Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Curse Upon the House of York

Prelude

      With each scream, Bess could feel her flesh tearing apart. She was tired, so tired, and there was so much blood that she felt sure she would die. She was long past the point of tolerable pain, and crossing the threshold of intolerable pain. Her limp body could barely shudder before bracing itself for the next contraction. Only her throat and hands still seemed able to work, although they seemed to do so of their own accord. Whimpers in between the screams slipped unwittingly through her lips, and her hands clawed at fistfuls of the sheets until they couldn't hold any more of the sweat-drenched linen.
      "Only a little while longer, my lady," whispered a calmly desperate woman who hovered around the bedside with about a dozen others.
      "No!" Bess shouted, her back arching itself at an unnatural angle.
      "Yes," the woman encouraged, stroking her arm. "Just a little while longer..."
      When Bess screamed, a second scream followed close behind, continuing long after Bess had stopped, falling back against the pillows with a sickening thud. The other women around the bedside rose in a flurry, all of their hands reaching out for Bess together.
      "It's a boy!" shouted the man holding the screaming bundle of pink flesh, the cord still grotesquely connected to the motionless body on the bed. "It's a boy!"
      One of the other dozen people not otherwise occupied threw open the bedchamber door to pass along the announcement to those waiting outside. A man stole in the open door almost unnoticed as word spread throughout the house, and soon church bells were peeling across all of Greenwich. When he was noticed, the women around the bed tried to push him away from the unconscious body of his wife who had suddenly grown as pale as the linens she had gripped just minutes earlier.
      "Bess?" he said, swatting away the ever-grasping hands of the women. "Bess?" A nervous edge entered his voice. "She's not...?"
      "No," said the woman whose hands hadn't left Bess for even a moment during the long labor, and those hands continued to keep their vigil. "She just fainted. But she’s weak and we have to stop the bleeding."
      As she spoke, the doctor began working at that very task, having handed the screaming infant to a wet nurse. As if the words had woken them from a dream, or some terrible nightmare, the ladies melted away from the man, allowing him to approach. He fell to his knees and took Bess' hand, removing the bedsheet from her frozen fingers.
      "Bess," he said. "It's a boy. Another little boy."


      By the time the church bells reached London, a few miles north, the sun had nearly set. Despite the oppression of the summer heat, which was beginning to linger into the nights, crowds gathered in the streets in anticipation, wanting news of their new king's newborn. It was late June, and those with the means to do so had fled the stench of the city, but outside of Westminister, hundreds of townspeople of both the middle and lower classes stood shoulder to shoulder in the square.
      It was here that a woman stood with a hood pulled over her head. She was old, but looked older even than she was. At first, people ignored her. She was clearly impoverished, and no doubt the people suspected that anyone who kept their body so thoroughly covered in the warm weather must be ill as well. Although space was scarce, she was given as much as possible, and those around her ignored her in every other way until she suddenly threw back her hood.
      "It's a boy!" she announced, her voice strong and strangely young. It rose over the low din of the crowd, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the square so that when she repeated, "It's a boy!" it sounded even louder.
      After another pause, some people began to whisper to one another.
      "That's her," they said, pointing.
      "She was there."
      "It was her."
      And the space they had given her grew larger as people recoiled half in wonder and half in fear.
      She had been at the death of their previous king. More than that, some in the North no doubt blamed her for his untimely --and unseemly --death. Because when the king, still young and handsome enough, even if plagued by bad luck, was crossing a narrow bridge to battle against the man they now called king, this very same woman had fallen forward and declared that where the spur of the king's boot had struck a stone on the bridge, his head would break in the same place. And so it had come to pass when mere hours later the king's defeated body had been dragged back into the town from Redmore Plain. That day, the reign of King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, had ended, and the reign of King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor House, had begun.
      They backed further away from the woman and someone called out, "Witch!" The people of London murmured louder, and no one noticed the old woman cringe. The air grew heavier and she pulled her hood back over her head. Had a horseman not ridden into the square at the moment, distracting the crowd, it's possible, and even likely, that they would have moved beyond words to violence. Though she had been accustomed in her life to harsh treatment, she had no interest in causing any trouble that day. No, June 28, 1491 was a day to celebrate.
      "It's a boy!" shouted the horseman, reining his mount in so tightly that it reared back with a shriek. "God save the King!"
      "God save the King!" the crowd shouted unthinkingly. "Long live King Henry!"
      And the woman vanished from their collective thoughts amidst cheers and church bells and the sudden music of street performers who sensed that revelry was in order.
      The families of London, or those with enough coins to spare, would eat and drink to the birth of their new prince and the further security of the line of succession. The hooded woman was wholly forgotten, but some things, in some minds, could never be forgotten, thought the woman as she slipped away, through people who no longer noticed or cared if she brushed against them. London was drunk with the possibility of getting drunk, and the narrow alleys emptied in favor of the room that the squares offered, allowing the woman to make her way home alone.
      The woman always walked alone.
      She looked up at the moon rising across the pale night sky and whispered a prayer to a god she didn't believe in that the Queen had kept her strength through the hard labor, and that promises made would be kept.


