This is a short story written especially for the Storyblogging Carnival.
Stephanie knew something had gone really out of kilter almost before she woke up. She was having one of those silly, but agreeable dreams that come from nowhere and end up the same way. She was in a canoe, flying over the Grand Canyon with a couple of the stars from an old TV show. Then a beeping noise started, and a convenience store appeared in the sky.
“That’s my stop!” one of her traveling companions said, and he and his fellow FBI agent got up and went into the store. Stephanie grabbed the paddle before it fell into the chasm, and began paddling for all she was worth, but the beeping didn’t stop.
She rolled over in bed and slapped at the alarm clock, and the beeping finally stopped.
“Damn alarm,” she muttered to herself, before she realized she didn’t have an alarm clock on her side of the bed, because she never used one. The bed felt funny, too. It was solid, not wobbly like her old comfy waterbed. She lay there on her stomach for a moment more, and let her hand drop off the clock. Her hand didn’t hit anything, and it should have. There was a pile of books there, or at least there was supposed to be.
…and whatintheheck was she doing lying on her stomach? She’d quit doing that twenty pounds ago. With an ease and grace that surprised her, she rolled over and sat up, opening her eyes and looking around. It took a moment to register her surroundings, as she was bending this way and that, wondering why her back wasn’t hurting as it always did first thing in the morning.
The room was familiar. It was all white lace and purple satin, with delicate-looking white furniture, and a purple velvet spread kicked down to the end of the king-sized, four-poster bed. Off to her left was the spiral staircase that went up to a trapdoor, which led to a rooftop lookout deck, ideal for watching the sun rise over the mountains. On her right was the big closet, which took up almost all of one wall, leaving just enough room for the door to the bathroom. Yes, it was familiar, but it wasn’t her bedroom.
She’d imagined this room a thousand times before; had in fact, created it. Every stitch of lace and detail of overblown decorating had come right out of her head – and onto the computer screen. This was the bedroom out of her fifth or sixth book, the one where the famous shrink is stalked by a former client. She looked down next to her on the bed, where it was clear somebody had been sleeping. Who? Her husband of thirty years or Julian, the “nationally-known renegade psychologist”? The pile of lacy, beribboned pillows dumped on the floor next to the bed on the far side was a trait of Julian’s, and part of the private joke between the two main characters about the kitschy room.
She went into the bathroom and looked around in there, while trying to decide if she was awake or not. Nothing had any of the qualities of a dream. Time seemed normal, the sink and bathtub were solid, and cool to the touch. Unlike the bedroom, this room was minimalist, almost Spartan. There was nothing much there that wasn’t utilitarian. (She was never concerned with creating bathrooms or garages – kitchens and bedrooms were her favorites.) She checked out the cupboards and drawers for guy things, and then she remembered in the book Julian had his own bathroom and closet across the hall. She looked in the mirror and gasped. The reflection was Stephanie, but twenty years younger, much slimmer, and maybe even a little taller. Not a hint of grey in this hair. Not to mention she was wearing a nightgown that she’d never even think of wearing, under normal circumstances. The thing probably would cost ordinary Stephanie more than she paid for her computer.
Well, there wasn’t much else to do but play along. She knew where everything was, so she brushed her teeth with the new, spare toothbrush stashed in a drawer, took the robe, (which matched the maroon silk nightgown, of course) off its hook behind the door, and took a deep breath before venturing out into the rest of the house.
The dumbwaiter was there, at the end of the hallway, complete with the indicator lights for each of the three floors it serviced. Across the hall were the two other bedrooms, one with a set of nondescript beige furniture, drapes, and carpeting, and a closetful of men’s clothes she knew her husband Fred would never wear in a million years, even if he could afford them. The suits and shoes were Julian’s style and size.
She gulped, as she recognized the grey suit he wore the night Sherry fell in love with Julian at the seminar in Seattle…or was it Detroit? Her stomach started growling, which mystified her even more. So, she was awake, but how did this happen? What was going on? “Play along, Steph old girl,” she whispered to herself, as she closed the closet door.
She sashayed down the stairs, which had the wrought-iron railing she expected, light as a gazelle. Apparently no arthritis in this set of knees, either. The kitchen door was across the hall, behind her a bit, and she was heading that way when a voice she’d only ever heard in her mind came from the room on her left.
