Copyright 2014 Billy Wood-Smith
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This Ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This Ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite Ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This novel is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, events and even some locations are purely fictitious and a work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
The city of Deens, where a good part of the story takes place, is a purely fictional location. But if it existed, it would probably be somewhere in Western Europe…
“Good morning, Honey,” she tweeted as she strolled into the kitchen.
Joe glanced up from the paper that he had spread out on the table in front of him and set the coffee mug down. Stone faced he watched her walk across the kitchen – her long blond hair damp from the shower, her short pink silk kimono loosely tied around her waist.
As she approached the table, she tilted her head. “Are you still not talking to me?” she sounded like a pouting little girl, her left hand playfully whirling one end of her belt around.
He watched her come closer, his jaws tightly locked.
She stepped up to the right side of his chair and laid her hand on his shoulder. “Come on…” she purred as she bent down a little and ran her hand over to his other shoulder. Her arm draped around his shoulders now, she blew a kiss onto his right temple. “Don’t be like that,” she whispered and leaned her forehead against the side of his head.
With the way she was positioned, and with her kimono not being really tight around her body, her bending down like this revealed an unobstructed view. Joe took that in for a short moment and then glanced up at her. Did she really think that still worked?
Apparently she did! He could feel her breathing close to his ear while she slowly let her fingertips dance from his shoulder along the collar of his shirt, her thumb teasingly running up to the back of his neck and her other fingers extending towards his left cheek, obviously attempting to make him turn his head her way.
“Just cut it out, Liz,” he snapped and jerked his head away from her face and from her hand. “Just leave me alone!”
“Honey, come on!” She let out a silly, nervous giggle and perched against the table. “This is so silly! It’s Saturday, you’ve been angry long enough!” She reached out to touch his face.
“Stop that,” Joe scoffed as he turned away. Then, with a quick movement, he pushed back the chair and got up. “I assume you’re done in the bathroom and the bedroom for right now?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked out of the kitchen, across the hallway into the bedroom.
He pulled the curtains open with a lot more force than necessary and opened the windows. It still smelled like alcohol and smoke. She had definitely been drunk when she had gotten home sometime around two in the morning. He had pretended to be sound asleep on the sofa, but he had heard her stumble around, and the air in here spoke for itself. The tiny cocktail dress she must have been wearing lay crumpled on his side of the bed. That’s probably where all the smoke-smell was coming from. With a disgusted growl he snatched it off the bed and flung it onto the floor on her side.
He walked over to the closet, almost tripping over one of her high heel sandals. He gave it a kick that took it flying under the bed.
He pulled the small trolley he used for business trips down from the top shelf of his closet and set it on the bed. From the corner of his eye he could see Liz appear in the doorway. He shot her an irritated look. The sweet smile and pouting-girl expression from earlier had been replaced by a furious grimace.
“How much longer are you going to act like this?” she hissed.
Ignoring her, Joe opened the suitcase and started filling it with clothes – three dress shirts, a pair of nicer shoes, one pair of sneakers, three ties, a pair of jeans, two polo shirts, socks and underwear for four days. His suit and another pair of slacks were already in a suit-bag that was hanging behind the door.
“So you really, really have to pack right now, don’t you?” she snarled.
“Leave me alone,” he mumbled, keeping his eyes on the suitcase.
“You aren’t leaving until tomorrow anyway,” she said. “So why do you–?”
“The flight leaves today at two,” he told her coldly.
He heard her gasp.
“Since when?” she snapped.
“Does it matter?” he shot back.
“Did you change it? Are you seriously going to leave with things being messed up like…?”
He cut her off. “Just let me pack, okay!”
“You’re such an asshole!” she screamed.
“Sure,” he scoffed.
For a moment he expected her to throw herself at him, with raised fists, but instead she just violently stomped her foot on the floor, pulled the kimono tighter around herself and grabbed each end of her belt with one hand, pulling so hard on both ends that the knot that had been loose at first, turned into one tiny tight lump. Joe suspected she would have to cut it off, if she ever wanted to get out of that kimono again.
“This was the last peace offer you’ll get from me,” she hissed.
“Oh, no!” he mocked as he zipped up the suitcase and set it next to the bed on the carpet. He went back to the closet and squatted. From the very back of the bottom shelf he pulled out his big duffle bag. He laid it onto the bed and opened it up. He could feel her watching him.
Pretending that she wasn’t there, he took a few folded T-shirts, short-sleeve shirts and two cotton sweaters from his top drawer and put them in the bag. He pulled open another drawer and got out a pile of socks and underwear – enough to last for about ten days – and placed them in his bag.
“What the hell do you need all that for?” Her voice suddenly sounded a bit shrill. “It’s just a three day business trip!”
Joe turned around and looked straight at her.“So?”
There was a short silence in which she stared at him, while he had already turned around again. He took two pairs of shorts out of another drawer, folded them in half and laid them into the bag.
“What is this supposed to be?” she barked and took a step into the bedroom.
Trying hard to tune her out and stay calm, Joe rolled up a belt and slid it into his bag between the socks. He could feel his hands get slightly shaky.
”Joe!?” she yelled. “Answer me!”
“It’s not all that hard to figure out, Liz,” he said brusquely.
“Ah, I see,” she snarled. “You’re going for real drama here, aren’t you?”
“Me???” He shot her a short, puzzled look, but then he just shook his head. “Do me a favor Liz, go and have breakfast or whatever. Just leave me alone!”
Looking at the now half-filled bag, he tried to decide what else to bring. Another pair of jeans and maybe nicer slacks, his rain jacket, sweat pants maybe, some stuff from the bathroom, one or two more pairs of shoes and his jacket.
While he walked around the room collecting and packing some more clothes, Liz was yelling something about how much she hated him and how he was just the worst thing that had ever come her way. He abstained from returning the compliment, even though it would have hit the nail right on the head. He carried on with his packing.
“You’re crazy!” she hissed with a shake of her head as if she still couldn’t believe it. “You can’t just go!”
Looking up at her, Joe let out a bitter laugh. “Watch me!”
He could see her jaw drop. He kind of liked that effect.
“This is just ridiculous!” she yelled.
“I’ve had it, Liz,” he told her sharply. “That’s it! You need to get help and I need to get out of here!”
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” she screamed. “You’re the one that… Oh, just go then!” She threw her hands in the air. “I don’t need you!”
“Good!” Joe flattened the contents of the bag with his left hand and checked how much space he had left. Not a whole lot.
He had just turned to his dresser again, when she suddenly came flying at him from behind. He saw it too late, even though he should have expected that this would be the next stage. Her hands like claws in front of her face, she lurched forward and had already grabbed his shoulder by the time he realized what was happening.
“You’re such an ass…!” She dug her fingernails into his left shoulder so deeply that it hurt. “You told me this was just another business trip! And now…”
He jerked his shoulder out of her grip by turning around abruptly. She grabbed his right arm.
“Well, that’s what it is – just another business trip,” he growled through clenched teeth. “I just won’t be coming back here afterwards. But since you just told me how much you hate me, I’m confident you’ll be relieved to see me go!” He had managed to pull her hands off his arm an, unexpectedly, she had taken a step back, seeming momentarily confused.
“By the way,” Joe said in a fake-friendly tone, “you might be interested to know that Eric is not coming with me. I mean, just in case you need someone to warm your bed…”
Before she could stage another attack, he turned around and walked into the bathroom to get some stuff from there.
She followed him, hissing obscenities now.
After half a minute of this it must have finally dawned on her that he wasn’t even listening. So she changed her strategy: she started sobbing.
Joe had to keep himself from parroting this theatrical performance.
“If this is about Eric…” she croaked, shaken by another sob.
Joe sharply cut her off. “I couldn’t care less what you do with Eric or Bob or What’s-his-name from upstairs…”
There was a short silence.
“Well, and that–” Almost choking on the words, she nodded towards his right hand. “I didn’t do that on purpose.”
“Right,” he coughed and continued filling his toiletry case with things he took out of the mirror cabinet.
“Well, think what you want, you asshole!” Liz screamed and clutched one of her hands around the wood on the doorframe, where she scraped her fingernails against the paint so hard that Joe couldn’t help glancing at the floor to see if any of those false things had been ripped off yet. Amazingly they had all stayed put. The doorframe had a few pink lines now, though, from where the nail polish had rubbed off.
He shrugged and zipped up his toiletry case and, after a quick look around the bathroom, grabbed two plastic bottles from the shower. Then he pushed his way past her, back into the bedroom.
He stuffed the toiletry case and the shampoo bottles into the side pocket of his bag and zipped that part up. Liz had dropped into the chair next to the bathroom door and gone back to sobbing mode, her face buried in her hands.
Joe acted like he didn’t hear it. Maybe two years ago it would have still had the desired effect and he would have found it heart-wrenching. But at this point in their relationship he had seen it all (or at least more than enough for his taste), and he knew that every tear had a well-calculated manipulative element to it. The sobbing didn’t get to him anymore. And it definitely didn’t make him soft. It hadn’t for a long time. For a while it had actually made him furious. Almost as furious as her ranting and screaming could make him. Before he had met Liz he had actually not even known he could get so angry. Sometimes it had taken all his self-discipline to keep that anger under enough control, so he wouldn’t just lash out at her and physically harm her – for that would have started an entirely different kind of disaster.
By now he rarely ever got really angry anymore – no matter what insanities or provocations she delivered. He liked to tell himself that the reason was a protective coat he had developed over the years. A protective coat all the venom just bounced off from. He told himself that this was a good thing. But sometimes his own calmness and indifference shocked and scared him. It scared him more than the anger and the struggle to control it ever had. The anger had been normal, given the circumstances, the numbness wasn’t. And lately, that numbness seemed to be spreading to other areas in his body and his life.
“I know exactly why you’re in such a hurry to get to Amsterdam!” Liz interrupted his contemplations. “There’s some bitch you can’t wait to…”
“Now look who’s talking!” Joe let out a little breathy laugh. “Just shut up, Liz, okay? The only thing I really can’t wait for in Amsterdam is peace and quiet!”
When Liz countered this with another round of hissing obscenities and verbal attacks that were way below the belt line, interrupted by well-delivered sobs, he realized that staying halfway calm and focused here – at least on the surface – was getting harder by the minute. It was only a matter of time before his protective coat, as good as it may be, would get porous. He knew the signs. He was already starting to feel worn out, his hands weren’t quite steady anymore and he was finding it hard to focus. He definitely needed to finish packing and get out of here before she managed to drive him crazy – before the protective coat lost its ability to keep him sane! It was like with a rain jacket and too much rain.
The drama had dragged on for days now and Liz’s malice had been delivered in dosages that were way above average, even for her standards. They had been at war ever since he had returned from a business trip exactly two weeks ago. Three days later, on a Tuesday night, things had gotten totally out of hand… Once he had returned from the emergency room that night, his mind had been made up: he was pulling the plug. Finally. It had been long overdue.
Since then he had made sure he had as little contact and interaction with her as he possibly could. He had slept on the sofa, he had left for work while she was still asleep and he had come home late at night. She had made a few attempts to sweet-talk and make up with him, but he had just totally shut her out. At work he had tied up the loose ends, he had rescheduled the flight to Amsterdam and he had had a long talk with Steve.
Joe looked at the duffle bag in front of him and then went to get his trekking sandals from the closet, laying them into the main compartment of the bag, soles up.
That’s when the sobbing and hissing behind him suddenly stopped. It was amazing how she was able to just turn it on and off like that.
On high alert, Joe focused his attention on what he could only see from the corner of his eye: Liz had risen from the chair and was now leaning in the doorway to the bathroom.
“You’ll have to come back anyway,” she told him – her voice surprisingly calm now.
“No, I don’t,” he retorted keeping his eyes on the bag.
“Well, what about the company?” she insisted triumphantly. “Are you going to run away from that as well?”
Pretending to ignore her, he took out the sandals again, put another sweater underneath and then put the sandals back in.
Liz let out a nasty little laugh. “Or are you going to move into your office now?” She laughed again. “Kind of pathetic for a co-owner, but why not, huh?”
Joe turned around and shot her a cold look. “Nooo, I’m not moving into the office. Besides, Steve can run the company by himself for a while. I don’t need to be there.”
