Authors: Stef Ann Holm
"You will? Thanks, Mom."
"I just thought maybe it would be something to make you feel happier."
"I mean like…happier about your life in school. Maybe refocus on the schoolwork."
"My grades are doing okay."
Panic momentarily held Natalie. "Just 'okay'? Cassie, I really don't think—"
"Mom, not now." Cassie squeezed her arm, smiling up into Natalie's face. "We just got here. I have to call Dad."
"Austin's staying with Dad, remember? Unless you say it's okay to stay with you?" Hope raised her voice an octave. "I never asked because I thought for sure you'd say no. But, Mom…would you?"
"Let him stay in the same house as us, you… and me? Cassie, now, I don't think that's a good idea."
"I didn't think you would, which is why I didn't ask.
But modern moms are cool with it, you know. My friend in art history—her mom is letting her boyfriend stay in her bedroom with her."
"Not a chance. At the very most, he could sleep on the foldout bed in the den."
"Oh, thanks, Mom!" Cassie stopped, kissed Natalie's cheek and then turned to Austin. "Change of plans. My mom said you can stay at her house with me—but in the den."
Stunned, Natalie's jaw dropped. In a half daze perpetuated by the events of the past few minutes, she replied, "I…1 hope you'll be comfortable."
"Thank you, Mom." Cassie kissed her cheek. "Love you."
"Love you, too." Natalie gave her only child a sideways glance.
Then she let her gaze stray to Austin whose gait was slightly shuffled, his hands shoved into the pockets of his overly baggy jeans. He grinned at her, startling Natalie. She was helpless to do anything but smile in return, all the while thinking she should have upped that Visa limit when Cassie first asked.
-Off Clearance Days
Kim and Parker didn't show up for the Christmas Eve party at the fire station.
While the other wives, girlfriends and kids were having a good time, Tony kept his feelings to himself. Call it a hunch, but he didn't feel any immediate worry for his family's safety. He suspected this was just another piece to his marriage puzzle that was becoming increasingly more difficult to understand.
Things between them had grown progressively strained in recent weeks. He'd attributed some of the tension to the holidays. But in many ways, he knew that wasn't necessarily the truth. The rift in their differences had been widening, slowly and steadily. Now there were obviously signs of strain.
Two days ago, he'd been helping Rocky tune up his snowmobile and he'd had to drive back home for a minute to get a tool they needed for the gears. He went into the house to say hi to Kim, and his unexpected re-turn had sent her into the laundry room where the hum of the dryer muted the last remnants of her phone conversation. When Tony had asked her who she was talking to, she'd flushed quickly and said Laurie.
Laurie was Kim's best friend, someone she'd been spending a great deal more time with—both in her company and talking on the cell phone.
In the pit of his gut Tony knew something was off, but it was just too much to deal with at Christmas. The thought of spending it alone, in discord with his wife, wasn't an option he wanted to get into. Besides, he'd rather keep things neutral because Parker was really looking forward to Christmas and this was no time to rock the boat.
But he had been expecting Kim and Parker to show tonight.
Tony went into the captain's office for some quiet to call the house, but there was no answer.
Sitting in the desk chair, he stared out the window, seeing first only darkness, then his reflection. His eyebrows were knit together, his mouth a taut line. He laid his palms on his thighs, ran them over his pants to his knees and leaned forward.
"Hey, Cruz, where's the wife?" Captain Palladino walked past the open doorway, pausing briefly, his arms filled with toys.
"She must have got hung up doing something. I'm sure she'll be here soon."
"My wife wants to talk to her about a Web site design. Is Kim still doing that?"
"Yeah, she is."
After Captain Palladino was nudged down the hallway by Walcroft's twin boys, Tony called Kim's cell phone. It took numerous tries and forty minutes later for her to pick up.
"Kim, where are you?" Swallowing tightly, Tony tried to curb the resentment in his tone.
"I'm so sorry, baby." Her voice was level, even. "Parker and I went to Laurie's house and I had too much wine. I fell asleep. I'm on my way home now. Parker's sleeping in the car. We're just too tired to come to the station."
Deep down, Tony knew that Kim was just as unhappy with their relationship as he was. He'd barely known her four months when they got married. Several months later, he acknowledged to himself that they'd probably made a mistake. But for Parker and the stability the little girl finally had, Tony stayed and hoped he was wrong about everything.
Tonight's phone call with Kim only added to his suspicions that she was lying to him about where she'd been. More important, with whom. He didn't have any proof she was being unfaithful, just a feeling that held him in its grip long after he disconnected the call.