She was so stunned she hardly registered the light blue leather furniture in the living room. The afghan, crocheted from cream colored wool by Julian’s mother, and lying folded across the back of one of the couches caught her eye. At least she’d be able to tell what part of the story she was in by her surroundings. She knew she had to go into Julian’s office and say something. Oh, yikes! Mr. Perfect-with-no-flaws-whatsoever was on the other side of that doorway.
“Sher, you OK?”
“Uh, yeah. Just fine and dandy.” She poked her head in the doorway, and there he sat, on the floor in the empty room with his laptop. Every bit as gorgeous as I imagined him, she observed. Even in a ratty T-shirt and a pair of running shorts that she somehow knew had the pocket in the back torn off. Ooh, and that truly wonderful set of…
She made herself pay attention to the action in the scene. “I’m starving. Want some breakfast?”
He flashed her a brilliant smile, chuckling to himself. “I thought you’d get after me for not using your office. Figured I’d check the phone line in here. It works. Then I got sidetracked looking at e-mail. When’s that guy supposed to come and build the desk and whatnot?”
She drew a blank. “H’m, not sure, I’ll need to check.” She winked, hoping she was being Sherry-like. “Right now I’m more interested in some eggs. So what do you say? Chow?”
He shook his head. “I’m good. Did a bagel and etcetera about half an hour ago. Hey, have you got plans for today? I thought I’d go locate a gym and maybe pick up on a bike. I didn’t want you to feel deserted.”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ve got plenty to keep me busy.” Even though she thought a kiss or something was probably obligatory, it was just too soon to get that familiar, even with a guy she invented herself. At least this was one of those glossed-over days when time in the book went ahead without much narration. There wasn’t anything in the book about gyms or bikes, she knew that much. She gave him a wave and a smile, thinking Sherry would leave him alone with his e-mail, and went into the kitchen.
The fridge was full, and all of the state-of-the art appliances stood gleaming and ready, exactly as she’d imagined. She put eggs in a pan and bread in the toaster, and looked around the corner to see if that downstairs bathroom had ended up behind the kitchen, or what. She’d never decided that one way or another. It was an unusual house. It was perched on the side of a hill, and the front door opened onto the middle floor, where the kitchen was. It seemed a little too odd to have a big bathroom facing the road, but then something needed to fill the space between the kitchen and the front wall of the house.
The bathroom was there all right, with minimal stuff like the one upstairs. She went back to her breakfast and tried to formulate a plan of some kind as she buttered toast and set the long mahogany dining table for one. From her seat she could see the entire main floor, and was rather pleased at the spacious, yet comfortable house she created. The living room was a couple of steps down from here, and on the far side of the room her office, with everything technological known to man. At least at the time of the writing, three years ago. She wondered as she ate if she had a DSL connection or was still stuck with dialup.
Either way, she’d see if her book was available online in this alternate universe, or whatever it was. Knowing what was coming would be helpful. Well, she knew what was coming, but some of the details were foggy. She did know that Sherry would get dressed after eating, and then get to work, whatever it was she was working on. This time of day her assistant, whose name escaped her, would call or maybe even show up, so getting friendly with Julian on a more-basic level wouldn’t need to be faced right away.
More than once she’d wondered what it would be like to actually live in some of the lives she created, and now here she was, somehow. If she knew how to get back to her real life it might’ve been fun, but this way sucked. What was poor Fred doing right now? She hoped this was one of those days when he went over to work early, before she got up. Maybe he hadn’t yet noticed his wife had disappeared.
Well, at least she hadn’t been transported as one of the bad guys who tended to show up in one form or another in all her books. Although it might have been illuminating to walk around as Clarisse in Book 3, the woman who abused her husband and tried to kill her baby, or that girl in #4 who was in love with her cousin – whatever her name was.
She rinsed off her dishes and stuck them in the dishwasher, and she was leaning against the counter wondering if she was stuck here forever, when Julian came up behind her.
“Everything OK? You seem a little distracted this morning,” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder. She tried hard not to jump out of her skin.
“Everything’s fine, just got a story brewing.” She leaned a little back toward him, in order to seem not quite so confused about how to react. He probably would’ve kissed her, at the very least, but the doorbell rang, which put things off for a bit longer.
“Bet that’s Blake,” Julian said, moving to go and open the door.
“And the shelves and cupboards guy as well, no doubt,” Stephanie said, glad her assistant’s name had come up easily. “I think I’ll go get dressed and let you guys deal with the room, all right?”
