“Spank my ass and call me Anastasia. I didn’t know a stapler could do that to a wall.”
“Right, Val. Like you didn’t read the book of the century. I know you have an inner freak.”
“If I do, Rod, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“Are you serious about the stapler?”
“Like a mime trapped in a burning box.”
“Well, that’s not nice. Why are you here? I don’t need help with this bulletin board. Don’t you have work to do?”
“Don’t go starting rumors. Amos is playing hooky, Hadley’s MIA, and Morgan’s too busy dropping a squat.”
“It’s called giving birth, Gregory. And she’s done that already. She’s still on maternity leave.”
“I wish it were eternity leave.”
Peeking around the corner with a view of their backs, I then glance at my watch, wondering if it’s too late to get the hell out of here and hide for the rest of this wretched Monday.
Unfortunately, my phone rings, causing Val and Rod to turn my way as I fumble into my purse to silence the tattletale. My dad. Rolling my eyes, I mute the ringing and shove the offender back into my purse.
Rod’s eyes nearly leave his skull, and I’m instantly sorry I got out of bed. “Whoa! Hadders, is that you? You cut your hair!”
Looking away from Rod as he approaches, I scowl as my hand flies self-consciously to my head. “So?”
Suddenly unnerved, I shoot a glance at Val. “Babe, you look so lovely.” Her smile is encouraging and uplifting, even if it’s a lie. Still, I can’t return it. I look horrible.
Rod goes to touch my hair, and I dodge his hand, which earns me a frown from him and a concerned look from Val. He crosses his arms, causing his beige dress shirt to tug at his biceps.
I swallow hard before looking down and yanking at my purse. After cutting off my ponytail yesterday in my bathroom, the initial high wore off, and that left me holding a big hunk of hair as I gaped at the mirror. The panic set over me like a wet sheet sticking to my body. I wasn’t ready for another major change, as I thought I was.
Putting on a hooded jacket, I slid my severed ponytail into a baggie and headed for the salon I use, where I donated my hair to a charity for cancer patients who’ve lost theirs. Even with everything I’ve been through this summer, I know I’m lucky to be alive, though it may not feel like it. At least this spontaneous butchering resulted in something good.
The skeptical beautician gave me a layered bob that now hangs slightly lower than my chin to frame my face. I wasn’t aware my face needed a frame, and I wasn’t in the market to put my eternal sadness on display like that.
Still frowning at me, Rod asks, “What made you do that?”
Crossing my arms, I return his frown. “Do I need a reason?”
“I never said you did.”
Knowing there’s more to why I did it, Rod stares at me as if he’s trying to invade my thoughts. I hope he doesn’t have that ability. He’d surely put me in a padded cell. Though, I’d welcome that change.
Lightly slapping his shoulder, Val scolds, “A girl has every right to change her hair, Gregory.”
He puts his hands on his hips as his assessing gaze skims over me even more intrusively. I feel naked, and I hate it. Rod complains, “Damn. Crucify me, why don’t you?” Val casts him a dirty look, and he shifts on his feet as he stuffs his hands into his black pants pockets. “Looks nice, anyhow.”
“Thanks,” I mutter before I brush past Rod and head toward my office. I faintly hear Val saying more to him, but it’s lost on my need to escape. Thinking I made a getaway, I blow out a rush of air as I set my purse on my desk. These past months have all been like this. Every day. And since I returned to work, Rod’s constant attention has increased ten-fold. Without Morgan here for two weeks now, it’s been so much worse than that, even. Morgan doesn’t push me to talk about my feelings or the status of my next impending breakdown. In fact, we never do. Not Greg. He won’t let up. I don’t want to be his pet project. I just want everyone to leave me alone, which is an impossibility at work.
“Where were you this weekend?” Rod asks, causing me to jump. Glaring at him for startling me, he shrugs while running his fingers along the doorframe. “You didn’t return my calls. I was worried about you.”
