“I’m hangin’ out with Dave after school. We’re meeting up with some of the girls and we’re all gonna grab pizza.” Jacob, my middle child, slurped his orange juice and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Pride filled me (wasn’t so long ago he’d have used his sleeve) as I put a pod in the coffee maker.
“You? And Dave? Hanging out with girls?” Josh, my oldest, spooned up some instant oatmeal but didn’t put the spoon in his mouth. “I thought you said girls were gross?”
Jacob shrugged. “I’m fifteen, not ten.”
“Who’s going to let Chubs out?” I pushed my travel mug under the Keurig and pressed brew as I wiped the water I’d spilled refilling the machine.
“Josh, because I’m going to Tiff’s after school to work on a project.” Jordyn, the baby and only girl, muttered as she nibbled toast.
“Can’t. I’ve got work then I’m going out with the guys. I’ll be home by midnight.” Josh pre-empted my automatic reminder of his curfew.
“Jacob, you’ll have to whip home and let him out.” I added a splash of cream and screwed the lid onto the travel cup.
“No! That’s not fair!” Jacob pushed his cereal to the centre of the table. “Get Jordyn to.”
“It’s your turn. I came home the last two days to let him out. And Josh did it Monday.”
“Yeah, because I had detention!” Jacob muttered.
I heaved a gruntled sigh. “Jacob, Jordyn’s right. You haven’t let Chubs out at all this week. And before you start your crap, I’ll remind you what you just said. You hadn’t let him out because you were in detention. You’re lucky I don’t ground you.”
Jacob pushed away from the table with a loud squeal of chair legs on vinyl floor. He swung his backpack over his shoulder, smacking Jordyn as he did. Without another word, he stormed across the kitchen and slammed the door behind him.
“He’s just mad because Darien is one of the girls, and he’s afraid Dave’ll get her before he can,” Jordyn informed us as she glared at the door. “She’s got a reputation.”
“What sort of reputation?” I demanded, Jacob’s half eaten bowl of cereal shaking in my hand.
Josh grabbed the bowl and kissed my cheek. “You know exactly what Jordyn means. But don’t worry. She gets one whiff of Jacob and even Darien wouldn’t go behind the dumpsters with him. The garbage smells better than my shower-phobic brother.”
“I’ll get Chubs inside and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and hugged me. “Are you working late?”
“Not sure. I’ll text the family chat if I am.” I kissed her cheek and watched her long blonde hair swing behind her as she dashed through the house. “Should I be worried? About Jacob?”
“He’s got about as much hope of getting to first base with any girl as he does passing math. In other words, don’t worry about him hangin’ with girls, just worry about him flunking math.” Josh kissed my cheek again before he loped out of the kitchen.
I didn’t have time to waste pondering the problems three teenaged kids presented. I pulled a sweater out of the closet and grabbed my purse. Chubs skidded along the hardwood floors, sliding to land at my feet. “Be a good boy. No snacks. Your bowl is full, your water is fresh, and the toilet is only there for a back-up if you drink the water bowl dry. Just remember, you’re at Jacob’s mercy to go out later, so don’t over hydrate.”
The boxer looked at me with hopeful eyes. I grabbed a treat from the bin by the backdoor and tossed it to him as I went through the house making sure doors and windows were locked. “See you tonight, Chubs. Looks like just you and me. Again.”
I got into the car, waving at Chubs who was watching from the living room window. As I pulled onto the road, I worried again about Jacob and Darien. I honked at each of my children as I passed. Josh and Jordyn waved, but Jacob pretended not to hear me as he trudged along the sidewalk in front of the school. I watched him in my rear-view mirror as he scowled at my bumper. “The joys of children.”
“I can’t take the kids this weekend.” Ted, my almost ex-husband, launched into business the instant I answered the phone.
I rolled my eyes. “And why not?”
“I’ve got a hot date.” Ted cleared his throat, but I heard the smugness, the total pleasure he took in rubbing his social life in my face.
“Right or left?” I clenched my fists.
“Which hand’s the lucky one this weekend? For your hot date?” I forced my hands to unclench and pounded the keyboard, answering a message from my boss as Ted sputtered in my ear.
“If you must know, it’s Lise. The personal trainer.”
I hit send a little harder than necessary. “Did she lose a bet or something?”
“No. Seems all my hard work working out has paid off. She thinks I’m hot. She asked me out.” Ted couldn’t keep the gloating from his voice, not that I believed he’d tried to.
“Right, sure she did. She lost a bet with someone.”
“Yeah, probably the trainer you used to see. Bet Lise bet him you’d lose ten pounds but then saw you recently and realized she was wrong.”
Usually Ted’s nonsense talk didn’t phase me (much), but the dig about my weight hit home. “Well, thanks for reminding me that you’ve still got enough money for a personal trainer. I’ll mention it to Len, er, Mr. Dunne, my lawyer. Which reminds me, the temporary child support agreement? You forgot to pay last month. And this month’s is late.”
“Seriously? You’re that jealous you’re going to use my gym membership against me in the divorce settlement? We should’ve signed off last year but then you went all postal and demanded more money.”
I smiled at one of the other receptionists as she passed my desk. When she was out of earshot, I blew out an exasperated breath. “Ted, get over yourself. I only went for more money because you were hiding investments from me. I don’t want you back, don’t care who you pay, er, date. I do want what’s half mine, and I want our kids to get more than scraps from their father. Oh, and if you keep bailing on your weekends? I’ll bill you for sitter fees so I still get my me time. You’re not the only one with a social life, you know.”