She escaped to the bedroom, where again she knew where things were, and even recognized some of the clothes. Sherry would not have T-shirts and old shorts, which was Steph’s usual attire. There were some beautiful things in the closet that Steph had dreamed of wearing, like slinky cocktail dresses and a genuine antique Chanel suit. The closet was orderly and neat, with similar kinds of outfits grouped together by function, then by color, which had to be Blake’s doing. Even Sherry wouldn’t be that organized! This was helpful, though, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out that a pair of comfortable slacks and a plain top would be what Sherry wore around the house.
This was getting interesting, and she raced through her shower and put on a little makeup, according to which things in the drawer looked the most used.
She stopped by in Julian’s office, knowing she couldn’t get away without at least speaking to Blake, and his carpenter buddy, whose name was Randy, she suddenly remembered. No surprises there; they looked and acted like they were supposed to. She told Blake she’d let him know if she needed him, but right now it looked like she’d spend the day with her head in the computer. It seemed Blake knew that.
Once in the office – Sherry’s private domain – Steph was able to relax a little. Now maybe she could get some answers to things that were bothering her, like the question of whether Steph and Fred existed in this world. Would the book be there online, and downloadable?
She sat down at the computer, took a deep breath, and Googled. Sure enough, there she was, as herself. Same place and everything. Steph didn’t even try to figure that one out. She went right to her publisher’s website, and started to order the book, until she got to the credit card part. She hadn’t bothered to look around the office much, but now she did. She spotted Sherry’s purse on top of the cabinet by the window. Feeling like a snoop, she went over and picked up the purse, and looked for the wallet which would surely have a credit card she could use. The contents of the purse was an eye-opener. Six credit cards, a checkbook with a balance showing in ten figures, ninety-five dollars in cash. A tiny spiral notebook with “Julian” written on the front in handwriting identical to Steph’s. Inside was Julian’s schedule, complete with flight numbers, times, hotels, airports, the whole nine yards. It was clear Sherry knew where Julian was at any given time, and had done for a very long time, as the book was nearly full. Well, of course she would. Her relationship with Julian had been conducted mainly in airports and hotel restaurants, before the book started. They were both writers and speakers, on the road a lot, who managed to connect with each other every chance they got, even if it was only a few minutes in passing at an airport.
If Steph’s observations were correct, they were somewhere in the middle of the book right now. This was after they’d both decided to take some time off, when Julian realized he was becoming a cult figure to some people after he discovered more than one fan website devoted to him. Sherry wanted to write another book, instead of traveling the country talking about writing. This was also after Julian’s mother passed away, which was why her handmade afghan was on the couch. (It had been in Julian’s office, and Sherry kept it as a memento.)
The scary stuff hadn’t started yet. Later on, Blake would find pictures online of Sherry and Julian having sex on the rooftop deck, taken by a disturbed woman who had been stalking Julian for months.
She was in the part of the story where she’d had a little trouble – it was hard to get the plot moving along at that point, as it seemed like the characters really were tired from the road, and she’d produced an endless series of scenes where Sherry and Julian were sitting around, not doing much of anything. Most of those had gone straight to the recycle bin.
As she ordered her book and waited for it to download, cursing the dialup connection, she realized she could change the story from where she was. She could keep the scary stuff from happening, since she knew right where Julian’s stalker was, and could do something about it. Later she’d take a walk down the road and have a look for a white minivan, but after Julian and Blake had gone into town, so she could avoid more questions about why she was acting so strangely.
In the room next door, the guys were coming up with a design for the built-ins and showing no signs of being ready to go. Julian and Blake got along now, after a rocky start. A silly note Blake in the book left for Sherry, but found by Julian had been fully explained. In fact, the two men got on like a house afire. She couldn’t quite make out the words through the wall, but it seemed they had plenty to talk about.
Steph used the time to meander though Sherry’s files, and read bits and pieces of her current projects. It looked like she was breaking out of the romance genre and into more-mainstream kinds of work. Rough drafts, Steph could see, because they were loaded with typos and factual errors.
There was so much she wanted to know she hardly knew what to do next. The location of the house was one thing. She’d placed it on a mountaintop in the Prescott, Arizona area that didn’t exist in the real world, so where did it land? Even though she could look it up on a map online, she didn’t know the area well enough to visualize it. She looked at Sherry’s driver’s license, and at least she knew she was in the right town, anyway. There wasn’t much to see out the big window, just a bit of the backyard and the roof of the garage. A lot of rocks and trees. The real view was from up on the roof. Up there she’d be able to see forty miles in three directions. She also wanted a better look at the house. Meanwhile though, she had to pretend to work, while avoiding the temptation to go in and edit Sherry’s stuff. With no idea if this was a permanent thing, she didn’t want to leave behind any weird surprises for Sherry to find. Even having the book in the computer was problematic. Well, she’d think of something.
