“I’d be happy to drop you off at Mom and Dad’s,” Julia smiled, “but, before we go, I have a question for you.”
I eyed Julia with curiosity. “Sure. What’s up? You sound serious.”
Julia waited for Calleigh to scamper back into the water then continued with lowered voice. “It may be nothing, and you can tell me it’s none of my business, but have you taken up smoking?”
I raised my eyebrows and busted out laughing. “Seriously? That’s your question? Of course, I don’t smoke. You know how sick I get just by the smell. I wouldn’t touch those things with a ten-foot pole.” I chuckled some more. “Here, I thought you were going to ask some difficult question.”
Confusion created a deep furrow in Julia’s brow. “OK, then does Brad smoke?”
I noted the deep concern in Julia’s eyes and shook my head. “Not that I know of. Why? Do you know something I don’t know?”
Walking into the garage, Julia pulled out the bottom drawer of Brad’s workbench and handed me an almost-full carton of cigarettes. “I found those today when looking for the spray nozzle for the hose. I wasn’t snooping. I promise. Just trying to find the attachment. When I couldn’t find it, we decided to use the sprinkler, instead. It’s kind of an odd place to be storing cigarettes, though, don’t ya think?” Julia watched me finger the carton, flipping it over several times for inspection.
I looked at her in disbelief. “I’ve never seen these before. I’m not sure whose they are or how they got there, but I imagine Brad put them there. I sure didn’t.” A thousand questions began tumbling through my mind.
“Has he possibly taken up smoking and you just don’t know about it?” The question sounded logical and maybe even feasible, except for one small thing.
“You’d think I would’ve noticed something like that,” I answered. “Nicotine gets on everything, and you know how sensitive I am to smells.”
“True,” Julia conceded. “But do you got any other conclusions?”
The more I thought about the situation, the stranger my reality became—like pieces of an unknown puzzle falling together inside my brain. Last week, I found a cigarette lighter in Brad’s pant pocket while doing laundry. He told me he was holding it for a coworker. I didn’t question his answer. Brad helps his friends out all the time. It could have happened. Then I shifted to thinking about his new nightly ritual: showering when he first got home, changing into clean clothes, brushing teeth and gargling with mouthwash, then popping a piece of spearmint in his mouth before greeting me. And here I thought it was just his way of getting the day’s stench off so he could relax better. What was that he said? “You can’t walk into a convenience store to get some milk without walking out smelling like an ash tray.” Wow! Now I feel dumb. Are any recent conversations with Brad to be believed? I released a long sigh.
“Guess I’ll have to discuss this with him later,” I dismissed the importance. “Go ahead and put the cigarettes back where you found them. This is the least of my concerns, right now.” I tossed the packet back at Julia and watched her return them to the drawer.
“I’m going to go find some clothes to take over to Mom and Dad’s tonight. I won’t be long. If you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on Calleigh for a few more minutes, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sure. Not a problem,” she answered. Walking to the spigot on the side of the house, she started turning off the water as I stepped inside the laundry room and closed the door behind me.
Unchecked tears fell aimlessly down my cheeks, the stale heat penetrating my senses. As I leaned against the door, I wondered how my life had gotten so out of control. Lord, I feel like I’m going crazy, I cried. Something’s not right here. I don’t know what’s going on, but nothing makes sense. Please help!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mom chuckled as she stepped from the guest room into the hall. “That’s one silly kid you got in there. A pink hippopotamus named Mr. Bear. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” She walked across the living room and sat down on a barstool next to the counter. “I’m supposed to tell you good night,” she informed me, watching as I dried the last of the dishes.
Placing the dishcloth over the oven handle, I forced a smile. “I’ll go give hugs and kisses in just a minute.” I placed a full kettle of water on the stove’s back burner and turned the heat to high. “Did she tell you how Mr. Bear got his name?”
Mom nodded. “Yeah, how does she come up with these things?”
“You heard her,” I maintained a smile. “Pink hippopotamuses do not wear tutus, and since hers is wearing a tutu, it must be a bear.”
“Why, of course!” Mom succumbed to the obvious. “That’s the conclusion I would’ve come up with, too.” She smirked.
