Until Death

Until Death

Alicia Rasley

July 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-326-9

Accident? Suicide? Or Murder? Searching for the answer may just get her killed.

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The last thing Meg O'Brian wants is further contact with her ex-husband, Don, and his young trophy wife. She's ready to move on, to start a new life, maybe with a new man who knows nothing about her past failure at love. But now Don is dead, possibly murdered, putting their 15-year-old son's financial legacy and emotional security at risk for the second time in the year since the divorce.

Meg must investigate Don's tangled business affairs and turn up the heat on his tawdry widow. Unfortunately, the only one who can help her discover the truth is the man who destroyed all her illusions two years ago—her cynical, burnt-out-on-matrimony marriage counselor, Mike Warren, the guy who knows her history all too well and won't hesitate to use it against her.

Alicia Rasley grew up in the placid old mountains of SW Virginia. She teaches writing at a community college and is a guest lecturer and writing advisor at a state university. Between sadistic bouts of grading papers, she hangs out and talks sentences with co-blogger Theresa at the Edittorrent blog. She lives now in the flatlands of Indiana with her husband Jeff, who is also a writer and runs a foundation to benefit villages in Nepal. For a two-writer family, there is remarkably little artistic temperament. But the house is filled with crammed bookcases and overflowing magazine racks.


Coming soon!


Chapter One

JUST CALL ME the ex-widow.

I don't mean my dead husband has come back to life. No, I'm the ex-wife of the man who died. It's not much of a role. I didn't have to answer all the sympathy cards, and I didn't have to go home after the funeral and eat my way through goodies the neighbors left. I didn't have to mourn. But I'm afraid I did anyway.

I was so ex that Don's current widow had the attorney tell me not to come to the funeral. I was supposed to stay home when my husband was buried. Because he wasn't my husband anymore. Because the day the divorce was final, I was supposed to stop caring.

Maybe she was right. If I came, I would secretly be chief mourner, even if she was the one in the black veil standing by the coffin. I'd loved him longer, and I'd loved him better, and I'd loved him more. I knew that, and she knew that. Even he knew that. The greatest heartbreak of all is that it didn't matter to him.

So I'll understand if you think I was just bitter when I decided that she murdered him.

The last time I saw Don was on a Monday, two days before he died. That was, two years and two months after he fell in love with Wanda, and almost twelve months after our divorce. Eleven months and twenty-six days after he remarried. Not that I was counting.

I'd put it behind me, or resolved to, over and over again. So I was pretty calm when he came by to drop off Tommy's sweatshirt. He hung around long enough that I finally offered him coffee. Now why did I do that? Did I sense he wanted to talk to me but couldn't say so? I wasn't always good at reading him—I mean, when it came to Wanda, I really was the last to know—but I'd long ago learned to say, "We need to talk,” when it was Don who really needed the talk.

I'm sure that was it. It sounds better, anyway, than "I really wanted him to stick around long enough to meet the hunky new neighbor I powerwalk with every afternoon at five.”

Oh, all right. There was also that little voice that sang, "Seduce him, seduce him.” Really, it's a credit to the nuns who educated me that all I did was offer him some coffee.

He came in and sat down and gazed around his former living room. A decade ago, we'd built this rustic timber-framed house overlooking the river, recycling beams from an old barn. Every room was the result of negotiation between the traditionalist (me, natch) and the modernist (Don). I must have won most of the arguments, as Don didn't have any trouble leaving it behind.

So maybe as he looked around, Don remembered the spot near the French doors where we always put the Christmas tree. Or the photos on the piano, Tommy and Don and me on the beach, Tommy and Don in White Sox caps... But all he said was "How's business?”

I said, "Okay.” During the divorce, I'd started a company with a friend, offering financial and marketing services to the software startups that had turned our Indiana town into the Silicon Cornfield. If it were anyone but Don asking, I'd describe my newest client's new product, a smartphone-linked e-commerce package. But with Don, it would sound pathetic, like I was showing off how well I was doing without him. I was, perhaps, a bit too worried about sounding pathetic around Don. He probably thought I was rude instead.

"Umm, where's Tommy?”

"He's on the youth trip to Chicago this week, remember?” Suddenly, I was fiercely glad that I was the mother, or "the primary parent” as the judge called me during the divorce hearing, because I didn't have to be reminded of something so important to my son that he bit his fingernails down to the quick in anticipation. And I didn't want to have his absence be the default in my life. Here I was, feeling liberated and relaxed (except when I was worrying Tommy would fall off the Sears Tower) because I had a kidless week. Don wouldn't ever know how the pain of missing Tommy made the pleasure sharper. Something about the maternal bond makes me understand masochism. The pain makes me know how much I love him.

Doesn't work that way with husbands. Especially ex-husbands. The pain just reminded me of what a fool I was to go on loving.

After another exchange like that, I got impatient. Truth is, I was a bit bored. If we were going to risk communicating (no risk for him, maybe, but I'd pay for it with a sleepless night), I wanted more action and adventure than this tortured small talk offered. (That was maybe why that "seduce him” voice kept singing.)

During those months I was trying to win Don back, I'd become something of a crisis junkie. Back then there was some primal energy running through me, when I would scream, "But I love you! And Tommy loves you! How can you give us up?” and he would scream back that he was dying and only she could save him. It was a dangerous sort of fun, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor ripping at each other on the screen. Almost sexual.

But this exchange was tedious and not at all sexual. I knew I was supposed to probe until he grudgingly spilled the secret he wanted to spill. But now I didn't want to bother. Good thing we weren't still married, or he'd have to find another dance partner.

