by William Cass
Doris stayed out of the living room where her daughters, seven and five, stood waiting at the picture window. Their little Disney roller suitcases were packed at their feet for two overnights. Doris busied herself in the kitchen scrubbing countertops she’d already cleaned that afternoon.
She stiffened when her older daughter called, “He’s here!”
Although there was no way he could hear her as his car pulled up to the curb, her younger daughter screamed, “Daddy!”
Doris came into the living room wiping her hands on a towel. Her daughters had already scurried to the front door with their suitcases. Doris corralled them both into her arms and kissed the tops of their heads. “Be good,” she told them. She wanted to say more, but her voice caught.
The older one opened the door, and her sister followed her out, slamming it behind her. Doris stepped to a gap in the curtains at the picture window and watched them run into Don’s embrace where he squatted next to his idling car at the foot of the driveway. She watched him bury his nose into each of their necks, then rock them back and forth. Doris shook her head and fought the burning behind her eyes. After several long moments, she watched him toss their suitcases into his back seat, buckle them in, and pull away, the glow of his taillights disappearing down the street into the early evening’s gloaming. He hadn’t once glanced up at the house, hadn’t looked for her at all. It had already been nearly ten months since Don had left, and their divorce would be finalized in a matter of weeks, but the rage and hurt she felt hadn’t dissipated a bit.
She clenched and unclenched her jaw, then forced herself to concentrate on her plans for the night. She’d rearranged them several times during recent days in preparation for this first weekend the girls would spend with him. She’d begin by opening a bottle of wine, then run a hot bubble bath and light some candles on the shelf above the tub. She’d considered music, but had decided against it, wary of the additional emotions it might raise. Afterwards, she’d change into sweats and start a fire in the stone pit where the back patio met the lawn, the one he’d worked so hard to build not a year before. She’d sit there for a while, then do the deed and watch as the flames danced in the darkness. Next, she’d eat Chinese delivery and cuddle up on the couch in front of an old musical on television, something light and breezy, her grandmother’s afghan wrapped snug around her. If she fell asleep there, fine…if she made it to bed instead, even better. There would be absolutely nothing, she assured herself, left in the house to remind her of him; she’d taken down all the photos, and he’d come over to get his few remaining belongings the previous weekend when she took the girls shopping for the new school year.
Even with this choreography set firmly in her mind, she moved in a kind of a daze; it was as if she were beside herself, observing. She started the bubble bath, running the water as hot as it would go, lit the candles, and went into the kitchen. She hesitated for a moment: she’d set
aside a bottle of red in the cupboard and a Chardonnay in the refrigerator. She chose the red, uncorked it, and took a long swig, grimacing as she swallowed. She carried the bottle by its neck back into the bathroom – the one off the master bedroom that she’d previously referred to as “theirs” – undressed, left her clothes in a pile on the floor, turned off the lights, and climbed into the steaming water. Doris stretched out, her head resting against the top of the basin opposite the taps, and shut her eyes. She used her toes to adjust the water’s flow down to a trickle that would maintain its heat, took another swallow of wine, and allowed herself a long, luxuriant exhale.
Doris was vaguely aware of regular neighborhood sounds from outside: the last vestiges of children still out playing, an occasional vehicle passing in the street, the sand dollar windchimes clacking softly on the small breeze where they hung from the eaves outside the kitchen window. When she thought of buying them with Don on their honeymoon nearly a decade ago, she chased it away. She chased away memories of the girls’ births, of holidays together, of that fateful day he came home from work early when he knew the girls would still be at school to tell her about his affair and that he was leaving; she’d been dumbstruck…she hadn’t suspected a thing. And her hand literally flapped at the suds as she chased away the memory of first seeing him arm-in-arm with his girlfriend, Christy, at a Costco in the next town; Doris had fled the store before they could see her and never went back to shop there again. Memories like those last two, as usual, were the hardest to chase; they stung like a sudden stitch in her gut. The ache that always followed took a long time to pass.
Doris lingered in the tub for nearly a half-hour, finishing half the bottle of wine. Afterwards, she dried off, pulled on her sweats and fuzzy slippers, and brought the paper sack outside. It had already grown near fully dark. She sat next to the fire pit in one of the four special camping chairs he’d bought and set the sack beside her. She’d already laid the fire, using a presto log under a tripod of wood. Doris started the log, watched its low flame creep across its folded paper edge, then went back inside the kitchen. She called in her delivery order from her cell for an hour later, put the phone on vibrate so it wouldn’t disturb her, and laid it on the counter. She took another swallow from the bottle and felt her head loll a bit; it had gradually grown pleasantly dull.
