Note 4: there are questions at the bottom for you to answer that tell me what you want to happen next. My intention is to write this book and fill it with the types of stories you, my wonderful reader, like to read. To make sure those stories are within the final pages, I am asking you to answer some questions and direct the development of this book (within reason -- I reserve the right to modify at will to ensure the entire story works).
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Prologue: Helen's Secret
The rain tapped against the window pane in time to the nails of my headache driving themselves into my skull. “Helen is dead,” my mind cried though not a tear left my eyes. My wife of 38 years had died mere hours ago and I’m pretty sure this broken sense of inertia was not the normal response.
I poured brandy into my mug, laughing. Helen, always concerned with appearances, would be rolling in her grave to see me like this. “Not that she would have been surprised.” I tossed back a generous swallow, swiping the back of my hand across my lips to catch a trailing drip. “Always did remind me of where I came from.”
My feet were unsteady. Or was it my legs. “Too much brandy. Shoulda had a good beer instead.” A bark of laughter cracked at the same moment a roll of thunder grazed over the house.
It was my house now, this cold, cavernous thing that should have been filled with love and a large group of mourners.
I pushed the door of my study, my office, my refuge from a life of disappointment open with too much force. It hit the wall behind. The sound of plaster splintering on impact registered only enough for me to peer at the newly formed hole.
Another gulp of brandy followed. I climbed the stairs of my mausoleum, my footsteps muffled by the plush runner. Nothing like the raw, unfinished staircases of my youth.
God, those years were so far gone. I missed my family, the ones I’d given up in pursuit of wealth. Portraits of my late wife’s ancestors glared down at me from their spots along the hall. I glared back, defying them. They hadn’t been worth it.
But their eyes, always seeming so vacant, told me they already knew, might even have tried to warn me.
I stumbled on something. My own feet perhaps, slouching brandy to the rim as my shoulder smashed into the frame of my late father-in-law’s ugly vintage.
“You tried to warn me. I know you did.” My words slurred out. I straightened away from the portrait, away from the man who had raised me when my own died but who had not been able to keep the greed from sucking me under. “And now I’m alone.”
The words were my own cry, the one I’d been voicing silently in my head for eight months as Helen withered before my eyes. “We could have been happy. We should have been.” I stared down into the brandy mug, wishing it held answers, knowing it didn’t.
We weren’t happy. Had never really been happy, if I were being honest. Each of us used the other for our own gain. Helen to gain revenge on a lover who had dumped her; me to gain status and an obvious advantage.
Our cards were out but we’d still hoped. For years that hope had sustained us until the day Helen lost our last child. Until the day the doctors told her that her body could not carry a baby to term.
I promised options: adoption, surrogacy. Nothing. Helen would accept nothing. And our marriage suffered to the point of ending.
Like the ghost of memories come to visit the dying, I remembered her face now, and the sound of her voice. Her gasp during orgasm still caused me to feel aroused.
Staggering in through the bedroom door, I went to my dead wife’s bedside, grateful the coroner had removed her body and changed the linens.
“Why couldn’t we be happy together?” I demanded of the empty bed, slashing the mug down onto the bedside table.
I missed. Or rather I didn’t miss.
The mug cracked on the edge, leaking its contents through the crack, onto the top, and seeping into the drawer.
Cussing, I dumped the last of the brandy into the flower vase and pulled the sham off the nearest pillow to mop up the mess. The drawer stuck, I bend to look at it, realizing for the first time that there was a lock.
Mystery. My mind, intent on wallowing, changed gears. Not smoothly. Grindingly slow, but change they did. I found the key taped to the back of our wedding picture which was hidden under her shoe rack in the closet.
“A testament to just how happy our marriage was, eh, Helen. Rub it in a little harder next time.” Brandy talking. I lumbered back to the nightstand, inserted the key, and pulled it open.
A single manilla folder devoid of any markings but obviously handled frequently due to the rippling at its edges lay neatly inside.
