Melanie Holmes hip-bumped the boot-scarred kitchen door and entered her Evergreen, Washington, home, her arms full of groceries, her purse dangling from one wrist.
From a seat at the table, her husband squinted in her direction, his eyes bloodshot, his mouth turned down at the corners.
“What are you doing here, Vic? Why aren’t you at work?”
“Wasn’t laid off, if that’s what you’re thinking.” His burly shoulders hunched forward. He rose and placed the grocery on the counter. “We need to talk.”
Her breath caught as she pulled dinner fixings out of the first bag. “You’re not going to cancel tonight, are you? The kids know you were coming, so we can eat together.”
His eyes scanned the room, lighting everywhere but on her face.
“Are you sick again?” On Labor Day weekend, he’d insisted the big kids go camping with him, but he’d brought them home early.
“No, not sick.” His hands brushed his thighs as he turned his back on her and looked out the window facing the backyard.
Melanie slid a gallon of milk into the refrigerator. Vic’s hair was mussed, like he’d been running his fingers through it.
She sat down, folded her hands in front of her and tried not to think the worst. “You said we had to talk. So, talk.”
“Why do you always push, Mel?” He edged closer to her side of the table. She jerked when he ran one hand lightly up her back before he rested it on her shoulder. The weight of his hand seemed tentative. Then he gave her arm a gentle squeeze, his way of acknowledging her.
The wall clock’s ticking filled the room. Vic eased into the chair opposite her.
“I want out.”
“What?” she croaked, gulping. “You want another job?” But could they make it on her income while he looked?
“I don’t want to be married—to you. I want a divorce.”
Her heart slammed into her throat, a throat so tight she was certain she would never speak another word.
Noni was right. Her neighbor had said Melanie was pretending that her and Vic’s problems were because of his issues at work.
The bonging of the grandmother clock resounded. Anne and Keith would be home from school soon. Noni would be bringing Jeffrey through the back gate any minute.
“Is that why you’ve missed our counseling sessions? But didn’t you say you were working on those extra accounts, so Mason would ease up a little?”
Questions swirled in Melanie’s brain. “We’ve been married sixteen years, Vic. We have three children. You promised you would go to counseling with me. So we could work things out. You’re throwing all that away?” The kids? Not just me? She felt hot and cold by turns.
“You said it, I didn’t.” He avoided her gaze. “I wanted to tell you to your face so you wouldn’t …worry.” But his voice seemed so icy again—brittle, unfeeling.
“Worry?” He wasn’t making any sense.
“When I move my things out. Why I’m here—to get my stuff.”
Even after he’d moved into the apartment—to give each of them space while they went to counseling—most of the clothes he claimed he didn’t need were still upstairs. She’d assumed that meant he was coming back. She detected something like sadness in his gaze, along with a glare that dared her to stop him.
“I want a new life,” he declared firmly. “A new start.”
“What about the kids?” Don’t you dare say you want custody. Her hands gripped the edge of the table, willing herself not to show weakness. How are we going to live? “I’ve only had a couple of closings the last two months, not nearly enough to cover the bills,” she mumbled.
“I won’t contest custody.” His voice was flat, like his eyes, as if he was looking through her.
“You mean you don’t want to be a part of their lives.” You don’t love them anymore? She knew she was accusing, not simply asking a question, something the counselor had commented on. She knew she sounded—even if she didn’t mean to—like she was trying to control Vic’s actions.
“Keith and Annie are big enough to understand. I’ll see them, just not every—”
“Keith’s only fifteen, Vic. You know he hasn’t yet adjusted to high school. He didn’t make the basketball team, not even the JV team. He’s been so wanting you to help him with his shots, but you haven’t been around enough.”
She rushed on, hoping she could change his mind. “And Anne’s just going into puberty. Girls need their fathers, to help them through the rough spots with boys and things. She misses you when you aren’t cheering at her soccer games. No, they’re not old enough. Neither of them.”
Victor had also missed Keith’s junior high school band concert last spring, and Annie’s first play as a seventh grader. When had he stopped attending their school activities? Her eyes filled in spite of her plan not to show how she ached for her children. Maybe she had pushed too much, demanded too much.
