Fall By Winter by Cara Dee

 

One

Itook a sip of my wine and bobbed my head to the beat of the music pouring out from the living room, and I surveyed my kitchen. I was pretty much done here. I’d gotten my cozy, French-country-style kitchen. Significantly smaller than the space I was used to, but I was no longer cooking for four.

Smallhad become the theme for this next chapter of my life. I’d thrown away so much crap before I’d left the old house a few blocks over. Now I had my very own picturesque two-bedroom house on the street right next to the marina. Smaller kitchen, smaller living room, smaller backyard, smaller everything. Fewer rooms to clean.

Sometimes I felt guilty for being happy. For feeling so free.

Other times, not so much. I’d earned this, and I needed the change. From the house down to the color of my hair. I’d dyed it chestnut last time at the salon, and I’d be getting my daughter’s opinion on it in… I checked my watch. About ten minutes.

I suppose I should put on some better clothes. These days, I lived in sweats or cotton shorts and a tank top when I was alone.

It was fucking amazing.

As I set my wineglass in the sink, I saw William pulling up to the curb in front of my house, but Aurora wasn’t with him. He stepped out of the vehicle on his own.

He spotted me in the window when he opened the picket fence gate and smiled politely.

I headed to the hallway after turning off the music and opened the door for him. “If you sold our daughter, I expect fifty percent of the profit.”

He snorted and chuckled. “Since when are children profitable?”

“Touché.” I opened the door wider.

He raised his brows a fraction and gave me a once-over on the way in.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Can I be a brunette?” It wasn’t a far cry from my original color. Well, plural these days. Caramel with a touch of gray.

Men had it easier there. Women loved silver foxes, and William was slowly turning into one. The silver was pronounced by his dark hair. He had some in his beard too.

“Your hair.” He zeroed in on it, as if he hadn’t noticed it before. “Ah, you changed it. I liked the old color.”

I sighed. “You always know what to say, honey.” I patted his chest and trailed into the kitchen. “So, what brings you by if you’re not dropping off Aurora?”

Wedding announcement, perhaps? He’d recently gotten engaged to the love of his life—another man. Kelly.

I was the kind of ex-wife who had helped pick out the rings.

Oh, I had some scars…

“Something she said has been bothering me.” William followed me into the kitchen. “For the record, when women open the door with a new hair color and no bra, don’t expect men to see the difference between two shades of brown.”

I spluttered a laugh and took my seat at the island. “You’re gay, though. You’re not supposed to notice any of it.”

He gave me a look. “Lis, we’ve talked about this. I don’t like it when you diminish the meaning of our marriage.”

Oh boy. I needed more wine. I headed straight for the fridge and grabbed the bottle I’d opened yesterday. “I don’t need another spiel about gay versus bisexual, William.”

“Clearly you do.”

No, I seriously didn’t. Okay, I had been plagued by doubts for months and months after we got divorced two years ago, but he had made me realize the truth. More than that, he’d made me believe it. Our marriage hadn’t been a sham, despite everything he’d hidden from me. Our marriage was definitely the biggest reason my life was complicated and why I’d probably never venture out into the dating jungle again, but it’d been ours, and it’d been real. In a way. In a complicated way.

No one would understand.

“It was a slip, okay? I know you’re bi.” I poured myself a new glass and took a big swallow. Phew. “Tell me what’s up with Aurora.”

He eyed me for a beat with his calculating slate gaze, and I could tell he was ready to psychoanalyze me, an occupational hazard from what he did for a living. But I wasn’t one of the children he worked with. I was his ex-wife, so I jutted my chin and silently willed him to mind his own business.

“Fine,” he conceded reluctantly. “She’s been talking more about college lately. This weekend, there were pamphlets and printouts all over my condo. And she thinks she wants to go to a school on the East Coast.”

I adjusted my glasses and waited for the punch line. Aurora had just started her sophomore year of high school. College was three years away.

“That’s okay with you?” he asked in disbelief.

I frowned. “Am I missing something? It’s a good thing that she’s researching schools. She’ll have plenty of time to decide, then.”

“But all the way across the country?” he pressed. “We’ll never see her.”

Oh, bless. “You and I attended college far away from home,” I pointed out. We’d met in Chicago, him from Washington, me from DC.

“And you’re living proof that college kids tend to settle down far away from home if they get their education out of state,” he stated. “It starts with four years, and then she meets someone there.”

