The Affair – Chapter One
Nothing quite said I’m sorry your dad died like a casserole.
Standing there in the industrial-style kitchen of my family’s church, I took a long look at the abundance of casseroles that had been neatly lined up in rows on the stainless steel counter. I couldn’t help but wonder if my father’s death had caused a massive shortage of basics supplies at the local grocery store.
Did the store have any flour left? Any shortening? What would we do if someone else had a major emergency and needed sustenance in the next twenty-four hours?
It was excessive—the amount of food that had been brought—but despite the craziness that was going on, I knew in my grief-stricken brain that they meant well.
They all did—each and every casserole-giver.
My dad had been a well-loved guy around these parts—strong and simple with a heart of gold.
My eyes stung a little at that realization—the idea that his name would now forever be linked to the past tense, like one of the antiques in our family store.
“Is everything okay, dear?” one of the church volunteers asked as she entered the kitchen I’d hidden myself away in, trying to get away from all those casserole-making well-wishers.
I immediately recognized her—Mrs. Baker. She wasn’t just a volunteer for the Second Baptist Church of Pine Hurst, North Carolina; she also happened to be my fourth grade teacher from way back when.
“Yes, Mrs. Baker,” I answered politely. “Thank you for everything you’re doing for our family today. We appreciate it—”
She was waving her hands in front of her and shaking her head before I had a chance to finish. “Oh, I’m happy to help Eloise; you know that. Your family has been part of this church for years, and I’m so sorry for your mom, hon. I know how difficult it must have been for the two of you, watching your dad fade like that.”
I tried not to flinch at the memories she was threatening to bring back. So far today, I’d been the pillar of strength for my mom. I’d kept it together through the service as friends and relatives spoke of the amazing man my father had been. And then, during the burial, I’d held on to her hand as she shook and said her final good-byes to the man she’d loved for more years than I could fathom.
As if she could see the memories churning under the surface, Mrs. Barker reached out for my hand. “I understand,” she said softly.
I simply nodded. I knew she did. We might have drifted apart since my elementary school days, but this was a small town. I knew through the grapevine that she’d lost her own husband just a few years prior. I could see the same pain emanating from her that I saw in my own mom.
And felt in myself.
There was a sad sort of club I’d now joined—the one no one wanted to belong to because the price for membership was surviving the death of a loved one.
“Can I help you bring some of these into the fellowship hall?” I asked, hating this useless feeling that had manifested since we lost Daddy.
Before, I’d had a never-ending to-do list. With my mom constantly at his side, I’d made it my mission to take care of everything for both of them—the house, the store, whatever they needed. I was the loving and devoted daughter.
But since we had said good-bye days earlier, I’d felt kind of weightless. Since my father’s will and burial plans had been finalized way back when that first cancer cell was detected in his lungs, there was little to do beyond picking a date for this whole thing to take place.
“No, dear,” Mrs. Baker answered, using the same sweet voice I remembered from my childhood days on the playground. “We’ve got it all taken care of.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
I walked away, unsure of what to do with myself, but then quickly realized I’d left my mom alone with our extended family for longer than I should have. My Aunt Sally had probably been talking her ears off about her at-home makeup business by now. An intervention was definitely overdue. I also wasn’t sure when she had last eaten, so it might be time for a few of those casseroles to be put to use.
As I sped down the hallway of the old church, I caught a sideways glimpse of myself in one of the framed pictures on the wall. Seeing my reflection was not a pretty sight at all. I needed to make a pit stop at the restroom for a hot second. This face needed a tune-up. Badly. I had mascara under my eyes from holding back tears, and I was pretty sure my long-wearing foundation had worn out ages ago.
As I rounded the corner though, I heard voices, which, at first, wasn’t unheard of. The church was packed with nearly half the town.
But it was the tone of the voices that made me stop in my tracks.
Hushed whispers in a place like this could only mean one thing …
“It’s just so sad,” the first female voice uttered.
“I know,” said the second woman in a tone that suggested she was feigning empathy more than feeling it. “To first lose your husband and then your father, all in the same year. It’s a wonder she can even get up in the morning.”
Oh, good. It was gossip. About me.
The first female took back the reins. “We all thought she and Reed were like the golden couple too. But I guess it’s true what they say—”
I couldn’t take any more.
The mascara that had barely been clinging to my eyelashes was now wet as I bit my bottom lip, trying to will away the tears. With my arms wrapped around my chest like a protective blanket, I tried to speed past them, hoping that I’d somehow develop special powers and zap them away with my death stare.
But I was never that lucky.
Instead, all I managed to do was summon my evil foe—or as others liked to call him, my ex, Reed Gallagher.
