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Kate left the car parked in front of the house and went up the front steps. A piece of pink paper tacked to one side of the door fluttered in the afternoon breeze. She didn't bother looking at it, but simply snatched it from its tiny anchor. In one fluid motion she had crumpled the flier, stuffed it in her handbag, put the key in the lock, and let herself in.
The house was so quiet she could actually hear the blood rushing through the veins in her head. As she got closer to the kitchen, another sound, more familiar and possibly more annoying, reached her ears. The faucet was dripping again. Dropping her purse on the table, Kate reached for the economy-sized bottle of aspirin she kept on a lazy Susan and shook out three tablets. She stared at the white pills in her palm, shrugged, and took one more from the bottle. The cupboard she kept the glasses in was empty. The dishwasher was full, and needed running.
Kate picked up a mug that had held coffee two days ago and made a face. Finally, out of desperation, she opened another cabinet and took out a glass measuring cup. Filling it with water from the tap, she swallowed the tablets, and then watched as the interval between drips grew shorter.
"Oh, I really need this," she said to herself, flinging open a drawer and pulling out a pair of pliers. She tightened down the faucet handle and the drops of water came to a stop. Satisfied with her handiwork, she tossed the pliers back in the drawer and went into the den. She found a Fred Astaire movie on television and curled up on the sofa.
The breeze blowing in from the open window had turned chilly and it woke her. The stiffnessin her back brought an involuntary groan, a sound she never remembered making when she was younger. Like gray hairs and laugh lines that suddenly appeared in her mid-thirties, so these new noises came, too.
The telephone that sat on the end table jangled. It was an old rotary phone from the forties, and she always swore she could see it wiggle and dance as the bell rang. Her cartoon phone. When she picked up, there was no one on the other end. This was a regular occurrence. The C & P Telephone Company, which stood for Chesapeake and Potomac but which most residents called Cheapskate and Poky, also seemed to date back to the forties. Kate hung up and waited for it to ring again. And it did.
"Kate? It's Mike. Didn't you see my note?"
"What note?" She could tell by the silence that Mike had closed his eyes in annoyance, and she said, "I heard that."
"I left a note by your front door."
"Where?" She continued to bait him.
"On a pushpin right next to the door. It was on a pink flyer for the SPCA Thrift Shop."
"I guess I didn't realize it was something important. What did it say?"
He picked up her mood. His voice, a well-moderated blend of East Coast inflection with just a touch of Virginia gentleman, took on a slight Irish lilt. Kate called it his leprechaun voice. "They're havin' their annual half-off sale this weekend."
"What are you talking about?"
She didn't seem to be amused. He must have misjudged her. "Never mind. The gist of the note is that Homer is over here visiting me."
She sighed. "I thought it was a little too quiet."
"He got through that hole in the fence again. I can fix it for you, if you want." There was no reply. "Or not. Do you want me to bring him over?"
"If you must."
"I'm afraid I must. Are you decent?"
She smiled at that. It was a very old joke between them. "Never. Come on over."
Kate was still sitting on the couch when the front door opened four minutes later. She heard Homer's toenails scrabble across the hardwood floor of the entry hall as he raced to the kitchen, and his food bowl. He never understood why it wasn't perpetually full.
Mike's voice reached her. "Kate? Where are you?"
"Just follow the sound of my voice."
"My, we're in a good mood," Mike said, entering the den. He took in her rumpled shirt and puffy eyes. Her dark auburn hair, which usually hung in gleaming waves to her shoulders, had been pulled back in a barrette that now stuck out at an angle. Wisps of hair had escaped and formed odd cowlicks. "And you got all dolled up just for me. You really shouldn't have."
"Nice to see you, too." As she spoke the words, her hands went to the barrette and removed it. She ran her fingers through her hair. "I was taking a nap."
Mike leaned against the built-in bookcase and folded his arms across his chest. "Late dinner for two last night?"
Kate eyed him for a split second, then retorted, "Yeah, me and David Letterman."
"Y'know, if you actually went to sleep before two a.m. you wouldn't wake up feeling like crap every day."
"Don't start, Mike. And not that it's any of your business, but I do go to sleep before two a.m."
"Falling asleep on the couch with the TV on isn't what I'd call getting a good night's sleep."
Almost too weary to argue, Kate fixed him with a look that would crumble stone. "I don't need another mother, thanks. And how the hell do you know where I sleep?"
"I got in late last night. Saw the light."
"What is it with you Fitzgeralds? If you're going to lecture me like I'm a child, then you can go home now."
Not wanting to be banished, he unfolded his arms and held them up in surrender. "Hey, I'm sorry. Can we start over?"
Kate looked down at the carpet. "Yeah, sorry. It's been a bad day." Her head came up and she tried to smile. "I could use a cup of coffee. Want one?"
Mike angled his body into one of the kitchen chairs and, with his foot, pulled another chair toward him and propped his long legs on it. Homer, always glad for any company, sat at his side and let Mike scratch his head.
Kate measured coffee into the filter and then took the carafe to the sink. Forgetting the cold water tap was practically welded shut, she grunted when it wouldn't turn. Swearing under her breath, she set the pot down to free both hands. It still wouldn't budge and Mike, hiding a grin, asked, "Can I get that for you?"
"Thanks, but I can do it," she answered, removing the pliers from the drawer again.
He shook his head, but didn't say anything.
Once the coffee was perking, Kate realized she still hadn't started the dishwasher. Pulling two mugs out of the top rack, she began washing them.
"Are you sure this isn't too much trouble? We could always go to the Beverley."
Kate turned and gave him a warning look as she dried the mugs with a paper towel. All the dishcloths were in the dryer.
Setting a mug on the table next to him, she asked, "You take milk, right?"
He nodded and watched her open the refrigerator. She stood in front of it for what seemed a very long time, and Mike suddenly understood why. "Hey, I can drink it black if you're out."
"No!" Her voice wavered momentarily. "No, I must have something you can use."
Mike's legs slipped off the chair and he sat up. "It's okay. Really."
She had closed the door, and moved to the cupboards, her hands pushing aside cans and jars. Mike stood as she began frantically pawing through drawers. When her fingers closed around a small packet, she felt triumphant, until she saw it was a Wash 'n' Dri. Slamming it down on the counter, the tears finally came. Mike's hand on her shoulder made her flinch.
"Stop it, Kate. Forget it."
"I know I'll find something," she said between sobs.
"Katie, darlin', I can't stand to see you like this."
Her voice took on a hard edge. "Then go home, 'cause this is what I am now."
It took all the strength he had not to pull her to him. "I don't think you need to be alone."
"I think I know what I need."
"Christ, but you are pigheaded." He took a deep breath. "Do you really want me to go?" he asked, not wanting to hear her answer.
She nodded. "Yeah--go."
He stared at the back of her head before turning away. He left the way he came. It took her a few moments to realize she'd forgotten to thank him for bringing Homer back. Picking up one of the two clean mugs, she flung it across the room. It hit the stovetop, shattering. Homer slunk out of the room, leaving her alone. It was what she wanted, after all. Wasn't it?