Finally, when he was silent, all small talk exhausted, secret still unspilled, I felt a crawling need for escape. "That's it? Well.” I rose. "Thanks for coming by.”

"Meggie, wait.” Aha. The sphinx speaks.

I perched my newly firm hip on the arm of the couch. (Yeah, I know, it's not fair. For years Don kept after me to lose weight. Then he left, and the prospect of being single and twenty pounds overweight galvanized me. This was all part of my Brave New Self: unattached and unafraid. Not to mention unflabby.)

This time I didn't interpret his silence for him. I didn't say, "Are you worried about business? Is Wanda betraying you with some bouncer at her favorite bar?” I didn't say anything at all.

All of a sudden, he said, "I just feel so bad about you. The last few years. How you got hurt. I think about it all the time.”

"Don, come on. Even I don't think about it all the time.”

He gave me a rebuking look. Here I had spent decades trying to get him to talk about his feelings, and now that he was doing it, I was dismissing them. Oops. There I go, interpreting him again.

"I guess what I'm saying is I feel—” he sorted through a few alternative emotions, discarding them one after another. No, I'm not interpreting here, really. They were practically written on his face. Guilty? Nah. Ashamed? Nah. "I just feel bad about it.”

Don made an agonized face. I was reminded (no wonder he divorced me, the repository of such memories) of that old hotel in Dublin when he was straining on the rickety toilet and it crashed, depositing him in a puddle on the floor. Same agony.

"I wish I hadn't hurt you. But you know how I felt about Wanda.”

"Mmmm.” Yeah, I knew how he felt about Wanda. In fact, the best thing about his leaving was I didn't have to hear anymore him counting all the ways he loved her.

"And I couldn't give it up, you know? It felt like my last chance at happiness.”

Past tense. I felt. It felt. I couldn't. Where'd that come from? Was all his lust/love for her in the past? Last I heard, all the gushy stuff was in present tense. I opened my mouth to point this out. But Hera, the goddess of betrayed wives, must have been listening. The phone rang—my business partner Barb.

I lowered my voice, but not too far. "Uh, Bobby?” That wasn't quite a lie. Way back in high school, she once confided, she used to go by that nickname. "I can't talk now.”

"Who's there?” she demanded. "Not Don! Well, heck. Let me make you blush. Testicles.”

That made me laugh, not blush. I glanced at Don and thought that was just as good. "I'll call you later. I promise.”

Don was looking stony as I hung up. "If you need to return that call, I can leave now.”

"No, no. Finish your coffee. Want some English trifle?”

Mollified, he followed me to the kitchen. As I handed the trifle bowl over, he slid open the drawer where we once kept the silver. He stared into it. Dish towels. "Where is the silver?”

"I reorganized.” I took a spoon from the new location, next to the dishwasher, and he dug in, giving the dish towel drawer a stricken glance. For a man who switched houses, wives, and sons in a single week, Don wasn't real comfortable with change.

"Don? You wanted to tell me something.”

With a sigh, he took the dish to the sink and rinsed it. Lucky Wanda. I'd trained him well. "Actually, I wanted to ask you something. What was the name of that psychiatrist we went to? And his number?”

The question wasn't what I expected. I shut my mouth, found the doctor's name in my address book, and jotted the number on a sticky note. "Michael Warren, MD.” I didn't come right out and ask. I could be passive-aggressive too. Casually, as if I didn't care, I said, "Some insurance problem, I guess.”

"No. Wanda's having second thoughts. About the prenup.”

Believe it or not, that prenup had been my idea. Back when their marriage was only his fondest dream and my worst nightmare, I wrote Don a well-reasoned analysis of what I termed his midlife crisis. What, I asked without the slightest malice, would a glamorous (if trashy) twenty-five-year-old step-aerobics instructor, who until recently hung out with the ring-in-eyebrow set, want with a forty-two-year-old real estate developer? If she loved him and not his money, she'd sign a prenuptial agreement.

I thought she'd refuse in some pretty pouty way—"But, hunky” (that, he told me once with a soft rotting smile, was what she called him) "you mean I have to prove my love?”—and he'd have to wonder if he'd been duped like those other rich guys whose blonde trophy wives later run off with their personal trainers.

But Wanda was smarter than that. She signed, and whatever reserve Don had melted away. She loved him. Not his money.

Here it was a year later, and she was ready to renegotiate. I wondered if she thought this all up herself, or if she attended a seminar on how to succeed as a trophy wife. "Wouldn't an attorney be better to write up a new agreement?”

"We—I don't want a new agreement. But we have to deal with... the implications.”

Suddenly, I was tired of it all, of him and his midlife idiocy and that simple sly girl who'd made me hate myself for a while there. "You mean you want the good doctor to tell her no. Just like you wanted him to tell me you were filing for divorce.”

He was stricken again. "It's just too hard. I don't like the hurt. But the doctor puts things in a way that it didn't hurt.”

Right. Michael Warren, M.D., the man with the magic mouth, who made me realize why you might want to kill the messenger. I hadn't forgiven him for his wise counsel at the end there: Try to get out with some dignity. Believe me, you'll be glad of that later, that you weren't as big a fool as you might have been. I brightened, thinking of how he might put it to Wanda. "Yeah, Dr. Warren did have a knack for conveying bad news.”

Don nodded eagerly. "That's what I thought. He was tactful.”

As an elephant. I glanced at the clock, saw that it was almost five, and decided against cutting the conversation short. "Yep, tactful Mike Warren. Did you see in the paper that his wife died last year?” That was one of the new hobbies that had come with turning forty. Now I read the obituaries, right after my horoscope.

