by Jackie Calhoun
Emily Cortland and Brett Tarlington have been best friends since childhood. Brett wants more than friendship. Emily is not so sure. She has two children. However, the women’s bond is unbreakable.
Emily and Brett’s friendship becomes a partnership, until the family they forge is threatened by lies and deception. Then the unthinkable happens, and everything that has gone before pales in comparison. Only love and hope and life are left.
One night early in June during the twentieth summer of Emily Cortland and Brett Tarlington’s young lives, Brett parked her father’s Mercedes sedan at the end of a dirt road facing a wetland. Brett’s father owned a school and office supply store in the Fox Cities of Wisconsin.
The two girls—they still thought of each other that way—were home from their respective schools. Emily went to a small college in Greenleaf, Indiana. Brett attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Greenleaf College was four hundred miles south of the Fox Cities. Summer set in earlier there. The flora grew unchecked. Emily’s hair was already summer blond from the sun. Her gray-green eyes were puzzled. Why were they parking? Their summer joyrides usually consisted of driving on country roads with windows open and radio blaring, smoking and enjoying a beer or two.
Brett shut off the engine, and the croaking and chirring of frogs filled the car. It wasn’t yet dark, although it was close to nine. Brett turned her brilliant blue gaze on Emily in a disconcerting way. In the depths of her eyes lay something Emily couldn’t fathom.
Brett smiled, her teeth white in the evening dark. “Tell me again why we’re going to different schools?”
This had come up before. “You know why, Brett,” Emily said with exasperation. She could do nothing about it, except maybe refuse to go back to Greenleaf. Perhaps then her mom and dad would capitulate and pay for her to go to Madison. “My parents think it would be better if you and I met other girls and some guys.” They’d told her she and Brett needed a degree of separation, which they would never achieve on their own since they had been joined at the hip since grade school. Those were her parents’ words, not hers.
Emily sighed. “Can’t we just enjoy the night?” The summer stretched before them as it always had—filled with excitement and promise—and then in a flash it would turn into autumn. She felt a little frantic for something she couldn’t put a finger on.
“Em,” Brett cleared her throat. “Oh, what the hell.” She leaned toward Emily, who seemed stuck in her seat, put a finger under Emily’s chin, lifted it and kissed her.
As if snapped in a picture, Emily could not move. She felt the softness of the kiss, the longing behind it and kissed Brett back.
“I love you, Em,” Brett said.
“I love you too. You’re my best friend,” Emily said, alarmed by the reaction the kiss had provoked.
“Aw Em, don’t say that.” Brett flopped back into her seat and turned her face toward the creamy ceiling.
“But you are!” Emily exclaimed, pretending not to understand.
“You’re throwing a bit of water on a fire.”
“What?” Emily asked, confused.
“I’m crazy about you.”
Not sure what to say but knowing better than to repeat the words, Emily took Brett’s hand. “What can I do?”
“Let me,” Brett said, reaching under Emily’s T-shirt and deftly unhooking her bra. She kissed Emily more urgently as she gently held a breast. “Oh Em, how I’ve wanted to touch you,” she breathed into Emily’s hair as she worked warm fingers into Emily’s shorts. “Do this to me, Em,” Brett begged as she stroked the tender wet folds.
Emily did as Brett asked. What she felt and how she responded to Brett’s touch led to considerable inner turmoil. Deep in the recesses of her brain she wondered if this was what she’d been looking for—the kissing, the touching—and then she buried the thought.
* * *
Brett loved sports. Emily loved books. At eighteen, Brett’s parents took her to Madison and Emily left for the small school in southern Indiana. Her dad and mom drove her to Greenleaf. The trip took twelve hours one way, because they had to go around Chicago and Gary and Lafayette and every Podunk town on Highway 41. When they reached Indianapolis, they drove almost to Illinois.
The corn they passed stood taller than Emily. The stalks offered little shade when she squatted among them in the hot sun, because there was no place to stop. Everything grew at a frightening rate. Emily knew right away that this college, set in a small town with one movie theater and a bowling alley, was too far from home.
Nevertheless, a jolt of freedom raced through her when her parents drove away from the small dorm that was to be her home. She lit a cigarette as soon as the car was out of sight, but the sun was too hot to sit long in its glare. She went up to her room on the second floor and began a letter to Brett.
