Authors: Lisa Unger
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Eloise Montgomery had always believed that on the day that the worst thing happened, she would
. She had thought that there would be a chill in the air, a nagging unrest, some kind of shadow over her consciousness. It wouldn’t be anything she would
necessarily. It wouldn’t stop her in her tracks. There would be no whispering voice to tell her that her husband Alfie should not get on that plane (which would then crash) or not allow one of her girls to go to the mall (where a crazed gunman was lurking)—nothing like that. It would only be afterwards that she would say to herself:
I woke up that morning and glimpsed the wraith lingering on the edge of my life.
But, no—it wasn’t like that at all.
If anything, the day was hypernormal. It was raining. That was the first thing of which she was aware. And she’d overslept a bit. Usually, she was so attuned to the light streaming in through the sheers that she always awoke just before six, wide awake the minute she opened her eyes. She’d get directly out of bed, while Alfie still snoozed, most deeply asleep just before he woke. He’d get up cranky, groggy, a bear until after he’d showered and had one strong cup of coffee. Not Eloise; she awoke at her best. Most days. But rain swelled her sinuses, so that day she woke up with a killer headache fifteen minutes later than usual. Not a lot, but just enough to put things “off.”
Downstairs, Eloise put the coffeepot on seventeen minutes later than usual, and started the breakfast that no one would eat. Both of her girls were going through a phase where they insisted that they were “fat.” (It was one of her least favorite words in the English language because it was so loaded with self-loathing.) Neither of her daughters weighed much more than one hundred pounds, and now they were
. This really made Eloise furious, because she had raised her girls to love themselves and respect their bodies. She had taken such care to teach them not to let the television and ridiculous fashion magazines present an ideal that they could never attain. They had
about these things,
, over and over and over. And still, still, when her older daughter Emily finally managed to drag herself downstairs, she would nibble at her toast and move her eggs around. And Amanda would force herself to eat a little because she knew Eloise was watching. Because Amanda was the pleaser, while Emily couldn’t care less.
If there were teams in their family—and of course there weren’t because they were not that kind of family—but if there were, it would be Emily and Alfie against Eloise and Amanda. There was chemistry between parents and their children; no one with kids could deny that. Emily and Alfie were united by their powerful intellects, their strong wills, their pragmatism. Amanda and Eloise were kindred in a different way. From the minute Eloise had looked into that child’s eyes, moments after Amanda was born, Eloise knew she’d found her soul-mate. And so it was.
It was not a question of loving one girl more than the other, no, never that. Eloise would happily lay herself down for either of them. It was just a matter of which of them was easier to be around. She and Amanda meshed, understood each other without speaking, shared an interest in the quieter things like reading and knitting. They were generally more passive, gentler than the other two. They rarely argued. Eloise and Emily, on the other hand, were more likely to clash. Eloise’s arguments with her older daughter often ended with Emily storming off, slamming a door. On the other hand, the two of them were as likely to bust out laughing in the middle of their rows.
Emily pushed Eloise’s buttons (Her clothes! Her hair! Her friends!), and Eloise did the same for her. But even though Emily had a hotter temper, she was the more affectionate of Eloise’s two girls. Emily still sometimes even climbed into bed beside Eloise in the wee hours.
I love you, Mommy.
Amanda held it all in.
Her younger daughter entered the kitchen, already dressed and ready for school, wearing clean, pressed khaki capris and a simple white eyelet blouse, tasteful flats. Lord only knows what Emily would come down wearing and what type of battle would ensue. Amanda leaned in to kiss Eloise, smelling lightly of flowers and baby powder. Then the girl went to the fridge and grabbed the jug of orange juice, set out the glasses, and started pouring.
“Em’s still sleeping,” said Amanda, “by the way.”
Eloise felt that little rush of annoyance, that edge she got when things were running late.
“Emily Grace,” Eloise yelled from the kitchen doorway. “Get out of that bed right this second. We’re
Emily’s voice carried down the stairs, jagged with annoyance. Only a teenager could sound
put out over anything. “God!
