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 ’70s and the start of the ’80s. She hadn’t given the idea much thought before, 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 sat stuffed with colored sheets of paper filled with threats. The piles shifted in size and substance every month, 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, and the contents unread. No need. She already knew what it contained. The rose sheen of the letter inside was enough.
A mess, once again, from a long list of unintended consequences. How much simpler it had been years ago while married to Fred. At least his government job covered the bills, so she didn’t need to continue working as a nurse. But as Fred advanced in his all-consuming career, the walls closed in, even after the kids were born. Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months until it was hard to tell when one day began and the other 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. Never enough time or interest, it seemed, to accomplish the mundane. More critical were country, career, and paycheck. It would have been nice if the family had been on his list of priorities. Resentment bubbled up, forcing her to turn away.
But that was a convenient excuse. Even with Fred around, unhappiness lingered like a toxic cloud. His discontent she had no control over and no means to correct. Perhaps it was inevitable. Payback for the whirlwind romance and hasty marriage 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 dried husk of a relationship with Mum.
But there came a pound of misery for every ounce of joy she extracted from her existence. The honeymoon ended the day she met Fred’s family back in Massachusetts. Instead of a welcome, the Ritters treated her like an invader into their private social circle, a conniving British tramp. The resulting familial crisis isolated Fred and soured their relationship.
The birth of Joanna, and Fred’s success as a government attorney, quickly masked their troubles. After Jonathan was born, all the old problems resurfaced. Except now, Fred treated 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. Still, Fred’s reaction (like his family’s) had been evocative of how Mum reacted after Father’s death.
Scared and alone, she escaped with the children. But like all her trade-offs, the terms were unbalanced. A paycheck-to-paycheck existence trying to make ends meet on a small-town nurse’s salary failed to compensate for the loss of a comfortable middle-class life. For some time, she considered returning to England, where Mum still lived. But the bridges were also burnt there; 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 the only option was to go forward once a path was chosen or forced upon her. 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 went to the kitchen.
Joanna lingered at the sink, drying the last 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 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 complete things the way she wanted them done. All Fred. It would carry her farther than her 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 Jonathan wouldn’t help as usual.” The anger in her voice was evident.
Christine tried not to laugh, remembering times when her 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 dishtowel on its holder. She turned and said through gritted teeth, “I’m sure he’ll do whatever mommy says.” The contempt in her voice was unmistakable.
Christine hated that tonality, but it reflected 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.
Tears welled up, but she wiped them away. Joanna was strong. Far stronger than Christine had been at the same age.
She entered the living room and spotted her youngest, Jonathan, sitting sideways in his chair. 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 without looking up from 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 will 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. Still, she protected her undersized and underage sibling. They were good kids and deserved better. Maybe she and Fred could have worked something out if she hadn’t been so rash to run off. But she stopped that thought train. Too little, too late.
She paused at a picture of Mum and Papa. 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. Always Papa’s girl. That stood in stark contrast to the grim visage of her mother, Clara, who stared with dark forbidding at Christine. The look sent shivers down her spine.
Christine had been sixteen when Papa died. The suddenness competed with the shock of finding him lifeless on the kitchen floor. But that was only the beginning of her miseries.
Mum stared out the window as she gave her the news. Not a tear did she shed, then or even at the funeral. Rarely did she speak over the next two years until Christine finished school.
“So you’re going to nursing school in the states?”
“I’ve got a scholarship, and Papa wanted that.”
Mum rounded on her. “He’s dead. I’m not.”
Was that her expectation? To give up on her dreams and become Mum’s caretaker?
“It was stupid of him to fill your head with dreams. You’re needed here.”
“But I leave tomorrow for America. My bags are packed, and my ticket has been paid for.”
Mum set her teacup down and stared. “I told you not to pay in advance. Now you’ve lost our money. Go unpack your bags.”
Christine’s heart fluttered, and her hands shook. That money had been hers. She’d earned it through a steady stream of menial jobs, from maid to dishwasher. “You can’t be serious.”
“What makes you think that? Sometimes you can’t have what you want. It is often taken from you without warning. Get used to it.”
A wave of nausea passed through Christine, and she backed away, the narrow walls of the kitchen warping inward, seemingly squeezing the life out of her soul.
Mum watched her retreat, a crooked smile creeping upon her face. “We’ll talk tomorrow about how you’ll pay back the money you wasted.”
Christine turned and ran to her room, collapsing on the trunk at the foot of her bed. She sobbed until she could do no more, then stared out the dirty window at the darkening skyline of Leicester. As dusk closed in, house lights turned on, one by one, to penetrate the descending veil.
No. She would not be deterred. Grabbing her trunk, she marched to the window, lifted the pane, and tossed the luggage outside into the boxwoods below her window. It landed with a dull thud in the foliage and rolled onto the grass next to it. Soon she slid out the window and climbed down the trellis.
The open bedroom window glared down at her. A faint twinge of regret piqued at her, but only a little. Should she at least climb back up and close the window? No. No turning back.
The following day she escaped to America to become a registered nurse. The events of the next few years fast-forwarded through her memories. After finishing training, she met Fred. A few weeks later, they married. After a quick honeymoon, he whisked her off to meet his family in Massachusetts. There the dream popped.
Christine sat on the bed and reread the letter received from Fred on her birthday, the 20th of December. A tingle of fear went down her spine when she first saw it from his law firm. Those fears were confirmed by finding a court order demanding custody of the kids. However, that wasn’t the only malice enclosed. No, Fred had been busy, thorough, and determined. Other notes included a marriage annulment and an inquiry 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 license. Like a good lawyer, he had shut and locked all the doors and windows before setting the house on fire.
Mum was right, after all.
She dropped the papers on the bed as night poured into the room. With practiced precision, she slid the catheter into a vein. No need to sterilize this time. Adjusted the morphine drip and lay back to stare 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.