s a race weekend. Nobody takes off on race weekends. Not you, not me, not our division manager, not our vice president. We’re all working that weekend.”
Especially in that polyester uniform, the girl looked like a bouncy house—which was slowly deflated. I was happy to hear his annoyed tone of voice with her. She was a little too much like Teagan for my taste.
I slid onto a seat at the counter, just as one of the other waitresses called out, “Good morning!”
Simultaneously, Cole and one of the waitresses shouted, “Good morning!”
Well, that was rehearsed. The only one who didn’t say it was the younger waitress who had been pushing her boobs too close to my husband—she flounced off in a huff. I hoped he’d fire her.
Cole completed the order he was working on just as one of the waitresses approached me to lay out silverware. Then he turned around, and there was no mistaking the genuine smile that passed across his face. The smile was followed by a puzzled expression.
“Erin! Hey … I wasn’t expecting you to drop in.”
“Would you prefer I didn’t?”
His face clouded. “No … I’m glad you’re here. We don’t talk to each other enough anymore. What are you up to?”
Are you checking up on me? Was that what he was asking? Who knew. This was possibly the most conversation we’d had in weeks. At least it wasn’t an argument. Yet. I held up my folio. “Job applications. I have some to fill out, and it was here or Starbucks.”
One of the waitresses approached me. I guessed, based on the deep lines around her mouth, that she was in her late sixties. Her hair was dyed a rich auburn. “What can I get you, baby?”
Cole rested his hands on the counter. “Susan, let me introduce my wife. Erin, this is Susan. Everyone calls her Mama… She’s worked here just about forever.”
“Oh, it’s so nice to meet you, baby!” the woman said. “I was beginning to wonder if Cole was making up his family.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Susan. Do people really call you Mama?”
She grinned. “They do. I can’t imagine why. Let me give you that coffee. You take cream, baby?”
That “baby” business was a little off-putting, even though I knew it was perfectly normal around here. I guess I spent too many years in the Washington, DC area instead of the deep South. A moment later Susan came back with a cup of coffee. I declined the offer of food … I just needed to fill out my applications.
I spread them out in front of me, scanning through to see what would be involved. They were pretty simple applications. Of course, these were for hourly retail positions. But at this point I’d do whatever I had to do. I took out a pen and began to fill out the first one. I was halfway through when the door to the back room swung open, and the petite waitress who had been flirting with Cole—there was no doubt in my mind that’s what she was up to—came back out to the front. She checked in with her customers in one of the booths. When she was finished, and she began walking toward the counter, Susan stepped close to her.
“Julie,” Susan said. “This is Erin. Cole’s wife.”
The girl’s eyes darted to me. She gave an insincere smile. Then she spoke, her accent somewhere between southern Alabama and trailer trash. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Cole.”
I did not bother to correct her. Instead, I just gave her the nastiest look I could muster. After the past few years, Cole was no prize … but he was mine, and I wouldn’t stand for another humiliation.
For the longest time, I thought the distance in our marriage happened because of the affair. I couldn’t begin to describe the devastating punch in the gut it was to find out. I was betrayed. Not just hurt, but somehow gutted. Angry with Cole. I was angry with myself too … for being clueless. There had been plenty of signs. Overnight trips where he’d been unexpectedly delayed for an extra six hours or twelve hours or two days. Lots of “dead zones” where his phone didn’t work while on those trips. And those mostly at night. In retrospect, it didn’t take a physics major to figure it out. It was a simple receipt which had forced me to face the truth. I’d picked up his suits at the laundry and the lady behind the counter handed me several small receipts, saying, “I didn’t know if these were important.” They were. A thousand-dollar charm bracelet purchased three months before, finally made it painfully obvious.
No, our distance started earlier than that by several years. I don’t say that to excuse his behavior … there was no excuse for it. What he did was unforgivable, and I still wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to trust him again. But for the sake of the years we’d already had, and for the sake of our children, I made the decision fairly early on that I was going to at least give it a try.
