Almost Like Being in Love (7 page)

BOOK: Almost Like Being in Love
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“We can't leave before they finish. They're getting ready to announce the winner of the grand prize.” Margo bounced on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the shoulders of the rows of women in front of her. “Who knows? Maybe I'll win.”

“Or maybe Caron will.” Brooke laughed at her suggestion.

“I don't think so.”
Caron backed away from her friends. “I'm going to wait outside. I need some fresh air.”

Well, as fresh air as she could get standing on a street in downtown Denver. Of course, she could be a total tourist and take a photo of the huge sculpture of a blue bear peering into the Denver Convention Center and then post it to her Instagram account.

She made her way through the crowd gathered near the stage that, only an hour earlier, had been the site of a fashion show of wedding gowns. The emcee had described each one in glowing terms.
Perfect. One-of-a-kind. Elegant. Showstopping.
Was that the goal of a wedding—to stop the show?

Now the exuberant emcee in a black tux rattled off the names of the various winners, causing the attendees to erupt in shouts of “Me!” and “I won!” as women rushed the stage to claim their prizes.

She was almost to the door, her gaze focused on the lighted green exit sign, when the crowd erupted again, celebrating the final winner of the day.
Hooray.
She imagined some lucky girl was now vaulting onto the stage to hug Tuxedo Guy while friends and complete strangers jumped up and down and applauded.

Just as she stepped outside, the first hint of Colorado air a welcome relief after hours of stale air filled with marital merriment, someone grabbed both her arms, pulling her to a stop.

Caron whirled around and came face-to-face with Brooke and Leslie, who seemed determined to drag her back inside and toward the stage.

“What are you doing?” Caron dug her heels into the thin layer of carpeting. “I told you, I'm going to wait outside.”

“You won, Caron. You won!” Leslie took her other hand and joined Brooke in towing her back to the stage.

“I won—”

“Didn't you hear your name announced? You won the Colorado destination wedding!”

“You have a lousy sense of humor.” Caron scanned the stage, spotting Margo and Emma standing beside the emcee bathed in the white spotlight, motioning her forward. They weren't kidding. “I don't want it. Tell them to give the prize to Margo.”

“Margo already told them that we were going to get you. Go claim your wedding. Won't your boyfriend be surprised when you tell him?”

FIVE

W
ork—the great distractor.

Except there wasn't much to fix here.

Alex rubbed his forearm across his forehead, rocking back on his heels as he contemplated the air-conditioning unit in front of him. The
SOLD
sign still planted in the front yard meant a home inspector okayed the thing—and after cycling the unit through, it was running just fine. Despite the mechanical puzzle sitting right in front of him, his mind wandered back to earlier this morning.

Caron had quit her job. And despite his protests, she'd accepted Margo's invitation, disappearing into the slow-moving line of passengers making their way through security at Denver International Airport. His day had started hours before he ever saw his first client.

“Excuse me.”

At the sound of a woman's voice behind him, Alex twisted around, maintaining his balance by putting his hand on the patchy grass that covered the backyard.

“Oh, I'm so sorry.”
The homeowner who'd answered the door when he arrived backed away, sloshing water out of the blue plastic cup onto the ground. “I thought you might be thirsty.”

“Thanks. I am at that.” He rose to his feet, towering over her like a modern-day giant.

“So how's it look?” She walked around the air conditioner as if she could figure out what was wrong. “Can you fix it so it doesn't keep tripping the breaker?”

“I cycled it through and it seems fine now, ma'am.” The ice water eased his dry throat, even as the midday sun caused a slow trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades.

“Oh, call me Jessica, please.” Her smile seemed genuine. Friendly, not flirtatious. “I just don't know why it keeps tripping the breaker and then it won't restart. You're the second repairman to come out and check it.”

“Compressor could be going bad. That's your worst-case scenario. If this continues to happen, you might need to replace it.”

The woman smoothed the hem of her plain yellow T-shirt, shading her eyes. “How much would that cost?”

“For this size house? You're looking at a three-ton unit. So, about twenty-five hundred dollars.”

Her face blanched, her eyes widening behind her silver wire-rimmed glasses. “I'd like to avoid that expense if I could.” When she twisted her fingers together, he noted she didn't wear a wedding ring. Probably single. A first-time homeowner. Sunk all her savings on the down payment.

“It's only a diagnostic charge today.” He'd charge her the standard rate minus 10 percent. Good thing this hadn't happened during the holiday weekend when he'd have to charge extra for an emergency call, as well as overtime. “You can call again if there's a problem.”

“I hope not. It's barely the beginning of June and the temps and humidity are crazy high. I need my air-conditioning. Scotty can't sleep without it.”

Ah.
No husband—but a boyfriend who couldn't sleep without the air-conditioning on. “I hear that a lot.”

“I imagine you keep pretty busy.”

“Got that right.” He drained the cup of water, handing it back to her. “Thanks. I'll write up your bill and be on my way.”

“Saving the day at someone else's house?”

He chuckled. Right. He was a real superhero. “Just repairing air conditioners.”

His work boots tapped a soft staccato on the sidewalk leading from the front door to his work van, the words
EMERALD COAST AIR-CONDITIONING AND HEATING
printed across the side in blue block letters. When his phone buzzed on his hip, a quick glance showed that it was his father.

“What's up, Dad?” Alex slipped into the van, turning it on and starting up the A/C, welcoming the blast of cool air.

“Mrs. Carlson called, wondering where you are.”

“Just finished the job before her. Can you call her back and let her know I'm on my way?”

“Sure.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Why wasn't his father hanging up, letting him get back to work?

