Read an ExcerptNothing But Trouble
By Bettye Griffin DAFINA BOOKS
Copyright © 2007 Bettye Griffin
All right reserved.
Chapter One When Dana awoke that fateful summer day in mid-June, it seemed like just another Saturday. The glittering sunlight and blue skies held no clues that, after today, her life would never be the same.
It was a busier weekend than most because of Father's Day on Sunday. She and Kenny were holding their annual cookout and swim party. Dana always made a big fuss for Father's Day. She and Kenny had one child, a daughter they named Brittany. They had wanted more children, but after suffering a harrowing miscarriage, she had been lucky to have Brittany the following year. She never did get pregnant again.
Dana had another reason for making a big fuss for Father's Day. Circumstances had robbed her of her own father at age seventeen. For years afterward she hated the third Sunday in June. Then when Brittany was born, everything changed, and now it was her favorite holiday-even more so than Christmas, which she regarded as a lot of work.
Dana checked her watch nervously. She had barely left Brittany and her friend Vanessa, but this was the first time she had allowed Brittany to shop in the mall unescorted by an adult. Brittany's request to shop for Kenny's Father's Day gift with Vanessa horrified her. Everyone knew malls ranked second only to schools as favorite haunts for predators. Brittany pointed out that she was almost twelve, and Dana knew the timehad come to loosen the strings just a bit. Before the girls even got out of the car, she instructed them to stick together and not talk to any strangers, and to keep their tiny shoulder bags draped diagonally across their torsos and zipped up at all times. She watched with a bit of sadness as her daughter and her friend headed off to the food court, where they would have lunch before heading for the men's accessories department at JCPenney.
Dana walked with quick steps toward Ruby Tuesday, where she would meet her own friends, Norell and Cécile, for lunch. She had left her cell phone with Brittany and had keyed in Norell's cell number in case Brittany needed an adult.
She didn't expect to see the habitually late Cécile waiting, but Dana spotted Norell outside the restaurant, smoking a cigarette. She was easy to spot: taller than average, with hair that fell past her shoulders in an appealing honey blond, courtesy of a skilled colorist.
Norell Bellamy looked better than ever. Thirty-six years old and six months into her first marriage, she was one of those fortunate women who could eat anything she wanted, as much as she wanted, without gaining weight. On the other hand, their mutual friend Cécile, who was only thirty-three, had married Michael Rivers on Valentine's Day, just four months ago, and already showed signs of weight gain.
"Don't you know those things will kill you?" Dana said good-naturedly as she approached her friend.
Norell blew out a cloud of smoke. "Gotta die of something," she said philosophically.
Dana looked at the Dillard's shopping bag between Norell's knees. "I see you've done some shopping."
"I picked up some new lingerie. Vic wanted to wait six months before trying, and it's been six months."
Dana smiled. "I guess I know what you'll be doing tonight."
"Oh, Dana, I can't wait to have my baby. You and Cécile are lucky to have had your kids young. They'll be finished with college and out of the house, and y'all will still be in your forties. If I have a baby next year, I'll be almost sixty by the time it graduates from college. And Vic! He'll probably be dead."
"I'm just trying to be realistic. He's forty-nine now. All right, maybe he won't be dead, but he'll be in his seventies. No wonder he's not too thrilled about starting over."
"He isn't? You didn't tell me that."
"I shouldn't say he's not thrilled; that's not really true," Norell clarified. "He just wanted us to wait a bit."
Dana suspected Norell was holding back something, but she dismissed it as none of her business. As the oldest of the three and the one with the most serene life, for years she had been unofficial den mother to both Norell and Cécile. She listened to their problems and offered advice, but it was only natural for their new husbands to step into the role of best friend and confidant.
It delighted her that both her best friends had settled down. The party tomorrow would be their first summer get-together with their families. Cécile had three daughters from her first marriage, and her husband Michael brought two sons and a daughter to their blended family. Norell didn't yet have children of her own, but was stepmother to Vic's two teenage daughters. All of them were coming over. She expected it to be the first of many such family events. Norell and Cécile were like sisters to her.
Dana had lost her own sister, Gail, over twenty years ago, when, on a rain-slicked road, their car slid into the path of an oncoming vehicle, killing both Gail and their mother. In one of those unexplainable twists of fate, Dana emerged from the backseat with only a few cuts and bruises and a sprained knee.
"Look, here's Cécile," Norell said.
Dana waved at her approaching friend. Cécile wore a paisley print sleeveless dress that nicely hid the additional poundage she carried on her five-foot-three-inch frame. "I hope you guys weren't waiting too long," she said after they exchanged greetings.
"Nah. I just had a cigarette so I wouldn't be stricken by nicotine withdrawal," Norell said with a smile.