She wondered if Sherry had awakened in her house, which was a disaster at the moment. Steph wondered what Sherry would make of the pile of unfolded laundry dumped on the couch, the dirty dishes and the sticky kitchen floor. This was going to be a cleaning day, and unlike Sherry, Steph did all those things herself.
Not much she could do about any of that, and she needed to start acting more like Sherry. As in, Julian and Sherry were very physical, very demonstrative with each other.
In one way, they were making up for over a year of being polite in public, which was the only place they ever saw each other for a long time. In another way, Sherry was letting Julian know he wasn’t alone. Losing his mother suddenly, from a stroke, had hit him hard, as it came at a time when he was right in the middle of changing almost everything in his life. Even though he was blessed with two sets of congenial parents, after his parents divorce when he was young, his mother was always his main sounding board and confidant. He missed being able to tell her how relieved he was at ending the constant round of public appearances, happy that Sherry and he were getting married in September, but maybe a little sad about leaving Seattle when his stepfather needed him. Jeff, his stepfather, had two daughters of his own that barely acknowledged his existence. They hadn’t even bothered to show up for his wife’s funeral, leaving Julian to handle everything on his own.
Steph didn’t want to do anything to cause even the slightest ripple in Sherry’s pond, here. At the same time there was a moral issue, as she thought of Fred. There was no chance to overthink it, because there was a tap on the door, and Julian stuck his head in. Now he was wearing long pants and a polo shirt, having somehow sneaked upstairs to change without Steph hearing.
“Busy?” he asked.
“Not really. This isn’t as easy as I was thinking,” she said. “What’s up? On your way out?”
“Yeah. I won’t be home by lunchtime, probably. I’m taking Blake down to Phoenix to get your car, and then after that I’ll do the gym thing.”
Showtime. Steph got up and went around the desk, as Julian came all the way into the room. She knew he’d be looking for a kiss goodbye. She went into his outstretched arms like she belonged there. Well, she did, kinda.
This one’s for Sherry, she said to herself, and gave Mr. Perfect the kind of kiss she thought he was hoping for.
When they came up for air, he said, “Whew! Too bad we’ve got company. Well, anyway, we’ll have the house to ourselves tonight.” His voice had the assurance of a man who knew his life was in order. He backed off a couple steps and smiled, though Steph detected a shadow of the grief in his heart.
“Tonight, the doctor will be IN!” she said with a little snicker.
He winked at her and went to join Blake, waiting by the front door.
Randy was still in the other room which was to become Julian’s office, engrossed in his calculator and notepad. He looked up when Steph looked in and said, “This is going to be almost like the stuff you’ve got, a little different. I’ve got some birdseye maple I’m going to use for surfaces. He said you’re going to be here all day?”
“OK, in case I have to come back, though I shouldn’t need to.”
“I’ll just leave the door unlocked, and you can just come on in. I might be in the basement, or I might even be able to get down to work I don’t know…”
“All right then, I’ll see ya!”
Then Randy was gone and she had the house to herself. Then she had an idea. She went back to the office, went online, and ordered some more-Sherry-like clothes, in Steph’s size, delivered to the Steph and Fred address. If the poor dear was stuck in Steph’s reality, at least she’d have something decent to wear.
Steph spent an informative hour or so wandering about the house, looking in cupboards and drawers, and then going downstairs, all the way to the basement. She was getting used to this pain-free, wrinkle-free body, and she had to suppress an urge to go outside and run around the yard, hollering.
One quarter of the basement had mirrored walls, a leftover from a former boyfriend who had exercise equipment in that corner. Now it was empty, and Steph turned an experimental cartwheel, just prove to herself she could do it. Yep, she could. Back upright, she looked around, and everything was just as she created it. The working bar, with sink and fridge – everything a bar needed was there, as was the home theater with recliners and couches to seat eight to ten people. Outside was deck number Two, with the hot tub.
In the book, Sherry referred to the basement as the rumpus room – not family room, or rec room. She’d said something on the order of, “I don’t have any family here, and rec room sounds like some sort of obligation to have fun, whether you like it or not. I’d rather think about the prospect of a rumpus.”
