Laura drove past the DoubleTree a second time, staring at the marquee. Welcome Hellgate High Class of ’05! A summons to most, a flashing neon warning to her. How had high school been ten years ago? Somehow, it seemed like yesterday and a hundred years ago, all at once.
For a split second, Laura truly believed she could do it. Go inside and face all those old classmates, now near-strangers. She switched her blinker on, then immediately off again.
“Nope,” she sighed, leaving the hotel behind. “Not happening.”
She’d only agreed to brave the reunion to please her mother; if she just sat alone at a restaurant for two hours, what difference would it make? Certainly, it would be easier and far less painful to make up a few anecdotes about the evening. The reunion was out. Dinner alone sounded infinitely preferable.
She perused her options as she drove down Reserve Street; the Denny’s logo was practically a beacon.
“Pie,” she breathed, nearly salivating. “Definitely pie.” A text came from her mom as she parked.
Maggie can’t find Sunny. She’s trying to be brave, but she’s pretty upset.
Frowning, she pondered the last place she’d seen Maggie’s beloved yellow unicorn before typing out a quick response.
Try her backpack.
Laura waited, phone at the ready, prepared to call and quell a meltdown if necessary. Poor Maggie. Entire life, uprooted without warning. Losing her treasured stuffy might send her over the edge. The phone buzzed again.
Got it. Love you. Be safe and have fun.
Laura hesitantly exited her car, struggling to adjust to the foreign situation. Out alone, Maggie in tow, at night. Typically, Laura adhered to a strict no bra or real pants after 8p.m. policy. But her mother had been so insistent, nearly pushing Laura out the door. So here she was, ready to sit alone at a diner all night eating pie to keep up the ruse.
Damn it! She cursed inwardly. Not even in the door yet, and already someone had recognized her.
She studied the face of the woman in front of her. Fair skin, brown eyes, brunette hair piled into a messy bun. Something about that smile, though. She recognized those dimples. She’d spent countless hours in band class sitting next to that face and those dimples, though back then there’d also been a flute involved.
“Yes!” Heather squealed, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. “Oh, my gosh!” She hesitantly reached for a hug, which Laura accepted with palpable awkwardness. “You look amazing, honey. How are you?”
Laura stumbled over her answer as they broke the embrace. “I’m…wow, it’s been a long time. I’m good. You look fantastic.” Laura noticed Heather’s black pants and the Denny’s embroidered on her green top. “Working here?” she asked.
“Just clocked out,” Heather answered, scratching at her scalp. “Embarrassing, right?”
“You going to the reunion?”
Laura answered with twisted lips, a shake of the head. “You?”
Laura cocked her brow, slightly doubting the certainty of the statement.
“Okay, I had planned on it,” Heather admitted. “Arranged my schedule accordingly and everything. But no. Hard pass.”
“Same. I came so close. Twice, actually. Decided pie was a better option.”
“We do have good pie.” She put on her best “Server Smile” and added a slight twang to her voice.
“Would you like some?” Laura asked, excited by the prospect of company. “My treat. I mean, if you’re not desperate to get out of here or something. I was honestly just going to sit in there alone, waiting for an hour or so to pass so I could show my face back home again.”
Heather tilted her head, her lips curling into a smirk.
“I promised my mom,” Laura answered the implied question. “It’s a long story.”
“Good over pie?” Heather prodded with a smile.
Sitting with an employee had its perks. Heather requested the server bring them two very strong, very large hot chocolates, and leave the whipped cream at their table. He obliged, with a wink and a smile for each woman.
“Clearly, you are well-liked,” Laura said.
Heather spooned a dollop of cream off the top of her cup and into her mouth, shrugging. “I do alright.” She closed her eyes as she licked her spoon clean. “Jerry is young; he likes all things pretty, regardless of their internal blemishes or baggage.” Her eyes popped open. “I meant that about myself, not you. God, I swear that wasn’t about you. It’s my life that’s a hot mess.”
“Do tell,” Laura urged, welcoming a distraction. “We can compare disasters.”
Heather chuckled, quiet and short. “Well, I moved back in with my parents a couple years ago. I’d been living with some douchebag in Portland; it didn’t end well.”
Laura offered a sympathetic frown.
“But that’s over now. I’m back here, living in my old childhood bedroom. Green Day posters and all.”
They shared a grin and a brief laugh.
“I’m about twenty credits shy of my bachelor’s in interior design—finally. Good things are coming. I hope.” She added more cream to her hot chocolate and took a drink.
Laura nodded, trying to discreetly check her phone again, anxious about Maggie. No messages should signify smooth sailing, but a mother’s mind held endless “what if” scenarios.
