Back in October I decided I’d try to write my mom a novel in time for her Christmas present. She’s been the biggest fan of my romance novel Forever and Farewell, so I wanted to write something along those lines. I had a plan early this year for a novel inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life, and decided now was the perfect time to dust that idea off and polish it up. Thankfully, I was able to finish the novel, clean it up some, and deliver it to my mom Christmas morning. I plan on releasing A Shot at Us towards the end of January on Kindle and sometime later this year on paperback.
Thank you all for your support in 2018, and I hope you enjoy this first little taste of A Shot at Us, a love story.
Despite the despair prying its way into her heart, Gwen marveled at the way the lights from their old apartment building made the snow seem warm and inviting. Or was it the snow that made her old home inviting, calling out to her not to do this thing she was trying to avoid thinking about? Her cough crept out of her again, leaving her bent nearly double in the middle of the street as she crossed to take a closer look. A car slid to a stop just feet away, the driver hammering its horn. Still bent, she held up a hand as she staggered forward, her hospital gown flapping around her clothes. Her coat was probably still at home, snug and warm on its hanger next to Malcolm’s.
The thought brought a smile to her face even as the chill night air spiked the tear tracks staining her cheeks. This had been their first place together. Well, if you didn’t count her brief stay at his old house just before Malcolm was evicted, and Gwen didn’t. That place had been transitory, a way station to get them where they belonged. And where they belonged was this apartment building.
The woman in the car rolled down her window and called a question. The question on that dreadful night. Was she all right? Gwen laughed and coughed and fuzzed out for a moment. No. No, she was not all right. But this woman didn’t need to know that. She probably had happy people to go see, a happy job to go to every day, a happy life free of the continual fuck-ups that defined Gwendolyn Irving. Gwen turned, gave her a wave, and said she lived right there, but thank you anyways. The woman nodded uncertainly, rolled up her window, and rolled away once the tires finally got a good grip on the road again.
The apartment building. God, what had it been? Fifteen years? Before the three little beans, before the nice rental they couldn’t afford. Far, far before the No Good Hellhole. It was here Gwen’s seizures worsened. Here she’d broken her leg. Here she’d begun the horrible backslide that led them all to this, to what she was sure was the end of everything, one way or another.
There on the stoop, she’d sat on Malcolm’s lap, both of them sipping from a cheap jug of wine a few days after they got married. It had spilled down her chin and he’d licked it off before carrying her upstairs to make deliriously slow, pleasant love on their mangy old mattress and box spring. Why that bout of lovemaking stuck out in her mind, she didn’t know.
The fever scalding her skull had abated somewhat, or had at least met its match in the night air. It would get colder still that evening. The news had predicted with its usual grim apocalyptic direness the temperatures would plummet that night down into the single digits. Lower, if you counted wind chill, and considering the breeze was sliding towards a full gust, Gwen most certainly did.
She was counting on it, if she decided to go through with this.
Already, her feet and ankles were numb, and her calves weren’t far behind. Her shoes flapped through the downy blankets of powder. There had been no time in the hospital room to tie them. Only a skeleton crew was working so close to Christmas, and no one thought one of their patients would make a run for it. Why would they? Gwen was a frequent flier at Rankin Flats Memorial. It was practically her home away from home, given the way her luck had run the last decade or so. Why should they think she’d pick this night of all nights to slip away? To…
Gwen refused to give a name to what she was thinking. To do so was to acknowledge the darkness of it, the finality of the choice before her. She had a sliver of time but given her pneumonia, she didn’t believe she’d last an hour out here in the cold if she just trundled off somewhere and sat down, waiting to go to sleep one last time.
She brushed the tears away with the back of her arm, still kneeling in the snow, and doodled a pair of stick figures into the puffy white. Only after a moment did she add three little ones. They would be the ones to suffer most from this. They’d blame themselves, they’d get angry, they’d spend the next sixty or seventy years wondering if it was something they did, something they could have changed. A note wouldn’t matter. It would still tear them apart.
Malcolm would agonize over it too, but he’d understand. He’d know that this wasn’t emotional, that it was born of calculation and pure mathematics. Their family needed, and Gwendolyn took and took and took until the taking broke her.
Sometime in the last few minutes, her involuntary shivers had stopped. That was not a good sign. She rose to her feet, coughing again. It was softer this time, muffled, and her chest hurt with it. This wasn’t time for the end, though, not yet. She still wasn’t sure about this.
The apartment building beckoned her, but the doors were locked. Even if they weren’t, someone there might see her sitting in the hallway and call the cops. Or even worse, recognize her and call Malcolm. Not that she didn’t want to see her husband again – her heart ached for it, despite the way she’d ended things earlier, the horrible things Gwen had shouted at him. They never shouted at each other. Never. It had taken her by surprise as much as him. He’d looked so forlorn then, so lonely and lost even as she stood right in front of him, one hand on the wall for balance. It hadn’t been his fault. Not really. She’d known she wasn’t really screaming at him, but at… well, everything.
