Josh helped Elizabeth clear the table when Alison had left. Every so often, he’d glance up from what he was doing at Elizabeth and feel guilty for the unfaithful thoughts he had been having about Miss Alison McCarthy. With his and Elizabeth’s relationship on rocky water, his eyes had found themselves not so innocently wandering elsewhere.
It wasn’t right. He felt bad for it. But Alison had felt like an angel in his life lately, a beautiful fantasy come to life, while Elizabeth could only seem to argue with him daily about obscure things that made him feel like his head would explode.
Generally speaking, he had always been a faithful person. He had never cheated in a single relationship in his life and there was no excuse to start now. Lifting the stack of dishes in his arms, he carried them to the kitchen and set them in the sink. Emily joined him. “Can I help?”
“Sure,” he said.
He began washing each plate, scraping scraps into the garbage disposal. Then he scrubbed the front and back with a soapy sponge. After he had rinsed it clean, he handed the dripping plate to Emily and let her dry it off and set it in the cupboard.
“Do you need any help in here?” Elizabeth called, popping her head in the kitchen.
“We’re fine,” Josh said. “You go ahead and relax. I’m going to take Emily home when we’re done.”
Josh sighed quietly to himself, rinsing the plate in his hands. He felt ashamed. It wasn’t fair to Elizabeth. If they were having problems he needed to work them out with her and tell her how he felt. Not keep them locked away inside him like this, secretly pining after another woman all the while. A woman that was taken, he reminded himself again. His belief that she was, not only a beautiful business woman, but single on top of that, had only served to fuel the forbidden fantasy.
He had to forget about Alison. The dream was over. She had a boyfriend and he had a girlfriend. They were two people already in committed relationships and they had no reason to see one another any further. He’d just be torturing himself to think otherwise. Alison would think he were a pig if she ever knew how he had really felt about her. She’d call him a no good, dirty, cheater.
Once they were done with the dishes, Josh took Emily to his car. They climbed inside and Josh started the engine, rolling the windows down a little. It was a nice night out and the fresh air felt good as it came rushing inside.
“Did you have a good time with Alison over?” Emily asked.
He smiled awkwardly. “I think I had a little too much of a good time.” He let out a breath of air as he began driving. “Don’t tell Elizabeth what I said last night, all right? I don’t want her knowing I thought that about Alison.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“I really want to try and work it out with Elizabeth too. I know we fight a lot, but all couples fight, right? Everyone fights at least a little bit. We can still get our act together. It’s not too late.”
“I feel bad about the whole thing. I… I mean, Alison has a boyfriend. I feel like an idiot. I didn’t realize she was already taken.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Emily replied, biting her lip.
“What don’t you know?”
“She… she said…” She stopped herself. “Forget it.”
“What did she say?”
“I can’t. She’d get mad.”
“Was it good or bad?” he asked. At least, Emily could say that much, couldn’t she.
Groaning, he decided to let it go. He didn’t want to force Emily to say anything she wasn’t comfortable with, but he had to admit, whatever she had been alluding to was going to bother him for the rest of the night. “I gotta get over this… this infatuation I have with her.”
“Why don’t you just break up with Elizabeth,” Emily suggested. “If you’re that unhappy with her, just break it off.”
“But that’s the thing. It’s not that I’m unhappy with her. Sometimes, I just think, I might not really love her. I don’t know if I ever really loved her. I like her, but it never went any deeper than that. I kept thinking, I’d wake up one day and it’d happen but it never did.”
“She loves you.”
“I know she does.”
“That’s not fair,” Emily said. “You can’t keep playing with her like this.”
“I’m not trying to play with her. I want to try and work it out,” he answered.
“But you said so yourself. There’s nothing to work out. You just don’t love her.”
Was that it? Was that what the whole thing boiled down to in the end? He hated thinking it. It felt too cruel, too heartless to think something like that about someone he was supposed to be in a relationship with. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair or right. He had to try and work it out. He owed it to Elizabeth to do that much, didn’t he? To at least try? “I have to try. I still care about her enough to put in the effort.”
“If you say so,” Emily replied, though her voice sounded doubtful.
“She never did anything wrong to me,” Josh continued. “How do you break it off with someone that’s never done anything wrong to you? I feel like I’m waiting. Like I’m just waiting for her to give me a good enough excuse to end it. So I can finally leave her and not feel bad about it. But she just won’t do it. She won’t do something wrong. How do you break up with someone when they won’t do anything wrong to you?”
“Josh, I really have no idea,” Emily sighed. “There’s no point in beating yourself up over it. She’ll understand. The longer you put this off, the worse it’s going to be.”