Liz looked puzzled. She had obviously thought she had it all figured out, his plan that for sure was never going to work. And now it turned out that the plan might be entirely different after all.
There was a trace of panic in her eyes suddenly. Joe couldn’t help enjoying that for the moment it lasted.
“I’m taking a time-out,” he told her matter-of-factly. “Your brother has already given me his blessing.”
“Oh, you’ve already discussed everything with Steve,” she screamed.
“The business side of it? Yes!” Joe said. “This mess? No!”
Suddenly she took two quick steps towards him and reached over from the side, got hold of the bag and tried to pull it off the bed.
“You can’t just leave!” she yelled at him, her face red with fury.
“God, stop that!” Joe grabbed the strap of the bag with his left hand and jerked it back to where it had been, giving her a dark look. But Liz was still holding on to the flap of the outside pocket with one of her hands. Pushing back a strand of hair with her other hand now, she grinned at him. “Get it if you want it…”
Joe shook his head, reached over and grabbed her hand on the bag with his left hand. He knew he better keep his right hand out of the struggle here. Somehow he managed to keep her from getting the second hand on the bag by blocking her with his right arm. With his left hand he struggled to pry her fingers off the bag one by one.
“Let go of my hand,” she whined and tried to pull it out of the tight grip he had on it. His eyes locked with hers, he gave her fingers a well-measured squeeze as a warning. He could crush them right here. And he was barely keeping himself from doing just that.
Finally he let go of her hand. And then quickly turned around, stepped behind her and slung his arms around her. “Let’s go!” he growled and, while she kicked and screamed, he half carried, half shoved her out of the bedroom into the hallway. And before she could spin around and try to catch up with him, he had slipped back into the bedroom, slammed the door shut and locked it.
Drawing in a deep breath, he took a few shaky steps to the bed and sank down on it. Burying his face in his hands for a moment, he tried to calm down and steady himself. From the kitchen he heard something shatter. His coffee mug maybe? Another bang. Maybe the juice glass?
Then he heard her shuffle around the kitchen. A minute later she came back towards the bedroom again.
There was a short silence.
Suddenly there was a metallic noise and the key Joe had just locked the bedroom door with, fell from the keyhole onto the bedroom carpet. Shit, had Liz found another key? After a few seconds of the other key clunking around inside the lock – Liz obviously trying to unlock the door from outside – Joe heard something metallic hit the tile floor in the hallway. Liz must have thrown or dropped the other key in frustration because it hadn’t fit.
Joe rubbed his forehead and got up from the bed. He’d better finish and get out of here.
Outside the door Liz was swearing. Then she started banging and kicking against the door, calling him all kinds of names. He zipped up the bag and grabbed his jacket from the hook behind the door. While he slid it on, he bent down, snatched the key from the floor and stuck it back into the keyhole. And it surprisingly stayed there despite another hard kick Liz had just given the door from the outside.
Joe checked the pockets of his jacket for his wallet and his car keys. It occurred to him that he still had another spare car key in one of the drawers in the living room. Trying to retrieve it now didn’t seem like a good idea, though. Besides, he still had one in the office at work as well.
Suddenly he thought of something else. He went back to the bathroom, opened the drawer of the mirror cabinet and took out the package of painkillers. He pulled out one of the two sheets of blister-packed pills and the leaflet and then stuffed the box back into the drawer.
Back in the bedroom he slid the pills and the leaflet into the side pocket of his bag and paused for a moment, once again going through his mental list of all the things he shouldn’t forget to take with him. He couldn’t think of anything else he needed. The laptop and the iPod were in the car where he had started to keep them since Liz had smashed his mobile phone during one of her tantrums three weeks ago. He touched the back pocket of his jeans to make sure the new phone was there.
He reached for the duffle bag and slung the strap over his shoulder. Then he grabbed the trolley from the bedside, took the clothes bag from the hook behind the door and sucked in a deep breath. Okay! He was all set. Time to go!
As he set the trolley down to unlock the door, he realized that it had become suspiciously quiet outside. He listened for a moment, but then he just turned the key.
Bracing himself for any kind of attack that he decided to fend off with the suitcase, he opened the door. To his surprise Liz was sitting on one of the chairs in the kitchen across the hallway and was not, as he expected, standing right next to the door, ready to fling herself at him or stab him with a knife or something of that sort.
Not losing any time, he headed for the front door that led into the common stairway. He had almost reached it, when he heard Liz get up, the chair scraping against the tile floor in the kitchen.
“Joe, I–” she had changed to a less aggressive tone for the moment.
He didn’t even look over his shoulder, just extended his right hand and reached for the door handle. He had just pushed it down, when Liz got hold of his hand and tried to hold him back, keep him from walking out.
He jerked his hand away from her, consequently feeling an instantaneous, sharp pain flashing up from the broken fingers all the way up to the top of his head. For a moment there he was literally seeing stars. Momentarily slowed down like this, he stared at her. And she stared back at him and tried to push between him and the door to block his way.
“My God, Liz, just get out of my way!” he growled and shoved by her and out the door.
As he left the flat with her following in her pink kimono and barefoot, he hoped – for the sake of the neighbors – that she wouldn’t continue screaming out here where everyone would hear her. But if he was honest, he didn’t really care anymore what she did.
He kept walking towards the stairway, with Liz currently hissing some incomprehensible stuff right behind him. Then, suddenly, in a perfectly calm and clear voice, she said. “Oh, now I get it!”
Joe kept moving, not about to show any interest in what she thought she had just figured out.
“You’re going to Deens, staying with your sister… – Sarah. Aren’t you?” She was just probing.
Joe ignored her.
“Oh, I’m sure Sarah is just thrilled!” Liz snarled.
Joe gave an irritated shake of his head and kept walking.
“Oh… and what’s her name?” Liz gloated. “Danielle.” She dragged out the name. “Right? Danielle. I bet she’ll be really happy to see you, too. Who knows, maybe she’ll even take you back!”
Joe stopped and jerked around, the duffle bag swinging around his hip, the bottom of the suitcase dangerously close to hitting her legs. Unprepared for his sudden change of course, Liz almost bumped into him. Baffled and momentarily in danger of losing her balance, she quickly grabbed the railing of the staircase to catch herself. A nasty grin appeared on her face as she tilted her head now and looked straight into his eyes. Provocation at its finest.
Joe swallowed. His initial impulse had actually been to turn around and hit her with the bag or the suitcase. But he knew better. Besides, who cared what she said anymore. He shook his head at her, a hard look on his face, turned around and started walking down the stairs. Two floors to the underground garage. There was no way he was taking the elevator today, as that would have meant being locked up in a very small space with a very crazy girl for at least ten endless seconds.
Finally he reached the door to the garage. He pushed it open and headed for his Volvo.
She followed close behind, screaming again. “Oh, and won’t it be nice for you to see Jack again? Now Jack and you can compare notes about me…”
“Oh just shut up!” Joe hissed. “Do you really think that’s something I want to share with anyone?” He threw the bags in through the driver’s door, afraid that, if he took the time to put them into the trunk, she might pull them out again or come up with some other kind of stunt before he could even get the car started.
He shoved the stuff over to the passenger side and slipped into the driver’s seat, quickly pulling the door shut and locking the car from the inside. Maybe he was overreacting but he didn’t really think so. Better safe than sorry…
Liz was standing a few feet away from the car, an incredulous expression on her face. Like she was only now coming to the conclusion that he hadn’t been bluffing.
He started the engine. Still kind of expecting her to throw herself at the car as he backed it up, he tried to decide what to do in such a case. Surprisingly, though, she just kept staring at him from where she was standing. And as he pulled out of the parking spot, she turned around and stormed off towards the door to the stairways.
Driving out of the garage, Joe realized that he was shaking. His hands were really trembling and he had a hard time changing gears. Of course the brace around his right hand, and the fact that he seemed to be unable to give that hand the rest it desperately needed, didn’t help at all. He felt a throbbing pain all the way up to his elbow now. Well, he would have to ignore it for the moment.
He drove for fifteen minutes to get some distance between him and Liz. Then he pulled into the parking lot of some grocery store and parked the car – far away from everyone else.
Leaning back in his seat, he took a few deep breaths. Okay, he had finally done it. It was over! With his left hand he pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe how drained he felt.
Opening his eyes again, he gazed into the distance where people with shopping carts were moving around, some on their way into the store, some on their way back to their car. People in business outfits, young mothers with little children, an older lady with a cane, a guy and a girl in a close embrace, stopping a few times to kiss. Joe looked away.
The extreme tension that had had a grip on him for the last few days was very slowly starting to ease a bit. Still, he felt like someone had literally sucked the life out of him. That had, of course, happened gradually over the past two and a half years. He could hardly expect it to go back to normal (whatever that meant) from one day to the other. He imagined it was like being exposed to some toxin for an extended period of time. The effects don’t stop right when the exposure stops. Some damage might even be irreversible. It would take a while to see. Maybe the numbness and the cynicism he had developed over time would just be part of him from now on. He surely hoped not, but who knew, really. Liz had definitely brought out the worst in him.
He got out of the car and moved his luggage from the passenger seat to the trunk. His right hand was really hurting now. He held it up and had a closer look. The two broken fingers that were fixed to the molded plastic brace by a padded black Velcro strap seemed more swollen than they had been this morning, the color almost purplish. Even the other fingers seemed kind of swollen. He loosened the strap around the broken fingers a little, and also the one around his wrist, as everything just seemed too tight right now. Then he let the arm sink to his side, as staring at the damage surely didn’t help him block out the pain. He glanced at his bag in the trunk. Maybe he should actually try the painkillers they had prescribed at the hospital. Might help… So far he hadn’t really needed them because the stuff they had fed him right after it had happened had been potent enough to get him through the first few days. After that the pain seemed to have settled a bit. And it would have probably stayed that way if he hadn’t gotten his hand banged up again last night when making his bed on the sofa. And then once more just now in his row with Liz.
With his left hand he reached into the side pocket of his bag and pulled out the sheet of pills and the leaflet. Chewing on his lower lip, he unfolded the leaflet and scanned through it. The side effects, of course, ranged from drowsiness to vomiting to hallucinations all the way to heart failure. He just hated taking medication!
As he turned the page around, he saw the warning in bold letters never to drive a car or operate any heavy machinery within two hours of taking the pills. Great! He could forget about throwing one in right now then. Unless he wanted to just risk it. Which he definitely didn’t! After all, he still had a forty minute drive to the airport ahead of him.
With a frustrated growl, he stuffed the pills and the leaflet into the front pocket of his trolley. He would just have to stand the pain until he was in the hotel in Amsterdam.
D was pulled out of her sleep by the barking of the neighbor’s little dog. She drowsily reached for the alarm clock on the bedside table and squinted at it. Ten o’clock already? She rubbed her eyes. She hardly ever slept past nine. But last night she had watched TV until 1:30 which was somewhat untypical too.
She rose from her bed, stretched and pulled back the curtains. The bright sunlight made her squint. It was going to be another beautiful August day. And there was Tiffany, the neighbor’s little, spoilt Yorkshire terrier, hopping around in the back yard. Like always, Tiffany was wearing a ribbon on her forehead and a matching scarf. Yellow today. Had it been raining, the dog would have been dressed in a shiny yellow rain cape. Just as Tiffany was pulling on her leash, eager to be taken for her walk, Mrs. Terrance glanced up. When she saw D she smiled and nodded. Smiling back, D waved and then stepped away from the window.
She shot herself a quick look in the mirror doors of the big armoire and tried to decide if she should have a shower first or breakfast? She didn’t have to be anywhere anytime soon. She would have to leave around 3:30 in the afternoon to drive to her parents’ house for Mom’s birthday party, but that was about it. Robert was cooking.
Thinking about food in general and her brother Robert’s creations in particular, D felt her stomach growl – a clear sign that she should have breakfast first.
She picked up her sweat pants from the chair next to the window and pulled them on. For a moment her eyes rested on the pile of clothes on that chair. Sometime, when the weather was crappy, she needed to iron all this and put it back into the closet.
The ironing pile wasn’t the only pile of stuff in her. In fact, ever since she had started the project of cleaning out her closets and drawers, her bedroom looked as if a bomb had exploded in it.