Another mystery. I drew the plain folder out to open it. There, staring up at me was a picture of my former lover, the mistress I’d once planned to leave my farce of a marriage for. Underneath her picture were a few newspaper clippings and a birth certificate dated eight months after she disappeared from my life.
I dropped the folder, my heart constricting in spasms of pain so intense my knees gave way beneath me. The last truth blared through my mind: I had a daughter.
“No, please no. Not again,” I hissed in high pitched alarm as the liquid that was supposed to go down the drain instead oozed back up. “Why does this keep happening?”
I knew why. Old building on the edge of Washington D.C.’s NoMa district in desperate need of renovation combined with a slumlord owner intent on milking whatever profits he could from the residents was why. It was the best I could afford on a librarian’s salary while strapped with student loan payments.
A long litany of “what ifs” coursed through my head as I hopped from foot to foot, praying the water reversed course before I resorted to grabbing the toilet plunger. “What if I didn’t have nearly seventy grand in student load debt? What if I had worked more during college instead of taking out loans? What if I had chosen a lower cost school? What if I’d gone to community college for a year of two first? What if I hadn’t studied to be a librarian?” And the list went on.
Nothing. I growled in frustration at the water, now a murky gray-brown and reached for the plunger. Push down. Once. Twice. Three times. Pull it up and look. Is the water going down? Nope, repeat.
By the fifth attempt my arms were burning. “This is not supposed to be exercise,” I grunted. I pulled the plunger away, inspecting the sink. A hazy line of scum showed at the top. I hoped it was from water actually leaving the sink but doubted it. “Displacement.” The word shot into my head, detailing the fact that I read far too much.
“All theory and no experience is worthless,” my dad would say. It was the story he gave me when I asked why he saw patients instead of doing research or developing life saving drugs. Until this moment, I did not think theory versus experience mattered.
“Stupid sink.” I stuck the plunger into the bathtub to drip dry and did a shuffle-stomp out to my bedroom, grumbling the whole way.
A little under an hour later I stood before various plumbing things, eyes about ready to water from the situation. I’d called my landlord on the way over, explained about the sink that wouldn’t flow correctly, and, instead of being told he’d take care of it, I got an earful about interrupting his breakfast.
Tears pricked again just from thinking about the things he’d said. And his breakfast? I’d had to skip mine.
My lower lip trembled, a little flutter of emotion. Skipping breakfast today and for the rest of the month looked like my reality. I smoothed a hand over my generous hip. “It’ll be ok. You can lose a few pounds. You wanted to, were even talking about it yesterday.” But I hadn’t been wanting to do it out of desperation and lack of funds. Those two reasons made me want to call my parents and make these miseries disappear with a side of Mommy’s money.
Sucking in a deep breath of air, I straightened my shoulders. “You can do this,” I told myself, trying to force belief through sheer will. “The books all say, if you think a thing often enough, it becomes true.
Not sure how simply thinking something is supposed to make it happen though. Don’t you have to do something too? It’s not like dreams just magically appear fulfilled one morning, do they?” I laughed at myself, picturing a dream wrapped up all nice and pretty with a bow.
And my eye fell on a long corded thing coiled up in it’s package. “Snake!” Pulling the package off the hook, my fingers fumbled it, knocking it lose to fall to the ground. I bent over to pick it up with a sigh.
“Dang, that wasn’t the view I was expecting this early in the morning.”
I froze at the male voice coming from behind me. My muscles strove to constrict in on themselves in a false attempt to make me smaller than my five foot five inches with a little more padding than was strictly necessary.
“I might need the day off, Thad,” the voice continued with a bark of laughter.
“Shut up, Brent. You’re being a jerk.” This voice was smooth. Hearing it was like getting a caress to the part of me they were both able to see.
I snapped upright, holding my head high and refusing to look at either of them. “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” It’d work eventually, anyway.
“Oh, come on, man. It’s not like she can hear me,” the one guy scoffed.