      Back in the Queen's bedchamber, Henry had fallen asleep on his knees, his head bent at his wife's side, his fingers still twisted between hers. Only a few candles still burned, and the room was empty where only a few hours it had been overrun with people. Even the shutters were silent without a breeze in the empty summer air.
      Bess stirred, and Henry woke to her movement, watching eagerly as she slowly regained consciousness.
      "Bess," he said, pressing his lips to the hand he held.
      "Henry," she said, her eyes not yet even open. "Henry, where's the baby?"
      "With the nurse. Sleeping, I'm sure. Like you should be."
      Bess turned her face into the pillows as if she were about to stretch her aching body, but the ache was so strong that her head was all she could move, save her fingers, which pulled at Henry's.
      "And is it a boy?" she asked, wanting nothing more than to have given birth to a boy.
      "Yes."
      While she had been unconscious, her ladies-in-waiting had cleared the room and stripped down the bed while her body was still on it. The sweat and blood-stained sheets had been taken out to be burned, and fresh linen had been laid beneath her. They had brought cool cloths with rose water and oil and had washed down her body, taking away the smell of her exertion and leaving a ghostly sweetness that was almost terrifying to Henry because he had never seen his wife, his strong Bess, so pale and weak. Even when they had been forced to marry five years earlier, she had not shown any sign of weakness, meeting him at the altar defiantly, even if dutifully.
      Their marriage had been forced then. It was only over the years since their first son, Arthur, and their daughter Mary, that Henry had come to love his wife. He had come to love her almost madly, and certainly against the advice of those close to him who warned that she would destroy him if he wasn't careful. After all, she was descended from the house of his enemy, the House of York. But his love refused to let that matter.
      Almost.
      "Oh, Henry," Bess sighed again. "A boy. You'll keep your promise now, won't you?"
      "Hush, love. You still need your rest," Henry said to avoid her question.
      "No, Henry. I want to know that you'll keep your promise."
      When they had found out that she was with child again, Bess had demanded that if the child were a boy, they would name him Richard for her royal uncle whom Henry --or at least his army --had killed without mercy and paraded afterward without respect. Henry had revolted at the idea and refused, but she had persisted into the fifth month, and Henry had felt his resolve slip. Still, how could he bring a child into his house, the Tudor House, that bore the same name as the last king of the cursed House of York?
      "If you won't give me the child's name, you must give me something," Bess had insisted in the midst of one argument, and Henry had grasped at the opportunity to appease her in some other way.
      "I will give you anything else you want for the boy. --If it's a boy." At that point, Henry almost found himself hoping for another daughter.
      "Anything?" Bess had asked in a tone that had made him regret his hasty offer.
      "Anything."
      "Even his schooling?"
      Henry immediately agreed. "Any schooling you desire."
      "Art and poetry and instruments? Not just languages and politics?"
      "As long as you raise him a man, as long as he rides and hunts, teach him any instruments you want. Teach him to dance better than any other fool at court." Henry's relief prompted him to tease.
      "And if I should want him to enter the church?"
      Henry sometimes thought his wife too susceptible to the influence of her grandmother, Cecily Neville, known in most circles as Proud Cis, who subscribed to the very strictest forms of piety. He was not an overly devout man himself, but the church was not only a respectable profession for a second son, it would prove useful and powerful in the future to have the family more closely linked with Rome.
      "He will be the Archbishop of Canterbury if you wish it."
      "And if I wish him to have a title of another kind? A dukedom perhaps?"
      "Then he will have the largest dukedom in all of England, and all the honors that are in my power to bestow."
      "Lord of Ireland?"
      "He shall be second only to his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales."
      "You will do all of this?" Bess seemed breathless in that moment. Her eyes had gleamed in a way Henry had never seen them shine before. Her lips had parted and her cheeks had flushed, and had she not been with child --the very child whose fate they were deciding --he might have carried her off to his bed immediately. In her condition though, she was absolutely off limits to him.
      "You know I'd do anything for you," he assured her huskily, resisting the urge to stroke her cheek, or even to touch her hand.
      She put her hands on the sleeves of his robe and gripped his arms with an urgency that only increased his temptation. "Promise?"
      He dropped a kiss on her neck, through the veil that attempted to conceal the smooth, white skin there. He swore she smelled as warm and as inviting as the night they'd conceived their third child. He could have almost curse the child then, instead wondering how he was going to make it through the night without his wife, his sweet Bess, at his side.
      "Henry?" she prompted.
      "I promise."
      A sublime smile spread across her face. "Then we shall name him for you," she said, stroking his arms. "He will be Henry, Duke of York. Second only to the Prince of Wales, the King, and God."
      When her words finally penetrated Henry's fog of desire, it evaporated instantly.
      "Duke of York?" he repeated, almost dumbstruck.
      Bess kissed him sweetly on the lips before pulling out of his arms. "Yes."


