Angela Bartlett strode toward up the path toward her best friend’s house, very aware she was running late. It was a warm October day and only the screen door barred her way when she arrived on the front porch.
She rang the doorbell, then leaned close to the screen.
“It’s me. Sorry I’m so late,” she called into the house.
“So you should be.” The voice echoed up the hallway, closely followed by the sound of footsteps.
A petite, pretty woman with pixie-cut blonde hair appeared, a baby balanced on one hip. She was dressed in hot pink capri pants, an aqua T-shirt and bright yellow sneakers with hot pink laces.
She sounded grumpy, but her brown eyes were smiling and Angie knew she wasn’t really in trouble. They were old enough friends that Billie could easily forgive a few minutes tardiness.
“Happy birthday, sweetie,” Angie said, dropping a kiss onto her friend’s cheek as she opened the door. The baby stared up at her with big, liquid eyes and she dropped a kiss onto his forehead, too. “Hello, Charlie boy.”
“Shh. We’re pretending it’s just any old party so one of us doesn’t get all maudlin about getting old,” Billie said.
“Thirty-two is not old,” Angie said, following her friend up the hallway and into the spacious country-style kitchen.
Sunlight streamed through floor to ceiling windows that opened out onto a spacious deck. The adjacent open plan living room was also flooded with light, the brightness accentuating the brilliant jewel-tones of the lounge suite and soft furnishings. Like Billie herself, this was a house full of color and life and vibrancy.
“Where’s Michael?” Angie asked when there was no sign of Billie’s husband.
“Where do you think?” Billie said.
Which Angie guessed meant he was in his study, working. An architect, Michael often brought his work home with him, something Angie knew Billie sometimes resented.
“Auntie Angie.” A small body launched itself at Angie and Billie’s five year old daughter wrapped her skinny arms around Angie’s hips.
Eva looked up at her, her big brown eyes adoring.
“I thought you were never going to come.”
Angie sank into a crouch. “I was late. Sorry about that.” She hugged her goddaughter close, breathing in the smell of berry shampoo and Barbie perfume.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Eva said mock-sternly. She was a cheeky little thing, funny and smart as a whip.
“I will make a concerted effort, I promise,” Angie said solemnly.
“Okay, time to get this party started,” Billie said, crossing to the compact sound system and hitting a button. James Brown’s Get On Up blasted through the house. Billie started dancing, holding Charlie out from her body and shaking her backside as only Billie could.
Angie smiled at her friend’s antics. “Here’s an idea - you could just ask Michael to come out of the study like a normal person,” she yelled over the music.
Billie simply grinned and kept dancing.
Eva giggled, thrilled to be part of the conspiracy to flush her hard-working father out. Angie grabbed her hands and the two of them joined Billie on the impromptu dance floor, doing their best to match Billie’s moves.
A minute later, a tall, broad shouldered figure appeared in the doorway. Michael Robinson’s dark, curly hair was ruffled as though he’d been running his fingers through it. His feet were bare, his jeans old and faded, his white T-shirt well washed. He crossed his arms over his chest, the expression in his grey-green eyes equal parts amused and frustrated.
Billie boogied up to her husband and passed him their son before starting to dance in earnest, her small body moving smoothly to the beat. She shook her booty, jiggled her small breasts and wiggled her hips until Michael lost the battle and his mouth curved into an out and out grin.
“Okay, message received. No more work. What needs doing before everyone arrives for the party?”
The next twenty minutes passed in a flurry of activity. Billie took Angie on a whirlwind tour of her birthday present from Michael, the small wooden studio in the backyard designed to give Billie the space to pursue her current passion for all things ceramic. They’d barely returned to the house when a couple of Michael and Billie’s neighbors arrived, along with a few other friends. Michael entertained them on the deck while Angie helped Billie put the finishing touches on the salads in the kitchen. “So... How are things with the hot Greek guy?” Billie asked as she mixed oil and vinegar for the salad dressing.
“Non-existent,” Angie said.
“Don’t tell me it’s over already?”
“Angie, I swear. What are we going to do with you?”