The initial plan had been to very swiftly go through everything – all her clothes, shoes, bedding, sheets, extra towels, table clothes and whatever else might surface – and generously get rid of stuff she wasn’t using or wearing anymore.
The sudden urge for that project had overcome her two weeks ago, and she had immediately pulled out everything and started the sorting process – at the beginning still with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Somehow she had expected this to be a liberating experience. Unfortunately, the project had slowed down last week and was now kind of stalled – at least for the moment. Work had been crazy the past few days and in the evenings she had just not been in the mood to deal with the mess in her bedroom. Instead she had tried to do something relaxing and fun outside. She had biked to the lake and gone for a swim on Monday, she had met Sarah at a café for dinner on Tuesday, and she had gone to the lake again on Wednesday.
The bedroom situation wasn’t entirely hopeless, though. Thursday evening she had at least finished the screening process and consequently divided all her stuff into things she wanted to keep and things she was most likely going to get rid of (after another short period of reflection). And last night – before her extended TV session – she had put most of the keepers neatly back into their respective places in the closet or the drawers. Only the things in the ironing pile and some towels that she had washed but not folded yet, still needed to be stored away.
The things she wanted to part with lay in three big piles on and around the bed. Two of these piles were covering almost the entire half of the bed she didn’t sleep on; the third one was on the floor between the bed and the wall with Robert’s giant blue painting. These were all clothes she had outgrown. Also, her curtains from the dorm that still looked nice but were too short for the windows here and a few mustard-colored towels that had belonged to her grandma and that had unfortunately come with the flat. There was also the cocktail dress that Pete had bought her and that revealed just way too much cleavage. And then there was the flowery tablecloth with eight matching napkins that Aunt Sauvie had given her for her twentieth birthday. After almost six years of keeping them in the darkest corner of the closet, she had decided to get rid of them – even if it made her feel guilty.
Leaving the mess behind now, D headed into the sun-flooded living room and on towards the kitchen that was separated from the living room only by two waist-high cabinets and the bar counter.
She started the coffee machine and put two pieces of bread into the toaster. Then she opened the fridge and took out the butter dish, a glass of jam, two eggs and some cheese.
Ten minutes later she was sitting on the big sofa in the living room, a plate of toast, scrambled eggs and a few slices of cheese on her lap and the coffee mug on the table in front of her. She pressed a few buttons on the remote controls and continued watching her show from last night. It was a sixty-episode comedy-romance that had first aired on TV twelve years ago. She had been addicted to it, like almost everyone else. Over the years she had almost forgotten about the show until Robert had given her the complete DVD set for her last birthday. Now she was working her way through the episodes, watching one or two (or four like last night) when she had time. It was fun and relaxing. And it reminded her of old times. Only that she – or her view on some things – seemed to have drastically changed over the years. Maybe a sign of growing up? She noticed it most with the somewhat chaotic relationship two of the main characters had during the first season and that fell apart in the season finale. As a teenager she had been devastated and furious and had hoped desperately that they’d eventually get back together – which they never had. Now, probably as a result of some more life experience, the girl’s refusal to ever talk to that jerk again seemed perfectly understandable. He clearly deserved it!
She had just finished eating her egg and was chuckling over a funny scene when her phone beeped from the coffee table. Lifting her plate, she leaned forward, already bracing herself for a text message from Pete. But then it turned out to be a message from Sarah instead:
Are you up yet? Don’t forget to check if you have any good photos for next weekend. I could pick them up early this afternoon. I’ll see Jack tomorrow.
D stared at the message. Somehow she had hoped she would be able to escape this task that had been looming over her head for more than two months now. She had dreaded it ever since Rick and Jack had come up with the idea of assembling a show of photos and films for the get-together next weekend. Everyone was supposed to contribute their best or funniest photographic material.
Chewing on her lower lip, D considered what to do. Obviously Jack and Sarah weren’t going to let her get away with not delivering anything. So, maybe she should just finally bite into the sour apple and get it over with.
She sent a message back to Sarah:
Then she directed her attention back to what was happening on TV. She didn’t get to enjoy it very long, however. After not even two minutes the phone beeped again. Another text message. From Robert:
Danielle, do you have any birthday candles that you could bring for the cake?
She typed in a quick response saying,
I’ll bring some. D
She resumed watching TV, the food on her plate almost gone now. She had just picked up her coffee cup to take a sip when the phone came to life again – ringing with a call coming in. This time the display showed Pete’s picture – the one she had taken in London. She gloomily looked at it for a moment. She absolutely didn’t want to talk to him right now! And she should probably finally delete that picture, because all it did anymore was trigger a bunch of very unpleasant emotions.
With a slight, irritated shake of her head, she turned off the TV and got up from the sofa. The phone rang a few more times and then fell silent.
In the kitchen D put the dishes into the dishwasher. Then she opened a few drawers, looking for the birthday candles. She knew she still had some. Finally she found them in the back of the drawer with the plastic bags and the foil. There were seven left. That would have to do. Mom wouldn’t want the full amount of candles on the cake anyway.
She put the candles with her purse so she wouldn’t forget them later, and then checked her watch. It was 10:55 am. Scratching her head, she tried to make up her mind if she should have her shower first or… No, if she needed to do the picture thing, she better do it now!
She went over to the closed door of the room she generally referred to as the extra room. When her grandma had still been living here, this had been the sewing and guest room. D remembered Robert and herself bouncing up and down on the guest bed as kids, almost making it collapse a few times.
After Grandma had passed away Dad had inherited the flat and rented it out for a few years. When she had graduated from university a little over two years ago and had found a job in Deens the flat had luckily just been abandoned by some crazy, messy tenants that had almost driven her parents crazy. With the flat being free and her needing a place in Deens, it had been clear that she would move in. It had been the perfect arrangement. The place had needed some repair and remodeling, though, and so her parents, Robert and herself had put a lot of time and effort into fixing it up. Jack, Tony and Sarah had helped quite a bit as well. Only Pete hadn’t been around much for this fun and messy project, not even during the weekends.
D opened the door to the extra room and stepped inside. Along the wall to her left there were still a few unopened moving boxes with stuff from the dorm and her room at home. Boxes that contained things such as schoolbooks, old CDs and videos, childhood photo albums, stuffed animals… There also was a plastic container with Christmas decoration and a bag with wrapping paper and ribbons.
In the back of the room was all her camping stuff – tent, air mattress, electric cooler, camping table… She hadn’t touched these things in over three years. Going camping had never been an option with Pete. Whenever they had gone anywhere together, it had had to at least be a four star hotel.
She turned to her right where the desk with the old PC and the monitor sat against the wall under the window. She hardly ever used this computer anymore, but today she needed it. All the pictures her friends were interested in were saved on this PC.
She could feel the anxiety creep up on her now. This was just pathetic! She drew in a deep breath and huffed it out through her nose. She was going to do this and it would be fine!
She sat down on the squeaky desk chair and turned on the computer. It immediately started humming.
While she was waiting for the old machine to boot up, her glance fell on the stack of paperwork behind the mouse pad – letters, receipts, bank statements, insurance information and the like. She accumulated it here and filed it away every three or four months when the pile had reached a certain height.
She squinted as the corner of something blue that was sticking out underneath the top few pages caught her eye. Was that the London folder? She pulled it out. On the cover there were pictures of Big Ben, the London Eye, Tower Bridge and, in the left bottom corner, the swan logo of the company she worked for. She had been looking for this folder during the last few days all over the apartment. Obviously she had accidently brought it in here, maybe with the last credit card statement.
With the folder in hand she got up and walked out into kitchen where she placed it on the bar counter. She would have to finally browse through it this weekend.
When she returned to the PC, it was finally ready to be used. Slouched in her chair, she clicked her way through screens and folders to the My pictures folder on the C drive.
The fact that she had never taken the time to organize her photos properly but had just downloaded them from her camera every two to four months into unnamed folders would make this task all the more fun…
On the screen were 23 nameless folders to choose from – the first one dating back to when she had gotten her digital camera nine years ago. She would have to guess what each folder might contain by looking at the date of its creation. Great!
Chewing on her lower lip, she tried to decide which folder to start with. She had come to Deens almost seven years ago in September to attend the university here. Counting back the years in her head, she steered the cursor to a folder that had been created two months after her moving into the dorm.
She had just double clicked to open that folder, and the computer was doing its thing at an annoyingly slow pace, when she heard her phone ring again in the living room.
Briefly closing her eyes and grinding her teeth, she exhaled. Most likely that was Pete again… She suddenly felt this very strong urge to crush the mouse with her hand.
On the screen the folder had finally been opened and an overview of all included pictures in miniature format had appeared. D clicked on the first photo: her parents’ car in the crowded dorm parking lot, the trunk stuffed to the limit. Clicking on the arrow below the image, she went through the following photos. There were Robert and Dad carrying parts of her shelf from the car to the dorm; Mom, smiling, in the dorm’s entrance hall; dorm room 415 in its initial bare state; her parents in a café in Deens; Robert perched on the desk in her dorm, eating a candy bar; boxes, bags and other moving stuff all around him.
The next picture must have been taken a few days later and showed her dorm room again, now looking a lot more inviting. The rug that she had brought was spread out on the floor, the ugly brown dorm curtains had been replaced by her own and on the wall was the framed print of a mountain with thunderstorm clouds that she still had hanging in her entry way today.
Looking at these old dorm photos, D suddenly remembered how her mood over these first few days had constantly and rapidly changed between excitement, anxiety, happiness, loneliness and frustration… It had been an emotional roller-coaster ride. She had never lived away from home before, she had been unfamiliar with the new city and she had had no friends in Deens. Figuring out the somewhat complicated university system and getting used to dorm life had been a bit overwhelming at first.
She had quickly gotten used to it, though. Most people in the dorm had turned out to be nice, and the kitchen in her floor had soon become the place to go to when it got too lonely or boring in her own room.
She speed-clicked through the rest of the dorm pictures. They were kind of interesting to look at. But since they would be of no interest to her friends, she eventually opened a new folder.
The first photo that came on showed Sarah rolling her eyes at Jack.
Contently D straightened up in her chair. Here we go!
She had met Sarah in an extracurricular intermediate-level Italian language course. During one of the first lessons the professor had told them to team up with the person sitting next to them and write up a doctor-patient dialogue together. She had ended up in a team with Sarah. And even though they had never talked before and didn’t know each other, they had had an absolute blast creating and performing their dialogue. Sarah had impersonated a flirty elderly male doctor and D a whiny hypochondriac female patient.
Sarah was a year and a half older than D and had been studying chemistry, while D was in economics. Somehow they had clicked right away and quickly become good friends. They had the same kind of humor, same taste in music and films, similar views on the big issues of the world and they both had a brother to complain about (only that Sarah’s was, at the time, studying and living two hours away from Deens and was a year younger, while Robert was over two years older than D.)
Having grown up in Deens, Sarah was living in a house with her parents and had a circle of friends, most of whom she had known since kindergarten.
D continued clicking through her pictures. Looking at a good photo of Carrey and Rick, she remembered how Sarah had dragged her along to this party of Jack’s and introduced her to her friends.
Another photo showed Jack hugging a giant bowl of chips; Tony, Anja and Sun sitting on the carpet in Jack’s parents’ living room and, finally, Sarah and Carrey chatting in the hallway…
After Jack’s party it hadn’t taken long for D to become part of that group of friends. They had always had something going on – hikes, bike rides, parties, movies, little trips by train or car. It had been a lot of fun.
Smiling to herself, D created a new folder that she named ‘For Sarah’ and copied the three best pictures from the party over.
With a quick swipe of the mouse and a click on the next folder, a new miniature picture overview came on. She opened the first photo and found herself looking at Sarah who was leaning against a stack of wood, a water bottle in her hand, a backpack on the ground in front of her. Next came a shot of some trees, a stream and snow-covered mountain tops; then Jack with a big stick pretending to herd sheep; Rick and Carrey, smiling, surrounded by sheep; Carrey, still surrounded by sheep, looking into the camera a little uncomfortably, her arms crossed. The herd had followed them all around. It had been funny at first, but then there had been some rain, the grass had gotten slippery and the sheep had come stomping down a sloped pasture after them. That had really freaked them all out. They had eventually made it over a fence before anyone could slip and get trampled, but it had been a somewhat scary experience.