I was lying through my teeth. Not about caring whether Ted dated or not, but about my own personal life. I only demanded he take the kids for his every-other weekends because it hurt them when he didn’t. My only plans were getting drunk with Sara Saturday night, and the kids had witnessed that enough. Ted pounced on my fib. “You’re dating?”
I spotted Kirk from HR. My tummy did a little swoop, a jig, then cramped when he walked past me, deep in conversation with the big boss, Alicia. Kirk used to ask me out, I always said no. But lately, I’d been thinking I’d say yes if he ever asked again. “Of course I am. Almost the minute you left me.”
“The kids never said.” Ted sounded surprised, irritated.
“Of course they didn’t. I don’t take them out on dates with me. They’re old enough to stay home alone. I tell them I’m going out with Sara or Dot. And I tell them I stayed home, in bed, all weekend while they were with you. They don’t need to know if I was alone or not.”
“I guess I’ve got to talk to my own lawyer.” Ted’s anger sizzled down the line.
I snorted. “Yeah? And what are you going to say? The woman I dumped isn’t pining away for me?”
“I won’t support another man. That’s my house you’re living in.”
I flexed my cramped fingers. I’d bunched them into such a tight fist that I had a small spot of blood blooming on my palm where I’d pierced the skin. “Give it a rest, would you? I got the house, you got the cottage, the boat, and the truck. Or do we need to start all over again? We’re so close to the final signing it would be a shame to add hundreds more billable hours on lawyer fees.”
“Like you’re paying Len.” Ted’s temper was rising, and I took pleasure in it.
“Well of course I pay Len. Just not as much as you pay Judy. I had to endure a whole weekend at a wine tasting thing in Niagara Falls. You know how I feel about wine. Len and I managed to have fun anyhow. Pays to have an ex-boyfriend who also happens to be a lawyer. One who holds a grudge against the guy who stole his girlfriend.” Not necessarily totally true. Len was my ex-boyfriend but we’d broken up just before I started seeing Ted. Mostly because Len had figured out that he and I were attracted to the same men.
“Is that how you pay him? In bed?”
I cursed, slamming the receiver so hard the phone jangled. I wished Ted were there so I could slam the receiver into his balding head.
“Dot, hold up.”
Dot held the elevator for me as I rushed down the hall. “Done early?”
I glanced at my watch as Dot pressed M for main floor. “For a change.”
Dot was secretary to Alicia, the head of our company. “Henry wasn’t in today, was he?”
The elevator went down a floor then shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open as I shook my head. Henry, my immediate boss, was vice president of construction. “He was at the new build site. He’s there for the rest of the week, smoothing out some glitches.”
The elevator doors closed after two more people got on. “Business is certainly booming.”
“Definitely. Everything okay?” Dot raised an eyebrow so I elaborated. “I saw Kirk chasing Alicia this afternoon. Just wondered if there was an HR crisis or something.”
Dot’s eyes narrowed as she scanned who was in the elevator. No one paid any attention to us. “I know you think he’s sniffing after her, but he’s not.”
I sighed as I shook my head. “Well, he used to ask me out every day. He hasn’t asked me out in a long time. It’s either he’s found someone, or I’ve finally gained enough weight to tip the scales out of my favour.”
Dot looked me up and down. “Stop putting yourself down, would you?”
The elevator stopped again to let more people cram in. I eyed Dot the way she’d examined me and rolled my eyes. “Says the ninety-eight pounds soaking-wet girl.”
“You’re, er…voluptuous.” Dot nodded her head when she finally found the word.
I snorted so violently the other passengers glanced over curiously. “I think the word you were looking for was voluminous.”
Dot slapped my arm. “Would you stop? Bruce and Frank in accounting are voluminous. You’re just…”
“Fat?” I offered with a wry grin. I knew I wasn’t fat, not like Frank or Bruce, but I’d have to pick out a whole new wardrobe in a bigger size soon if I wasn’t careful. “I’m joking. Not there yet. Just that Ted’s dating a personal trainer, and I’m eating way too much. The kids are never home, even when they’re supposed to be. I end up eating bigger portions, then grazing the snacks they asked me to buy but are never home to eat.”
The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and we followed everyone off. We stopped next to the exit to continue our chat because the wind was howling. “Let’s form a walking group. Either before or after work. Lunch is too hard because everyone has different lunch breaks.”
I shook my head. “I have to get three surly teenagers out the door for school and get home to a poor neglected dog.”
I froze, saw Dot stifling a laugh at my stricken look. “Kirk, what’s up?”
“Not much, not much. Well, see you around.”
I found my voice. “Uh, bye, Kirk.”
When Kirk was out of the building, I grabbed Dot’s arm. “See? Used to be that he’d stop to chat, then he’d ask me out. When was the last time he asked me out? When I started to gain weight. Fifteen pounds ago, that’s when.”
Dot shook her head. “Kirk’s not like that.”
“Obviously he is.” I felt like I should be hanging with Jordyn, discussing boy woes with a gang of teenagers, not a woman ten years older than me and proud of her never-married status.
“He’s not. But say he was? Why are you so worried about why he’s not asking you out all of a sudden?”
I shrugged. “I’m not.”
Dot eyed me with her usual patient mother stare.
“Fine. Because now that Ted and I are near the end-game of our divorce, I’d started thinking maybe I’d say yes.”
Dot’s kind eyes filled with pity. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
Jacob was lying on his bed when I got home, wireless ear buds in his ears, Chubs chewing his bone beside him.
“Hey, I thought you were…” I trailed off at the miserable look Jacob sent me.
I went to the kitchen and started throwing ingredients together to make Jacob’s favourite cheesy ground beef. When everything was going, I texted Ted.