      "You will keep your word, won't you?" Bess asked in the present, pulling Henry out of the memory of his promise into the reality of its fulfilment.
      He made one more attempt to avoid reaffirming what he'd promised her.
      "There's plenty of time to talk about the boy's name and title and future in the morning."
      "But you will keep your word, Henry? He will be given the dukedom of York? And made Lord of Ireland? You will do this one thing for me, won't you? Henry?"
      Henry watched his wife will her body to move, but she slid only an inch, unable to even turn on her side she was still so weak. Her eyes gleamed again as they otherwise never did. She had not asked for anything else from their marriage. She had not demanded the crown, although Parliament had insisted he give it to her. She had not once demanded more gowns or jewels or more courtiers. She had not urged him to elevate her siblings or any of her kin, perhaps having learned the hard lessons of her father and her father's brother, that such favors could cause more trouble than they were worth.
      All she wanted was a dukedom for their son, their son who would have received a dukedom even without her request. It was a small thing she asked: to take over his education and see him well-provided for. The York title came with extensive lands, an enviable income, and a formidable ability to raise arms, if necessary. It certainly wasn't an honor that could be granted to anyone outside the royal family. Why not then to the tiny Prince Henry? His second son, his namesake?
      Except that it meant in some way that the House of York would live on.
      Henry took a breath and placed another kiss on Bess' hand, rising to lean over her and kiss her forehead. She never took her eyes off him, and their intensity was such that he was glad her confinement was over and that soon she'd be back in his bed and his arms. He had missed her over the months, and none of the other women at court had appealed to him. He had weathered the winter with nothing but the wood in the fireplace to warm him.
      Bess lifted her arms as he pulled away from her, though it must have taken more strength than she had to do so, and she locked her fingers behind his neck. Surely she had learned his weaknesses in their five years of marriage, and surely that was why she kissed him, but to Henry is was a kiss of pure love that he returned with feeling. When she finally allowed him to pull away, he whispered against her ear:
      "As I promised, so shall it be."

      When Henry had left the room, and Bess was sure that he was well on his way to his own dark and empty bedchamber, she called out for whoever was surely keeping a vigil outside the door. When one of her ladies-in-waiting appeared, she demanded that the baby be brought to her.
      “But my lady, you’re still much too weak. Could you even hold him?”
      “I'm not to weak. My strength is nearly all regained,” Bess rebuffed harshly, waving her arms for emphasis, though the motion was no less painful than having her body crushed beneath a gristmill.
      At the Queen's sharp tone, the young lady, herself no more than twelve or thirteen, hurried off to fetch the child, even though it was the dead of night. Bess could hear his mewling cries from down the hall as the wet nurse approached. When she first set eyes on him, almost eight hours into his existence, she marveled anew at how tiny babies could be. How much torture this one had been. The pregnancy had been easy enough until the seventh month, and that was when he’d begun to fight the cage of Bess’ body. She’d been bed-ridden for more than a month, wishing and praying for the babe to be born, but when the pains had come that morning, she had regretted her foolish prayers. Arthur and Mary had both come easily in comparison. She hadn’t believed people when they told her how lucky she had been with the first two. At the time, Bess had found them miserable. But Henry, little Henry, who already looked like he would have her hair and her Uncle Dickon’s eyes, had almost cleaved her body in two.
      “Of all the events to cleave my heart in two, and here you are closest to succeed,” Bess whispered to the still red and wrinkled face squirming in her arms.
      “What’s that, my lady?” asked the wet nurse, leaning in anxiously and wringing her hands.
      “Nothing,” Bess said before asking conversationally, “Isn't our new prince handsome?”
      The wet nurse and lady-in-waiting nodded their agreement with more quiet murmurs of approval. Surely the babe was no more nor less handsome than any other infant so newly brought into the world, but as the son of the sovereign, there was a sense of obligation to praise him as early on as possible.
      After gazing at him a few moments longer, Bess allowed the wet nurse to take the baby away, and when the woman's fingers brushed Bess’ cool skin to lift the child, Bess shivered. Watching her newborn and his nurse leave, it took an effort to calm the sudden rising panic inside of her. It was an anxiety she had never felt with either of her previous children, now nearly two and five years old. But Henry was without doubt different, although Bess couldn’t think of a single reason to justify the feeling. He was only a second son, she reasoned. He would be shielded from all the perils that came with the crown --the crown that had killed both her father and uncle.
      But would he be shielded from the perils that came with the dukedom of York?
      Bess slipped gently from the bed, down to the stone floor, her nightdress creating a barely noticeable layer between the flesh of her knees and the chill of the ground. She wasn't as superstitious as others of her family. She was not as devout as others in her family, either. But the thought of the curse on the House of York could put the fear of God in anybody, and so Bess clasped her hands together and prayed fervently that it had ended, that it was over, and that God would spare her son.
      “Lord, let him finally bring peace unto the House of York.”

The Long Road Home

For Dana and Geoff, who each told me so many times how they wished their own story had ended differently…

Rhiannon stood with her eyes squeezed shut, telling herself that this was all a nightmare. This is not happening, her mind screamed at her. Pinch yourself! Wake yourself up! But she knew this wasn’t a nightmare. Oh no. It was far worse. This was reality.

