Elizabeth rested the lid back on the trash can gently and dusted her hands, taking a moment to look up at the night sky. It had been a long day. Her feet hurt, and her eyes still stung a little, the skin beneath her lower lashes left dark with traces of smudged mascara.
The streetlight didn't reach as far as the backyards on Bradford Court, and the sun had gone down too far to do much but light the very edges of the sky. The moon was still low, and cast a shadow from the Spiers' house over the Thomases' backyard. So Elizabeth saw Richard standing on his back porch long before he saw her standing by the side of her house in the shadows.
After a while he sensed her though, and he turned to say, "Good evening, Edie," and her heart broke.
She leaned against the fence, fingers curling over the top of the palings. "Hi, Richard," she said.
She had watched him at the funeral. He had spoken softly, sadly. He had stood at the grave and watched Alma's coffin lower slowly into the ground. He had clasped hands with people, and nodded and smiled at their stories and memories.
He had spoken to her out behind the church hall, escaping the stifling heat of being indoors, and he had clasped her hand tightly and murmured how he couldn't bear to hear Alma being spoken of in past tense. Then he had disappeared inside again and she'd only seen him once more, catching his eye as she'd left for home, a grateful smile tilting the edge of his mouth as he'd nodded farewell.
And just now he'd said, "Good evening, Edie," when it was one of the most terrible evenings ever.
Elizabeth didn't know what to say. She watched him walk across his backyard toward her and she swallowed hard when she saw the despair on his face. She reached over the fence to wrap her arms around his shoulders.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and he shook his head tiredly, his arms over the fence and around her back, and she felt his tears against her shoulder, his glasses pushed up against his brow.
She took them off and pressed a kiss against his temple and thought about how much she missed Alma and how there was nothing she could say which would possibly be enough. She kept her mouth against his skin and listened to the crickets chirp as the sun slipped all the way gone.
The puppy fell asleep, eventually, curled up at Kristy's side. She had crashed out beneath the tree, amongst the mess of ribbon and wrapping paper still scattered across the floor. The boys had disappeared upstairs, dragging Patrick by the hands and asking him to judge while they raced their new Matchbox cars.
"I'm going to kill Patrick for getting that dog," Elizabeth muttered, holding a hand to her brow as though it'd lessen the ache there.
Richard smiled, but didn't say anything. He closed the dishwasher and looked through to the living room. Mary Anne was stretched out on the couch, fast asleep.
"Leave her there," Elizabeth said. "It's fine. If you don't mind her sleeping, that is."
"No, I don't mind." He smiled at her. "Thank you, again, for inviting us to spend Christmas –"
She cut him off. "Don't," she said, shaking her head. "You're welcome any time. It's my pleasure. Really."
Another wave of icy rain lashed at the kitchen window, and Elizabeth shivered and peered out into the yard. The snow had melted, except for a couple of patches still sheltered in against the porch and the side fence, and rain had been coming down all day, leaving slushy ice against the window panes.
"Coffee?" she asked Richard.
"I'll get it," he said. "You sit down."
She didn't argue with him. She sank into one of the kitchen chairs and rested a hand over her swollen stomach. The baby kicked and shifted about inside her. The table was cleared, but the cloth was spotted with gravy, and there seemed to be a lot of peas on the floor. She winced at the thought of all the cleaning she still had to do, even if Richard had been kind enough to take one of those chores away by loading the dishwasher.
The smell of coffee stirred her. "Oh," she said suddenly, getting to her feet again. "There's a tin of gingerbread somewhere..." She met Richard at the end of the kitchen counter, and looked up to see mistletoe hanging above them. "Patrick put that there," she blurted, as Richard looked up at it. "He thinks it's – he thinks mistletoe is funny."
Even as she said it, making excuses, she was lifting her hands to catch Richard's face and pull him down to her for a kiss. His mouth was already slightly parted, his lips warm and pliant against hers, and she didn't fail to notice the way he roughly slid one of the coffee mugs onto the counter so he could cup her cheek in his hand.
She hadn't kissed a man other than Patrick since college, and she told herself that was the only reason her spine ran sharp with electricity.
The kiss broke, and the end of Richard's nose grazed her cheek, and his breath fell against her mouth.
She looked up at him slowly, and it was only the thought of Patrick upstairs, and the girls asleep in the next room, which kept her from kissing him again. "Merry Christmas," she whispered.
