Snowed In: Part III, The Waiting

Catch up with Part I and Part II

I couldn’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom. Jack followed me and closed the door behind him.

“What the hell, Jack? Is that your girlfriend? Did she come here to send us a message?”

“Elise, I swear, that is not Samantha.”

Jack rarely used her name. He knew I didn’t like hearing it.

I was leaning on the vanity taking shallow gulps of air.

“Calm down, Elise. She misspoke because I walked up at that moment.”

“You did tell me that she, Samantha, was having trouble letting go,” I reminded him.

“She’s getting better, and she would never pull a stunt like this anyway. Besides, this woman is freaking pregnant. I told you nothing physical ever happened.”

“She said she was a snake, Jack.”

“She was messing with you because she didn’t want you trying to win over the kids.”

“Was that what I was trying to do?”

“Kinda seemed like it.”

“I was trying to break the tension.”

Jack could see I was holding back tears.

“It’s like, what’s it called, Occam’s Razor? The simplest answer is the one most likely to be true. They’re just a couple that broke down, and they don’t want to be here right now. She didn’t like you getting all cozy with the kids, and then…Wait, she said she shouldn’t have told you anything. What did she tell you?”

I gave Jack a quick summary of the situation according to Jocelyn.

“OK, maybe we better get back out there.”

I glared at him. “So, you see why I might think something’s not right.”

With a big sigh, Jack pulled his phone out of his back pocket. He started scrolling rapidly through it and then stopped. He held the phone out in front of me.

“That’s Samantha,” he said.

It was a picture of a group of people from one of his office happy hours. I recognized his former boss, from before his promotion, standing in the back. In the middle was Jack and a woman, who looked nothing like Jocelyn. They were sitting close, arms draped casually over each other’s shoulders.

“It’s from like six months ago, right before I told you.”

Seeing the photo made it so much more real. I felt nauseous.

“What did your co-workers think, with you guys hanging on each other like that?”

“I don’t know. We were teammates, Elise. We were all celebrating finishing a big project.” Jack put the phone away. “Can we revisit this later? I think we should get out there.”

“OK, but I still think something’s up with these two. And, honestly, I don’t want to hear about Samantha again, as long as you promise me nothing ever happened. And that you’ve convinced her she’s barking up the wrong tree.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Elise.”

And then we both laughed, because where the hell did “barking up the wrong tree” come from?

We found Jocelyn and the kids sitting in the living room. She was looking at her phone.

“Anything from Dean?” I asked.

“No, not yet.” She said, putting her phone down on the coffee table.

“Um, Jack could set the kids up in the den to watch a movie,” I suggested.

The kids perked up. There was a long silence. I wondered if Jocelyn knew that I was trying to maneuver some more one-on-one time with her.

“Okay, sure,” Jocelyn said, throwing her hands in the air.

Jack motioned at the kids, “C’mon you two, let’s go find something fun to watch!”

I sat down on the couch across from Jocelyn and leaned over, my arms folded on my knees.

“Jocelyn, is everything ok? I know I’m a stranger, but you can talk to me.”

She picked up her phone, looked at the screen, and then put it back down.

“I can’t explain. It’s complicated. You must be familiar with complicated.”

I sat back, unsure where she was going with this.

Jocelyn continued, “You don’t fully trust Jack, right? Why do you think that is? Is it more about him or about your own baggage?”

“We all have baggage,” I conceded.

“So, maybe you’re looking at me and Dean through your own baggage.”

Huh.

I could hear the TV in the other room. Hopefully, Jack would return soon. I didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with Jocelyn—I was clearly outmatched.

Jocelyn’s phone dinged and she grabbed it. “The mechanic is working on the car,” she announced.

I started thinking about the amount of time Jocelyn or Dean had been left unaccompanied in the house. Was it long enough for one of them to steal a checkbook or a credit card? Or were they after more? Was I just being paranoid?

Jocelyn could see the gears turning in my head, I was certain of it. “Elise, my point is, it seems like you want to save me,” she said, “but what if I’m here to save you?”

“What does that mean?” I asked, my heart beating in my throat.

“Tell me why you’re having a tough time getting past Jack’s emotional attachment at work. Do you believe him when he says it’s over?”

“I do. But I have trust issues. I can’t talk about it.”

“Yet you want me to tell you my secrets,” she said slowly. “Isn’t that weird?”

The whole thing was weird. Who was this woman? Why did I want nothing more than to go grab that bottle of wine and tell her everything?

Jack walked back into the room. “They’re watching Toy Story. They seem pretty content. You might have to carry them out of here.”

“The mechanic is up there,” I informed Jack.