Finally, she took a deep breath, forcing herself to open her eyes. She was still standing on the steps of the courthouse. Blinking against the hazy sunshine, trying to quell the nausea that was swirling in her stomach, she took a hesitant step forward. Satisfied that she wasn’t going to lose her balance, she took a few more steps. By the time she made it down the steps to the sidewalk, she was walking with a brisk, confident stride, her long legs carrying her across the street, her head held high. Feeling lighter than she had in a long time, she had only a single thought in her head. I will not let this divorce break my spirit.

Her heels clicked against the pavement in the parking garage, making neat little clackety-clack sounds. She liked the sound of her footsteps, thinking it was powerful in the way they echoed in the nearly empty garage. Her silver SUV sat in a lonely spot at the end of the row, and she sighed as she slid into the driver’s seat. The leather warmed her skin through her skirt as she clicked on her seatbelt. She’d been considering trading in this behemoth, getting something smaller now that she was on her own, but there were a lot of good memories tied to the vehicle, and even though it probably seemed silly to everyone else, she liked the idea of having something in her life that reminded her of happier times.

On the way back to her office, clouds began to build in the western sky. Irritated that it looked like it was going to rain, Rhiannon decided that she needed to cheer herself up. At a local hot dog stand, she splurged on a late lunch, gorging herself on a chili dog, cheese fries, and a strawberry milkshake. It was sinful food, but given the day she was having, she figured she could make an exception. She sat alone at a small picnic bench, contemplating her life and all that had gone wrong these past few months.

A young family sat two tables down, a mother and father, two little boys clamoring for attention and ice cream. Rhiannon felt a fleeting hatred for the family. Who did they think they were, enjoying a beautiful afternoon? Shouldn’t everyone be as miserable as she was? One of the little boys belched loudly, to his mother’s chagrin, and Rhiannon couldn’t help but laugh in spite of herself. She hoped those parents knew how lucky they were.

After eating, and feeling uncomfortably full, she made the short trek to the interior design company she’d been working for since she’d gotten her Master’s Degree in 1999. She loved her work, loved her boss, but also loved the fact that today would be her last day. She’d been looking to get out for a while, longing to have more creative license and be more independent. Then, two weeks ago, by some twist of fate or a sheer stroke of luck, she’d gotten a call about a job she'd applied for months before...a job with a design magazine that would allow her to work from home. For the first time in a while, she found herself feeling happy and excited about work again. To be honest, it was the first time she was feeling happy and excited about anything. It had been a hellish two and a half months.

Walking back into the building, she was greeted by the friendly faces of her boss and two co-workers. Her boss Chelsea, a tiny blonde pixie, barely five feet tall and all of ninety pounds had a small, sad smile on her face. “How’d it go, kiddo?"

Rhiannon shrugged. “Okay, I guess. The papers are filed. We’ll see how it goes from here. Neither Adam or I are interested in getting anything from each other, and obviously with no kids…” Her voice caught in her throat and she swallowed hard. “Well, there’s no need for mediation, no visitation to work out, child support or anything, so I guess it should go quickly. I want it finalized as soon as possible.”

Chelsea gave her a gentle pat on the back. “Is there anything you need? Anything I can do for you?”

“Nah. I’ll be okay. I just need to wrap things up here, and then I’ll be on my way.”

Tears welled in Chelsea’s eyes. “I wish you’d stay. You’re my best designer. And I’m going to miss you.”

Rhiannon felt tears stinging her own eyes. “I thought about staying, but I just can’t right now. The way I see it, everything else in my life has changed or is in the process of changing, so I might as well do this, too. Get all the trauma out of the way at once. And if it doesn’t work out with the magazine, I promise I’ll come running back, begging for a job.”

“You know you’ve got a job here anytime. Just say the word.”

“I’ll let you know. I promise. You know I’m not going to burn any bridges, not after all you’ve done for me.”

Rhiannon walked down the hall to her office, sitting for the last time at her mahogany desk. The room was tastefully done in romantic, pastel colors with Victorian prints on the walls. Two of her co-workers were more modern, into some funky art-deco type stuff, but Rhiannon was a fan of classic, muted colors and accessories. It made her a big hit with their clients who were remodeling some of the area’s period homes, as well as with home-builders who were looking to decorate their model homes. But it was time for a new adventure. In just over an hour, she had finished packing up her things. The office now had an odd, empty feeling to it.

Jonathan, their only male designer, her favorite relative and her best friend of more than twenty years, stood in the doorway of her office. “Do you need any help?”

Rhiannon looked up at him, and the strength and confidence she’d been feeling an hour earlier crumbled the moment she met his eyes. Fat tears slid down her cheeks and she rested her forehead in her palms. “My God, what am I supposed to do now?” Her voice seemed loud in the hollow silence of her office.

Jonathan hesitated for a moment, then stepped into her office and closed the door. “Rhiannon, you’re going to make it through this. I know you will. Come here.” He walked around her desk and pulled her up into his arms, hugging her. “You’re my best friend and I love you so much. And it’s not just because I’m your cousin.”

“I know,” she interjected. “You hated me when I was born. That’s why we couldn’t even be in the same room until I was ten.”

