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Fiction

He glared at the ATM as he would have one who’d suggested a hike in Death Valley. That couldn’t be right; the account had had five thousand dollars more a few days ago. Money didn’t just disappear.

           He’d get to the bottom of this. Not caring that it would catch the attention of the couple in tank tops and cutoffs milling around, eyeing shelves full of Butterfingers and Milky Ways and Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups, and the spindly teen at the register who looked as if playing dress up with Daddy’s emerald-green Quick Chek hat and apron, he pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans and dialed the bank. He navigated the automated menu, pressing the buttons with increasing fervency, and finally connected with a woman who sounded like a valley girl coaxed out of her western twang. Yes, she informed him, the balance the ATM had shown was correct.

           He didn’t get it. How could that be? Only he and his wife had access to the account. They’d agreed when they’d started it to tell each other before spending more than three hundred dollars, and she hadn’t done so. Nor had he seen evidence that she’d made the type of purchase the withdrawal suggested as of late.

           But the valley girl said that, indeed, she’d come in that morning and picked up the cash.

           What did she want it for?

           That, she couldn’t tell him.

           Sweat nearly making the phone slide from his hand, he thanked her and hung up. His knees wobbled, and he leaned on the ATM for support. Immediately, he heard his father’s voice—Gonna have a swoon, Nancy?—and he yanked himself upright again and returned his attention to the matter at hand.

What had she been thinking? Though not poor, they didn’t exactly wipe up spills with hundreds. That five thousand dollars had made a significant dent in their account—one that they probably wouldn’t manage to fill for at least another year.

           Maybe, he thought, this had something to do with her sister, a woman he’d seen scream and cry and shake fists over issues as insignificant as a lost quarter or an almost invisible scratch on her iPhone’s rhinestone-encrusted case. Once, she’d disturbed an entire five-star restaurant chewing him out for having insulted Katy Perry. She prioritized manicures over electric bills, designer purses and shoes over long-overdue oil changes for the Porsche she still hadn’t paid off. As he’d told Micaela numerous times, the woman had more than a few screws loose; she deserved to end up in the psych ward, in a straitjacket, in a padded cell. As far as he knew, Micaela hadn’t seen or spoken to her recently, but she could easily have done so behind his back. And Lacey, in turn, could easily have convinced Micaela to bail her out of the crushing debt into which she habitually allowed herself to fall—and to keep it from him.

           No longer feeling the briskness of the AC, he turned and stormed out the sliding glass doors and into August’s oven.

*         *         *

           Micaela squirmed, a finger tracing the loops in their maple kitchen table. Though he’d explained what had happened and demanded an explanation, she didn’t speak, confirming that she’d done something she shouldn’t have, most likely something she’d known she shouldn’t have done even as she did it. Heat flared in his chest. He wanted to leap across the table, grab her, and shake the answer out of her. Instead, he repeated his question.

A gnat darted before his eyes, and he flinched. It flew away, towards the cherry cabinet holding Micaela’s china collection. Heat rushed to his cheeks. A no-see-um. Really?

           Micaela didn’t seem to notice; she’d shifted her gaze to the window, an electric blue stamp on an envelope-white wall. “I’d rather not discuss it,” she said at last.

           Having temporarily shelved his self-criticism, he sighed. “Come on, Cae; you know you can talk to me about anything.”

           She looked at him. The window again. Him again. Her eyes shimmered, and her lower lip quivered. Despite everything, it made him want to jump to his feet, fling his arms around her, and assure her that, whatever she’d done, it was okay.

           “You’re not gonna understand. I can’t tell you why it happened—something in my brain, something in my past, I don’t know. All I know is, I was hopeless. All the time. Nothing was fun. Food didn’t taste good. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I just…I couldn’t take it…”

           He felt as if missing something obvious. “What’re you saying?”

           “I…I needed help. Our insurance hardly covered anything.”

           It hit him like a wave of ice water, stealing his voice. How, he asked himself, had this happened? He lived with her. Ate with her. Slept with her. And, still, he hadn’t seen it. What did that make him? A lousy husband, and a lousy person, and doomed to suffer for it.

“When did this happen?” he asked, for, though nothing could justify the oversight, he longed, at least, for something to explain it.

“Two years ago,” she said, mentally dissecting the table.

Yes. That made sense. At the time, he’d still been working his first “real” job. His boss, a narcissistic, abusive jerk, had flooded him with work. Days, nights, weekends, holidays—he considered them all fair game. She’d told him that he should quit and look for something else, but he’d lingered. A man provided for his wife. He did his work and didn’t complain. It had taken an outburst and subsequent firing, for which he still cringed, to relieve him of his duties.

No, it didn’t excuse it, and having recognized it made him feel no better.

           “I was gonna have it taken care of. Claire—“ naming her best friend, “—was supposed to give me a loan. I was gonna put it in today, right when I made the withdrawal. But she had to pick the one day I needed her to go AWOL…”

So she’d thought it through. That shouldn’t have surprised him. However, the big question remained: “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

           She sighed, shoulders drooping. “I know how you feel about those things.”

           “ ‘How I feel about those things?”

           “You know what I mean…Think about it. Think about how you talk about Lacey.”

           He obeyed, playing his own words back in his mind. It struck like an earthquake. He hadn’t intended to imply what she’d alluded to, nor had he realized that he’d done so. Another case of stupidity. It seemed no wonder, now, that she’d done what she’d done.

As he tried to figure out what to say next, his cheeks burned, and he couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eye. 

August 20, 2022 01:42

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