Steph could’ve spent the whole morning reveling in this beautiful house; making raspberry margaritas at the bar, to drink while lounging in the hot tub; later trying on the Vera Wang gowns and the Chanel. This was not to be, as she reminded herself she had a mission.
She could keep her people from all of the suffering brought about by a crazy woman with a camera.
In the book, the discovery of nude photos of Sherry and Julian up on the rooftop deck, along with the mystery of the identity of the photographer came on a particularly slow news day. It would all begin several months after Julian’s sudden withdrawal from public life and the death of his mother, when his legions of fans were clamoring for a new book at least, and speculation was reaching a fever pitch as to his real reasons for disappearing. The media frenzy that followed would be fed by his stepsister’s opportunism, as they found themselves thrust into their fifteen minutes of fame, when Julian refused all interviews. Their veiled accusations would suggest Julian was guilty of exploitation of his clients to even worse things. They barely stopped short of accusing him of criminal activity, as they appeared on TV, radio, and guest blogged everywhere they could. Because the stepsisters were a medical doctor and women’s studies professor respectively, their claims had the air of validity, even though everything they said was pure invention.
To say he didn’t get along with his stepsisters was a vast understatement. They’d resented him even as a child, and when he became so successful, with ideas that were so diametrically opposed to their philosophies, their feelings blossomed into outright hatred.
Steph remembered the line in the book that explained it all: “He called them the Wicked Stepsisters for a reason, and even their mother concurred.”
As a result of weeks of stress, Julian would become withdrawn and depressed, and Sherry would feel responsible for it all. Their life together would never be the same, and their new marriage begun in disaster, not joy.
Steph knew how to keep all this from happening, because of course she’d written the book. She knew pretty much where the crazy lady would be, so the only question was how she’d go about changing the not-so-fictional future.
She did some pretty productive thinking while cooking and eating, so she went into the kitchen to assemble her idea of a truly world-class salad. All the ingredients were in the fridge. The spinach, lettuce, shrimp, and real crab – not the fake stuff – were there, along with some Stilton cheese, imported from England. Ripe, perfect cherry tomatoes sat in a charming little basket on the counter. She had to restrain herself from making the salad too big. The last thing she needed right now was to fall asleep after eating too much.
As it turned out, she didn’t need to think too long or too hard at all.
The kitchen was open to the dining area and living room, and from where Steph stood at the counter, she had a view of the back yard. Because the kitchen was up on a higher level, somebody in the kitchen could look out without being seen.
Steph was checking the bread box on the counter hoping for some French bread or maybe pumpernickel, when a movement outside caught her attention. It was her, the crazy lady. Sherry would’ve recognized her, too, as they’d spoken at Julian’s mother’s funeral.
She was carrying a camera in one hand, with a big black bag slung over her shoulder, that could’ve held a laptop computer or almost anything. In the book, the bag was eventually found in the back of a white van, abandoned in the parking lot at Yavapai Regional Medical Center. It contained Julian’s favorite coffee mug, one of his shirts, and some other things only a truly warped mind would consider valuable. All of these things were stolen from Sherry’s house.
For a moment Steph was afraid to move, for fear of being detected. The crazy lady came up on the deck, and tried all the three sets of French doors that opened out on the deck. She put her face up against one of the many windows for a good look inside, and Steph stepped back against the stove.
Steph knew she wouldn’t break a window to get in – that wasn’t in the book – but she wondered what on earth to do next. The crazy lady backed away, turned, and went down the deck’s few steps, presumably to try the rumpus room door. That one would be locked as well. Steph remembered locking it herself.
The front door was a different matter. It was left open so Randy could come back if he liked.
Steph took a quick look in the dishwasher, and sure enough, Julian’s mug, the white one that said “DOC” in big red letters was in there. So it hadn’t been stolen yet.
She felt around on the top of the refrigerator. In this book, or maybe it was one of the others, the main character kept a .357 revolver there. It was probably this one – Julian’s dad was a cop. To her relief, her fingers touched the metal of a gun barrel. She took it down from the fridge, verified that it was loaded, and waited. She picked up the phone from the counter, and as she heard the door open, called 911 as quietly as possible.
The crazy lady walked right by the kitchen without even looking in. She was out of Steph’s view for a moment as she paused at the bottom of the stairs. Then she headed upstairs, and Steph emerged from the kitchen, waiting to see which room she’d go into first.