D opened another folder. It started out with some shots from another hike she had taken with Sarah and her friends. Must have been in late October or so. There were Jack and Rick, standing on a muddy path looking a bit unhappy; a close-up of what looked like one frog mounting another; an unfocused shot of Rick and Sun posing arm in arm, typical photo-smiles on their faces; Carrey and herself sitting on a bench, munching on sandwiches…
D marked the best three of the hiking pictures and copied them into the Sarah folder. Then she scribbled a quick note on a piece of paper to help her remember which folders she had already looked.
The next folder, as expected, contained Christmas photos. First a few of the friends in Deens – Jack feeding Sarah a Christmas cookie; Sun and Anja wearing Santa hats; mulled wine party at the dorm… Then pictures of her family around the Christmas tree: Mom trying on the coat she had gotten as a gift; Dad presenting a new tool; Robert hugging a massive cook book…
The shots with the Santa hats and the one of Jack and Sarah with the cookie found their way into the collection for Sarah, then D moved to another folder – one that had been created the following spring.
And there was Venice! Sarah posing in front of some gondolas. Great! She had been kind of looking for that! D smiled to herself at the memory of this fun trip with the Italian course in March of that year. She clicked through the photos: Sarah and someone else waving from the Rialto Bridge; herself leaning against a graffiti-covered house wall, a slice of pizza in her hand; Sarah and herself, with wet hair and drenched, in a restaurant, huge plates of steaming pasta in front of them. They had gotten into a downpour on their way to the hotel and fled into this little over-priced trattoria. Very good picture. Very tempting looking pasta, too. D was glad that she had already eaten breakfast or she may have felt the like cooking pasta now.
The next photo showed herself getting in line for the elevator up to the top of the Campanile on St. Marc’s square and then a shot of Sarah in front of the huge bell up on the Campanile. Only seconds later that thing had started to swing and they had quickly jumped on the next elevator down before the bell could get really started and blow their eardrums out.
D picked five images from the Venice trip and added them to the Sarah folder.
After making a quick note on her piece of paper, she tried to decide which of the 23 folder-icons she should click on next. She went with the following one.
It started out with a grinning Robert beside his new car in front of their parents’ house, then a few photos of some dorm party. Then there was Jack on a wooden porch, a wine glass in his hand. The following photos showed Carrey talking to Sarah in the Reilley’s garden, and finally a close-up of a birthday cake: Happy 21^st^ Birthday.
D felt her throat go dry. These were from Sarah’s 21st birthday party…
Glaring at the screen, she hesitated for a moment. She was definitely entering more uncomfortable territory now!
Drawing in a long breath, she resisted the urge to jump to another, more harmless folder and continued looking through the photos in this one: Sarah with some birthday guests; a great shot of Sarah’s parents; Rick, Carrey and Sun holding up their glasses; Sarah’s Grandma Reilley sitting on a chair, looking exhausted…
Another click and Grandma disappeared. And on came a picture of the entire Reilley family under their cherry tree. D swallowed, her hand on the mouse trembling a little. There was a smiling Sarah with her Mom, her Dad, her Grandma – and Joe.
Her first impulse was to quickly find the X on the right hand corner of the screen and close this folder. But then she stopped herself. Because it was just silly! This picture was almost six years old. She didn’t seriously still have a problem with that?!? Or did she? She kept her gaze on the family for a moment. Then, her heart beating up to her throat, she forced her eyes to focus on Sarah’s brother.
Up until that birthday party she had never met Joe. She had only heard of him when Sarah, her parents or one of the friends talked about him. He had been studying somewhere else and had hardly ever come home.
This first encounter with him at Sarah’s birthday party had, by no means, been a life-changing experience. They had said Hi and that had been it.
D let her eyes trail towards the window for a moment and tilted her head from side to side to loosen up. Then she shifted her gaze back to the screen where the Reilleys were still smiling.
When she had sat down her fifteen minutes ago, she hadn’t been sure which emotional impact looking at these photos would have. It came as an immense relief now to find that it actually was okay. Sitting eye to eye with his picture here, she was still doing fine! She had obviously reached a state where this was nothing but a bunch of old photographs!
She clicked through the rest of the birthday shots feeling content and somewhat elated – almost like after passing a dreaded exam.
Before she closed out of this folder, she copied a few pictures of the birthday girl and friends (not brother, though!) into the Sarah collection and scribbled down some notes. Then she stretched and yawned and told herself that she could stop now. She had enough pictures to prove that she had made an effort. That’s all that mattered. There was no need to look at any more!
On the other hand, why not look at some more? Now that she had seen that it was okay…
She opened the next folder and found herself looking at Sarah and Anja beside their bikes, some beautifully blooming trees behind them; then a shot of herself and Sarah soaking in the spring sun on a bench.
During this bike ride Sarah had told them that her brother was going to be transferring to the university in Deens the beginning of April, and therefore he would be moving back home. Sarah hadn’t known the exact reason for Joe’s sudden transfer, but she had had her theories – all of which included a furious professor catching his daughter or granddaughter with Joe in some compromising position… Almost a year later D had found out what had really happened.
As she absent-mindedly clicked through the next photos now, some images of herself and Robert in Stockholm flashed by. The two of them had taken this trip together during the Easter holidays to visit a friend of Robert’s.
After Stockholm, there were some photos of ‘the gang’ again – this time with paint buckets and paint rollers. Carrey and Anja painting a wall bright orange; Jack stirring the paint; Sarah and Rick taping off the windows frames. Anja had rented that little flat in May of that year and they had all helped to paint it.
D paused for a moment. Joe must have been back in Deens by that time. He wasn’t in any of the pictures, though as he had pretty much kept to himself in the first few months after his return. One reason had been that he had his hands full trying to adapt to the slightly different courses and requirements at Deens University before the end of the term and the final exams. The other reason, and this was one that Sarah just couldn’t help nagging about, was that he just didn’t seem to have much interest in hanging around with his sister and her friends, most of whom had been his friends in the past as well, but would rather ride his motorcycle and hook up with girls.
D scratched her head, trying to concentrate on the photos rather than the memories that were trickling into her mind here. She picked out a few pictures from their painting project and copied them to the compilation for Sarah. Then she moved on to the next folder.
It started with a shot of Jack in front of the Reilleys’ house, showing off his newest remodeled car; then Sarah in the driver’s seat, a skeptical look on her face; Jack and Joe in front of the car, the motorcycle parked on the side.
It had happened gradually. Her falling in love with Sarah’s brother.
She had been over at the Reilleys’ a lot that summer. Sometimes just to pick up Sarah to do something together, sometimes to work on arrangements for the fundraising event for the Italian earthquake survivors that Sarah and she had volunteered for.
With all these visits to the Reilleys’ home and the regular invitations by Mrs. Reilley to just stay around for dinner, it had been unavoidable to run into Joe every now and then. Or sit across from him over dinner for that matter. For a long time their exchanges didn’t go beyond Hi and Bye and the occasional Could you pass me the butter, please?
And then, one Saturday in late July, things had started to change. She had biked over there to pick up Sarah. They had planned to ride their bikes to the river, meet with Robert and Maria there, watch some water skiing event and have a picnic. Unexpectedly Joe had decided to come along. And since his bicycle had previously been stolen, the three of them had ended up driving Mrs. Reilley’s car.
Remembering that day now, D was starting to feel hot.
They had just arrived at the river and found Robert and Maria, when she had started feeling sick. Totally sick. Strong headache and nausea – probably a stomach flu… Joe had ended up driving her back to the dorm. And somehow something had been triggered that day.
Blocking out any deeper thoughts about this, D continued going through the photos. There was Sarah on Joe’s motorcycle with a look on her face that showed how much she detested that thing; Joe and his Dad, both smiling, the tension tangible despite the friendly faces. It had taken a while for her to figure out that this particular smile was Joe’s way to cover up some major unresolved issues.
The next few pictures showed Joe and Jack pruning a tree in the Reilleys’ backyard. Must have been in early August while Mr. and Mrs. Reilley had still been on vacation. Joe and Jack had started out with clippers and ended up using a chain-saw, making a real mess of the tree. Mr. Reilley had not been pleased with the result. D caught herself smiling at the memory – a smile she immediately wiped off her face as soon as she became consciously aware of it.
She clicked further. There were pictures from up at the mountain opposite Deens. She felt her hand on the mouse get a bit unsteady again but continued nevertheless. It had been snowing in the mountains a few days before, but this Saturday morning had been clear and sunny. They had decided to take the cable car up the mountain, so Sarah’s cousin from California, who was visiting at the time, could see some real snow.
The first few shots showed some fabulous views from the cable car – white sun-lit mountaintops, fog in the valley; then a picture of Rick and Sarah at the cable car station as they were putting on their gloves and knitted hats; Jack, Rick and Joe building a snowman.
D swallowed, her eyes fixed to the screen. Joe had come along for this. It had been the first time he had actually participated in any group activity like that.
On the next photo the snowman was finished, wearing someone’s knitted hat, Jack’s scarf and some of Carrey’s cookies as buttons; then there was Tony pretending to strangle the snowman with the scarf; Joe attempting to protect the snowman by threatening Tony with a broken ski pole that he had found nearby; Rick walking away with the snowman’s head under his arm; Anja observing the scene with a fake shocked expression on her face, Sarah cracking up behind her. The next picture showed the entire group standing in two rows around the headless snowman, with Sarah cradling the snowman’s head and Jack patting it.
D paused for a moment and took in that picture. It was hard to keep the memory of this day at arm’s length. Joe had (probably by pure coincidence) been standing right behind her when this picture had been taken. Not close enough to touch, but way too close to ignore. And it had been the first time in history that she had wished for him to stand just a little bit closer.
Stubbornly ignoring the pang that photo had just sent through her stomach, she marked the picture and made sure it found its way into the Sarah folder. It was a good shot and there was absolutely no reason not to include it!
She clicked out of the folder and drew in a long, somewhat shaky breath. Then she leaned back in her chair and glanced at the list of folders on the screen. Maybe it was time to stop now. What she had seen so far had affected her less than expected, and that was a big relief. There was no need to push it, though. And something told her that the material in the following folders would be pushing it. There was going to be plenty of photographic evidence of her relationship with Sarah’s brother. And she really didn’t need to see that.
Or did she?
Twisting a strand of hair around her finger, she dropped her eyes to the keyboard. To stop or not to stop?
She glanced back up at the screen. Whatever the motives, some crazy part of her was itching to see more. Maybe just to check it out, maybe to test herself? She wasn’t quite sure. She just knew that she needed to look at some more. But not all of it…
Hesitantly she steered the cursor towards the next folder and opened it with a double-click. As soon as the overview of miniature pictures came on, she changed the view to list. Instead of the 40 mini pictures like before, there now was a list of 40 file names, each made up of a P followed by a 7-digit number. There was no way of telling which picture was behind which file number.
She was going to play this like Russian roulette – blindly steer the mouse somewhere and double-click on whichever file the cursor landed on. She was going to open a few randomly-picked pictures this way. Four from this folder and four from the following two folders each. Then she would stop and have her shower.
Gnawing on the inside of her cheek, she let the cursor hover over the list for a few seconds. Then, pressing her lips together, she double-clicked on a file. A picture appeared. Of herself, standing next to her bike, shooting an undecided look into the camera. Had this been on the first bike ride with Joe? When he had borrowed Sarah’s baby-blue bike? He must have just grabbed her camera and taken the picture.
Not giving herself time to think about the bike ride any more, she quickly closed the photo and picked another one.
Joe sitting on her dorm bed, a coffee mug in his hand.
She could feel her mouth go dry at this. That had been after the accident. In fact, there, in the right hand corner, leaning against the desk, she could see his crutches.
Drawing in a deep breath, she clicked back to the list of P files.
She was still doing fine, right?
Yeah, no problem!
She placed the cursor on another file and double-clicked. The photo that came up showed her parents’ Christmas tree with a lot of nicely wrapped packages lying underneath. Her jaws pressed together tightly, she remembered how she had left Deens that year to spend the Christmas days with her family. Once there, she had landed in bed with a fever and with no chance to travel back to Deens for her friends’ New Year’s celebration. And then Joe had showed up at her parents’ house on the 28th and ended up staying over New Year’s…
Releasing a shaky breath, she left this folder and opened the next one. Looking at the list of numbers before her, she tensely steered the mouse almost all the way down, then opened a photo: Jack, leaning against a tree and eating a banana, Tony and Kim hugging in the background. Probably one of the first times Tony had brought his girlfriend Kim along.
