“You sure you won’t come, babe?” John’s at the front door, helmet in hand, letting out the air conditioning.
My head’s pounding. I’ve been grinding my teeth at night, and the dull ache only gets worse as the day wears on. Aspirin won’t touch it anymore.
“Nah. I’ve got a headache.”
He puts his helmet down on the entry table. I wish he’d shut the door. The afternoon sun is unbearably bright.
He clumps to the bathroom and rummages around in the medicine cabinet. Drops something and curses.
I tuck myself as far as possible into the corner of the sofa and draw an afghan up to my nose.
“What are you looking for?” Now I can hear him pawing underneath the sink.
“On the kitchen counter.” I flip on the TV and surf to the channel for men. There’s a home improvement show on with a man who looks like my father-in-law. They’re talking about chimney pots. Perfect. I’ll be asleep in no time.
John lumbers past the TV, and then he squats by the sofa. He goes to smooth my hair, and I duck. It’s really greasy. I haven’t shampooed it in…a while.
“Here.” He holds out two white pills in his giant palm. My husband’s a big man. Remember that show from the 80s where a sasquatch lived with a family in the suburbs? In any given social situation, John’s that bigfoot. He’s not hairy, though. He’s a good-looking guy. Rugged. The lumberjack type.
I push his palm away. “It won’t help.”
He sighs. “You’re dehydrated.”
“I just need some rest.”
“You got up at eleven.”
“I was up late last night.” I wish he’d stop arguing with me. We both know he’ll have a better time without me. I’m crappy company these days. “You’re gonna be late for the run.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go. If you’re not feelin’ good.” He eyes the door. Which he left wide open.
“No. You go. I’m just gonna take a nap.”
“I could take a nap with you.” He tries to give me a grin, but worry crinkles the corners of his eyes. He looks tired and worn down, too. He needs a day with the boys. There’s no reason we both need to be miserable.
“Baby, I want you to go.”
He stays beside me for a moment longer, searching my eyes. I make a show of yawning, and I turn my head. He loves riding his bike. He’ll have a great time. Maybe by the time he comes back, I’ll have gotten my butt into the shower. I could make a roast. I’d need to get up now to defrost it.
Maybe I could make pasta.
John rises to his feet. “Are you sure, baby?”
I wave my hand, rolling over to face the back of the sofa, tugging the afghan higher. Eventually, he tromps out, thankfully shutting the door behind him.
John’s late. I check my phone for the hundredth time. No text. He always texts when he’s gonna be late. He’s a firefighter, so he could’ve been called in. It’s happened before. But he calls or texts when he gets called in.
I pace the living room. It’s four o’clock in the morning. The run should have ended hours ago. Smoke and Steel is a club for firefighters and EMTs. They party, but most of them have babysitters they need to relieve.
I should call again. But if his voicemail picks up immediately one more time, I’m going to tear my hair out.
What if there was an accident and his phone is on the side of the road, shattered? What if he’s in an ambulance, and they don’t know he’s allergic to penicillin?
I’m being crazy. He’ll walk in any minute with a perfectly reasonable explanation, and I’ll look like I’ve lost my damn mind. I glance down. Am I wearing the same clothes as yesterday? No, it’s been longer. Maybe I’ve had these on since Friday? Crap. I was off on Friday. These are the sweats I put on when I came home from work Thursday night. I crane my neck and take a sniff. Not good.
I should take that shower. When was the last time I washed my hair? Maybe Wednesday before work?
But what if John calls while I’m in there?
Or what if the hospital calls, and I have to leave? Crap, I can’t go looking like this. I’ve totally let myself go. I’d put more effort in if I didn’t have to wear scrubs every day. If I had an office job, I’d do more than a messy bun.
I hear a car turn down our cul de sac. I freeze. My heart leaps into my throat. But it keeps driving past our townhome. I stay there, my stomach sinking, motionless in the middle of my living room, and stare unseeingly around the home John and I bought three years ago.
My gaze catches on our wedding photo, hanging above the TV console. I’m barely nineteen, five foot three, and all smiles. John takes up most of the frame. He towers over me. He’s not much of a smiler, but his eyes are twinkling like crazy. He’s happy.
He hasn’t looked like that in a while.
I lower my gaze to the rest of the living room. There are several half-empty Diet Coke cans on the coffee table. The carpet needs vacuuming. There’s a pile of newspapers in my grandmother’s rocking chair. I keep meaning to call and cancel the subscription.
Things haven’t been going so well. Life has thrown us some curveballs lately.
But John and I are regrouping now. We’re focusing on us.
Where is he?
Another car turns down our street. This time, there’s a crunch of asphalt and the rip of an emergency brake.
A wave of relief rocks me on my heels, but followed immediately by a surge of fury. Where has he been? How dare he make me worry like this, on top of everything! He better have a damn good excuse.
I want to run outside, make sure with my own eyes that he’s okay. But I’m also shaking with rage and fear.
It’s an eternity before his truck door slams. His big boots stomp up the walk and across the porch. For some reason, he lingers at the door. Maybe he’s looking for his keys.
Well, I’m not helping him out. I’m on the far side of the living room, arms crossed so hard I’m cutting off circulation to my hands.
He eases the door open. He probably thinks I’m asleep. He should know better. I spend most nights wide awake on the sofa now, watching old sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show until I pass out sitting up. It’s the only way I can sleep.