“You need something else?”

“Have you talked to you mother today?”

“No, I didn't see her before I left the house, but I left early. Had to take Caron to the airport.” Alex tossed his cap onto the dash. “Mom seemed fine yesterday—and she did go to the Memorial Day barbecue with the Hollisters.”

“Being with the Hollisters helps. But she's been having a tough time. You know.”

“She usually does this time of year.”

“This year seems worse, for some reason. There's nothing really to say or do—just wait for it to pass. But could you check on her—maybe before the workday's over?”

“Sure.” Resting his arm on the steering wheel, he mentally scrolled through his appointments. “I'll run by home sometime today.”

“Thanks.”

As his father hung up, Alex wrestled with the urge to call him back. To continue the conversation. To say things he'd wanted to say for years, unspoken words that caused him to clench his jaw, his fingers tightening around his cell phone.

No. I'm not checking on Mom.

I don't want to do this anymore.

But so many years of being the good son—the only son—who accepted responsibility without complaint had taught him well. There was no sense in putting up a fight. Against who? His parents? A ghost?

He'd do what needed to be done. Keep the peace, such as it was.

•  •  •

The house was quiet, the curtains drawn so that no hint of sunlight filtered through. Alex shut the front door and unlaced his worn work boots, leaving them in the entryway. He tucked his cap in his back pocket.

“Mom? It's Alex.”

No reply.

He balanced the white Styrofoam container in one hand, turning on the foyer light. It was that odd in-between time—too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but he'd stopped and picked up a chef's salad for his mother. Just in case she hadn't eaten breakfast. Or lunch.

The living room was empty. Everything in its place. Neat and dusted, thanks to the maid service his father had decided it was worth paying to come in and clean once a week. Vacuum. Clean the bathrooms. Change the sheets. Make sure the dirty dishes were loaded into the dishwasher and unloaded once they were cleaned.

The kitchen bore evidence that his mother had been up. A couple of wine bottles sat on the kitchen counter—one empty, one half full. A few glasses cluttered the sink, all with a small layer of liquid in the bottom. His father had probably gathered them up from their bedroom. No need to sniff them and find out what his mother had been drinking. It didn't matter anymore what she drank. White wine today. Red wine tomorrow.

Some days he could almost convince himself it didn't matter that she drank at all.

His mother had left her black cotton robe draped on the back of one of the chairs in the breakfast nook. He could only hope she'd decided to get dressed this morning. Or had slept in a nightgown.

Alex picked up the empty bottle. Zinfandel. Threw it in the trash. He drained the other bottle in the sink—also zinfandel—the liquid disappearing down the drain with barely a sound. Then he tossed the bottle into the trash with the first, glass colliding with glass with a sharp clink. Alex piled the glasses in the dishwasher. One less thing to deal with later tonight.

He didn't even bother checking the sunroom. His mother lived like one of those vampires in a gothic novel, preferring darkness to sunlight. In the past, when she used to somehow juggle her drinking and friendships and the occasional business dinner, she'd managed to maneuver between the foyer, kitchen, and the dining room, never coming near a window.

Friends.
Who was he kidding? The Hollisters were their most loyal friends, the only ones who knew the Madisons' well-guarded secret. They knew who his mother was. What his mother was. And they accepted that most days she was a functioning alcoholic. And they loved her and Alex and his dad even on the days when his mother struggled and failed.

The hallway leading to his parents' master bedroom used to be lined with framed family photos. Of him, the firstborn son. And then Shawn, the baby. Christmas photos. Easter photos. Birthday photos. The beginning-of-school-year photos, Shawn trailing Alex. And then . . . there had been only photos of Alex. He'd bought each of the inexpensive frames for his school photos. Hammered the nails into the wall, making sure the photographs were lined up, level with one another.

Look, Mom, I'm still here . . .

But now the walls were bare. He'd arrived home from his first year of high school one day to find every single photo gone. No explanation—just empty space.

“Where are all the family pictures, Dad?”

His father tore the plastic wrap off a frozen dinner, placing it on the rotating glass plate in the microwave and punching in the required time. “I don't know. I just got home.”

Alex tossed his canvas book bag onto the kitchen table. “Mom had to have taken them down. She was the only one home today. She knows where they are.”

“Probably.”

Alex continued to talk to his father's back as he pulled a carton of milk from the fridge. “Aren't you going to ask her? Put them back up?”

“No.”

No? That was it? Just no?

“Why not?”

“Obviously seeing the photos upset your mother. Putting them back up will upset her again. Let it be, Alex.”

And that was the end of that.
Let it be.
No confrontation. Just manage. Maintain.

It was as if he fought an invisible force as he made his way to his parents' bedroom. The carpeting might as well have been thick, clinging mud or quicksand, the way his steps slowed. For all the times he'd gone in search of his mother and never found her . . . hurt . . . there was always the very real possibility that this time . . . this time he'd open the door and find the sum of all his nightmares waiting for him.

Alex knocked on the half-open bedroom door. Waited. No sound. No slurred “Who is it?” The prayer he'd prayed since childhood skittered through his brain:

God, if you're there—and I know you are—please, let her just be asleep . . .

When he opened the door, holding his breath, his mother lay on her bed, her too-thin body tangled up in the comforter and sheets. A pillow was cradled in her arms like a child, her face pressed against it, eyes closed, her brown hair threaded through with gray and pulled into a messy ponytail. A glass sat on the bedside table, and beside it stood a bottle. Cheap and ready comfort. And his mother considered the relief worth the price.

BOOK: Almost Like Being in Love
4.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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