There was never anything in the book about Sherry’s relationship with guns, but Steph was a decent shot and had her own little 38 at home. The 357 wasn’t much different. Even though she knew she should probably stay on the line, she hung up on the 911 operator, and stuck the phone in the waistband of her slacks, in case she needed it later. She heard the crazy lady move from the master bedroom across the hall to Julian’s room, and the creak of the closet door. As quietly as she could, and blessing the agility of this body, she moved like a cat, in silence up the stairs.
The woman had moved from the closet to the bathroom, and was looking through the drawers. The bag, with Julian’s shirt stuffed in it, was sitting on the bed, with the camera. Steph saw through the open door that she’d inexplicably dumped the contents of the wastebasket into the sink. Looking for what? Steph wondered.
“Find anything good?” she asked, in what she hoped was a conversational tone.
The crazy lady froze. “I was just, uh…”
“You were burglarizing my house, is what you were doing, dear. That’s just not OK. Why don’t you come out of there and sit down over in that chair?” Steph gestured with her head over to the opposite side of the room. She backed up to the open door, and waited while the woman complied, surprising Steph with her degree of calm. After the woman was seated, Steph picked up the camera, which she was glad to see was digital. Too bad she’d need both hands to figure out how to check the pictures. She dropped it back on the bed, keeping the gun pointed at the women in the chair, who’d begun to weep.
“Got some good pix for the website on this do ya?”
The woman gasped. “How did you know about that?”
“I know everything. You don’t think the great Julian Anderton would take up with a stupid woman, do you? You think after that stunt you pulled at the funeral we wouldn’t keep track? We were just giving you enough rope to hang yourself with, is all.”
“What are you going to do?” She was sniffling, and reached for her pocket.
“Keep your hands where I can see them, please. What we’re doing now is waiting for the police to get here. The rest is up to them.” The phone rang, and Steph let it go without answering. “That’s probably them right now.”
There was a knock on the downstairs door, a voice called, “Hello?”
“Up here,” Steph called, backing out into the hallway. She put the safety back on the gun, and set it in the open dumbwaiter. There wasn’t anywhere Crazy Lady could go now.
Steph’s explanation of events was plausible, although entirely fabricated. She’d never seen the van, but since she knew where it probably was, and both Julian and the Seattle police department, if Mel Anderton hadn’t yet retired, could verify the woman’s unwanted presence at the funeral. She couldn’t remember what the deal was with stalking laws in Arizona, but they certainly had laws about burglary.
If the media even bothered with this story, it would be short-lived and straightforward.
By the time the police left, Steph’s salad wasn’t quite world-class anymore, as it was now at room temperature, but she was starving by that time, and it didn’t much matter. She just had time to eat, and straighten up the mess in Julian’s bathroom when Julian himself came back with Sherry’s car.
Steph wished she could’ve burst into tears and collapsed into Julian’s arms as Sherry would’ve done, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do that. Instead, she told him what happened as she put her lunch things away and cleaned up the kitchen. There was not, at any time during the burglary, any moment when Steph was actually frightened, and she couldn’t pretend she was.
Julian seemed more saddened by the news than anything else. “I guess I should call my dad,” he said. He reached into his pocket for his phone, and then hesitated. “I’m going to go downstairs for a drink first. Want one?”
“I’ll get one in a minute, I want to finish up here first.” She didn’t tell him she didn’t know how to work the dishwasher. She needed a moment to stand there and stare at the display and figure it out.
Now she was a tad worried. After all, everything from here on would be unscripted.
The house was quiet; she heard the rumpus room door open and close. A moment later, she saw Julian sitting on the top step of the deck outside the living room, glass in hand.
She remembered that people with dishwashers mostly only ran them once a day (she didn’t have one) and gratefully put off the mysteries of the dishwasher until later. She didn’t feel like going down to the basement, so she rummaged in the fridge and came up with some apple juice and ginger ale, which made a pretty good fruit spritzer. She went to join Julian on the deck.
He looked a little forlorn sitting there, leaning against the railing. When Steph sat down next to him, he said, looking down at his drink, “I’m sorry I brought all this crap into your house.”
She put an arm around him and rested her head on his shoulder. “Sweetie, it’s not your fault. You’re a high-profile guy, and stuff happens. You deal with troubled people, and some of them are going to be beyond your help, or anyone else’s. They probably taught you that in Shrink 101. Nobody got hurt, nothing got broken or taken. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
He smiled, and put his drink down on the step. He reached over and squeezed her shoulder, and kissed her on the cheek. “You always know what to say, don’t you?”
