The dull orange and yellow Midwest sky glowed through the windows, casting a yellowish hue onto everything in the house. Christine Ritter looked up from the desk she sat behind and admired the pale beauty before her. One last sunset. Tomorrow began a new decade. The end of the 70’s and the start of the 80’s. She hadn’t given the idea much thought, but there it was… change was inevitable.
She tore away from the color streaming through the windows and examined her desk. Envelopes lay stacked in neat piles, some to be paid, others to be mailed, and a few that had to wait. Still, others were stuffed with colored sheets of paper filled with threats. Every month the piles shifted in size and substance, but the last collection continued to grow, despite her best efforts. One envelope with hospital letterhead, sat alone, perched upright, where she had last scanned it. The edge was ripped open, but contents were not read. She already knew what it contained. The pink sheen of the letter inside was telling enough.
She had made a mess of things, once again, and the consequences continued to stalk her. How much simpler it had been years ago, when she was still married to Fred. His government job covered the bills, and then some, so she didn’t need to continue working as a nurse. But the more Fred advanced in his all-consuming career, the more she felt alone, even after the kids were born. Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months until it was hard to tell when one day began, and another ended. Often, it fell on her to raise the kids, Joanna and Jonathan. Her gaze flicked up to a picture on the wall.
Her frozen smiling image stared through the almost translucent sheen of a glass frame. In front of her stood Joanna, sporting a grim look of determination, and Jonathan wearing a typically mischievous grin. Not present, as usual, was Fred, lured by the siren song of a government paycheck to abandon his family. Resentment bubbled up, forcing her to turn away.
But that was a convenient excuse. Even with Fred around, unhappiness lingered like a toxic cloud. He resented her for reasons she had no control over, and no means to correct. Their marriage had been the climax of a whirlwind romance, between a young expatriated British nursing student, and an Ivy League lawyer. Oh, those had been heady days, a far cry from the hardscrabble life back in England, and the venomous relationship with her cold-hearted mother.
But for every ounce of joy she extracted from her existence, there came a pound of misery. The honeymoon ended when Fred took her to meet his family back in the homestead in Massachusetts. Instead of welcoming her as a new daughter-in-law, the Ritters treated her like a mistake and made it clear their son had erred in bringing a British tramp into their private social circle. The resulting crisis isolated Fred from his family and soured their relationship.
The birth of Joanna, and Fred’s success as a government attorney, quickly masked the difficulties they were having. But after Jonathan was born, all the old problems resurfaced, except now, Fred began to treat Christine as if she had somehow ‘trapped him’ in marriage — words Fred’s mother had thrown in her face at their last meeting. The growing bitterness and resentment sent her reeling, not just because it was unfair and untrue, but Fred’s reaction (like his family) had been evocative of how her mum reacted after her father’s death.
Scared, and alone, she escaped with the children. But like many of her trade-offs, the terms were unbalanced. The loss of a comfortable middle-class life was not made up by a paycheck-to-paycheck existence trying to make ends meet on a small-town nurse’s salary. For some time, she considered going back to England, where she’d grown up, and her elderly mother still lived. But there the bridges were burnt as well, and besides, the kids were US citizens, not English.
That always seemed to be the recurring theme in her life. Fate or bad decisions slammed doors in her face, such that once a path was chosen, or forced upon her, the only option was to go forward. No turning back, again.
The desk was in order. Everything should be where it could be dealt with. Just one more item to deal with. She opened the drawer and withdrew a handwritten note. Tri-folding the message, she slipped it and a key into an empty envelope. Flipping it over, she wrote on the front, “Joanna” and left it centered on the desktop. After pulling the cover down, she stood and made her way to the kitchen.
Joanna lingered at the sink, drying the last of the plates from dinner. The sixteen-year-old was tall, thin and pale, in every respect like Christine, except for the hair. The long gorgeous black mane hung loose, down to the small of her back. Nothing comparable to Christine’s short red locks. The color and texture were Fred’s, as was her grit and determination to get things completed the way she wanted them done. All Fred. It would carry her far; farther than her own dithering ways had managed to accomplish.
“You finished, love?” Christine asked.
“Yes, Mom,” Joanna answered without looking at her. “I would have been done sooner, but as usual, Jonathan wouldn’t help.” The pique in her voice was evident.
She tried not to laugh, remembering all the times her own brother Sean had mysteriously vanished when chores needed attention. “I will say something to him,” she announced.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath. He doesn’t do anything.”
Because you don’t know how to ask. Ah, poor Joanna, so strong and efficient in many ways, but clueless about boys.