If I had to pin down when the distance between us started, I would pin it on September 11, 2001. Crazy, isn’t it? The idea that a day which traumatized virtually everyone in America also caused a bizarre cleavage in my own marriage. It didn’t start with betrayal or lies or selfishness or money or any of the things that often trip up couples. We had plenty of money, and that was never something that was a problem between us.
What became a problem between us was politics.
Crazy, right? Who wrecks their marriage over politics? One of the reasons we’d been attracted to each other in the first place was our differences there. He was conservative; I was liberal. He voted for Bob Dole and George Bush; I voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And that was fine. Occasionally we’d argue … there were genuine philosophical differences there, especially when it came to social services and things like that. But they were arguments between equals; they were respectful disagreements.
But things changed after September 11.
It was the week of Brenna’s fifth birthday. Sam was only three. We hadn’t yet bought the mausoleum, and I was at the park with Sam. Sam and a little girl named Megan were playing house underneath the climbing structure at the playground. I was sitting with Lily, the little girl’s nanny. Lily was twenty-five and in graduate school. I was twenty-seven and sometimes felt like I was doing nothing at all, even as I struggled, stressed out with the kids.
I always felt like the loser in the social wars in Washington. The women I met were always on temporary maternity leave from their six-figure jobs, or in graduate school, or working on Capitol Hill, or some other achievement, and there was a constant air of subtle one-upmanship taking place on the playgrounds near DC.
My best friend and roommate from college, Angela, left Alliance for Justice before I did—not for a pregnancy, but to become senior aide to Congressman Ted Strickland. Angela always knew she was going somewhere. Valedictorian of her class—she was from Woodville, Ohio, a small town in Sandusky County, facts I knew because she relayed them to me within five minutes of our meeting on our first day at Georgetown. “Population two thousand. We export limestone, Republicans, and alcoholics,” she would quip when asked about her hometown. Angela was taller than me, almost five feet ten, which often seemed to intimidate guys when we were out clubbing, especially if she wore heels. She usually wore her light brown hair tied in the back and kept her glasses on all the time. By the time September 11 rolled around, she was a full-time foreign policy wonk and was working on her PhD.
When I told people I was a stay-at-home mother, the men gave me curious looks—sometimes envious of Cole, I think—and the women looked contemptuous. But that was a decision we’d made together, because we both felt that someone should be home with the kids instead of putting them into daycare.
Besides, with what I made at the Alliance for Justice? Day care cost more than my salary anyway.
All the same, I missed the job.
The morning of September 11, I’d been at the playground for about thirty minutes. Brenna was in school, her third week of kindergarten. Cole was in New York City for a meeting. I didn’t know it at the time, but his meeting was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I knew he was in that part of town, so I was understandably panicked when Lily’s cell phone started to ring with text messages, and she looked up after reading one and said, “Oh my God, isn’t your husband in New York? Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
It took me several seconds to process the terrible words she had said. The panic paralyzed me, squeezing my throat shut and blacking my vision. Then I reached for my own phone, a brand new Nokia which Cole had bought me two weeks earlier.
It didn’t ring. Just silence for a moment, then the message: all circuits are busy.
I had stood up, marched over to Sam and snatched him up. “Time to go, Sam.”
Sam waved his little arms and legs, and wailed, “No wanna go! Mama! No wanna go!”
I just ignored him, carrying him on my hip as he wailed.
I got in the car and dialed the radio to WTOP, the all-news station. I was halfway home when they announced that a second plane had hit the South Tower. Sam was still crying in the back seat. I still couldn’t get through on the phone, and I started crying too. I turned the car around and drove through snarled traffic to Brenna’s school. It felt like the world was ending. I parked at the school at nine thirty in the morning and went in to check Brenna out.
By the time I got back to the car with both kids, a plane had hit the Pentagon.
I still didn’t know what had happened to Cole. I waited at home watching the news, unable to tear myself away, calling him every few minutes. It was well after one in the afternoon before he finally got a text message through to me.
Am alive and unhurt. Can’t call out. I’ll try to reach you when I get back to the hotel.
Even though our kids were still very young then, I mark that day as the beginning of the end of our marriage. September 11 seemed to refine and crystalize people in our country when it came to political issues. Lukewarm positions became hardened, and attitudes which were below the surface came out in a rage.
