It was nearly 11. CJ had just gone to sleep. She padded out of the bathroom and was startled by the soft knock at the side door.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it,” she whispered as she opened it. If she’d woken up 10 minutes earlier, she would have been sitting out on the front porch when he pulled up to the house.
“The jury kept calling out with questions and they didn’t come back until 9:30 and then after all that it was a ‘not guilty.’” Steve absent-mindedly brushed past her through the doorway, removed his suit coat and hung it on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. “It should have been a slam dunk, but you know how juries think these days. Life is like CSI and they all think they know more than the experts and they’re gonna be the next new Sherlock Holmes and they’ll get to be on Oprah and she’ll give them a new car because they solved the case of the century.”
“Oprah’s not on anymore.”
Della rubbed some of the sleep from her eyes, closed the door and thought of the way her dad used to smell when he came home from work when she was a child. His suit coat would be off by the time he walked out of his office and he would have loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves on the drive home. She could imagine the feel of her face against his shoulder as he picked her up to hold her when she would run to greet him. Every once in a while, she’d be caught off guard by flashes of her childhood and she was sure that she could actually still smell the soft, warm whiff of lingering smoke that clung to him. That soft, musty odor meant love. Every time she smelled a cigarette, it made her think of him and she felt loved. It was probably the reason that she smoked.
Della thought of herself as a closet smoker and was very selective about who knew about her nasty little habit. She only smoked at night and it was only just one... out on the big front porch under cover of darkness and only after CJ would fall asleep, and never if she thought Steve might be coming by. He hated smoking. She didn’t think about smoking all day long. Never wanted one. The idea made her sick. But by the time 10 or 11 would roll around and the busy street she lived on would start to quiet down, she was always drawn to the front stairs to sit in bliss and smoke her single, solitary cigarette. Sometimes she’d go a few days without one. And usually, the pack that she kept hidden in the filing cabinet in the kitchen would go stale and give her horrible headaches by the time she had reached the halfway point in the pack. But she wouldn’t buy another pack until the one she had was all gone. They were expensive. And when she’d run down to the corner store to buy a new pack, they’d always try to sell her two for a discounted price, but she’d always say, “Oh, no thanks. I don’t smoke that much” because that made her feel less ashamed. She’d secretly tell herself on the drive home that she probably wouldn’t die from smoking because she had lots of friends that had been smoking packs at a time for years and none of them had ever gotten sick. In fact, the only person she’d ever known that died from lung cancer was her former father-in-law and he quit smoking decades before he was diagnosed. Her dad stopped smoking, too, when he was 45. Cold turkey. He never smelled like love anymore… but her moments on the porch did.
Steve’s mixed-up scent of old cologne and a long day’s work brought her back to the present. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to his chest, wrapped his arms around her shoulders and exhaled heavily.
“I’m exhausted,” he muttered.
Della looked past his shoulder towards the filing cabinet.
“I’ll get up early and be out of here before CJ wakes up in the morning.”
CJ was a heavy sleeper. It was a good thing, too, because sometimes Steve would oversleep and get out the door just in the nick of time before CJ woke up. Della wasn’t a prude by any means, but she never wanted her son to feel like someone was taking over his role as man of the house. It had been just the two of them since Barry had left them a week after she returned home from her C-section. CJ had enough “daddy issues” that she didn’t want to complicate his life by forcing a man into his routine.
Steve pulled her to the hallway and they started moving towards the bedroom. Della saw something dark and out of place from the corner of her eye and when she looked to see what it was, there was nothing. Nothing except the filing cabinet. Her dogs were asleep in the bedroom when they walked in, so she knew the shadow had not been one of them.
Steve neatly hung his clothes on the chair in the corner while Della let hers just fall in a pile where she stood. She grabbed a nightgown from the hook on the closed door that led to CJ’s room, slipped it over her head and crawled in beside Steve. She instantly wished that she hadn’t put the nightgown on because the warmth of his body was muffled by the fabric and she wanted to feel his skin against hers, but she decided she was just too lazy to get back up and take it off.