“Calleigh is known for her big imagination,” I acknowledged.
“Yeah, well, I remember another little girl who used to be equally inventive when she was about this age,” Mom winked.
“Nothing wrong with thinking outside the box,” I playfully defended myself. “Besides, it comes in real handy these days. Creativity can be a lifesaver.” I pulled my cell phone out of my back jean pocket and laid it on the counter.
Mom nodded toward my phone. “Has Brad called?”
“No, but he texted. Said he won’t be coming over tonight. Supposedly, he’d rather endure the heat and sleep in his own bed than having to face me.” I straightened my shoulders, releasing pressure in my lower back. “I don’t know when the power will be back on, either. He wouldn’t say. Appears I’m being given the silent treatment—like that’s going to teach me a lesson or something.” I felt my forehead scrunch as I pursed my lips.
Mom’s eyes saddened. “Has he paid the bill yet?”
“Don’t know. Prolly not,” I shrugged. “He claims we don’t have money, but I know better. He makes enough for us to live comfortably. That’s why this is so confounding. There’s no logical reason why our electricity and water keep being turned off. None. But he won’t talk to me, so I don’t know the real story.” I pulled the whistling kettle from the stove and filled two mugs with steaming hot water, submerging a packet of Darjeeling tea into each cup. Mom smiled up at me as I placed the steeping beverage in front of her.
“I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy for you,” she apologized. “But why won’t Brad come over here? He knows he’s welcome, right? There’s no need for him to stay in a hot dark house all by himself.” She wrapped her fingers around the warm ceramic mug and stared at the leaves diffusing in front of her.
“I’m sure he knows. He’s just hung up on pride and stubbornness right now.” I blew across the top of my tea and inhaled the rich Darjeeling aroma. “Not sure what’s going on with him, but he’s been acting kind of weird lately. I get the feeling there’s something he’s not telling me, but I’m not sure what. Sadly, leaving me in the dark seems to be his thing—no pun intended.” I sipped on my tea then set down my cup.
“I’m sure he’s embarrassed,” Mom proffered. “Men deal with things differently than us women do. Trust me. I know. Your dad and I have been married a long time now; and, I can tell you, we’re quite different. I like talking things out when there’s a problem. Your dad prefers being quiet and dealing with it on his own. That’s just how he is.”
“I hear you, but this isn’t just a guy thing with Brad. Brad’s hiding something, and he doesn’t want to talk to me about it. I’m pretty sure this is all about avoidance.”
“Really?” Mom seemed confused.
“Did I tell you about the cigarettes Julia found at our house today in Brad’s workbench?” I pulled out a kitchen drawer and handed Mom a spoon, then slowly slid the drawer back into place.
Mom shook her head, stirring her drink with the spoon. “That’s an unexpected find. What was Julia doing going through Brad’s stuff?”
“Does it matter?” I grimaced as my disrespect hit the air. Allowing my shoulders to sag, I apologized. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. A lot of stuff isn’t adding up, and I’m not handling it well. Julia said she was looking for an attachment for the outside hose. She figured there might be one somewhere in the garage, so she went hunting, not snooping. It was a pure accident that she stumbled across the packet of cigarettes. Not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. Brad doesn’t have a clue I found them. Julia put them back in their secret spot. Figured that’s a battle for another day.”
Mom studied my face for a moment and nodded. “You’re right. It doesn’t matter how they were found, fact is, they were. Knowing you, I’m assuming they’re not yours.”
“Of course not. The smell alone makes me sick.” I gagged at the mere thought. “I can’t imagine the story he’s going to try telling me when I finally get the nerve to confront him. I’m sure he’s already planned out some elaborate tale, just in case he ever gets caught. There’s always some excuse for why I’m crazy for assuming the obvious.” I took a sip of tea and released a deep sigh. “You haven’t seen him smoking, have you?”
Mom shook her head, grim and at a loss. “No, Brad’s been pretty scarce over here, recently. Even when you visit on the weekends, he’s not really here.”