“Everything ok?” Heather asked, noticing Laura’s preoccupation.
“Yeah.” She snapped her head back up, clearing her throat. “Yes. Sorry. My daughter is home with my mom. I was just making sure there were no more hiccups with bedtime.”
Laura couldn’t remember the last time she wasn’t the one to tuck Maggie in at night, to read her a story or sing an off-key lullaby.
“That’s right,” Heather sighed, shaking her head. “I honestly forgot. Is that horrible? I forgot you guys had a baby.”
“Don’t feel bad. But you can see why I didn’t exactly relish the idea of the reunion.”
“Definitely.” Heather raised her brows, wincing. “Knowing that group, they probably had a whole ‘In Memoriam’ thing planned, and would have expected you to gush over it.”
Laura winced, letting her fingers pull at her features as she dragged them across her face.
“They kept asking me to send pictures from his time in Iraq. I know their hearts are in the right place, but I just couldn’t. I want people to remember him the way he was before. That’s how I try to remember him.”
“I bet you and Tony made gorgeous offspring.”
Chuckling, Laura pulled out her phone and found her favorite photo of Maggie. Pale-blue eyes, just like Tony’s. Wavy brown hair, just like Laura’s. Her smile revealed a slight gap where a loose baby tooth had been only moments before the picture was taken.
“That’s my Maggie. She turned six in March.”
“Goodness, Laura,” Heather sighed, running her finger over the screen. “She’s so beautiful.”
Laura tucked her phone away, smiling. “She’s pretty amazing.”
Plates of pie appeared on the table between them. Server Jerry offered a few flirtatious remarks, but neither woman fully registered them.
“Six in March?” Heather asked. “So, she wasn’t…?”
“She was only about nine-months-old when he died.”
Laura had been nursing a sleepy Maggie in their bed—debating taking a nap herself—when the first knock startled her. She’d ignored it, hoping they would go away. When they’d knocked again, Laura had expertly replaced her breast with a binky, secured Maggie in her bassinet, and tucked herself back into her nursing tank, internally cursing whoever was at the door the entire time.
When she saw the blue uniforms on the other side of the peep-hole, her heart dropped into her stomach.
“What happened?” she’d asked, opening the door.
“Mrs. Bell?” Their tone sent Laura reeling, before she even heard confirmation of her biggest fears.
“My God.” Her knees immediately buckled, and the officers had braced themselves against her, leading her to the loveseat. “My baby. Please don’t wake the baby,” she’d whispered, almost inaudible.
The rest of that day—that month, maybe even that entire year—was a long, painful blur.
“We married between his first and second deployment.” Laura brought herself back to her present company. “I got pregnant about a minute after he got home for good.”
Heather snickered, almost choking on a bite of her coconut cream pie.
“He’d enlisted without a thought, as so many our age did. He lost a cousin on 9/11. Did you know?” Heather shook her head as Laura took a moment to enjoy a bite of her Dutch Apple pie. “He spent all of high school just waiting for his chance, and signed up right after graduation.”
“I always suspected you two were more than friends. Not that you would ever admit to anything.”
Laura held up her hands defensively. “We weren’t more than friends when he left. We wrote letters, though. Damn, he wrote a good letter. They gave me butterflies.” She paused, remembering the daily rush to the mailbox, praying for another letter from Tony. How she’d melted over every written promise of I love you and forever. “Didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels.”
“Never underestimate the written word.”
“Boy howdy.” They both paused for a bite of pie, a sip of cocoa.
“He struggled, like most, when he returned home. But when Mags was born, he seemed better. Happy. They’d already diagnosed his PTSD by then. He attended a support group every week and had a great therapist. He took his meds. I thought things were good. We had a routine.” Laura stared beyond the hustle of the diner, into an envisioned but unrealized future. A once glistening dream bursting with possibilities, now merely the dull outline of a what might have been. “I thought we’d see it through. Together.”
Heather closed her eyes, shaking her head and drawing in a long breath. “I wasn’t living here when it happened,” she said, “but my mom called me. And I saw some little blips on the news, and of course Facebook.”
Laura cocked her brow as if to repeat, Of course, Facebook. People posting his picture or tagging him, listing the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Please share! Speak up if someone you love is struggling! Laura knew these comments were meant with genuine concern, but they always felt like a personal attack.
Why didn’t you know? Why couldn’t you see?!
Laura had known. It’s why they—and the therapist back in Bozeman—had risked insurance fraud to get him help when the waiting periods with the VA became unbearable. Dr. Franklin was on Laura’s insurance plan through her then-job, and every visit was billed as “couple’s counseling”.
