We are on the way home from a Saturday afternoon family Halloween party and I am wearing my sexy witch costume, which is basically a black leotard, tights, and a lot of eye makeup. I ditched the hat in the backseat with the girls. The leotard is riding up in both the front and the back and Lily, dressed as a black cat, has her face in my hat. Brit is fixing her pompadour. Ricky is singing some made-up Halloween song that is making Lily and Brit laugh.
Lily is four, Brit is eleven. They have spent the day eating candy corn, candy apples, mini Snickers bars, and pumpkin-flavored cupcakes at a party given by a school friend of Brit’s. “I think the invitation was for you and Connie,” I say to Ricky.
“Didn’t you have a good time?” He smiles, wets his finger, tamps down his eyebrows.
I take his hand, rub the wet off against my hip. “Except for everyone asking about Connie.”
He glances in the backseat. It’s been eleven months and supposedly it was as friendly a split as divorces go but Brit’s still sensitive about it. Or so Ricky says.
“I should call her,” he says. “I told her we’d be home around four-thirty.”
It is five o’clock and just starting to get dark. I tap the digital clock. “Does she start calling hospitals when you’re five minutes late?”
Ricky digs his cell phone out of the pocket of his black jeans, which, when he put on this afternoon, I told him I didn’t even know people made anymore. He looked at me with his fallen-in little-boy face and said he thought they’d go with his vampire costume. I kissed him, said he looked fine, maybe a little eighties. I unzipped his zipper and slid my hand into the opening but he pulled away, said the kids were downstairs, waiting.
He hands me his cell phone. “Can you call and let her know we’re on the way?”
I let the cell phone dangle in his palm, midair. I look in the back seat and Brit has her hand on her stomach and her eyes closed.
“Are you feeling all right, sweetie?” I ask, all maternal. I glance at Ricky to see if he notices but he’s back to watching the road.
Lily says, “Are we still having pizza for dinner?”
“After we drop Brit off.”
“Can’t she spend the night with us?”
Brit rolls her head side to side and moans.
“Maybe we should get her some ginger ale,” I say to Ricky. Connie is the kind to be quick to blame me for her kid pigging out and then throwing up all night. “There’s a Seven-Eleven up the street.”
“She’s fine,” Ricky says. He has put the phone between his legs. “Connie practically has a pharmacy at the house.”
“She’s amazing,” I say.
The night we sent Brit home with temporary tattoos, Connie called Ricky and told him I made her kid into a streetwalker. She’s a little extreme, I told Ricky. He said he liked my casual parenting style. Then I heard him call Connie back and tell her to try a little rubbing alcohol.
He told me they broke up because the love “just wasn’t there anymore.” He said he liked my “passion for life.” Sometimes I catch him touching the spot where his wedding ring locked in on his finger for twelve years.
Both kids have closed their eyes now and I have my hand way up on Ricky’s thigh. He squeezes my hand, then returns it to my lap. “They’re asleep,” I say.
“We should be careful,” he says.
“Slow and steady,” I say. If he notices my sarcasm, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He nods, taps the steering wheel in time to “Born to Run.”
“Is Connie a Springsteen fan?”
“People who aren’t goody-two-shoes,” I say.
One second the car in front of us is there, the next second it’s made a hard right into the woods, veering hells-bells off the road.
“Holy shit,” Ricky says.
“Holy shit,” I say as Ricky pulls the car to the soft shoulder. “What are you doing?”
The car is way off into the woods, so far all I can see are the taillights. Ricky opens his door.
“What are you doing?” I ask again.
He tosses me his cell phone. “Call 911,” he says as he runs down the embankment toward the car. His vampire cape flaps behind him.
“Do you have training for this?” I yell after him.
There’s a lot I don’t know about Ricky. We met when I was pumping gas into my nineteen-eighty Dodge pickup and he hollered across and asked if I got good gas mileage. Lily was in the backseat with a paper crown on her head and I stood so that I was blocking the window and told him I didn’t know much about cars. On our first date he showed me how to change a tire so I guess he’s handy.
I turn around and tap Brit’s knee through her gray wool skirt. She’s supposed to be a fifties secretary but she looks a little dowdy if you ask me. “Does your dad know CPR?”
