If I'd known this was our last morning, I'd have rolled over in bed and held her. But of course, if it had been possible to know something like that--if I could have somehow seen into the future--I wouldn't have let go. And then things would have been different.
I'd been staring at the ceiling for a while when I finally threw back the covers and planted my feet on the hardwood floor.
"How'd you sleep?" Sheila asked as I rubbed my eyes. She reached out and touched my back.
"Not so good. You?"
"Off and on."
"I sensed you were awake, but I didn't want to bug you, on the off chance you were sleeping," I said, glancing over my shoulder. The sun's first rays of the day filtered through the drapes and played across my wife's face as she lay in bed, looking at me. This wasn't a time of day when people looked their best, but there was something about Sheila. She was always beautiful. Even when she looked worried, which was how she looked now.
I turned back around, looked down at my bare feet. "I couldn't get to sleep for the longest time, then I think I finally nodded off around two, but then I looked at the clock and it was five. Been awake since then."
"Glen, it's going to be okay," Sheila said. She moved her hand across my back, soothing me.
"Yeah, well, I'm glad you think so."
"Things'll pick up. Everything goes in cycles. Recessions don't last forever."
I sighed. "This one sure seems to. After these jobs I'm doing now, we got nothin' lined up. Some nibbles, did a couple of estimates last week--one for a kitchen, one to finish off a basement--but they haven't called back."
I stood up, turned and said, "What's your excuse for staring at the ceiling all night?"
"Worried about you. And . . . I've got things on my mind, too."
"Nothing," she said quickly. "I mean, just the usual. This course I'm taking, Kelly, your work."
"What's wrong with Kelly?"
"Nothing's wrong with her. I'm a mother. She's eight. I worry. It's what I do. When I've done the course, I can help you more. That'll make a difference."
"When you made the decision to take it, we had the business to justify it. Now, I don't know if I'll even have any work for you to do," I said. "I just hope I have enough to keep Sally busy."
Sheila'd started her business accounting course mid-August, and two months in was enjoying it more than she'd expected. The plan was for Sheila to do the day-to-day accounts for Garber Contracting, the company that was once my father's, and which I now ran. She could even do it from home, which would allow Sally Diehl, our "office girl," to focus more on general office management, returning phone calls, hounding suppliers, fielding customer inquiries. There usually wasn't time for Sally to do the accounting, which meant I was bringing it home at night, sitting at my desk until midnight. But with work drying up, I didn't know how this was all going to shake down.
"And now, with the fire--"
"Enough," Sheila said.
"Sheila, one of my goddamn houses burned down. Please don't tell me everything's going to be fine."
She sat up in bed and crossed her arms across her breasts. "I'm not going to let you get all negative on me. This is what you do."
"I'm just telling you how it is."
"And I'm going to tell you how it will be," she said. "We will be okay. Because this is what we do. You and I. We get through things. We find a way." She looked away for a moment, like there was something she wanted to say but wasn't sure how to say it. Finally, she said, "I have ideas."
"Ideas to help us. To get us through the rough patches."
I stood there, my arms open, waiting.
"You're so busy, so wrapped up in your own problems--and I'm not saying that they aren't big problems--that you haven't even noticed."
"Noticed what?" I asked.
She shook her head and smiled. "I got Kelly new outfits for school."
I narrowed my eyes. "What are you getting at?"
"I've made some money."
I thought I already knew that. Sheila had her part-time job at Hardware Depot--about twenty hours a week--working the checkout. They'd recently installed these new self-checkout stations people couldn't figure out, so there was still work there for Sheila until they did. And since the early summer, Sheila had been helping our next-door neighbor--Joan Mueller--with her own books for a business she was running from her home. Joan's husband, Ely, had been killed on that oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland when it blew up about a year back. She'd been getting jerked around by the oil company on her settlement, and in the meantime had started running a daycare operation. Every morning four or five preschoolers got dropped off at her door. And on school days when Sheila was working, Kelly went to Joan's until one of us got home. Sheila had helped Joan organize a bookkeeping system to keep track of what everyone owed and had paid. Joan loved kids, but could barely finger count.