He laughed, only because it was true. “Okay, okay. I know, I was a jerk. But I’m an okay guy now.” His voice turned serious. “I really am sorry that your life has fallen apart in the past few months. But you are still the Almighty Rhiannon. I’ve witnessed your strength, been on the receiving end of your rage on occasion, and I know better than anyone else that this will not keep you down.”

Her tears subsided as quickly as they’d started. “Thanks Jon. You’re the best.”

He pinched her cheeks. “I know. And by the way, Layla wants to know if you want to come over for dinner Sunday. The kids have been asking about you.”

Rhiannon shook her head. “Not this weekend. I’m going to go away for a few days. Just to clear my head before I start my new job. I figured I’d spend tomorrow and Friday downtown. Do the goofy touristy stuff that always seemed like so much fun, but I never got to. Saturday, I’m going to sleep. All day. And when I wake up, I’m going to watch TV and eat ice cream, and then go back to sleep again. Sunday, I’m going to clean my office—which is actually in my kitchen right now. But what if you guys come over next weekend? I’ll make my famous chili.”

“Sounds like a plan.” He looked around the office, feeling both sad and happy for her. Sad for all that she’d lost, happy that she was grabbing life by the horns and moving forward. “Do you want some help carrying stuff out to your car?”

“Nope, other than the box over there,” she waved to a corner of the room, “I’m leaving everything else. Chelsea asked if she could keep it and she gave me a fair price for the stuff. I don’t have room for it at home right now, so it all worked out for the best.”

“All right. Call me when you get back into town, okay? And drive safe. I worry about you.”

She blew him a kiss as she gathered up the rest of her things, tucking a wayward bolt of fabric into the box and winding up a last spool of ribbon. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. See you next week.”

Walking out to the parking lot, Rhiannon saw that the clouds were looking more ominous. Great, she thought. Just what I need. Rain during rush hour. She hurriedly loaded the back of her SUV, wanting to at least get ahead of some of the traffic.

Twenty minutes later, she was heading west, silently cursing the fact that she’d gotten caught at every light since leaving work. It was getting darker by the minute, and the clouds were getting heavier, bloated with rain, hanging low in the sky. It would only be a matter of time before they opened up and released their moisture onto the already soggy earth, undoubtedly making the humid July air even more muggy. She didn’t mind, though. The angry sky matched her feral mood.

Stuck at yet another red light, Rhiannon relaxed against the seat’s headrest, momentarily closing her tired, hazel eyes. “It’s done,” she said, her voice echoing in the confines of the car. She knew Adam was probably already gone. He’d taken the day off work to pack his things so he would be out of the house before she got home. She’d shrugged non-committally when he’d told her he was moving out. It didn’t really matter. He’d been gone for months already. Longer, really. Taking himself and his things to his girlfriend’s was just a formality—removing the physical stuff and just putting it where the emotional stuff was already living. Where his heart had been living for the past year. She thought she would feel sad, but she didn’t. Defeated was a better word.

A quick honk from behind Rhiannon reminded her that she was supposed to be driving. She hit the gas a little too hard, causing her SUV to lurch forward. She corrected the pressure and smoothly eased into the left turn lane. Impatiently drumming her fingers against the steering wheel, she waited for the oncoming cars to pass. When it was clear, she turned onto the ramp, merged with traffic, and was safely on her way, heading southbound on the highway, away from here and on her way to somewhere else. Anywhere else. Just for a few days, to clear her head, give her heart a little time to heal. She was passing the first major interchange when the first raindrop hit her windshield.

“Darn it!” Exasperation was evident in her voice as she clicked on her windshield wipers. It wasn’t that the rain bothered her. What bothered her was how people didn’t seem to know how to drive in the rain, and inevitably, traffic would slow to a snail’s pace. She just wasn’t up for the headache. Not today. Any other day, she could handle it, the patience required to sit in crawling traffic. Today, the patience just wasn’t there.

It took forty minutes to get to the next exit, and Rhiannon decided to forget the whole thing. She was going to have to go home eventually and face the reality of the situation. Might as well get it over with, she thought.

In a huff, she exited, pointing her car west again. The rain kept coming down, steadily pattering on the car, making angry little splashes in the puddles on the sides of the road. Cutting down a farm road, she bounced along, thinking it had been a hot, wet day just like this when she had given birth to her little girl. Cassandra. Little Cassie. If she had lived, she would have been two next week.

Would have been. Would have. If not for Adam. If not for Kelly. If not for Adam and Kelly’s secret relationship. If not for Adam lying to her about where he was going that day with their little girl.

Suddenly overwhelmed with anger, Rhiannon violently jerked the steering wheel to the right, causing her vehicle to fishtail before settling northbound onto the road that would lead her home.

Home, she thought. The word seemed so foreign now. It wasn’t a home anymore. Not for the past nine weeks. Not since Cassie…

Rhiannon shuddered, her skin momentarily breaking into goose bumps. Nine weeks ago, she’d had to put her little girl in the ground. Nine weeks ago, she’d had to say good-bye to the sweet baby she felt she’d barely gotten to know. Nine weeks. A split second. A hundred years. Time had very little meaning for her these days. With Cassie gone and Adam well on his way out, Rhiannon figured it would be a lonely existence for a while.

