This story is by Ann Fowler and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Mark’s business trip ends tomorrow, killing my blissful week of solitude. He’d die before admitting our marriage has been stale for years. My friend, Janis, was on her way. Each month, we duke it out over Scrabble. I couldn’t wait to show off the mittens I’d knitted for my soon-to-be born granddaughter, Piper. Hopefully, my little one will love purple as much as her grandmother. A first grandchild has been the final push I’ve needed.
As I set down two tile racks, my phone rang. Janis’s message relayed that she’d be an hour late. Fine, I’ll put on Coltrane and pop the cork on the Bordeaux. As I reclined on the couch, wine in hand to plot my escape, Olivia leapt to my lap. Her purrs soothed like a feline saxophone. For spite, Mark’s phone alert, ‘The William Tell Overture’ interrupted my mood. Believe me, no one would mistake my husband for the Lone Ranger.
I sighed and pressed the button. “Yes?”
“Susan, it’s me.”
Of course it is. “What’s up?”
Mark hesitated. “I’ll be here another two days. Maybe three.”
Thank goodness we weren’t on ‘Zoom’. Gleeful smiles had a way of exposing the truth. I struggled to sound disappointed. “I understand.”
“I hope you’ve been going to the gym. You’re getting pudgy.”
My heartbeat quickened. I wiped my temple. “I’m fine.”
“What mirror are you using?”
To squash my temper, I sipped. “Gotta run. Janis’ll be here any minute.”
Mark strengthened his voice. “If you don’t believe me, ask her. Don’t you women always talk about that?”
“Call me from the airport.”
“If there’s time,” he said.
I hung up.
What was more annoying? My lack of assertiveness or his cluelessness? Our boys had urged me to leave their father once they understood abusive marriages—smart teenagers. Now they’d both begun lives out-of-state. Of course, Mark never considered the reason our sons moved away was because of him. Once Janis poured a second glass, hints about beginning a new life would grow louder.
Olivia jumped on my lap and stirred me from my wine doze. Several hard knocks hit the door. My faithful cat alarm. “Up, she’s here.”
Olivia leapt to the floor and rolled, exposing a white belly. I stepped over four paws and opened the door. “Welcome to the wine and Scrabble pit.”
Janis entered the foyer. Her auburn highlights matched the sparkle in her brown eyes. “Sounds like you’ve finished the bottle without me.”
“No, but there’s plenty.” I pointed. “The board’s out.”
We settled in our seats. I filled both glasses. “Mark called. I get a few more days of alone time.”
Janis grabbed the letter bag. “And his usual charming self, right?” She gave me a sly grin.
I looked away. At my wedding portrait, ironically.
Janis hesitated. “Look at me. Answer my question.”
I spread my arms wide. “Look around. Overall, it’s been a nice gig.” The antique furniture and paintings meant nothing to Janis, but I wasn’t living in squalor, either. “I also retired early.”
“If you’re miserable, who cares?”
I held up my hand like a traffic cop. “Relax. At the airport, I decided it’s time. A pregnant daughter-in-law changed everything.”
“We’ll start packing after Scrabble.” Janis sipped.
“It can wait. He’ll be gone another day or two.”
“Fair enough.” Janis held her glass high. “To a better future!”
“One of us has a crystal ball?”
“If we start celebrating now, maybe you won’t change your mind again.”
“I’m 100% sure this time.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Gleefully, Janis grabbed my arm and sloshed my wine.
I pulled back. “This isn’t cheap Bordeaux. Spilling it’s criminal.” Olivia landed beside the game board and meowed. I stroked her chin. “Wait, I can’t leave her.”
Sitting back, Janis said, “I’ll cat sit until you’re settled. Give me a back door key.”
“And the alarm code.”
“See how easy that was?” Janis gave me a triumphant grin. She pointed at the table. “Score sheet?”
I retrieved a steno pad from the desk drawer and returned to the table. “Now that Olivia’s accounted for, what’s left?”
“Money, clothes—and jewelry,” Janis said. “You’ll be fine.”
A silent nod spoke for me. I’ll never convince Janis that leaving a twenty-eight year marriage wasn’t as easy as she thought. Mark was the father of my beautiful sons, after all. And I’d enjoyed a lifestyle I never would’ve had without him. Child-free and single, Janis hadn’t debated such choices. But both of us knew everything had a price.
