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The clock chimed softly in the dark room, informing the world that it was eleven o'clock. Marie Keegan looked up wearily, blinking away sleep in hopes that it would leave her alone. She listened for a moment and sighed when she realized that her baby boy was still asleep. She almost wished that he'd wake up so that she'd have something to occupy herself with. This constant waiting was wearing on her nerves. She stood and gathered her bathrobe tightly around her figure as she strode to the window. Outside, the city was fairly quiet, lights blinking in the background and the faint sound of the few people still out on the streets echoing in the night air.
Marie sighed and moved back to her seat. Jason, her husband, was late again. He hadn't called to tell her that he was staying late at the office. He hadn't said anything to her at all, actually. When she'd woken up that morning, Jason had already left for work, as had been his habit for the past month. She'd wondered recently if he resented her being able to sleep while he had to work five in the morning. Months ago she would have laughed at the idea, but these days it was a distinct possibility.
His lateness wasn't exactly a new concept. Jason was always staying "late at work" these days. Marie had heard the stories - she knew that some women's husbands used that excuse to get away. She'd gone over every scenario in her head for the past few weeks. He had a mistress, he was seeing prostitutes, he spent all of his time gambling or drinking or doing drugs. But she'd dismissed them all, one at a time. He never smelled of a new perfume or had lipstick on his collar. They never had unforeseen money problems. She was sure that he was really just staying late at work. But that didn't mean that there wasn't a problem. Marie sighed heavily and closed her eyes. The facts were there. He didn't love her anymore.
It was their silent secret, a knowledge that they shared at home and denied to the rest of the world. For all she knew, they would go on denying it for years, until they died and were buried together like they had planned when they were young and foolish and still in love. No one would know that they had drifted apart from each other, that the love they'd proclaimed would last a life-time had barely lasted a year. She wasn't even sure if she wanted them to know. If she kept it unspoken, if she made it a secret, then that meant it wasn't real: at least, not real in the way it would be if she spoke about it out loud. If she spoke it aloud, it became the truth and there was no going back. She didn't think she could handle that.
Marie leaned her head back against the armchair and wondered where it had all went wrong. It had only been three years since they had met, and already everything was dying. She closed her eyes.
She had met Jason Keegan at work. She had only been 24 then, fresh out of college and still full of optimism. She'd planned on being a journalist throughout school and had managed to get a small job at a local paper. It had been during her first week that Jason Keegan had walked in, a bicycle helmet under his arm. She had been charmed immediately by his good looks and sense of humor, and had gone out of her way to talk with him about anything in the job that needed discussing, and many things that didn't. He was as low in the newspaper food chain as she was, and they'd bonded over that. Within the first three months of work, they'd become friends.
They were both too poor to buy cars and rode bicycles to work. They both disliked mainstream music and were coffee snobs. They both were the only ones to like organic foods in a family who ate processed products. They both came from large, loving, suffocating families who tried to run their lives with the best of intentions. As their similarities grew, they got closer and closer until suddenly, almost without transition, they'd started to date.
Marie had dated before when she was younger - a stream of good-looking, immature guys who wanted her for one thing and one thing only. Jason had been different. He'd listened to her advice, he'd learned all of her favorite songs so he could sing them to her in a voice slightly off-key, he'd bonded with her little brother and her overbearing parents . . . he'd loved her in a way that she had never been loved. And she had done the same for him. They weren't just lovers – they were best friends too. Marie had thought that kind of relationship only happened in story books. So when the topic of marriage had come up, six months later, Marie had accepted immediately.
Their families had protested, of course. "It's too soon!" they cried. "If you really love each other, you can wait." Jason and Marie had ignored them, headstrong and flushed with love. They'd married five months later, in a small church with only their closest friends and family attending. Their obvious love made even their disapproving relatives concede that maybe it wasn't the worst catastrophe to hit the world. Marie remembered that day as the best day of her life - as well as the beginning of end.
Well, that might not be true. The beginning of the end really started the day she found out that she was pregnant, three months after getting married. Her parents' disapproval before her marriage looked small in comparison to the condemnation they showed after she announced her pregnancy. There had been months of icy silence from both of her parents, but especially from her mother, who didn't like how close to the marriage the conception date was. Marie had been angry and hurt about that for months. If she was honest with herself, she still was.
A car honked outside, and Marie looked up, drawn out of her reminiscence for a moment. She heard footsteps outside and felt a moment's hope that perhaps he was finally coming home. Her heart fell when the footsteps faded away and the door never opened. She drooped in her chair and resisted the urge to look at the clock again. Watching the minutes pass by wouldn't make him come home any faster. In the back of her mind, a part of her wondered if Jason would come home at all. Her stomach twisted into little knots at the thought. He couldn't leave her. They'd grown apart, that was true, but she had never stopped loving him, even if he had stopped loving her. They had to talk about it, discuss what was going on instead of ignoring it--
The door opened.
Marie looked up. Jason looked haggard in the bright lamp-light. His suit was rumpled, and he had the worn briefcase Marie had bought for his first day of work gripped tightly in his hand. Marie rose to her feet, her fear at his departure from her life and from his son's life fading in the wake of his physical presence. But when he avoided her eyes and didn't speak, the nervousness returned.
"Jason," she said quietly. He moved around her. She turned to follow him, feeling desperate. "Jason!" He stopped, but didn't turn around. "We need to talk."