"His wife? I didn't know he had a wife.”

I refrained from pointing out in six months of weekly counseling sessions, he must have noticed the photo on Dr. Warren's desk, the one with him and a pretty red-haired woman laughing on a Ferris wheel. "The obituary said she died of cancer.”

"Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn't bother him.” He looked around disconsolately, as if I moved the door as well as the silverware.

I couldn't let him go, not before Vince arrived. "Come on, it's his job. He probably gets solace from helping others.” And from brutally disabusing them of their precious illusions. "I'm sure he'd be glad to see you again—” and I can only excuse the next line because it was 4:59 pm and Vince was due any second—"happy in your new marriage.”

Don didn't notice my gritted teeth. In fact, his appreciation for my goodwill would have gone on and on had Vince not knocked. I flung open the kitchen door. "Vince! Sweetie!”

Vince saw Don and assimilated the situation. "My darling!” Okay, he overdid it, kissing my hand in that oh-so-Euro way. But Don was fooled. I figure a man who goes weak when a girl calls him "hunky” has probably lost his sense of subtlety.

He looked at Vince—dressed in a worn old t-shirt that showed his biceps and track shorts he'd actually run in at IU—and became dignified. "I don't mean to keep you from your date.”

"No, no,” Vince said magnanimously, stepping outside. "I'll be waiting at the corner, Meg. Doing my warmup.”

"Warmup?” Don said as the door closed. "Is he a comedian?”

"For walking. He blew out his knee in the Olympic trials—” thank you, God, for letting me say that "—and he's limited to walking for a few months. Fine with me, because I don't like to run.” This sounded more like a matter of choice than fear for my internal organs.

He regarded me icily. "I didn't know you were seeing anyone.”

I shrugged modestly. "Just a few guys. I guess I see Vince the most.” Sure I did. He lived next door. Him and his boyfriend, Hal.

"He's kind of young, isn't he?”

Another gift from heaven. "It's such a change. His energy level is amazing. Last night I suggested renting a video, but he insisted on going dancing.” Well, he and Hal went dancing. I stayed home and did a James Bond festival—all Sean Connery, except for one slutty little interlude with Pierce Brosnan. Daniel Craig, well, he promised never to tell.

Don didn't reply. All he did was look around the kitchen moodily, and I wondered if this was the first time he really understood that I wasn't his anymore, wasn't loyal old Meggie, waiting in case Don got over his midlife crisis and came back.

I almost felt bad for pretending Vince was a lover. Almost.

But there wasn't much more vindication to wring from this encounter. Move on, Dr. Warren had said as the divorce approached. Act as if you don't need him, and it'll come true.

Time for it to come true. "Hey, Don, I have to get to Vince. Anything else?”

Don rose and said, all no big deal, "Oh, yeah, if you get any legal papers, just ignore them.”

"About the prenup?” Suspicion shot through me, and I grabbed him and yanked him around. "Don't tell me she wants Tommy's money too?”

He shook free. "She doesn't even know about Tommy's money. No big deal. It's just, you know, if anything happens to me, you won't be too surprised. Not that anything is going to happen to me,” he added hastily. "I mean, if you read about some lawsuit in the business journal. It's about that Netmore Millennium campus addition. "

The Netmore campus was an office park for our local software billionaires. It had been our first big development, back when the billionaires weren't even millionaires, and the new millennium seemed as remote as the Civil War. "Netmore?”

Don shrugged. "Other side went for a TRO to stop construction. So you might get served as ex-treasurer of Ross-Munssen, just to provide some information. You know, about our deals with Netmore.”

It wasn't that I didn't trust him. I mean, I didn't trust him, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was, he was being cagey, and I didn't like it. "Maybe I better take this to an attorney, just to make sure.”

"Suit yourself. It will be thrown out of court quick. I just got Mills and Shumer on retainer about it, and they're not intimidated by that restraining order. They're ready to flood the court with discovery requests, and the other side won't be able to keep up and will just give up. I got it covered. No worries. So forget about it.”

"Gee, Don, thanks a lot.”

My irony must have penetrated for once. He regarded me with something of an apology on his face. "Look, I mean it. It was all done through Primeline, and you weren't involved in that.”

"That's right. Primeline was your own idea. Another midlife crisis, huh?”

Don flushed a dark red and headed out the front door. Primeline was his one really sleazy action before the divorce, I mean, besides taking up with The Trophy (she was just The Bimbo back then). He set up a separate corporation that siphoned business away from our company. The treasurer slot was ably filled by Wanda, the step-aerobics instructor whose previous real estate experience had been renting an apartment. If his method of cheating me got him into trouble now, well, I didn't have the least sympathy for him.

"Good luck with Wanda and all those legal complications,” I said sweetly, and closed the door behind him. And those were the last words I ever said to him, and they were dripping with sarcasm. I guess even after all that time apart, we hadn't moved on. Then he died, and I realized we never would.

Chapter Two

I DECIDED I wasn't going to let my son go alone to his father's funeral. Defiance propelled me into a discreet black dress and into the car. Tommy came with me, somber in his new suit, his floppy brown hair wet-combed and tamed. He hadn't said much since I picked him up in Chicago and told him that his father had fallen from a building. He'd asked, "Did he hurt any?” Death came instantly, I said—I heard those words in some newscast describing that long fall into an unlit construction lot.

But I lost the fuel of righteousness when I got to the big-steepled church. Don's sister was out front, shading her eyes from the sun, watching for us. "Go with your Aunt Tracy, honey,” I told him as we climbed out of the car. "I'll be behind you. You should go to the cemetery in the family car.”