Turning my attention to my computer as I turn it on, I do my best for an excuse. “I didn’t feel well.” Not a lie, really.
“You felt well enough to get your hair did.”
“I guess so.” I don’t offer any further explanation. I don’t owe him one.
“Are we still doing lunch?”
I shrug without looking at him. “A quick one. I have a lot of work to do.”
“I don’t do quickies.”
“Then I guess you’ll go solo.”
“Story of my life.” When I fail to laugh, he sighs. “We can hit up Byrd Park, ditch our bagged lunches, and go to our diner. I know the waitresses miss me. Or we could sit in my truck with the windows rolled up. See if anyone uses a crowbar to free us.”
“It’s been hot.”
“Nobody would care.”
When he doesn’t retort, I glance up at him, his mouth hanging open. I notice he didn’t shave this morning, which is odd for him. “Ouch, Hadders. That was like a crowbar to my face.”
Not taking his bait for a laugh, I look to my computer. “Cafeteria’s good.”
“Really? That place gives me the creeps ever since Igor started working there.”
I wrinkle my nose, studying nothing on my screen. “I think his name is Noah. He’s nice.”
“So was Ted Bundy… at first.”
“Rod.” I strive to not look away from my computer.
“What? I swear that hunchback is a serial killer or works for a tabloid magazine, the way he stares at me.”
“Why would he report about you?”
“Because I know Mark Wahlberg.”
I scoff, “You do not. You saw him at the airport two years ago when you came back from that conference Amos sent you to in Dallas.”
“I waved at him and said, Yo, Mark! He waved back and nodded. That’s more than just seeing him, Hadders.”
Shaking my head, I sigh and pull up a trial report. “Could you go now?” I wish Rod would stop with the comedy act every morning. It’s past old and a waste of his time. I don’t feel like being his audience.
Walking to my window, he replies, “No, I’m all right here.”
“No, you’re not. Go.”
“Jeez. What crawled into your bra this morning?”
I grit my teeth, trying so hard to be affable. “I’m behind with this report. Val needs it today. Just go back to your desk and play solitaire, Candy Crush, or whatever it is you do there. Please.”
“I play pocket pool. I’m an ace.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
After ten seconds of silence from behind me, Rod asks, “Haven’t they mowed over there since last week? Soon dead bodies will cut grass.”
Knowing he’s referring to the cemetery across the street, I keep typing. “Don’t know.”
“Can you imagine? Corpses moving around like the Thriller video? I doubt they’d dance, though. Too stiff and probably uncoordinated after being, well, dead. I suppose lawn care would be the last thing on their minds, coming back to life. Me? I’d go straight to a chiropractor. Not sure how I’d pay for it. I guess I wouldn’t technically qualify for social security benefits. Maybe they should offer death insurance or make life insurance work beyond this life.”
When I don’t comment, he turns from the window. “Jesus. Not a small laugh? I think I’m losing my edge.”
“If a squiggle had an edge.”
“Nice, Hadders. I see I wasted my efforts here. I’ll help Val. She laughs at my jokes.”
“Good luck with that.”
He growls as he leaves while I focus on my screen. When he’s gone, I sit back from my computer, not into working. Sighing, I turn my chair to my window, open to the cloudy day outside, and watch the cars driving past our building. After a few minutes, the monotony allows my mind to wander. That can’t happen. I have to stay busy. It’s necessary to survive each day so I don’t crumble into a pile of dust. I’ve found that hands-on hobbies or thought-provoking activities keep me focused, so my mind doesn’t drift. I’ve become a whiz at crossword puzzles and brain teasers. However, I’m becoming listless with those. I need something else to occupy the void.
Picking up my phone to text Morgan, seeing if she’s free for dinner, I suddenly remember she’s not as easily accessible anymore. Now she’s a… mother. Her son, Taj, is the center of her universe. As he should be. Never put our friendship on the line because she has a baby. Was I ever the center of my mother’s universe? I know I would’ve had a center to mine. But it’s gone. Forever.
