Kevin Carmichael awoke with a start in his darkened bedroom and waited for the thudding of his heartbeat to subside. He couldn't remember the nightmare that awakened him. It vanished when he opened his eyes. But from his years of prepping psychiatrists for court testimony he knew enough to trust the lingering feeling. The affect, they called it. An anxiety dream. He'd had so many lately. Over and over he dreamed he was trapped in a maze, meeting one dead end after another, hounded by a sense of futility.
He glanced over at Caroline. She slept peacefully on her side, her abundant, caramel-colored hair spread in a thick tangle of curls across the pillow. He propped himself up on one elbow, reached over and gently brushed a few strands away from her forehead, so that he could see her face. In the dim moonlight, the vibrant peach and honey tones of her skin were faded to gray, but the hollow in her cheek was more pronounced than ever. With one finger he traced the taut, sinuous line of her back. She was an athlete, a lightning bolt on skis, religious with her workouts so that her body had the ideal proportion of muscle to curves. Gazing at the arch of her dark eyebrow, the sculpted curve of her lips, he was suffused with a familiar combination of tenderness and desire. She looked so serene, as if she didn't have a care in the world. She never looked that way when she was awake anymore.
Kevin sighed and glanced at the clock. Twelve-fifteen. There was no way he was going to turn over and go back to sleep. He was as alert as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on his head. He could lie there, shifting positions until he either fell back to sleep, or he awoke his wife with his rustlings. Perhaps she would make a sleepy offer of a massage to help him get back to sleep. Perhaps the massage might lead to caresses and more. He'd never known a woman who stirred him the way Caroline did. Nor had he ever met a woman who could match him, need for need. From the moment they'd set eyes on one another, it had been chemistry, combustion. It was ironic, he thought, and maddening, that all their great sex was unable to satisfy her heart's greatest desire. Specialist after specialist had confirmed that she could never bear a child.
He sighed, and let her sleep. It would be selfish to disturb her.
Carefully, Kevin swung his legs out from under the duvet, stuffed his feet into slippers and reached for his robe which hung over the end of their brass bed frame. He shivered as he pulled it on, and tied the belt. It was only early December, but the Vermont winter had definitely arrived, he thought.
He tiptoed out of the room, and pulled the door closed behind him. He walked down the hall, passing Vicki's room. There was a bar of light under her door. Someone else who was not sleeping. Serves her right, he thought. She was the one who had stolen their peace of mind.
He went downstairs in the darkness and opened the kitchen door. Something dark and low to the ground rushed by him. "Good God," he exclaimed and then, immediately, he remembered. Of course. Vicki's cat, Kirby. Nothing would do but that she bring that flea-bitten furball with her when she moved in. And they had readily agreed to it. So far, they had agreed to quite a few things they would otherwise never have tolerated. Anything to keep her happy with them until she had the baby. Their baby. The baby she was going to let them adopt.
Kevin flipped on the kitchen light and looked around for the plate of brownies Caroline had made this morning. She didn't usually make sweets, because she was careful about their diet. But she'd wanted to make something she could give to their neighbors, the Lynches, to thank them for watching the house and the cat last week, and she'd baked an extra batch for home. Kevin began to rummage in the cupboards, wondering where she might have put the brownies after dinner. He walked over and opened the refrigerator door. There was the brownie plate all right, the plastic wrap crumpled up at the halfway point across the plate. And nothing left but crumbs. Vicki, he thought furiously. That was typical. She'd polished off the food and left the empty plate right there in the refrigerator. Sometimes, he wished he could just throw her out, bag and baggage.
Only a week ago, they'd returned from a wearying trip to Disney World. It had been no vacation for him and Caroline. Their idea of paradise was a hot tub after a day on the slopes. Not traipsing around in the heat from one silly ride to another with a pregnant teenager. But Vicki had never been to Disney World, and she wanted to go. That's ridiculous, Kevin had protested when Caroline had told him what Vicki wanted. But Caroline had pleaded with him, that stricken, anxious look in her huge brown eyes which Kevin had seen so often since Vicki had answered their personals ad. "Loving couple can offer your baby a good home, and a comfortable, happy life."