D moved to the next photo. It showed herself, sitting on a bench with a big sandwich, Joe and Jack standing behind her, Joe pretending to be clawing for her sandwich, an evil grin on his face.
The next photo showed the totally messy kitchen of her dorm after the cleaning service hadn’t showed up for four days in a row. She had e-mailed this ‘piece of evidence’ to the carrier that ran the dorm.
Next picture: Robert, Joe and herself in her parents’ living room, Joe’s arms wrapped around her. Dad had taken this picture… (And Joe had actually tried to tickle her and she had tried to get away from him.)
Before she could get sucked into memories here, she closed the picture and the folder and then just sat there for a moment.
Did she really want to see more?
Not quite sure what was driving her, she spontaneously decided to change her Russian roulette rules and, instead of opening the following folder, take the one after that.
First picture: a small wooden cabin at a lake, trees around it, Joe’s car parked next to it. They had spent a few days at his aunt’s cabin.
Combing her fingers through her hair, D told herself that she should close this photo and carefully avoid the next few. Better open one further down. But her hand had already clicked on the arrow below the picture and made the computer open up the consecutive shot: Joe standing in the lake, bare chest, the water up to his waist, hair dripping wet. In the background his aunt’s cabin.
D swallowed. It really couldn’t get much worse than this. The only thing with more hurt-potential would be a picture of the mattress they had dragged down from the loft in front that night so they could sleep in front of the fireplace. Fortunately they hadn’t taken pictures of that!
Holding her breath, she gave the guy on the screen another glance and then made him disappear.
Okay. Deep breath…
Seen that, survived it!
Last two pictures.
Her hand annoyingly unsteady now, she clicked on whatever the cursor landed on: Joe at the grill, waving a dangerous-looking fork at the camera and smiling a big smile.
D exhaled. Okay. That was clearly enough! She opened her eyes again, clicked out of the picture and scrolled all the way down to the very last photo. She opened it. The setting was in a Chinese restaurant. There were lots of bowls with food on the table, Sarah was smiling at the camera from across the table; to her left, a grinning Rick was holding up his chopsticks, and to her right there was Jack – with Liz cuddling up to him.
At the sight of this, D clenched her jaws so tightly that it almost hurt. She closed the picture. Then she closed her eyes for a moment. With her hand she massaged the back of her neck. Wow! That had been a bit much! She opened her eyes again and released a long breath. She was okay. Yeah, definitely okay!
Finally she straightened up and placed her hand back on the mouse. She opened the collection of pictures that she had put together for Sarah
and burned everything on a CD.
Sarah pushed the shopping cart into the aisle with the noodles. It was 11:30 and the store was crowded. She hated grocery shopping on Saturdays. The plan had been to do this early in the morning. But first the alarm hadn’t gone off because she had forgotten to set it. Then, during breakfast, she had gotten caught up on the phone with her Mom, who was currently in Spain with Aunt Tess. Mom had wanted to catch up with her and ask if she had heard anything from Joe, which Sarah had not. After the phone call she had spent some time putting together a shopping list and she had sent a quick text message to D, pushing her about the photos again…
Looking at her grocery list, Sarah tried to concentrate. She wanted to get the shopping done today, so she could prepare the sauce for the lasagna during the weekend. There wasn’t any time for it on Monday as she was working all day, and on Tuesday she wasn’t getting home until three in the afternoon which would give her just enough time to quickly make the béchamel sauce, layer the lasagna and push it into the oven before Joe arrived.
She glanced from her shopping list into her cart. She already had two packages of lasagna noodles and a head of lettuce. Beside her a young mother was trying to reason with a screaming toddler who wanted to return to the sweets section.
Eager to get away from the screaming, Sarah steered her cart around the corner into the next aisle and towards the canned food section. She had just passed the pineapples when her phone started to ring. She pulled open her big purse and started digging through the contents in order to find the phone before the call could go into voice mail. She was too slow. When she finally managed to locate the phone and pull it out, it had already fallen silent again. The call had been from Joe.
She was about to call him back, when the phone rang again. It was Joe again. She picked up.
“Hello… I was too slow.”
She heard him laugh on the other end. “Do we maybe have a little too much stuff in our purse?”
“Nothing I don’t need,” Sarah retorted.
“Of course! You limit yourself to the absolute essentials, right?” He was definitely making fun of her.
“Yeah, yeah, just make fun of me!” she said. “Where are you?”
“I’m on my way to the airport.”
Sarah was confused. “I though you weren’t going to Amsterdam until tomorrow.”
“Well, the initial plan has changed a little,” Joe said evasively. “I’m going today. And I’ll probably have the phone turned off most of the time. There’s just going to be so many meetings and stuff… But I’ll check my messages every once in a while.”
“You’re still coming back Tuesday though, right?”
“Yeah, that hasn’t changed. I land around four-thirty. So, I should be at your place around six. I’ll give you a call from the airport, though, once I get in.”
”Okay, sounds good,” Sarah said and took four cans of tomatoes from the shelf in front of her. She also grabbed some tomato paste and then pushed the cart on towards the cooling section.
“I’m just buying stuff for making lasagna Tuesday night,” she told him. “I’m going to try Mom’s recipe. So, make sure you’re hungry!”
“Sounds great!” Joe sounded thrilled. “Don’t worry, I’ll be hungry. Makes me drool already.”
“Good!” The phone tucked between her head and her shoulder, Sarah leaned down and reached for a carton of milk, almost dropping the phone in the process. She caught it in mid-air and straightened up putting the phone back against her ear and the milk into her cart.
“I still can’t believe you’re actually really coming,” she said.
“Yeah, I know…” he laughed but it sounded a bit forced. He said something else, but the connection was starting to go bad. “Can… still hear me?” he asked, but he was breaking up.
Sarah frowned. “The connection is pretty bad,” she said, not sure how much of it he would even understand. The last thing she heard of him sounded like “…call you Tuesday…” Then he was gone.
Snorting, Sarah ended the call and was about to put the phone back into her purse, when she heard a text message coming in. It was from D:
Photos ready. You can come for coffee and pick them up any time before 3.
Sarah raised her eyebrows at this pleasant surprise. Who would have thought? She checked her watch and then quickly wrote back.
Great. I’ll come by around one.
After she had packed away the phone, she worked off the rest of her shopping list. She was already on her way to the checkout when she changed her mind, turned around again and went to get ladyfingers, mascarpone and an additional carton of eggs for making tiramisu – her favorite dessert and, as far as she remembered, her brother’s as well.
Joe reached the airport after a forty-minute drive. He took his trolley, the suit bag and the laptop out of the trunk and headed for the terminal.
It was only noon. Still two hours to kill. He bought a sandwich and something to drink at one of the snack stands and sat down in the waiting area of a gate that didn’t have any flights scheduled anytime soon and was therefore deserted. He would eventually move to his designated gate but for right now he was just going to sit here, eat his sandwich and watch the crowds hurrying by. It was somehow relaxing.
If things had gone as planned, he wouldn’t only be flying out tomorrow instead of today, but he would also be travelling in the company of Eric, Steve’s geeky assistant. But things had absolutely not gone as planned.
Eric had been supposed to become his backup regarding SCANY, the Dutch company Joe was about to visit. SCANY wasn’t only their most important customer/business partner but had also been the very first… He would never forget how, at a time when the Homepage of their new software company had still been running a little bumpily, the company name – which they had decided would be Reilley&Davis – hadn’t yet been properly registered and the e-mail account was barely set up, they had suddenly received an inquiry from the Netherlands. It had been from a Jan van de Velde who wrote that he had just come across their website and was wondering if they might be able to come up with a tailor-made solution for a filing and documentation software that he needed for his company by the name of SCANY. Steve had gotten in touch with Jan and asked for SCANY’s specific requirements, which Jan had consequently sent them summarized on six pages.
Joe remembered Steve and himself spending the next two days and parts of the nights in the small office they had been renting at the time, feverishly trying to figure out if – and how – they could do it. They had been so excited. And they had finally come up with a draft solution. And Jan had been just enthusiastic about it. It sounded like Jan had talked to several other companies previously – with very little luck regarding both, the programming itself and his requirement that someone at SCANY’s IT department would be trained in the new program well enough to do the basic troubleshooting and support in-house. To Steve and Joe that requirement hadn’t been a problem but rather a great relief as, at the time, R&D had consisted only of the two of them and a part-time assistant. Therefore, not having to do all the support for SCANY themselves had seemed like a blessing. They had eventually closed the deal with SCANY – making more money on it than Steve and he had thought realistic. Still, the price seemed to have been considerably less than what Jan had anticipated. SCANY had consequently played a big part in R&D’s taking off as quickly and well as it did, simply because Jan knew a lot of people that he recommended R&D to. Through Jan R&D had gotten in touch with other potential customers, many of which had actually stuck.
Today R&D had a pretty good customer base and had grown from three people in a tiny office to 10 people occupying the entire first floor of a new office building that Steve’s Dad had built.
Eighteen months ago R&D and SCANY had entered into a cooperation that would let SCANY represent R&D’s products and even do some of the servicing, mainly in the Benelux states and Scandinavian countries. Clearly a win-win situation. Only that six months later that whole nice arrangement had almost fallen apart because of some stupid misunderstanding between Jan and Steve about a commission payment. Joe, who normally was Jan’s primary contact, had been out of the office for his Dad’s funeral and had, upon his return, found the whole SCANY cooperation in jeopardy. Jan’s and Steve’s accounts of what had happened contradicted each other drastically, almost like with two pouting kids who now blamed each other for starting the fight. Knowing both Steve and Jan, Joe guessed that they had both had a bad day before the disastrous telephone conversation and, since they both did have a bit of a temper when under a lot of stress, one thing had probably led to another and they had ended up yelling at each other on the phone (that’s where their reports matched). The call had ended with Jan announcing that he was going to quit every contract he had ever had with R&D. Then he had hung up.
When Joe had finally come back and heard about the clash, he had called Jan – with little hope of still being able to save anything. To his surprise, Jan had not just been willing to take the call but had also calmed down to the point where he wasn’t raging anymore, just nagging a bit. They had had an unexpectedly productive conversation at the end of which Joe felt positive that they had successfully straightened things out. With the funds having been transferred as well, there hadn’t been any talk about Jan not wanting to work with R&D anymore. He had, however, insisted that he didn’t want to deal directly with Steve ever again. This had been a condition that Joe had felt they simply had to accept, even though it was highly inconvenient as Steve had always been his backup for everything, including SCANY.
In the following months Joe had handled all phone calls and visits to SCANY exclusively while Steve had stayed involved but only in the background. It had been clear, though, that sooner or later there needed to be someone new who could cover for Joe when it came to SCANY. The man of choice had been Eric, who had already been Steve’s right hand for a while and who knew the program SCANY was using by heart. Eric had never met Jan or any of the other SCANY people yet or even talked to them on the phone. Therefore, it had seemed like a good idea for Joe to take Eric along for this trip, introduce him to the key people, get him acquainted with the SCANY facility… That had been the plan. Until Joe had realized three weeks ago that he absolutely couldn’t travel with Eric.