“Maybe I should clear off the steps; it’s really starting to stick,” Jack said.

Jocelyn jumped to her feet, “No worries! We’ll be fine.”

As if on cue, we heard a commotion outside. We all ran to the foyer, and Jack flung open the front door. At the foot of our stairs, a man was helping Dean to his feet.

“Dean! What happened?” Jocelyn shouted. As she ran out in the snow, I saw that she had snow boots on. I hadn’t noticed that before.

“I’m ok, I slipped a bit and slid down the last couple steps.”

The man, who I took to be the mechanic, helped Dean get inside. Dean was not putting his full weight on his left ankle.

“Did you twist your ankle?” I asked.

“Do you need some help?” Jack asked.

“I’m fine,” Dean said.

The mechanic helped Dean sit down on the bench in our foyer.

As Jack closed the door, it occurred to me that Jack and I were now outnumbered in our house, three adults to two. I wasn’t sure if the kids would be a help or a hindrance to whatever they might have planned.

“Please be careful as you go back up the stairs,” I said to the mechanic, not too subtly.

“If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d like to wait here for the tow truck,” he said. “I couldn’t fix the car, and my truck’s not equipped for towin’. Not that I’d want to even try it in this snow. It’s really coming down out there.”

Aw, crap.

Coming Up: Part IV, Trust

Snowed In: Part II, The Dinner

If you haven’t yet, you’ll want to read Part I of this serialized story first.

Our house does not have an open floor plan, so the living room, kitchen, and dining room are chopped up into separate rooms, which I happen to like.

Jocelyn took a quick look around, saw that we were sort of secluded, and then grabbed my arm and leaned in close.

“Ok, so you’re going to tell me the ingredients of the chili, and I’m going to confide in you, all right?” she said in a low, urgent voice. It wasn’t really a question.

“Um…”

In a much louder voice she said, “Elise, you have to tell me what’s in this amazing-smelling chili.”

I started getting out the bowls, and in an equally loud voice, I said, “Well, you start with black beans, white onion, garlic, and brown sugar.”

Jocelyn whispered: “So, Dean and I are not married. At least not yet. I called him my husband because, I don’t know, because it sounded better, I guess.”

Dean! Two names down.

“Um, then we use ground turkey and bacon. But you don’t have to include them if you don’t eat meat.”

“The kids are his. We were picking them up at his ex’s place around here somewhere. We’ve never been out here. She usually meets him halfway.”

“Then you’ve got chopped green and red bell pepper, jalapeños, and sweet onion.”

“We were picking up the kids for the week. I don’t know them very well, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to bond.”

“The spices are chili powder, cumin, oregano, and crushed red pepper.”

We were moving around the kitchen, assembling the spoons, bread plates, and serving utensils. Every couple seconds, we would freeze and look at the doorway. We could hear voices coming from the living room.

“Ever since I started showing, it’s been weird. His ex doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I didn’t go in the house when he got the kids. It’s gotten tense.”

I asked, “Is everything ok? Do you need help?”

Jocelyn did that rolling thing with her hand that means go on…

“And, uh, a jar of salsa, some tomato paste, and some broth,” I practically shouted.

I removed the cornbread from the oven, and Jocelyn’s eyes widened.

“Holy crap, that looks really good. What’s in that?!”

Under her breath and at breakneck speed, she added, “We’re fine, he just has to get used to the fact that he’s having another kid, and he needs to tell his ex about it before too long.”

“It’s the usual cornbread ingredients, and then on top are caramelized apple slices and onions.”

And then I did something I can’t explain.

I said: “Well, Jack has been having an ’emotional affair’ with a woman at work. He says it’s over, and I’m trying to get past it. But…” I stopped myself.

What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t even told my closest friends about this yet because I was worried they would think I was crazy for going forward with buying this house. Why had I disclosed this to a perfect stranger?

It was too late to judge Jocelyn’s reaction because Jack, Dean, and the kids had arrived in the kitchen.

“Are we ready?” Jack asked as he grabbed some glasses from the cabinet.

Talk about an awkward dinner. The kids were still mostly silent. Had Jocelyn and Dean been arguing in the car and the kids got freaked out? Was their home life stressful? At least they weren’t picky eaters, as we discovered. In fact, they were demolishing the cornbread.

Dean kept looking at his phone. He ate maybe two bites of chili.

Jack was drinking one of his fancy craft beers. I was slowly sipping red wine. I was going to skip the wine, but after my confession, I started feeling anxious and wanted to calm down. I promised myself I would not drink too much while these people were still in the house. Our guests had opted for sparkling water.