* * * *

Adam packed the last of his clothes in the suitcase. Rhiannon hadn’t said one way or the other whether she wanted to keep the luggage. He figured she didn’t care too much. Besides, it was half his anyway. Everything was half his. If he wanted the luggage, he’d damn well take it.

He could hear Kelly downstairs, rummaging through one of the closets. What the hell is she looking for now? he thought. He just wanted to finish and go. There wasn’t even a teeny, tiny part of him that wanted to be here when Rhiannon got home, nor did he want Kelly to have to deal with whatever nuclear fallout there might be when his soon-to-be ex-wife realized that Kelly had been in the house at all.

“Baby?” Kelly called. “Do you think she’ll care if we take the china from the closet? It’s still in the boxes.”

Adam sighed heavily. “No, Kel. Don’t take the china. That was a gift from Rhiannon’s grandma. But the crystal punch bowl and cups came from my aunt, so we can take that.”

Kelly’s face poked around the corner of the doorway. He hadn’t even heard her come up the stairs. She was pouting. “But I like the china. I don’t see why it’s a big deal. Rhiannon’s going to be living alone, so it’s not like she’s going to use it.”

“Let it go, honey. If you want a set of china, we’ll go buy a set.”

Kelly was not swayed. “Why? Why should we have to spend our hard earned money on china when there’s a perfectly good set downstairs? Let’s just take it.”

Adam sat on top of the suitcase, trying to zip it. “Kelly, just let it go.”

“I don’t know why you’re giving me such a hard time about it,” she grumbled. “It’s just china.”

She flounced down the stairs, snatching the box with the crystal punch bowl. “Hurry up. I want to get out of here. Meet me in the car.”

Adam stuffed a wayward shirt sleeve into the corner of the suitcase and checked the clock. He would have to hurry. Rhiannon would be home soon, probably in the next twenty minutes if she came straight home, and he still needed to grab the baby album from the coffee table. Rhiannon would probably want to kill him for taking it, but he’d be gone before she realized it was missing. He hurried down the stairs, his suitcase thumping behind him. He gingerly picked up the pink and white album from the coffee table, running his finger over the stitched Noah’s Ark design. It was all they had left of Cassie. There were other pictures, sure, but this album was special. He and Rhiannon had started it only moments after Cassie was born, filling it with pictures.

He tucked the album under his arm, feeling a brief pang of guilt. He should have just told Rhiannon he wanted the album. She wasn’t putting up much of a fight about anything and probably would have told him to take it. She had another album devoted just to “mommy and daughter” pictures, so this one wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. At least, he didn’t think so.

Adam surveyed the living room. Nothing else he wanted. There was a small blanket folded on one end of the couch and he picked it up, bringing it to his cheek. It still smelled faintly of Cassie. Tears welled in his eyes as he conjured up memories of his sweet daughter. He set the blanket down and headed for the door, just as Kelly began honking her impatience. He braced his suitcase against the open storm door and fumbled with his house keys.

“C’mon!” Kelly yelled. “Let’s get going! We’ve got some celebrating to do!”

Adam looked at her smiling face as she bounced behind the steering wheel of her car. His hand was resting on the doorknob and he mulled over what to do with the keys. Should he leave them under the mat? Take them with him? He gave a quick glance back in the house and looked at Kelly again, his fingers absently stroking the soft cover of the baby album. Kelly honked again. He met her eyes through the windshield. It was time. With a sense of finality, he slammed the door shut.
* * * *

Pulling into the driveway, Rhiannon got a heavy, sinking feeling when she realized Adam’s car was still there. He should have been gone hours ago. For a few moments, she considered leaving, not really wanting to face him, but then decided it wasn’t worth it. He certainly didn’t care enough to work on saving their marriage, so why should she care if he was a little uncomfortable while he finished packing?

Sitting in the garage, Rhiannon momentarily considered shutting the door and leaving the engine running. She could snuff out her life and join Cassie. Or, she thought smugly, I can move on and get on with my life and be around to gloat when Adam realizes that he isn’t getting more out of life by being with Kelly. He’ll realize that he lost everything for a fling.

Pushing aside her negative thoughts, she pulled the key from the ignition, and with great effort, got out of the car and slammed the door forcefully, hoping Adam would hear it and realize that she was not happy about him still being there.

A strange silence greeted her and she hesitated in the doorway. Maybe Adam really was gone, just had Kelly pick him up. He was still shaken up since the accident and no longer enjoyed driving.

Rhiannon went into the kitchen, setting down her purse on the table, and wandered over to the refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry yet, no thanks to the huge lunch she’d had, but figured she should probably make something for herself for dinner, even if she didn’t eat it until later.

“Is it done?”

Rhiannon jumped at the sound of Adam’s voice. She hadn’t seen him sitting on the hall stairs.

She didn’t meet his gaze, choosing instead to continue staring into the fridge. “The paperwork you mean? Yes, I went to the courthouse today. The divorce papers have been filed.”

“Is this what your days will be like from now on?”

“Excuse me?”