He had first noticed that Eric was acting kind of weird around him over two months ago. He hadn’t given it much thought, however. Then, one evening about three weeks ago, he had been in the office later than normal, and suddenly Eric had dropped in. He had looked pale and unusually nervous and had asked if they could talk. A little surprised Joe had offered him the chair across the desk from him, and Eric sat down, reeling off some strange introduction about how he just needed to get this off his chest, even if he was probably going to be fired as a consequence. Joe’s imagination of possible offenses at that point ranged from Eric embezzling money to Eric selling company secrets. And while he was still considering how he would react to any of that, Joe suddenly found himself listening to Eric describing his recent visit to an art gallery – to the opening night of an exhibition featuring Eric’s favorite contemporary sculptor, to be precise. Avoiding eye contact, Eric went on to report running into Liz right when he had arrived. That’s when Joe made the connection that they were obviously talking about the gallery Liz was working for. Liz’s job there was actually a day-time office job that involved arranging for paintings or sculptures and whatever else was called art nowadays to be booked, properly wrapped, shipped, insured and later unwrapped and set up in the gallery as impressively as possible. Sometimes she also planned the evening receptions, arranged for the invitations to be sent to the VIP guests and booked the caterer. Personally attending those evening things wasn’t part of Liz’s job description. But she still wouldn’t miss it for the world! It was probably the part of her job she liked the most…
Eric had immediately recognized her, of course. She had shown up in the office often enough – to see Joe or her brother. And she had probably never given Eric as much as a nod at R&D. But now, at the art gallery, she had (according to Eric) been treating him like a good old friend. And Joe could just picture it, too. Low-cut dress, dangerously high heels, lots of make-up, some alcohol, sweetest voice…
Sitting before him in the dimly lit office, Eric continued his account of that evening: Liz had been so nice as to introduce him to the artist in person. A real uplifting experience, of course, because that guy (Joe had forgotten the name as soon as it had been mentioned) was the name amongst contemporary sculptors working with bronze.
Joe was about ready to tell Eric to speed it up, for God’s sake, and get to the point instead of being so annoyingly specific on all the boring art details. He didn’t know the artist and didn’t give a shit either. Especially since it was crystal-clear to him by now that the whole art-crap was only unimportant information on the side. From the moment Eric had first dropped Liz’s name, Joe had had the distinct feeling that he could predict where this was going, even if just roughly.
Still, Eric kept on babbling about some of the magnificent pieces the gallery had had on display that night. And that in the course of the evening he had had a bit much of the complimentary sparkling wine. Finally Eric started talking about it getting late and his picking up his coat to go home. And that’s when – surprise! – he ran into Liz again. She was about to leave as well and (according to Eric) suggested that they share a taxi. Because she supposedly was a bit scared all alone as a woman at that time of night. And after all, they only lived a few blocks apart. Eric had been surprised and, so Joe suspected, flattered that she even knew where he lived. And that she apparently viewed him as prime protector material.
Joe had to keep himself from moaning and rolling his eyes at so much naiveté. But who could blame Eric? He just lacked the extensive experience Joe had gathered with Liz over the last few years. Experience that made it possible for him to imagine very clearly even the many things Eric hadn’t mentioned yet or was for sure going to be leaving out. Liz all tipsy and giggly from the drinks she had undoubtedly had, merely stumbling into the taxi, her pushed-up breasts barely contained in the low-cut dress, freshly painted lips smiling at Eric as he slid in next to her, Liz huddling against him during the drive, telling him some anecdotes from the art gallery, her persuading him to get out at her place and come upstairs just for a quick drink – just to make sure there were no predators looming in the stairways. Then, in the flat the strap of her dress slipping as she served the drinks; her telling Eric that she was lonely and unhappy; her applying one of those highly seductive kisses that were lethal to the untrained victim… And while Joe was already wracking his brain if geeky Eric had actually had the guts to sleep with her and if so, where and how, Eric was still lagging way behind with his report, babbling about the taxi ride and how she had leaned closer than he had felt comfortable with, but well, he didn’t want to offend her. And then… – ahem… she had kind of persuaded him to come upstairs with her… His voice suddenly cracking and his eyes firmly on the desktop between them, Eric insisted that he didn’t know how it had happened, but that he had had way too much to drink obviously, which hardly ever happened, and that she must have gotten him in a really weak moment because otherwise he would have never… Well, but then she had been kissing him and – yeah…– well…– you know… Shit! – I’m really sorry…
Digging his fingers into the armrests of his chair, Joe tried to keep a straight face when at the same time he was torn apart between getting up and breaking Eric’s nose and just bursting out in a crazy laughter. Not because it was funny. It really wasn’t. It was anything but funny. But he knew that kind of kiss, didn’t he? A kiss that literally wiped your mind clear of any good judgment. A kiss that assured you that she was fine with anything you could possibly dream up. It had worked on him, hadn’t it? Three years ago? Not at the very first attempt, but eventually it had worked just fine even on him.
Across the desk Eric had fallen silent. Obviously unable or unwilling now to put the rest of his story into clear words or full sentences. He was sitting there, hanging his head and probably waiting for Joe to explode, fire him, kick him out of the office and end his misery. But Joe, not even sure himself what was driving him, felt this sick need to hear more. Make absolutely sure he had understood correctly and he wasn’t misinterpreting anything or assuming things that really hadn’t happened.
He cleared his throat and looked right at Eric. “Okay, Eric…” Even to himself he sounded ghastly unemotional, almost a little bored. “If I’m reading this right, you’re trying to tell me that you screwed my girlfriend, right?”
Eric’s eyes darted up and then quickly away again. Face beet red, he was scrambling for words. Obviously he would have preferred being fired and kicked out to having Joe phrase his offense so accurately.
“So, where exactly did this happen?” Joe inquired sharply. “In our bed?”
Eric’s eyes widened at the question. Then he gave a short shake of his head, which could either mean a negative response or just a sign of disbelief at the question itself. Joe wasn’t sure.
“Where?” Joe pressed, leaning forward on the desk a little. “In our bed? On the kitchen table? The washing machine? The sofa? So many possibilities…”
Eric stared back at him like he doubted Joe’s mental sanity. Then he shook his head again and looked away.
Furious at the cowardice, Joe slammed his hands onto the desk and then pushed himself away from it on the rolling chair, almost running into the file cabinet behind him in the process. “I asked you a question – even multiple choice…” he barked, “and I want you to fucking answer me! Where?” Finally he was finding words and a tone that seemed to fit the situation…
Eric had closed his eyes for an instant and shaken his head some more. But then he cleared his throat and choked out an answer: “Sofa.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Joe glared at him for a moment. Then he exhaled sharply. Okay. Now he knew… Maybe, if Liz hadn’t a few months prior to this, revealed to him with a lot of satisfaction that she had slept with Bob, her boss’s husband, Eric’s account would have shocked him. But it didn’t. Not really. Not anymore. After all, he was almost sure that there hadn’t just been Bob – and now Eric. He had reason to believe that she also had had or was still having something going on with the dorky neighbor upstairs and some body-builder delivery guy from the gallery. Maybe even with some of the artists, who knew? From the way it looked, she didn’t seem to be real picky… And of course she justified it to herself as being just a pay-back for all the affairs she suspected him of having.
Joe scratched his head trying to decide how to proceed with Eric here. He had absolutely no idea what was customary in this kind of situation. Whatever it was, it surely didn’t involve asking for more detailed information. But as sick as it was, he would have just loved to continue his cross examination, find out the exact position maybe. He was just burning to know if Liz had chosen the more conservative or the really wild ride with this particular victim. One look at Eric made it seem unlikely, though, that he was going to give that kind of information unless physically tortured. And in a way Joe wasn’t entirely sure if he himself was really withdrawn enough to be able to handle an honest answer.
“Did you stay overnight?” he had asked instead.
Staring at him wide-eyed, Eric looked like he was in pain. (Even without actual torture!)
“I mean, it’s a comfortable sofa…” Joe pushed.
“I was drunk,” Eric said evasively.
“Right. So, you fell asleep right afterwards and stayed…”
Eric nodded. He seemed to have shrunk over the last ten minutes. It made Joe realize that Eric probably felt like the mouse that was being teased by the evil cat. Which was ironic, because if there was an evil cat in this game, it was definitely Liz, wasn’t it? Only that, if Liz was the cat and Eric was the mouse, Joe wasn’t quite sure what that made him. He absolutely refused to see himself as just another mouse. Maybe he could be the dog that chased the cat and the mice…
“I’m really sorry,” Eric mumbled, his gaze down on his lap. “I know I totally screwed up… And believe me, it’s really been haunting me. And I didn’t want you to find out from anyone else.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for that,” Joe said dryly, unable to see great advantages of finding out this way.
“I normally don’t do this kind of thing,” Eric insisted. “One night stands are absolutely not my thing. Let alone with…” he sucked in a quick breath instead of finishing the sentence. “Anyway, it happened. And I understand if you want to fire me. You can tell Steve tomorrow…”
Joe scratched his head. “Like, Oh, good morning Steve! By the way, I fired your assistant because he screwed your sister… Like that?”
Chewing on his lip, his expression frozen, Eric shrugged.
Joe watched him for a moment, trying to concentrate. This was just the weirdest situation.
“Okay Eric,” he finally said through clenched teeth. “As sick as I may find this, I don’t see much benefit in firing you. You’re good at what you do, workwise I mean…” He had to keep his thoughts from wandering off and imagining Liz and Eric without any clothes, entangled in some twisted Kamasutra position and Eric being good at that. “You’re Steve’s assistant, not mine. And as far as I’m concerned, Steve doesn’t really need to be informed about this.”
Eric gave him an almost incredulous look.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Joe growled, “I do find this disgusting. But you’re not exactly Liz’s first – how shall I say?- adventure… It might come as a disappointment to you, but it’s not that you’re so extremely irresistible, Eric, but just that she’s so… never mind!”
While Eric stared back at him blankly, he continued: “But even though I want you to stay on, I personally don’t want to have anything to do with you in the near future. So, try to stay out of my way, okay? And come up with some excuse why you can’t fly to Amsterdam with me.”
“Okay…” Eric had nodded, his expression reflecting both confusion and relief about this arrangement. “Thanks…” A little shakily he had gotten up and left.
Joe hadn’t gone home that evening but spent the night on his office-sofa. The next morning he had sent Liz a text message.
Just in case [_ you’re wondering. Didn’t feel like leaving the office after Eric dropped by last night and told me about you f*** him. Your brother’s assistant of all people!?! _]
She had called him back right away but he hadn’t picked up.
Then he had received a test message.
Jealous, Honey? Well, I guess I was lonely that night. Blame yourself! Eric’s pretty good, by the way…
And he had sent her back,
You’re just sick…!
The loudspeaker calling some passengers for the final boarding of a flight to Oslo jerked Joe out of his unpleasant memories. He looked at his watch and realized that the boarding of his own flight was about to start. He grabbed his stuff and made his way to the crowded gate for Amsterdam. It would be a short flight.
Sarah drove home and put away the groceries. Then she warmed up some leftover soup in the microwave and ate it leaning against the fridge.
She still couldn’t quite believe that Joe was really coming. And even less that he was coming alone – without Liz.
He had only been back in Deens twice over the last three years.
The first time had been for his last two exams, just three months after he had left. He didn’t even stay at home for that. He had asked Jack for asylum; supposedly to avoid his Dad. But Sarah suspected that Joe had also wanted to avoid his sister … She hadn’t really cared to see him either. She had still been so mad at him for being what she considered unbelievably stupid.
Mom had gone and met with him, of course, on the second evening of his stay. To celebrate that he had passed his two exams just fine. Sarah had refused to come along. Just to make a point.
Looking back now, she could hardly believe she had ever been so childishly stubborn. She would have probably even let him leave and stayed mad at him forever (or at least for a few more months or years). But then he had called her on the last evening. Because Jack had made him call her. They had grumbled at each other on the phone a bit and then just fallen into this frozen silence. That’s when Jack had snatched the phone away from Joe and given her a piece of his mind. He had said something like, “Okay, Sarah, either you come over here right now, and you and Joe stop behaving like silly little brats and try to work things out, or I’m not going to talk to either of you ever again!”
Somehow that had maybe been the push she had needed. She had gone over there. And at first Joe and she had grumbled at each other some more in Jack’s small living room, while Jack had been sitting in his TV-chair, keeping a close eye on them like a referee. Finally they had given up the grumbling and talked like normal people. And they had admitted that they actually did miss each other. They hadn’t talked about Liz, though. Or D. Because there was this mutual understanding that they would never find any common ground on these issues. Instead Joe had told her that he was trying to start a software company with Liz’s brother, and how living somewhere away from home was just something he felt he had to do. And she had said she understood, even though she had wanted to scream at him why in the world his moving-out-from-home experiments had to involve Liz…
She had left Jack’s place a few hours later feeling halfway relieved and as if she and Joe had just successfully averted the danger of losing each other.