You want to hurt the kids, you tell them. I’m not your messenger so unless you discuss with them be here by five tomorrow for the weekend.
I dropped my phone on the counter. I stirred the ground beef and chopped up some vegetables, grated three different types of cheese. Jacob could eat the cheesy mix, I’d have a nice salad. I was slicing cucumber when my phone vibrated.
It’s fine, Lise is excited to take the kids on a hike. Can they bring the dog, too?
Chubs, the dog Ted had complained bitterly about me getting? No freaking way. Let Lise and Ted get their own pet.
Chubs is my dog. You never wanted him.
I had a huge salad prepared and was adding the rest of the ingredients to the browned beef when Jacob ran down the stairs. “Dave just texted me, we’re going to get pizza. His mom grounded him but then she gave in because he was driving her nuts throwing a ball against the wall all afternoon.”
“I just made your favourite…” I stopped talking because Jacob was already gone.
Jordyn came in just as I turned the burner off. “Oh good, I made…”
“Just here for a sweater. Tiff and I got the project done so now we’re going to the mall. Tiff wants to get her nose pierced, I said I’d go for moral support.”
“I made cheesy beef and a huge salad. Why don’t you and Tiff eat first?” Too much food. Way too much.
Jordyn made a face at the beef. “I don’t eat that. It’s so fattening and greasy.”
“You better not come home with any piercings. You got your ears double pierced, that’s enough holes for a fourteen year old.” I sampled the ground beef mix, agreed with Jordyn, worried I’d just wasted the food.
“As soon as I don’t need parental consent, I’m getting my belly button done.” Jordyn grabbed some sliced cucumbers from my salad, kissed my cheek, and ran upstairs. A minute later, I heard her barreling down the stairs and heading out the back door. Chubs, who’d been barking his fool head off, skidded into the kitchen with his nose twitching.
My phone vibrated again. I welcomed a reason to fight with Ted. I saw Sara’s name and swiped to read her text.
Gotta cancel the weekend. Can I come over now?
Why? And yes.
I ate way too much of the cheesy burger mixture with my salad while I waited. Sara might be dropping in for a minute or staying for hours and bringing drinks. My best friend since high school was unpredictable, usually fun, and always a burst of frenetic energy. I put the leftovers (lots of salad, a little cheesy ground beef) in the fridge, loaded the dishwasher, and let Chubs back outside after slipping him some leftover plain ground beef. I busied myself with chores, trying not to think about how quiet the house was.
“Yoo-hoo, where you at Molly golly?” Sara’s voice carried down the hall as I let Chubs in the back door. The traitorous mutt left me holding a treat as he skidded and slid to the kitchen faster than when I put down a fresh bowl of kibble.
I followed at a more refined pace. “Hey. What’s up?”
“The sky, inflation, you know.” Sara, scratching Chubs all over his body, sniffed the air. “What smells so good?”
“I made a salad and cheesy ground beef.” I held up an empty mug and waited for Sara to nod or shake her head. She nodded, so I started brewing two cups of coffee. “There’s some left, if you want it.”
Sara shook her head. “Nope. Heading to yoga when I leave here, ground beef makes me gassy.”
I rolled my eyes. “Still doing yoga?”
Sara, tall, willowy, perfect Sara, frowned at me. “What’s wrong with that? Takes the stress off, and builds my core, or so I’m told. I just go for the free parking and inner peace.”
We sat at the table, Sara drinking her coffee black and mine with an extra splash of cream. “Why are you canceling our plans for the weekend?”
Sara winced as she gulped her coffee. “Don’t do that when I’m sipping hot liquids.”
I squinted at her, trying to figure out what had her so twitchy. “Ask you a question?”
Sara set her cup down and squared her shoulders. “I’m, uh, going hiking.”
I spilled my coffee when I slammed my cup down. “What?”
Sara’s eyebrows shot up beneath her dark bangs. “Why so angry about country fresh air and a walk in the woods?”
“Are you going with a woman named Lise?” I stared at Sara, afraid to miss any of her tells. If she was avoiding truths, or outright lying, she wrinkled her nose, fiddled with her hair, or her eyes watered as she tried to avoid doing either of those things.
“Um, no? I don’t swing for women named Lise. Nah, I’m going with a man. For the weekend. Camping and hiking. Leaving tomorrow from work actually, and I might even take Monday off.”
Feeling slightly reassured, I wiped the mess I’d made with a napkin. “Sorry. Ted’s going hiking with Lise and the kids this weekend, I thought…”
“I was going to commune in nature with your ex, maybe bury his body somewhere? It’s a thought, but no. Where’s he going, please tell me he’s not going to Algonquin. Because if he is, I might have to rent a grizzly bear suit so I can maul Ted and leave him for dead.”
“Doubtful. There’re bugs in Algonquin, he wouldn’t want to scream like a little girl in front of Lise, have to beg Jordyn to kill a spider for him. Who are you going camping with? Must be serious if you’re taking a day off work and sleeping in the wild.”
“There’re bugs everywhere. You don’t know the half of it. I just dropped a grand on a whole new wardrobe. Hiking boots, all the must-haves for wilderness survival, at least according to the online article I Googled. Get this, I even bought cargo pants. Pockets for bug spray, hunting knife, and one of those collapsible hairbrush/comb/mirror things.”
“Wow. So who has you so smitten you bought stuff you swore you’d never own? Are your hiking shoes at least high heels?” I sipped my coffee and grinned.
“Ha-ha. Nope. Two-hundred-dollar top of the line hiking boots that breathe so my feet won’t sweat. Not sure where the lungs are, but whatever. He’s a guy. I met him a few months ago, he’s called a few times. He asked me if I wanted to go camping, I said only if he had a big enough vehicle. What can I say? He’s hot, and he made camping sound fun.”
