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By LORRIE THOMSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Lorrie Thomson
All rights reserved.
The first time Laura Klein saved her husband's life, she'd found his side of the bed cold at four a.m. Her throat clenched around the hard-edged understanding he'd gone off his medication again. She stumbled down the stairs in her nightgown, checked the yard, and raced down the street in her station wagon, her bare foot pressed to the accelerator. Half a mile away, she located his Corolla flipped on the side of Forest Road with Jack pinned beneath the dash, his leg broken in three places. After the Jaws of Life cut him from the wreckage, her atheist husband had smiled up at her and, with a wink and a grimace, declared himself born again.
The second time, Laura had followed a serpentine trail of spilled sleeping pills between the house and the toolshed and discovered Jack curled between the lawn mower and snow-blower. She'd shaken him till a mild protest bubbled from his lips, and then, fingers twitching with relief, speed-dialed 911.
The third time Jack had tried to end his life, Laura had found his body.
Laura stood in Jack's writing studio, the printer chugging out a copy of his estate tax returns behind her back. The late winter sunrise streamed through the wavy glass window and fell across the recently purchased futon. For months, the empty space had served as a reminder. Now, with the replacement futon back in its proper spot, she'd thought she could keep herself from rehashing the last moments of Jack's life.
She'd thought wrong.
Laura snapped up the original returns and slipped from the studio into the mudroom that doubled as her home office. From the pocket of her robe, she took the skeleton key and locked the door behind her, wishing it were that easy to confine her memories. She set the papers on her desk and slid her checklist off the bookshelf. If she wrote things down, then she wouldn't need to worry. Not as much.
Friday: Clean house, especially bathrooms, and split firewood. Pick up groceries at Market Basket. Bring Jack's tax returns to the post office.
Serving as executor for Jack's estate had kept Laura busy for more than ten months. She preferred her role as Jack's editorial assistant, even though revising one of his literary novels often took longer than Jack spent writing a first draft.
A first draft would mentally exhaust him, depress him when he should've been celebrating.
Several weeks later, Jack would trumpet his accomplishment and turn the house upside down, searching for the credit cards she'd hidden from him. Despite her best efforts, till the day Jack died, the man acted as though he'd no clue how thin a respectable mid-list author's advances and royalties spread over a year.
"Jack." She stroked her husband's name and touched two fingers to her lips, mimicking the pressure of his soft mouth. Last kiss. "I love you so," he'd said, and she'd glanced over her shoulder. Jack's tall frame had filled their bedroom doorway the last time she'd seen her husband alive.
A thread of nausea tickled her throat, and she swallowed against a rapidly forming knot. She wrestled with her breath and recognized the excessively deep inhalations, a sure sign of hyperventilating. At Jack's funeral, a panicked rumble had moved through the crowd, and her friend Maggie had held a crackling brown lunch bag over Laura's nose and mouth, chanting breathing instructions. If she grayed out today, no one would come to her rescue.
She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing the way Maggie had taught her. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. In and out, in and out. From the next room, the kitchen clock ticked the seconds. Her mind settled. Gradually, her breathing slowed.
Laura sighed, blinked her eyes open, and shoved the checklist onto the bookcase, disturbing the crowded shelf. Elastic-bound papers tumbled head over heels, then slapped the floor at her feet. Laura crouched and gathered up three manuscripts of hers she'd never complete, but couldn't bear to toss. A story of family secrets. A journey of self-discovery. And a tale of losing and finding love. Each manuscript had grown from a facet of her life at the time of its writing. Each manuscript represented a missed opportunity she could never get back. Each manuscript stirred a stomach-plummeting falling-apart sensation of loss she resented. She needed to give herself a break. Her life hadn't exactly been normal. She could barely remember normal.
Maybe six weeks from now, after commemorating the one-year anniversary of Jack's death, she could finally work on a brand-spanking-new creation. Unless she'd ignored inspiration so many times, she'd run out of chances. Over the course of their marriage, whenever she'd carved out a slice of time to focus on writing fiction, Jack would dive into a real-life crisis she couldn't ignore. How could she blame him for his perfect timing? She shook her head, told herself her eyes stung from an allergy to dust, and forced the manuscripts back onto the shelf.
Family always came first.
* * *
Even when Laura climbed the stairs to wake up her kids, she stepped lightly on the brass-anchored Oriental runner, trying to avoid the squeakiest treads. She'd adopted the habit back when Troy and Darcy were toddlers, when her fondest wish was for a few more solitary moments to herself. Now, she would've gladly traded solitude for the squeals and laughter of Jack and the kids roughhousing. Troy would back off after Jack had gently tossed him aside for the third time. But Darcy, dimpled arms and legs wrapped around Jack like a Velcro monkey, would cling to her father long after he'd insisted the game was over.