For a few days or even weeks, it seemed like most of America was united. The night of the attacks, I took Sam and Brenna in town to meet up with Angela. The moment I saw each her, I fell into her arms, crying. With thousands of other people, we held a candlelit vigil. I remember seeing the huge clouds of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and the armed soldiers with machine guns parked conspicuously at street corners throughout the city. Every once in a while we could hear the screech of fighter jets flying combat air patrol over the city.
That unity did not last. Rumors that the administration wanted to invade Iraq began to circulate in Washington. By September 2002, one year after the attacks, it was clear that that was the direction. And that was when Cole and I had our first huge political fight. Angela left Representative Strickland’s office to work for a large coalition of anti-war organizations being put together by Andrew Thomas, a former US Congressman from Maine. Thomas had hired Angela, who called me and asked if I wanted to come to work with them as deputy policy director.
I was thrilled. By that time Brenna was in the first grade, and it wasn’t too late to register Sam for pre-K. Cole had just gotten another big promotion. He was now the director of IT. Which had pushed his salary well into the six figures for the first time. That night I sat down with him and told him about the job.
At first, it seemed like he was going to be supportive. I told him about the offer and said that Angela had contacted me about it. He smiled and looked happy for me, and said, “I bet you’ll be happy to go back to work. Don’t think I don’t know how much you’ve sacrificed for the kids, Erin. So what will you be doing?”
His comment about appreciating my sacrifice felt good. And that’s why what happened next was such a slap in the face.
“I’d be working as an organizer for an organization called MoveOn. They’re an activist organization … coordinating the Win Without War coalition.”
He looked puzzled. “The what coalition?”
“It’s a coalition of organizations that are trying to prevent an invasion of Iraq.”
His face twisted into a disgusted expression. “What the hell for? We need to take out that bastard!”
“Cole, you’re talking about going to war against a country with no provocation.”
His expression and tone of voice were near contemptuous. “Are you fucking kidding me? September 11 wasn’t enough provocation for you? Don’t you know how close I came to dying that day?”
I closed my eyes and took a breath. Of course I knew. Of course I did.
I needed to remember that my husband had been traumatized by the events that day, just like millions of other people.
Quietly, I said, “Cole … Iraq had nothing to do with September 11.”
“And you know this because—why? You’ve got better intelligence sources than the CIA? Are your own inspectors more effective than the United Nations?”
His sarcasm made me wince. I never liked fighting with Cole, because fights invariably led to him talking that way. Yet another thing Dr. Lee later stressed in our therapy was learning how to fight fair. Back then, neither of us had a clue about that. Cole’s primary weapon was sarcasm—and sometimes an intimidating rage. Mine was manipulation. We were quite the pair.
“Cole, in case you’ve forgotten, I follow international news a hell of a lot closer than you do. And it’s not just me saying it … it’s basically every expert in the field. Hon, the president wants to go to war there. And they’re making up excuses to do it.”
In a biting tone, he said, “Yeah, Erin. You never let me forget that you’ve got that Georgetown degree and I’ve just got a high school diploma. You’re always better informed than me about this kind of thing. But I’ll tell you what … this is bullshit. I know enough to know that it was Muslim terrorists who attacked our country and killed a ton of people, including some of my friends. I know enough to know that my dad was a Marine. You’re not going to work for some left-wing traitors.”
“I don’t have to ask your permission, Cole. Don’t act like your father.This is the twenty-first century.”
Looking back, I wonder if it would have been better for me to just stick to my guns. If I’d gone to work for Win Without War, and let the chips fall where they may. We’d have fought like hell. I don’t even know if our marriage would have survived it.
I didn’t do that. Instead, I gave in. I didn’t take the job.
Instead, I became resentful.
In some ways, our own little war was taking place, but it was taking place underground, not that different from the way I had seen Cole’s parents behave. And I hated it that we looked and acted like them sometimes. Because his mother was a shrew, a manipulative bitch, and his father was a nightmare right out of Jim Crow. I didn’t want to be like them.