Back outside, Doris settled into the same chair with the bottle next to her and watched the fire grow. Two of the chairs were adult-sized, and two were smaller; they’d used them only once, not long before he’d left, to make s’mores together, though he claimed eager plans for camping around it on the grass in sleeping bags as a family. The weather that evening was still mild, and its warmth kept off any chill that might otherwise have been caused by her damp hair that hung in matted strings. She drank more slowly as the faint chant of the cicadas and sand dollars replaced children’s voices from out front. The fire felt good against her calves and knees, its flames growing in the darkness. She fingered the paper sack’s flap and watched the fire crescendo, then begin its retreat, complete darkness enveloping her.
Voices from the couple next door disturbed her reverie. Their family room window stood open only a few feet from the fence separating the two back patios, and she heard the man clearly say, “Now don’t you expect me to pick up that trail of clothes.”
His wife’s retreating giggle answered him. They were childless, and each had to be near fifty, yet Doris could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen them together when they weren’t touching each other with affection; they even held hands as they walked their dog.
“All right, Julie Appleseed.” The man’s own voice was full of mirth. “Here I come!”
Doris heard the woman squeal in delight and then the sound of running feet down a hallway. She blinked her eyes rapidly, then squeezed them shut tight. When she reopened them, it had grown quiet again, just the muted cacophony of the crackling fire, singing insects, and clacking sand dollars in the inky blackness. She took another swallow of wine, blew out a long breath, and finally reached into the sack. She took her wedding dress from inside it and laid it gently across her lap. It was cream-colored and had been hand-sewn by her mother based on an old-fashioned design, but had an open back and a spray of sequins stitched across a low bodice. Many people had told her it was the most beautiful wedding dress they’d ever seen. She slowly ran her palm across the thin fabric, a chill crawling over her, then bit at the inside of her cheek and tossed the dress onto the fire.
It fell awkwardly, only the bottom half of it in the flames, and the remainder draped, as if lying on its back, across the pit towards the house. Her heart was a stone. The fabric caught quickly, but burned more slowly than she’d anticipated, almost grudgingly, tiny bursts of flame advancing along its folds. She gazed hard at it, her lower lip quivering, as a few of the sequins began curling around themselves with the heat. She raised the wine bottle, a lone whimper escaping her, when she heard the slider open onto the patio and Don say, “What the hell…is that you, Doris?”
Her head swiveled in his direction, the bottle suspended at her side. The light from the fire was enough to show his knitted eyebrows. He held a hand of each of their daughters, small against his hips, both wearing identical expressions of concerned surprise, their suitcases at their sides. They all seemed fixated on the burning dress whose sequins had begun to crackle and pop. Doris lowered the bottle to the pavers, but didn’t move.
“I tried to call you,” Don said. “Several times, but you didn’t pick up. There’s been an emergency with Christy. A car accident. I had to bring the girls back.”
Perhaps there was a chemical in the sequins that made them ignite more quickly than the rest of the dress; the flames leapt across them, settling into a loud, collective sizzle.
More quietly, Don asked, “Is that…?”
Doris nodded. She used the back of her hand to wipe snot from under her nose. The thought invaded her mind that she may have never looked more unattractive. She sniffled, tried to stifle the tiny sob that exploded from her, then leaned forward and wriggled her fingers towards her daughters. They ran into her arms. Behind them, Doris saw Don tip back his old, tattered ball cap and scratch his head. The cap bore the insignia of their alma mater; she’d given it to him for their third anniversary. His gaze traveled from her to the wine bottle and then to the dress again as the flames consumed its remaining fabric.
“I have to go,” he said softly.
His eyes were both startled and sad. He shook his head, then was gone. Just the empty slider door left open behind him like a yawn. The younger girl had also begun to whimper. The older one pulled back suddenly and said, “Can we roast marshmallows, Mommy? Can we do that?”
Doris choked back more tears and nodded. “You know where the stuff is?”
Her older daughter nodded vigorously, her eyes the same blue as her own, her small, straight nose a perfect replica of her father’s. She said, “I do. In the pantry.”
“Go,” Doris managed.
Her older daughter scampered away and her younger was on her tail a moment later. Doris turned back to the fire. There was no trace of the dress left. The flames had died down, short spurts licking the darkness, the glowing red bed of pulsating wood underneath perfect for marshmallow roasting. Doris could hear her daughters rummaging through the pantry. She could again hear the cicadas off in the bushes and the windchimes. She wiped at her eyes, then lifted the wine bottle to her lips, but there was nothing left in it. She couldn’t remember having finished it, but she must have. That was astonishing to her, but there was no other explanation for where it could have gone. She pictured Don speeding across town to the hospital consumed with worry and grief. But not regret.
The windchimes clattered on a sudden breeze. A sequin that had somehow survived the blaze spat and sizzled. Doris watched it shrivel and disappear into the coals, a lovely, sparkling thing one moment, then in the next, nothing at all.
William Cass has had over 250 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal and has received one Best Small Fictions nomination and three Pushcart nominations. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was recently released by Wising Up Press. He lives in San Diego, California.