The shower was running, which meant that at least Alfie was up. Christ, did it have to be such a chore to get everyone out the door in the morning? Did they not do the same damn thing every single day? Must everyone be monitored and cajoled to get off to school and work? Eloise caught herself, took a deep breath. Running late was not an emergency. It was not even really a problem.
The eggs were on the stove, the toast in the toaster. Eloise got started on the lunches. Everyone was getting turkey on rye today, like it or not. After that was done, she walked a cup of coffee up the creaking stairs to Alfie, leaving Amanda to get the food onto the plates. Upstairs, Eloise left the coffee steaming on their dresser. She didn’t even bother putting anything under the cup to protect the wood. Though her husband considered the piece an “antique” that was just in need of “refinishing,” which he was planning to do “next weekend,” she considered the dresser a candidate for Thursday bulk garbage pickup. Anyway, it served its function, and she was not one to replace a thing that functioned any more than her husband was. But she wasn’t going out of her way to preserve it, either.
She quickly dressed—a floral printed skirt that really belonged in the donate pile, a long-sleeve pink tee-shirt. She slipped into some scuffed flats. She’d shower when they’d all left for school.
By the time Eloise returned to the kitchen, Emily was in her perpetual slouch at the table. Her dark hair was spikey and wild, her black eyeliner too thick, her shoulder exposed through a stylized rip in her black sweatshirt. Eloise wasn’t even going to look at those combat boots the girl insisted on wearing or the “distressed” denim skirt over thick black tights.
This is normal teenage behavior
, Eloise told herself. If Emily wants to rebel with fashion, fine. As long as Eloise couldn’t see too much of her thighs or her cleavage, Emily could wear what she wanted.
Emily caught her staring. “What?” she spat. “Just because I don’t look like Marion the Librarian over here?”
“Hey,” said Amanda without heat. “Freak.”
“I didn’t say a word,” said Eloise. She poured herself a cup of coffee.
to,” said Emily. She put a miniscule piece of toast in her mouth.
Eloise set Alfie’s plate on the table. And then sat down with her own plate, which she had piled high with eggs and toast and fruit. Eloise ate with vigor, and she always had. She loved food; couldn’t wait for her next meal. In fact, she often planned what she would have for lunch while she was eating breakfast. She was one of “those annoying people” who could eat whatever she wanted and stay rail thin. And she
in it. She’d never even seen the inside of a gym. She was no beauty queen, but in
department she had won the genetic lotto. So had the girls, though they were too foolish to realize it. Poor Alfie, on the other hand—one whiff of baked goods and he inflated like a puff pastry.
“How are my beautiful girls this morning,” said Alfie, entering the room like sunlight. And, each of them like heliotropes, turned to face him with a smile.
Alfie was the favorite parent and always had been. He was the tree climber, the player of “dangerous tricks,” the storyteller, the tear dryer, the bear-hugger. He was the nightmare slayer, the surprise party thrower. Oh, how they all adored him.
“Sweetie,” said Alfie to Emily. “You look like someone just dug you out of a grave.”
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said with a smile. “That’s the look I was going for.”
Eloise bit back a rush of resentment. If she ever said anything
that, Emily would have stormed from the kitchen, raged up the stairs, and slammed the door to her room so hard that the dishes in the china cabinet would shake.
“And my angel,” he said, kissing Amanda on the forehead.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“And my love.” Eloise leaned up to kiss him lightly on the lips. She picked a piece of lint off the blue sweater she’d given him for Christmas. The color brought out the cornflower blue of his eyes, the natural flush in his cheeks. For him, she’d prepared egg whites with a side of fruit, no toast. His cholesterol was sky high, and he was a big man, thick in the shoulders and heavy in the middle. She worried about him, knew he ate horribly at lunch—pizza, fast food, gyros. He sat beside her, chair creaking, and picked up the paper.
“Thank you for breakfast,” he said. Never a morning in his life had he ever neglected to thank her for making his breakfast.