“Elle?” he called out, seeing the distress written all over my face. He always was good at the knight-in-shining-armor bit.
And I had always been his favorite damsel, growing up.
“You okay?” he asked, his gaze moving over my shoulder to the flock of gossiping women I was desperately trying to flee.
I didn’t need to stick around to see who they were. I’d recognized them the minute I blazed past. Just two rivals from high school I couldn’t ever seem to get rid of, even now, fifteen years later.
One of the many benefits of never leaving your hometown.
“Um,” Macy blurted out, hoping to save face in front of Reed. She’d had a thing for him since he moved here in middle school.
“I’m really sorry,” Sarah finally added. “We didn’t mean for you to hear that.”
“Yeah,” Macy agreed. “We’re really sorry about your dad.”
I thought about attempting some witty comeback, but it wasn’t worth it. They weren’t worth it.
And I wouldn’t ruin the memory of my dad for it.
Reed seemed satisfied with their halfhearted apology as they both made a quick exit. At least one of us was. I just wanted to get away, but unfortunately, the big beast of a man was still standing in my way.
“What do you want, Reed?” I asked, trying not to make eye contact with those dark blue eyes or the subtle curve of his jaw.
“I wanted to see how you were,” he said, sounding genuinely concerned. His voice still had the power to make my stomach clench and my knees wobble, and I hated that.
“My dad died, Reed. How do you think I’m doing?”
He ran his hands through his dark brown hair. “Yeah, sorry. That was a stupid question. I just meant—”
“Why are you here?” I asked, my question instantly making his face blanch.
“He meant a lot to me, Elle,” he answered, sounding incredulous. “I wish I could have seen him before—”
“He asked about you.”
“He did? But I thought—”
I shook my head. “He never knew.”
His eyes widened. “How? But—”
“The man had cancer. Do you think I wanted to break his heart, too, by telling him what you did to me? What you did to us?”
Finally, the shame came pouring back. “No, I guess not.” Reed could only nod, his head lowered, obviously upset.
I wanted to feel bad for him, I did. Growing up, he’d been a part of our family. Ever since he’d nearly run over me with his BMX bike, I had known Reed Gallagher was the one for me.
Like some moronic fairy tale come to life.
“I need to go find my mom,” I said, unwilling to go down any more memory lanes today, especially with him.
“Right. Of course. Will you tell her I said hello?” he asked before realizing what he was saying.
My mom had once loved Reed like a son.
When she’d found out he’d cheated on me with some barely legal waitress at the local bar just a week after my father had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, she’d told me she’d never felt so betrayed in her life.
That made two of us.
I didn’t even have to respond before he did.
“Never mind,” he said. “Take care, Elle.”
I could tell he wanted to say more. Whenever we met like this, whether it was between the aisles of the grocery store or picking up takeout at one of the local restaurants, there was always something more waiting on the tip of his tongue. Maybe it was another apology. Perhaps it was a plea for me to come back home and pretend like nothing had happened, or maybe he just wanted to say he still loved me.
All I knew was, I wanted to hear none of it.
Not a goddamn word.
Because there was nothing he could say that could take back what he had done, and he knew it, which was why he kept quiet and I walked away.
* * *
The universe couldn’t grant me just one tiny break today, could it?
Finally getting past the toxic women and the cheating ex, I’d thought I might be able to quietly sneak into the restroom for a little peace and quiet. But sadly, I’d forgotten that when gathered together in large groups, women tended to flock to the nearest restroom.
And this one happened to be packed.
Hoping to go unnoticed, I ducked into one of the stalls and quickly did my business.
Thankfully, the talk among the ladies stuck to mainly church socials and the new restaurant that had opened up on Main Street. It was a pizza place, and everyone was super excited.
I was fairly certain we already had three other pizza joints in town, but this one was new, so obviously, it was better. According to one woman in the stall next to me, who’d decided to join in the conversation mid-stream, they had over thirty beers on tap and five flat screens. Some of the other women lost interest after that, claiming they didn’t need another distraction for their husbands’ attention, while a few others welcomed the idea.
Who knew a new pizza joint could offer so much insight into a couple’s marriage?
I lingered in the stall for as long as I could without it being weird and then made my way to the sinks. Thankfully, it had thinned out a bit. Food was now being served in the fellowship hall, so many people’s attention had been diverted.
I thought I was in the clear, having successfully touched up my makeup while a quiet, young woman kindly ignored me.
And then my Aunt Sally walked in. The word walked wasn’t sufficient enough to describe the way she entered the restroom. It was more like what a hurricane did to a shoreline. She was loud and obnoxious, and I felt somewhat battered and bruised just for the experience of sharing the same air space as her.
