Chapter Fourteen

As it turned out, Ellie didn’t have even one day in preparation for her talk with Reid. When her father pulled into the driveway, a black convertible sat in front of the garage.

“Oh no! Ellie, Reid’s here. I didn’t know he was coming, I promise.” Stella looked panicked.

“Dad, can you give us a minute?” Her father nodded and left them alone in the truck. “Stella, it’s okay. I’ll talk to him today and then you guys can go out like you’d planned.”

“But I haven’t gotten the present and card and stuff.”

“Then you have to decide if you can keep it a secret until you can get them or if telling him now is more important to you. I won’t say a word, of course.”

“Okay. Shoot, here he comes. I guess I’ll just wing it and see what happens.”

Reid jogged over to the truck, opened Stella’s door, pulled her out, and threw his arms around her. “Hey, baby. I’ve missed you.” He buried his face in her neck. “I’m so sorry,” Ellie heard him whisper. Stella was hugging him back. Then their arms loosened and he was kissing her. Ellie looked away. Should she just wait in the car or get out the other door since her side was blocked by their bodies? She started to scoot to the other side when her door opened.

“Hi Ellie,” Reid held out a hand for her. She took it and he helped her out of the truck. “I, um, guess we need to talk.” She nodded. Stella was climbing the front steps to the porch. She looked over her shoulder once before she opened the screen door and walked inside the house.

Would this day never end? Ellie was exhausted from the full day, probably the busiest she’d had since she came home. She limped toward the porch, her leg was screaming at her, and stumbled when it buckled beneath her. Reid caught her before she hit the ground, then picked her up and carried her to the porch. Her face burned with embarrassment. She hoped Stella couldn’t see them right now. She’d imagine all sorts of inappropriate things.

“Thank you,” Ellie said when he set her feet on the porch. “Can we do it out here?” That sounded wrong. “Talk, I mean.” C’mon Ellie, pull it together.

“Sure, if you want.”

“Or maybe we should go somewhere more private, so my parents can’t hear anything.” That didn’t sound right either. “Accidentally. I don’t think they’d purposely listen in.”

He held up one hand to stop her. “Is there somewhere close by that you’d prefer?”

“Ummm,” she considered her nature sanctuary, but that was too personal. “No, not really.”

“We could go somewhere else on the farm here, in my car, if that’s okay.”

“Okay, yeah, I guess that’d be fine. Let me text Stella so she doesn’t panic.” She fired off the text while he brought the car up to the porch. “Thanks,” she said as she plopped down into the low seat of the Jaguar. “I forgot you guys had this car.”

“I’ll never sell this baby. Stella and I love this car.”

Ellie wondered if that would still be the case in about nine months. “It’s a beauty.” Ellie pointed him in the direction of the barn. She figured it would be as non-romantic a place as possible and she didn’t want to be in the car while they talked.

He followed the dirt road around to the barn. “Just park here, it’s fine,” she said.

“All right.” He did as she suggested. He had to help her out of the car, though. Her leg wouldn’t cooperate. “Do you want me to carry you in?” She bit down on her lip, trying to decide whether she’d make it on her own. He scooped her up and started walking. Could she just sleep out here so he wouldn’t have to touch her any more after they talked? Why was her own body betraying her?

“There you go.” He set her down inside the barn. “That leg’s still giving you trouble, huh?”

She rubbed her thigh and winced. “It’s doing better every day. But today I’ve been on it too much.” She sat on a hay bale and rubbed her way down to the ankle. She was stalling. How was she going to do this?

He finally sat down beside her. “Ellie, I’m really, really sorry I betrayed you by reading your journals. It was a despicable thing to do to you.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped in front of him.

Minutes dragged by. He didn’t move. “I don’t know how to go forward from this,” she finally said. “How do we act like you don’t know what you never should have found out?”

“Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so clueless. But I’ve come to realize that while you may have been in love with me, you loved Stella even more. That’s what I noticed about you. Your devotion to her. That’s why I never questioned why you hung around with us. I always figured it was because of her.”

She’d been staring at him while he spoke. It was strange seeing him in the world she grew up in. He seemed very out-of-place in his dress shirt and slacks sitting on a hay bale inside an old barn. Still handsome, though. And he still smelled fantastic.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t read my diaries and I don’t know why things have turned out like they have. Maybe because you have to make choices when you’re in a relationship. Maybe there’ll be some other woman along the way who will want you and maybe she’ll let you know that. What will you do? Are you going to stay with Stella or are you only with her until someone else catches your eye?” He didn’t answer; he was still staring out into the barn. “If I said I still loved you, what would you do?”

His head turned slowly until he was looking straight into her eyes. “Do you?” She swallowed. He sat up and his whole body turned toward her until their knees touched. The moment of truth. “Do you still love me, Ellie?”

No,” she whispered. A lie, because the truth would’ve ripped them all apart.

Reid’s eyes seemed to grow in size until Ellie realized he was leaning toward her. Slowly, waiting to judge her reaction. If she did nothing, she could picture it all happening. The kiss, the first one, the next one. The ones that would make her forget everything she thought she knew about herself.

If things had been different, if he hadn’t been in love with her best friend, would there have been any chance with him? It was there for a moment, this alternate life.

Unconsciously she’d been moving just as slowly away from him; her head and shoulders bumped the wall behind her. What about her own morals? Did she believe some things were wrong, like kissing a married man, or was everything all right if it was what your heart wanted?

Her hand came up. Her hand against his chest. A little pressure. It didn’t take much. He stopped. Waited a few long seconds to see if she would change her mind. And turned away.

Maybe Reid was a great man for Stella, but he was definitely the wrong man for her. She’d made her decision. The rightness of it flooded through her. It swallowed up the little bit of regret that tried to surface. Drowned it until it was gone. Forever.

“No,” she said again. The truth, because the lie had been revealed. “The Ellie who was in love with you died in an automobile accident earlier this summer.”

His eyes found hers again and she tried to read his face. He didn’t look disappointed. He looked almost relieved. “Then those weren’t your journals I read, were they? They belonged to someone else.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m not her.”

“And I’ve never been him either–the Reid in your diary. You only saw the man I allowed you to see. And Stella probably didn’t tell you about our arguments.We’re two strong-headed people and that’s not always easy in a relationship, as you’re about to find out. Are you ready to return to the house?”

“Yes.” What did that last part mean?

He picked her up and hurried back to the car. They drove back to the house. He carried her inside and up the stairs while she gave him directions to the guest room where Stella was staying. She knocked lightly.

“Come in,” they heard Stella say. She pushed the door open.

Reid carried her in and set her on her feet before he went to Stella. “You were right, babe.”

Stella beamed. “I knew it!” Stella turned to Ellie. “He tried to kiss you, right?”

“How–” Ellie looked from one face to the other. “How did you know?”

Stella rushed over and enveloped her in a hug. “Because I told him to, Ellie. Actually, it’s the only way I’d agree to him coming out here. He had to agree to try. I’m sorry. That was probably a dirty trick to play on you. But I wanted to know if the girl who was in love with my husband would try to take him away at the first opportunity. I wanted to be able to trust you completely. But . . .”

Ellie didn’t feel quite right. The air, the room, everything seemed to be receding into the distance rapidly. Her eyelids drooped. She couldn’t fight it so she didn’t.

* * *

There was something cold pressed to her forehead. She tried to remove it and heard her mother’s worried voice surround her. “Oh, she’s okay. Ellie? Ellie can you wake up please?” She opened her eyes. Her mother was leaning over her. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it sweetie. You probably did too much. How do you feel?”