Letters to Brett sustained her while she was at Greenleaf where girls wore sweaters because it was fall even though the temperatures were in the eighties. The girls in her dorm were desperate to join sororities, sobbing if they weren’t accepted.
The most popular game in the dorm was bridge, which Emily’s parents had taught her and her sister. The pall of smoke hanging over the players was not always from cigarettes. However, Emily never smoked weed when she played bridge.
She met Ted Grafton at Greenleaf. He was a smoker and a drinker, but he was also from Wisconsin and helped keep the homesickness at bay. The social part of their dates consisted of playing bridge with Ted’s roomie and his girlfriend, who was in the same dorm as Emily. The rest of the time, they necked in the men’s dorm next to Dottie Hall or out at the quarry or in Ted’s car, which was parked off campus. They stroked each other to climax, which took no time at all for either one.
Toward the end of her sophomore year, Ted started saying it was okay if they went all the way, because he would marry her and they could live in the married quarters. It scared her so much that she broke up with him. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she didn’t want to marry Ted or anyone else. She went home to Brett.
Emily’s sister, Hannah, brought home Rob Welch to meet their parents. Hannah and Emily shared a bedroom, and Hannah asked if she had a boyfriend.
“You never bring any guys home,” Hannah said as they lounged in bed one morning.
“I had a boyfriend at school,” Emily said.
“You’re cute, Em, with your blond hair and those eyes. I can never decide whether they’re gray or green, just like Mom’s. You must have guys falling all over you.”
“Maybe I don’t want some guy telling me what to do. The boys get to stay out till midnight. We have to be in the dorm at ten during the week. How fair is that?”
“Ah, I’m with you there. Is that why you spend all your time with Brett?”
A trap, she thought. “She’s my best friend.”
Hannah shifted to the side facing Emily. “But you should spread your time around, don’t you think? People might get the wrong idea.”
“What wrong idea?” she asked and then realized she’d caught the hook. Her heart thudded in her ears.
“That you and Brett are too close. Like you’re lesbians.”
Emily felt the flush starting in her chest and spreading outward. “Because we like each other’s company better than anybody else’s?”
“Well, yeah. Everyone knows Brett’s a lesbian. Look at her.”
She thought she might kill her sister at that moment. It was all she could do to not pounce on her. “What do you mean ‘Look at her?’”
“Cool down, Em. I’m just thinking about your reputation.”
“What do you mean, Hannah? What’s wrong with how she looks?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
Everything told her to let it go, but she couldn’t. “No, what do you mean?”
Hannah sighed. “The cocky way she walks, the boy’s haircut, how she looks at you, how you look at her. Where do you go nights when you go off in her dad’s car?”
Speechless, Emily mentally scrabbled for a retort. “Who made you a fucking judge?” She had heard someone say that at school when accused of something.
“Good response, Em,” Hannah said sarcastically. Hannah got the smarts, Emily thought. She got the looks. “I just thought maybe you were under her influence.”
Emily leaped on her sister and began to pummel her. “You…self…righteous…bitch. You think you’re so perfect, you and your Rob.”
“Hey, get off me.” Hannah covered her head with her arms and tried to roll into a ball. Her long hair tangled in Emily’s fingers. “Ouch. Quit.” Paradoxically, she began to laugh.
The laughter punctured Emily’s anger. She started to laugh, too, and they rolled on Hannah’s bed—snorting like fools.
“Whatever works for you, Em,” Hannah said, when they stopped and looked at each other. “You always were weird.” Emily socked her on the arm. “I’ll tell Mom,” Hannah giggled, like they were six and eight again and once more they rolled on the bed, laughing hysterically.
* * *
The next time Emily and Brett drove the backcountry roads under a star-studded sky, a man jumped into the headlights. Startled, Emily let out a little yelp, and Brett skidded to a stop. The guy ended up on the hood. For an excruciating moment, Emily thought they’d killed him.
It was with relief and fear that she watched the tall, skinny shape slide off the car and jerk the back door open.
“Name’s John B. I need a ride.” His brown hair fell to his shoulders, like somebody who had lived in the woods or maybe in California.
She and Brett shared a terrified look, convinced this person was going to rape and kill them. They might have a chance, Emily thought. Although she was petite, Brett was tall and strong.