“Just what I said.” He looked at her with his soulful brown eyes. “Is this what your days will be like from now on?”

Slamming the refrigerator door hard enough to rattle the cookie jar on top, she whirled and glared at him. “If you mean me coming home from work and making dinner for myself since I no longer have a family to cook for, the answer is both yes and no. See, unlike you, I didn’t have a relationship in my back pocket. I had also planned on spending many more years with my little girl, cooking and playing and singing, but that’s not going to happen now, is it? Because our little girl is dead. The whole reason I was looking so hard into working from home, so I could be here with our child? Yeah, doesn’t matter now. I’ll be home all day, alone with the silence, this gaping hole of silence that should have been filled with our daughter’s laughter.”

“And?” Adam probed.

“’And’ what?” Rhiannon bit back at him.

He ran his hands over his face, looking tired and disheveled. His chin trembled every so slightly.
“Rhiannon, it’s time to just get it all out there. Tell me what a bastard I am.”

“I don’t need to tell you that. You already know what you are.”

“I do know. And I hate it.”

“Well, goody for you I guess.”

He stood up and hesitantly stepped toward her. “I still love you, Rhiannon. I never stopped loving you.” He reached out to stroke her face, but she pulled back.

“Yeah, well, you sure have a funny way of showing it. Loving your wife doesn’t usually involve moving in with another woman.”

He flinched at her icy tone, but didn’t try to stop the verbal barrage. “And you know what else, Adam? Loving me shouldn’t have involved lying. Loving me shouldn’t have involved taking Cassie to Kelly’s apartment, especially when I thought you were going to spend the day together, indulging in some daddy and Cassie time.”

“I was taking a daddy and daughter day that day,” he whispered hoarsely. “I was never lying about that.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? It was still a lie, Adam! Cleverly omitting a significant part of the truth is a lie. Not telling me that you were picking up your girlfriend on the way was a lie. And it was a lie that ultimately, our daughter paid the price for!” Rhiannon felt her self-control slipping and her voice rose, ugliness dripping out with each word. “You killed her, you bastard! You and your dirty, cheating whore of a girlfriend. You killed my baby!”

There. It was finally out. Rhiannon hadn’t said anything about it before, knowing that Adam already blamed himself, but now, the ugly words had found their way out of her mouth, and she didn’t feel like stopping them.

She blamed Adam for Cassie’s death.

“Kelly wasn’t my girlfriend when the accident happened, Rhiannon. I’ve told you that. I never slept with her before that.”

“Sex doesn’t make a relationship, Adam. You should know that better than anyone. Hell, I was a virgin when we got married. Did that mean we didn’t have a relationship?” She was restless, pacing in the kitchen, wanting to throw something at Adam so he would just leave.

Adam’s gaze followed her. “Of course we had a relationship, Rhiannon. I admired and respected your choice to maintain your virginity. It was a strange concept to me but I accepted it none the less because—"

“Because time and emotion make a relationship!” she shrilled at him. “Time and emotion are the very foundation of any lasting relationship, and you were giving—still are giving—plenty of that to Kelly. You’re giving that and more. Yeah, you may not have been screwing her two and a half months ago, but you’re screwing her now. But even aside from that, that’s not what this is about. It was an affair, long before you ever dropped your pants and got into hers. Time and emotion is what made you decide to just ‘randomly’ take a day off of work. Time and emotion played a role in packing our little girl in the car, driving to Kelly’s apartment and playing…I don’t know…playing house.”

Her breath was coming in heaving gasps as tears flowed feely down her cheeks. “Time and emotion is what had you so distracted that you missed a stop sign and rolled into a busy intersection. Time and distraction suddenly turned into an armored truck that crashed into the side of your car, pinning our baby’s neck between her car seat and twisted steel. Time and emotion killed our little girl and you and Kelly walked away from it. And how bitterly ironic that the death of our child, our child, would bring you and Kelly closer together. Your two faces were the last thing our daughter saw before she died. She didn’t get to see me. I didn’t get to see her. Didn’t get to tell her good-bye. Didn’t get to kiss her sweet cheeks and tell her I love and let her know that God will take care of her until I see her again. You robbed me and you robbed her, and as far as I’m concerned, Kelly’s equally to blame. Both of you can just take your nasty souls and burn in the blackest pits of hell.”

Now a raw bundle of emotion, Rhiannon crumpled to the floor. The pain, the fury, all of it came rushing back at her. Grief like she had never experienced before crashed over her in devastating waves as she remembered rushing to the emergency department and bursting into the room, only to see Adam sobbing and Kelly holding him. And their little girl, hooked to wires and tubes, motionless, the heart monitor showing a steady, flat line, a high-pitched whine emitting from the machine. Rhiannon had grabbed Cassie and held her, willing her to breathe and be okay, rocking her, pleading with God and every god that ever was to make her baby breathe and just be okay. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodjustbeokay. But she wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay. It would never be okay again.

She sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, holding her head in her hands and cried until she couldn’t cry anymore. Adam stood over her, then awkwardly sat next to her. “Rhiannon, I am so sorry.”

