The house was dark when Andrew pulled into the driveway and parked. The security lights were not even turned on. She’s still gone. Andrew leaned his forehead against the steering wheel, struggling to bite back the wave of nausea his nerves just churned up. He inhaled through his nose and released the breath from his mouth in a loud huff. Hiding in the car was not making him feel any better.
He pulled the handle on the door and pushed against the heavy metal. He drug himself from the car and slammed the door, the creak of the old hinges echoing on the dark night just as loudly as the door hitting the frame. Leaning over the hood of his older model muscle car, he breathed in relief that the car was at least his. Patty deeded the house to Valerie as protection. He had been so angry when Patty did that almost fifteen years ago—he and Valerie would always be together. Now, as he stood in the yard after the day he brought upon himself, he was glad Patty had had the foresight to do so. Without a job, Valerie would never win a house in a divorce settlement, unless it was already in her name.
“Thank you, Patty,” he whispered, pushing off the hood and fumbling with his keys as he approached the front door.
He shoved the key in the lock and started jiggling it to get it to turn. It was a habit. The lock started sticking months ago. He froze. He planned to fix that lock a few weeks ago, but his trip to the hardware store had been postponed by Amber. He would just call a locksmith on Monday. He corrected himself. Valerie would have to call the locksmith. The stuck tumbler finally dropped into place, and Andrew turned the key.
He stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind him. He switched on the light and looked around. The house was immaculate. He could get mad at Valerie for calling her mom, but he was certain she had not done so. Patty probably sensed Valerie’s distress from across town. He had seen it before. Patty always seemed to know when something was wrong with her daughter. Andrew could sit in the same room for hours and never see it. Patty just knew.
He stopped scanning the house from the foyer when he saw the envelope with his name on it. She did not want to talk to him. He knew he deserved it, but it still made his heart ache. The envelope sat propped against the base of a bronze lamp with a stained-glass shade. He stepped forward and gingerly picked it up, as though he were handling a grenade. He did not want to read it, but he knew he had to. He could at least respect Valerie’s wishes. He opened it and sighed hard. There was only one sentence. Take your shit and leave. Very simple. Straight to the point. And exactly what Andrew deserved.
He placed the note back on the table and trudged up the stairs. He had not really wanted her to be here, but he wanted to tell her what had really happened. He wanted her to know that Amber had only been using him, how she had been fired—hell, how he had been fired. In one day, all he had left were some clothes, a really horrible contract job, and a hunk of junk for a car.
He stood at the second floor landing and stared at the wall of pictures ahead of him. One in particular drew his full attention—their wedding photo. He walked across the landing and pulled the picture down from the wall. He ran his thumb over her face. She was been so beautiful that day.
It was an early September afternoon. Andrew stood at the foot of a white archway covered in every rose known to man. His tuxedo was a little on the hot side, but he did not know if it was nerves or Georgia heat. It was close to 85 degrees, and he was outside in a black tuxedo, marrying the prettiest woman he ever set eyes on. Charlie nudged his arm and smiled.
“Did you remember the ring, Chuck?”
Charlie patted his tuxedo pocket. “It’s right here, Andy. I wish your Dad could see you. You cleaned up real nice.”
Andrew swatted his best friend’s hand away as he reached in to pinch his cheeks. The preacher cleared his throat behind them, and they both turned to see him giving them a “Behave” look. Andrew grinned and readjusted his jacket and bow tie. He turned back to the front of the church and paused.
Valerie stood at the head of the aisle, her uncle on her arm. He knew her long-sleeved gown hid her dialysis evidence, but she was radiant. She held a large bouquet of deep red roses sprinkled with baby’s breath in her hands, and she beamed at him. Her green eyes sparkled and a gentle breeze lifted the tips of her hanging curls as she and her uncle started down the aisle towards him.
Andrew smiled. He would never forget the way she was kissing him before the preacher ever said she could. She was happy. They were happy. Andrew wondered if she would get angry if he took this wedding photo. They had more somewhere, and she probably knew exactly where she had stored them. He had no idea where to begin looking for them. He hugged it tightly to his chest and continued to their bedroom. He placed the picture on the bed and walked over to his closet. Pulling out his luggage set, he hauled it over to the bed and opened up all three of the nested suitcases. He did not know how he was going to fit all his belongings in these small bags. Maybe he could use garbage bags for some of it. The first thing he did was wrap the photo inside a leather jacket and place it snugly in the smallest suitcase. It left just enough room for some of his toiletries. He sighed and got to work.
He went to the bathroom first, and he removed all of his personal hygiene products from the linen closet and the counter by the sink. He grabbed a bath towel and a scrubbing cloth from the linen closet as well because he knew that any hotel he ended up at would have sandpaper for cleaning and drying himself. When he returned to the bedroom, he squished what he could in the smallest suitcase and rolled up the bath towel to place it in the middle-sized suitcase.