“You got any more of those?” John B asked, looking at the Hamm’s beer in Brett’s hand. He lit the stub of a smoke and threw his head back to exhale. The smell was sweet.
“Where you going?” A lock of Brett’s dark waves fell over her forehead as she handed him a Hamm’s.
“Wherever you are.” He flipped open the can and took a deep swallow. “You saved my life.”
Emily thought maybe John B wanted to steal Brett’s father’s Mercedes.
“We’re just driving around,” Brett said, looking in the rearview mirror at the guy.
“Sounds good to me,” he said, running his hand over the soft leather seats. He wore khaki pants with big pockets on the side of each leg and a dark T-shirt. The night was hot. “A bear was stalking me.”
When he lifted a plastic bag and grinned, Emily saw that he was young. “Want some weed? I found a patch out there.”
Brett’s mouth stretched into a slow smile. “Boy, do we ever.”
Emily could never remember the rest of the night, except the odor of fresh-cut hay as they skidded from one road to another, laughing at everything.
* * *
Toward the end of July when Brett was helping her dad take inventory at the office supply store—her summer job—John B took Emily to a field on the edge of town. With the sun hot overhead, he got her to lie down with him in the long grass and coaxed her into having sex. She let it happen because she wanted to know what it was like to go all the way. She never thought John B was a serious threat to her independence, like Ted had been.
Brett had shown her what it was like with girls, but most girls seemed to prefer boys. During and after, she wondered why girls wanted to have sex this way. The excitement she’d felt with Brett didn’t happen. She dismissed it from her mind as soon as it was over. In fact, she couldn’t wait to get home and take a shower.
However, the consequences were immediate—although she didn’t know it. She refused to answer John B’s phone calls, and would not get into his car when he followed her. After three weeks, she knew she was pregnant. No period. Why had she called it the curse? She’d be so happy if it arrived. It did not, and she was always tired and hungry.
“I’m sorry,” Brett said one night after parking at the end of the dirt road. “I thought you liked it.” She kept her eyes averted.
“Liked what?” Emily snapped. That’s how she responded to questions these uncertain weeks.
“You know,” Brett said.
“I’m not that way,” Emily replied, remembering how the kissing and touching with Brett had set her on fire. John B had left her cold. Was she going to have to pay for just one mistake? Please, please, she begged.
At four weeks she went to a doctor, not the family doctor, but one she picked out of the phone book. Lying on the examining table, her feet in the stirrups, she stared at the ceiling. While the doctor probed, she repeated her mantra—please, please, don’t let it be so.
Afterward, she put on her clothes and waited for the doctor to return. He sat on a chair, facing her. At least his nurse hadn’t come back in with him. He was an older man with a kindly demeanor.
“Well, Emily, you are going to have a baby.”
“But I can’t,” she said with alarm. “I’m not married. I’m still in college. Could you help me…” she said meekly and felt the flush of shame.
He looked at her for a long moment. “I’m sorry,” he said, his smile gone. Another pause ensued as he studied her. “There are college courses at night you could take if you’re working. There are those who can’t have babies, and they adopt. These are alternatives for further education and inconvenient babies.”
Maybe it was the “inconvenient babies” that broke through her protective shield and told her this doctor wouldn’t understand no matter what. “Thank you,” she said, getting up.
His handshake was limp. “Good luck.”
She heard him in retrospect. On her mind were the questions—how to tell her parents and Brett? She never thought of informing John B. She left the office without shedding any tears but once she closed the door of her parents’ Ford Granada, which she had to beg to be allowed to drive, she sat in stunned silence. This was a bind from which she could not escape, and she was terrified.
As she parked in her parents’ garage, she passed John B’s 1960 Ford Corvette—dented and rusting—parked at the curb.
“Don’t you ever work?” she snapped when he shuffled toward her—slouching, hands in pockets. She hated him.
“I just thought…”
“Don’t think,” she snapped as she had snapped at Brett. Very soon college would start again. She had to tell someone or maybe she would just move away and work till the baby was born. Even now with John B in her face, she never thought to tell him.
“Here.” He thrust a piece of paper at her.
On it was scrawled in tiny script his name, John Bernard, and phone number.
“Just in case you want to get in touch.” He turned around and roared away in his aging Corvette.