Don’t do this, Hadley.
Shaking, I set down my phone and shuffle a stack of papers to calm my hands and my mind. I can’t keep going on like this. A new hairdo isn’t the cure-all. As much as I hate the questioning, the jokes forced upon me at work, the concerned glances, and the pats on the shoulder, the dark abyss that welcomes me when I’m home alone is inescapable and engulfing.
Still, I don’t need sympathy, and I don’t need their time wasted on me. I have to work through this alone.
I wish I could.
I’m doomed to wear this pain like a noose around my neck. One false step and the wobbly chair could tip over, ending this hell.
Maybe it should.
I wish it would.
What if hell were easier to endure than this hell I’m in here on earth?
My heart is empty. My womb is empty. My life is empty. The emptiness is all I think about.
The betrayal is all I obsess over.
There I go again. Wandering. Endlessly.
Concentrate, Hadley Beckett. Don’t bring the darkness here. It’s waiting for you at home.
Setting down the stack of papers I’d been lightly tapping on my desk, I grudgingly face my computer, but I am grateful for somewhat of a distraction.
“Babe? You all right?”
I glance up to see Val’s worry as she holds onto the doorframe that separates our offices. It’s the look I dread seeing from people, especially Val. There are days I want to run into her arms and cry until I can’t anymore. Like any other woman would run to their mother for comfort.
This is definitely one of those days.
I nod as I check the clock. “I’m okay.”
“Why don’t you get a sip of water before we start in the conference room?” Shit. Brandon’s monthly staff meeting. Why didn’t I choose today to be late or stay home? It’s the first meeting I’ll attend since I’ve returned to work full time, facing every single coworker at once. The last time I was around everyone was at the softball field.
Slowly standing, I pick up my notepad and pen, still avoiding Val’s gaze, but it’s hard to do as I approach her. Before I can eek past, she gently grabs my shoulder, forcing me to look at her. “Babe, I’m here for you if you ever want to talk. You know that, right?” Her pale blue eyes rummage my face, but I can’t keep mine from drifting to the floor.
Without making eye contact, I nod, giving a programmed response. “I know that. Thanks.”
Val clings to my arm, and saying nothing further, she leads me to the conference room, which is next door to her office. I hear familiar voices and laughter before we enter. My recent medical history may have been a secret, but not… other things. No. My private tribulations were fodder for my coworkers. How did they find out? Drake taking over as our coach was an instant clue of trouble, and my front-yard tirade eventually made it back to work, too. Let’s just say that nosey neighbors know how to work their mouths and YouTube to their advantage. It took a few days to get to my office, slower than I had thought, but when it blew up, I was already making my second trip to the emergency room. For the sake of sounding like Greg Rodwell, my personal hell was front page of my law firm’s tabloid.
Val pauses, allowing me to take a deep breath. Before entering the room, she lets go of my arm. I’m grateful for that small gesture. I don’t need the inquisitive stares all over me at full strength. I’m glad Val is with me because I wouldn’t have had the courage to go in alone. I’m even more absurd than I thought.
“Hadders, right here. Saved you a seat.” Rod loudly pats the chair next to him. Ignoring his gesture and my suddenly quiet coworkers, I take the empty seat next to Val as she sets her pile of notes on the table. Rod huffs as I sit across from him.
I’ve been back to work for a month. However, almost everyone has avoided me as if they just realized I’m friends with Rod. The first day back to work, I received a floral arrangement and a card the office signed, but besides my three friends, only Betsy and Rhonda stopped by my office door to inquire how I was feeling. I know it disappointed Betsy when I only reported my physical health, not feeding her need for more gossip.
Breaking the silence, one of our new lawyers, Grant, laughs and taunts, “Denied, Rodwell.”
Appearing genuinely irked, Rod shifts in his seat, toying with his ink pen. Crick pulls out the chair next to him, and looking up, Rod openly winces. “Hey, Scanlon. That seat’s taken.”
