Authors: Michelle Alstead
After It’s Over
Copyright © 2014 Michelle Alstead
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
For my sister Katie.
IN LIEU OF ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
IF YOU NEED HELP,
DIAL THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE AT: 1-800-799-SAFE
Paige Birch stood at the kitchen sink with her hands immersed in dishwater. The television in the adjacent family room created a comfortable barrier of ambient noise between her and the children. She picked up a pot and studied it. The bottom was coated in burned rice. She’d left it sitting too long on the hot stove, thinking her husband would walk through the door at any moment—only he didn’t. She and his daughters were left to eat a barely warm dinner, again.
Setting the pot to soak,
Paige thought back to a playful argument she had with Kade over whose turn it was to do the dishes. For a brief instance in time, she wasn’t a stepmother, wife or lawyer—she was the woman that Kade loved and adored. The memory of his face brought peace to her heart and warmth to her soul. She basked in the memory of what it meant to be understood and cared for, but then the neighbor’s dog barked, one of her stepdaughters yelled at her sister, and a car honked down the street. Chaos caused the memories to vanish as quickly as they had come.
A sense of hopelessness washed over Paige as she experienced the loss of her first love all over again. The pain was intense—a knife that cut through her heart and divided her mind between the past and present. She was a fighter, but the fire that once fueled her through so many dark times was now a smoldering pile of embers. She was losing ground, a fact that was slowly killing her.
For the past year, Paige had lived with a man who didn’t seem to love her. Their courtship had been short—too short for her to really get to know Ben. He’d been funny, charming and attentive in the beginning, but all of those qualities disappeared shortly after their honeymoon. By the time she’d realized he wasn’t the charismatic man he had appeared to be, it was too late. She’d sold her home in Washington State in order to move to Utah and marry him. She’d also quit her lucrative job as a divorce attorney. If it weren’t for her old friend, Deidra, who helped her buy in as a partner at a local firm, her career would be as bad off as her marriage.
Even with no home or job to go back to in Washington, Paige probably would have left her husband had it not been for his daughters. She’d grown attached to them in a short amount of time. Abandoned by their mother, they desperately needed her. While the role of stepmother was often hard, the girls brought her a great deal of joy and Paige was thrilled to be part of a family again.
Staying seems like the right thing to do, but is it?
Parenting three tenacious children hadn’t been easy. Most of the time, Paige didn’t mind the constant squabbling and the endless demands that dinner be something other than what she had cooked. But then there were the days when she was exhausted, overwhelmed and completely alone. On these days, her mind automatically wandered back to happier times. Every time she thought about Kade, she thought about the road that led to her miserable marriage. Paige had told one lie – a few simple words strung into a sentence – and that lie had changed everything. Trapped, she considered what the future held for her.
Marriage is forever. Divorce isn’t an option.
Her mother’s words ran through her mind on a loop. It had been more than a decade since her mother’s passing, but Paige still felt the weight of her expectations.
Mom would tell me to make the best of it. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe if she’d chosen differently, she’d still be here. If she were, I never would have married Ben.
If her husband had been anywhere in sight, she might have focused on the present, but he had yet another late night at the office. In the back of her mind, Paige filed away her doubts about whether Ben was actually at work. She’d met a few military wives in the course of driving carpool. She’d complained to them about his long hours and watched their reactions. The women responded with sympathetic looks, explaining that anyone who didn’t work on the ‘line’—the assembly line that services airplanes and jets—worked the typical nine to five. Ben was a master sergeant who sat behind a desk all day, that much Paige knew. She’d made a half-hearted attempt to find out if he was seeing someone on the side, but she didn’t know the passcode to his phone and had never actually caught him in a lie. Paige let the issue go and figured if he was cheating, she’d eventually find proof. Ben’s abandonment ate at her while she took care of his kids and the house.
Is Ben really working? Is he alone? Why can’t I stop thinking about Kade?
“Paige!” Bev screamed.
The sound of her stepdaughter's voice shattered the stream of thoughts that ran through her mind. The plate she’d been scrubbing slipped from her hand, fell to the floor and shattered at her feet. Wet ceramic shards stuck to the soles of her new suede boots. Paige grinned, thinking of how irritated her husband would be that his grandmother’s wedding gift was short another plate. Bev called to her again. She hurried up the stairs toward the sound of her voice.
Her eight-year-old stepdaughter stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Sobbing, Bev held a long piece of curly brown hair in one hand, and in the other, she clutched her older sister’s flat iron. Paige recoiled at the smell of burnt hair and poop.
“What happened?” she asked, taking the flat iron from Bev and unplugging it.
“I wanted pretty straight hair like Bianca’s and Billie’s,” the little girl cried. “But that thing didn’t straighten it. It just burned through it!”
Paige took the young girl in her arms and patted her back. “Everything will be okay, Bev. Hair grows back.”
“But it looks weird!” she sobbed.
“Let’s see if I can fix it,” Paige said. She opened the drawers to look for a pair of scissors.
What is that puddle of dirty water on the floor in front of the toilet?
“Bev, what happened to the toilet?”
“I don’t know. Billie did it.”
Against her own better judgment, Paige lifted the lid and discovered a disgusting sight she could have gone her whole life without witnessing.
“Gross!” She dropped the lid.
That will teach me not to wear my new shoes in this house.
“It’s backed up.”
“Yes, I see that. Is that a Barbie doll stuck in there?”
“Yep,” Bev answered with a grin.
Paige waited for a story, but Bev simply shrugged and stared at her hair in the mirror. She looked as if she might cry again.