“Oh! Eloise, dear! There you are! I was wondering where you’d run off to!” Her voice boomed.
She bypassed the stalls, obviously set on her priorities, and went straight for the mirror. I took a moment to glance at her bold ensemble. On a summer day, at a picnic maybe, it would have been quite a statement. It was a bright, flowery fabric that suggested she was attending something fun and lively rather than the somber occasion she’d chosen to wear it to.
But that was Aunt Sally in a nutshell. She stood out wherever she went. If she were the North Pole, my mother, her sister, would be the polar opposite, freezing her ass off at the South Pole.
“Oh, hon, your makeup, it’s a wreck,” she said, giving me a look that was a mixture of empathy and torture.
Pretty sure the look I gave in return was just the latter.
“Do you want me to fix it? I have some amazing new products from the fall line that would be absolutely gorgeous on you!”
I shook my head. “No, Aunt Sally. Thank you. Have you seen my mother? I want to make sure she eats something.”
“She’s with your brother and sister-in-law. They’re getting her a bite to eat in the fellowship hall. That’s where I was headed before I ran in here to touch up my lipstick. Why don’t you let me do yours, and then we’ll go in there together?”
She really isn’t going to let this go, is she?
Looking in the mirror, I didn’t think I looked that bad. But the truth was, I didn’t look that great either. I’d let my dark brown hair curl naturally this morning, forgoing the curling iron to check on any last-minute funeral arrangements. Of course, there weren’t any because my parents were meticulous planners, like me. And as for my makeup? Well, as much as I tried to touch it up, I couldn’t cover up the Texas-size bags under my eyes.
“Sure, that sounds good,” I said, caving to pressure.
Doing so made her face light up with excitement as she whipped open her purse.
“I know just the perfect combination to go with that porcelain complexion.”
“Nothing too dark,” I managed to say, hoping I wouldn’t come out of this restroom, looking like I was ready for a club instead of a wake.
“Oh, don’t worry, honey. I’ll keep it subtle,” she answered with a wink, pulling out a few shades of nudes and pinks.
This looked way more involved than my normal swipe-on-and-blot routine.
“So, what are your plans now?” she asked as I watched her pick a light mauve color and run a brush over the top of it.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Keep your lips like this,” she said, demonstrating with her own mouth.
She made a sort of O shape, stretching her lips out, and I then did the same before she answered my question.
“What I mean is,” she said, sweeping the first color on the outside of my lips, “I know you’ve been a rock for your mom during this difficult time, and I’m sure you will need to be for a while longer, but after that … what will you do?”
“I’m still not following,” I said as she continued the process with another color, this one slightly lighter than the other.
“Honey,” she said, “you need to get a life of your own.”
“I have a life,” I answered firmly.
“Taking care of your mother can’t be the only thing you do.” Her hand touched my shoulder for a brief moment, and our eyes met. “What about your job? Your—”
“I have a life,” I said defensively, stepping back, not even sure if my lipstick makeover was done. I didn’t care.
The restroom was suddenly too small, and I needed air.
“I’m going to go check on Mom.”
“Okay, dear,” she answered, her head cocked to the side with a soft smile on her face.
I recognized that look well. I’d seen it staring back at me all day from hundreds of people.
Only this time was different. Aunt Sally wasn’t sympathizing over the death of my father. No, she felt sorry for me.
Maybe everyone did.
* * *
I walked out of that restroom, feeling slightly bewildered as I entered the fellowship hall.
I have a life, I thought, looking through the rows of people until I found her.
She sat with my brother and his family, a plate of picked-over food in front of her. Even with the gray hair and deep lines that creased her face now, I could see the young woman she had once been.
The one who used to chase me around the yard and push me on the swings.
The one who never missed a dance recital and always baked cookies on the first day of school.
She was always there for me, and now, I would do the same for her.
It was true; this wasn’t the life I’d had a year ago—the one with the picket fence and the husband who adored me—but it was a life nonetheless.
And I would gladly take it.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, grabbing the empty chair next to hers.
Her face met mine, and I tried not to notice the way her barely there blush highlighted her sunken cheeks or the way the harsh fluorescent lights of the hall brought out that faraway look in her eye that seemed to only grow with each passing day.
“Hi, Ellie. Have you grabbed a plate?” she asked, her maternal role never too far behind, even on a day like this. “There’s some good stuff over there. I think Mrs. Abernathy brought those deviled eggs you like.”
“I’m good for now,” I answered, aiming a serious look down at her plate. “What about you?”