"Merry Christmas," he repeated.
She wondered if her eyes were as wide as his. "I'll get the gingerbread," she said.
It took Elizabeth a couple of moments to register the knock at the door, and even longer to realise Richard had let himself in.
"Hi," she whispered. Her voice was ghostly to her own ears.
"I heard..." Richard sat on the couch beside her and looked at her sadly, and she wondered if perhaps he had refused to believe it until now, or if he had known at once it was true, and had come straight over as soon as he'd had the chance.
"What am I going to do?" she asked helplessly. "He just left, and he took our savings and he never even left a note..." She sobbed, but her eyes were dry, long since cried out of tears. "I don't know why."
Richard put his arm around her and she crumbled. She knew now what being heartbroken felt like, and it was worse than she had ever dared allow herself to imagine.
"I don't know what I did," she said, and she tried again to pinpoint a moment that must have sparked Patrick's desire to leave.
Richard's thumb traced over her shoulder, his fingers curling around her upper arm comfortingly. "I think," he said softly, "you married a man who didn't want to grow up."
She buried her face in her hands and cried, and Richard smoothed his palm over her back, and she thought perhaps he was right, and maybe it was all Patrick's fault, every little bit of it, because he had never taken on more responsibility than he'd wanted to.
When she'd cried herself out, again, she leaned against his arm, her fingers nested tightly between his, and kissed his shoulder through his shirt, letting her breath bloom warm through the material to his skin, her mouth leaving a damp print.
He rested his cheek down against the top of her head and sat with her in silence.
"Oh shit," Elizabeth whispered, clenching her teeth as she helplessly watched an apple roll out of the top of the grocery bag. It bounced on the ground and rolled under the car. She hefted David Michael in one arm and heard him protest with a loud cry.
"I know," she apologised. "I should have had my keys ready, right? You'd think I'd have learned after the last time this happened..." Another apple rolled out of the bag as she tilted, trying to pull her car keys out of her purse.
"Shit!" she said again, but the apple didn't fall far enough to bounce. It fell into a hand.
"Good evening, Edie," Richard said, setting the apple back and taking the bag out of her arms.
"Hi," she breathed. "Thanks."
He smiled at her and waited while she located her keys. "I seem to juggle like this a lot," she admitted. "I'm still not – not used to this." Guilt hit her again and sat like a rock in her stomach. Trying to leave work on time, collect David Michael from daycare before she was charged for another half hour, buy her groceries from the still-unfamiliar Stamford supermarket... It was harder than she'd predicted it would be. And that was without the dozens of little things, like simply having to carry too much by herself.
"It takes time," Richard said, taking her keys. He lifted the trunk and set the groceries gently inside. David Michael gave him a gummy smile, and Richard smiled back.
"I'm running late," Elizabeth lamented. "I'm always running late these days."
"I won't keep you," Richard said, closing the trunk gently. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Edie."
She looked up at him and hefted David Michael a little. "Do want to come by for dinner?" she asked, suddenly. "It's pizza night. I bought – I bought those bases, you know, and the kids make toppings. They usually look like gross faces, but they taste okay. There's one for Mary Anne."
Richard smiled at her again. "I'm sure she'd like that, thank you."
"Just come by when you're ready."
"We will." Richard looked down as David Michael grabbed hold of his tie and brought it to his mouth.
"Oh, no," Elizabeth said, pulling it free. "Sorry."
Richard's fingers brushed hers as he smoothed his tie back against his shirt, and she caught his hand and squeezed it.
"Thanks for all your help," she said. "And not just – not just the groceries. For everything."
"There's no need to thank me," he said, smiling at her. "It's my pleasure."
She reached up on her toes and pressed a kiss against the corner of his mouth, foolish for a moment in her gratitude, hoping nobody who knew them happened to be crossing the parking lot at the Stamford grocery store.
His thumb brushed over her bare wedding finger.
"I'll see you later," she said, falling back to her heels again. "You don't need to bring anything but yourselves."
Elizabeth pulled into the driveway and looked up at the house a little worriedly. She hated summer – the kids were home from school all day, and it was difficult to convince Sam and Kristy to stay under Charlie's watch for so long.
Kristy, she was sure, would be with either Claudia or Mary Anne – or both. Richard could afford to take summer vacation and stay home to spend time with his daughter. Elizabeth couldn't. And Mimi was always willing to look after the girls if they decided the Kishi household would be where they'd be spending their time that day.