For only a moment, she was stunned into silence. When she found her voice, she had one question for him. “Why are you sorry now?”

“I always was sorry. It’s a shameful thing to admit that my own selfishness destroyed the very thing I had always wanted. I lost sight of the fact that my family should have been my priority.”

He took a deep breath, then let his words out in a rush. “I’m not moving in with Kelly. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go somewhere else. But I’m not going to her.”

Rhiannon eyed him warily. “I don’t know what I want. Not really. And the divorce papers are already filed.”

Adam spoke quietly. “Filing papers doesn’t mean we have to follow through on it.”

She considered his words. “That’s a fair point. But I’m still not sure what I want. Right now, I can barely tolerate you even looking at me. Your voice makes me want to scream.”

“That’s okay. Maybe we can figure it out.”

“Maybe.”

“And maybe we can figure it out together.” He looked at her hopefully.

“Together? Maybe. I guess that’s the only way we’ve ever really figured things out.” She sniffed and wiped tears from her face.

“Of course,” Adam dared a small smile. “We have to figure things out together, because you’re the voice of reason. And your voice is the voice I heard when I tried to leave today. I’ll never hear Cassie’s voice again. But I want to hear yours. Always. Every single day for the rest of my life.”

Rhiannon looked into his eyes, her heart thundering in her ears. “Like I said. Maybe.”

“Maybe is a start.”

She shrugged, daring to glance up and look him in the eyes. “Maybe is a good start.”

“Maybe it will lead to a better an end?”

She smiled, a small, painful, heart-wrenching, but very real smile this time. She knew she couldn’t make any promises. She knew she might not ever be able to do that. She knew she couldn't forget. She didn't know if she could forgive. But she could make an effort. “Maybe.”

Catastrophe Cait

As the security line had indicated, the terminal was packed, and nearly every seat at the gate was filled. Caitlyn tried not to look with disgust at some of her fellow passengers and their blatant disregard for the travelers looking for a place to sit down. Boarding for the flight was not to start for another half and hour. One woman in particular was up for the rudest person award. She had her enormous LV carry-on sitting on a chair next to her, and on the chair on her other side was a small bag of what looked to be trash. When a man, who looked like a weary business traveler, inquired if the seat next to Ms. Rude was taken, the woman had replied yes. When he asked about the other seat, she told him that seat was also occupied. Cait had been sitting down for over twenty minutes and not seen anyone near the woman. Although the floor was not the most inviting place to put a designer bag, there was no reason the young woman couldn’t have put the bag on her lap. She wasn’t occupied with any activity other than looking alternately annoyed and bored. Cait felt the woman could have easily done that with a bag on her lap.

Cait hoped that boarding would start early. She just wanted the flight to be over so she could get away from all these people.
A short time later, the scratching sound of the address system pierced the air above the din of chatter filling the waiting area.

“Passenger with the last name beginning with MAL and the first initial C, please see the attendant.”

Cait frowned as she stood and maneuvered around the people and bags cluttering the path from her seat to the attendant. There were two staff members at the desk, and no one waiting to be helped. Cait arrived at the desk and waited since both the man and woman were both looking down and presumably consumed with work and information on the screens in from of them. Just as she was about to let them know that she was the passenger they had summoned, a middle-aged woman walked up and stood beside Cait.

“You called my initials?” the woman announced to them.
Cait looked around in confusion.

The woman staff member looked up.

“Can I help you?” the man asked Cait as his coworker assisted the other woman.

“My last name and first initial match the ones you called,” she informed him.

‘—problem with you seat,” the attendant was telling the other passenger.

“One moment, please,” he told Cait.

He interrupted the conversation occurring next to him and spoke in what Cait assumed was hushed tones, but the man had a booming voice and it was easy to hear what he was saying.

“Did you confirm that she’s Cait Malone?”

Cait cringed as he said her name out loud.

“I was just going to,” the attendant said defensively, but it was too late.

Cait could feel the air around her begin to change, as if static electricity crackled in the silence that began to ripple out in concentric rings around the service desk. Like a stone tossed into still water, the silence stretched further and further. And even though the crowded terminal was, only a few seconds ago, a cacophony of sound, now a piece of paper falling to the ground could have been heard by anyone.

“My name’s Carrie Malik,” the other woman said. She looked at Cait with wide eyes and then rushed back to her seat. Cait turned back to the staff members with a wry smile.

“I’m Cait Malone,” she told them. And even though she didn’t mean to, her smile changed just slightly, no longer wry, but like cat ready to pounce on her prey.

“There’s no problem at all, Ms. Malone,” the man’s voice carried out into the sea of faces all watching them at the desk. “I’m sorry we disturbed you.”

Cait turned away and walk back to where she had been sitting earlier. The man who had been looking for a place to sit a little while earlier was now in her seat. He was scrambling to gather his things and get off of the chair, but Cait motioned for him to stay. He froze, the uncertainty plain on his face.

Cait turned toward the snob taking up three places.

“Move your bag.”

The woman grabbed her bag and Cait sat down with glee as Ms. Rude moved the bag of trash in order leave an empty space between them.

Sometimes—not often—it paid for people to be afraid of her.