Janis shook the letter bag and arranged her tiles. “You went first last time.”
“Whatever.” As Janis fiddled with her possibilities, I refilled our glasses and picked up the letter bag. “My boys will be overjoyed.”
Janis spelled out a word and counted on her fingers. “Twelve.” She looked at me. “No, your boys’ll be shocked.”
I laughed softly. “Actually, that’s Mark. But still, I’m a little scared.” I sipped and scribbled her score. “No one forgets twenty-eight years.”
“No one’s asking you to. I remember my ex’s.” Janis set down new letters. “But a second life is waiting.”
“You’ve made your point.” Janis nodded, but how could I blame her? I could no longer use raising my sons as an excuse. “And Mark’s gone a lot.” Beside me, my phone rang. Since it wasn’t a programmed alert, I’d let voicemail take it.
Janis tilted her head. “Why didn’t you answer that?”
“An unknown ring, and it’s my turn.” I set down my word and totaled my score. I arranged five new tiles on my rack. “No peeking while I listen.”
“I’ll win without cheating.”
I checked the phone number. My region, but spoofers have gotten clever. I listened. Mark’s supervisor, David, asked me to call back. His voice was shaky, almost ghostly. Perhaps he thought I’d be annoyed that Mark’s business trip would last a few more days. After three rings, I greeted him.
“Yes.” Lightheaded, I moistened my lips. “Mark said he’d be gone a few more days. It’s fine.”
After a few moments of silence, David sniffed. His voice cracked. “There’s no easy way to say this.”
I place my hand under my throat. “What?” My breath slowed. Any man who sounded like he wanted to cry unnerved me.
“Half an hour ago, Mark had a heart attack.”
I shifted my weight. “He’s at the hospital? Which one?”
“He didn’t make it,” David’s voice faded, and then cracked. “I want you to know we all loved him.”
I choked back my breath and dropped my phone. Grabbing my stomach, I bent forward. Wanting out of my marriage wasn’t the same as wanting Mark dead.
Janis rushed to my side, her face contorted. “What’s wrong?”
As I composed myself, she touched my shoulder. I hesitated. “Mark. A fatal heart attack.” My voice didn’t sound like mine.
Janis opened her arms. “Dear God.” She embraced me hard. Instead of hearing Mark’s snores or verbal abuse, I heard his robust laughter and Boston accent. I pictured his gap-toothed grin as he held our sons the first time. Yes, he’d been a selfish bastard, but he was my selfish bastard.
Janis stepped back. “I’ll stay tonight.” Her compassionate gaze steadied me. “You shouldn’t be alone—no matter what.”
“You don’t mind?” I wiped my cheeks. No need to admit my tears were for what life with Mark should’ve been, not for what I’d miss. Janis knew.
“Thick and thin, remember?”
Somehow, I managed a slight grin.
Janis supported me as we shuffled to the couch. I held my head in both hands, shaking it. News stories about husbands who’d died in horrible accidents never made me wish Mark were dead—by any means.
Olivia joined us and head butted me. Other than memories and photographs, she was my last connection to my sons as boys—the kitten they’d both selected. “I better call my sons.”
Janis patted her heart.
“After we finish the wine,” I said.
“Your call, hon.” Janis retrieved our glasses and bottle from the table. She poured and we sipped.
As I wondered how they’d react, I recalled the uneven relationship I’d had with my own mother. I’d seen that between my sons and Mark, too. How hard it had been for them and how much I missed her despite the ugliness.
In this living room, as familiar as my childhood home, I recalled my grandmother’s advice:
Be careful what you wish for, honey.
As I sipped, Janis asked, “Anything I can do?”
Slowly, I nodded.
Janis tilted her head, intent on me.
“No new life wishes.”
Janis sat back, an eyebrow raised. “Meaning?”
“After things settle down, this empty house might suit me after all.” Olivia settled on my lap, purring. “Almost empty.”
Nodding, Janis said, “You’ll have time to figure it out.”
I glanced at Mark’s picture and finished my wine. “And Piper’s dad knows exactly where I live.”
Together, glasses raised, we smiled.