I sat down on the barstool next to Mom and cozied up to the counter, setting my drink in front of me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, when the three of you come for lunch, he barely says two words. Yeah, he might actually eat with us, but blink, and he’s outta here first chance he gets. It’s like he can barely tolerate being around us. Dad and I haven’t said anything, but we’ve noticed.”
“Oh.” I stared at the counter, in need of words. “He’s just tired. That’s all. Late nights at the office wear him out. It’s not just you. Calleigh and I barely see him during the week. By the time the weekend comes, he’s zapped. Time for a nap.”
“And what’s he doing all those late hours?” Mom inquired. “He’s not teaching any more, Hope. He has an eight-hour-a-day, hourly paying job—one he can leave at the office, so his absence doesn’t make sense. You’ve even said yourself his paycheck isn’t showing overtime. So, where is he if he isn’t home with you and Calleigh? Out drinking? Playing poker? Seeing another woman? He should be present in your life, and he’s not. My question is, ‘Why not?’”
I bit my lower lip, staring into my tea. “I don’t know. There’s so much secrecy surrounding Brad right now. I feel like I’m going to wake up one day and find myself blindsided, but I’m not sure by what. That’s probably the worst part, the unknown, not knowing how to protect myself from what’s coming next.” The weight on my heart felt insurmountable. “This isn’t the Brad I married. The Brad I married would never sneak around or make me question his actions. But this person? I don’t know this person I’m dealing with. I’m on pins and needles around this stranger.” I traced the rim of my cup, wiping perspiration from the glazed edge. “I want to be able to trust my husband, but everything out of his mouth feels dishonest, like a lie. I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. Even if I can’t prove it, it feels like he’s covering something up, and I don’t know how to prepare for what’s coming.”
“I get that,” Mom empathized. Her soft facial features creased into deep worry lines as she watched me lament. “People do change, Hope. You need to take an honest look at your marriage. You may not be dealing with the same guy you married.” She placed her hand over mine. “May I have permission to speak openly?”
I braved looking into her eyes. “Always.”
“I began noticing a change in Brad a while ago. Nothing big at first; but, still, there was something.” She paused, organizing her thoughts. Anticipation pooled in my stomach as I waited. “I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but Brad’s eyes always look glazed over—like he’s medicated or on something. Dad noticed it first and brought it to my attention, but we decided not to say anything, because we didn’t want to go falsely accusing Brad of something.” She chewed on her lower lip, teetering on what to say next. “Like I mentioned a moment ago, Brad isolates himself from everybody when you’re here. He shuts himself off in the back room for three to four hours at a time—usually until you’re ready to leave—and acts like we don’t exist. He sleeps most of the time he’s here—or at least I assume that’s what he’s doing back there. Whatever the case, it’s not normal, and it doesn’t feel right.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything by it,” I chose to excuse his idiosyncrasies.
“I’m sure he doesn’t,” Mom replied, “but his mannerisms and social disregard cause your dad and me concern. That’s all I’m saying. This is your call. Just wanted you to know we’ve observed a change, too.”
I nodded, not knowing how else to respond.
Mom took another sip of tea then dabbed the edges of her mouth with a napkin lying on the counter. “Well, enough about that. At least you and Calleigh can sleep comfortably tonight. No need for you to suffer and be miserable, too.”
I wrapped my arm around Mom’s shoulders and softly kissed her cheek. “Thank you. I don’t know what we’d do without ya. I love you. You know that, right?”
Mom smiled, squeezing my hand. “I do. I just wish everything didn’t have to be such a struggle for you and that precious little girl in there.” She motioned to the guest room, letting out a slow sigh. “You deserve better.”
“We’ll keep praying about it,” I confirmed. “Hopefully, it’s just a phase.”
Looking into my eyes, Mom touched the side of my face. “Look up Jeremiah 29:11. There’s a special message tucked away in there for ya.”
“No need,” I responded. “I know that one by heart.” I closed my eyes while reciting the words, letting each one sink in. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” When I opened my eyes, I witnessed tears flowing down Mom’s cheeks.
“You’re the strongest person I know,” she whispered. “I’m so proud of you. God’s going to get you through this, Sweet Girl; and you’re going to find yourself a stronger person because of it. I just know it.”
“I hope you’re right,” I whispered back, “because right now, I don’t feel so strong.”
