Weeks later, Geraldine paced the front of the twin bed with one hand at her hip and the other holding the phone to her ear. She scoffed when the dial-tone kept ringing. “She’s officially insane.”

Phoebe flipped through a notebook, a wrinkle in her brow. “This feels weird…”

“If it’ll tell us what she’s thinking, I don’t mind snooping.” Geraldine exhaled impatiently. “She’s not answering her phone.”

“Keep calling–wait,” Phoebe paused in her perusal of Darah’s journal. “You don’t think…”

“We won’t know until you find something.” Geraldine sighed when Phoebe hesitated. “Fine, I’ll be the bad guy. Give it here.”

Phoebe readily handed over the notebook and scooted a little for Geraldine to perch on the bed. Though hesitant about invading Darah’s privacy, Phoebe still leaned in as Geraldine quickly flipped the pages, looking for any clues on her whereabouts or her state of mind.

Ever since the night weeks ago when J.R. trudged down the steps in a daze while Darah called him a coward and a good-for-nothing—the rest of her sharp words cut off by both Abe and Bart, the girl refused to talk to any of them.

“Y’know sometimes you have to be the bad guy…” Geraldine muttered, scanning the journal entries.

Phoebe looked up, a furrow in her brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Every time we try to discipline her, you’re quick to take her side. That’s why she takes advantage of your kindness.” Geraldine exhaled a breath and flipped another page.

“That’s not true,” Phoebe insisted. “I do discipline her.”

“Yeah, for two seconds before promising to make her favorite meal or buy her a new outfit.” Geraldine flipped yet another page. “That’s why she looks to you whenever she’s getting yelled at, knowing you’ll cave in and defend her. Knowing Abe can’t refuse you.”

“Give her a break, Geri… She’s is clearly hormonal. And weren’t we the same carrying our kids?” Phoebe’s lips twitched. “If I remember correctly, you kicked Bart out of the house off and on for two weeks while pregnant with the twins.”

Geraldine scoffed. “He called me a whale who slept like a bear. But that’s not relevant here… huh.”

Phoebe’s smile eased away as Geraldine bent to read Darah’s inscrutable print. She peered over her. “What is it?”

“Didn’t you not want to invade her privacy?” Geraldine angled the page from Phoebe’s view and squinted at the page.

Phoebe nudged her hand away. “I don’t but since you’re in denial that you need glasses, I’ll have to read. Give it here.” She snatched the journal and read Darah’s handwriting.

Geraldine snorted. “I can read just fine, just that she writes just as bad as her brother. What is it?”

Phoebe’s eyes were wide as she finally lowered the journal and closed it. “We need to go. Now.”

A minute later and both women scurried down the stairs, almost stumbling over each other as they got to the landing.

“Hey hey, you’re just as bad as the kids,” Bart drawled from the couch, eyes glued to the television screen and on the basketball game. “Where you rushing off to?”

Geraldine grabbed her purse from the sofa adjacent to the couch. “We’ll be back. Watch the kids.”

In silence, Phoebe snatched the car keys from the dining table and rounded the couch to follow Geraldine out the door.

“Phoebe,” Abe called from Bart’s side. “What’s going on?”

She halted in step, her head turning toward Geraldine. Noting the silent exchange between the two women, the brothers exchanged glances themselves and started to stand.

Geraldine jerked her attention to them and held up both hands. “Stay and watch the kids. We’ll be back.” Then she grabbed Phoebe’s arm and tugged her out the door.

Bart huffed a breath and sat back down. Abe remained standing, staring at the closed door.

“You’re missing the game,” Bart muttered, grabbing a handful of pretzels.

Abe replayed the look their wives shared and felt a chill down his spine. “Something’s going on.”

“Yeah, your team’s losing and you owe me forty already. Sit.”

Abe lowered to his seat but didn’t shift his gaze from the door. “They’re up to something.”

Bart tossed pretzels into his mouth. “They’re always up to something. Best leave them until they need us to bail them out.” He nudged the pretzels to Abe.

Heaving a sigh, Abe sat back and folded his arms. “I’m getting too old for bailing anyone out.”

His brother only snorted. “We’re just getting started—oh, come on! He was open!”

Reluctantly, Abe pulled his gaze away from the door and returned to the game, though his mind was still on his wife’s stiff back and odd silence. The niggling sensation that something was off with the women in his family stayed with him long into the game.

Ignoring the incessant ringing of his phone, J.R. sneezed into the bend of his elbow and mumbled an apology as a woman pushing a baby stroller sidestepped him near the drugstore entrance.

He turned to watch her push the stroller toward a line of cars. Suddenly the woman’s plump frame became more slender before his very eyes, and frizzy black hair replaced the brown straight bob. He gaped as the vision of the woman turned and it was Darah’s face scowling at him.

“You said you’d hear me out, but you’re nothing more than a coward,” Darah spat at him.

Taking a step back, he blinked quickly to clear the vision of Darah. Thankfully, the woman’s plump frame and brown hair replaced petite, frizzy-haired Darah, and she now strapped her baby in the backseat.