“Did you get a chance to read over that initial report today?”
She hesitated, caught the words in her mouth that she wanted to say and rearranged them before she replied and said something that she would regret.
“What’s going on with it?”
“Seriously? You’re exhausted, yet you want to talk about work right now? Can we just go to sleep without talking about any dead babies tonight? Please?”
He was already starting to breathe deeply, but she was becoming more alert as her mind started racing with irritation. He would have a good night’s sleep now and she would just be cranky and agitated because not only did she have to pass on the filing cabinet but she’d passed on the skin-to-skin stuff. She turned away from Steve, reached over to turn off the side lamp, and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She saw Steve’s neatly draped clothes and gritted her teeth. Her eyes darted around the room and her irritation at his “neatnickness” turned to thoughts of the house and all the renovations she wanted to do. Steve had tried to help a few times, but he wasn’t very handy. She knew her way around power tools much better than he did and he always complained, “I’m an attorney. I don’t know how to do this stuff.”
If she could figure out how to take the door out between the two rooms and put in some drywall, she could put a little desk right there and maybe use it to put her makeup on in the morning. CJ had another doorway for his room that led off the mudroom and she’d been trying for years to get him in the habit of using that doorway instead of traipsing through her room, which was definitely more convenient for him, but highly annoying for her. If that door was gone, then he’d have no choice but to start directing his flow of traffic out the other door. She wondered why they ever designed houses like that. It was such an odd thing to have a door leading off into a second bedroom. It was obvious from the lay of the house that the second door in the mudroom… well, even the mudroom itself, had been added onto the house later than when it was originally built. The mudroom had an L-shaped set of steps that led to what used to be the coal cellar, which now housed the furnace, the water heater and the washer/dryer; none of which had even yet been invented when the house was built. She’d had part of the cellar carpeted, so there was a cozy little spot to sit and watch TV while the laundry tumbled. It was a little bit creepy down there but she could always dismiss the feeling. There was just one little makeshift window which used to be the spot where men used to shovel the coal in. And then there was the front porch. It should be redone. Maybe it would be best to do it in concrete, but she’d sure like to have it done in wood so that it was in keeping with the period of the house. How often did you see a little craftsman bungalow with a concrete porch? Wood would be so much better. So much more inviting. Her mind was running full-tilt now and she breathed deeply in an effort to calm herself.
The adjoining door popped open. Not much, just enough that she saw a slit of darkness between the white of the door trim and the door itself. She lifted her head to look and couldn’t imagine how the latch had loosened. It had never done that before. Neither of the dogs noticed it and Steve was by now sound asleep. She noticed her heart beating against the wall of her chest and thought about how uncomfortable it felt. As she swung her legs over the side of the bed to sit up, she felt a breeze come from the slit in the door. The house was drafty, but this was ice cold. There must be a cold front coming in. She should have gotten up earlier and watched the news to see what the weather was going to do. A soft humming (or could it be traffic outside?) seemed to gently fill the room but wasn’t clear enough for her to discern the direction it came from. The adjoining door began to slowly and slightly open, and then slowly and slightly close again. Back and forth, slowly fanning, until the door was almost fully open. Della couldn’t move. Her mind and heart were competing for her attention as she saw a woman holding the hand of a small child materialize in the doorway. A dark mass loomed behind the transparent pair and it followed them as the woman helped the toddler walk awkwardly out of the doorway and towards the door that led out of the bedroom. The figures drew closer; Della thought about all the things that she should be doing right now instead of sitting, paralyzed. Scream. Wake Steve up. Run to check on CJ. Turn on the light. They were all good ideas, but she just sat there, transfixed. The woman turned to look at Della, smiled gingerly, cast her eyes down, grabbed her long skirts with her free hand and continued out the other door. The light that shone down the hallway from the outside blacked out momentarily as the three proceeded down the hall and towards the kitchen. Della stared, open-mouthed, until all she could see was the filing cabinet.