Mom forced another smile and squeezed my hand a little tighter. “That’s why He gave you me. You’re not alone. We’ll get through this together.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Calleigh pressed a couple of jagged pebbles into the palm of my hand for safe keeping during our walk to the park then extended a fistful of weeds toward me for inspection. “Do you think Grandma will like these?” Her collection appeared to be a smooshed bouquet of yellow budding dandelions and long blades of grass.
“I’m sure they will look beautiful on her table,” I concurred. “Grandma will love that you thought of her.” I pinched the tip of Calleigh’s nose, trying to encourage a playful spirit.
“Daddy would like them, too,” she added, pressing her nose into the limp stems. “He likes yellow flowers, ya know? Especially daisies.”
“Yes, I know.” I managed a weak smile.
Calleigh released the wadded bouquet into my hand and stared up at me. “When’s he comin’ to get us?” Her opulent brown eyes shimmered in the sunlight, holding an unguarded trust.
“I don’t know, Sweetie. As soon as the air’s back on and there’s water at our house, I imagine.” I let out a deep sigh. In the three days Calleigh and I had been at my parents’ house, Brad had allowed a second bill to become delinquent, and our water had been turned off, as well.
“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need,” Mom had offered upon hearing the news.
“Thank you, but I’m ready to head home and back to our normal routine,” I had contended. “I appreciate the offer, but there’s so much that needs to be done at home, right now. Catching up is going to be a bear.”
Mom had spun the negative into a positive with a hint of encouragement in her tone. “Well, until living arrangements become tolerable at your house, think of this as a mini-vacation. Choose to enjoy the break from the norm.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I had promised.
“I know you will.”
For three days, we had spent endless hours splashing in Grandpa and Grandma’s pool, creating sidewalk chalk games to engage Calleigh’s nonstop imagination, designing the world’s best choo-choo train with dining room chairs and patio pillows, as well as singing alongside a stuffed animal choir on Grandma’s couch, passing the time, waiting to go home. Now, I stood with a genuine display of affection wilting in my hand.
“Can we call Daddy when we get back to Grandma’s house and ask him if he’s coming to get us tonight?” Calleigh skipped along the sidewalk as we progressed toward the neighborhood playground slide. “Can we? Can we?”
“We can,” I kept my voice calm, “but don’t go getting your hopes up. I don’t know if Daddy will even answer his phone.” I tried keeping the sorrow from seeping out of my eyes as I thought, Sorry you’re being punished because of me, Kiddo, but my messages go straight to voice mail. I doubt you’ll be talking with him tonight.
“But, we can try, right?” Calleigh danced from one foot to the other, barely able to contain herself. “I miss him, and I know he misses me. Please, Mommy?”
“I said we’ll try. That’s all I can promise.”
“OK,” Calleigh answered. As we both stepped up to the slide, Calleigh climbed to the top, paused, and looked down at me, sizing up the situation. “Mommy, are you all right? You look sad.”
“I’m fine,” I promised. “Be careful not to burn your legs as you go speeding down the slide. The sun’s pretty hot today.”
“You can’t burn your legs on a snowy mountain,” Calleigh chuckled.
“Oh, are you sledding down the Alps today?” I leaned against an iron post near the slide and plastered on an amused grin.
“Uh-huh. I’m pretending it’s cold outside, and I’ve climbed to the top of this ta-a-a-a-lllllll mountain.” She stretched her arms to the sky, extending her torso as far as it would go.
“Be careful. You don’t want to fall,” I gave a second warning. Calleigh lowered herself into a seated position, placing her feet in front of her. “And, now that you made it to the top, whatcha gonna do?” I played along.
“I’m going to race my bobsled to the bottom.” She pretended to adjust her imaginary goggles over her eyes and wiggled her hiney on the metal platform.
“And where have you heard of bobsledding, my silly li’l Florida girl?” I teased.
“On TV this morning,” she happily bantered. “It was on my show.”
“Oh, I see. Well, enjoy the ride!” My own words caused me to pause. No matter how rotten the twists and turns of this life, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is my life. The words resonated at my core. Enjoy the ride!