Ellie considered it. Her leg ached more than usual and her head still felt a little strange. “My leg hurts pretty bad, Mom. And I still feel a little light-headed. But I think I’m good. Let me sit up.” She caught the washcloth as it slid off her forehead, but other than a little dizziness, she seemed to be all right. Reid and Stella were standing behind her mother, looking a little chagrined. She’d been set up. By her best friend. It all came back. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“Are you sure, honey? Do you want me to bring you something to eat or drink?” Her mother was still worried.

“Some water would be nice, Mom.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Ellie turned to Stella. “Are you still planning to go home tomorrow or what?”

“Well, we were thinking maybe we would leave tonight,” Stella answered.

“I think that would be a good idea.”

“You’re mad at me for testing you like that,” Stella said.

“Hurt and betrayed are more what I’m feeling. Anger might come later.”

“Ellie, I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s my pregnancy hormones, but it seemed like a good idea when I thought of it.”

“Wait. Did you just say pregnancy hormones?” Reid stepped between them, his eyes darting from Stella’s to Ellie’s. “She said that didn’t she?”

“Aw crap, there goes my special way of telling him,” Stella grumbled.

“What? Telling me what? That you’re pregnant? WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON?”

“Calm down, Daddy, she’s getting to it,” Ellie said.

“Yeah, I’m getting there! I had this whole plan on how I was going to tell you, but at least I can still surprise you with the twin thing.” Stella clapped a hand over her mouth.

“She did not just say twins, did she?” Reid sat down on the bed.

“Oh crap, I just spilled that too, didn’t I? What is WRONG with me today?”

“Well, you were just in the hospital for several hours,” Ellie added.

“That’s true.”

“You were in the HOSPITAL today?” Reid’s face was turning an alarming shade of red.

“I think you’d better start from the beginning and tell him everything.” Ellie said.

So Stella did. With Ellie filling things in whenever Stella forgot something. Ellie’d had enough when they started kissing. “You guys should get a room,” she muttered. “Oh wait, I think I’m still in your room. I’ll just go then.” She got up to leave and barely made it to the door before Reid caught up to her.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready to be on your own just yet.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and they limped along like that for about three steps before he whipped her up into his arms again.

“I think you like this damsel-in-distress thing a little too much. You really need to cut back before it becomes an out-and-out addiction,” she said. He scoffed. “Unless Stella likes it, then I’d say go ahead.”

“And I’d say you’re still out of it because you’re not making any sense.”

“I am pretty tired. It was a tough day.”

“Your mom forgot your water,” he said, setting her on her bed.

“Yeah, the room service sucks but the views are amazing.”

His eyebrows pressed together. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Not really. He had some explaining to do. “Reid, why did you do that to me?”

“I think you need to ask Stella about it. She told me to try to kiss you. When your wife tells you to kiss another woman, you just do it, okay?” He was trying to be funny.

She didn’t laugh. “What if I had let you? What was your plan?”

The smile and playful manner disappeared. “I could see you fighting yourself. I was feeling pretty conflicted, too. I’d like to think that I’d have stopped it before anything happened.”

“But you can’t say that for sure.” He didn’t respond and in the ensuing silence she heard footsteps on the stairs. She held a finger to her lips to silence him.

“Ellie, I’m sorry I didn’t bring this earlier but–” Her mom stopped at the door, glancing between Ellie and Reid. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m still not too steady on my feet so he helped me back and we’re just talking.” She turned to Reid, “Do you want to share your big news?”

He turned, excitement playing across his face. “Stella’s pregnant with twins! I’m going to be a daddy!”

“Congratulations! That’s really exciting. Do twins run in your family?”

“Not in mine, but maybe they do in Stella’s.”

“Well no wonder she hasn’t been feeling too well. Morning sickness, I presume?”

“Yep,” Ellie answered. She smiled at Reid. “Good luck getting her to eat. And thanks for helping me but Stella’s probably waiting for you. She might need help packing.”

Reid paused at the door. “Do you want us to stop in before we leave?”