“Oh, I’ve had a bit.”
I wanted to push, to ask her to please just eat a couple more bites for the sake of my own sanity and those hollow cheeks, but I didn’t.
I’d just try again later. I knew I’d have better luck at home.
Not much, but better.
“Where were you?” Jack asked as he fed his toddler tiny pieces of ham across from me.
I tried to ignore any inflection his question might carry. I didn’t know why, but I always assumed my brother meant more than he said. Maybe it was the incredibly high IQ that had gotten him into college on a full ride or it could just be that I was just straight-up jealous of his perfect little family and the fact that I’d lost my chance the day I signed my divorce papers.
Yeah, that could definitely be it.
“The restroom mostly,” I answered. “There was a huge traffic jam in there.”
His eyebrows rose, clearly not convinced.
“Aunt Sally cornered me and wouldn’t let me out until she plied me with lipstick.”
He briefly looked at the new shade I was sporting and went back to ham duty. “That makes sense.”
His keen eye made me feel uncomfortable, and a quick look at his trophy wife, Bethany, only made it worse. Dressed in head-to-toe designer, she didn’t have a single hair or lash out of place. How that woman managed to birth two children and still look like she belonged on the front of a fashion magazine was beyond me.
Trying not to let my self-doubt show, I resisted the urge to smooth down my own hair as she sent me a polite smile from across the table.
“Your lipstick looks nice.”
“Thank you,” I answered uncomfortably. “Um, yours too.”
Bethany and I had never been super chatty. Throw in a funeral, and I was pretty sure radio static would be better entertainment than the two of us.
“Oh, there you are!” Aunt Sally announced, her beaming face a serious contrast to the room’s gloomy mood. She’d found the food tables and stacked her plate accordingly.
At least someone from our family would be enjoying all the hard work that had gone into today.
At that moment, my young niece screamed out the word, “Ham!” and banged her chubby fists on the table, temporarily making everyone nearby chuckle under their breath.
Scratch that, I thought to myself as I watched a small smile appear on my mom’s face.
I guessed two members of the Woods family were enjoying the food.
Aunt Sally chose the seat opposite of my mom and wasted no time in taking over the conversation. “The service was just beautiful today, wasn’t it?” She began digging into her plate, giving a cursory glance at the offerings it bestowed before choosing some sort of potato casserole to start.
There was a short pause as we all waited for the other to respond until, finally, my brother volunteered. “It was a fitting tribute for such a remarkable man.”
Sometimes, I wondered if my brother had been switched at birth.
When we had been kids and all I’d wanted was a normal little brother to play outside with, I’d sometimes wondered the same thing. As we grew up and his oddities worsened—going to summer school for fun and reading Don Quixote to his teddy bear in the third grade—I had known there must have been some kind of mistake.
But, no, he was a Woods, just like the rest of us.
“Oh, Elle, I have some samples for you. Don’t let me forget. I’ll drop them by your car on my way out. I have some things for your mom, too, so I can just do it all at once.”
I looked at my aunt with a half-frown until her eyes met mine. Her fork was halfway to her mouth, and she stopped.
“The lipsticks we used,” she explained. “I thought you might want to re-create the look—you know, for later.”
“Oh,” I answered. “Um, thank you.”
She nodded, satisfied, and finished her bite before taking a look around. “Oh, would you look at that? I didn’t grab myself a drink. Will someone watch my food? Those volunteers are vultures. They’ll pick up my plate as soon as I get up.”
“I’ll tend to it, Sal,” my mom answered, to everyone’s surprise. She hadn’t said anything in what felt like an eternity.
I waited until she was a safe distance away and then turned to my mom. “You ordered more things from her?”
She merely shrugged before adding, “I like supporting her.”
“You barely wear any makeup, Mom, and the stuff you do wear comes from the drugstore on the corner of Main. This is your fifth order this year. She’s taking advantage of you!”
Her eyebrow rose. “She’s my sister. She is doing no such thing. They make nice gifts, and I’ve had to thank a lot of people lately. It’s been a blessing to have her helping me.”
I hadn’t realized she’d been giving Aunt Sally’s products out as gifts.
Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about gifts.
I looked around the room at the sea of people, and realized she’d have to thank a lot more people after today.
The caterer, florist, tons of volunteers, and let’s not forget the minister and his family.
And then it dawned on me …
She’d planned for this. My mom, the meticulous planner, had contacted my aunt, probably weeks before my father had even passed, and planned for this very thing. Just like every detail of the funeral.
I guessed when they said the apple did not fall far from the tree, they weren’t wrong. What else had my mom been planning behind my back?