He crossed the room to his dresser. He exhaled roughly as he opened the top drawer. He removed the thin layer of shirts on top and tossed them towards the bed. It was what was underneath that he had to make sure Valerie never found. He had hidden them for months. He pulled three folders from the top drawer and walked them over to the bed. He sat on the edge and thumbed through them slowly. The emblem of the adoption agency glared at him from the front of each folder. These were their hopes, shattered hopes.
Valerie was so excited she could hardly sit still on the uncomfortable bench seat in the waiting area. Andrew smiled. On their first trip to this agency, they had finally been given promising news. And they had left that day with folders of three potential children that they could meet and adopt. Today was the big day. Andrew had taken a day off of work, and they had driven the two hours to Atlanta to finalize the forms and meet the wonderful new addition to their family. Andrew watched Valerie. The smile on her face and the light in her eyes was contagious. She finally looked close to how she had looked on their last trip here. She had been so sick two weeks ago, but today, she looked happy and healthy again.
The administrative assistant stepped through the large double doors ahead and beckoned for them to follow her. Valerie bounced from her seat so fast that Andrew had to steady it and catch up with her. She clutched the folders to her chest, the one they had chosen on top. She took Andrew’s hand, and they followed the lady down the hall to speak with the administrator of the agency.
When they entered the office, he greeted them stoically, and Andrew held Valerie’s chair for her as she sat down. He took the chair next to her.
“Mr. and Mrs. Taft, it’s a pleasure to see you two again, and I’m judging from the looks on your faces that you have made a decision,” he said, making eye contact with each of them.
Valerie nodded anxiously and started to hand the folders over to him. He continued without taking the folders.
“There are a few matters we need to clear up before we go any further today. Mrs. Taft, as you know, we asked your health provider to keep us current on your health, and he sent us an update this morning. It says here that you were in the hospital for three days because your mother found you unconscious on your kitchen floor. Is this correct?”
Valerie nodded slowly. Andrew could see her deflating at this information.
“She had gotten busy and just forgot to eat. She was cleaning up the room for the new addition and time got away from her. That’s all. With a child demanding to eat, she would be less likely to get off her eating schedule,” Andrew said, explaining the situation as best as he could. He should have stayed home that day.
“I understand, Mr. Taft, but you have to look at this from our standpoint. A child in the age range that you are requesting would be left unattended should this happen in the future, and we can’t legally put him or her in that situation knowingly.”
Valerie looked crestfallen. Andrew took her hand and turned to respond to the administrator.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Taft. I can’t let you adopt a child with your wife’s health as unstable as it is.”
Andrew opened the folder on top and gazed at the child he would never have. He was a small boy, five years old at the time they were going to adopt him. His physical features were close enough to Andrew’s and Valerie’s that no one would have really questioned whether he was adopted or not. He had been the cutest child Andrew and Valerie had ever seen, and they would never physically see him. Andrew touched his picture once more, then closed the folders and placed them in his suitcase. That day had destroyed him; why did he not notice Valerie’s pain? He angrily shoved the rest of his dresser into the two suitcases and headed back downstairs to get garbage bags for everything in his closet.
As he climbed back up the stairs with the trash bags, he found himself thinking about the last fifteen years. They had been a rough fifteen years, but they had gotten through them because they knew they had each other to fall back on. Even though most of the time felt like an uphill battle while they tried to make ends meet when they first got married, they had been happy. Even after he took the job offer from Charlie and started working a full-time salaried job, he still managed to come home every night and work in the yard with her or just sit on the porch and watch the sunset while the kids rode their bicycles up and down the street.
As soon as he got back to the bedroom, he shoved his clothes that were still on hangers into the trash bags, poking the hooks through the top of the bag and tying them off. He carried all the bags of clothes and suitcases to the foyer downstairs then trudged back up to the second bedroom. This was his home office. The personal space that Valerie had given him so he could write when he was off work. He had never done a lot of writing. Everything he had ever completed was shoved in a portable filing box they had gotten at Walmart. He opened it, shoved his laptop and flash drives into the more than ample space, and trudged back down the stairs for the last time.
After he loaded everything in the trunk and space behind the seat in his car, he stood back and looked at the house. They had built so many dreams here, and in one day, he had lost them all. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, checking one last time for a phone call from Valerie. The screen was blank. She was through with him, and he deserved it all. He slumped into the driver seat of his car and flopped back against it. He would get Charlie to send her a packet of divorce papers, but he would leave them blank. Let her make the first move. He flipped open his glove box and pulled out his travel-sized phone book. Thumbing through the yellow pages, he pulled out his cell phone again and started calling hotels.