I narrowed my eyes. Sara, who told me everything about her life, even the boring details like how many carbs and calories she’d had that day, hadn’t mentioned a hot guy before. “Who is he, and where’d you meet him?”
“I can’t tell you that. Not yet, anyhow. Let’s see how the weekend goes, then I’ll give you the deets. If it’s good, be prepared to kick the kids out for an X-rated telling. If it’s not good? You can help me bury the body, or the camping gear I wasted my money on. I’m really hoping it’s the X-rated version. It’s supposed to get chilly this weekend.” Sara winked, wriggling her eyebrows.
I picked up my cup but didn’t sip as I studied Sara. Something was off. “Why can’t you tell me who he is?”
Sara twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I just don’t want to jinx it. Don’t get all weird on me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in anything other than work. In anyone but you. That sounded weird. You know what I mean though, right? I mean it’s been a long time since I cared about anyone but you and the kids. But not that way, not the way…”
I’d have laughed but Sara was busy twisting her hair into knots and wrinkling her nose. “Sara?”
“Fine. You know him, that’s why I’m not telling you his name.” Sara straightened in her seat and finished her coffee. “Right, now I better get to yoga. I need to limber up, master downward facing dog for the weekend.”
“How do I know him?” My instincts screamed as my brain said no way. A few months ago I’d gone out for drinks with a group from work, an impromptu after work party for a newly outed couple we worked with. I’d invited Sara, and we’d gotten hammered.
“Gotta fly, toodles.” Sara leapt to her feet and headed for the door.
“Do I work with this guy?” My heart sank as I realized that it wasn’t long after the party Kirk had stopped asking me out.
“Later, gator.” Sara slammed the door as she left.
“You look like sh-crap.” Jacob stared as I came into the kitchen after letting Chubs out.
I nodded, not bothering to comment. I made my coffee as the kids exchanged shrugs behind my back (I could see their reflections in the window). I knew I looked dreadful, even with extra make-up to cover the circles and bags under my eyes. I hadn’t had a sleepless night like last night since Ted first left us. At least I didn’t have a red, blotchy face because I hadn’t shed any tears. Just worried and wondered what I’d do if Sara came back crooning about being in love. With Kirk.
It had to be Kirk. She’d met him that night, they’d chatted while Dot and I had run interference to keep Alicia from finding out. Workplace romances were frowned upon, and Debbie was especially at risk because she worked in HR and knew Alicia’s feelings. Gossip was that Alicia hated workplace romances because she’d been involved with someone at work; her dad (then head of the company) hit the roof and made them break up. Dot was the only one I knew who’d worked there during that time but she was loyal to her old boss, and Alicia, so she neither confirmed nor denied. But Dot did confirm Alicia’s stance on workplace romances in general, and Debbie ended up finding a job somewhere else a month after we’d found out. Kyle announced their engagement within days of Debbie leaving. Alicia was furious but couldn’t do anything because Debbie didn’t work with us anymore.
It’s not like I was in love with Kirk, I reminded myself as I put the lid on my travel mug. Attracted, yes. I’d met Kirk when I’d first started, the day I signed forms for HR, and had a crush on him ever since. Ted and I were separated. Kirk and I developed a casual friendship, chatting about books, movies, kids. Ted tried to come back; Kirk listened, was a good friend, as I talked about how I wasn’t sure I’d ever look at Ted the same (or even look at him without wanting to scratch his eyes out). The day Ted and I filed for divorce, Dot mentioned it to Kirk, and that afternoon Kirk asked me out for the first time. Thinking he was joking, I said no. He’d ask once a month or so, then weekly. I’d smile, say no, until it was normal for him to ask every time we bumped into one another. Dinner? Dancing? Drinks? Elope to Guadalajara? I’d been flattered, who wouldn’t be? He was gorgeous; chocolate brown eyes with specks of gold, brown hair that turned lighter in the summer. Taller than Ted, fit, and he had great buns.
What had kept me up all night was Sara. She’d been my maid of honour even though she despised Ted. Held her tongue during our rocky marriage. Most amazing of all, she never once said I-told-you-so when Ted abruptly left me for a fling with some woman he met. She listened to me cry, let me decide if we got drunk and Ted bashed or held my own pity parties. And when Ted came back, wanting a second chance, Sara bit her tongue, promised to support whatever choice I made. When I realized my feelings were long dead, we made a game out of our litany of Ted put-downs.
Kirk was perfect for Sara. She was the female version of him, only her hair was darker. He headed up HR, Sara was a career woman, principal of a high school with her sights set on becoming superintendent. Sara never wanted kids of her own, Kirk’s youngest was a year older than Josh. Kirk’s wife had passed away years before I met Kirk. Sara wouldn’t have a flaky ex to deal with.
“Mom!” Jordyn waved her hand vigorously in front of my face.
I blinked several times as I came back to the kitchen from the murky territory I’d been stuck in since Sara had left the night before. “Huh?”
Josh and Jacob exchanged worried glances as Jordyn frowned. “Mom, what’s going on?”
I forced a smile. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go hiking with Dad this weekend. I’ll call him, tell him we’re not coming.” Josh pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“Don’t be silly. I’m looking forward to a weekend alone.” I forced a smile as I lied. “I want to hear all the gruesome details about the hike. Just don’t make your dad look too bad, okay?”
Josh snorted as he put the phone back in his pocket. “He doesn’t need us to make himself look bad.”
“Be nice. He asked if you guys could bring Chubs, I’d said no. But if you want to bring him, go ahead. Be good for Chubs to get some fresh air and exercise.” I was apprehensive about letting Chubs go but the kids wouldn’t let anything bad happen.