Music pulsed through Troy's bedroom door, the song too distorted to identify. Between Troy's and Darcy's affinities for loud music, she'd surely go deaf before she reached thirty-six.
Laura pounded on the door, and the music cut out.
Troy flung his door wide, revealing her fully dressed son smirking as if he'd gotten away with something. "Hey!" he said in a voice she wasn't yet accustomed to.
His voice had deepened several octaves over the winter. On an especially cold night, she'd sent a thirteen-year-old boy to bed, and he'd transformed into a thirteen-year-old man by the time he'd bounded down the stairway for breakfast the next morning. As a toddler, he'd shown the same propensity for perfectionism, seamlessly flowing from crawling to running within a twenty-four-hour period. He'd waited to get the details down exactly right before even attempting upright mobility.
She resisted the urge to tousle his hair and rearrange the umber spikes created by his vigorous towel-drying method. He ran his fingers through his hair in response to her stare, lengthening the front peaks. "What's up?"
After Laura mailed the tax forms, there was nothing more she could do for Jack. Beyond the anniversary, no task, however mundane, would connect them. Her hands ached. Her lower lip trembled, and she forced a smile. "Want to come with me to the market after school?"
The half-hour drive would provide Troy with barely enough time for one of his elaborate stories aching for release, folktales with his friends as the heroes and heroines. If she were especially lucky, Troy would distract her with a couple of goofy jokes, too. Today, she would've gladly paid for cable just so she could zone out to Comedy Central, Food Network, HGTV. Anything.
"Basketball," Troy said, and Laura nodded.
Purple-gray half-moons curved beneath Troy's dark lashes, evidence he'd slept in fits and starts last night. Evidence of the sporadic insomnia they all suffered.
If she'd realized Troy was up while she lay awake, she would've comforted him back to sleep with milk, cookies, and a sympathetic ear. "Do you need to talk about Dad?" Directness never worked with Darcy; she required a more subtle approach. But Troy came to her with his problems, actually answered her questions with relevant responses she could trust.
"Nah, I'm good." Troy took a step in her direction, sensitive to her shifting mood. "But I could skip practice."
A son shouldn't have to play the man of the house at such a young age. Not for the first time, Laura marveled she'd become the man of the house. She'd never intended for her children to grow up the way she had. At least they'd known their father. "Never mind, sweetie. I'll ask Darcy."
He burst out laughing, squinting at her through the bright blue of Jack's eyes. She didn't resist tousling his hair this time, simultaneously connecting with her son and the color Jack's hair had held until premature gray set in along with accelerated illness. "You never know. She used to love the market."
Laura kept doing that lately—remembering Darcy as a preschooler, skipping along by her side. Was that her daughter's baseline personality or was the annoyed fifteen-year-old the real deal, what Darcy had been maturing toward all along?
She'd been monitoring Darcy's many mood swings. If her easygoing son exhibited any erratic behavior, she'd monitor him, too. She wouldn't want to frighten her children with her worries about their genetic predisposition to their father's bipolar disorder. Any diagnosis at their young age would most likely contain the phrase "wait and see."
Troy tagged along to his sister's room, right in step with his mother. Laura tapped on the door with her knuckles, creaked it open, and then leaned against the doorframe. Hallway light purled over the threshold and caressed the frosty green-and-blue alternating walls. Mounds of clothes and books rested equidistant from each other along the floorboards. At the foot of Darcy's bed, the face of a mammoth sunflower smiled from the open pages of a Burpee seed catalog. Darcy's fraying dictionary sat at her bedside, pen and notebook serving as bookmarks. As long as Laura didn't tell her daughter reading the dictionary remained one of her favorite pastimes, there was a chance Darcy would continue. "Time to get up."
Darcy grumbled from beneath a pile of blankets.
Troy charged past his mother and hurled himself atop the quilted mound. He synchronized his sister abuse with each spoken syllable, four resolute bounces. "I. Love. You. Darce."
Darcy wrestled from her covers, knocking Troy onto the floor. "Asshole!"
"I was just trying to help." Troy looked so innocent sprawled on the floor, Laura almost believed him.
"Watch your mouth, Darcy." Laura tried not to giggle.
What the heck was wrong with her this morning? A peace offering of food often worked. "Want something special for breakfast?"
Fine wasn't the point. She didn't have to cook yogurt. She wanted to cook for her children. This morning, she needed to cook. "Troy?"
"Not hungry. Heading out early. Walking to school."
No wonder her son was so even-tempered. More exercise might help her daughter. Chasing boys didn't count. Troy jumped up from the floor, flew past Laura, and trampled down the stairway before she could insist on feeding him.