I grab a bottle of water from the center of the table Rhonda had provided for us as Grant digs, “By your imaginary friend?”
“You’re fine, Crick,” Val asserts. “Have a seat.”
Looking pointedly at me, Rod sulks. “An imaginary friend seems to be the way to go.”
I open my bottle and glance down to my notepad as Val admonishes, “That’s enough, Gregory.”
From the other side of Grant, the other new attorney, Sylvie, loudly sighs. “Yes. Let’s not be children.” She’s lucky Morgan isn’t here to hear that.
I grit my teeth, trying not to snap at her or cry from her remark. I’m not trying to act like a… child. I’m fucking older than her. She has her damn life together—a successful attorney and happily married. She doesn’t know a quarter of what I’ve been through. Only Val, Rod, and Morgan do.
Near the head of the table in her usual spot next to Brandon’s chair, Shasta scrunches her face. “What did you do to your hair?” The tone of her voice doesn’t hide her disapproval, and I want to choke her.
Rod answers for me. “I bet her I could make a sick line drive. She lost. Who’s laughing now?” His voice trails, and his forehead wrinkles as his gaze falls, and he suddenly looks uncomfortable joking about it.
Grant says, “Nice going, Rodwell.”
“Hey, there, Hadley. I haven’t seen you for a while,” Brandon greets me, dressed in a pin-striped gray suit and a tie with mallards gracing it. He closes the door behind him as he smiles at me. Inwardly grimacing, I force a slight smile as I glance at him. Adjusting his glasses as he examines me from the head of the table, he asks, “You feeling better now? Appendix removed, wasn’t it?”
Having had taken a leave of absence for slightly over two months, which included our softball season, Brandon and I have missed each other with his back-to-back vacation weeks, business trips, and out-of-office meetings. The partners at the law firm have been exceptionally accommodating to me for taking time off work. Apart from Val, they all think I had an appendectomy with follow-up complications and more surgery. If only. How Betsy and Shasta didn’t dig up the truth makes me wonder. I guess Morgan, Rod, and Val have shown themselves trustworthy in that regard.
Relieved that he didn’t mention more, I nod at the table. “It was.”
Shasta mumbles, “That’s the least of it.”
Without thinking, I shoot her a dark look, surprising her and myself. She concedes by giving me a limp smile before looking away.
Brandon asks, “Did getting hit in the stomach exacerbate the problem?”
Still glaring at Shasta, I shake my head, feeling all eyes on me. An unwanted spotlight for all to watch me wriggle and squirm. Taking a shaky breath, I break my gaze from her but steadily answer, “No.”
“It’s really too bad. You missed a great first season of softball.”
Rod’s incredulous. “Huh? We came in fourth, chief.”
Taking his seat, Brandon maintains, “That’s great!”
“There were five teams. Juan’s Water, the Waders, lost in the playoffs because their pitcher’s peg leg flew off, taking out their catcher and Rhonda at bat. They threw the game after that.” From two seats over from him, Rhonda’s blue eyes widen at Rod’s, acknowledging her existence, and she nearly squeals.
Val sighs with a shake of her head. “It’s a prosthetic leg, Gregory, and didn’t hurt anyone.”
Shasta screws up her perfect nose. “Don’t pirates wear peg legs?”
Reaching for her coffee, Val answers, “Fictitious pirates.”
Rod argues, “No way. Long John Silver had one.”
“The restaurant?” Grant snorts as he smacks the table.
Rod makes a condescending face at Grant. “Funny, Ronald McDonald.”
Val says, “Long John Silver is fictional.”
Rod turns his attention away from Grant. “I think you’re wrong, Val.”
Scribbling on his notepad, Grant sneers, “I think you need to read Treasure Island, goof.”
“Whatever. We could’ve placed third, but we had a handicapped team.” As soon as he says that, everyone glances my way, as does Rod. While gawking at me, he adds in a rush, “My fault. I know.” He looks down, muttering, “Crock needed more practice, too.”