Relieved laughter tickled his throat as he turned away from the parking lot and entered the drugstore. Barely noting the greeting from the cashier, J.R. circled the first shelf and headed for the aisle with congestion relief medication.

The congestion medicine aisle was packed with people, and with a wry smile, J.R. stalled outside the aisle to wait his turn. Suddenly, the sharp end of a grocery cart rammed into the back of his legs. Frowning, J.R. turned to identity his assailant.

“I’m so sorry!” a haggard-looking woman cried out and grabbed the collar of a boy ready to bolt. “How many times did I tell you to stop that?!”

J.R. eyed the boy who squirmed against his mother’s firm hold, then back at his scowling mother. “It’s okay, I shouldn’t have been in the way.” He gave the boy an assuring smile and held a chuckle when the boy crossed his eyes instead.

The woman’s scowl eased away at J.R.’s reassuring, though her hand still held onto the boy’s shirt. “Apologize, now.”

The boy dipped his head and mumbled half an apology before his mother carted him and her items away. J.R. allowed himself to chuckle before stepping inside the aisle.

Hands full of cold and flu medicine, J.R. entered the adjacent aisle to pick up his vitamins and halted to a stop. A couple of feet from where he stood was Darah crouched near a shelf.

J.R. blinked again, but her frizzy black hair tied up with a colorful scarf and that old baseball jacket entirely too big for her petite frame was hard to miss.

She let out a deeply-wrought sigh and leaned her head against the shelf. J.R. frowned, hesitating to go to her. He knew she was way too angry with him, and he had nothing to say to her but had wondered about her after leaving her house that night—still did. Did she get in trouble? Was she sick?

“Excuse me Ma’am, do you need help?” a voice behind him spoke.

J.R. watched Darah raise her head and turn toward the voice. In a split second, he quickly ducked around the person and into the next aisle, almost dropping his items.

“I’m not a Ma’am,” he overheard Darah’s weak protest and couldn’t help the smile that twitched his lips. He adjusted the medicine in his arms and stalled a bit longer, wanting to make sure she was okay.

“Okay,” the person responded. “What can I help you with?”

Darah sighed heavily, as though she bore all of life’s worries. “Vitamins… which ones are good?”

J.R.’s shoulders dropped in relief and he released a sigh. Vitamins. She was fine. Satisfied with that, he stepped away from the shelf and headed for the checkout counter. He’d get his vitamins another day, preferably without bumping into Darah.

Minutes later with two weeks’ worth of cold medicine, J.R. strolled out of the drugstore and headed for his car. His phone rang again and J.R. fished it out from his jacket. His brows arched at Phoebe’s caller ID. He glanced over his shoulder at the drugstore entrance before answering the call. “Hello?”

“J.R.! Have you seen Darah?”

He frowned at the panic in her voice. “Yeah.” Slipping inside his car, he started the engine.

“Y-you have? Thank God! Where is she? Did she come to you? Does she look okay?”

J.R.’s frown deepened. He peered at the rearview mirror. “She looks okay. She’s at the drugstore…”

“Which one?!” Geraldine called out in the background.

“Have a great night,” the cashier said as Darah exited the drugstore.

“You too,” she mumbled, trudging down the sidewalk to where she’d parked her car. Pausing in front of her car, Darah quietly opened the bag and peered into the medication inside. Under the streetlight, she could clearly see the picture label on the bottle, could see the image of a smiling mother pressing her cheek against the newborn child she carried.

Tears stung her eyes as she tried to imagine herself as the smiling mother but couldn’t.

“Darah!”

She looked up just as Phoebe exited the car and hurried toward her. By the time Geraldine turned off the car and joined them, Darah couldn’t stop the tears from falling. Her sisters-in-law crowded her, their arms wrapped around her, and the floodgates opened as she wept loud and hard.

Once the wails subsided, Darah and her sisters-in-law sat quietly in Geraldine’s car. Geraldine remained in the driver’s seat while Phoebe cradled Darah in the back. The windows were down and they could hear the hustle and bustle of the town center where the drugstore sat.

Darah released a shaky sigh in the silence. Phoebe smoothed the downy hair that framed her face and wiped the silent tears that crawled down her cheeks. “It’s perfectly normal to feel scared the first time. We all were, right Geri?”

“Nuh-unh,” Darah interjected. “You were so excited about finally getting pregnant, you cried for days!”

“That’s true,” Geraldine answered. “Poor Abe didn’t know how to react.”

Phoebe sighed. “It was a mixture of joy and terror. Of course I longed to be a mother, but the responsibility of carrying a child… it leaves you awake at night, wondering if you’re qualified for such a task. You think of anything and everything that could go wrong between now and the delivery date, you stress about your future and that of the child’s.”

When Geraldine grunted her agreement, Darah shifted in her lap. “You turned out to be great moms…”

Phoebe smiled and rubbed Darah’s forehead. “And you will too.”

