Dave came in slowly and leaned against the door, trying to catch his breath. In the dim firelight, his gray hairs made him seem withered. His chest moved as if he had been fleeing something frightening. Perhaps he had.
“David,” she called softly.
He started upon seeing her. “My god, you scared me. What are you still doing here? I thought you were leaving?”
“As you took care to remind me last night, I have nowhere to go and no way to get there.” She took another sip of wine, her eyes moving over his face significantly.
“And?” He jerked at his tie once before deciding to leave it on. He hoisted the bottle, looking at how much was left. “Have you been drinking this stuff since he left?”
“Did the police speak with you as well?”
“They came by my office, but I told them that I wouldn’t be discussing anything with them unless we were downtown and my lawyer was present. I do still have that right, you know.” He seemed to be breathing with difficulty, and his fingers were fluttering. It was curious that she noticed these things. Perhaps it was the wine.
“… are you listening to me?”
“Rhonda, what in heaven’s name is happening to you?”
“I want you to tell me why you lied about Titus.”
His lips moved, silently repeating the demand. Suddenly his brow furrowed. “Are you wearing a wire?”
Enraged by his obtuse words, she tore at her top. The buttons scattered everywhere as a shower of wool and lace fell around her feet. She ripped off her skirt next and flung it at him. She still wore her slip, but somehow it made her feel even more vulnerable and exposed. “There! Are you happy?” For a cruel moment, she relished the shocked look on his face, but it passed and left her feeling cheap and dirty. A strangled sob welled from her throat, followed by others, until she was weeping uncontrollably. And Dave didn’t stir one foot or say one word, just stood there stupidly holding a half-empty bottle of Shiraz with her skirt dangling from his suit.
She pushed her hair into some semblance of a style as best she could without having to face herself in a mirror. She made the bed quickly and went downstairs, mind racing with anxiety.
Dave was in the living room where she had left him. He had clearly been there all night; his clothes were rumpled and he had a fine growth of gray stubble across his face. A draft was blowing down the open flue, scattering cold ashes across the floor and over his expensive shoes. He didn’t notice.
The bottle of wine rolled on the floor, forgotten. She was not surprised to see that it was empty.
“You’re going to be late for work,” she said.
“I’m not going to work,” he snapped back, and stood. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell last night was all about. I mean, you’ve been the same person for years and years, and now, thanks to some nosy detective who can’t leave well enough alone, in less than two months you’ve become someone I don’t even recognize!”
“It was the wine talking, David. Just forget it.”
“Like hell I will.” He caught her in the dining room and turned her back to face him, holding her at arm’s length. Rhonda looked at the grim way he held his mouth, the wary, frightened eyes, the heart pounding through his clothes, the tremor running up and down his arms.
She did and counted ten $500 bills. No great amount of money…two months’ mortgage was more than this… but still, it was more cash than she had ever held in her hands at one time. “What is this?”
“It’s my quarterly bonus as a sitting chairman.”
She absorbed that. $5000 just for walking through the door and clocking in for ninety days. She wanted to hit him.
“Let me tell you something. When my bosses first let me know that I was in consideration for a board position, I was pretty excited. I mean, positions on the board are usually reserved for management. They just got around to accepting the fact that the company runs on the back of its sales force. So you’d probably think that a guy like me who brings in an average annual $4 million in business would be a shoo-in. I waited. And waited. And they finally grant me the formal interview, and I’m going through it, I mean, the position’s already mine, right? … and they say ‘Dave, you’re a great guy and on paper we couldn’t do better, but practically, we just don’t think you know how to make the tough choices.’ You have any idea what they meant by that, Rhonda?”
“No,” he repeated, nodding. “Well, I did. They were telling me to fire Titus.”
His breath came out in an enormous shudder and he knocked his fist against his chest repeatedly. His entire frame shook from the blows. “It didn’t have to be him they dared me to save. It could have been anyone, from the single mother who needed the job to feed her kids, to the man who gave his whole life to the company and lost everything due to bad health. It’s a corporation, Rhonda. No matter what they say about being a ‘family company,’ their job first and foremost is to make money and please their stockholders. And Titus was going to cost them a lot of money if he stayed. At least with me in charge of dismissing him, I could have taken care of him, gotten him a severance package, set him up at a another firm somewhere else….“
“But we didn’t know that then,” he said, pleading. “The doctor’s reports were inconclusive, the technology wasn’t the same as it is today. You’re blaming us for not knowing something we couldn’t have possibly known!”
He had been pacing furiously as he spoke, moving himself around the room at a blistering rate. He came to a halt in front of the bookcase again, but Rhonda had remained where he had left her, next to the table. She stared at his back from across the room.
“Any other time in my life, I could have stalled them, told them I wouldn’t do it. But I’d been waiting in line for a promotion that they promised was mine for three years, that I earned fair and square, and they were looking for a way to take it from me. And they were gonna do it.”