She hops her knee and I try not to think she did it to get my hand off of her. “I’m going to see if he needs help.” She has her seatbelt unbuckled.
“You are not,” I say. I tell the 911 operator that we’re on our way from Portland to Windham but I can’t think of anything else. She asks the route number and I tell her I don’t know.
“Three-oh-two.” Brit rolls her eyes.
I lock the child safety locks so she can’t get out. She shoots me a hateful look. “You’ll just be in the way,” I say.
“I have first aid training.”
Ricky sells insurance. Health, life, car. And he’s good at it. Sincere. Not willing to sell you stuff you don’t need. Smooth with his hands, his voice. I put my head against the headrest and close my eyes.
Brit leans over and I can smell the waxy lipstick I let her borrow. “Shouldn’t you go help, too?” She asks.
“I’m sure your father can handle it.” I fish a pack of Bubbleiscious out of my purse and hand it over the backseat.
Lily takes the gum and unwraps a piece, then offers it to Brit who shakes her head. Lily shrugs, pops the piece in her mouth, unwraps another piece and pops that in, too. Mouth full of gum, she says, “Are those people dead?”
“Maybe,” Brit says.
“No,” I say. “And no more gum. The last thing I need is you choking.” I expect Brit to repeat how she knows first aid but she just sits back, crosses her arms, and gives a little cat-smile. Just like her mother.
“I bet they’re dead,” Brit says.
Lily has her head in my witch hat again and she’s crying.
“You’d better not spit your gum in my hat,” I say. “No one is dead.”
Brit says, “You don’t know that. You’ve been sitting right here with us the whole time.”
“Knock it off. Both of you.” I shouldn’t have had two Bloody Marys at the Halloween party but I figured Ricky was driving and I could just relax until it was time to read Lily her bedtime story. And maybe I could talk him into doing that, too.
Lily lifts her head, sucks in her bottom lip and stops crying.
“Thank you,” I say. I turn around and smile at both of them, trying to soften the whole exchange. I don’t want to be the kind of raving lunatic my mother was when she was half in the bag. Not that I’m drunk, or even close. I’m just at the slightly dulled edge of sober, where things slip out of my mouth oh-so-much easier.
I watch the digital numbers on the clock slide by. Three minutes, four. “How long does it take to get an ambulance?”
Brit says, “My dad once saved a cat from a tree.”
“What do you mean by saved? Cats go up in trees all the time, make their way down eventually.”
“This cat didn’t know how.”
“Did it tell you that?”
Brit stares at me. “It was up there for four hours. Sometimes you just help because it’s the right thing to do.”
I feel tears sting my eyes and I roll down my window and pretend to listen. “I don’t hear anyone screaming,” I say.
Lily whimpers. Brit puts an arm around her and half-hugs her and the child seat.
Finally, the ambulance wails to a stop behind us and I get out and point unnecessarily down the embankment. Ricky meets the paramedics halfway, talks in wide, swooping gestures as they move right past him. He looks ridiculous with the cape flapping out behind him. I stand there for a second thinking I’ll gesture to him or something but he doesn’t even glance at me.
Sometimes I find myself fantasizing that if I married Ricky, Connie would take Lily on the weekends she keeps Brit. It’s already happened once. Two months after Ricky and I started dating, Connie took both girls to see Wicked down in Boston for Brit’s eleventh birthday. They stayed at the Radisson. I don’t know how she managed to get a four-year-old to sit through an entire Broadway musical but when I asked her if she used Benadryl she looked at me like I was a drug dealer on the schoolyard. For weeks after the adventure, Lily sang snippets of saccharine songs, told me how they ordered pizza from room service, drank cans of root beer from the mini bar, swam in the hotel pool and used two towels each when they took showers. In my mind, I always see Connie’s name in lights just beneath Wicked.
“They’ve been down there a long time,” Brit says.
“We should call my mother. She expected me home at four-thirty.”
I pass my cell phone over the backseat. “Knock yourself out.”