Crick nods in agreement, which is crazy. From what Rod had told me during his game recaps, Crick was one of our best players at bat and on the mound.
Grant teases Rod. “Good thing you didn’t take out any more of our players. We barely had enough to run a lemonade stand.”
Rod says, “Whoa, there, Majorca. Only Hadley was my fault. I had zilch to do with Morgan’s condition. Don’t make me gag. I’d have to be drunk, high, dead—”
Brandon finally intervenes. “Anyway, since we had a great season, we’ll do it again next year. I already talked to Drake, and he’s in as coach. We’ll be better than ever.”
Lifting her mug, Gloria says, “Well, count me out. I’m too old to attempt that crap again.”
Rod catches my eye as he widens his, telling me, “Hallelujah.”
Betsy adds, “Maybe we’ll have a better chance by keeping the same coach this time.” She glances at me. “I mean, I think different coaching styles didn’t help our situation.” Our situation. She has no damn clue about our situation.
I squeeze my water bottle tightly, causing water to spurt onto the table. Val quickly swipes her hand over the puddle, showering water onto the gray-carpeted floor. I can’t think of playing softball, especially with Drake. Especially without…
Before anyone else can comment, Rod says, “We’ll practice now, and when it’s too cold, we’ll work on our speed and agility at the gym. We absolutely got this.”
Brandon leans forward. “Speaking of the gym,” but before he says more, his cell phone buzzes, and he excuses himself from the room. With him gone, the maddening chitchat levels up, and I sit back in my seat, hoping I’m exempt from it this time.
Unfortunately, Shasta turns my way. “Hadley, you and my cousin would make such an interesting couple. Do you want me to give him your number?” Interesting? What is he, an ex-con? A hunchback? One of Rod’s elderly neighbors?
I glance up at her, trying not to rip her bright-red lips off her face as a first response. Though I can’t give her any answer. Sitting next to Shasta, Betsy shakes her head with an artificial, sympathetic look in her eyes, instantly irritating me. “Of course, you don’t think so, honey, but at some point, get back up on that horse. He was one rotten apple out of a bunch. You can’t mope forever.” I can’t talk about this with these people. With anyone.
Feeling like a ball slammed into my stomach in front of the same onlookers again, I’m breathless, and my throat is tight. I may hide and maybe mope, but I’m not acting like a child, at least, I don’t think so. I’m just surviving the best and only way I know how. I’m existing. Can’t that be enough?
Pulling at the corner of my notepad, my voice subtly cracks, but I won’t let them see me crack. “I-I’m not.” I reach for my bottled water and channel my anger, tightening and then tearing off the cap.
Shasta puts her hand on her chest and shakes her head, solemnly stating, “He’s an upstanding guy. A minister. Jake would never run around on you.”
I nearly choke on my water, and Val quickly intervenes, “Shasta, how about we all stay out of Hadley’s business. She’ll tell us if she wants anyone’s help.”
I know Val is steadfastly on my side, but that makes me sound desperate and un-helpable. I don’t need a man. I had one. Now I don’t. I also had his baby growing inside me. Now I don’t. Most of my ability, along with all of my desire to carry another baby, vanished. That’s life. I’ll choose how I cope with my losses. I don’t need anyone to show me how to grieve. I’m an expert at it by now.
Brandon returns to the conference room, saving me from answering questions or defending myself. I catch Rod observing me, but I don’t return the look, choosing to stare at my notepad instead. I don’t need his pity, either.
Shifting his papers, Brandon catches my attention. Running a hand through his gray hair, he tosses down his pen and sits back in his chair. “It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We want to raise money for the cause.”
Rod interrupts, “Twelve-month calendars. You know, the kind with a model posing for each month.” Glancing at Rod, I notice Crick trying to hide a smile. Even he can’t help caving to Rod’s charm. I’m the only one without a sense of humor anymore.