“And so you sold him out for a wretched chairman’s seat. I already knew that.”
At this, he turned back around. His voice was rough with anguish. “Goddamn it, Rhonda, you don’t get it! You don’t understand anything! It was never about HIM! They were trying to make sure that I understood that whatever I did moving forward had to be in the company’s best interests, no matter what! My refusing to fire him wasn’t going to save him!”
Rhonda took a step forward, her eyes round. “David?”
“David, what’s wrong with you? Your face…; it’s so red….”
She looked around. Dead gray walls, shabby blue carpet. A reception desk, a sound of beeping, electronic voices paging staff. A hospital’s waiting room.
It hadn’t been a dream.
She blinked at her watch. 3:04. Mercy, she had been here since the morning.
She could barely bring herself to approach his prostate body, run to get him the aspirins and water that he had begged for, put his arm over her shoulders and tried to help him to his feet … he was so heavy, so very heavy.
And she had, awkwardly steering onto the sidewalk so that the paramedics couldn’t miss the man fighting for every breath. They had taken him away immediately, rushing him into the operating room.
A young intern offered to park the car for her, and a nurse had escorted Rhonda into a semi-private waiting area and left her with a box of tissues, a cup of tea, and a stack of paperwork to begin filling out. Rhonda took one look at the information required and was overwhelmed by her own ignorance of Dave’s vital statistics. She didn’t know his next of kin. She didn’t know his blood type. She didn’t know his insurance carrier, his allergies, when or if he had had any previous surgeries, if he had any pre-existing conditions.
She didn’t even know his middle name.
Sixteen years, wasted.
She took a trembling breath, chased it with a gulp of tea, opened his wallet, and began to write.
He slowly hitched up to her, leaning hard on a cane. She returned to the reception desk and discharged the bill in cash. The receptionist seemed stunned to receive $1550 in actual money.
“I didn’t know you could drive,” he murmured.
“Neither did I.”
They fell silent again as the wind whipped past them.
She parked at the curb, allowed him to lean heavily against her to climb the short staircase that led to the front door, and again to climb the long staircase to the second floor. She tried to lead him to the master bedroom, but he pulled back. “No. Not in there. Not now.”
She didn’t argue. The doctor had said that Dave might be unpredictable. Having one of the most important organs in the body fail had a way of making people behave differently. “Did you want to go back downstairs?”
“I’m not going in that bedroom unless you’re there,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “Just … just put me in the guest room.”
He suddenly spoke, giving her no warning. “The worst part of it all was when I asked you to get the aspirins. Because when you left the room, I realized that I had no idea if you’d even come back … and that if you didn’t, I had no one to blame but myself.”
“How stupid! It took my heart literally breaking to make me admit to myself how much I need you.”
Or the ice, finally cracking?
“Don’t wind yourself up,” she said and picked up the empty dishes. “You should try to sleep.”
She went downstairs quickly before he could say anything further. Her resolve to leave this place was already shaken, and she needed an opportunity to think all of this through without distractions. Still, it was very hard not to be near him now. She sat by herself at the dinner table, taking tiny bites of pasta salad and hearing his muffling crying through the ceiling. The soft sound echoed through the silent house until it seemed at last that the walls themselves were weeping.
It was a cheerful, sunny day when Thomas Sarandon drove up to the large Victorian on Dogwood Lane. It stood out as a throwback on a street full of ‘modern’ homes, a defiant memorial to an old-fashioned time. Not that he could have forgotten this house or its morose occupant.
He rang the bell.
Rhonda Bradshaw opened the door for him and ushered him inside. Her face was a careful mask. He seated himself on the antique couch as she left the room and returned with a coffee service for two. Though she smiled, he could tell that she was guarded with him, not quite as open as she had been at one time. He noted these things, the same way that he had noted the frightened, bewildered body language of the man who had formerly been her fiancé. He glanced at the cane leaning against the staircase.
“David’s,” she volunteered.
“I heard that he was admitted to the hospital recently. Is he well?”
“He had a heart attack. Stress-related. He’s recuperating.”
“I’m very sorry.”
So that’s what it was…, her loyalty was shifting back to her husband. Officer Sarandon decided to risk a gamble. “Do you know where Titus Wallace is now, Mrs. Bradshaw?”
For a brief moment, he saw a true emotion in her face. Her eyes glistened, her lips parted slowly as color crept into her cheeks. The sight of her blush was so unexpected that his pen fell to the floor, unheeded.
“I … I don’t. He hasn’t tried to call.” She shook her head quickly, but the pink spots didn’t fade. “Do… do you know where Titus is?”