She dials her mother, ducks her head into the corner between the door and seat, murmurs about the couple, her father down there doing heroics. I don’t actually hear her say the part about heroics but I imagine it and roll my eyes at Lily. She’s busy pulling strings of gum out of her mouth. “Here,” I say, handing her a tissue. She ignores me.
Brit tells her mother she loves her, then passes me the phone. “She’s coming to pick me up.”
“Did you ask her to come pick you up?”
Another shrug, the bones in her shoulders nearly poking her ears.
“Don’t just shrug when I ask you a question.”
Brit points her chin toward the window. “Here they come.”
The guys with the stretcher come up first, one with his gut peeking out from under his shirt, the other one sweating down his nose. Ricky trots behind them. He’s still wearing the cape.
He gets in the car, settles the cape around him like he’s some kind of hero and now I’m annoyed. “You could lose the cape,” I say.
“What happened?” Brit is leaning over, wrapping her arms around his neck.
“Maybe we should just get going,” I say.
“Mom’s coming,” Brit says.
“Guy had a heart attack,” Ricky says. “Wife smashed up against the dashboard pretty good. I don’t think she was wearing a seatbelt.”
Lily’s eyes have gone wide. “Ricky,” I say, squeezing his thigh. “Not in front of the girls.”
He kisses Brit’s arm, which is still around his neck. “They can handle it.”
“Maybe Brit can,” I say.
He smiles, more at Brit than at me. “It’s life, Jeanine.” He puts the car in drive. “Call your mom and ask her to meet us at the hospital. You told her everything’s okay, right?”
“I can’t go to the hospital like this,” I say.
“You look fine,” he says.
“I’m not going like this.”
“You can stay in the car with the girls, then. Connie shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.”
Brit dials her mother again and mentions the cape her father is wearing.
I liked Ricky better in the beginning, when I didn’t know how he could be so single-minded and self-righteous and I could fill in the blanks my own way. Before I came right out and asked him about his marriage, I liked to imagine Connie unplugging Sports Center and tossing the forty-seven inch TV onto the lawn. I pictured her with a closet full of Coach bags, a manicure every Thursday, and an aversion to blowjobs. But Ricky, in a fit of honesty, told me he would always consider her one of his best friends.
“How many best friends do you have?” I’d asked him.
“It’s a shame you don’t keep in touch with Lily’s father,” he said.
“I like my way better,” I said.
“That’s sad,” he said. “Sometimes people just can’t be married anymore.”
“That sounds like a bullshit Hallmark card,” I said.
“I like that you have so many opinions,” he said.
“Does Connie not have opinions?”
Given his stance on not saying anything negative about his ex-wife, it was no surprise he didn’t answer.
Across the hospital parking lot there’s a small swing set lit like Christmas with parking-lot lights. As soon as Ricky shuts the engine, the girls set off for it. I stroll off after them and park it at the picnic table. Sitting, I try to discretely fix my leotard but it seems pretty well twisted. Connie will probably show up in skinny jeans and a sweater as white as her teeth. She’ll fall all over herself telling Brit how much she missed her. One time I asked her if she enjoyed her alone time and she gave me a look like I’d just asked about the bodies in her basement. “I love being Brit’s mom,” she’d said.
“I could go for some alone time,” I’d said.
“I’m lucky to have Ricky,” she said.
“Right. Me too.”
Brit is pushing Lily on the swings. Brit’s skinny as a fawn. Glasses, overbite, smattering of pimples on her chin. “Unfortunate age,” I said to Ricky the first time I met her and we’d watched her run up the walkway at Connie’s. Ricky’s old house was a two-story Colonial with a false brick front and huge rhododendron bushes out front. Connie collected lawn gnomes and they were all over the place—digging fake holes, picking imaginary flowers, bending over and kissing one another. I kind of liked the gnomes because other than that, the place had the personality of a paper bag.
“She looks a lot like Connie did at that age,” Ricky had said.
I got the message that he wasn’t up for talking bad about either his daughter or his ex-wife.
Connie’s car is a Lexus. Black. So clean it glimmers in the parking lot lights.
She gets out and eyes my leotard. “Night shift,” I say.
Ricky comes out from the hospital like he’s been watching for Connie’s car. They greet each other with kiss-kiss. “A vampire?” She says, running the edge of his cape between her fingers.