She stuffed the scrap in her pocket, meaning to throw it away once inside. She had taken a half day off from her summer job to see that doctor. At five she had to pick up her dad at the mill where he worked in the sales office. They only owned one car. She worked on the mill floor, checking and putting cheese wrappers in boxes as they came off a machine that folded and sealed them. There was no time for chitchat except on breaks.
* * *
For two more days she mulled over her dilemma. On the third day, she gathered her courage. “I’m not going back to college,” she told her parents after dinner. “I’m taking a year off.”
She shrunk from their stunned faces. How would they look when she told them why she wasn’t going back?
Her dad recovered first. “And do what? Work in the mill?”
“No, I’m looking for something else.” Actually, she hadn’t had time or foresight to look for any better work. “I don’t know what I want to do yet, so why waste your money?”
“Is Brett going back to Madison?” her mom asked suspiciously.
“I think so.” She caught the look that passed between her parents and didn’t know what it meant.
After cleaning up the dishes, all she wanted was to go to bed but Brett had arrived and was talking to Emily’s parents. Emily eavesdropped, hiding against the wall next to the living room.
“What do you think about Emily’s decision not to go back to college?” her mom asked.
The shock was still on Brett’s face when Emily hurriedly walked into the room, as if she could do damage control. Brett looked at Emily. “I didn’t know,” she stuttered.
Emily’s mother nodded. “Don’t stay out too late. I don’t want to wake you up three times tomorrow, Em,” her dad said, which was what he had done that morning.
Emily craved sleep. She longed for it, more than she did food. She grabbed a sweater and went out the door with Brett, thinking maybe she could nap in the car, but she knew she was in for a lot of explaining. Perhaps Brett would come up with some ideas about how to deal with her terrible dilemma.
“Are you really not going back to school?” Brett asked as they peeled away. It was hard not to take off like a bolt of lightning in the Mercedes. “Are you coming to Madison?” Emily heard the hope in her voice and wanted to cry.
“I did something really stupid, Brett, and I’m in deep shit.” The words rushed out of her. “Let’s go park.”
Darkness was falling. Summer was nearly over. Emily twisted and turned inside, but there was no escape for her. “I never liked that fucking school anyway.”
Brett parked on the dead end dirt road and turned to Emily. “Come to Madison with me. We’ll get an apartment.”
Would it work? She couldn’t imagine Brett’s dad paying for an apartment for the two of them. He was a gruff man with a loud voice. Neither of them had any money. “Brett, I’m pregnant.”
If her parents had looked stunned about her not going back to school, Brett sat frozen with her mouth open. “What? Who? When?” she asked after a few minutes.
“Remember that guy we picked up, John B?” Her voice was quivering.
“When? Why?” The hurt showed. Brett stared at Emily until Emily looked away.
“I’m sorry. You can’t believe how sorry. It was only once, Brett. I had to find out what it was like. I didn’t like it at all. I don’t like him either, and now he’s following me around.” Her voice had fallen to a whisper.
“When?” Brett whispered in reply.
Emily took a deep breath that was more like a sigh. “You were taking inventory.”
“After we fooled around, you did it with him?” Brett was shouting now, like her dad. She started the car.
“I asked a doctor if he’d help.”
Brett made a jerky U-turn. She was crying. “You better talk to John B. I’m going back to Madison.”
* * *
Although she and John B moved in together, she never married him. She told her parents they had eloped, but she kept her name. Her dad got her a job as a mail girl at the plant where he worked. It paid more and got her off the factory floor. She took night classes at UW-O. When the baby arrived, she left him with her mom while she worked, and with John B when she had night classes. It turned into a long slog.
John B operated a machine at a paper mill. He was seldom home and when he was, he watched TV. She would set the baby on his lap, so that she could study, but when she saw him put beer on the infant’s tongue, she snatched the child away.
“What are you thinking?
He looked up at her with a sad look. “Guess I wasn’t.”
“It would kill him,” she said with a terrible frown and the baby began to cry.
He shrugged. “Sorry.”
Later in the week he asked her if she wanted to go out.
She was walking around the kitchen, carrying the baby, while she made dinner—a beef stew. “I have to study.”
“All you do is study.”
“Well, I want to get decent grades.”
“You don’t like it when I go out without you.” He looked hangdog, his shoulders slouching.
Exasperation flooded her. It was like living with a little kid. “Go. I don’t care.”