Angie frowned, irritated by the despairing note in her friend’s voice. “Being single is not a disease. I love my life.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I am happy. A man does not happiness make. Sometimes, in fact, he makes unhappiness.”
Billie opened her mouth to say something, then obviously thought better of it. Angie was glad, since she suspected her friend had been about to say something about Finn, and that would have really pissed her off. They had talked Finn to death years ago. There was nothing new to be said, no new conclusions to come to. He was firmly in the past.
Where he belonged.
“I’m not giving up on you,” Billie said after a short silence. “There’s a new guy at Michael’s work. I haven’t convinced Michael to find out if he’s single or not yet, but if he is I want you to meet him.”
Common sense told Angie to let the comment slide - Billie was like a runaway freight train when she got an idea in her head - but her own stubbornness demanded a response.
“Let me get this straight. You don’t know this man at all, haven’t even set eyes on him, I’m betting. Yet you want me to go out with him?”
“I’m only thinking of you.”
“I’m curious. What, exactly, is his qualification for being a good prospect for poor old Angie? Having a pulse? Walking upright?”
She put down the knife she’d been using to focus all her attention on her misguided friend. In the loaded silence after her speech Billie leaned across and slid the knife out of her reach.
“Just in case,” she said, poker-faced.
Angie laughed. Billie was too damn irreverent and likable and her heart was so obviously in the right place.
“You are hopeless,” she said.
“So are you.”
They took the salads outside and the next few hours drifted by in a haze of sunshine and white wine and laughter. Angie kicked off her shoes and sat back and listened to the others talk around her, occasionally pitching in a comment of her own, but mostly happy to simply watch Billie do what she did best - shine and sparkle and glow.
When it came to cake time, Michael produced a big white box with the logo of Billie’s favorite bakery on it and they all oohed and ahhed over the giant chocolate and coffee mousse cake inside. Angie fished a small box from her handbag and handed it over to her friend with a smile.
“Something for your collection,” she said.
“You spoil me, but I’m not going to say no,” Billie said.
Angie watched fondly as Billie lifted the lid to reveal a delicate black pearl necklace, the pearls suspended on hand-beaten gold wire that had been curved into delicate, impossible spirals. As always when she first revealed a new piece, there was a little stab of nervousness in the pit of her stomach. After nearly ten years of being a professional jewelry designer, she’d resigned herself to the fact that that small moment of self doubt would probably never go away.
Perhaps, in some way, it was essential to her craft.
“Oh, Angie.” Billie pressed a hand to her chest, her eyes glued to the necklace. “It’s so beautiful... I don’t have the words. You’ve outdone yourself. My God.”
Angie smiled, pleased, and accepted her friend’s hug when Billie shot to her feet and rounded the table to embrace her.
“I love you, sweetie, happy birthday,” Angie said, speaking quietly so only her friend could hear.
“I love you, too, String Bean. You talented hussy. I will treasure it always, I swear.”
Angie could see all the memories they shared reflected in Billie’s brown eyes as her friend drew back from their hug - the years at boarding school, the mistakes they’d made, the highs, the lows. Unexpected sentimental tears burned at the back of her eyes and she blinked rapidly.
Billie sniffed, too.
“Do I need to go get the tissues?” Michael asked dryly.
“We’re having an intense moment of womance here, do you mind?” Billie said.
Everyone laughed and the moment was gone. Angie helped clear the table while Billie played a game of chasey with the children, running around and around the backyard until they were all breathless with laughter. Angie stacked dishes into the dishwasher and smiled to herself as she listened to Billie complaining about how she would have to retire from playing chasey now that she was an old lady of thirty-two. Angie was at the kitchen sink rinsing out a salad bowl when Billie entered the house, red faced, hands on her hips as she labored to catch her breath.
“Wow, you really are puffed, you tragic fossil,” Angie said as her friend walked to the cupboard and reached for a glass.
“Don’t laugh. Your birthday is coming up soon,” Billie said.
She was genuinely out of breath and the smile faded from Angie’s lips.
“I’m fine. Just need some water.”
But Billie was frowning as she hit the flick mixer and held her glass under the water. Her hand trembled as water filled the glass.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
Billie waved an impatient hand, already walking away with her drink. “I’m fine.”