Darah’s thoughtful silence drew Geraldine’s attention and the woman shifted in her seat to peer down at the young woman. “You still haven’t told us how this happened, Darah…”

The spell was broken and Darah averted her gaze. “Because it doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters,” Geraldine countered. “Everything about you and how you’re feeling matters. We wouldn’t have spent hours searching for you, fearing the worst, if it didn’t matter.”

“The worst?” Darah raised her head to look at Phoebe. “What worst—no way…”

“No way, what?” Phoebe asked gently, untangling the curls in Darah’s frizzy hair.

Darah frowned. “Are you kidding? I would never do that.”

“So wishing you didn’t have to do this alone and wondering if you could turn back time means what exactly?’” Geraldine interjected, ignoring the sharp look Phoebe gave her.

Darah turned in Phoebe’s arms. “You read my journal?!”

Phoebe ducked her head and Geraldine shrugged. “How else would we know what you were thinking?”

“I don’t know, maybe ask me directly!” Darah brushed off Phoebe’s arms, scowling when Phoebe’s hands grabbed her waist to keep her inside. “How could you do that?!”

Geraldine rolled her eyes. “When you got us worried with this hunger strike nonsense, what wouldn’t we do? And don’t get blame Phoebe, it was all my doing.”

“Yeah right.” Darah kicked open the door and stepped out.

“Hey!” Geraldine snapped when the metal door groaned. “I refuse to pay for yet another repair on this car. If you’re angry, use your words.”

“I am using words,” Darah snapped back, hands at her hips. She glared at Phoebe who came to stand by her. “So you came looking for me because you thought I’d try to harm my baby, is that it?”

Phoebe grimaced. “We were worried.”

“Worried.” Darah rolled her eyes. “What do you take me for? Do I look like someone who would hurt an innocent child for my mistake?”

The two women remained silent, Phoebe fidgeting. Darah scoffed at the silent answer and stepped away. “I’ll see you later.”

“Where are you going?” Phoebe called out as Darah stomped off.

“Home!” Darah threw over her shoulder.

Geraldine snorted and reached behind the seat to retrieve the bag. Fishing out the contents, she read each one aloud. “It’s just prenatal vitamins, Phoebe. Told you there was nothing to worry about.”

Phoebe threw an accusing glare at her sister-in-law. “You’re kidding, right?”

Geraldine replaced the bag and started the engine. “Let’s get back before she beats us home.”

Grumbling under her breath, Phoebe acquiesced and ducked into the passenger’s seat.

Across the median, J.R. watched Geraldine’s car leave the parking lot minutes after Darah’s. He’d watched earlier as the two sisters-in-law gathered around a distraught Darah. His chest tightened at the sounds of her loud wailing, and instantly recalled her accusation that night weeks ago.

“Every single time, J.R., you never fail to disappoint me when I need you. How disappointing.”

Darah had followed him downstairs even after he’d bid her a good night’s rest. She’d grabbed his sleeve, forbidding him to take another step without giving her the answer she wanted. But before he could give her one, she pushed his arm away, her eyes sparking with rage.

“You’re a coward and a good-for-nothing—!”

J.R. snapped out of his reverie and dropped his head back. Abe had halted the rest of her words but the much she’d said injured him. All because he didn’t want to hurt her. Him, a coward?

But wasn’t he one? Avoiding visits at her family home and ducking away from sight just because he wasn’t ready to give her the answer she thought she wanted.

“Let’s get married, J.R. You need me as much as I need you. Marry me!”

Heat surged through him at her impassioned plea and those big hazel-brown eyes gazing up at him.

J.R. shook out of it and turned the ignition on his car. Of course he understood her plight, really he did. Being a single parent couldn’t be easy, and he wished she’d waited for marriage to experience the joy of becoming a parent. But getting married only out of desperation was out of the question. One day, Darah would grow to despise him as he knew she was more than capable of. A loveless marriage was not something he would want for her, or himself. Not now, not ever.

With that resolution ringing in his heart and mind, J.R. put the car in reverse and glanced back at the rearview mirror. Quickly, he put the car in park and exhaled a deep sigh.

Parked in his path was Darah’s car, blocking him in. How he’d missed her returning to the parking lot was beyond his comprehension.

“Come on out, J.R.”

Ignoring Darah’s words, J.R. remained seated and stared ahead. A narrow but deep ditch separated the parking lot from the street; an attempt to escape by driving forward meant his car would pay the price.

“Come out, J.R., let’s act like adults for once.”

J.R. smirked derisively. She had some nerve speaking of adult behavior when all she did was make ultimatums, throw around her temperamental attitude when she saw fit, and act sneaky to get her way.

“I’m not moving this car until you give me an answer.”

He fought a growl of frustration and dragged a hand over his hair, aware of the gray streaked in his thick dark locks. Grays that sprouted in the years he’d known her, and he could imagine more would form if he let her continue. Clenching his teeth, J.R. pushed open the door and stepped out. It was high time he set the record straight.

<<Chapter 10 || Chapter 12>>

Advertisements