“Really? That’d be awesome!” Jacob high-fived Jordyn as Josh grinned. “I gotta go, don’t want detention for the third time this week, especially because Dad gets so ticked if he has to wait.”
“I’ll let Chubs in and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and skipped out of the kitchen.
“You might want to remake your coffee. You forgot to put the pod in before you hit brew.” Josh kissed my cheek. “Just tell me one thing. Is whatever kept you up all night got anything to do with Dad and this Lisa?”
I dumped my creamy water, looking at Josh’s reflection in the window. “Lise. And no, nothing to do with either of them. Keep a good eye on Chubs, won’t you?”
“It was Chubs that kept you awake?” Josh’s blue eyes widened in surprise. I jumped at the excuse.
“Yeah. You know your dad doesn’t care for animals but Chubs pines for you guys when you’re gone. I figured this is perfect, he’ll get a good long walk and won’t be so lonely.” I’d take Chubs on hikes if I had someone to hike with, but the past few months the only exercise I got was wandering the empty house. “I haven’t got time to pack his kibble or bowls. Take a bag of treats, too. Oh, and don’t forget the poop bags.”
Josh hugged me. “Text the family chat, you know I”ll forget half of it but Jordyn will make sure we get everything.”
I survived the day, even caught my second (or was it fifth?) wind. Aided by a lunch-time nap in my car and a steady stream of mud-like coffee from the break room, I was sure my eyes wouldn’t close until Monday, maybe Tuesday. I met up with Dot waiting for the elevator. “You got plans?”
Dot scrutinized my face. “Not really. Don’t you have kids and a dog to get home to?”
I shook my head as we stepped into the elevator. “Nope. Kids and dog are with Ted this weekend.”
“Hold the elevator.”
I frowned as I put my hand out automatically to stop the doors from closing. Kirk ran in and grinned. “Thanks. I’m running late.”
Poor Sara. “Never good to start the weekend late.”
Kirk nodded his agreement before turning to Dot. “I put that letter on your desk, can you give it to Alicia on Monday?”
Dot nodded briskly. “Of course.”
One of the other employees started talking to Kirk so I resumed my conversation with Dot. “Want to grab a drink or something?”
“Last time we grabbed a drink, we shared a cab and had to take the bus to work.” Dot shook her head with a snort of laughter.
“Dinner? I was going to grab bar food because I skipped lunch to sleep, but we could go to a restaurant.” I didn’t want to, but I wanted to go home to an empty house even less.
Dot considered as the elevator stopped to let more people on. “I need a drink. Let’s just go to Sunny’s. We can share a cab home, then again in the morning to get our cars.”
The elevator doors opened and Kirk pushed past everyone. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m late, gotta go.”
I didn’t watch to see him get in his vehicle, didn’t want to see the tent and whatever other camping gear he’d filled his car with. The SUV could hold lots, perfect for Sara’s new wardrobe. “Come on. I’m starving.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a second drink?” Dot leaned across the table waving her beer bottle at me. “I’m well on my way to plastered.”
I shook my head as I picked up my glass of pop. “I’m still awake, but if I have any more, I’ll be out cold and you’ll have to roll me out.”
“You never told me why you’re so tired. Did Josh stay out all night or something?” Dot snagged a wing from the platter and tore a chunk off.
“Nah, he was home at 11:57. I told you, I just couldn’t sleep.” I crunched into a celery stick I’d dipped in blue cheese.
“I call bull on that. You’ve got that haunted, sad look. You had it when you came to work for us. You’d almost lost the sad but then you took Ted back briefly and the look didn’t go away completely until you demanded a divorce.” Dot sucked the last of the chicken off the bone and dropped it into the bucket. “Is it because Ted’s dating?”
Dot was drunk, but I knew from experience that even drunk, Dot kept confidences if you asked her to. I glanced around the bar, saw several people from work engaged in chatter, not paying attention to us. I leaned in, looking into Dot’s eyes. “Between us?”
Dot did the same perusal of the bar and tables nearest to us as she nodded her head. “You know I’m no snitch.”
“Sara’s seeing someone. She’s gone away with them this weekend.” I selected the sauciest wing I could find tore a chunk off. My coffee buzz was wearing off, and I felt exhaustion creeping in.
Dot frowned as she licked her fingers. “And you realized you’re in love with her?”
I dropped the chicken bone and it rolled off the table. “What?”
Dot shook her head. “Of course not. Never mind. Carry on.”
I inhaled, catching the scent of the wings, the booze around us, the perfume and cologne in the air. “Sara tells me everything, at least I thought she did. But she’s been talking to this guy for months and never mentioned him. She drops by last night to tell me that she can’t come over tomorrow because, get this, she’s going away hiking.”
“With Ted?” Dot’s jaw dropped and I saw her fillings in her bottom teeth.
“Camping and hiking. Ted wouldn’t go camping unless there was a winterized cottage involved.” I rolled my eyes at the ludicrous statement, then remembered my reaction the night before. “I had the same thought at first. But no, she spent a fortune on new clothes to go to Algonquin for the weekend. In September. She hates to be cold. She might take Monday off. That’s serious.”
Dot put her elbow on the table and rested her head against her palm. “Wow. Sara’s a principal, isn’t she? School’s back. Sounds serious.”
“I know, right? That’s what I’m thinking. And the way she made it sound? They’ve been talking for months but I got the impression this was their first date. I think she’s going to sleep with him!”
Dot’s brows furrowed and she leaned even closer across the table. “And you’re worried she’s with a crazy guy who, what? Is going to kill her and leave her for the cougars?”