"So should you,” he said fiercely.

He was taller already than me, and his hug had that masculine imperative meant to protect and not to seek comfort. But I gave him comfort, as much as I could through my arms and words. "I'll ride with—” It took me a while to think of a friend of Don's who was still a friend of mine. "I'll ride with Cecilie Wolsey.”

Cecilie had been Don's secretary for years, who took early retirement when he sold the company. Cecilie never blamed Don; in fact, she testified for him at the divorce trial, agreeing that far from being a part-owner, I was just another paid employee. I tried not to hold it against her. Her loyalty had to be with Don and the recommendation he could give her.

As I took a seat in the third-to-last pew, she turned to me with a face red with tears. "It's so sad,” she whispered, and I could smell the liquor on her. "To see young people like Don die. Like I missed my own time, and they're going in my place.”

"I don't think it works that way, Cecilie,” I said. "Hey, why don't you ride in my car to the cemetery?”

"Thanks, but I'm with the Jamisons. There might be room with them.”

"No need.” The Jamisons had known Don as a boy, and I couldn't listen to their recollections. "I'll see you there.”

"Good of you to come,” she muttered as the minister stepped up to the pulpit and the music died away.

What could I have said? Agree I was a class act to pay my respects to my former late husband? Or admit I felt illegal, staring at my replacement sitting proud right up there in the first pew?

At least Tommy got to sit with his Aunt Tracy, a few seats down from the widow. Tracy would take care of Tommy. We used to exchange babysitting when our children were little, and I trusted her.

It was cool in the sanctuary, and the light filtered in pink and gold through the stained glass windows. I felt the ghost of pride. The mayor was there, probably only at the request of Brad Munssen, our old business partner and the city's natural resources advisor. Still, it said something about Don's stature that the mayor had come, and half his cabinet. Not that Don would know, but if he could know, it would make him happy.

The service was short—thank heaven for Presbyterian economy. There were a few hymns, ending with "Nearer My God to Thee.” The minister stood at a carved pulpit and read a one-size-fits-all sermon about the inevitability of death. Everyone nodded thoughtfully, trying to convey a readiness for whatever might come without indicating any dread about the matter.

Brad was there, of course, and gave the eulogy. It had to be the snob factor that led Wanda to ask him to speak instead of one of Don's current friends. After all, Brad and Don had dissolved their partnership around the time of our divorce, the dissolution supposedly just a shift in emphasis, or so the local business journal had reported. I thought it sounded suspiciously like the redefining life goals and starting down a new spiritual path Don used on me. But maybe Brad impressed Wanda with his loyalty. Or maybe he impressed her with his connections. The Munssens were one of Concord's founding families, and they still dominated the local society pages. And Brad was prominent in his early retirement. He served on half a dozen boards, starting with the mayor's advisory council and working his way down to the Bike Trail Project.

He sure looked the part, with his newly-trimmed hair and Brooks Brother suit. Even in our ragtag college years, he'd had that élan that said his grandfather didn't just run the bank, he owned it. And with that natural grace that came along with the silver spoon, Brad handled the awkward situation easily. He talked about their days in the fraternity (getting a laugh from the other Sigma Chis) and Don's hard work establishing their first business, and the pleasure of seeing five Ross-Munssen buildings guarding the edge of town. He didn't bring up any verboten topics, didn't mention his own exile from Don's life, and never got more specific than "those of us who loved Don” except to say that Tommy should be proud of his father's life.

Don's nephew read the 23rd Psalm; then the widow, holding her little son's hand, started down the aisle. Her high heels clicked imperatively on the marble floor. She was staring ahead, the veil concealing her face, but when she came to my row, her head jerked and I felt the heat of her glare. Maybe I was imagining it. But I didn't imagine Tommy's alarmed look, or Tracy's, as they trailed behind her. They were afraid there'd be a scene.

But she halted just for a moment, and hissed, "I should have known you'd be here.”

I was so taken aback I couldn't really reply. But finally, I whispered back, "My son just lost his father. I'm here to support him.”

Wanda hissed back, "Maybe he doesn't need you. His father sure didn't.”

It only took a moment, and she was gone, and I don't know if anyone really noticed. But Tommy touched my shoulder as he passed to go out the door. I wanted to say to Don, we did good. We made that gentle, tough boy. And I'm sorry, and I forgive you, and let's don't be sad.

DON WAS TO SPEND his eternal rest in the classy section of the cemetery. The stones here were elbow-tall, and the flowers were fresh. None of that plastic stuff allowed. Even the breeze was more genteel here, never mussing the mourners' hairdos. But the grass under my pumps was spongy, and I had that eerie, adolescent thought-shiver: Was it because of the human fertilizer?

I figured Brad had helped the widow pick out this spot, just down the hill from the Greek Revival mausoleum where the deceased Munssens gathered. It was her right, I reminded myself. It wasn't as if Don and I had prepared for this. We were Gen-Xers, so our eternity plan consisted of living forever. But then, I was irredeemably middle-class. I knew my place, and it wasn't here among the lieutenant governors and insurance company presidents.

The group at the gravesite was small, and I felt conspicuous. I stayed in the shade of the maples, as if I were the backstreet lover secretly saying my goodbyes. I wished the sky would cloud up so I could stop squinting. I couldn't put on my sunglasses and add "tawdry” to my already suspicious presence.