“Go get the scissors on my desk, and I’ll fix your hair.”
“Are you sure you can fix it? You’re a lawyer, not a hairdresser.” Bev chewed on her nails.
“You sound like Billie.” Paige lamented. “I cut hair in college. It was nothing fancy, but I’m pretty good at fixing mistakes. Please get the scissors. I promise I’ll fix it.”
“All right, but if you don’t we’re going to the salon tomorrow,” Bev said.
Bev hurried off in search of scissors. Paige reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She dialed her husband. She tried his office and reached his voicemail.
So much for working late. Guess I’ll try his cell.
Ben’s cell phone rang a few times before abruptly going to voicemail.
He just sent me to voicemail. Grr…
With a sigh of pure frustration, Paige pulled off her new boots and carefully exited the bathroom. She shut the door just as Billie, her six-year-old stepdaughter, came up the stairs.
“I need to use the bathroom,” she said.
Paige blocked the door, her hand holding the knob firmly.
“This bathroom is out of order until either your father fixes it, or I call a plumber.”
At this rate, it’ll probably be the latter.
“So, what do I do?” Billie’s big brown eyes were wide with innocence.
“Use my bathroom and don’t you dare stick any Barbie dolls down that toilet!” Paige shook her finger.
“What’s the big deal?” Billie tugged on her ponytail and frowned. “My mom says I have every right to seek knowledge.”
I don’t want to know the context of what her mom really meant.
“What knowledge were you seeking in my toilet bowl?”
“I wanted to see if Barbie could swim.”
“Right…Well, your mother isn’t going to pay the plumber or buy me new shoes; so don’t do it again.”
“Fine, I’ll just grow up to be repressed and uncreative!” The little girl bounced down the hall toward the other bathroom.
“Did your therapist teach you those words?” Paige asked.
“Nope. Mommy did the last time we talked on the phone!”
Billie disappeared around the corner, leaving Paige to shake her head. Bev returned with the scissors. Paige took them and bent down to take a closer look at the damage done by the flat iron. The short lock of hair awkwardly curled upwards. With a little bit of trimming, she was able to camouflage it and make the difference barely noticeable.
“There. All better.” She steered Bev to the hallway mirror and smiled as her stepdaughter’s worried look dissipated.
“There’s nothing wrong with having curly hair.”
“I know. It’s just that I don’t like being different,” Bev replied.
“Being different isn’t always a bad thing, Bev.”
“Tell that to Billie and Bianca. They’re always making fun of me because I don’t look like them.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Don’t listen to them, okay?”
“Okay,” Bev smiled. “You are way nicer than Kaitlin’s stepmom. She ignores her and won’t even let her dad buy her new underwear. She’d never fix Kaitlin’s hair if she burned it off.”
Bev’s big brown eyes filled with warmth that put Paige’s worries about Ben on the back burner.
“Everyone needs someone to take care of them, Bev.”
“Are you my person to do that?”
“Cool. Can I go play on the computer now?”
Paige nodded, and Bev ran off. She pulled out her cell phone again and dialed Ben for a second time. To her relief, he answered.
“Hello?” Ben yelled.
The background noise was overwhelming. Paige could barely hear her husband over the sound of music, loud talking, and a woman’s laughter.
“I thought you were working late.”
“I can’t hear you very well. The reception is really bad here!”
“The toilet’s backed up and four females can’t logistically share one bathroom. Can you come home please? I really need your help,” Paige said.
“Can’t hear you! Be home later! Bye.” And with that, Ben hung up on her.
You only get sounds like that at a sports bar or at a club, and he said he was working.
Paige walked slowly down the hall toward the kitchen; she mulled over the facts—the late nights, the secret text messages, and how Ben was constantly making her feel like she was crazy when she asked where he’d been. Anger surged through her as she walked past the different bedrooms. As she passed Bianca’s closed door, she paused. A faint moaning sound caught her attention.
What is that noise?
“Bianca? Are you okay?”
A loud thud followed by a muffled response made Paige think that her fourteen-year-old stepdaughter was not okay. She opened the door without warning and was completely unprepared for the horror that lay before her—Bianca was dressed only in her underwear. Leaning forward on her knees, she held out her hand to the half-naked teenage boy who sat on the floor at the foot of her bed.
“What are you doing? Have you completely lost your mind?” Paige felt a brand new level of hysteria rising in her chest.
Am I having a heart attack?
“You’re supposed to knock before coming into my room. This is my space!” Bianca’s face flushed pink. She scrambled to put a t-shirt on.
“You’re fourteen. You can’t have boys in your room, let alone be doing
“You’re fourteen?” the half-naked boy asked with a bewildered look on his face.
“Yes, she is. How old are you?” Paige folded her arms across her chest.
The young man looked from Paige to Bianca. “I think I hear my mom calling me,” he replied.
“I’ll be fifteen next month!” Bianca’s voice was loud and high-pitched.
The boy stood up and bolted past Paige. He knocked her backwards into the wall. She hit her head so hard it gave her an instant headache. She groaned and clutched her neck. Seconds later, the front door slammed shut.
“Look what you did! You scared him off!” Bianca cried.
“You’re too young to be doing that!” Paige rubbed her head.
I need aspirin and therapy. Lots and lots of therapy to un-see what I just saw.
“My mother says that sex is an expression of beauty and passion, and that I’m not too young at all. She even got me these,” Bianca reached over to her bed stand and grabbed a handful of small packets.
“Your mother bought you condoms? When did she do that? You haven’t seen her in…” Paige stopped. She had no idea when the last time the girls had seen their mother.