They entered the restaurant and placed their orders. When the waiter placed a large burger platter in front of Cécile, Dana, who'd ordered a salad with roast chicken strips, put her hand on her heart and feigned shock. "Ooh, the calories, but it smells delicious, especially those onion rings."
"Have one," Cécile offered. "I know I've got no business eating like this. I can't believe how much weight I've gained. This is going to be my last fried food for the week."
"A new week starts tomorrow, Cécile," Norell pointed out with an amused smile.
"I mean until next Friday. I'm doing portion control, too."
"So, how was the soccer game?" Dana asked.
Cécile immediately launched into a description of her stepson's goals and passes. Dana thought it commendable how her friend had so easily slipped into the mother role for her stepchildren, whose own mother had died in a car crash with a man she was rumored to be having an affair with. But Cécile's devotion bordered on the obsessive; she talked about her extended family to the point of being loquacious. Dana found it tiresome, but for Norell, who so desperately wanted to be a mother herself, it had to be torturous.
Dana nodded at appropriate intervals while Cécile droned on and on, relaxing when she finally wound down. But then Cécile began to volunteer information about how each of her other family members would be spending the day. Dana felt Norell's foot nudge her shin as Cécile rattled on and on, pausing only momentarily to take another bite of her burger. Dana and Norell exchanged glances, Dana biting gently on her lower lip to keep from laughing when Norell held up a hand where only Dana could see it and moved her fingers to simulate an ever-moving mouth.
"So how's work?" Dana asked as Cécile dipped a handful of French fries in ketchup and popped them into her mouth.
"Oh, it's all right. Same old stuff that breaks your heart. Drug addicts old enough to be collecting Social Security, forty-year-olds dying of cancer, children with genetic disorders-"
"That's why I volunteered to do clinic work," Norell said. "I didn't want all that depressing stuff. But even with that, sometimes I think I'm turning into a typical bored suburban housewife, with nothing to do but buy clothes, putter in the garden, and go to the hairdresser or the spa. I've been seriously thinking about going back to the office just to give me interaction with people."
Dana made a face. "I love working at home. I'd never want to go back to the office. Not that it's an option, since I've got my own clients now."
"I think you're lucky, Norell," Cécile added.
"And with six kids, I can only dream of having that much free time."
"I'm starting to feel isolated," Norell explained. "So much of my day is solitary. You two don't have that problem. Besides, Kenny and Michael get home a lot earlier than Vic does."
"I think you should try to hold off a bit, Norell," Dana suggested. "Trust me, once that baby comes you won't have to worry about not having enough to do."
"Baby?" Cécile's mouth dropped open. "Norell, are you-"
"Not yet. But we're going to start trying."
Cécile nodded, then resumed eating. She amazed Dana by not only cleaning her plate and draining her malt glass, but also ordering apple pie à la mode for dessert and devouring that as well. She even picked up a piece of fallen golden brown piecrust from her plate. Dana half expected her to pick up the plate and lick the trails of melted ice cream.
"Tell me, Cécile, are you going to go home and eat dinner after such a humongous lunch?" Norell asked.
Dana was wondering the same thing. She didn't ask because she couldn't think of a way to phrase it tactfully. She wasn't as bold as Norell.
"Of course not. This is my last meal until breakfast tomorrow. I'm not even cooking tonight. Michael's going to order pizza. I'll probably log on and do some work, make a few bucks. We could always use it for the house."
"You guys going to take the big remodeling plunge?" Norell asked.
"As soon as things get a little quiet."
"Oh." The one syllable dripped with doubt, but Dana knew exactly how Norell felt. With six active children ranging from three to thirteen, the Rivers household would always have a certain degree of chaos. Perhaps Michael wanted to make sure their blending of families would be a lasting one before undertaking the expense of adding on. They'd only been married four months, but from the beginning Cécile kept saying they planned to enlarge the house, and it sounded less convincing each time. Dana wished she would just stop talking about it.
"I guess you're like the old woman who lived in a shoe," Norell remarked.
"I'm sure my shoe, as you call it, will soon be made into a boot," Cécile said testily.
Dana held her breath, waiting for Norell to make an equally salty reply. This had happened before. Their friendship dated back eight years, meeting as coworkers at the Precise Transcription Service. One by one, they left the office, Norell and Cécile to participate in the work-from-home program, and Dana to launch her own service. They met regularly for lunch, but with all the friction between Norell and Cécile lately, these outings weren't as much fun as they used to be. Dana knew Norell was more than a little jealous of Cécile's status as a mother, and Cécile knew it, too.
The silence that followed threatened to become awkward until Norell spoke. "What time did you want us to come over tomorrow, Dana?"
"Oh, about three should be good."