Hiding under another maple was a knot of Tommy's friends. Lily was in a black skirt and white blouse and looked like she'd run away from parochial school. The three boys wore polo shirts and chinos and their best clean Nikes, the ones they wore only to play indoor basketball and to go to church. I felt a rush of that sweet pain parents get when kids are being very good. I went up to them and thanked them for coming. "I know Tommy really appreciates it.”

Jamie Torrance appointed himself spokesperson. "We won't bother him or nothing—we'll just be here. And we're going to take him out day after tomorrow. We bought the tickets before—before all this. And the WWF comes to town about once a year. And it'll take his mind off things.”

I agreed nothing would divert Tommy like a good faked wrestling match. For a weak moment, I wanted to beg to go along. Instead I patted Jamie on the arm and went back to my own tree.

As I moved around that awful square hole in the ground, the mayor's aide was there, talking intensely to a man I thought was the city engineer. I heard the aide make some joke with the word "tumble,” and the engineer chortled. I halted, fury filling me. They were laughing about my husband's death. No, not my husband. But still, he was my son's father. I glared at them, and this time they took notice of me and sidled away, back towards the line of cars.

From this vantage, I saw the procession of mourners waiting to speak to the official widow. I could almost hear what they were saying: Such a terrible loss, what a shock it must be. Or maybe they were laughing, as the mayor's aide did, at Don's death.

Just as well that though I knew most of them, most of them no longer knew me.

Then there were the few that I didn't know at all, the ones who must have been the Trophy Widow's friends. They were young, lithe, buff. I wondered what Don thought of them: the two young women with the slightly-too-tight skirts (okay, I knew what he thought of them—the same that any man would) and one hunk of a fellow who stuck close by Wanda, as if she might be his ticket to a Chippendales' audition. They'd go out afterwards and drink a few rounds to good ol' Wanda, who knew what she was doing when she married that old guy. Then they'd discuss how best to touch her for a loan.

After a moment, Brad broke away from his graveside post to approach me. I saw the beads of sweat on his upper lip and knew he wasn't feeling well. He always looked slim and elegant, but there was a price for all that aristocratic inbreeding. "Meggie. It's sad to have to meet on such an occasion. Good crowd though, don't you think?”

I remembered Willy Loman's observation that a man's worth could be judged by the number at his funeral. Don ought to be proud then. I said, "Well, Don grew up here, and everyone liked him.”

"Yes, everyone liked Don.” A thousand memories in that line. Brad was Don's best friend, and so we would always be joined. We weren't just Don's audience. We were the people who knew him.

But maybe we stopped knowing him years ago. Or maybe Don stopped being the Don we knew. Maybe that's why Brad made his graceful exit before I was gracelessly shoved out the door. With that gentleness that was so much a part of him, Brad said, "We didn't stay in touch, Meggie.”

This wasn't an accusation, just a rueful acknowledgment of the limitations of friendship. "I know. But—” What was the point, I almost said, but cut it off as barely short of insulting. "I lost touch with a lot of people the last couple of years.”

"Let's not do that again. We'll get together for a drink next week, all right? Talk about old times. The good times.”

I felt the tug. No one remembered those good times now. Just Brad and me. Quickly, before my Brave New Self intervened to remind me to look ahead not behind, I agreed. He gripped my hand, then left to go stand by the grave.

It was only after a moment that I wondered what exactly a drink meant to Brad. A date? Surely not. We were friends. And I'd never been his type. Even in college, he went for women who wore pastel silk suits to class. His discreet but long-standing man-about-town reputation posed no danger for me.

Danger. My Brave New Self scoffed at that. I had to remember that a single man's interest was not dangerous. Sneaking a glance at Brad's elegant back, I decided that, dangerous or not, his interest wasn't a problem/opportunity I was likely to face.

I scooted back to my protective tree. Tommy was in front of the casket, Tracy holding his hand. He looked around and lifted his hand in a wave when he saw me. I saw Wanda's head jerk then—she'd probably never forgive him for that. I didn't care. Tommy wouldn't ever have to see her again.

"Mrs. Ross.”

I turned to see who had the temerity to call me by that name.

"Dr. Warren.” Now this was above and beyond the call of duty. A psychiatrist coming to a client's funeral? (That's what the younger shrinks call us—clients, not patients. It's supposed to make us feel less like sick people and more like rational consumers of mental health services.) It wasn't like we'd all become good pals. But who knows? Maybe Dr. W and Don got to be close. Maybe Dr. W even owed Don a favor. Maybe Don paid Dr. W extra to encourage me to dump my hopeless quest to win him back.

Dr. Warren was as impeccably, and as expensively, dressed as Brad, but there was a difference. Brad was born to wear Brooks Brothers. Dr. Warren wore his suit like armor—something stripped off when the battle was done. He didn't seem uncomfortable, but this place wasn't his native ground. I sensed that. It wasn't mine either.

"I'm sorry for your loss.” That was all he said, and yet that was all it took. He was the only one who mentioned my loss. I covered my mouth with a fist, and he said, his voice rougher now, "Don't cry. She's looking at you. And you can bet her mascara is waterproof.”

"Ha,” I said bitterly. "She doesn't need it. I bet she hasn't cried a tear.”

Dr. Warren said something doctorly, like how different people show grief in different ways. I ignored that but rubbed away any stupid tears that might leak out. I didn't want him thinking all I did was cry. It wasn't my fault that our entire acquaintance took place during the worst time of my life.

"I am not crying,” I declared, and that hard face relaxed, and I realized I was supposed to use my annoyance to buck myself up and get through this disaster. Reverse psychology. "Wanda still looking?” I said.

"Nope. The minister has opened his bible.”