Angie shrugged and resumed rinsing the salad bowl. The sound of glass shattering had her spinning around. She was just in time to see Billie press her hands to her chest before collapsing to her knees, the sound of bone hitting wood a loud, resonant thunk.
“It hurts,” Billy gasped, fingers pressing into her chest.
Then she hit the floor, unconscious, her body loose and lifeless.
Angie let the salad bowl crash back into the sink.
“Michael!” she screamed. She rounded the counter, her bare feet slipping on the wooden floor.
She fell to her knees beside Billie’s pale, still body as Michael appeared in the doorway.
“What happened?” he asked, his face a stark, terrified white as he took in his wife’s body on the floor.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Call an ambulance.”
Ten months later
The familiar heaviness settled over Angie as she parked in front of Billie’s house. Every time she came here, she saw the same image in her mind’s eye: the flashing blue and red ambulance lights reflecting off the white stucco facade, the shocked neighbors gathered on the sidewalk, Billie’s too-still body being rushed to the ambulance, an EMT working frantically to keep her alive.
She reached for her purse and the bag containing the gifts she’d bought in New York and made her way up the drive, noting the mail crowding the letterbox. The lawn needed mowing, too.
A pile of shoes lay abandoned near the front door - two pairs of child-sized gum boots and a pair of adult sneakers. She hit the door bell, checking her watch.
After what felt like a long time, she heard footsteps on the other side of the door. It swung open and Michael filled the frame, his features obscured thanks to the screen door.
He sounded surprised, but she’d emailed him just three days ago to tell him she’d be coming by to see him and the kids once she arrived home.
“Hey. Long time no see,” she said easily.
He rubbed his face. “Sorry. I forgot you said you were coming over.” He pushed the screen door open. “Come in.”
His hair was longer than when she’d flown out six weeks ago, his jaw dark with bristles. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, both hanging on his frame.
“How are you?” she asked as she kissed his roughened cheek.
“We’re getting by.” His gaze slid away from hers and he took a step backward, one hand gesturing for her to precede him up the hallway.
“How was New York?” he asked as they headed for the kitchen.
“Good. Busy. Hot and hectic.” She’d gone to train with an American jewelry designer and show her work at an arty little gallery in Greenwich village. She’d also gone to get away, because she’d needed to do something to shock herself out of her grief.
She blinked as she entered the dim open plan kitchen and living space. The blinds had been drawn on all the windows, the only light coming from the television in the living room and around the edges of the blinds.
It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust enough to see that Charlie was ensconced on the couch, his gaze fixed on the flickering TV screen as Kung Fu Panda took out the bad guys.
“Hey, little man,” she said, crossing to his side and leaning down to drop a kiss onto his smooth, chubby cheek.
He glanced up at her and smiled vaguely before returning his attention to the screen. She took in the stacks of books on the floor, the dirty plates on the coffee table, the clothes strewn over the back of the couch.
“Eva should be home soon. She went to a friend’s place after school,” Michael said. “You want a coffee?”
She returned to the kitchen, her gaze sliding over the dishes piled in the sink and the boxes of cereal and other food stuffs lined up on the island counter. Paperwork sat in a cluttered pile, and an overloaded washing basket perched on one of the stools, leaning dangerously to one side. Everything looked dusty and ever-so-slightly grubby.
“Coffee would be good, thanks,” she said slowly.
The house had been like this when she’d visited just before she’d flown to New York, but for some reason it hadn’t made the same impression as it did today. Then, she’d talked with Michael amidst all the dishes and laundry and not registered the darkness and the mess and his gauntness. It had all seemed normal, because in the months since Billie’s death it had become the norm as she did her best to help Michael any way she could.
Today, she saw it all - the disorder, the dullness in Michael’s eyes, the air of neglect and hopelessness - and she understood with a sudden, sharp clarity that this wasn’t simply a household in mourning, this was a household veering toward crisis.