She’s already met someone, I replied internally and took a sip of my wine. While this mother had hopes the crush would pass, I had a feeling it ran deep enough to be one of the reasons Aurora wanted to get away from Washington in three years.

I also had a feeling it would be the reason she eventually returned to us. To show this older crush of hers that she’d grown up. Because right now, he saw her as a kid.

It was teenage drama, but I was thankful for having a daughter who confided in me.

“It’ll be her choice, William.” I set down my glass and leaned back against the counter. “Was there anything else?”

He opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it and frown at me.

“What?” I waited.

He pursed his lips. “You’re going through a lot of changes.”

“I am.” I smiled and shrugged. “I’ve had my mourning period—and don’t misinterpret that.”

His gaze softened. “I know. I won’t.”

It wasn’t the unraveling of our marriage I’d been mourning for so long. It was the loss of myself. Out of our twenty years together, we’d had ten happy ones. It was something we’d discussed at length and agreed on. The first ten had been genuine and happy. Then everything had slowly started to come apart at the seams, and I’d lost sight of who I was.

“I’ve held you back for too long,” he murmured. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Don’t do that, William. Stop blaming yourself all the time.”

He let out a breath and smiled ruefully. “Maybe one day. And you can joke about my not noticing things, but you’re wrong, Lis. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable before—or eyeball you—with, uh—” he cleared his throat and gestured toward the hallway “—back there. With how you’re dressed. I’m just paying attention for once, and I like what I’m seeing. You’re more carefree and relaxed these days.” He paused. “You’re not holding an entire household together on your own anymore, and it suits you.”

He made me a little misty-eyed with those words. Despite…everything, he understood me well. Even so, blame had no place in our family. Depression turned every black-and-white surface into a blurry swirl of gray, and we’d all shared William’s foggy pain for years.

That fog had finally lifted, for all of us. It was what mattered.

“Do you remember what Aurora told us about the lanes?” I tilted my head.

“Of course.” He smiled. “I think about it sometimes.”

I nodded. So did I. In her young wisdom, she’d said that Mom and Dad used to drive in the same lane, but now the road was bigger, and it had three lanes. One for Mom, one for Dad, and one in the middle where he and I, and our kids, could drive together. Where we could check in with one another. A lane that still belonged to our family—and, recently, where William and I occasionally carpooled to navigate our way through this newfound friendship.

“I like seeing you in the middle lane,” I said, phrasing myself carefully, “but stay there.” I hoped he saw the humor of it too. “There’s nothing you can do about anything that happens in my lane.”

He sighed, then chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. “You’re right. I know you’re right. I’ll ease up.”

Good. I knew he wanted to make sure I was all right, but sometimes I feared he did it out of guilt because he’d moved on. Something I didn’t begrudge him at all. I’d moved on too; I just hadn’t moved on with anyone, and I had no desire to. Yet. Okay, I doubted I ever would, although it would be nice one day, maybe.

William didn’t just share a lane with Kelly. They were in the same car, something I hadn’t experienced in over a decade.

Maybe one day.

“Now, get out of my house, buddy. I’m gonna get started on dinner. I assume Aurora’s turning up eventually.”

Buddy,” he muttered to himself and headed toward the hallway. “I prefer it when you call me honey. You say it in a way that makes me feel like the clueless ex-husband that I am.”

I tinkered a laugh and followed him out. “Definitely clueless. Some things never change.”

He huffed and stepped outside. “You know, tell our daughter that she might’ve inherited that from me, then. Because this morning at the breakfast table, she gave us a harangue about male menopause. Did you know it’s a thing? Kelly and I just sat there, fucking horrified, as she went on about receding hairlines, abdominal fat, memory loss, insomnia, and…” He grimaced. “Difficulties with bladder control.”

“Oh my God,” I wheezed out in laughter. “She didn’t.”

“Oh, she did,” he told me. “I’ve never felt older physically, Lis. That could be me soon. My knees already sound like firecrackers when I get off the couch.”

I gigglesnorted. “Well, I didn’t get glasses last year because it’s cool. We’re not twenty anymore.”

“I’ll say.” He tossed and caught his car keys, taking the step off my tiny porch. “Anyway. She might be with Jess. She talked about hanging out with him earlier today.”