He laughs. “I forgot I still had that on. Why didn’t you girls tell me?”
Brit says, “I thought it looked cool. Like a superhero.”
Connie smiles her veneered smile. “How are the Peterson’s?”
“The Peterson’s are fine,” I say, linking my arm through Ricky’s and leaning my head on his shoulder.
“They’re not, actually.” He doesn’t exactly shrug me off but he moves forward and dislodges my head from his shoulder. “He’s being taken into surgery and she’s a mess.”
“Poor things,” Connie says. She’s wearing a black leather coat that I would never have bought but now that I see it on her I want it.
“We don’t even know them,” I say. “They could murder small children during commercials.”
Ricky and Connie stare at me.
The girls are standing one on either side of Connie touching the seams of her coat. I touch the diamond pattern of my fishnets. “I thought you said the daughter was coming? Is she here? Linda, was that her name?”
Ricky blinks, rubs his eyebrows. “Where’d you get Linda?”
I shrug. I made it up but Linda Peterson sounds like a reasonable name. All of a sudden there’s a chill and I start to shiver like mad. “Is she here yet?”
Ricky and Connie shake their heads in unison.
“I need to get Lily home,” I say. “It’s getting late.”
Connie looks at her tasteful white leather and diamond watch. “It’s six o’clock.”
“We haven’t had dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” Lily says.
“You must have homework,” I say. Even though it’s Saturday night and she’s in Pre-Kindergarten. I put my hand over her mouth to stop her from saying any more. Connie’s eyes get all big and I think for a second she’s going to say something about child abuse. I narrow my eyes at her and she looks away.
I squeeze Ricky’s arm. “I want to get going.”
He looks at me, then at Connie. “I can drive you home,” Connie says.
Ricky smiles so wide I can see the crooked tooth in the way back. “That would be awesome,” he says.
The kids race toward Connie’s car. I stand there for another ten seconds to give Ricky a chance to change his mind. He touches the small of my back. “I’ll call you later,” he says.
“Great,” Connie says.
Ricky laughs. “Both of you.”
The whole thing creeps me out.
Connie’s car is a silvery gray inside, leather, heated seats.
“It feels like we’re in a spaceship,” Lily says. She powers down the window, waves a hand out. “Helllloooo, world,” she yells.
I close my eyes and lean my head back against the warm seat. “You and Ricky get along so well it’s a wonder you aren’t still together.”
Connie laughs but it’s a hard sound, more like a bark. “There’s no sense in not being civil.”
I’m happily lulled and not sure if she means them being civil to each other, or me being civil to either of them. The car is so smooth I can barely feel a bump in the road.
When she pulls up to my house, both girls clamor out of the backseat. Brit says, “I’m just going to walk Lily in, okay?”
Connie blows them kisses, her ivory hand coming just to her pink lips, then a flick and wave, sending invisible kisses off the tips of her French-manicured nails. She is still watching out the side window when I lean over and press my lips to the spot just below her diamond hoop earring. I feel the lotion-softness of her skin, taste the faint bitterness of her perfume, feel her fluttery heartbeat beneath my dry lips. “Thanks for the ride,” I say, my mouth still against her neck, my warm breath carrying itself back into my face.
She turns her head and for one split second I think she’s going to kiss me back. But her hand comes up in the slight space between us and her rings catch the light from the streetlamps. She will tell Ricky about the bubblegum smell of my breath, the over-slickness of my lips. She will wonder if I used the tip of my tongue to taste her perfume.
Brit is running back down the weedy lawn, opening her door, sliding into the backseat, breathless. I blink and smile and open my door and before I’m even all the way around the car, Connie is peeling off down the street, Brit waving with her arm out the window.
Jennifer Dupree grew up outside of Boston and is now a resident of Maine and a Stonecoast MFA student. Her short stories have appeared in Front Porch Review, Family Circle, The Masters Review, On The Rusk, and Stone Cold: A New England Crime Anthology. A former bookstore owner, Jen has a deep and abiding passion for reading. Find a link to her book blog as well as links to her stories and other information at her website www.jenniferdupree.com. She is currently at work on a linked collection of stories and a novel.