"You need help with anything?" Cécile offered.
"No, thanks. Kenny and I are going to the store tonight while Brittany spends the night at Vanessa's." Dana signaled for their checks. She didn't regret the end of their lunch. When Norell and Cécile had these little flare-ups it made her feel like peanut butter, stuck to jelly on one side and to bread on the other. She wished Norell wouldn't bait Cécile like she did.
It pleased Dana to find Brittany and Vanessa sitting on a bench outside the restaurant waiting for her. She hugged her friends good-bye. Norell went off in a cloud of Chanel, while Cécile left behind the unmistakable scent of onion rings.
After dropping off the girls at Vanessa's, Dana headed home. She frowned as she tasted the onions that still lingered on her breath. They had tasted fine in her salad at lunch, but now that her meal was over, she didn't like the aftertaste. She never carried mints, but as soon as she got home she'd rinse with mouthwash.
As she drove, Dana wondered how her father would be spending Father's Day. She hadn't done anything to mark the day for him, not even gotten him a card. All the ones she'd seen were so syrupy, full of loving Helen Steiner Rice emotions she didn't feel. In the end she always settled for an awkward minute-long phone call, and would undoubtedly do the same tomorrow. She had good reason for her hostility, but perhaps she should try harder. He was getting old, and he was the only survivor of the family she'd been born into. In her heart she knew she'd carry guilt with her the rest of her life if anything happened to him with them still on the outs.
"Hi!" Dana called out as she entered her home. She knew Kenny was home; his Eclipse was in the driveway.
He didn't answer. She stopped in the hall bath and splashed her mouth with mint-flavored mouthwash, then went upstairs to their bedroom. Kenny often took naps on Saturday afternoons.
She half expected to see him stretched out across their bed, but he wasn't there, so she went back downstairs. It was hot out; perhaps he'd gone for a quick swim. She could change and join him. They had the whole house to themselves, now that Brittany was gone until tomorrow. Maybe they'd even go skinny-dipping if they stayed up late enough ... and their neighbors retired early.
She stood at the glass door and looked outside. He wasn't on the patio, nor was he in the pool. Could he be tinkering around in the garage? Since it was detached, that would explain why he hadn't heard her calling out to him.
The two-story garage-a vacant bedroom with an adjoining bath occupied its second floor-sat just a few yards to the right of the patio. They always parked in the driveway, preferring to use the climate-controlled garage as a combined storage and exercise room. Kenny had even installed a television and hooked up cable so they could watch as they lifted weights or walked on the treadmill.
The knob of the side door turned easily under Dana's palm. She immediately heard the television and sighed with relief. It had been a trifle spooky, calling out and looking for Kenny with no response. He lay on his exercise bench, lifting weights.
"There you are. Didn't you hear me-" She broke off as she realized something was wrong. The barbell had teetered to one side, one end of it lying across his throat at an angle that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to breathe. She moved closer and noticed the limp way his arms were hanging and the ashen gray of his face and neck. Her hand flew to her mouth, and a strangled cry rose in her throat.
"Kenny!" She ran to him and lifted the barbell off, using both hands, breathing hard with the effort. There was a tube-shaped indentation at the base of his neck, and no sign of breathing. His face had lost its color, looking eerily like an actor with too-light foundation. "Kenny," she whispered, her voice breaking as she felt frantically for a pulse and felt nothing.
She ran into the house, grabbed the phone, and dialed 911. "Please send someone right away! I think my husband's ... Oh God, I think he's dead!"
Chapter Two Eight Months Later
Dana rushed into the offices of Drs. McCormick and Hausmann, psychiatrists, three minutes before their office closed at six P.M. She was later than usual in delivering their dictated patient notes, but as long as she got there before they went home for the day, technically no one could accuse her of being tardy. She did have a good excuse; a quick oil change and tire rotation this morning had turned into a complete brake job.
Still, she apologized profusely to the office manager. This was her favorite client, and she definitely didn't want to tick them off. They tended to use the same wording in their assessments, and since they had so many repeat patients, all she had to do was cut and paste older dictations into new ones and edit them as she listened. She found it sad that so many people with mental-health problems didn't seem to be getting any better, but it also represented an easy way for her to make money in a situation where she desperately needed it.
She'd been up since 5:00 A.M., and with the exception of a forty-minute catnap, had been in motion all day. Her largest client, a family practice, had just added a new doctor, their third. The physicians and the nurse practitioner each saw up to fifteen patients a day, and between her two clients she had almost more work than she could handle. In spite of this, she now contracted additional work from another local service. And since her checking account balance got lower and lower each month, it still wasn't enough. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Nothing But Trouble by Bettye Griffin
Copyright © 2007 by Bettye Griffin. Excerpted by permission.
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