* * *
When summer came again, Brett called. “Hi, how are you?”
The sound of her voice almost made Emily cry. “I thought you were never going to talk to me again.”
“I was pretty mad. Did you get the stuff I sent for the baby?”
“I wrote you a thank you letter. Didn’t you get it?”
A pause. “Yeah, I did. It was hard to talk to you. You know? Mom says you’re living with John B.”
A longer silence ensued. “Can I come see you?”
She’d thought Brett would never want to see her again. “I’ll be home around four,” she said, excited. “I have a class and I have to pick up the baby from my mom afterward.” She was taking three summer school classes, trying to finish what she’d started.
But the more she thought about seeing Brett and not being able to spend time together as they had, the sadder she became. Maybe they could take the baby along on their rides, but between work and school and study, she had no time for fun.
Until she talked to Brett, she hadn’t realized how lonely she was. John B was gone all day, and she hadn’t made friends at the University. She didn’t bring in much money, but her parents were footing the college expenses and John B was paying for the other necessities, like food and rent. He was still driving his old Corvette.
She washed her hair before class and dried it to a glossy sheen. Brett had loved her hair—the blondeness, the thickness. She wanted to look her best, at least from the neck up. There were stretch marks on her belly from the pregnancy, white streaks, but Brett wasn’t going to see them.
Brett showed up that afternoon—the dark lock of wavy hair hanging over her forehead and a big white smile in place. Emily looked into her brilliant blue eyes and thought how striking she was. Had she ever noticed?
It made her shy. Where Brett was trim and athletic, she had lost her tone. She made an effort to put enthusiasm into her greeting. “Hi, come in. You look great.”
Brett stepped inside the small shabby apartment. They had furnished it with hand-me-downs. The carpet was old and dark, the paint on the walls chipping. She met Emily’s eyes shyly. “I missed you. I’m sorry I went off and left you like I did.” The words came out in a rush, as if she had to say this before she lost her nerve.
Emily smiled wryly at how foolish she’d been. Back when she’d told Brett she was pregnant, she had counted on her to come up with the impossible—something that would change the inevitable. Instead, she’d had to tell John B she was pregnant and accept help from her parents.
“I couldn’t come to the wedding, Em.” Brett looked shamefaced.
“What wedding?” Emily asked. “There was no wedding. He didn’t ask and neither did I. My parents think we’re married, though, so don’t tell anyone we’re not.”
Brett stared at her as if trying to understand. She looked both confused and relieved. “But you’re living together anyway.”
“Well, it was either live with my parents or with John B. I couldn’t make it on my own. And since I told my mom and dad I married him, I had to live with him—until one or the other of us goes our own way. I can’t do that till I finish school and get a real job. Want some coffee?”
A thin wail started in another room and rose into a lusty cry. “I have to get the baby,” she said, moving toward the door. “I’ll only be a minute.”
After changing the baby, she hurried back to Brett with the infant. He was tiny and looked like an old man with a high forehead and cramped features, dominated by his nose. She showed him to Brett, pulling the receiving blanket away from his wizened face. “This is Jason. It’s hard to call him that, though. He’s so small. Baby is easier.” John B called him stud muffin.
Brett peered at the baby, who looked at her out of round eyes. “He is tiny.”
If Brett had said he was beautiful, she would have known she was lying, but Brett was quiet as if she didn’t know what to say.
Emily was mentally kicking herself for having blown it. She’d started her adult life with a handicap. She couldn’t bear the thought that it might have cost her Brett’s friendship.
“How is school?” she asked, pouring them each a cup of coffee while holding the baby in one arm. “Learn anything exciting?”
Brett shrugged. “I thought of you every day, Em, even though I tried hard to get you out of my mind.”
“Don’t get me out of your mind, Brett. I need you.” If she sounded desperate, she was.
“I need you too. You were my best friend.” Brett looked so sad that Emily reached across the table and covered her hand.
“Are, Em. You are my best friend.” Brett’s fingers closed over hers.
Emily and John B were arguing in loud whispers in the kitchen—an ongoing conversation about his seldom being home. “Why don’t you call Brett? She’ll come over.” He said it without sarcasm or rancor.
She didn’t care where John B went or with whom, but he was breaking his promise to Cort. Again. “Brett isn’t Cort’s father, John B, and don’t use her to get out of this,” she snapped. “You told Cort you’d take him fishing Saturday, and now you’re telling me you are going fishing with the guys. Can’t he go too?”