“Not to worry, love. Let me handle it.”
Joanna harrumphed, tucked the last plate away and hung the dish towel on its holder. She turned, and said through gritted teeth, “I’m sure he’ll do whatever his mommy says.” The contempt on her face was unmistakable.
Christine hated that look, reflective of a well-known fact: Jonathan was her favorite. What chance did the straight-laced, humorless girl have against her polar opposite? At least their relationship wasn’t as cold as the one she had with her mother. But even so, it was a tad more than sullen indifference.
Before Joanna could slip past, Christine reached out and touched her shoulder. The girl stopped and fixed her with a questioning look. “I love you.”
The young girl searched her eyes for a moment. “I love you too, Mom.” Then she slipped away toward the stairs.
Christine felt her eyes water but wiped it away. Joanna was strong. Far stronger than Christine had been at the same age.
She walked into the living room, and spotted, sitting sideways in his chair, her youngest, Jonathan. The boy’s wavy hair lay stacked on his head like it was trying to escape the hand running through it. He looked up from his library book, one of several piled near him. “Hey, Mom.”
“Jonathan,” she stated, with as much gravitas as she could muster. “You were supposed to help Joanna with the dishes.”
“I did,” he said with a shrug. “I carried them to the sink.”
“You were supposed to help clean them.”
“Technically I did,” he said looking back at the book.
“Washing and cleaning the dishes involves more than just carrying them to the sink.”
He looked at her sidelong. “Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification.”
She walked over and stood next to him. “What are you reading?”
“The World According to Garp.”
“What’s that about?”
He stared up at her with an exasperated look. “Why don’t you read it yourself?”
A flare of annoyance sailed through her. That was so much like Fred. “Never mind.”
He quickly backpedaled. “It’s a complicated book to explain in simple terms.”
“I see.” The boy was being pretentious, but not far off the mark. She read out of obligation, not for recreation. But she also saw the hurt on his face, knowing that he had, once again, made her out to be a simpleton.
She patted him on the head, then knelt next to his chair. “Be nicer to Joanna.”
He smiled and rolled his eyes. “What else did she accuse me of?”
“No, Jonathan.” She caught his chin between her thumb and index finger and turned him to look directly at her. The brown-eyed gaze stared at her through thick glass lenses. “I’m serious. She is going to need you, even when she says she doesn’t.”
“Okay,” he answered with a confused expression.
She stood and started to walk away.
“Are you okay?” Jonathan asked.
She stopped and looked at him. “I love you. Good night.”
With weary legs, she trudged up the steps toward the bedrooms. Jonathan was smart, far outstripping most of his classmates, and had even skipped a grade. He loved the change, but Joanna did not. Now her little brother was in the same grade as she was. Still, she protected her undersized and underage sibling. They were good kids and deserved better. If she hadn’t been so rash to run-off, maybe she and Fred could have worked something out. But she stopped that thought train. Too little, too late.
She paused at a picture of her mom and dad. As if he was withholding the punch-line of a joke, Joseph Patrick Flannery sported a mischievous grin, like that echoed in Jonathan’s pictures. He was fun, and humorous, in a way she could not resist, making her a daddy’s girl. That stood in stark contrast to the grim visage of Clara, her mother, who stared with dark forbidding at Christine. The look sent shivers down her spine.
When she was sixteen, her father died, and the all the warmth in the family went with him. Clara recoiled when Christine reached out to her and filled the space between them with sullen silence, and stinging rhetoric. Unable to fix what didn’t exist, a few years later she escaped to America to become a registered nurse. Days after finishing her training, she met Fred. A few weeks later, they married. After a quick honeymoon, and he whisked her off to meet his family in Massachusetts. That’s when the trouble started.
Christine sat on the bed, and reread the letter received from Fred on her birthday, the 20th of December. When she had first seen it was from his law firm, a tingle of fear went down her spine. Those fears were confirmed by finding a court order demanding custody of the kids. However, that wasn’t the only malice in the envelope. No, Fred had been busy, thorough, and determined. Other notes included a marriage annulment, and an inquest to the INS to investigate her naturalization status. But the pinnacle of the malicious onslaught was a letter convincing the state to revoke her RN licensure. Like a good lawyer, he had slammed all the doors and shut all the windows.
As night poured into the room, she dropped the papers on the bed next to her and reached for the IV needle. With practiced precision, she found a vein in her left arm and slid the catheter under the skin. No need to sterilize, this time. With her right hand, she adjusted the morphine drip then lay back staring out the open window. The last slivers of light slipped away, and the room and everything in it filled with darkness. No turning back, again.