Sometimes Laura stayed present for the entire session, sometimes she let Tony have the session all for himself. Usually, it was a mix. They were a team—herself, Tony, and Dr. Franklin, whom Laura felt deserved sainthood for orchestrating the scheme.
But it hadn’t been enough.
Tony left one Saturday afternoon to go for a run, kissing Laura and the baby goodbye as he went. A smile on his face, even. They referred to running as Tony’s bonus therapy, so Laura had expected him to return to the apartment in a better mood than he left. Instead, he detoured from his usual path and jumped from a bridge.
“I’m so sorry, Laura. I don’t know what else to say.”
Laura shrugged. “What else is there to say?” She flicked away the tear rolling over her lips. “While he was alive, he did some really amazing things. He helped a lot of people. And for nine months, he was a wonderful dad. I wish I knew why he snapped. It wouldn’t change anything, but it might feel more…resolved. You know? Whatever the reason, he left. He’s gone. I just pray he’s finally at peace.”
“God, so do I,” Heather sighed. “How did you do it? How did you get through with a baby on your own?”
“With tons of help,” Laura admitted, grinning. “My parents took turns visiting, helping me with the baby. My job allowed me to work from home most of the time. I had a good support system.”
“Had?” Heather prodded.
“My dad died back in September.” Laura’s chest tightened as she admitted it out loud, the wound still very fresh.
Heather’s one-sided smile fell. “I didn’t know.”
“Then, I got laid off last month.”
“See? You’re not the only one living with her parents. I moved in with my mom a couple weeks ago. My grandma lives there, too. Four generations of women under one roof.”
“Good Lord,” Heather breathed, her eyes wide.
“The Dead Husbands Society,” Laura said blandly. Heather sputtered a laugh. “And Maggie, of course.” God bless Maggie. She was a beacon in the dark for all of them. “Haven’t found a job just yet. At least, not in my field. I’m debating finishing my bachelors. Or maybe just crying into a gallon of ice cream every night until I explode. I honestly don’t know yet. But here I am.”
“Who says you can’t go home?” Heather spoke through a grimace, scrunching up her nose.
“You can. It just feels awful.” They both relaxed with a laugh.
“To Tony.” Heather lifted her hot chocolate to her lips. Laura mimicked the action.
“To Tony,” she concurred. “I miss him. Every day. But if I’m being honest, I’m mad. So insanely pissed at him. Writing me all those beautiful letters and making me fall in love with him? Giving me a perfect daughter and then just leaving us here alone? Damn it.” She paused, relaxing her posture and lowering her volume. “I know it’s not his fault—it’s not anyone’s fault—but it’s shitty.”
Laura’s loneliness lingered in the air a minute. The old friends sat silently, finishing off their last bites of pie.
Jerry reappeared, smirking, inquiring about any further orders. “Just the check, Jerry,” Heather said. “And please, stop trying to hit on my friend. Read the room, man. Come on.”
“Just tell him I’ve got a kid,” Laura chimed in. “It’s always a huge turn off.”
As Jerry left, she found herself laughing. Small sputters at first, growing in volume and energy until she had tears in her eyes and her cheeks hurt. Her friend stared on, confused but entertained. It took Laura a few minutes to compose herself enough to speak.
“Thank you for tonight. Really. It felt good to talk about him like that. So…normally. Not like he’s some eggshell that we dare not crack. I was happy with him. He was happy with me for a time until he couldn’t be anymore. We made a gorgeous kid together. Life goes on.”
“I’m so glad you skipped the reunion and showed up here.”
“Me too. I know people only ever approach to be kind, but so often their remarks are completely tactless. Not just about Tony. About single parenting, or Maggie, or about the war and politics. It’s a lot to handle.”
Heather scribbled on a napkin, then passed it over. “My number. Please call me. Or text. Whatever. Just don’t disappear. This is the most comfortable I’ve felt since moving home.”
“That’s the canister of whipped cream talking,” Laura teased, pocketing the napkin. “But yes. Definitely.”
They hugged before parting, this time without hesitation.
As Laura drove home, a certain heaviness dissipated inside her chest. One she hadn’t even realized existed. Its weight so severe, the relief following its absence so intense; she wondered how she’d possibly been breathing all this time.
She couldn’t contain the smile or the borderline-maniacal laugh that crept up, thinking of how much she had paid in therapy and counseling bills over the years. For Tony, for herself, even for Maggie. Maybe, all this time, all they’d really needed was pie.
Genalea is a writer and full-time mom with an Associate’s Degree in English Literature. Her work has been recognized by Gemini Magazine, Bookends Review, and others. Her debut novel is forthcoming with Immortal Works. She resides in Southern Idaho with her husband and four children. Find her at genalea.wordpress.com.