“I figure we should practice what you preach. Anyway, some of that stuff you wrote about relationships I could’ve written myself. You are more important to me than any of the nutcases of the world, and I’m not going to let them get to me – or us.” She couldn’t help a little smile, which she hoped he couldn’t see.
He probably didn’t, because his phone was ringing. “That’s Dad, “ he said. “He wasn’t home before.” As he stood up to answer his phone, the house phone rang, so Steph went in to answer it.
When Steph picked up the kitchen phone, she found Thelma, Julian’s stepmother on the other end. Thelma was mostly concerned about making sure everyone was OK, as she’d talked to Julian earlier. It didn’t take much to reassure her. As a cop’s wife, she was well acquainted with the hazards sometimes presented by a husband’s occupation. Julian was still on the phone with his dad, pacing about in the backyard, when Steph hung up, so she went into her office to delete the book.
It wouldn’t be much help now, anyway.
As she sat down at the computer, she looked up at the clock on the wall, and realized how late it was getting. After she was sure the book was gone, and she’d covered her tracks online (not that either Sherry or Julian would know how to look even if they wanted to), she went back up to the kitchen to see what there was for dinner.
This was Steph’s least favorite time of day. The light coming in through the windows was starting to get weak, and she herself always felt a little like she was running out of energy. At home she was glad she had dinner to think about, and to look forward to Fred coming home, and his talk of work, which he loved. His students were always up to something amazing or funny.
She allowed herself a moment’s regret. Julian was wonderful – brilliant, loving, and all of that, but he was no Fred. Steph also suspected, even after just a day, that whatever spark existed between her fictional people was not there between herself and Julian. For right now, though, she’d concentrate on keeping it together moment by moment. Figuring out what normal was supposed to be.
They had a simple, but elegant meal, that could have been slop out of a box with a side order of freeze-dried cat food for all Julian noticed. The man was exhausted, and troubled. Steph followed her own instincts and left him alone. After dinner, he disappeared into his office to check his e-mail, and Steph went downstairs, to take a better look through Sherry’s pile of DVDs, and see what was on the satellite dish.
She was well into a movie about a guy living in an airport when Julian joined her. “Damn I forgot about that one, has it been on long?” he said, taking a seat next to her on the big couch.
“Maybe half an hour,” she said. “It’s totally unrealistic, but fun just the same.”
“Cool,” he said, getting comfortable.
He was asleep before the movie was over, and Steph drifted off during the credits.
She was in a canoe, flying over the Grand Canyon when she dropped the paddle. She reached over the side to grab it, and fell…
Her hand, flailing in her sleep, grazed the stack of books on the nightstand, knocking them to the floor. The noise woke her up. She struggled to sit up in the wobbly bed, and her back ached as if she’d been hauling bricks or something.
Fred was having his morning coffee, watching the news on TV in the living room. The laundry was gone, and when she went into the kitchen, she found everything had been cleaned up in there too.
“Feeling any better today?” Fred called after her.
Compared to what? She smiled to herself. “Guess I’ll live,” she said. She poured herself a coffee and joined Fred in the living room.
“Yesterday you seemed a little out of it. I thought maybe you were coming down with something.”
“Oh, I had a lot on my mind. Book trouble.”
“Ah, I see.” He looked at his watch. “Better head in. We both overslept today.” He went to the kitchen to put his cup in the sink, and Steph followed, giving him a big hug and a kiss.
Things were back to normal, for Fred at least. “Hey, why don’t I bring home a pizza or something for dinner? Then you can get your book stuff sorted out, you think?”
“Sounds good to me!” She was happy to be home.
She was well into wading through an extra day’s worth of unanswered e-mail when she heard a horn outside. She went to the front of the house, and there was a FedEx truck. This was nothing unusual in itself. Living where they did, she and Fred often ordered things online and forgot to mention it.
There were several boxes, and the driver had them on a handcart, and was unloading them on the front porch when Steph opened the door. When she caught a glimpse of the label on the top box, she could hardly wait for the guy to get out of there.
She ran into the kitchen for her handy box-opening knife, and tore into the boxes. She could hardly believe what she found
Sherry-like clothes, in Steph’s size. Well, at least she’d have something decent to wear.