Sam had been talking of nothing else but seeing a movie with the Jones boys that afternoon. Maxine would bring him home at six, probably full of popcorn and sticky with spilled soda, but happy and excited.
But it was Charlie she had been worried about today. Reversing out of the driveway that morning, Elizabeth had caught sight of him sitting on the porch steps, his baseball glove in his hand, his small shoulders slumped. Waiting for a game with someone who wasn't coming home.
She lifted David Michael from his car seat in the back, groaning a little and muttering in his ear about how big he was getting. He rested his head tiredly against her shoulder, his thumb in his mouth. Elizabeth climbed the porch steps carefully, her feet aching and her back stiff.
"I'm home!" she called, closing the front door behind her.
Louie barked from the kitchen and galloped toward her, slipping and skidding on the floorboards. He ran at her and jumped, licking at her hands and David Michael's bare feet excitedly.
"Down!" Elizabeth said sternly. "Down, Louie!"
He barked again and ran back to the kitchen, nearly bowling Charlie over.
"Mom!" he cried, and he ran at her almost as excitedly as Louie had. "Guess what?"
"What?" Elizabeth asked, noting his shining eyes and his wide smile. For a few seconds the image blurred with the helpless scene of that morning, and she foolishly dared, just for a moment, to think that Patrick had come home after all.
"Guess what I did today," Charlie said. He took David Michael into his arms with a wide grin.
"Did you play baseball?" Elizabeth asked, easing her shoes off with relief.
"Nope," Charlie said. "I helped Mr. Spier fix his car."
Elizabeth glanced toward next door. "What do you mean?"
"He asked me for help," Charlie said proudly. "He showed me how to check the oil, and change the oil, and he taught me all about the radiator and how it keeps the engine cool, and he showed me how to change a flat and I used the jack and lifted a whole car up all by myself!"
"Oh, wow," Elizabeth said breathlessly. She ran her hand over Charlie's hair and smiled back at him, looking at the faint pink sunburn on his nose and the light in his eyes and the wide set of his smile.
"Mr. Spier said he's too busy, a lot of the time, to do it all," Charlie said. He hefted David Michael slightly. "He asked if I could help him out."
"I hope you said yes," Elizabeth said.
"He said he'd check with you to see if it was okay," Charlie said. "Is it okay?"
"Sure, of course it's okay," Elizabeth said. She found herself needing to clear her throat. "If you can watch David Michael for ten minutes I'll go over right now and tell him it's okay."
"Yes!" Charlie cried joyfully, bouncing a little on his feet.
Elizabeth stepped back into her shoes and escaped back out in the still summer air. Her heart was beating rapidly and she felt a warmth in her cheeks that came from trying to choke something back. Her eyes ached. She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
She knocked on Richard's front door, only to alert him that she was there, before she let herself in. He was halfway down the stairs, his shirt rolled up to his elbows.
"Good evening, Edie," he said.
"Hi." She watched him come down the stairs until he was standing opposite her, and the ache in her throat grew and grew until she stepped toward him and wrapped her arms tightly around his shoulders. And before she knew what she was doing, she had cupped his jaw with one hand and was pressing a hard kiss against his cheek, the stiff prickle of stubble against her lips.
His hand brushed her waist and then took hold, and he tilted his head toward her slightly, so his breath fanned down against her neck.
She kissed him for a long time, her mouth against his warm skin, her legs trembling a little as she stretched up on her toes. She kept one arm around his shoulders, her fingers curling against the loose collar of his shirt. His hands felt warm through her suit jacket, his breath fluttered soft against her neck.
When she stopped, she trailed her mouth down to his jaw, and kept her head down as she pulled back. She wasn't as embarrassed as she thought she should be, but her eyes burned with unshed tears at the thought of Charlie's smile, and her throat ached.
"I just," she started, and stopped to swallow the lump in her throat.
"I know," Richard said softly, and when she looked up at him her eyes spilled over.
"I can't teach him these things," she whispered. "And it's not – I mean... He just misses his father so much. He doesn't want me to teach him these things."
"I know," Richard said again, and it hurt that he knew; it hurt to have it confirmed. (But then, of course Richard would know, because there must be days he longed for Mary Anne to have a mother to teach her things he couldn't, and he must have thought Mary Anne wished for that too.)
"Thank you," Elizabeth whispered.
He brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb and smiled gently. "My pleasure."