They had stayed in touch after that. Not as much as they should have probably, but they had exchanged e-mails every other week and talked on the phone at special occasions like birthdays and for Christmas.
All this time she could never tell for sure how he was really doing. He claimed to be fine on a regular basis, but she didn’t quite buy it.
Then, thirteen months ago, their Dad had died. Totally unexpectedly. In his office. From a heart attack. While working late. His assistant had found him and called the ambulance, but there had been nothing that could be done.
Joe had arrived two days before the funeral – with Liz. It had been crazy with all of them functioning in a haze, shocked from the loss, overwhelmed first by the hurried preparations for the funeral and finally by the bleak fact of the funeral itself.
Sarah had hoped she and Joe would get a chance to talk sometime during the four days he was in Deens – just the two of them. But then Liz had seemed to be glued to him at all times. And with her around Sarah just didn’t feel like having conversations of any depth with him.
Then, on the morning of the day Joe and Liz were supposed to leave again, Sarah had gotten up early to go to work. Unexpectedly she had found her brother sitting in the living room all by himself, sipping coffee. Maybe it had been a coincidence, maybe he had gotten up early to get her alone – Sarah wasn’t sure even today.
She had gone and sat with him for a few minutes.
“You probably think I don’t care, right?” he had said, his head leaning against the back of the sofa.
“No, I don’t,” Sarah had responded. “I know you do care. And even if it’s just about Mom and me and Gran.”
“I do worry about Mom,” he had said and chewed on his lip.
“Yeah, it’s real hard on her…” Sarah remembered saying, “but she’ll be okay after a while.” She had put all her conviction into that, even though she had been equally concerned at the time. “I’m worried about you, though?”
“You and Dad never made peace. That must be hard…”
“Yeah I guess,” Joe had mumbled evasively, and she had assumed he just didn’t want to talk about it. So, determined not to pressure him about his feelings regarding Dad any more, she had asked how he was doing – in general. And he had insisted that things were going great. Or had he just said ‘Okay’? She couldn’t remember now. Still, she had told him that if he ever needed a vacation (from work or anything else…) he could come back and use his old room anytime. And he had laughed, leaned over and given her a spontaneous hug.
They had been in closer contact after the funeral. More calls, regular e-mails. And, even though he kept telling her things were fine, she had this nagging feeling that they were not.
Of course, part of it might have been wishful thinking because even after the over two years that he had been with Liz by then, Sarah couldn’t imagine how he could possibly be happy with Liz.
When the idea of doing the reunion get-together had started to take shape, she had forwarded Joe the invitation. And so had Jack. Not in their wildest dreams had they expected a positive response. And then, one morning three weeks ago, there had suddenly been this e-mail from him, titled ‘Coming’.
It had just been this very short message:
just decided I’d like to come for this. Could I stay with you?
She had reread it twice to make sure she didn’t get it wrong and then sent it on to Jack, who had been equally thrilled. She had responded:
Wow! I’m still trying to recover from the surprise! Sure you can stay with me! I’ve got a whole house here… The longer the better! Jack says Hi. Wants to know if you want to share a room with him at the hotel? We’ll make the reservations.
Joe had answered:
Sharing a room with Jack sounds great. Tell him Hi. I might actually really stay a little longer. Would that be okay?
And she had texted back:
Yes. Would definitely be okay. Would be great, in fact!
Sarah put her empty soup cup into the dishwasher and refilled her water glass. Somehow, until Joe’s call this morning, she had still feared he might cancel the whole thing. From the way it looked, that could be ruled out now. He was going to be here for their get-together! And with that being clear now, it was high time for her to tackle a problem she had tried to avoid worrying about so far: She needed to finally tell D!
“Hi, Sarah!” With a big smile D let her in. “We can have coffee outside, if you want…” She nodded towards the deck outside the big living room window behind the sofa. “The sun is shining, the birds are singing and surprisingly no one has started a lawn mower yet.” D made a swirling gesture with her hand.
“Sounds good!” Sarah smiled and followed her friend through the small entryway into the living room and over to the kitchen.
“Here are the pictures,” D held up the CD case that had been lying on the bar counter. “I burned them onto a CD. But you can check them out on the old computer while I make coffee.”
“Oh, okay. Sure… Thanks.” Sarah placed her purse on one of the bar stools and relocated to the other room where the big PC was humming. She sat down in front of it, her eyes fixed on the screen. She felt tense. Her mind was buzzing with possible ways of breaking the news to her friend out there, that Joe was coming. Unfortunately she hadn’t been able to come up with anything really promising so far. She actually had no idea how to deliver this gingerly.
Lost in these kinds of thoughts, Sarah clicked on the folder with her name on it. It was kind of encouraging that D, after obviously having spent part of the morning going through her pictures here, still seemed to be in a much sunnier mood than Sarah had expected. But maybe D had just very selectively looked through the right kind of pictures…
Sarah flipped through the photos. They were actually really good. The picture of D in front of the Campanile in Venice made her laugh out loud. She clicked further. And laughed some more. Man, had she and D really had haircuts like that?
“What was that?” D called over from the kitchen, apparently wondering which of her pictures had made Sarah laugh.
“Our hair,” Sarah chuckled, “in the Venice pictures. And boy, the ones with the sheep – Jack was so skinny and tall…”
“Well, he’s still tall,” D laughed. “Just not quite as skinny. Looks better now if you ask me.”
Sarah nodded to herself and clicked further.
D must have actually really made an effort here. There were shots from various events and years. It didn’t look like she had limited her search to pre-Joe pictures. Sarah moved through the photos more quickly now, knowing that once Jack had incorporated those in his big slide show, she would get to see them on the big screen in the hotel anyway.
Suddenly she stopped. Squinted at the photo before her. Leaned towards the screen a bit to have a closer look. There was everyone gathered around the big snow man. Everyone including Joe…
Sarah clicked her tongue in surprise. That was an unexpected shot to find in this collection! Maybe a good sign? Maybe D wouldn’t find the news so bad after all? One could always hope…
Sarah sped through the rest of the folder contents looking for more encouragement of this kind, but in the end, the snowman photo remained the only one that did have her brother’s face on it.
She closed the folder and returned to the kitchen.
“Some really good shots!” she beamed. “Thanks for digging them out!”
She stepped up to the bar counter and took the coffee mug that D had set there for her. Suddenly the blue folder with the Tower Bridge picture caught her eye. “What’s that?” she asked with a nod at it.
“Oh, nothing,” D said a little too quickly.
Sarah raised her eyebrows.
Countering that look, D shrugged. “Well, you can look through it. It’s not that exciting.”
“Are you sure?” Sarah meant it. She didn’t want to poke around things that D didn’t want to share.
“Yeah, just look at it…” D nodded.
Sarah pulled the folder towards herself and started flipping through the first few pages.
“I didn’t know your company had an office in London,” she said with a surprised glance across the counter at D.
“They’ve had it for two years or so,” D told her while putting some cookies from a package onto a plate.
“They’re looking for people to go over there, huh?” Sarah had gotten to the pages with the job descriptions.
D nodded. “Yeah, there are three jobs they are trying to fill.”
Sarah closed the folder and shot a cautious look at D. “Are you thinking about it?”
D shook her head. “Not really. I haven’t even properly looked through the folder yet.” She paused for a moment, picked up her coffee cup and the cookie plate. “June is probably going, though,” she said, “and she’s been bugging me to at least read the folder before I reject it.”
“June is going? Really?” Sarah knew that June was D’s favorite colleague and the one she shared the office with.
“Yeah, she kind of jumped on it as soon as the opportunity came up. Wants to get away. She’s really excited about it. And I get to hear every new detail she finds out about it, whether I want to or not.”
Sarah got up from her chair, her eyes still on the folder cover.
“And they want you to go as well?”
“More or less.”
“Wow. That’s kind of exciting, though,” Sarah said. “You’re not even tempted?”
“Like I said, I haven’t even really looked into it,” D responded a little impatiently.
“I thought you liked London during the two exchange semesters,” Sarah pushed.
“Yeah, sure…” D shrugged. “I liked it. Still… moving there for work, well, I don’t know… So far I haven’t given it much thought. Really. I’ll look at it, though. Even if just to satisfy June. And if then I suddenly decide to apply after all, you’ll be the first to know!”
“Thank you!” Sarah smiled.
Her mug in one hand and the cookie plate in the other, D stepped out of the kitchen area into the living room. “Let’s go outside.” She headed towards the door to the deck and Sarah followed her, shooting a quick look towards D’s half-open bedroom door.
“Still cleaning out your closets, huh?” Sarah asked.
D sighed. “Yeah, but I’m almost done. Even if it doesn’t look like it. Just need to go to the container sometime.”
Sarah had come to a halt in the living room. And from where she was standing, she was glancing towards the piles of stuff on D’s bed.
“Do I see Pete’s favorite dress in that pile?” she asked.
“Yep,” D laughed. “What good eyes you have. You can have it, if you like. Still fits, so it should fit you. I’ll even throw in some deadly sandals to go with it.”
Sarah quickly shook her head. “No thanks! But if that’s the curtains from the dorm under that horrible table cloth, I’ll take those before you get rid of them.”
“Sure. I can’t really use them here. And I do need to get rid of some stuff. So, if you want them. I think there are two small pillow cases somewhere as well…”
“Yeah, maybe. If you could save this stuff, that would be great. I’ll pick it up next time I’m here.”
“Sure.” D stepped out onto the deck, put the plate and her mug down on the round wooden table and opened the umbrella that was attached to the railing. Then she came back to the table and sat down across from Sarah. “Have you found a way to take Wednesday evening off, yet?” she asked reaching for a cookie.
“No, there’s no way.” Sarah shook her head and took a quick sip from her coffee. “I tried, but now, on top of everything else, one colleague, the one that is having a baby, has called in sick. So now we’re one person short even.” She paused. “I’ll have Friday and the whole weekend off, though. That’s cast in stone – Thank God!”
“Well, that’s at least something,” D agreed, trying to sound positive. “Too bad about the grill party, but the main thing is that you’ll be there for the weekend, of course!”
“Yeah…” Sarah nodded with a weak smile. Her job at the hospital had some irregular hours, some very early shifts and some late shifts that were compensated with time off during the day, when people like D had to work. Sometimes getting time off was a real pain, though. But since she loved the job and the people she worked with, she had stuck with it so far.
Glancing at D, who was sitting comfortably leaned back in her chair, legs crossed, both hands wrapped around her coffee mug in her lap, Sarah wished she was feeling nearly as relaxed as D looked. The unfinished business of delivering the Joe-related news was starting to weigh heavily on her.
She let her gaze wander around; to the different plants D had arranged on and around the deck, most of them blooming nicely – with the exception of one potted tree that looked dead.
On the stairs that led from the wooden deck into the small garden below, there were planters with tomatoes. Even though the tomatoes were still green, they did look promising.
With an uneasy feeling in her stomach Sarah forced herself to look back at her friend.
“What?” D asked, tilting her head. “What’s with the silence and the strange look?”
Sarah swallowed. Was it that obvious? Well, it was now or never! As much as she hated to destroy D’s good mood, she really couldn’t put it off any longer. She would have to drop the bomb sometime.
“Well…“ Sarah drew in a deep breath, her eyes trailing off towards the tomato bushes again. “There’s actually something I need to tell you…“
From the corner of her eye she could see D set down the coffee and shoot her a quizzical look. “What kind of an introduction is that?” There was a trace of amusement in her voice. “Has someone died?” Of course she knew that no one had died.
With a forced little laugh Sarah shook her head. “No, no one has died, ” she said while thinking to herself that it was more like someone rising from the dead. But she could hardly say that out loud.
“It’s probably not even a real big deal…” she said trying for a light and cheerful tone despite the sudden dryness in her mouth. The way D looked back at her proved that she wasn’t buying it. Instead she seemed to already be feverishly trying to figure out what this could possibly be about.
So, before D could come to any conclusion, Sarah just said it.
“Joe’s coming for the reunion.”
Plop! There it was. Bomb dropped. Waiting for it to explode…
It took a few seconds for the message to sink in. Sarah could see it in D’s face. First she blinked a few times. Then, for just a fraction of a second, she had this deer-in-the-headlights look that was almost immediately replaced by a controlled, unreadable mask.