“Everyone can hear you. I can hear you.” His voice was tinged with annoyance. That note allowed my lips to soften and almost smile.
“Go over and get the wood.”
It was definitely an order. The sound of footsteps stomping away sounded along with a few irritated comments at the man who remained.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Whoa.” All the air left me in a rush. He was rugged with a short beard and hair and muscles apparent through the long sleeves of his shirt.
My eyes drifted down, all the way down to his steel-toed boots. Then they traveled back up, flinching when they were met by a pair of hazel eyes framed by thick dark lashes I’d have to pay good money to attain.
“The world is not fair,” I muttered, my hands tightening on the package.
A look of laughter passed across his face. “Look, I’m sorry about my cousin. He’s yet to out grow the teenage doofus stage.
“I’m Thad Jorgensen.” He held out his hand.
Like an idiot, I offered him the package I’d been holding. He took it, glanced down at it, then back up at me. “Plumbing issues?”
His lips pursed before losing the battle and breaking into a smile. A dimple appeared on one side. My heart fluttered.
“Crappy old building.” He nodded. “My sink drains the wrong way.”
“I might be able to help you with that.”
I felt like I was falling forward, unprepared for the words that fell from my lips.
The computer screen went blank, a wall of blackness. My eyes blinked. I groaned and sank my head into my hands.
“Ok. That’s it. What’s happened?” my co-worker, Margie, asked.
“And don’t tell me nothing. You’ve been sitting there, mumbling to yourself, for the last twenty minutes. I’ve spoked to you three times already and gotten no response.”
I tried again, but Margie turned fully in her seat, pointing a finger at me. “And that’s just the beginning of it. You’ve been off since you set foot in here. You misfiled books. You walked away in a daze when Mr. Rodricks was telling you about his current hip replacement, which, well, I honestly don’t blame you for that. But still. You’re not acting like you. What’s up? You kill someone?”
I blinked in shock. “Did I kill someone?” Where did that sort of question come from.
Margie harrumphed. “Well, I’m against killing on principle, but I make exceptions for extreme situations or people.”
She looked down like she was examining her nails. I felt a short-lived moment of relief, like I was going to get out of this discussion. Then Margie’s eyes bore into mine with intense curiosity.
Margie, thirty years older than me and smarter than most of the people I know, including our overly educated yet dumb as a rock library director, would hunt down my secrets without stopping. You didn’t learn how to navigate your way around the snobby side of higher education successfully without taking prisoners.
Actually, I wasn’t sure that she didn’t take prisoners. No one dared to say anything bad about her. Margie rarely had a negative word to say about anyone that wasn’t spot on accurate. And, even then, she some how managed to do it without causing offense. That was a skill I needed to learn, badly. But, when she talked to me, Margie treated me like someone caught between friend and child status.
“I hired a plumber.”
Margie’s brows rose. “You hired a plumber?”
I nodded. “My sink flows the wrong way. The plunger stopped working.”
Her brows crashed down. “Girl, that’s a job for your building super. You don’t need to be hiring a plumber for that yourself. You tell the super.”
Margie leaned back into her chair, swiveling slightly as if to look at me like I was a specimen to be examined.
“More than once,” I added. I didn’t want her to think I was a total pushover. We’d had a few conversations about my need to be assertive in the seven months I’d worked with her.
“I see.” Margie settled back into her chair. “And what did this plumber look like?”
I bit my lower lip. In a too small voice, I answered, “A plumber?”
Her eyes closed and then she laughed a full, deep laugh of pure mirth. “Oh, girl, you went and hired a plumber because you wanted some.”
“I did not. I need my pipes fixed.”
The words, and their double meaning, broke out in a red flush across my cheekbones.
“Yes, that’s exactly what you need,” Margie laughed some more at my expense.
I turned away to focus on my computer screen. Or at least pretend to.
I looked up, welcoming the excuse of a patron needing assistance to ignore Margie. “How can I help you today, sir?” I added a smile.
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