“You’re welcome,” she said. And she meant it.
Eloise simply had never loved anyone else but Alfie. They were high school sweethearts, married while still in college. Neither of them had ever looked around for anyone else. They were two halves of the same whole; she’d known it the day he walked into freshman advanced algebra and picked a seat right next to her. He was taller than the other boys, bigger, more mature somehow. Was he handsome like football star Bradley Miller? Or tough and cool like bad boy Steve Tanner? No. But he had something that no other boy she’d known had ever had. She saw it right away. And she wasn’t even sure what it was.
Eloise had forced herself not to stare at him that first day, even though she could feel him staring at her. And boys never stared at her because she was not pretty. She was plain in the face, and she was too skinny, and there was no money for the cool jeans or designer bags. She could never tame her wild black hair. And she was shy to the point of seeming rude.
Smile a little, Eloise
, her father used to chide.
People like a girl who smiles.
The middle schools from three different counties converged at Hollows High, so Eloise had been feeling more timid than usual that long ago fall morning. Surrounded by people she didn’t know, finding her way around a school that seemed huge compared to her small middle school on the outskirts of The Hollows, she wished the floor would open up and swallow her. That’s why she practically jumped out of her skin when, halfway through the period, Alfie Montgomery handed a note across the aisle to her.
She took it and unfolded it, looking at him. He wore a big grin—oh, and those sparkling, laughing eyes. She couldn’t help but smile back. His face, full of light, demanded it.
You are the prettiest girl I have ever seen. And one day I am going to ask you to marry me,
he had written
She didn’t have time to react, because their teacher, Mrs. Peacock, was standing in front of Eloise’s desk. Eloise reluctantly looked up into the reading glasses of her annoyed instructor, who held out a hand for the note.
Eloise handed it over, a hot flush coming up her neck and coloring her face, she was sure, a hideous scarlet.
“Something you would like to share, Eloise?”
She shook her head.
“It’s my fault,” said Alfie quickly. He stood. “I passed it to her.”
“Maybe you would like to share your thoughts with everyone,” said Mrs. Peacock, who looked more amused than angry.
“I would,” he said. He still wore that smile, and Eloise could see that not even Mrs. Peacock was immune to its wattage. That was it. That’s what he had. He didn’t care what anyone thought. He was himself and never tried to be anyone else. She wouldn’t know how rare that was until they were older.
Mrs. Peacock handed him the note. But he didn’t have to look at it.
“You are the prettiest girl I have ever seen,” he said in a loud voice, head held high. “And one day I am going to ask you to marry me.”
The whole class burst out with laugher, including Alfie. Even Eloise in her total embarrassment couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s true, Mrs. Peacock,” Alfie concluded. “You mark my words.”
They’d rarely been apart since that day. Even though their families had bemoaned their settling down so early, there was a force pulling them together that would not be stopped. Everyone knows true love when they see it. It’s rare enough that no one really wants to stand in its way.
On this rainy, late start morning twenty years later, they had been married a little more than fifteen years and had two teenage girls. Alfie was an advanced algebra teacher at Hollows High and Eloise was a stay-at-home mom. They didn’t have a whole lot of money, but they always had enough for the things they needed and most of the simple things they wanted. The one thing they didn’t have enough money for, and which was a bit of an inconvenience, was two cars.
After breakfast, the girls ran around—brushing teeth, packing up their bags, bickering. Finally, they were all out the door, a little late, yes, but it was okay. And Eloise was right behind them, walking them to the car as she always did. She felt a kind of satisfaction. They’d had their breakfast; their lunches were packed. Homework was done. The rain had cleared to reveal a beautiful sunny morning; her sinus headache had subsided. The crocuses were popping their heads up in her garden bed. There was a robin singing in the tree above. It was a postcard of spring. She was waving to them as Alfie backed down the drive. And then she remembered: her doctor’s appointment! She needed the car. She’d have to drop them all off so that she could have the car today, then go back and pick them up in the late afternoon.