I sobered up quick and checked Tommy again. He was still holding Tracy's hand. I couldn't help him now, and I felt the harsh crack of that. This was the worst in a long series of hurts I had to let him suffer on the road to adulthood. I wasn't any good at that. I wanted to fight the battles for him, take the math tests, beat up the bullies. Don hadn't let me. That's what fathers were for: To hold mothers back, to let sons live their own lives, make their own mistakes, become men.

I held myself back now.

A few more prayers, a warbly hymn, then the minister led everyone away from the grave and down the slope towards the cars. They don't go through that ceremony of lowering the casket and tossing clods of dirt anymore. Too tacky. Too gritty. Too final.

Tommy broke away from the procession and came back to me. "Mom, they want me to go back for the luncheon. I don't want to.”

"You have to. You know that. It's for your father.”

He hesitated, shifting his weight forward, as if he thought he might be able to run away. His new leather shoes creaked, and he made a face. "I got a blister.”

"I've got a bandaid.” I searched through my handbag and triumphantly handed one over. Tommy looked dubiously at the battered little wax packet, so I added, "The seal isn't broken. It's sterile. Now be sure and say please and thank you. And wait until you get to a restroom to take off your shoe. If you've got a blister, I bet it's because there's a hole in your sock.”

He gave that annoyed adolescent "huh” and trailed off to catch his aunt. After that crack about his sock, he would just as soon spend the afternoon with civilized people who didn't go out of their way to humiliate him.

"Good tactic.”

I'd forgotten Dr. Warren. He was leaning against a tree, his arms folded across his suit front. I said, "Well, I've learned a few tricks. Do you have any children?”

"Two girls,” he replied. "They're both at Ovid.”

Ovid was an old red-brick liberal arts college in the leafiest part of town, still alive because a couple of Concord's older families kept endowing buildings. The shrink business must be doing well if he could put two kids through private college. Most local kids went to IU or Purdue, or sent their kids to the new state university out on the highway, with the low tuition and the hot computer science department. "That must be nice, having them here in town.”

"Yeah, I see them when their laundry reaches crisis proportions. What are you going to do now?”

For a second, I thought he meant with my life. Then I saw he was watching the cars streaming after the Official Widowmobile. He meant right now. It was embarrassing to confess I wasn't invited back for the luncheon, so I said, "I'm going home.”

He pushed away from the tree. "Tell you what. You stay here for a couple minutes. I'll get some junk food and bring it back.”

"Here?” I'd been trying not to notice, but now that the funeral party had exited the cemetery, a pickup truck was wending up the road towards us. I could see shovels in the back. Anyway, I'm not one for domineering men. They get my back up. And if I had anywhere to go but an empty house, I'd tell old Mike Warren to take his commands to boot camp where they belonged.

But the sun was warm, and after standing so long, I couldn't get the energy back to my legs. So I watched him get into his car as the three overall'd fellows clambered from the pickup truck, grabbed their shovels from the back, and walk to the casket.

They pulled the tarp off the hole. The casket was up on some contraption that looked like a hospital gurney, and they maneuvered that around all the floral wreaths and right up to the hole. I turned away. I didn't want to see the next step.

I stared hard at the rubbled bark of the maple tree a foot away. I listened to the soft Spanish of the gravediggers, and the hum of the bees, and the squeak of the gurney as it collapsed. Then I turned back to see. It was my duty. Maybe, as the ex-widow, I couldn't hold the luncheon, and I couldn't answer the condolence cards. But I could stand watch as he was lowered into the grave.

The men, intent upon levering the casket straight in the hole, ignored me until I made my reluctant way past the heaped flowers. Then they stuck their shovels in the dirt and looked at me.

I wonder what they thought when they saw this black-clad lady sneaking up after everyone else was gone. Well, I can guess. They grinned and exchanged a few words in rapid Spanish. They must be thinking, what a weird fella this one, to step out on that hotsy-totsy young wife with a middle-aged mistress.

From the looming mound, I picked up a clod of dirt. "May I?”

They were from an older culture, accustomed to the rituals of death, and they could hardly be shocked by this. I held the dirt over the casket and said a silent prayer.

There's nothing like Indiana topsoil. It's black and rich, bursting with life. I felt something moist slither across my finger. Life. A worm. I gasped and dropped the clod. It hit the shining casket, and the worm came free, and after a moment's reconnoitering moved towards the dirt walls of the grave.

It was sick, it was grotesque... it was death.

By the grove of trees was a bench, and I dropped onto it, and for the first time since Don died I could cry. Then I found a wet-wipe in my purse and washed my face and hands, stained with tears and grave dirt and worm slime. If there was a trashcan nearby, it was cleverly disguised as a marble monument, so I wrapped the wipe in its foil and stuck it back in my purse.

I was fairly presentable when Mike Warren arrived. "Here,” he said, letting me take the bag that he'd been clutching between his pinkie and his ring finger. The ring finger was bare, I couldn't help but notice, with a stripe of pale where a ring once was. What was the etiquette? Did a widower strip off his wedding ring right away, or wait till he felt single? Did he toss it into the river, as I had done with my ring the day after the divorce?

He sat down next to me and handed over three messy little packages. It was strange, sitting on the bench, surrounded by gravestones and the sounds of shovels as we ate tacos.

Oh, I knew what he was doing. I'd taken a couple of psych courses in grad school. He left me so I could have my own little ritual of farewell; now he was offering me hot sauce so the whole death thing was demystified. It was just part of life, like eating. And a cemetery was a pleasant place for a picnic.

I decided, maybe maliciously, to demystify him. "Is your wife buried here?”