“I’m sorry, Malcolm,” she whispered. It wasn’t an apology for this, or for the fight, but for all of it, for making him love her, for making him suffer her every quirk and problem. And there were so many problems.
Her feet worked as Gwen thought. With the shivering gone and a false warmth spreading from her stomach through her spine, she regained a little of her composure, walking fast despite the wet bedding filling her neck and throat. Pneumonia was all too familiar to her, and she recognized this as a calm in the middle of the storm. It wouldn’t last. Soon she’d be nearly delirious with the fever again. She had to sort this out, and fast.
The basketball court. Pickup games with Malcolm and his friend Ian. Hot dogs fresh from the neighbors’ barbeque as they sat on plastic chairs outside the chain link fence watching two youth groups play on the cracked concrete. Games of tennis with a nonexistent net, marked by ribbons they’d tied on the fence. Pastor Dewey, showing them yes, he really could dunk. Pastor Dewey. The church.
Her course changed, and Gwen staggered back across the street. Dewey had moved on, was preaching somewhere else now, Missouri or Mississippi or one of those other M-states, but the church, that might still be there. Maybe someone was around who could let her in. That would be a good place to sit and think, especially if she could just be left alone for a while. And if it was locked… well…
There. Yes, a block away, and not too soon. The cold shaved away little bits of her, leaving parts numb and others burning. Another ten minutes or so and Gwen wouldn’t have a choice in this at all anymore. The church was unspectacular in every regard, boxy and ugly, set just off a parking lot that lost the fight to gravel and dirt long before she’d gone there. Someone had once decided to paint the walls on the side brown, but didn’t have enough paint to finish the front, leaving a small strip at the base around the door brown while the rest was a cracked, faded white. Maybe some of the other churches in the area were prospering from the string of catastrophes in Rankin Flats, but here, faith was on life support.
Her knock thundered, and she waited, pulling the hospital gown tighter around her as she tried to stay upright. No one answered, though, not the first time, not the third.
“Please,” Gwen whispered. “Mercy.”
Her hand fell on the doorknob, and she closed her eyes, knowing it would be locked just like the apartment building. But no, the knob twisted in her hand, and she nearly fell into the foyer, the snow blowing in with her. She could only close the door again with effort, leaning her whole body against it to push it shut again against the small drifts. It took all her energy and Gwen sank to her butt on the ground against the door, panting like a dog as she contemplated the wet floor. It seemed almost sacrilegious. The lights were off and she was too exhausted to climb back to her feet, so she stripped out of the hospital gown, leaving her in her sweats and tee shirt. The gown was a terrible excuse for a towel, but she managed the best she could, eventually wadding it up and stuffing it behind her head.
Sleep took her, uncomfortable, uneasy sleep. She flinched at echoes of herself shouting things, of the fight at home and the worse one later in the hospital. The doze only lasted a few minutes – her shivering returned and woke her up. A second wind hit her feebly, and she managed to rise shakily to her feet.
Light switch, light switch… ah, there it was. Her numb fingers battered at it like claws, and she finally managed to flick the lights on. The foyer was friendly, but largely chintzy in feel and in decoration. The potted plant in the corner was fake, a box for holding worship leaflets was plastic, and even the “stained glass” was really just hard plexiglass with colored strips overlaid. One of those strips had fallen to the floor. She knelt and picked it up, putting it back into place as best she could. This place had always been the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of churches and she loved it for that.
The nave was empty, save for the pews, podium, and the cross on the far wall. Gwen fell into one of the pews, the last of her strength gone. Her wet clothes might do something to the fresh polish on there. She wasn’t sure but couldn’t afford to worry about it for the moment. If God was going to smite her for a damp pew, then He’d surely have hit her with lightning for a few hundred other offenses in her lifetime.
Her head lolled back, and she started to drift away again, aware of it this time. Before she passed out, Gwen murmured, “Help me. Please. Because right now I’m terrified I know what the right decision is. We can’t keep going like this.” One of her eyes slid open, and she stared at the ceiling. “Help me figure this out, God.”
She cried again, the tears sapping at her consciousness, and Gwen slipped back down, fighting for every breath.
* * *
Malcolm closed the door to the office behind him. If the phone’s screen hadn’t already been broken years ago, his grip might have shattered it. If he was careful not to cut himself, he could just barely swipe the answer button. This time, he failed, hissing and sucking his thumb as he said, “Hello?” he said, trying not to snap.
“Malcolm, hey, it’s Nina.”
The name took him a moment. “From the hospital?”
“Yes, and that’s why I’m calling.”
Malcolm came to a dead stop. “Is Gwen okay?”
“We… don’t know, actually. I was checking call lights, and when I came back, she was gone.”