Sylvie sweeps her stick-straight blonde hair over her shoulder, agreeing, “That’s a great idea. I saw one where patients from an assisted-living facility posed nude to raise money for charity.” I notice Shasta scowling at her, not appreciating the competition. With a refined beauty, Sylvie is one hundred times more sophisticated than Shasta.
Horrified, Rod gasps, “Naked old people?”
Val smiles. “Don’t you have senior neighbors, Gregory? Maybe they’d be happy to help since it’s for charity.”
With an open frown on his face that almost makes me smirk, he retorts, “Uh, thanks, Val. I wanted to throw up all my food for the rest of the week. Bad idea, anyway. My downstairs neighbor wears Huggies. I swear to God above.”
Grant says, “I think you’re looking through your own trash again, Rodwell.”
Brandon clears his throat as he realizes he’s losing control of this meeting, thanks to Rod, but that’s not unusual. Brandon is no match for Greg Rodwell, either.
Brandon continues, “The other offices in this building are urging their employees to join a gym if they haven’t already. They’ll donate one hundred dollars to breast cancer research, and the more classes they join and actively participate in, the more money they’ll contribute on the employee’s behalf. They’ll even match any contributions an employee makes to a charity on their own.”
Val adds, “Since you all get a discount at a fitness center of your choice, this is a perfect opportunity to join one.”
Rod darts a look at me, and I know what he’s thinking. A few months ago, we used to go to the gym together, but I haven’t been there since my surgery. I got out of the habit of going, and it’s too embarrassing with Shane knowing the real reason I was in the hospital, thanks to Morgan. It upset me she told him, but she said he had a right to know because I’d have to take a break from the gym. She promised she wouldn’t tell anyone else. I’m holding her to that.
I briefly look away from Rod and then back to him. He nods with a slight shrug, encouraging me to pick up where I left off. I just can’t do it. Responding with a headshake, I pick up my pen and draw random doodles on my pad, hoping he’ll drop the subject.
How wrong I am.
“You can count on Hadley and me. We’ll rake in so much cash that women will flash us on the street to say thank you.”
Swiftly looking up from my scribbling, I glower at my now-former friend. “Rod, I…” I will kill you.
“See? She’s speechless. We’re on it, Hadders! We’ll sign up for all kinds of exercise classes!”
Grant says, “I hope the grannies don’t slap a restraining order on you when you try to dive into their water aerobics.”
Rod amends, “Hadders’ll be happy to do the water aerobics!”
Betsy laughs. “You should join my gym! I take their pole-dancing class. It’s so much fun.”
“Thanks, but we’ll pass on that one.” Rod cringes, and Betsy frowns at him, making the room laugh. I inhale and look at the clock, convinced it’s broken.
With a broad smile, Brandon says, “Thank you very much for leading the way, Greg and Hadley. I’m hoping more of you will follow their shining example. Together we can do our part in helping to find the cure.” I notice Shasta struggling not to roll her eyes. Either she doesn’t like me that much, or she and Brandon are on the outs.
Brandon picks up his ink pen, bouncing it on his folder. “Let’s sweeten the pot.” He eyes Rod and Grant, who are already making their side bets. “For those who want to go the gym route, I’ll award the two who participate in the most classes a fifty-dollar gift card each to their favorite restaurant.”
Gloria says, “I’ll make a straight donation. I’m not breaking a hip like I almost did in softball. No, thank you.” Sounds good to me. No need for me to go back to renew my membership.
Betsy says, “I’m in! Shasta, join my gym!”
She scrunches her face. “Eww. I don’t do gyms.” Only Jims.
Val puts her hand on my arm, and I look at her. Leaning closer, she whispers, “I know you can do this. I have total faith in you.” Damn it, Val. You say that and make me feel like a jerk.
She doesn’t understand. That means I have to see Shane Parker again. I’d rather drive an ice pick into Rod’s skull.
For the rest of the meeting, I stare at my blank paper, not making any attempts to take notes as I plan Greg Rodwell’s end. Val would be better off having a golden retriever for her assistant.
A dead golden retriever.