The argument never really ended. Angela continued to work for Win Without War, and of course I talked about her—she was my best friend and had been since college. We had lunch once a week, went out for drinks in the evening a couple of times a month, and I talked about everything with her.
Cole hated her. Angela returned the favor. Even Lori joined in on the Cole-hating act … she never really stopped, which sometimes made me feel even more isolated, because when I needed someone to talk to about problems with my husband, I needed someone who wasn’t pushing their own agenda, who could just listen and nod and not try to push me to do whatever it was they saw would fix it.
Then, in 2006, Cole got another promotion, to vice president. On the one hand it was great—his base pay had more than tripled; he was bringing home almost four hundred-thousand a year, with stock options on top of that. On almost every level it seemed like we were successful, especially after we bought that massive house.
I hatedthat house.
Not when we bought it. Not that early. In fact, I was the one who picked it out. Cole gave me a price range and then went off to travel to San Francisco or San Juan or Oklahoma City or I don’t know where else. That year it seemed like he was traveling all the time. When I first saw the house, I loved it. It was ridiculously large, with a whole entertainment suite and guest bedrooms, with more bathrooms in it than we had people. But the view out the back window was stunning, and it was in the district for the best school in what was already the best school system in the state. The house was so big you could get lost in it for days. I didn’t know where my children were half the time. From my bedroom I couldn’t even hear the front door open and close, and not long after we moved in, that started to bring on anxiety. With Cole gone all the time, I finally insisted on installing an alarm system.
We fought. Sometimes they were cold and quiet fights. Sometimes our fights were waged across the battlefield of our bed, when I would refuse to have sex with him because he refused to give in on something that mattered to me. After a while, we just sort of stopped. We stopped having sex … we stopped touching one another.
We stopped loving each other.
It was only after all of that happened that he met Teagan.
Teagan Campbell was a new technology sales associate at Cole’s company. I had no idea what that job entailed, other than selling things, looking pretty, and working closely with the IT department. The first time I met her was at the company Christmas party in December 2010. Cole and I were standing near the bar, waiting for our drinks to be mixed, when I heard him say, “Oh, Teagan. Let me introduce my wife. Erin, this is Teagan Campbell, one of the new technology sales associates.”
As he finished his sentence, the bartender signaled that our drinks were ready and Cole turned away for a second. “It’s nice to meet you,” I said while I assessed her.
She was petite, maybe five feet two. She wore a red silk blouse with matching lipstick, and a green skirt that was inappropriately short for any kind of business function. The skirt revealed long shapely legs, propped up by three-inch heels. She had brown eyes and dark brown hair, and a too-large nose. Her clothes looked a size too small, showing off a waist that demonstrated half-starvation underneath augmented breasts. At first glance, I thought she was twenty years old and an intern.
From the second I saw her, I didn’t like the way she looked at my husband.
She began to blather on. “It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Roberts. Cole talks a lot about you.”
That’s funny. He’s never said a word about you.
“Is that so? Have you worked here very long?”
She shook her head. “Just a few weeks.”
Colt handed me my drink, and I decided to cut this short. “Well, it was nice to meet you. Look, Cole, it’s Joe. I haven’t seen him in a long time, let’s go talk to him.”
I didn’t wait for an answer, just started walking.
Cole caught up with me a second later, slipping at hand under my arm, and saying in a conversational tone, “That was a little abrupt, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, Cole. Her clothes were so tight I was afraid they might bust open, and I didn’t want to be standing there when that happened.”
He chuckled. “It isa bit much.”
“A bit much is the opposite of what I’d say. How come you never mentioned her?”
“Because I knew you’d be weird about it. Besides, other than a few meetings now and then, we don’t really have much to do with each other. Nothing to tell.”
Nothing to tell. Asshole.
The thought of Teagan made me look up from my job applications. Cole was back at the grill cooking. Susan was at the far end of the restaurant taking someone’s order. The short waitress—Julie—was missing again. Probably primping in the mirror in the back.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t know anything about that girl.
All I knew was that it was Cole who hadn’t been honest with me. It was Cole I still couldn’t forgive. And maybe wouldn’t ever.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.