“Yes, please. I’d like to see you guys off.” He nodded and disappeared.

“You okay, sweetie?” Her mom handed her the glass of water.

She took a few sips. “Just really, really tired. What were you getting ready to tell me when you walked in with my water?”

“Oh! That your uncle called and he wants you to stop by Spencer’s tomorrow to pick up your books. He’ll be there all day.”

“Good. If Dad has time, we can go whenever he wants.”

“Got it. Well, I’ll let you rest and say goodbye to your friends in peace. Sleep well, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mom. Love you!”

“Love you too.”

Stella and Reid came in shortly afterward to say goodbye. Reid gave her a hug, told her not to be a stranger, and went to put Stella’s bags in her car. Stella sat down. “Reid told me you guys talked a little more and that you’re still confused about tonight.” Ellie nodded. “You have to understand, Ellie, that your father called out-of-the-blue saying that you wanted Reid to take care of your dog after your accident. Reid, not me. I didn’t know why that was. Had you changed in the years we’d been apart? Maybe decided that you weren’t going to walk away after all? And you’ve become exotically beautiful, too. Reid even mentioned it. So, I panicked. Especially now that I’m pregnant I needed to know if you’d changed. And, I’ll admit, it was kind of a test for Reid as well. I didn’t tell him that, of course. But if he followed through with anything, that would’ve given me a lot to consider.”

“I have changed in the past few months and we haven’t really talked about it but you’ve changed too, Stella. All through college you seemed to trust me, even though you supposedly knew that I was in love with Reid. When you showed me your engagement ring, I told you that he’d shown it to me, in his bedroom, and you just laughed. Was that fake? That trust?”

“No. I did trust you. And Reid. But I’m a divorce lawyer. I’ve represented hundreds of women, mostly, who are divorcing their husbands for things like unfaithfulness. All of these scenarios kept coming into my mind and I couldn’t shake them. I came here, hoping to get to know you again and lay those demons to rest once and for all. Then I found out I was pregnant and I panicked. I felt like I’d run out of time to figure it out.” She paused. “It really seemed like a good plan when I thought of it at the clinic today even though Reid didn’t agree. Maybe he was right. Can you forgive me?”

Ellie thought about it for a moment. Wasn’t forgiveness an act of the will? Hard to do, but easier than trying to forget it ever happened. Stella waited, eyes pleading. “Yes,” she finally answered.

“Oh, thank you!” Stella jumped up and threw her arms around her. Ellie hugged her back. “I promise I won’t ever test you again like that. I hope someday you can forget I ever tried.”

Me too, Ellie thought, drawing away. “You take care of yourself and those little ones, Stella.”

“Thanks, El. For everything. Call me if you’re in town and we’ll go for lunch or something.”

“Sure thing.”

“I guess I’d better go.”

“Yeah, I bet Reid is wondering what’s taking you so long.”

“See you around?”

“Bye, Stella. Drive safely.”

Stella waved as she walked out the door. Ellie listened as she hurried down the steps, heard the screen door slap shut, and then the sound of the tires on the gravel as they drove away. They were finally gone and she was relieved. Now she needed to put Misty outside again. After she rested for a few more minutes. She closed her eyes.

It was pitch black when she woke up and she needed to use the bathroom. She flipped the blankets off, thanking her mother for them, and glanced at her alarm clock. It was just after three in the morning.

When she returned to her room she quickly changed into pajamas and climbed back into bed, settling onto her side. Misty jumped over her legs and wriggled into her arms. She stroked the soft fur a few times and closed her eyes. A brief shake of the mattress caused her to open them again. Something pressed against her legs. She reached down to find a bigger dog curled up in the crook of her knees. She stroked his head and ears a few times. “Welcome home, Jack.”