Her chest ached as she watched Michael go through the motions of making coffee. For as long as she lived, she would never forget the look in his eyes when she arrived at the hospital hard on the heels of the ambulance that horrible day. He’d been sitting in a small side room, elbows propped on his knees, head in his hands. She’d stopped in the doorway and said his name, and he’d looked up and the emptiness and grief in his eyes had told her everything she needed to know. The memory of that moment of realisation - the death of her last hope, that somehow they’d managed to save Billie from what had clearly been a catastrophic cardiac event - was still sharp and bitter and hard, but she knew that her loss was nothing compared to Michael’s.
He’d loved Billie so much. She’d been the centre of his world and she’d died far, far too young. Was it any wonder that he was finding it so hard to pull himself together and move on?
She swallowed a lump of emotion and lifted the washing basket off the stool so she could sit down.
“How did your show go?” Michael asked as he slid a brimming coffee mug across the counter toward her.
“Well, I think. But it’s so competitive over there, I’m not holding my breath.”
“Your stuff is great. You don’t need to hold your breath.”
She didn’t doubt the sincerity behind Michael’s words, but the lack of emotion in his voice was yet another marker of how flat he was. He’d taken a year off work after Billie’s death to provide some stability and continuity for the children after their mother’s loss. As equal partner in an architecture firm with two other architects, he’d been fortunate that he’d been in a position to do so. At the time Angie had applauded the decision but now, with the benefit of the new perspective provided by her six week absence, she wasn’t so sure.
“Did I miss anything while I was away?” she asked.
Michael shrugged. “Like what?”
“Eva was talking about starting ballet again. How did that go?”
“She changed her mind.”
Angie blinked, surprised. “But she was so keen.”
He shrugged again. “You know what kids are like.”
The doorbell echoed through the house before she could ask any more questions.
“That’ll be her now.”
He left the kitchen to answer the door. Angie’s gaze ran over the stack of dishes in the sink. Unable to stop herself, she slid off the stool and crossed to the dishwasher. It was full of clean dishes, and she started stacking them into the cupboards. She was as familiar with Billie’s kitchen as she was her own and she’d emptied the top rack by the time Michael returned, Eva trailing in his wake.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she said, crossing to Eva and scooping her into her arms. “I missed you so much.”
Eva’s arms tightened around her with surprising strength, her head burrowing into her chest.
“I missed you, too, Auntie Angie.”
Angie smoothed a hand over her hair and squeezed her back just as tightly. She met Michael’s gaze over his daughter’s head and offered him a faint, sympathetic smile. He didn’t respond, simply dropped Eva’s school bag on top of the rest of the rubble on the table and went to the fridge.
“How was school?” Angie asked, tucking a strand of hair behind Eva’s ear.
“It was okay. Dad, I got invited to Imogen’s birthday today. It’s going to be a fairy party. I can go, can’t I?”
“When is it?” Michael asked. He was busy piling ingredients on the kitchen counter. Carrots, zucchini, onions.
“Not this Saturday but the one after that, I think,” Eva said. She pulled a crumpled invitation from her uniform pocket and handed it to her father.
He glanced at it briefly. “Okay. Remind me to take you shopping for a present beforehand.”
“Okay. I will. And I’ll stick the invitation on the fridge, too.” She gave her father a significant look before using a magnet to fix the invitation to the fridge door. “See, it’s right here.”
“Yeah, I got that, Eva.”
There was a note of impatience in his voice, but even that was subdued. Angie watched him, worried.
Michael started grating a carrot. He glanced up, almost as though he sensed her regard. “You staying for dinner?”
“Sure. Thanks. Can I help with anything?”
“Nope. It’s just spaghetti, nothing flash.”
Eva groaned. “Not spaghetti again.”
Michael ignored his daughter’s complaint, grabbing a saucepan and filling it with water. Angie felt a tug on the knee of her jeans and looked down to find Charlie peering up at her.
“Up, up!” he said, arms held high.
Clearly, Kung Fu Panda’s attractions had waned.
She ducked to lift him, receiving a whiff of ripe diaper as she settled him into her arms. She wrinkled her nose.
“Wow. Someone’s been busy,” she said. She lifted his t-shirt and pulled his diaper away from his back to do a visual check. What she saw was not pretty.