“Okay, thanks.” I nodded and smirked, still amused by Aurora’s rambling. She’d wanted to study medicine since she was little and researched random topics in the field for kicks.

“By the way,” William said as he opened the gate, “why didn’t you tell me my brother’s getting divorced?”

I gave him a strange look. What the hell? “Mason’s getting divorced?”

“Oh. I’m sorry, I assumed you knew. Yeah, he called me before the weekend, said he was done and moving out.”

Huh.

I didn’t know what to say. I’d seen Mason mere weeks ago. I’d been to a spa retreat in Phoenix to celebrate a promotion of sorts—and to treat myself to a getaway—and he lived there. Maybe it was why William assumed I’d know something. When we were married, it had been my job to keep track of family members, and whereas the brothers had never been particularly close, I’d maintained contact. Birthday cards and holiday greetings and such. So, we’d met up for dinner in Phoenix. He’d even flown back here with me for a quick visit; he wanted to reconnect with William.

“I had no idea,” I said, at a loss. “He made no mention of things being bad at home when I saw him.”

“Same here.” William frowned. “He seemed happy when he came up to visit.”

“Get to the bottom of things,” I encouraged. “I’m glad you two are trying to get closer, so make sure you don’t ignore this.”

He nodded and closed the gate behind himself. “I will,” he replied. “Clever as always.”

I offered a two-finger salute.

A couple hours later, I found myself on the floor in the living room, surrounded by boxes, trash bags, and beef stir-fry.

“What about this one?” I held up a Barbie doll. “You used to play with it all the time.”

Mom.” Okay, Aurora was getting frustrated with me. “No more friggin’ toys, all right? I haven’t played with dolls in, like, five years.”

“Fine.” I sulked as I tossed it into the bag of items to donate. Then I picked up my bowl of stir-fry, shoveling a spoonful into my mouth, and forced myself to face the truth. My daughter had officially left childhood behind.

She’d even rejected the stuffed animals she used to share her bed with.

“Are you gonna mope this weekend when you ask if Brady wants to throw out his action figures?” Aurora countered.

“Probably.” I shrugged.

Despite the countless boxes of shit I’d thrown out before the move, I’d known there would be more once I got here. William and I had marveled at the forgotten items we’d had in our attic.

“I was serious about my request, though,” I said. “I want you to save five things for your future children.”

I’d already stowed away a box of baby clothes and toys I wasn’t ready to part with.

Aurora bit her lip, surveying the sea of toys between us. The floor would be empty by tomorrow, because that was when our new furniture arrived. At this point, we only had our beds, nightstands, the kitchen stools around the island, and, right behind me, the couch.

We had shelving covered, which was one of my favorite features of the house. Built-in shelves in each room. The living room had two units I’d already filled with books, pictures, and knickknacks.

Aurora picked up one of her old dolls and combed down its hair with her fingers. “Brady says he’s never having kids.”

“Well. Your brother can be full of shit sometimes.” I took a swig from my water bottle and nodded at the doll. “You should save that one. Remember what you named her?”

She grinned wryly and set it aside behind her. “Trixie. Dad hated it and asked if she was a stripper.”

I chuckled, remembering it. In William’s defense, Aurora had been eight at the time. He hadn’t thought she would know what a stripper was.

Oh, this was making me nostalgic. Every damn toy came with a memory, and it saddened me that those days were over.

I pouted to myself and picked up a slingshot that must’ve ended up in the wrong box. It used to be Brady’s.

My two beautiful children. Brady was looking more and more like his father with each year that passed. Same dark hair and kind, slate eyes. Same features, though where William was tall and bordering on lanky, Brady was a few inches shorter and carried more bulk. Aurora took after me more, but she had William’s eyes.

I could still see the kids stumbling around in diapers.

I blew out a breath and told myself not to get emotional.

This weekend when Brady came home for a visit, I’d treat him like the adult he was. William had reminded me that I spoiled him too much, so instead of helping him decorate the tiny studio above the garage, I was going to give him a budget. He was twenty years old. He could paint and buy his own furniture. Or so William kept insisting.

“Mom, you’re all sad again.” Aurora sent me a troubled look.

I mustered a smile and shook my head. “Not at all. I promise. It’s just bittersweet that I’ll never go through this again. My mommy days are gone.”

It made me feel a bit lost, if I was completely honest with myself.