The next morning, Kim wasn't home when he got off shift. He went into the house, the thermostat tripping on the furnace as he closed the door, leaving the cold air in the garage. The tree lights were still on; he felt the bulbs and they were warm to the touch. They'd been on all night. He'd told Kim to unplug them before going to bed. Even the new safety ones could be a fire hazzard on a fresh cut tree. Dirty dishes and cups were stacked in the sink. A pile of mail lay unopened by the phone, including a number of holiday cards with red and green envelopes.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
Scratching the back of his neck, Tony stood in the kitchen and tried to figure out what he was going to do.
He'd just started cleaning up the dishes when Kim pulled into the driveway.
Parker burst into the house, ran to him and squeezed his legs. "Hi, Tony! Can I open my presents now? I've been waiting and waiting."
He didn't ask her where she'd been waiting; he laid his hand on top of her head, smoothing her hair.
Kim came trailing in, a poinsettia in her grasp. "I think we got the last one in town." She set the red-leafed plant in its shiny gold foil wrap on the counter-top. Then she came to him and put her arms around his waist and held on.
She smelled differently. He couldn't bring himself to embrace her in return. "I didn't think any of the stores were open today," he said.
"Oh…um, no." She inched away, not meeting his gaze, then went to the sink and finished loading the dishwasher. "I got it yesterday."
"Where's it been?"
"At Laurie's. We ran over there this morning to pick it up. I forgot it last night."
Tony showed no emotion. His muscles were tight, like iron bands in his body that held him rooted to the spot.
"Can I, Tony? Mommy said when we got home, I could open them."
Keeping a smile on her lips, Kim dried her hands and took Tony's to lead him into the living room. The skin on her palm was cold, her fingers loose around his. He let her take him to the sofa and sit down, cozy next to him.
"That one's for Tony, Parker." Kim's face was flushed, her blue eyes startling next to her pale com-plexion and pink-blushed cheeks. She was a beautiful woman on the outside with classic good looks, and she had a very confident personality. Her liveliness and vitality for living life on the edge were infectious. That was what had attracted him to her in the first place.
Tony took the gift, and the others to follow. The three of them spent the morning opening presents and he pretended to enjoy himself as if nothing were wrong—as if his life was not somehow off-kilter.
Later off while Parker played with her new toys, Tony cornered Kim in the kitchen as she put on a fresh pot of coffee.
"Where were you this morning, Kim?"
Looking insulted for the first time since coming through the door, she said, "At Laurie's."
"Why don't I believe you?"
"I don't know."
They merely stared at one another, allowing a ridiculous span of silence to be broken only by the playful hums of a six-year-old who was completely oblivious to the two adults at odds with each other.
"I'm going to Rocky's house to get the kitten for Parker," Tony finally said in a soft voice, picking up his keys.
"She's going to love it, Tony."
"Yep," he replied in a clipped voice.
After punching the garage-door opener, he realized Kim's car was in the driveway blocking him in. Rather than move it, he opened the door to the Mazda coupe and got inside. The small vehicle swallowed his large body, making him feel closed in. Almost suffocated.
Feeling for the lever under the seat, his hand touched a cold object.
Kim's cell phone.
It must have fallen on the floor mat. He tossed the cellular onto the shifter console, made an adjustment to the seat and slid it back as far as it would go to accommodate his long legs.
He put the car into gear, rested his wrist on the steering wheel and turned down the radio that heralded holiday tunes. He punched another station, not in the mood for fa-la-las.
Driving down Fairview Avenue, he headed to Rocky's house to pick up the kitten. Rocky had two playful rottweilers who Tony hoped like hell had left the kitten alone. Rocky had agreed to keep the kitten overnight so he could surprise Parker with the Christmas present today.
The anxiousness he'd been feeling about watching her face when he gave it to her was now diminished. While he didn't want to believe Kim could do such a thing, he wondered if she had told Parker not to tell him where they'd been last night and this morning. If Kim had devised a "game" to play with her little girl… If that was the case…
Tension built in the back of Tony's eyes, around the sockets where moderate pain grew into a vague headache.
Stopped at a red light, he was jolted out of his thoughts by the chirp of an incoming call on Kim's phone. Startled into action, he reached over and punched the answer button.
The line went dead.
Tony glanced at the ID, but the LCD reading blinked to gray.
"Shit," he muttered, fumbling with some of the task buttons, trying to figure out where the Received Calls feature was. While doing so, the phone rang once more?
"Hello?" he answered gruffly.
Again, no response.
"Who is this?"
Once more, the line disconnected.
A car horn blared behind Tony as the light changed and he didn't accelerate. He quickly went through the car's gears, grinding them from first to third as he pulled into the nearest business driveway.
Sitting in the empty Kmart parking lot, he figured out Kim's call log. The incoming was from a Boise number, the prefix 938. That was north of Boise around Eagle. Searching deeper in the phone menu, he found the outgoing-call list.
He licked his lips, scanned the dates and times and found that that particular number had been called sixteen times last night and once this morning.