He slammed the refrigerator door, and put the kettle on for a cup of tea. It would be better for him than brownies anyway. It would all be worth it when they got the baby, he thought, as he waited for the kettle to boil. And it wouldn't be much longer until he'd be filing those adoption papers. Vicki was close to term. She'd moved in with them two months ago. Seems like a lifetime, he thought with a sigh.
Kevin carried his steaming cup into his study down the hall and put his feet up on the desk, tilting back in his chair. He flipped his desk lamp on, but the first place his gaze rested was on the pattern of water stains on the walls, behind his framed university and law school degrees. His curmudgeonly mood returned. The Vicki effect, he thought ruefully. She had left the water running in her private bathroom when they departed for Florida. Zoe Lynch, the eleven-year-old girl who lived in the next house down the road, had been coming in to feed Kirby, and noticed the flood that had already seeped through the ceiling, down the walls and all through his books and papers. Luckily, she'd called her mother, and Greta Lynch had come over, turned off the faucet, and spent an entire day cleaning up the mess as best she could. If not for Greta, they might have returned to a house ankle-deep in water.
Kevin caught a movement behind him out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see Kirby poised in the doorway, his yellow eyes glittering. I suppose I ought to be glad you're here, Kevin thought. If it weren't for Zoe feeding you, the whole house would have floated away. Kevin shook his head, and sipped his tea. Relax, he told himself. Try to relax. It won't last forever. Once the baby comes, you and Caroline will have your life back. And your child. Vicki will have the money she wants, and she'll be gone from here. You only have to be patient a little bit longer.
But it was hard. Caroline had quit her job as a physical therapist so that she could ferry Vicki to and from the doctor's, and the childbirth classes, and wait on her hand and foot. Kevin's income had diminished since they moved up here to Vermont, even though they had both agreed on the move. They had wanted to get away from his high-profile law practice in the city, with its attendant press coverage. Here they were anonymous. They could ski all they liked, and raise a baby in a healthier atmosphere. The practice would grow in time, but money was more of an issue than it used to be. Keep your eyes on the prize, he scolded himself. For Caroline's sake. It would all be worth it when he saw her holding that infant in her arms.
Kevin snapped off the desk lamp and returned to the kitchen, where he emptied his teacup and put it into the dishwasher. As he was about to turn and go back upstairs, he heard Kirby, mewing plaintively at the door off the enclosed back porch to be let out.
"Oh, all right," he said irritably. "But it's cold out there." Yawning, he stepped down and went to the door. The moment he pushed the door open, an acrid smell assailed him. Smoke, he thought. His first thought was of his own fireplace. They'd had a fire tonight. He had banked it before they went to bed. Could it have flamed up again? He closed the door and walked back through the house into the living room. A few embers sputtered in the hearth but that was all. Uh-oh, he thought. He opened the front door and stepped outside, shivering, to check around his house. The smell was stronger now, more pronounced, and as he looked out across the snow-coated field beside his house, through the border of bare trees he saw a brilliant red-and-orange glow in the spot where he normally could see the Lynches' farmhouse. "Oh my God," he said aloud. He leaned across his porch rail, trying to get a better look. All he knew for sure was that something that appeared to be a fiery ball was blazing, visible between the bare branches of the trees that separated their properties.
"Jesus Christ," he said. He rushed back into the house, dialed 911 and blurted out "fire" when the operator answered. He gave the address, and slammed down the phone.
Then he ran to the foot of the stairs. "Caroline," he screamed. "Wake up. There's a fire."
"What's...whatsit...Kevin," she mumbled, calling back to him.
"It's a fire," he cried. "It looks like the Lynches' house is on fire. I'm going over there." Not waiting for a reply, he doffed his slippers and robe and jammed his feet into some boots by the door. Then, grabbing his parka off the coatrack in the foyer, he burst out the door and began to run across the field, stumbling on the patches of icy grass in the dark, pulling on his coat as he went.
Copyright © 2003 by Patricia Bourgeau