“Gone?” he squeaked out. No. No no no, not now, not when he was trying to set things right. Not from stupid fucking pneumonia. And certainly not after they’d left things so badly. His heart threatened to rise up and choke him out. What would he tell the kids? How could he? “I… I…”
“Crap, no, I’m sorry, Malcolm. I mean, she’s left the building. We don’t know where she is.”
“You…” He was not a man given to anger, but it burst inside him, firework blasts of white-hot sparks. “That’s what you should have led with!”
“I know, I’m sorry, I just… did she contact you?”
“No. You’re sure she’s gone? She didn’t just go to the bathroom or something? Or hit the cafeteria? She likes the cookies there.” He was desperately grabbing at solutions. Gwen didn’t drive anymore, Malcolm had their lone car and they’d learned better to leave her purse there at the hospital, so she wouldn’t have money for an Uber. Not that they would have had that money anyways, even with her purse there.
“We’re sure. Ike’s reviewing the tapes. We’ll know in a few if she’s left with anyone, but…”
“I’m heading there now.”
“Thanks, and I’m so-”
He cut Nina off in mid-apology, and shoved the door back open. The man behind the desk saw Malcolm’s panicked face and half-rose. “She isn’t-?”
“Not like that. She disappeared. I gotta go.”
“I have no idea. Can we finish this later? I’m so sorry.”
The man dropped back into his chair. “Of course.”
“Thank you. I’ll call when I know more.”
That surprised the man, and he nodded almost imperceptibly. “Good.”
Malcolm fled, racing first to the elevator to jackhammer the call button, then to the door leading to the stairs when that didn’t come fast enough. But as he threw open the door, the elevator dinged, and he sprinted back. On his way up, the elevator seemed to be a sterling example of its kind and he’d even thought about how fast it had whooshed him to the third floor. Now though, it seemed to lollygag, and only deposited him on the first floor when it felt damn good and ready.
Outside, Malcolm had to fight every instinct not to run across the fresh snow. There was black ice underneath that powder, and they couldn’t afford for two of them to land in the hospital right now. Hell, they couldn’t afford the one of them that already had.
Thankfully, he didn’t have far to walk. The van was only one of a handful of cars in the lot. The old Mack Machine, he called it, making his wife and oldest daughter groan. Once upon a time, the thing had felt like a smart decision, purchased in that slice of time before crossovers and SUVs became popular. Now it was a sluggish beast on the roads even under the best of conditions, and on ice, it was a raving lunatic hellbent on killing all of them.
It was also the only vehicle they had, so Malcolm was careful not to piss it off too much by talking ill of it.
He slid behind the wheel. Despite the radio being off, one of the speakers popped when he turned the key, as it had since months after little Winnifred was born. A short somewhere, one he couldn’t figure out and damn well couldn’t afford to have fixed by a professional. It was the Irving clan’s version of backfire, and it sometimes amused him. Now, though, his mind was squarely focused on the hospital and his wife.
The weather in eastern Montana was never entirely reliable, even in the middle of winter, and lately they’d been experiencing a mix of unusually warm stretches followed by hard cold snaps. Case in point, two days ago there’d been rain, and now Malcolm suffered for it. Even just easing into the street led to the van’s ass end swinging wide, and he grimaced as he righted it. Balding tires didn’t help either, but he could fix that. He just needed time.
If Gwen would give it to him.
Their argument replayed in the forefront of his mind as he drove. Money. They’d argued before, sure. Fifteen years of marriage, that happened. But never with that intensity. Never with that anger. The fact was, Gwen was right. They needed to talk to her parents, to eat crow and admit they needed help. Pride blinded Malcolm to the truth he knew all along, that their kids were at risk without a firmer foothold. Between the hospital and a maxed-out credit card, any and all of their disposable income was gone. Sure, Rankin Flats Memorial had forgiven almost all Gwen’s debt, but the portion left they needed to pay was enough to gut them for a year. Something had to give.
The kicker was, the whole argument started because Malcolm was scared for her. Gwen refused to go to the hospital for her pneumonia. They’d been in that position before, she told him, and she knew how to treat it from home. But when he saw the number on the thermometer wasn’t dropping that day and she still refused to go in, Malcolm flipped. Things were said. Shouted. Finally she caved, but there had been an unfamiliar dissonance to her voice, an almost calm acceptance. Malcolm thought it was just the fever, but now his mind tried to reverse time, to make it so those weren’t the last moments he spent with Gwen, that frigid wall between them as he tried to get her to smile, to come back to him. He’d been such a fucking asshole.
In the dumbest move of his whole life – and there had been plenty of those – Malcolm left her to head to the meeting. Gwen didn’t know about it. No one did, apart from the two men. It was a grasp at hope. She’d be upset about it, that much was for sure, but he hoped she’d see the reasoning. It was time to mend bridges.
If it wasn’t too late.