I shook my head as I tucked my long hair behind my ears. “No! But great, thanks. Now I’ll have that thought to keep me up tonight.”
Dot sat up, dropping her arm to her side. “Then what?”
“What if she gets married? I mean, she kept this from me for months then just decides to take off? This is so unlike her.” I pictured Kirk and Sara, trudging in the Algonquin wild.
“You married Ted and had three kids with him. I’m sure your friendship would survive if Sara got married.” Dot waved a hand as she sipped her beer.
“You think so? I think it’d be weird. Like hey guys, I know I’m in love with you but you don’t mind if I squeeze between the two of you to watch TV, do you?” I picked up another wing and pulled the meat away from the bone.
Dot’s almost empty bottle slid from her hand. It hit the table, splashing me with beer before falling to the floor. “You are into her.”
I daubed my clothes, puzzling over Dot’s words, as Dot dove to grab the bottle. “What are you on about?”
Dot set the unbroken bottle on the table and stared at me. “I’m tipsy, but unless you’re pining for Sara, you’ve left an important detail out.”
I frowned, stifling a yawn. “No I haven’t.”
“You’re not into Sara, so who would you be in love with?”
I coughed and a bit of chicken shot out of my mouth and landed on the tablecloth. “What?”
“You said…” Dot stared at me, her eyes darting from one of mine to the other.
I realized my error. “Crap. Okay, she’s camping with Kirk. That’s who she’s been talking to for months. She met him when Kyle and Debbie got busted at work and we had that party. Funny, that’s around when Kirk stopped asking me out.”
Dot waved her empty frantically at a passing waitress. When the waitress nodded, Dot leaned towards me again. “Sara told you she’s in love with Kirk?”
I nodded. “And I can’t even be mad at her, it’s not like I ever told Sara about Kirk. She knew I was friends with some guy at work, that he’d flirt and ask me out, but I never said who. She told me I should say yes, but that was the end of it. Then Kirk stopped asking, and she stopped telling me to say yes. But then she didn’t know it was Kirk who was asking. Unless…maybe Kirk told her?”
Dot was stuck trying to work out everything I’d said. “Sara told you? She said ‘I’m going camping with Kirk and I think I love him’?”
I thought about what Dot was asking, worked out the particulars. My sleep deprived mind made me feel drunk. “Well, no, she never said his name. She just dropped hints about who he was. She didn’t deny he worked with us. She left so fast when I figured that much out.”
Dot’s face relaxed and I saw a twinkle in her eyes. “You put two and two together? Figured it all out, did you?”
“Yeah. Makes sense. And they’d be perfect together. He’s hot, she’s gorgeous.”
“And your reason for assuming is?” Dot took the beer the waitress set down and sipped.
“Man, you’re dumb when you’re drunk. I told you. Sara met Kirk. Right here, in this bar. You and I were running around trying to make sure Alicia didn’t catch Kyle and Debbie. Sara kept talking to the guy she met – had to be Kirk – and didn’t tell me. Probably because she knew Alicia didn’t like coworkers dating and was worried that being my best friend might get me in trouble?” I frowned, that part didn’t make sense, but whatever. “Anyhow, she had feelings. He had feelings. Kirk stopped asking me out. Heck, he pretty much stopped talking to me altogether. When was the last time he lingered at my desk, or sat with us at lunch? Hasn’t lent me a book in ages. He barely looks at me.”
Dot drummed her fingers on the tabletop, staring at me. “That doesn’t mean he’s fallen for Sara.”
Exasperated, I tore off a bite of carrot and crunched. “It’s either Sara or because I’m fat. The past few months I’ve been gaining weight. I actually had to buy bigger underwear. Been medium ever since I had Jordyn, but now I’m large. And I had to undo the button on my pants after my beer and second wing.”
“Let’s go with weight. If Kirk’s not talking to you because you put on a couple of pounds –”
“A couple? Try almost fifteen.”
“Fine. A bit of weight, then. If a guy loses interest because you’re not skinny? Not worth worrying about.”
“That’s what all the skinny women say.” I licked sauce off my thumb. “In a perfect world the guy loves the girl no matter what she looks like. But look at Ted. He kept making comments like ‘are you really going to eat that’ or ‘are you sure a second helping is wise’? Then he left me.”
Dot’s eyes flashed. “Good riddance.”
I bit savagely into another wing. “I agree. But one thing to leave a spouse over weight gain. Kirk just lost interest because of it. If we’d gone out, if I’d just said yes, then he’d be a jerk for dumping me. No longer asking me out because of it? Understandable, don’t you think?”
“Dot, hey Dot.” I glanced up to see one of the other secretaries rushing towards our table. “What’s going on?”
Dot waved her bottle of beer. “Just having wings and beer. What’s going on with you, Melanie?”
Melanie studied me for a second then seemed to decide whatever she had to say could be said in front of me. “I just got a text from Murray. He says there’s a big fight going on in the president’s office. What’s up with Alicia?”
Dot’s surprise seemed to please Melanie. “Ooh, I know something you don’t for once.”
Dot pulled her phone out and frantically tapped the screen. Melanie shrugged, grabbed a wing. “She’ll find out and fill us in.”
Dot was an untapped vein of information. I’d been friends with her since the day I’d started and I’d yet to figure out how to get her to spill. “She’ll find out, but she won’t tell.”
Melanie licked her fingers. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll go back to texting Murray. He’ll keep me caught up.”
“I gotta go,” Dot muttered, stuffing more chicken into her mouth and dropping the bone into the can. “Can you pay, I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”
“You going into the office?” I eyed the few wings left and decided I’d had enough. “I’ll come with you.”