Michael raised his eyebrows. “Does he need changing?”
“Right.” He started drying his hands.
“I can take care of it,” Angie offered quickly.
“Of course. We’ll be back in five, won’t we, Mr Stinky Bum?” She jiggled Charlie on her hip as she made her way toward his nursery. The blind was drawn in 0here, too, giving the room an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling. She flicked on the light, then crossed to the window and lifted the blind as high as it would go. Sunshine streamed into the room and some of the tightness left her chest.
Poor Michael. And poor Eva and Charlie.
“What you doin’, Angie?” he asked in his bright baby voice, eyes wide and inquisitive.
“Just letting some sunshine in, little monkey.”
She lay Charlie on his change table and tugged off his baby jeans. She pulled off the soiled diaper and dropped it in the bin.
“Here.” Eva passed a fresh diaper to her, along with the box of baby wipes for the mop up operation. Angie hadn’t realised she’d followed her.
“Hey, thanks.” Angie gave the little girl a grateful smile.
“It smells,” Eva said, pulling a face and waving a hand in front of her face.
“Yes, indeed, it does. Your little brother has a gift.”
She mopped up the mess while Charlie stared up at her with a beatific smile and Eva hovered behind her.
“Can I ask a favor, Auntie Angie?” Eva asked after a few seconds.
“Of course you can. You can ask me anything.”
“Will you remind Daddy about the party sometime soon?”
Angie dusted powder over Charlie’s nether regions, glancing quickly at Eva. “Sure. But I’m pretty sure your dad will remember all on his own.”
“No, he won’t. He said he’d take me to see the new Miley Cyrus movie and he didn’t. And he promised he’d take me roller skating and we didn’t do that, either.”
Angie frowned. Michael had always been a great father. Attentive, playful, protective. He was indulgent when he needed to be, firm when it counted - and he always did whatever was needed to make his children feel happy and safe. Hearing that he’d let Eva down on more than one occasion recently brought the tight feeling back to her chest.
“I’ll make a note in my phone and I’ll call him before the party, okay?” she said.
“Thank you, Auntie Angie.” Eva rushed forward and hugged her again. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
They returned to the kitchen with Charlie walking between them. Michael was scraping vegetables into a saucepan before adding a store-bought jar of pasta sauce.
“Can I play with the i-Pad, Dad?” Eva asked, already sidling toward the couch.
“Half an hour, max.”
“Okay,” Eva said, rolling over the back of the couch and down onto the seat.
It was such a classic Billie move that for a moment Angie was stunned. Grief stung the back of her eyes and for long seconds she could do nothing but stare at the floor and blink. When she dared glance at Michael, his face was utterly expressionless, but somehow she knew that he had been equally affected by the small moment. Suddenly he looked much older than his thirty-five years - old and weary and defeated.
The impulse to go to him and simply wrap her arms around him was overwhelming, but they had never had that kind of friendship. They were comfortable and familiar with one another, yes, but they both sat toward the shy end of the personality spectrum, especially where physical stuff was concerned. Billie had been the hugger, and she’d trained Angie to first accept and then reciprocate her ready affection, but it was not a skill that had transferred easily to the other relationships in Angie’s life.
She started setting the table and after a few minutes Michael spoke up.
“Dinner’s about ten minutes away. Would you mind watching the kids for five while I grab a quick shower...?”
“Of course not. Go for it.” She shooed him away with the flick of her hand.
He gave her a half smile before exiting to his bedroom. She finished setting the table, then started in on the kitchen. By the time Michael returned in a fresh pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, his hair damp from the shower, she’d stowed the various foodstuffs in the pantry, sorted the dishwasher and whittled the debris covering the kitchen counters down to a stack of paperwork.
Michael’s gaze flicked over the kitchen briefly before finding her. She tensed, worried she’d overstepped the mark, but he simply gave her a small acknowledging nod.
Between the two of them they wrangled Charlie into his high chair. Michael cut his pasta into small pieces and let it cool before offering the bowl to his son. Charlie stabbed at the plate with his Winnie The Pooh baby cutlery, sending food flying. Michael asked Eva about her day at school and her afternoon at her friend’s place, saying all the right things in response to her questions, keeping up a semblance of normality.