“You wouldn’t want him there. They’ll be drinking.” His shoulders drooped and he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
She knew he hated these fights as much as she did, but this was about her kid. Hurt gnawed at her every time she saw disappointment on her son’s face, and that was usually when his father broke a promise. Sensing movement, she peeked around John B’s shoulder and saw Cort’s face disappear behind the doorframe. Now what the fuck would she say to her little boy? He wouldn’t believe her excuses. She was sick of trying to justify John B’s actions.
“If you go, don’t come back,” she said, suddenly shaking with fury. How many times had she told him to go since she’d gotten her degree and a job? Two? Three? She’d always backed down, and now she had Angie to consider. She’d gotten caught again in a weak moment and ended up with her baby girl.
He stared at her—a tall, lanky man with thick brown hair and pale brown eyes. He was kind but totally irresponsible. She thought he looked relieved. “Are you sure?”
Her heart beat in her ears, but she wouldn’t back down even when she wondered how she would tell the kids. Maybe Cort had already heard. Despite the broken promises, Cort loved his father. Angie, who was napping, was also crazy about her dad. “I’m sure,” she said, not sure she was doing the right thing. It wasn’t good to fight in front of the children, and their time together had been fraught with dissent.
Why hadn’t Brett run John B down, instead of letting him in the car? But then she wouldn’t have any babies.
“Yeah. I’ll just get a few things,” he said, not even arguing against his going. He gestured toward their bedroom and was hit by the body of his son.
“Don’t go, Daddy. I don’t wanna go fishing.” Cort wrapped his arms around John B’s leg.
Emily stared at the small body of her child and let out a sob. Her arms reached for Cort before she could think to stop them. Let John B deal with this, she told herself and backed off.
“Hey, buddy,” John B picked up the boy. Cort wrapped his arms tightly around his father’s neck. “Want to help me pack?”
“Can I go with you?” Cort asked.
Her heart broke then. Why didn’t Cort kick his father in the ankles, instead of begging to go with him? He should be hugging her for always being there for him. She turned away and, for lack of something to do, she began searching the cupboards and fridge for the kids’ favorite meal.
When his father drove away, Cort stood in the driveway, stomping his feet and screaming. “Daddy, don’t go. Don’t go…”
Angie had toddled into the kitchen and added her shrieks to her brother’s. For a moment, Emily covered her ears, but she was the adult here. Scooping up her daughter, she went out the door and grabbed Cort’s hand before he ran into the street.
“Come on, honey. Let’s go back inside. Okay?” She dragged her son toward the house, both kids screeching. She wanted to holler with them. Instead, she gave them each a cookie and their cries turned to sobs. She sank to the kitchen floor, holding them both in her arms.
After a while, Angie asked, “’Nother cookie, Mama?” Her mouth was brown with chocolate. Her blond hair, so like her mother’s, was sticky.
“Time for dinner,” she said and fed them their favorite unhealthy food—hotdogs, and mac and cheese with ketchup over all. She poured each a glass of milk and sat down at the table with her own plate.
“Where is Daddy?” Angie asked. “I heared him talking.”
Cort began to wail, his mouth full of food.
“When you’re done eating, we’ll clean up and watch something on TV. Would you like that?”
Cort stopped crying. “Can Daddy come back?”
“Sure,” she said. As she cleaned her daughter’s face, she wondered how to wipe away today.
When the kids were in bed, she called Brett and told her what had happened.
“You actually told him not to come back? Did you mean it this time?” Brett asked.
“Yes, I did.” She told about her son asking to go with his dad and clinging to him. “Why does Cort love his father more than me, when his father breaks every promise and is almost never home?”
“Cort knows you’ll always be here for him so he throws all his efforts into keeping his dad from leaving. It doesn’t mean he loves him more. Do you want me to come over?” Brett lived in an apartment complex off Valley Road that allowed dogs. Emily’s apartment building did not allow dogs over thirty pounds. Brett brought Thor over by putting a halter and lead on him and pretending he was a rescue dog.
“Thanks, but I just want to go to bed and sleep.”
“It’s not going to go away, like a nightmare would,” Brett warned her.