Dot shook her head. “Better not. Alicia’s upset, one word answers with punctuation.”
“I’ll wait downstairs. You’ll need a lift home. I can run you back tomorrow for your car.”
Dot’s phone went off again. She grabbed another wing, chugged some beer, and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Okay, but if I’ll be awhile, I’ll text you.”
I ate a couple more wings as I waited for the tab, finishing Dot’s beer as well. Melanie had a group around her and figured they were getting reports from Murray, the gossipy security guy. I was so tired I didn’t bother to go over, just paid and left.
The sun was setting as I walked back to work. The lobby chairs were in front of the security desk and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone so I texted Dot that I’d wait in my car. I put the key in the ignition but decided it wasn’t so cold that I needed to start the engine. I turned the key so my phone would charge while the radio played and reclined my seat as I got into the good tunes.
I woke with a start; someone’s hand was jerking my shoulder and roughly shaking me. “Wha?”
“She’s conscious. Bring over the breathalyzer.”
I blinked against the bright light in my eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Here.” Someone – a woman — muttered.
Before I was fully alert, whoever was shining the light in my face was growling at me. “Blow into this.”
My heart pounded and I felt cold sweat bead my forehead. Something was at my mouth, but I couldn’t see what because of the blinding light. I turned my head away; the hand that had shaken me reached in and pulled me back. “I said, blow into this. I can smell the booze from here, but I need you to blow.”
Automatically, still struggling to make sense of anything, I did as I was told. The beam of light lowered, and I realized a very large police officer was standing beside my car, holding the machine I was blowing into. “Says point-zero-one.”
“Do it again.” A woman’s voice barked. “She’s obviously loaded. You can smell the beer from here.”
“Take a deep breath, and blow.” The officer didn’t sound quite as angry as he had, but I wasn’t about to risk annoying the beast by asking any questions. I blew as hard as I could, for as long as I could.
“Same.” The officer pulled the breathalyzer away. “Mind stepping out of the vehicle?”
“I only smell like beer because my friend spilled hers on me.” My confusion escalated as I did as the officer asked. When I was upright after a clumsy first attempt, the female officer patted me down, shoved her hands into my pockets. “I, er, don’t even know your name. I don’t usually go this far on a first date.”
The officer shook her head, no trace of a smile at my lame attempt at a joke. “Stay here.”
I watched the two officers search my car. I tried to figure out what was wrong, what had happened to illicit a rough encounter with police. I’d paid the tab, the receipt was in my purse to prove it. Nothing exciting happened when I’d walked back to my car. Obviously I’d fallen asleep, I had no clue what time it was. Could be nine or three in the morning. But surely if it was that late I’d have seen Dot, or she would have texted…the fight? Who was involved, what had happened? Was Dot okay? Alicia? The security team? Was that why the cops were here?
“Dot okay? Alicia? Murray?” The words flew out of my mouth before I could properly form the questions. I took a deep- breath as the officers slammed my doors. “Did something happen upstairs? Is that why you’re here?”
“Molly? What’s going on?” Dot raced across the parking lot. Relief flooded me.
“I don’t know. I thought you, Alicia…” I blinked back tears, relieved yet even more confused.
“We got a call about a drunk passed out in her car. Didn’t you leave Sunny’s a little while ago?” The large officer passed me the wallet I hadn’t given him. Was he allowed to go through my purse? My face flushed as I realized the condoms Sara had given me as a joke, the ones her school handed out for free, were still in the bottom of my purse from last year.
“What, did you start pounding them back after I left?” Dot asked, her surprise evident.
“No, of course not. I had the one beer when we got there, then I finished yours while I waited for the waitress to bring my change.” I fumbled in the coin slot, pulled out the receipt. “See?”
The officer eyed the receipt, his expression changing from sheepish to smug. Before he could say anything, Dot spoke up. “In case you were wondering, I drank four and a half of the beers on there. Wanna give me a breathalyzer?”
“Why were you passed out? You didn’t even stir when we banged on the window.” The female officer put her cuffs back on her belt.
Bolstered by the thought I wasn’t about to be arrested, I smiled at her first, then at the taller officer. “I didn’t sleep last night. My friend and I were going to have a couple of drinks, some wings, but then I realized I’d be passed out cold if I drank so I switched to pop. She had to go back to work for something, and I waited in my car. Apparently my sleepless night caught up to me and I passed out anyhow.”
“Is there something wrong, officers? You okay, Molly? Dot?”
My breath caught in my lungs, froze, when I heard Kirk’s voice. Dot was gesturing frantically at her face, and I blinked in confusion. She leaned in and whispered, “Wipe your mouth, you’ve got spit and sauce all over.”
I swiped frantically at my face until Dot nodded her approval. “We’re fine, Kirk. Just a misunderstanding. What are you doing here, I thought you were –”
I broke off when Dot kicked my ankle. “Officers, you don’t seem to have any reason to hang around. You can give me a breathalyzer, I’m not sure I’d blow over at this point but I wasn’t planning on driving anyhow, so…”
The officers got into their cruiser without another word and I wondered who’d called them. Dot raised her eyebrows, tilted her head ever so slightly in Kirk’s direction, winked. She seemed to be trying to tell me something but I was clueless. I blinked stupidly at Dot, wondering what she was trying to tell me. “We, er, Kirk and I, were upstairs in Alicia’s office when Murray told us you were passed out in your car.”
“Murray, the security guy? He was talking to –”
“Yes, Murray in security. So, er, you’re okay? We thought you were sick, injured. I knew you weren’t drunk because, well, you weren’t drinking.”