“What about Jeffrey?” No way was she going to let him ignore their four-year-old, the pregnancy he’d never wanted. Her face reddened, remembering his accusations.
Victor shook his head. “He’s too little. He and I—we never did that much together. I doubt he’ll miss me.” His chair scraped against the floor. “We’re done here. You can make this easy or you can make it hard. I just want out. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll be gone.”
“Just like that?” She couldn’t feel her fingers. She looked into her lap and realized her hands were so tightly fisted her fingers were white.
“Are you going through a midlife crisis, Vic? Is that what this is?”
She followed him up the stairs. “Or have you found a cute little dolly to play with—like one of my friends said?” One of her realtor colleagues had seen Vic with a young woman at the fall festival, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. At the time, she’d laughed it off, claiming lots of men looked like her husband.
When she entered their bedroom, he was pulling his clothes from the closet and stuffing them into two oversized suitcases, unused since their family vacation to Disneyland five years earlier. She had joked when they returned that she’d conceived the night after they visited Tomorrowland. But Vic hadn’t laughed. Maybe that was when he began pulling away.
“Aren’t you going to tell the children?”
“You do it. You’re better at it than I am.”
She bit her lower lip. “I’ll have to get a lawyer. Are you still at that apartment?”
He stared at her then, his dark eyes squinting again, the muscles in his jaw working. “Unless I decide otherwise.”
She backed away from him. At least he was still working. Months ago, Noni had told her to see a lawyer—after that disaster at the community Fourth of July party. Just in case, Noni had urged. Melanie’s talk with the attorney had been brief, nonspecific. She’d been a fool not to follow through. Maybe Mickie was right about Vic and that girl at the fall festival. Maybe there was someone else.
She sat down on the bed. “How are we going to live? I don’t make enough …”
“You were the one who wanted to go back to work when Jeffie was two. I guess now you’ll see what it’s like, how hard it is to support three kids.”
“But they’re your children, too. Are you saying you won’t provide for them? Your own flesh and blood?” He’d always been an attentive father with Keith and Anne, at least until last year. With Jeffrey Vic had paid less attention. She couldn’t remember when Vic had last made love to her. She’d chalked it up to exhaustion. Hers and his. Too much work on both their parts.
Jeffrey’s high-pitched squeals sounded from outside. He must be playing in the yard next door. She imagined Noni pushing him on the swing.
I have to make sure Vic pays child support. What was it the attorney had said? That working women rarely received alimony? But she had three children and she wasn’t getting a paycheck every month. She was a realtor, and a new one at that, having started at Brown Family Realty less than two years earlier. Average out the closings. The attorney’s request, so he could estimate her likely earnings through the year. But she hadn’t expected to live on that money. She’s planned to put it in the children’s college funds.
Vic snapped the suitcases closed and walked past her. “I’ll be back for my other things later.”
He reminded her so much of Keith. They had the same dark hair and dark eyes. Except that Keith was going to be tall, taller than Vic. Would her older son want to live with his father? He had accompanied Vic to work earlier in the year—to see what it was like to be a salesman. Or was he really wanting to be close to his dad? Keith was interested in science. He’d even said the only things he would sell were scientific equipment, that he wanted to go to college so he could study cells, microbiology—like Noni’s husband. Vic had derisively called John a nerd when Keith had asked for a microscope last Christmas.
Vic touched her arm again, his voice softer, like he used to be. “I don’t want to make this hard, Mel. I just want out.”
She moved aside as he angled the larger of the suitcases out the door.
“Have your attorney call me. On my cell. Not my work number.”
“That’s it?” She knew she shouldn’t be angry, that it only made him withdraw, but he had to understand how she felt. Bereft, sad … guilty, too. Only now, what she felt most strongly was a rush of anger, swamping her other emotions.
He pulled the other suitcase behind him as he clumped slowly down the stairs.
She watched him, wanting to throw something. Instead, she said, “You’ll be so sorry, Vic. I’ll make you pay.” But if he’d asked, she couldn’t have told him her intentions.