"I know you've been making some money," I said. "Joan, and the store. Everything helps."
"Those two jobs together don't keep us in Hamburger Helper. I'm talking about better money than that."
My eyebrows went up. Then I got worried. "Tell me you're not taking money from Fiona." Her mother. "You know how I feel about that."
She looked insulted. "Jesus, Glen, you know I would never--"
"I'm just saying. I'd rather you were a drug dealer than taking money from your mother."
She blinked, threw back the covers abruptly, got out of bed, and stalked into the bathroom. The door closed firmly behind her.
"Aw, come on," I said.
By the time we reached the kitchen, I didn't think she was angry with me anymore. I'd apologized twice, and tried to coax from Sheila details of what her idea was to bring more money into the house.
"We can talk about it tonight," she said.
We hadn't washed the dishes from the night before. There were a couple of coffee cups, my scotch glass, and Sheila's wine goblet, with a dark red residue at the bottom, sitting in the sink. I lifted the goblet onto the counter, worried the stem might break if other things got tossed into the sink alongside it.
The wineglass made me think of Sheila's friends.
"You seeing Ann for lunch or anything?" I asked.
"I thought you had something set up."
"Maybe later this week. Belinda and Ann and me might get together, although every time we do that I have to get a cab home and my head hurts for a week. Anyway, I think Ann's got some physical or something today, an insurance thing."
"She's fine." A pause. "More or less."
"What's that mean?"
"I don't know. I think there's some kind of tension there, between her and Darren. And between Belinda and George, for that matter."
"What's going on?"
"Who knows," she said.
"So then, what are you doing today? You don't have a shift today, right? If I can slip away, you want to get lunch? I was thinking something fancy, like that guy who sells hot dogs by the park."
"I've got my course tonight," she said. "Some errands to run, and I might visit Mom." She shot me a look. "Not to ask her for money."
"Okay." I decided to ask nothing further. She'd tell me when she was ready.
Kelly walked into the room at the tail end of the conversation. "What's for breakfast?"
"You want cereal, cereal, or cereal?" Sheila asked.
Kelly appeared to ponder her choices. "I'll take cereal," she said, and sat at the table.
At our house, breakfast wasn't a sit-down family meal like dinner. Actually, dinner often wasn't, either, especially when I got held up at a construction site, or Sheila was at work, or heading off to her class. But we at least tried to make that a family event. Breakfast was a lost cause, however. I had my toast and coffee standing, usually flattening the morning Register on the countertop and scanning the headlines as I turned the pages. Sheila was spooning in fruit and yogurt at the same time as Kelly shoveled in her Cheerios, trying to get them into herself before any of them had a chance to get soggy.
Between spoonfuls she asked, "Why would anyone go to school at night when they're grown up and don't have to go?"
"When I finish this course," Sheila told her, "I'll be able to help your father more, and that helps the family, and that helps you."
"How does that help me?" she wanted to know.
I stepped in. "Because if my company is run well, it makes more money, and that helps you."
"So you can buy me more stuff?"
Kelly took a gulp of orange juice. "I'd never go to school at night. Or summer. You'd have to kill me to get me to go to summer school."
"If you get really good marks, that won't happen," I said, a hint of warning in my voice. We'd already had a call from her teacher that she wasn't completing all her homework.
Kelly had nothing to say to that and concentrated on her cereal. On the way out the door, she gave her mother a hug, but all I got was a wave. Sheila caught me noticing the perceived slight and said, "It's because you're a meanie."
I called the house from work mid-morning.
"Hey," Sheila said.
"You're home. I didn't know whether I'd catch you or not."
"Still here. What's up?"
"She was calling home from the office and when he didn't answer she took off. I just called to see how he was and he's gone."
"Oh jeez. How old was he?"