I failed. He licked a smear of sour cream off the corner of his mouth before he replied, "No. Laurie wanted cremation. And she made us fly to Grand Cayman to scatter the ashes.”

"Maybe she wanted you to spend time together saying goodbye.”

"I suppose. At the time—it was right before Beth's prom and graduation—I thought she wanted to cause maximum trouble so I'd realize what it would be like being a single dad.”

I decided to speak frankly. Isn't that what you're supposed to do with a shrink? "You sound jaded by the whole thing.”

He crushed the wrappers into a ball. "She was two years dying. I was pretty well tired of everything by that point.”

So maybe, during the time he counseled us, his wife—that laughing redhead on the Ferris wheel—was dying. Okay, I let go of most of my residual antagonism towards him. I mean, he'd been brutally blunt with me, and maybe he paid too close attention to Don's panegyrics about the spiritual wonders of sex with Wanda, and he didn't save my marriage when I'd specifically asked him to. But I guess that he'd shown up at all had to be counted in his favor.

I reached into the bag and found a single turnover, and after a moment's hesitation, offered it to him. "So was it depressing, to be mourning in the Caribbean?”

"Not really.” He didn't hesitate before he took the dessert, and I felt a bit of that antagonism return. Bad enough that men got to rule the world; did they have to metabolize so well too? He said, "We had a ceremony on the beach and scattered the ashes. Then we went to the hotel bar and had those drinks with the pineapples and cherries and parasols, and we felt better. Especially Beth—she was only eighteen, and it was the first time she'd been to a bar.” Thoughtfully, he added, "As far as I know.”

I took the other apple turnover, vowing I'd walk an extra ten minutes later, which would use up a big five percent of the calories. "It sounds more helpful than this.” I gestured at the manicured lawn, the rows of headstones, the formality of it all.

"I find myself wanting a stone after all. To have someplace to go on her birthday. The girls say we should go back to Cayman, but a headstone would be cheaper. What do you think?”

The question seemed casual, but I wasn't used to being casual with this man. We'd had that weirdly one-sided intimate therapeutic relationship, which didn't include him asking me for advice. "I don't know how much a headstone would cost, being only the ex-widow, so I can't help you there.”

"Ex-widow? That's a new term. Very modern.”

"I'm thinking of writing some Hallmark sympathy cards for women like me. Other ex-widows. You know, you can choose condolences or congratulations, depending on the situation.”

I tossed that off blithely, between us buddies, but he was back to shrink mode. No utterance is inconsequential for a shrink. "Which do you choose? Condolences or congratulations?”

Blitheness fled. "He's my son's father. How could I be glad?” I added, "The urge to hire a hit man doesn't last long, I guess.” I don't know why the inner bitch had become outer suddenly. A form of armor, I guess. But he'd see right through it, right?

Well, he ignored it. Just as well. He got busy stuffing trash into the bags. "How about we walk to the top of the hill?”

I got up, glad that I'd become a power-walker so that the prospect of that steep hill posed me no anxiety. "It's sort of coincidental that you're here. The last time I saw Don, he said he was thinking of consulting you again.”

Mike Warren stopped with one empty cup halfway crushed into the bag. "He told you that?”

"Maybe he was worried I'd object, though I didn't.”

"I never expected that he would consider further counseling.”

"Why? Because he was so resistant?”

He said nothing as he walked to the pickup truck and tossed the bag into the detritus in the back, then started up the hill.

Annoyed, I charged after him. "You said he was narcissistic.”

"I might have said he was exhibiting signs of narcissism. It is the personality condition of choice for mid-life men.”

"Really?” I inquired. "What about you?”

"Me?” He sounded as if he never analyzed his own personality, and maybe he never had. Maybe shrinks these days steer clear of uncovering their own neuroses. "I'm the old-fashioned type. I prefer to think of myself as merely egocentric.”

"That's probably a sign of narcissism. Preferring to think, rather than actually thinking.” It was just a quip, but he glanced back, and I recognized that glint in his eye. He thought that I was amusing. Hmmm. I didn't know whether I liked that. But at least he paused for a moment so I could catch up with him.

"Narcissicists are resistant to therapy. You said that. I took notes,” I said.

"No wonder he was so reluctant to participate in the sessions. I can imagine what use you made of those notes.”

The heat rose in my face, and I ducked my head so he wouldn't see the flush. He was right. I'd read my notes back to Don after the sessions, trying to get him to see that he'd gone a little bit nuts there, as certified by a certified expert. Don took to dictating his own remembrances of the session into a micro-recorder and playing them back to me. Those were the days. "At any rate, he planned to consult you again.”

"For what? Depression?”

"Heck, no. More marriage counseling. Or more bad news broadcasting. He wanted you to tell Wanda that contrary to her expectation, the prenuptial agreement was going to stick.”

"Wanda? That's the second wife?”

"Yeah. The official widow. She was by the grave. I'm sure you saw her. Black hat, bleached hair.”

"Are you sure it is bleached?”

I managed not to snort. Men are so naive. They think women actually come in platinum. "It's the archetype. All trophy wives are bleached blondes.”

He said mildly, "I don't remember you in the role of cynic.”

Disorientation again. Was I playing a role? Or being myself? And what self was that? The Brave New Self? The Bitter Old Self? The Disillusioned In-between Self? And what business of his was it anyway? Just because he'd seen me at my most vulnerable didn't give him a right to judge. "Divorce does that. All that idealism about steadfast love and forgiveness and virtue rewarded. Well, I don't rely on those anymore.”

"You still believe in them, however.”