Darcy peered from beneath a mane of wavy auburn bed head, much like what Laura often sported. "Want to come with me to the market after school?" The cab of her Outback provided the ideal environment for distilling information from Darcy, Laura's only glimpse into what might be playing out in the theater of her daughter's life.
Darcy shook her head. "Plans."
"Okay." Darcy always had plans. What had happened to Laura's constant companion, the little girl in the blue velveteen twirl dress, black Mary Janes, and sequin-covered purse who'd studied Laura's every move, longing to be just like her mother? Troy's perpetual motion veered into athletic pursuits, while her daughter had become the social director of the high school this past year.
After the year they'd all endured preceding Jack's death, who could blame her? At least Darcy could now safely invite kids over to the house without checking on her dad's mental status. Amazing how quickly her daughter's friends' nickname for Jack went from Funny Dad to Scary Dad. Jack's off-putting habit of taking over every conversation put Darcy in the impossible position of defending her father as though she were his wife.
Laura fidgeted with her wedding band, imagined the inscription rising through the gold: Forever, Jack.
"Mom, Mom. I need to get dressed." Darcy swung her legs over the side of her bed and glared toward where her mother was standing.
Laura shook her head, trying to clear away the fuzz that sometimes bogged her down, the kind of forgetfulness she'd experienced after the birth of each of her children. "I'd like you home for dinner."
"Dinner's not as much fun as—" Darcy said. When Laura caught her eye, Darcy lowered her gaze, then shook her head. Laura might not always know what Darcy was thinking, but she could tell when an image of Jack stretched across her daughter's mind, exposing the same billboard of loss Laura concealed.
True enough, dinner wasn't the same without Jack's non-stop joking and teasing. His impersonation of Laura chiding him had prevented her from taking herself too seriously and had made her laugh till her jaw ached.
"You miss Daddy," Laura said, and Darcy's eyes misted over for half a second before her expression blanked out. Laura knew better, but she pressed on. Maybe this time Darcy would open up to her. Maybe this time would be different. "Would you like me to take you to the cemetery?"
"What do you mean, why?"
"I mean why bother?" Darcy scraped her forefinger along her thumb, working a hangnail. "It's not like he's there. Not like we're visiting the rest home or something. Going to take dear old Dad out for the day. Take him for a drive around town, bring him to his favorite restaurant. Honest enough for you?"
"Crude's not the same as honest." Laura approached the bed and sat down a good foot away from Darcy, hoping to get closer.
Darcy sprang to standing. "I'm getting dressed now," she said, earning the seven-days-and-counting Laura-diagnosis of moderately oppositional.
Distraction worked wonders.
After Darcy sailed out the door, Laura put on a pot of coffee and took out the ingredients for pancakes, tried focusing on colors and textures. The shiny gold of the yolks, the manila powder of the flour, pools of cool ivory milk reflecting the curve of the toaster.
Elle's Explorer pulled into the driveway, the engine's hum as familiar as her friend's voice.
Laura peeked out the mudroom window. Elle was sitting behind the steering wheel, blowing her nose. She tilted her face toward the vanity mirror and dabbed foundation beneath her eyes.
Memories about Elle's ex-husband, Rick, were the only thoughts that could set off her upbeat friend. She'd replay events, opening her emotional scar tissue along its purple seam, as though she sought pain to keep the relationship going.
Laura returned to her pancake batter, beat the egg yolks, and folded wet ingredients into dry. Years of slogging with Jack through his mood disorder made gentling Elle through garden-variety regret seem like a cakewalk. This problem she could fix.
Elle stumbled into the mudroom and shut the door against a cold blast of late February air. "Howdy!" She stomped week-old snow from her Ugg boots and left them at their reserved spot on the welcome mat. She hung her wool coat next to the ski jackets Darcy and Troy refused to wear unless they were in fact skiing down a slope. "Mind if I stop by?"
Laura approached Elle and hugged her first. Temporary loss of control embarrassed Elle, rendering her uncharacteristically shy.
"Just tell me what you need." Laura smoothed her rumpled morning attire, a jarring contrast to the starched business suits Elle wore daily as proprietress of her in-town antiques and collectibles shop, Yesterday's Dreams. Unlike Elle, no one would notice if Laura stayed in her robe all day, like an unmade bed in a vacant house. "Have you eaten?"
"I don't like eating alone." Elle headed straight for the abandoned pancake batter and stirred with a vengeance.
"Sit." Laura nabbed the spoon from Elle's hand, stopping her mid-stroke.
"Can't you let me take care of you?"
"You have taken care of me plenty." Laura lifted her chin and motioned at the kitchen table.
Excerpted from Equilibrium by LORRIE THOMSON. Copyright © 2013 Lorrie Thomson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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