"Seventy-nine, I think. He was in his late fifties when he had Sally." Sheila knew the history. The man had married a woman twenty years younger than he was, and still managed to outlive her. She'd died of an aneurysm a decade ago.
"What happened to him?"
"Don't know. I mean, he had diabetes, he'd been having heart trouble. Could have been a heart attack."
"We need to do something for her."
"I offered to drop by but she said she's got a lot to deal with right now. Funeral'll probably be in a couple of days. We can talk about it when you get back from Bridgeport." Where Sheila took her class.
"We'll do something. We've always been there for her." I could almost picture Sheila shaking her head. "Look," she said, "I'm heading out. I'll leave you and Kelly lasagna, okay? Joan's expecting her after school today and--"
"I got it. Thanks."
"Not giving up. Not letting things get you down."
"Just doing the best I can," she said.
"I love you. I know I can be a pain in the ass, but I love you."
It was after ten. Sheila should have been home by now.
I tried her cell for the second time in ten minutes. After six rings it went to voicemail. "Hi, you've reached Sheila Garber. Sorry I missed you. Leave a message and I'll get back to you." Then the beep.
"Hey, me again," I said. "You're freaking me out. Call me."
I put the cordless receiver back onto its stand and leaned up against the kitchen counter, folded my arms. As she'd promised, Sheila had left two servings of lasagna in the fridge, for Kelly and me, each hermetically sealed under plastic wrap. I'd heated Kelly's in the microwave when we got home, and she'd come back looking for seconds, but I couldn't find a baking dish with any more in it. I might as well have offered her mine, which a few hours later still sat on the counter. I wasn't hungry.
I was rattled. Running out of work. The fire. Sally's dad.
And even if I'd managed to recover my appetite late in the evening, the fact that Sheila still wasn't home had put me on edge.
Her class, which was held at the Bridgeport Business College, had ended more than an hour and a half ago, and it was only a thirty-minute drive home. Which made her an hour late. Not that long, really. There were any number of explanations.
She could have stayed after class to have a coffee with someone. That had happened a couple of times. Maybe the traffic was bad on the turnpike. All you needed was someone with a flat tire on the shoulder to slow everything down. An accident would stop everything dead.
That didn't explain her not answering her cell, though. She'd been known to forget to turn it back on after class was over, but when that happened it went to voicemail right away. But the phone was ringing. Maybe it was tucked so far down in her purse she couldn't hear it.
I wondered whether she'd decided to go to Darien to see her mother and not made it back out to Bridgeport in time for her class. Reluctantly, I made the call.
"Fiona, it's Glen."
In the background, I heard someone whisper, "Who is it, love?" Fiona's husband, Marcus. Technically speaking, Sheila's stepfather, but Fiona had remarried long after Sheila had left home and settled into a life with me.
"Yes?" she said.
I told her Sheila was late getting back from Bridgeport, and I wondered if maybe her daughter had gotten held up at her place.
"Sheila didn't come see me today," Fiona said. "I certainly wasn't expecting her. She never said anything about coming over."
That struck me as odd. When Sheila mentioned maybe going to see Fiona, I'd figured she'd already bounced the idea off her.
"Is there a problem, Glen?" Fiona asked icily. There wasn't worry in her voice so much as suspicion. As if Sheila's staying out late had more to do with me than it did with her.
"No, everything's fine," I said. "Go back to bed."
I heard soft steps coming down from the second floor. Kelly, not yet in her pajamas, wandered into the kitchen. She looked at the still-wrapped lasagna on the counter and asked, "Aren't you going to eat that?"
"Hands off," I said, thinking maybe I'd get my appetite back once Sheila was home. I glanced at the wall clock. Quarter past ten. "Why aren't you in bed?"
"Because you haven't told me to go yet," she said.
"What have you been doing?"
"Go to bed," I said.
Excerpted from THE ACCIDENT © Copyright 2011 by Linwood Barclay. Reprinted with permission by Bantam. All rights reserved.