He paused on the stairs and looked over his shoulder, his voice cold, calculating. “Maybe. But if you care about the kids, you won’t.”
She returned to her bedroom and flopped onto the bed. Unable to stop the tears she’d been holding back, she buried her face in the nearest pillow. The scent of Vic’s aftershave, something she’d always taken comfort in, assaulted her. She tossed his pillow on the floor, rolled over, reached for her own and let the tears flow.
From out of the depths of her despair, she then felt another surge of anger. She sat up, pulled his pillow back onto the bed and began to pound it, thinking of him, what he’d said. Her voice harsh to her own ears, she demanded, “How can you do this?”
She beat at the pillow until she heard a noise. When she looked up, her two older children were standing in the doorway of her bedroom.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Anne asked.
Keith answered. “It’s Dad, isn’t it.”
Keith must have known. Maybe Vic had talked to him.
She wiped her eyes and cleared her throat, wanting to sound calm. She brushed a feather of hair off her cheek. “Your father has moved out. He wants a divorce.”
Her daughter gave a little gasp and began to cry, wisps of her honey-colored blond hair—just like Melanie’s—escaping the braid she’d worn to school. “What did we do?”
Melanie reached for Anne and hugged her, tears flowing again. “Oh, honey, it isn’t—it has nothing to do with you or your brothers. Please don’t think that.”
“He has a girlfriend.” Keith moved closer to her.
She released Anne and looked at her son, now almost as tall as she.
“I saw them the other day—when he came to see me after school. I’ll bet that’s why he left.”
Though his words were matter-of-fact, the deep hurt in Keith’s eyes betrayed him.
“Oh, Keith.” Unlike so many times recently when he had refused a hug, claiming he was too old, he melted into her arms, holding her tight to his thin chest as he, too, choked back tears.
How could Vic have placed their son in this position? Her gut twisted at the knowledge that Keith knew what she had refused to consider.
“What did he say to you, honey? Did he introduce her? Maybe the woman you saw is a coworker.” She could only wish.
After a minute, he let her go, his eyes telling her it was more than that. His voice choked, a voice starting to take on the deeper tones of the adult he was becoming. “Where he works, everyone is old, like him. She’s a lot younger. And she wasn’t exactly dressed like the women in his office.”
Melanie sat down on the bed, Anne on one side, Keith on the other.
“What are we going to do?” Anne’s hand slid into Melanie’s as her blue eyes bored into her mother’s face.
“We’re going to stay here and I’m going to work—like I do every day. Nothing’s going to change—except that your dad won’t be living with us. We’ll work things out. Together.” Hoping she sounded confident, she patted their hands then grasped them tightly. I’ve got to make this work. The fewer changes the better. But what if I don’t have enough closings?
“Wasn’t he supposed to eat here tonight?” Keith reminded her of his seven-year-old self, the year he had climbed a tree and been too afraid to climb down until his father clambered up after him.
“Not tonight, but I’ll make sure you have time with your dad. Right now, I need your help, both of you. Jeffrey won’t understand this. He’s so young. I want you to help me by not letting him—by not acting—differently. And Dad and I need to talk to you—together.” But will he agree to do that?
“Why didn’t he tell us today?” Keith asked. “Dad knows when we get home from school.”
“He was just here to pick up some things. I’m sure Dad’ll be back, so he can talk to you.” I have to call him, make sure he does.
Keith nodded. “Maybe Jeffie won’t notice. Dad hasn’t been around much lately.”
Why hadn’t she thought of that? Was she too preoccupied with her own work?
Melanie rose from the bed. “Jeffie’s still at Noni’s.” She closed the closet door so that she wouldn’t have to acknowledge the half-empty space. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”
The three of them walked downstairs. Only Melanie’s mother had ever been divorced and she knew of very few among her circle of friends who were divorced. Who could she talk to? How was she going to handle whatever negotiations were likely to follow? She had to talk to her attorney, but not in front of the children. That, at least, would have to wait until tomorrow.
How much of her life would be different then?