“Officially, no. I’m not certain. He’s been off the radar for years. We found his car two states over, but no one we’ve spoken with in the area could pick him out of a dossier. Of course he’s still a person of interest in this investigation, and we certainly would like to talk with him, but the manpower just isn’t there to continue trying to locate him. I mean, the case isn’t exactly considered critical, but there’s something about it that bothers me, which is why I keep bothering you.” Thomas picked up his clipboard and keys. “Though, between you, me, and that fireplace, I heard a rumor that he’d been seen in Egypt. Unsubstantiated, of course.”
He glanced backwards once, thinking of the pen that he had dropped, and saw her dim silhouette behind the curtains. The hint had burrowed into her ear, of that he was certain. It was just a matter of time before she acted on it.
She walked back through the dining room and was startled to see Dave still sitting in front of the bookshelf where she had left him. He had not made a sound for the entirety of the officer’s visit. She had set him there in his pajamas with coffee… “change of scenery,” she’d laughed… and there he had remained. She had completely forgotten about him.
“I suppose you heard all of that,” she said through a dry mouth.
She continued into the kitchen. He shifted from couch to chair, the better to call after her.
“Do you want a grapefruit for breakfast?”
“I want eggs and bacon. You’re aware that police officers have been known to lie to individuals, right?”
She held up the carton of eggs and hesitated.
The eggs fell from her shivering hands. Two rolled away; several cracked. Dave stiffly turned himself back towards the book corner while Rhonda went for paper towels and dishwashing soap.
They said nothing else to each other until she called him to the table. Though his stomach was growling, he didn’t eat right away, instead pushing the melon slices around with his fork. Rhonda said nothing as she stared into her tea cup.
“You have to consider that you’ll be followed if you do make a trip to Egypt,” he said at last. “There’s only one airport in the area that makes international flights, and they’ll be watching it closely. Trying to fly out of a different airport is going to put you on the radar very quickly. Overseas trips cost so much money that no matter how you buy your plane ticket, you’ll set off the red flags. If you’ll give me some time, I’ll talk to a few of my friends who operate private charter boats.”
“That sail to Egypt,” Rhonda said.
“They’re big boats,” he said with a sardonic smile.
It took another two weeks, but Dave came through as promised. She would be one of several socialites on a luxury cruise, with ports of call in the Mediterranean and northern Africa. The entire trip would take less than fourteen days. “Not as easy to track as an airline’s records. The ship also has a casino, so no one would wonder why you had so much money in hand. Less suspicious.”
“You know too much about circumventing the law for my taste,” Rhonda said. She looked through her luggage, trying to remember if she had everything she needed.
“I learned a long time ago that the easiest way to do anything is to do it in plain sight.”
“You never were one for subtlety,” she agreed.
He snorted, but he wasn’t offended. They had already had their quiet, painful talks over meals, in front of a roaring fire, on the balcony as the sun rose, as she bathed him while the sun sank, in the middle of the night in bed.
He admitted that there had been more than one other woman, but insisted that there were nowhere near as many as she assumed, and she chose to accept that. She finally acknowledged… to him, but also to herself… that her parents’ constant sheltering had stunted her and robbed her of her voice, left her fit to be little other than a housewife, unprepared to deal with the world or care for herself.
She told Dave how she had met Titus, at a bingo night where she was serving food and he was watching the seniors to make sure no one was cheating. He had asked her out by making his suit to her father. She had never learned his middle name, either.
Rhonda stood by the window, noticing the little effects in the room. The dated furniture. The old photos of her deceased parents. The tall hedges in the neighbor’s yard, glossy, black and sharp in the moonlight. Two more of those bonus envelopes with yet more money she hadn’t known about. The dull wound on David’s chest.
“But you never know,” she said. “The story always stops when Cinderella marries the prince. No one mentions how they got by afterwards.”
She came to him and eased into his open arms. Her fingers gently touched the surgical scar. All it had taken was this five-inch cut to permanently humble him. This was the calmest she had ever seen him. He had been more rowdy during their courtship, and he had been nothing but a gentleman then. Of course, he had been fairly respectable throughout most of the marriage too.
“Well, I can’t sleep. Are you going to be okay here without me?”
“Don’t you have to go back to work sometime?”
“Mandatory sabbatical. Almost every chairman’s had at least one heart attack. We’re all old and tired.”
Her other hand found its way into his hair. His other hand rested on the curve of her waist as it slowly swelled into her hip. Now that he no longer had the strength to rush her through lovemaking, they were both shocked by her passionate response to his advances, leaving her to wonder why she was just discovering it at age forty-seven and him to regret that he hadn’t been patient enough to awaken it before.
The sun was rising when she woke up again. She called a taxi while dressing and took the luggage downstairs. She drank tea from a paper cup and ate a slice of buttered toast. And then she went upstairs once more. David was still in bed, eyes closed. She brushed her lips against his cold cheek.
“You leaving?” he mumbled in a sleep-drugged voice.
“I’ll miss you.”
He had never said that before, ever. She wondered if he was just stating a fact … or trying to prepare himself for the inevitable.
To be continued…