“This food is delicious,” Jocelyn said. “You guys should open up a restaurant. Seriously.”

This is the point where we might normally start talking about what we all did for work. But I wasn’t sure what direction to go—treat this like two couples getting to know each other or just wait out the discomfort, because how long could it last, honestly? 

Through the window I could see the snow was coming down. Jack and I exchanged glances.

Dean’s phone played some tune I recognized but could not place. He jumped up and left the room. I wasn’t thrilled about him wandering through our house, but I couldn’t very well follow him.

“How do you like the food?” I looked at the kids who were sitting side-by-side to my right. “Do you want some more cornbread?”

“No, thank you,” said the older kid.

“Yes, please,” said the younger kid.

As I put another piece of cornbread on the smaller one’s plate, I asked, “Can you tell me your names and how old you are?”

“You don’t have to tell her that,” Jocelyn snapped.

“She’s right,” I said, feeling like I had been slapped.

And then, again, I don’t know what struck me, but I said, “Names are meaningless anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun if people just called us by our favorite animal? I would be named Dolphin. Jack what would you be?”

My husband looked at me like I had sprouted another head. “What the heck are you talking about?”

But the kids loved it.

“I’m Penguin!” said the older one.

“I’m Puppy” said the younger one.

Jocelyn,” I said, putting emphasis on her name, seeing as how she had never given it to me in the first place, “who would you be?”

She grinned. Was it fake, or had I won her over? I couldn’t tell.

“Well, Elise, I mean Dolphin, I would have to be Snake.”

Touché, dear Jocelyn!

“I’m getting anther beer,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.

Dean returned and reported that a mechanic was on his way. He said he was going to wait at the car. I walked with him to the hall closet to get his coat, and he practically spit at me, “Can you just mind your own damn business until we get out of here?”

How much had he heard earlier?

“Absolutely,” I said, with an implied, Yes, Sir!

Dean rolled his eyes and stomped out the front door. I looked through the window in the top part of the door—the snow was starting to stick. I could not see which direction Dean went when he got to the top of the stairs. The street was barely visible.

Jack appeared next to me. “Maybe you could slow down on the wine for now,” he said, and I noticed that I had carried my glass of wine with me. How many glasses had I had? No more than two, but he was right. I could feel that sense of not giving a shit bubbling up.

Back in the dining room, Jocelyn was clearing the table.

“Hey there, Puppy and Penguin!” I said, and the kids smiled.

I grabbed some bowls and joined Jocelyn in the kitchen.

“Look, I’m sorry I said anything.” She exhaled and shook her head slowly, “You don’t need to be involved in this.”

Jack was now standing beside me, but she kept talking.

“This is between me and Jack—I mean me and Dean. This is between me and Dean.”

My head could not have swiveled fast enough to glare at Jack. What the…?

Coming Up: Part III, The Waiting

Snowed In: Part I, The Arrival

Note: This is the first installment of a story I plan to serialize on this blog. I haven’t written fiction in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever tried my hand at suspense/psychological thrillers. Hopefully, it will add something fun to the mix that isn’t too far off topic. How often would you like to see new installments? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The sun had just gone down when we heard a knock at the door. It was mid-November, so it was already dark at 5pm.

Jack and I had just hunkered down under blankets on our respective couches. The first big snowstorm of the season was headed our way, and dinner was cooking in the kitchen.

We looked at each other—who could be knocking at five on a Sunday? We were still relatively new to the community, so maybe it was a neighbor dropping off a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine. Only one grandmotherly woman had welcomed us to the neighborhood so far. I was still holding out hope that a youngish couple would show up and we would all become fast friends.

Jack went to the door. We had no chain and no screen door, so he just opened the front door to whoever was there. The area was secluded and much nicer than the last place we lived, so I wasn’t too concerned that he didn’t ask first who it was.

A woman’s voice said, “Oh, hello. Thank you so much for answering your door.”

I jumped up and joined my husband in the foyer. A woman stood there holding the hand of a small child. The child was all bundled up against the cold, and the woman had on a long puffy coat that was hanging open. She appeared to be pregnant, but I know better than to make assumptions about that. She looked a bit out of breath—flushed and tired.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but our car just broke down up there.” She motioned behind her. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, and a flight of wooden stairs led up to the street. In the light of our street post, I could see a taller figure standing at the top of the stairs, carrying something large.

“That’s my husband up there. We are calling around to find a mechanic that can come out, but this little one really needs to use the restroom,” she looked at the child. “And I suppose I do, too.”

“Please, come in,” I said. “Jack, why don’t you go tell her husband to come down.”