It was all so subdued and colorless and joyless Angie wanted to weep.
Afterward, she gave Eva the I Love NY T-shirt and lipgloss she’d picked up for her, as well as a funky pair of high-top sneakers.
“Fresh off the streets. No one else will have these for months,” she assured Eva.
“They’re so sparkly,” Eva said, shifting the shoes so their sequined details reflected the light.
Angie handed a plush toy hotdog to Charlie, along with a miniature version of Eva’s T-shirt. Lastly, she slid a T-shirt Michael’s way. He raised an eyebrow, obviously surprised he’d been included on the gift list.
“I saw this and thought of you,” she said by way of explanation.
She watched as he unfolded the T-shirt and read the inscription: Trust me, I’m an architect. He smiled his first genuine smile of the day.
By eight the kids were down for the night, despite much coaxing on Eva’s behalf to “stay up late because Auntie Angie is home.” A stern look and a few words in her father’s deepest tones sent Eva scurrying off to bed, leaving Angie alone with Michael.
“Sorry, my hosting skills are a little rusty. I forgot to offer you wine with dinner. There’s a bottle in the back of the pantry if you want a glass...?” Michael asked.
“I’m good, thanks. I’m kind of detoxing after New York.”
“Lots of partying, huh?”
Again, he was saying the right things, but he wasn’t truly engaged. Rather than answer him, she studied him for a long beat before starting the conversation that she owed it to Billie - and Michael and Eva and Charlie - to have. Even if it made her uncomfortable to force her way into sensitive territory.
“How are you, Michael? I mean, how are you really?”
“I’m fine. We’re all good.” He said it so automatically she knew she was getting his by-rote response to well-wishers and relatives.
“You don’t look good to me. You’ve lost weight, you’re living in this house like it’s a cave, you’re shuffling around like a zombie.”
His chin jerked as though she’d hit him and it took him a long time to respond.
She glanced down at her hands, wondering how hard and how far to push him.
“Have you thought about going back to work early? I know you took the full twelve months off, but they’d take you back if you wanted to come back early, wouldn’t they?”
The thought had occurred to her as she’d watched him prepare dinner. Most men preferred to be doing something rather than sitting around contemplating their navels.
Michael’s already-stony expression became even more remote.
“I took the time off for the kids. They need me to be around.”
“They need you to be a fully functioning human being first and foremost, Michael. Did it ever cross your mind that having all this time to sit around and think isn’t good for you? God knows, it would do my head in. If you went back to work, you’d get some of your life back again. Some of who you are.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Angie, but we’re all doing fine.”
He stood, clearly wanting to end the discussion. Angie hated confrontation - usually went to great lengths to avoid it - but she hated what she could see happening to Michael even more.
“You think this half life is doing any of you any good? When was the last time you left the house to do anything other than drop Eva at school or go to the supermarket, Michael? When was the last time you did something because you wanted to rather then because you had to?”
For a moment there was so much blazing anger in his eyes that she almost shrank back into her seat. She understood his anger - his wife of six years had died suddenly and brutally from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, leaving him to raise their two children alone. He’d lost his dreams, his future, the shape of his world in the space of half an hour. But the fact remained that life went on. Michael was alive, and Billie was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Certainly living in some sort of shadow world wasn’t going to fix things or make them better.
So she stood her ground and eyed him steadily.
“I know it’s hard. I think about her every day. I miss her like crazy. But you stopping living isn’t going to bring her back.”
Michael swallowed, the sound loud in the quiet space. He stared at the ground and closed his eyes, one hand lifting to pinch the bridge of his nose. She didn’t know him well enough to understand his signals - she’d only known him when he was happy, not when he was deeply grieving, and she had no map to help her navigate this difficult territory.
“If you want to talk, if you want to rage, if you need help around the house, if you want to burn it all to the ground and start again... Tell me,” Angie said. “Tell me what you need, Michael, and I will do whatever I can to make it happen.”
She held her breath, hoping she’d gotten through to him. After a moment he lifted his head.
“I need my wife back,” he said.