I nodded my head, glancing at Kirk who was staring at me. “Is everything okay? I was waiting for you, guess I fell asleep.”
“Yeah, but I think I’m going to be here for another hour or so. You go on, get out of here. I’ll let you know if I need a ride in the morning.” Dot pulled my head down roughly, I resisted for a second thinking ‘oh no, she’s going to kiss me’. Then I realized she was pretending to hug me and I bent my head so she could whisper. “Say yes this time.”
I straightened, glancing at Kirk. “Right. Well, maybe see you tomorrow.”
Dot jogged back to the entrance and buzzed for security. I was suddenly aware that Kirk and I were alone, and that I was a mess. “Definitely not my best look.”
Kirk grinned. “The sauce in your hair adds a certain something.”
I grinned as my cheeks warmed. We stood there for a few more seconds, until I figured I’d better get moving. “Well, have a good night.”
“Yep. You too.” Kirk’s smile slipped as he started backing away from me.
Ask me out. Ask me out. I fumbled with my door, waiting hopefully for him to say something more, but he didn’t. I slid into the drivers seat and turned the key. I paused as the car clicked. What? I tried again. “No, you idiot.”
I’d fallen asleep with my phone plugged in, the radio on, and the key turned in the ignition to power the charger. I heard Kirk’s SUV crunching along the gravel and he honked. I opened my door, waved, but he didn’t notice.
I kicked my tire and regretted it when my toes hurt. I dropped back into the seat, texted Dot.
Can you come boost me?
Before I could even put the phone down, Dot answered.
God, yr pathetic. Fine, u r gorgeous. Do him. L8R.
Frustration had my fingers flying over the screen.
I mean boost car, battery dead, nothing to do with Kirk
I didn’t bother to look away, knowing Dot would respond fast.
What? Where Kirk?
I hated texting at the best of times, but after the night I’d had, I wanted to fling my phone.
Driving to Algonquin? How should I know.
B there asap.
I tossed my phone and popped the hood. Dot better know how to boost a car because I couldn’t remember how. I wasn’t even sure I had booster cables. Too bad I didn’t catch the officer’s name; I could’ve called and asked if he’d noticed any in his thorough search of my car. I searched my trunk myself, thinking I might get lucky. I heard Dot’s car as I struggled to feel beneath Jacob’s skateboard and Jordyn’s sleepover bag we’d forgotten to bring in the house on Sunday.
“Hey, need a boost?”
I hit my head on the trunk lid as I backed up at the sound of Kirk’s voice. Rubbing the sore spot, I gaped at him. “What? How?”
Kirk, to his credit, contained his smile behind his hand, but his eyes twinkled. “Dot texted me.”
Ticked, still seeing stars from the head bump, I slammed the trunk lid. “You shouldn’t text and drive.”
Kirk nodded. “True, but I have a Bluetooth stereo and voiceover. Read the message out loud, though took me a second to figure out what she meant because she texts like an illiterate monkey.”
“That’s good, and accurate. Have you got cables? I couldn’t find any.”
Kirk shook his head. “Normally, yes, but I emptied the truck earlier, and there’s not even a box of Kleenex.”
Then why had he come back? He could’ve told Dot he couldn’t help and kept on going. “Okay, thanks anyhow.”
“Want a lift?” Kirk offered.
I was about to say no but at this point I just wanted to get home. The day had been a write-off, I was still totally confused about whether Sara was in Algonquin with some guy I worked with not Kirk, or if Sara and Kirk’s trip to Algonquin had been postponed. “Sure.”
Kirk’s eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered and I heard the lock click. “Hop in.”
I locked my car and went around the front of the SUV. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Kirk turned the SUV around and drove to the exit.
Feeling awkward, I kept darting glances at his profile as he waited for a break in traffic. “I, er, live over –”
“I know where eyou live.” Kirk pulled onto the street.
I raised my eyebrows, staring at him. “You do?”
Kirk nodded. “I brought some papers to you when you were sick, remember?”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.” I’d told him I was contagious and to leave the papers between the screen door and the big door because my nose was red and raw from blowing and I was too embarrassed to see him.
After a minute of awkward silence, we ended up talking the way we used to. Books, movies, politics (we were on the same page). Life in general. Too soon, he was pulling into my driveway. I sat there a second too long and realized he was waiting for me to get out. Feeling even worse, I grabbed my purse. “Well, thanks.”
I still didn’t move. I wanted to know if he was in love with Sara. If he thought I was fat. I couldn’t ask, could I? I shook my head as I put my hand on the handle. “Why don’t you ever ask me out anymore?”
I cringed as I said the words, felt my face flame. “Never mind. See you Monday.”
“I’m not sure you will.” Kirk didn’t sound happy, I felt more confused. Was he with Sara and didn’t want to say? But he didn’t sound like a man in love, he sounded miserable.
I raised an eyebrow, but no proper response came to mind. “Oh?”
“Long story.” Kirk shrugged.
I looked up at my empty house. “Want to come in for coffee? You can tell me what’s going on.”
Kirk leaned over without warning, and I felt his lips on mine. I moaned as I leaned into him, forgetting everything but what I was feeling. I put a hand to my chest as if to keep my heart inside my body as Kirk pulled back. He pulled his key out of the ignition.
“Guess you’re coming in?”
Kirk grinned. “I headed HR and yet I harassed you daily to go out with me. On top of that, Alicia made everyone in HR sign contracts that we wouldn’t date anyone who worked in the company. As of five o’clock today, I no longer work there, but I swore I wouldn’t ask you again because you obviously weren’t interested. Figured if you were, you’d ask me. An invitation into the house for coffee is close enough.”