The old grandfather clock I’d bought at one of way-too-many estate sales in Fairfax County chimed twelve times at midnight. The clock was priceless. Dark polished mahogany. Nineteenth century. Incredible craftsmanship. The surface of the clock was highly polished—you could see your reflection in it. You could apply your makeup in the reflection, or shave, or get a good look at all of your shortcomings and faults. The only reason I still owned it was because we couldn’t find a buyer for such a priceless item. Although, undoubtedly when it got desperate enough (it already was) we’d unload that too, for far less than it was worth.
I’d been sitting cross-legged on the couch, my eyes staring in the general direction of the pendulum as it swung lazily back and forth, back and forth. In my lap was a photo album. Photos of me and Cole and Brenna (and later Sam).
I shouldn’t have taken the album out. It was a window to another time, a happier, wonderful time in our lives. The first few pages were mostly baby pictures. We were so young. Brenna was born in 1996, just eighteen months after I graduated from Georgetown. Cole had dropped out of college, opting instead to go to work as a system administrator for a small startup, and we were renting a little two-bedroom in Tyson’s Corner.
It was a little ironic. I had a bachelor’s degree in economics, but the law of supply and demand meant that my high-school-graduate husband—who happened to have computer skills—made more money than me. So with the kids, I quit my job to stay home. For years I was resentful about that. But now, I was grateful.
Grateful, because I got that time at home with Brenna before she disappeared.
I swallowed the last of my wine and set the album to the side. It was an inexpensive wine, Autumn Blush, from the Bryant winery in Talladega. Undoubtedly, they made moonshine there after hours for the NASCAR crowd, who camped out for days waiting for the races while they played their scratch-off tickets and drank Budweiser.
There was a thought worthy of Cole. I knew better than to stereotype people.
Midnight was past. Brenna’s birthday was over. I slid off the bed and stood a little unsteadily. I’d finished off most of the bottle.
Not exactly the first time, now, was it?
I opened the flimsy bedroom door and padded on the crappy carpet down the crappy hall and knocked on the equally crappy door halfway down the hall, then reached down to the handle. Locked again. I could probably push the hollow door open with little effort, but why bother?
“Sam?” I asked.
“Mom, I’m trying to sleep.”
I rolled my eyes. I was sure Sam was still on the computer, but I didn’t have the energy to deal with it right now. I stumbled through the living room and into the kitchen and dumped my wine glass in the sink, which was piled with dirty dishes. I should do something about that,I thought.
Instead, I shrugged, then looked up at the clock. Where was my husband?
Not like I haven’t asked that before.
I shook my head, then picked my phone off the counter to dial it. But I didn’t finish, because that was when he walked in.
Cole looked exhausted. Black polyester pants—polyester because they didn’t stain with bleach. Not exactly a concern back when he was CIO. Before he fucked everything up. Black leather shoes. A blue, mostly polyester shirt, stained with bacon grease. His glasses were a little bit crooked on his face, and new lines ran down the sides of his mouth. I studied him a second. His hair was turning grey at the temples. We were both too young for that.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked.
He shrugged and shook his head. “Work. I told you I had to work a double. Stupid problems.” His eyes slid over the piled-up sink and cluttered counters, and looked away. He didn’t say anything about it. “I need to get some sleep,” he said.
He started to turn away again, and I said, “Cole?”
He stiffened then turned back. “Yeah?”
“It’s her birthday,” I said.
I swear to God I wasn’t going to say anything. I wasn’t going to mention it. I wasn’t going to do this.
His face clouded, and he looked to the floor. “I know,” he said in a rasping voice. “Eighteen.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. It was too much to think he’d come over and hug me. And I didn’t know how to approach him. Not anymore. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to.
“Do you think she’s still alive?” I asked.
“Of course she is,” he replied. His tone had an edge in it. “Don’t ever say otherwise. She’s out there somewhere.”
I swallowed. “Then why doesn’t she call?”
“I don’t know.”
Bitterly, I asked, “Do you care?”
His eyes widened slightly as he recoiled from me. “How can you ask that?”
“Because I don’t know, Cole. You never talk to me.”
“I never do anything but work and sleep,” he replied.
Poor him. It was the same thing I heard from him constantly, and it was true. He certainly didn’t do anything around the house, or with our remaining child. On the rare occasions he was awake, he was planted in front of the television with a beer.
“Is that supposed to be my fault?” I asked.
He leaned against the wall. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “Although it wouldn’t hurt if you got a fucking job.”
“I’ve tried,” I said. I was defensive, and I hated that. “I’ve tried the Army base, and the General Dynamics plant, and the fucking school system. I’ve tried at the department stores, and at the mall. You saw me this morning. All I hear is, I’ve got no experience.”
“You gotta start somewhere,” he said. “You could always wait tables. In case you hadn’t noticed it, Erin, we’re pretty goddamned broke, and all you do is sit around here and drink all day. You should start buying that shit in the box. At least then it’s a little cheaper.”
I wanted to hit him. I wanted to smash his smug face in. But then I heard it. A high-pitched, sad voice coming from down the hall. “Please stop arguing. I’m trying to sleep.”
I closed my eyes and sighed.
Brenna had once asked us to stop fighting.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. His voice sounded dejected. “I’ve got to be back at the restaurant at six thirty.”
He turned and walked down the hall, his shoulders slumped. I didn’t follow. I watched him walk down the hall and wondered how I’d ended up here, in the middle of nowhere in the Bible Belt, married to a defeated man.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.