The woman and child stepped into the house. I thought it might be easier for her to navigate in our small half-bath without her big coat, so I offered to hang it up. Then I showed them to the bathroom.

“We are so grateful, thank you again so much,” she said as she closed the bathroom door.

On my way back to the foyer, I scooped up the crumpled blankets from the couches and tossed them into the coat closet. When I reached the door, a man was standing there holding another child, about a year younger, on his hip. I guessed to myself that the two children were about three and four, but I wasn’t particularly good with kids’ ages. Maybe four and five?

“Would you like to come in and sit down?” Jack asked.

“We’ll be out of your hair shortly,” the man said, not moving.

“It’s pretty cold out there,” I said. “And it’s supposed to start snowing any minute. Have you reached a tow truck or mechanic yet?”

“Not really. Left a few messages.” He shifted the kid over to the other side.

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom,” the child whispered.

“I can show you where it is,” said Jack.

“And I can take your coats,” I said.

“That’s not necessary, we really will be out of your hair in no time.”

“It’s no trouble. What with the kids and your wife’s condition, you are more than welcome to wait here.”

The man gave me a sideways look, and I immediately regretted referring to his wife’s “condition.”

“Do you all live in the area?” I asked to change the subject.

He glanced away for a moment and took a long pause. “No, we were visiting people a couple blocks away.”

Silence. Then the child started tugging on the man’s sleeve.

“Follow me,” Jack said, and the man went off with him.

I started thinking about why this family had come to our house. There was nowhere on our part of the street to pull over their car. Was it sitting in the middle of the road? The neighbor to the right of us only came out on weekends, and he had likely left to go back to the city, so his house would be dark. The neighbor on the other side was older and went to bed early, but not this early.

The woman and child came out of the bathroom, and her husband and the other child took their place. She was holding the child’s coat and hat and scarf. 

“I’m Elise, and this is Jack,” I said. “Why don’t we all sit down?”

The woman looked grateful to sit down on the loveseat with the child.

“I can take those from you,” I gestured toward the child’s coat.

“No worries, we shouldn’t be too long. Though it does smell awfully good in here.”

“We have a big pot of chili cooking,” I explained. “Perfect comfort food for a snowstorm. I can’t believe we’re expecting like a foot of snow this early in the season.”

“Oh, my, are we supposed to get that much? I wish we had gotten an earlier start. The roads out here are confusing. We got a little turned around. And then the car…” Her voice trailed off.

“Yes, it’s easy to lose your way here,” Jack said.

The woman still hadn’t offered her name, and I was wondering if it would be rude to ask. The child was remarkably quiet and still.

The husband came out of the bathroom talking on his cell phone. Maybe one of the mechanics had called him back?

The other child hung back, behind his legs. This child still had a coat and hat on.

The man hung up. “Well, they can’t come out for another hour at least.”

“We made plenty of chili if you’d like to stay,” I offered. “It should be ready in about twenty minutes. I have cornbread baking in the oven, too.” Jack gave me a look. I knew he didn’t want these strangers in our house on a cozy Sunday evening, eating dinner with us, but what could we do?

“So, did you folks just move in?” The man asked. He was referring to the boxes stacked here and there, marked “living room” and “den.”

“A couple months ago,” I confessed. “It’s taking a while to get fully unpacked. Don’t you hate packing? I hate packing. But unpacking is usually fun because you get to decide where to put everything in your new home. But this time it’s dragging on for some reason.”

Jack gave me another look, like okay, Chatty Cathy.

Silence again. I decided to pull off the band-aid: “Can I ask your names?”

The woman stood up and walked over to the man, who was hovering on the perimeter of the living room. The child followed her.

“What do you want to do?” she asked him. “These people are being very kind.”

“I guess we could stay until the mechanic gets here,” he said and then looked at us. “But you folks go ahead and eat. We’ll be just fine. We had a big lunch earlier.”

I speculated: Perhaps they don’t eat meat. Or spicy food. Maybe the kids hate chili.

We were all standing at this point, including the two children, and it was getting really awkward.

“Is your car in the road? Do you need us to help you push it off?” I asked. “You can use the neighbor’s parking spot—he’s gone back to the city.”

“It’s fine,” the man said in a tone that said, stop asking questions.

The woman sighed, “You know what, I would love to have some of your chili. Can I help you in the kitchen?”

I could have hugged her. “Absolutely, right this way!” I headed toward the kitchen, not even caring that I was leaving Jack with the man and the two kids.

“Jocelyn,” I heard him call after her, but she ignored him. Jocelyn! One name down, three to go.

Coming Up: Part II, The Dinner