With the end of the climb in sight, he'd speeded up. I picked my careful way up the last few steps. I didn't know I had it in me. When I got my breath back, I said, "I wouldn't want to put it to another test, that's all I know.” I didn't want to be reminded of what I'd lost, or surrendered, since I saw him last. "Anyway, it was Wanda he wanted you to persuade this time.”

"Did he say anything specific about how he felt? Did—” He shot me a quick glance. "Did he seem anxious about it? Depressed?”

Depression again. I considered this, then reluctantly shook my head. "No. He always made light of things. But I could tell it bothered him, that she was making trouble about the prenup.”

"Does that please you? That they were having trouble?”

I started to justify myself, and then stopped. What was I doing? Mike Warren wasn't counseling me. His neutrally-voiced, diabolically-barbed queries didn't require an answer. How easily I slipped into his trap, if it was a trap and not just the way he dealt with the general population as well as his clients.

After all, though I barely knew him, Mike Warren knew all sorts of things about me. He knew about my anxiety about money, and my fear of my mother's disapproval, and any number of the other tiny neuroses that added up to me. It was too easy to slide into confidences with him, telling him things that I wouldn't tell my best friend, because the good doctor had already heard (if he remembered) much worse. And there was something about his questions—so neutral, and so sharp—that made me talk just to justify and defend and explain.

But he knew Don, if only from the counseling year, and he was trained to be helpful. And he must care, or he never would have come to the funeral. Maybe, I thought, brightening, he was feeling guilty about ruining Don's final year by failing to persuade him to stick with me.

I almost felt that he had some destination in mind, somewhere he could take me where I'd understand. Or maybe he wanted me to see what I didn't want to see. I remember that as a favorite tactic of his, using that scythe-like tone to cut through my illusions and reveal reality. Reality as he saw it, anyway.

I locked my gaze onto a convenient marble monument, tricked up to look like a mini-Greek temple. I said, "It doesn't matter now. Whether they had decided to come to see you or not, because... because it didn't happen.”

"Do you think death renders intentions moot then?”

At least this seemed more philosophical than psychological. "Well, whatever plans they had are irrelevant. Don's plan to call you, Wanda's plan to renege on the prenup. None of it matters. We have to live our lives in denial of the possibility of imminent death.”

"Makes sense to me. We can count on living through most days,” he said reasonably. "So we'll need some other excuse why we didn't follow through on our plans, won't we? Unless death is... part of our plans.”

"Part of our plans? Well, maybe long-term. But sudden death is something we can't count on, or count against.”

"I would not stop for death, so death kindly stopped for me.” An anomaly for sure—a man who looked as remote as the doctor did, quoting poetry. Dickinson, no less.

I nodded. "Right. We hurtle through life, but there's the brutal fact of mortality.”

"Keep this up, and you can have your own midlife crisis. And you can call me about it.”

I thought that might be a joke, a shrink-type joke, but since he said it in that same casual voice, I couldn't tell. "I imagine a lot of people at the funeral were contemplating mortality.”

"That's one of the purposes of funerals, ministers would say. But you can't get obsessed about it—can't start worrying about dying—or you won't get anything done.”

I wondered if he'd been doing a lot of that obsessing since his wife had died. Now the conversation felt different to me, as if he'd stopped playing shrink and started being a real person. "I have to worry now, because my son has only one parent left.”

"All the more reason to live. Eat right, wear your seatbelt, stay out of dark places.”

"I already do all that.” Boy, did I sound boring. "So did Don, for that matter.” Suddenly, I had a vision of Don in a dark construction lot, splayed on the pavement. My breath caught.

"Did he?” Dr. Warren didn't wait for an answer. He just started back down the hill.

I trailed after him. All this philosophizing must be boring to him now. He must be through the "why?” stage of mourning and into the "why not?” To tell the truth, I wasn't sure I had the same rights as he did, to question, to deny, to rail against death. My marriage to Don had been dead for more than a year. Much more than a year, Don would say. But there was some insatiable cancerous cell in my brain that always thought about Don, even after he left me, that speculated about him and argued with him and worried about him. Now that he was truly gone, maybe that cell would wither away... but not yet. Not while the image of him in my house that last day was still clear in my mind.

"It surprised me when he asked me for your number. He said he'd forgotten. I guess we're all good at forgetting uncomfortable things.”

He didn't take offense at being categorized as among the uncomfortable. "That's odd. I just got a brochure from him last month, advertising office space in that new building on the other bank.”

He didn't have to say it, and neither did I. Don would never see that building occupied by Netmore executives and medical offices. Quickly, to get past that latest awkward realization, I said, "Are you looking for a new office?”

"They're putting an exit ramp down in my parking lot. All the buildings are coming down. But I didn't see the point of exchanging one soulless modern office for another, especially one without free parking for my clients.”

"Yeah, nothing disrupts a therapy session more than a client nervous about the parking meter expiring.” I mulled this over as we trudged between the lanes of gravestones. "So if he had you on his mailing list, why did he have to ask me for your number?”

His steps slowed, and he hesitated. "Maybe he wanted to make you part of it. Maybe he was giving you notice to wait for him.”

I forced a laugh. "Right. Don was desperately seeking the one he threw away. Thanks, but no thanks.”

He studied me so long that it got uncomfortable. "That's a good attitude. No need to over-analyze now.”

"No need to analyze at all, because nothing more will happen.”

He nodded and started off towards his car.

I hung back, staring at the mound of dirt that now covered Don. I wanted something... something more. I wanted more meaning to all this. I wanted there to be a reason the last two years, and this last week, had happened.

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