Emily escaped into sleep after she put the kids to bed. The next day was Saturday, so she didn’t have to go to work, but the kids would be up early.
“All right. Call if you want company,” Brett said. “Thor and I are just hanging out.”
* * *
Several weeks later Cort and Angie got a postcard from John B with a Texas postmark. It was addressed to Jason and Angela Cortland. Jason was Cort’s given name but from when he first talked, he called himself Cort. She thought maybe he called himself that because John B often called Emily by her last name. “Cortland,” he would yell from the bedroom, “where are my clean jeans?”
She had never married John B, and he had never asked her to. For five years they had lived together. Emily had told her parents she and John B had eloped, but she had kept her last name.
Now Emily read the few words, each one feeding her helpless fury, which was tempered by a thrilling whiff of freedom. Maybe he really wasn’t coming back.
I’m a cowboy down here in Texas where the cows have long horns. My horse’s name is Bart and he likes to buck. I miss you both so much I cry myself to sleep. Love, Daddy
“Cort, you want to read Daddy’s postcard to your sister?” she asked through clenched teeth.
Cort took the postcard and looked with marvel at the glossy picture of a guy in a cowboy hat wearing chaps and boots, sitting atop a bay horse with white trim on its face and legs.
“Lemme see,” Angie said, grabbing at the card, which Cort held out of reach.
They squeezed into a chair together and Cort made out the words slowly. Angie poked a finger at the horse and rider. “That Daddy and his horse. I wanna ride.”
“Me too,” Cort said, looking at his mother.
She smiled, trying to be positive. “Your daddy’s in Texas, thousands of miles from here.”
“Can we go see him, Mama? Please?” Cort asked.
“Maybe sometime, but Monday you have to go to school.” Cort went to kindergarten while Angie stayed with her grandparents.
The day the postcard came happened to be a Friday, just like the day John B left for good. There was a whine at the door. Cort opened it and threw his arms around Thor’s hairy neck. The dog was a cross between a German shepherd and a black Lab or so someone at the Valley Humane Association had told Brett. Angie tried to climb on Thor’s back, but his tail knocked her down. Brett picked her up and set her on the dog, and Angie grabbed his collar.
“Giddup, Tor,” Angie squealed. Cort took the dog’s leash and galloped him around the room.
Emily handed Brett the postcard.
“It’s from Daddy. He’s a cowboy in Texas,” Cort shouted proudly.
Angie jumped up and down on Thor’s back. “I cowboy,” she said.
Brett’s eyebrows arched. She looked into Emily’s gray-green eyes. “Well, how about that.”
Emily turned the TV on to public, where Sesame Street would hold the kids’ attention. She lifted Angie off the dog and Thor dropped to the floor. The kids plopped on either side of him, their fingers buried in his ruff.
She and Brett went into the kitchen to talk.
“How about we move in together?” Brett suggested.
Emily looked at her friend, whose dark wavy hair fell over her forehead. Brett—tall and lithe and athletic—personified health. She played sports, for God’s sake. “Good. But neither your apartment nor mine is big enough. And what if John B comes back?”
“You told him not to.” Brett’s sapphire gaze bored into Emily.
She shivered. “The kids love him.”
“Let’s try it, Em. It’ll be cheaper. We can split the costs.”
“That’s not fair to you. There are three of us and only one of you.”
“If I hadn’t run into John B, you wouldn’t have the kids. Anyway I love them, Em, like they’re my own.”
* * *
They started looking on weekends, leaving Thor in Brett’s Grand Am—his big head hanging out the window. Emily carried Angie, and Brett held Cort’s hand.
“We’ve decided to pool our resources,” Emily told Mr. Hanover, who was showing them the ninth rental in over three weekends. They’d liked the first place they were shown, but there was a misunderstanding about the size of the dog. He was too big.
“The fireplace is nice,” Brett said. It took up a corner in the living room. There were woods beyond the small yard that bordered the patio.
Mr. Hanover’s jaw set. “Are you two ladies sisters?”
“Friends,” Brett said, looking at the small man’s squinty eyes.
His jaw worked. “You’ve got a dog?”
“Yeah,” Cort said. “A BIG dog.”
Emily’s heart sank. She knew better than to hush her son. He’d just say, “But he is a big dog.” She was tired of looking for another place to live and thinking that maybe they should stay put. “We’ll let you know,” she said, heading toward the door.