John ducks through the doorframe and stops when he sees me. His helmet’s hanging from his hand, his cut’s folded over his arm, and his black T-shirt’s untucked. He looks likes hell.
He clears his throat. “You’re up.”
The smell of whiskey hits me from all the way across the room. “Did you drive home drunk?”
He scrubs the back of his neck. “No. I been sober a few hours now.”
“How drunk were you that you still smell like a distillery, and you’ve been sober for hours?” My voice is shrill, even to my own ears. I’m so pissed. He’s a mess. His eyes are bloodshot, and his brown hair’s sticking up at all angles, which is hard to accomplish with a crew cut.
I sigh in exasperation. “Is that all you’re gonna say?”
He’s quiet for a long time. My anxiety ratchets even higher, sweat prickling the back of my knees. His expression is scaring me. I hardly recognize him. John’s a stoic guy, a man of few words. I haven’t seen this look on his face before.
He sinks down onto the couch. “Sit, will you?” He gestures to the ottoman facing him.
What’s going on? What’s happened?
“What’s wrong? Oh, my God. Was there a bad fire? Is everyone okay?” My mind’s running wild. There was a five-alarm a month or so ago, and a guy from John’s station was hospitalized. An older couple didn’t make it. John’s been really torn up about it.
“No fire. Everyone’s fine.”
I should be relieved, but he’s bent over, his forearms braced on his thighs, his head hanging. He looks defeated.
“Did you lose your job?”
“Can you sit, Mona?”
I do, my heart pounding quicker and quicker. Something’s wrong. The room is so quiet. I can hear the blood rushing in my ears.
I want to smack him. Demand that he tells me what’s going on. This is John, though. He does things in his own time. I bite my lower lip and force myself to wait.
The clock ticks on the wall. In the kitchen, the icemaker clatters.
John squares his shoulders, straightens his spine, and looks me in the eye. “Mona, I…I, uh. I been with someone else.”
I must have misheard. “What do you mean?”
“Last night…I, um. I was with someone else.”
I press my hands to my face. Tears blur my eyes. My brain’s stuck, but my body’s tumbling forward without me.
“I don’t understand.”
“After the run. I got drunk. There was a woman. I, uh. I had sex with her.”
Everything inside of me drops. Stomach. Heart. Like I didn’t know it, but my whole self was held up by strings, and someone came along with a pair of scissors, and before I could blink—Snip. Snip. Crash.
I lurch to my feet. He stays there on the couch, still and rigid.
“No.” Our wedding picture is on the wall. He changed the oil in my car yesterday before he left for the run. This doesn’t make sense.
“Why?” I don’t wait for him to answer. “Do you love her?”
“I don’t really know her.”
Is that better? Does that make it worse? I’m gonna puke. Oh, God. Acid sours my throat. “Who is she? Do I know her?”
“Her name’s Stephanie. She hangs around the clubhouse.”
I don’t really know the people from the MC. John took me to a few events when he first joined, but the women were cliquey, and then recently, I don’t really feel like going out much anymore.
I never worried, though. Steel and Smoke aren’t a bunch of outlaw bikers or anything. They’re family guys.
But there were women. Fun women who ride, who wear cowboy hats and painted-on jeans. Women who jump up to dance as soon as the music comes on.
Did I ever meet Stephanie?
“What does she look like?” I stare down at my sweatpants. Not even yoga pants. Men’s sweatpants with a cartoon Tasmanian devil on the thigh.
“I don’t know—”
“You don’t know?” My voice edges toward hysterical.
He doesn’t answer. He hangs his head, and then a lifetime later, he lifts his chin and says, “I’m so sorry, Mona. I’m so fucking sorry.”
“How many times?”
“I never done this before. I swear.” He lets out a rattling breath. “God, Mona. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t recognize him. His face is shuttered, his red eyes are blank. I don’t recognize this man at all.
I married John Wall. The best man I ever met. Tough. Kind. No bullcrap. He opens every door for me. Car doors. Restaurant doors. Our own front door. He saves lives. He mows my parents’ lawn even though they’ve never tried to get to know him.
John Wall would never cheat on me.
“Why did you—?” My voice breaks halfway through.
I wait, and John stares over my shoulder, into the kitchen, that strange expression on his face, and the clock ticks and the fridge hums, until I can’t take it anymore.
He doesn’t have an answer. Or he doesn’t know. Or he doesn’t want to tell me it’s because I’m disgusting. I’ve let myself go. I’ve fallen down, and I can’t pull myself up by my bootstraps and make dinner for once or at least do something with my hair.
It’s too much, and he’s just sitting there. Like he’s waiting to be dismissed. I run my tongue over my teeth. They’re fuzzy. I have to go to work in two hours. And crap—my scrubs are still in the washing machine.
I can’t do this.
It’s a whisper at first.
My fists ball. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” I can’t breathe; it sounds like I’m gasping for life.
“Mona.” John rises to his full height, and he steps forward, as if he can help, as if he’s going to take care of me. This.
“Get out.” I point, my arm shaking, all of me shaking.
He stands there for a long minute, that horrible empty look on his face, and then he walks out the door, shutting it softly behind himself.
Wall is available for pre-order now from Amazon! It will go live on June 30!