“But that’s the thing. She won’t understand. I know her. What if she… what if she kills herself? She’s so emotional. There’s no telling how she’ll react,” he said.
“I think you need to give Elizabeth more credit than that.”
“I feel like I messed up with Alison.”
“I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. She probably figured out I was hitting on her.”
Emily replied, her voice raising, “Josh, did it ever occur to you that she might be upset about something else?”
“Like the fact that you were flirting with her even though you already have a girlfriend.”
But that was the thing. He hadn’t meant it to be like that. He hadn’t wanted to flirt. He wanted to be with Elizabeth. He wanted to stay true to the person he was with. He wasn’t thinking, would Alison be mad if he flirted, because he wasn’t intending to flirt. But he felt that it happened anyway. Despite his efforts to suppress his attraction to her, he felt that his real feelings had found a way to sneak their way out anyway. “I know,” he said. “I’m telling you. I messed up. How’d I get like this? I never used to be like this at all.” He felt bad about himself.
“Let it go,” Emily said. “You can’t pursue anyone like this. You can’t do that to Alison or Elizabeth. Get yourself straightened out first.”
He nodded. “You’re right. I gotta get this straightened out. I’m not a teenager. I shouldn’t be doing things like this. I have to talk to Elizabeth.”
“She’ll be okay,” Emily said again. “She’ll understand if you’re upfront with her. No more secrets, all right?”
“All right. No more.”
He reached Emily’s house, stopping the car on the road in front of it. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “If you weren’t there, who knows what kind of idiot I would’ve made out of myself.”
Emily nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was staring at her house. Suddenly, she looked tiny and frail in her thin sweater. She looked scared.
“What’s wrong?” Josh asked, though he thought he knew.
“I… I don’t want to go inside,” she said. Her voice trembled.
Josh felt nervous when he heard her. Emily had been fine all day. Was she going to flip out on him now? “Why don’t you want to go inside?” he asked patiently.
Her voice shook uncontrollably now. Her body shook. Her face went pale. “It’s going to kill me. I can feel it. It’s going to kill me if I go in there.”
“No, it’s not,” he replied gently, setting a hand on her shoulder. She recoiled beneath his touch but he kept his hand there reassuringly. “It’s okay. There’s nothing there. Nothing’s going to hurt you.”
Tears fell from Emily’s eyes and she wiped at them with both hands. “You never believe me. I’m not making it up. I’m not crazy, Josh! I’m not delusional. It’s real! I swear it’s real!”
Her sleeves had slipped down from her wrists, revealing thick lines of scabs and black and blue skin. Leaning forward, he wrapped his arms around her tightly, soothing her as best he could. “I don’t think you’re crazy, Emily. I promise. But I promise there’s nothing wrong with that house. Alison said so herself, didn’t she?”
“It was hiding,” Emily shrieked, her eyes widening in terror. “It was hiding. Bethany told me. It hid from her. It knew who Alison was so it hid.”
“Bethany told you that?” Her imaginary daughter, and from what he could recall, she was still using the name she had originally planned to name her unborn child with. He hated this. Emily always got like this, even when she seemed perfectly normal beforehand. She would fall into these… episodes… seemingly out of nowhere at all.
“I want to come back home with you,” Emily begged, pushing Josh off of her. “If I go in there, it’ll kill me. Why won’t you believe me?”
“Emily,” Josh said firmly. He was getting mad. Alison had said it herself. Who was he kidding, everyone had said it! Emily needed a doctor. She was sick in the head. “Nothing is going to kill you! Now go in there and go to sleep. Do you understand me?”
“Please, Josh,” she sobbed, grasping at his shirt. She tugged hard, a little too hard. “Please don’t make me. Don’t make me go inside. I can’t do it. I can’t.”
Grabbing her hands, he pulled her off of him. “Go inside. Get some sleep,” he stated seriously. “I mean it. If anything happens, you can call me and I’ll come get you. Tomorrow you’re going to see Dr. Patrick.”
Emily stared at him. After a long while, she nodded slowly. “If anything happens,” she repeated. “I can call you, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “You can call me. If something happens, I’ll come over as fast as I can.” Thank God. It sounded like she was finally starting to calm down.
“Okay,” she said, her eyes falling on her lap.
“Goodnight,” he said. He watched as she climbed out of the car. Once she had disappeared inside, Josh switched his car out of park and began heading home.
He couldn’t believe. On a night she had seemed perfectly happy and reasonable. He found himself shaking his head as he drove. How did she get this way? What had set her off? This time for sure, he was getting her to the doctor. There had to be something they could do for her.