“Oh is he?” she scoffed, her gaze dropping to the cookie plate. “What a great surprise!” With her thumb she brushed over the rim of the plate. “Absolutely makes my day…” The tone was pure sarcasm.
Sarah watched her cautiously. She couldn’t even remember when she had last mentioned her brother’s name with D around. She had avoided it whenever she could. But today she didn’t really have a choice. Joe was coming and D had to know!
“He’s coming Tuesday afternoon,” Sarah said – the underlying message being that, while she wasn’t going to be there for the grill party on Wednesday, one member of the Reilley family would.
D nodded, her eyes never leaving the plate. She sucked in an audible breath and took a cookie.
Sarah was scrambling for something to say. “D, I know…”
“It’s fine!” The cookie still in her hand, D looked up at Sarah. A hard look. “It’s perfectly fine… It’s a surprise, of course – and not exactly a good one, if you allow me to say so. But if he wants to come…” Instead of finishing her sentence she shrugged and stuffed the cookie into her mouth.
Sarah drank some of her coffee, feeling guilty. Even though she couldn’t exactly have said of what.
“I should have probably told you earlier,” she finally said. “I mean, I’ve kind of known for two weeks that he might come. But until this morning I was still expecting him to cancel. I didn’t want to upset you unless I was perfectly sure…”
D’s eyes seemed to narrow a bit. “I’m not upset at all!” she insisted, picking up her mug. “Why would I be upset? He can do what he wants. I don’t care!”
“Right,” Sarah said dryly. “Good for you.”
The sarcastic edge to Sarah’s tone wasn’t lost to D, of course. She gave Sarah a brief sour look, then quickly raised the cup to her lips and drank a few sips. Then she set it back down on the table, cupping it in both hands. A seemingly endless minute passed without either of them saying a word or allowing eye contact.
Finally D let go of the cup, leaned forward a bit, her elbows resting on the table and started stacking the remaining cookies into a little tower.
“Is she coming too?” she inquired, her eyes firmly on the cookie construction.
Sarah shook her head. “No, just Joe.”
Gazing at her cookie tower, D was trying to pull herself together. God, she just hated how this threw her off. This kind of thing really shouldn’t have such an impact! What was her problem anyway? There had always been the possibility that he’d come, hadn’t there? After all, the underlying goal of a reunion was to get everyone together. Only that, after he had so totally dropped out of all of their lives (except for maybe Sarah’s), it had appeared safe to not even seriously consider that he might show up for this thing. It had seemed so unlikely, that she had just ruled it out. Her mistake! He was coming after all! Voila! Boom! Crap! She better get her act together here very quickly!
She peered across the table at Sarah, who was pretending to be fascinated by the appearance of the limp-looking apple tree in the neighbor’s garden.
This was a real crappy situation for Sarah as well. D was aware of that. Sarah was probably totally torn apart between her brother, who she was doubtlessly looking forward to seeing, and her best friend, who would rather not be reminded that this brother even existed. It sure couldn’t be fun.
D tried to imagine the same constellation with her own brother and Sarah. It made her cringe. It would be close to impossible to constantly filter out everything she might have on her mind regarding Robert… And something told her that Sarah probably had quite a few things on her mind regarding her brother. Realizing that, D straightened up. She owed it to Sarah to behave like an adult here and not make this extra hard on her.
”It really isn’t a big deal,” she claimed with a light shrug and a smile. She was impressed how calm and reasonable her voice sounded. ”It’s good to know, though.” She leaned back in her chair and tried to relax a little. “I’ll prepare myself for that encounter and it’ll be okay. Not a big deal! Really!”
Sarah looked back at her, not entirely convinced yet but appearing a little less tense. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” she said, sounding relieved. “I mean, it’s not like I could have done anything about it anyway, but still…” She took a cookie from the pile.
“The main thing is that I don’t have to see her,” D said. “Everything else I can easily handle – especially if it’s in a group setting.”
Sarah smiled and nodded. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I was thinking. It shouldn’t be too hard for you guys to stay out of each other’s way with a whole bunch of other people to talk to and hang around with.” She paused and took a sip of coffee. As she sat down her mug on the table, a somewhat conspiring smile appeared on her face. “To be honest, I’m actually absolutely thrilled myself that Madame isn’t planning on coming,” she said. “I’m almost hoping I’ll never have to see her again, but that’s probably asking way too much!” She let the bit of coffee she still had left in her cup swish around a bit. “I’m not sure what’s really going on with them at the moment. But I guess I’ll find out…”
With a little shrug she looked up at D.
D bit her lip, struggling to keep her expression neutral. She couldn’t blame Sarah for maybe wanting to talk about this with a friend. She just knew that in this special case it absolutely couldn’t be her. Because there was just no acceptable and civilized response that came to her mind. They can both rot in hell as far as I’m concerned! would hardly qualify as a constructive comment in the eyes of his sister. So, instead of any response, she took her own coffee cup and poured down what had been left inside. When she glanced across the table again, she found Sarah looking back at her with an apologetic half-smile.
“Sorry,” Sarah said. “I know you probably don’t want to hear my contemplations on this.”
Mirroring Sarah’s expression, D shrugged. “It’s okay,” she muttered. “I just don’t know what to say. Can’t really think of anything nice…”
The way she said it, made Sarah laugh. And at the end, they were both laughing, relieved that this tricky talk had gone relatively well, and both of them determined not to worry just yet what kind of strain Joe’s being here might put on their friendship.
“I should get going,” Sarah announced with a quick look at her watch. Time to make a cut before this whole situation returned to being uncomfortable.
They picked up their cups and the almost empty cookie plate and headed inside.
Just as they stepped into the living room, D’s phone started to ring on the sofa.
“Go ahead, get it,” Sarah said, “I’m almost out of here anyway…”
“No, that’s okay,” D kept heading for the kitchen. “I can always call back later.” She felt Sarah’s eyes on her as she opened the dishwasher and put the dishes in.
“Is that Pete then?” Sarah asked darkly.
Nodding, D closed the dishwasher and turned around to Sarah. “Most likely.”
Sarah frowned. “Has he still not given up?”
Shaking her head, D leaned against the counter next to the sink. “At this point I’m not sure he will ever give up!” she said.
“Oh, God, that stupid…Grrr…” Sarah growled.
“He just drives me insane…” D said with an air of resignation. “And I just hate, hate, hate how guilty he makes me feel!” She lifted her hand and rubbed her left temple.
“Don’t feel guilty then!” Sarah retorted. “Nothing to feel guilty about! You do need to stop talking to him, though! Really! It doesn’t help him and it sure isn’t good for you!”
D exhaled sharply. “I know that,” she said with audible exasperation, “but unfortunately it’s a lot easier said than done, believe me.” She ran her hands along the countertop behind her. “I mean… I’m not picking up right now, am I? And this is probably already his fourth call today that I haven’t picked up…”
Sarah threw her arms up in frustration.
D let out a bitter little laugh and shrugged. Sometimes it was comforting to see that Sarah found it equally frustrating. It was good that, when it came to Pete, there was no need to censor what they said to each other. None of the inhibitions that came with the Joe-topic applied to their talks about Pete.
“All I can tell you from my latest experiments with picking up and not picking up,” D told Sarah, “is that not picking up doesn’t help at all. He just keeps calling. He’s persistent. And then, when I actually do pick up, we spend the first ten minutes discussing why he can’t reach me and how that makes him feel and blah blah blah. Under normal circumstances he calls me at least every third day and every call I don’t pick up seems to make the ones I actually do take three times as bad. It’s like a snake that grows more heads each time you cut one off.” With her hands she made some movement that was supposed to indicate the many snake-heads floating around.
“Well, what the hell does he still want?” Sarah burst out. “Can’t he just accept…?”
D shook her head, her jawline hard. “He wants to see if we can meet or if he can come by and we can go out together, he wants to hear me defend for the hundredth time why I thought I wasn’t been happy with him, he questions if I even know what would make me happy, he insists that we need to give it another chance, he tells me that we could still go on vacation together since we’re both alone now, he bitches about his work…”
Sarah rolled her eyes and huffed out an angry breath.
“Well, and the newest thing…” D said before Sarah could articulate her doubtlessly many thoughts on the bleak summary. “The newest thing is… It’s all about us being friends.”
She managed to pronounce friends like a bad word, and the quotation marks she indicated with her fingers, added an additionally suspicious touch. “So, that’s where we are right now.”
Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Friends, huh?”
“Yeah, all he wants is to stay friends now,” D said with acidic sweetness. “But man, I’m even a disappointment in that department! Really! How in the world can I be so cold and cruel to refuse him even this modest little wish?”
Sarah hit her forehead with her flat hand. “Oh God, that idiot! He doesn’t just want to be friends. That’s total bullshit and it never works.”
“I know that and you know that,” D agreed sounding increasingly frustrated. “But it’s kind of hard to flat-out tell him I don’t even really want to be friends with him at this point. Especially since that was one of my great lines when I broke up – that I value him as a person and I would like to keep him as a friend…” She let out a bitter laugh. “See, how these things come back to haunt you?!?”
Sarah pursed her lips. “Well, yeah. But you didn’t mean it like that!”
“No, not as the life-long obligation to stay in close contact that he turns it into…”
“Oh, I can just see it,” Sarah grumbled. “It probably goes like this: Oh, Danielle, all I want is your friendship, and as friends we need to talk on the phone three times a week, meet regularly, share all our secrets…”
“Yeah something like that…” D said and, staring at the floor, pushed herself away from the counter a little only to let herself fall right back again.
“And he seriously still wants to go on vacation with you?” Sarah asked.
“He did until last week. He still hadn’t cancelled the trip to Spain.”
“I wish! No, I’m not kidding. I wasn’t aware of it until he mentioned it last week. Told him to cancel it finally. So, maybe, by now…”
“How does he even think that would work?” Sarah blasted. “You two happily sharing a hotel bed? The next thing he’ll probably come up with…” Sarah paused for a moment before she actually finished her sentence. “…is that since you’re lonely and he’s lonely and since you’re such good friends, it’s really no big deal to sleep together…”
D’s head jerked up, her expression angry. “Thanks a lot, Sarah, for this very valuable contribution!” she snapped.
“Sorry!” Sarah mumbled, taken aback by that unusually harsh reaction. “Maybe that was taking it a little too far.” She just hoped that’s what it was, and not that she had just accidently hit the nail right on the head. Because knowing Pete, her vision wasn’t all that far-fetched.
“I just really think he’s manipulating you, though.” Sarah said just to say something less controversial.
“Yeah, he probably is,” D agreed darkly. “And trust me, I do my best not to be manipulated. But sometimes I just can’t be so cruel.” She paused for a moment, as if to gather her thoughts. “I mean, I don’t understand why he’s doing it. Because what he’ll really achieve in the end is that I hate him and myself…”
She rubbed her temple again. “Okay. And now, let’s stop talking about him because it just absolutely wears me out! Unless you have some ingenious new approach…”
Sarah had picked up the CD case from the counter and set it on one of its corners while holding the opposite corner by pressing her index finger on it. She gave the CD a little push and made it spin a few times. The Pete subject was so tricky. She wished D would just recklessly pull it through and cut Pete off once and for all. This really seemed to be turning into an endless and painful split-up. And D wasn’t normally weak or easily manipulated or undecided. It was more that Pete seemed absolutely unwilling to let go. And he obviously knew exactly which buttons to push to drag this on and on and on.
Sarah cleared her throat. Something had suddenly crossed her mind.
“It’s kind of hard to come up with some new ideas here,” she admitted, “but thinking about it now, maybe you should just tell him that you’ve suddenly fallen madly in love with someone else and that that makes a friendship with him totally impossible.“ It was just a sudden inspiration. “Of course it’s cruel. But at this point almost anything is. And it might just be worth a try. It would at least signal that you’re not lonely or bored and that there might be some big, strong guy having a jealous eye on you…”
D couldn’t help laughing. “Yeah right…” Suddenly her gaze fell on the blue folder on the bar counter. “Or maybe I’ll just have to leave the country. That might solve it too!” She made it sound like a joke. But Sarah wasn’t quite sure it really was one.
… For more of the story check the Trilogy of ‘Can You Mend It?’. Re-release of part 1 on August 1^st^ 2016.