Flashes

Flashes

Flashes

In many ways it made perfect sense. Light flashed across her closed eyelids and she heard a muffled sound immediately afterward. She opened her eyes. What had she just been thinking about? She blinked, trying to remember. Her husband rolled over, facing away from her. She thanked the Good Lord above that he no longer snored. A miracle if there ever was one.

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, gathering strength and momentum until the house shook, the windows rattling in their panes. The bed trembled beneath her. A transformer box out on the curb near their window exploded in a shower of sparks, drawing her attention outside. The street lights winked out. She barely heard a thing.

Frowning, she reached up, pulling on her ears to try to get them to pop. They must be stopped up for her hearing to be so poor. She stuck her fingers in her ears and wiggled. She yawned and moved her jaw from side to side. Nothing seemed to help. Maybe she’d have to go see Doc in the morning.

Lightning flickered outside like a child playing with the light switch. She wasn’t scared, particularly, but in between the flashes it was pitch black in the room and she wasn’t used to it anymore.

Of course, she’d grown up on the farm without street lights. Many a day she’d had to visit the outhouse in the black of night. But that was before she married Charlie and he whisked her away to Springfleld. She yawned again and turned to her side. On the bedside table sat a portrait of an elderly man and woman surrounded by younger men, women, and children. She didn’t recognize them.

The furniture looked familiar though. And the patchwork quilt covering her. She rolled onto her back again. Memories stirred and fled with the lightning bolts outside her window. They must be visiting Charlie’s parents, she decided. They often stopped there when they traveled, and their anniversary was coming up. An important one too.

Was it their first? No, they had their two boys already didn’t they? Yes, Chuck and Roger. And Mildred. Right. Three kids. Maybe it was their fifth anniversary. Charlie loved to surprise her. Where would he take her this time? She hoped they’d leave before the kids woke up. She hated saying goodbye to them. Tears formed in her eyes, just thinking about it.

She reached up to brush them away and froze as the strobing lights revealed withered, knobby, and trembling hands covered with age spots. Mesmerized in horror, she wiggled her fingers, wincing as pain echoed her movements. She brought one hand up to her face to feel the soft, wrinkled skin across her cheekbones.

“No,” she muttered. “I’m not old yet.” A nightmare. She must be dreaming. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee—” She tried to concentrate. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee—”

The faded quilt lifted like a wave rolling beneath lily pads. Charlie reached out and pulled her to his thin, bony chest. She relaxed against him. When had he lost so much weight?

“Be not dismayed,” Charlie’s deep voice rumbled in his chest. “For I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” He kissed her forehead. ”It’s okay, Maudie. It’s just a thunderstorm. It’ll pass soon, my love.”

“Thank you, Charlie.” She kissed his cheek. “How long are we staying at your parents’ house? And which anniversary is coming up? I’m so tired I can’t think straight.” Draping one arm across him, she snuggled closer. Charlie was getting downright scrawny. She needed to bake him some pies or something.

He didn’t answer, just stroked her hair. She let him do that for a few moments, then raised her head so she could look at him. But the storm was blowing over; the lightning came more infrequently. She couldn’t see him so she reached up and touched his face. His chest quivered and a sob broke from his lips.

“Charlie!” She crawled up higher so she could kiss him. “What’s the matter?”

He said something she couldn’t hear.

“What was that? Please stop mumbling and speak where I can hear you.”

She felt his chest shaking as he chuckled. “I’m not mumbling, babe. You’re deaf as a fence post!”

“I am not deaf. I can hear you perfectly now.” She slapped his chest lightly. He always teased her so. “Now why were you upset a minute ago?”

“A moment of weakness, my love.” He swallowed. “You asked me what anniversary is coming up?”

“Yes. I’m having trouble remembering. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Oh babe, I love you more than I did when I married you sixty-two years ago.”

She froze. “Did you say sixty-two years?”

“Yes, Maudie. Sixty-two years.”

She shook her head. She was still dreaming; still stuck in this nightmare. In many ways it made perfect sense.