“I like big dogs,” the man said. “Better than those yappy little ones. You have to pick up after him. Can you do that, boy?” He looked at Cort who drew himself up and nodded.
“I can too,” Angie said. “BIG poops.” She spread her arms. “We put them in a bag so no one will step on them. Yuck!”
“Yeah, HUGE,” Cort said, not to be outdone.
They all laughed, a little too loudly.
“Okay, kids.” Emily was about to say they’d think about it.
“We’ll take it,” Brett said.
It was a small house at the edge of town with three bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom with a tub/shower.
The kitchen had a window over the sink. Between it and the living room with the fireplace was a tiny dining room. Dark carpeting covered all but the kitchen floors and the walls were the color of mustard. The rent was three hundred bucks plus utilities, which seemed like a fortune to Emily.
“We could buy this place,” Brett said on their way home.
* * *
They put the two double beds in the biggest bedroom upstairs, then added two dressers and an old rocking chair. There was barely enough space for a small table with a lamp between the beds. When open, the dresser drawers collided the with feet of the beds. The rocker would have to go elsewhere.
Emily and Brett were making the beds. Their friends and parents had left after they all shared the pizzas Brett and Emily had bought.
“We could take one of these beds out,” Brett said.
“Cort and Angie could sleep in the same room,” she said, thinking Brett wanted her own room.
“No. We’ve shared a double bed, Em. Every time we slept at each other’s houses.” Brett brushed away the dark hank of hair. She was sweating.
“But we were kids then,” Emily said.
“Let’s give Angie one of these beds. She’s too big for a crib.” Brett said.
“I suppose it makes sense.” Emily shivered under her flush. “How will it look, though? We’re not kids anymore.” She was remembering Brett’s kiss and wandering hands so long ago.
“Who’s going to know except us and the kids? And if they do, so what?”
“And if John B comes back?” Her desires were a tangled mess.
Brett started pulling the mattress off the double bed nearest the door and nearly fell over Thor, who had been nervously following her around.
“Brett, can Thor sleep with me?” Cort asked, hugging the dog.
“Him sleep with me,” Angie shouted.
“He doesn’t know where he is. He’s nervous. He better sleep with me tonight,” Brett said. “Maybe he can sleep in your rooms when he knows this is his new home.”
“Leave the dog alone. He’s worried,” Emily cautioned.
“Aw, poor doggie,” Angie said, and she and Cort dragged Thor out of the room.
“John B won’t come back,” Brett said. “If he does, I’ll move out.”
“That’s kind of harsh,” Emily said.
She helped Brett wrestle the mattress and box springs out of the room and down the hall to Angie’s room. Angie and Cort jumped on the mattress while the two women put the bed together. Thor stood with his tail between his legs.
Cort had bunk beds in his room. Angie was supposed to get one of those when she stopped sleeping in the crib. She’d be lost in this bed, Emily thought, and told Cort to put his pajamas on. She helped Angie change into her nightie and tucked her into the double bed. Just in case, they’d put a plastic sheet on top of the mattress.
She read both kids a Dr. Seuss book—Green Eggs and Ham.
“I can read this, Mama,” Cort said. She let him sound out the words and wondered if he had memorized them from all the times they’d read these pages. Even Angie was picking up some of the words.
Afterward, she told Brett she was going to bed to read.
“How about a glass of wine to celebrate our new place?” Brett had filled two orange juice glasses with Blossom Hill.
It was a sweet white zin, which always gave Emily a headache. She took a couple of sips so as not to disappoint Brett. “I’ll see you upstairs.”
“Warm up the bed,” Brett said, pouring the rest of Emily’s glass into her own. The dog was leaning against her.
Emily was reading The Winds of War by Henry Wouk, which she’d gotten from the library. It was a thick book. After it fell on her face three times, she put it on the bedside table and turned her back on the light. She never heard Brett slide into bed beside her.
She awoke in the night, thinking a building had fallen on her legs and was crushing them. When she opened her eyes, she yelped at the black hairy mound on the bed. It didn’t stir, nor did the other lump next to her.
Slowly, she realized that the dog was lying on her and Brett was asleep next to her. She pulled her legs out from under Thor and fell back on her pillow. The clock read 4:49. It was Sunday. She got up to go to the bathroom and crept back to bed.