"No, we don't." He turned. There was a flat, angry look in his eyes that Marie had rarely seen. "I'm tired, Marie, and I want to go to sleep. Whatever complaints you have, you can tell them to me in the morning."
Marie hadn't been upset before, but now she could feel the anger climbing, making her nose tingle. "I know that you're tired, but this can't wait. We need to talk now." She took a step closer to him, maintaining eye-contact. "Where were you tonight?"
His lip quirked. "Afraid I'm cheating on you, honey?" he asked cynically. Marie's hands trembled so much that she had to clasp them behind her back to keep him from noticing. She didn't want him to see how angry and upset he was making her. She had to maintain a calm mask.
"You aren't," she said, only semi-confidant. He hadn't had lipstick on his collar or smelled like a new perfume, but that didn't mean he hadn't found someone else, just that he was good at hiding his indiscretions.
Jason gave her a long look. Something he saw made the rigid lines of his face soften, and he sighed. "No," he said wearily, "I'm not."
He set his briefcase down and took a seat in one of their armchairs. Marie, still trembling, sat across from him on their couch. Her anger faded and the nervousness returned. Where before she had been determined to keep eye-contact at all times, now she went out of her way to avoid his gaze. When she had been angry, it had been easy to stare him down. Now the fear had returned and she didn't want to look at him and see the disdain in his eyes. She didn't know why she'd wanted to confront Jason. Their lives hadn't been perfect, but was dealing with the problem really the answer?
During her teen years, Marie had always avoided confrontation. When her friends had had fights, she never took one side and instead pandered to both of them. When her grades began to slip, she never went to her teachers to demand to know why - instead she silently worked harder to fix them on her own. She hadn't exactly been solitary - she'd had friends, and boyfriends. But when it came to fights, she never dealt with the problem head-on, instead preferring to work around it and wait until it fixed itself.
This problem, however, couldn't fix itself. If she wanted things to change, she had to confront her husband, even when she would rather bury her head in the sand and let the problem keep going on and on. She had started this discussion, and now she would have to participate in it. Marie took a deep breath and looked into Jason's face. She was surprised by what she saw there. She'd expected the cynical disdain he had shown only moments before, but all she saw a bone-deep weariness that came from living the life you hadn't want for too long. She swallowed sharply.
"Where were you?" she said again, this time more softly and less demanding. Marie saw Jason's shoulders tense and she stiffened in response, waiting for another dismissal. Then, slowly, he relaxed.
"At work," he said calmly. "I volunteered to take late hours."
She bit her lip, remembering his first dismissal of her question. "That's the truth?" she questioned. "I don't want a lie Jason."
He smiled, but this time it didn't have a bitter edge. "Cross my heart and hope to die," he said with an almost mocking solemnity. His weary eyes took the sting out of it.
Marie didn't want to ask the next question, but it was the only way this conversation could go. "Why did you stay late?" She braced herself for the answer.
Jason didn't say anything right away. Instead, he gave her a long stare, looking for something that she wasn't sure she was showing. "I stayed late because I didn't want to come home, Marie," he finally said. He didn't say it meanly or cynically. His tone was purely factual. It didn't matter anyways - Marie would have felt the pain from that statement even if he'd said it in his kindest, gentlest tone.
"It isn't--Is it because of me?" she questioned fearfully. Then, tearfully, "Is it because of Ben?"
Benjamin James, their son, named first after Jason's father, then after Marie's. Benjamin, the tiny, beautiful boy sleeping in the room nearby. What answer do I want, Marie wondered wildly. If it's me, my heart will break, but if he tells me it's because of Ben . . . how will I be able to look at my son in the future and tell him that his father, at one point in his life, didn't want to come home because of him? For the first time that night Marie prayed that she was the cause of the problem. She could handle her own heartbreak, but she couldn't deal with her son's, even if it would happen years in the future.
"It's not you or Ben," Jason said quietly. "Not really. It's just - this situation, Marie." He stood and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm 26 years old, and I'm already married with a child, stuck in a job that I hate. I didn't ever expect to become that man, Marie, not even when I was middle-aged. But I met you, and I felt like this marriage would be different. We could do everything we wanted, only now we'd have a constant companion throughout it all." He paused. "Then Ben came." Marie flinched.
"I love him so much, you know that right?" Jason started to pace. Marie was used to his trait of pacing and thinking out loud - she'd seen it many nights before and after their marriage when they'd talked about anything they felt passionate about. "He's my son and I love him. But you're here at home, unable to work because he needs to be looked after, and I needed to get a better job. So I did, because I wanted to support us, but this job . . . I hate it, Marie. Every day I imagine going into the CEO's office and quitting. But I can't. Because . . . ."
"Because of us," Marie said numbly. Jason didn't flinch.
"Yeah," he said. "Because of you. But I don't want to blame you because I have a dead-end job. And every time I looked at you, I started to think 'if she only hadn't gotten pregnant . . . .' or 'why can't she get a job?'" Jason's lips thinned and he looked away from her. She couldn't tell if it was from shame or not. "I just wanted to avoid you and to avoid Ben. I didn't want to think those things about you anymore . . . and at work, I could forget about it. I could lose myself in figures and rich people's money and forget my own problems."
"Why didn't you just tell me?" Marie asked. She felt calmer now. There was a problem, of course there was, but they could work with it. She had feared that the truth would be much, much worse. "We could've talked about it Jason, before it got so bad."
Jason smiled bitterly. "How could I tell my wife that I resented her? Saying out loud . . . it makes it real, Marie, and I didn't want it to be real."
"Then why tell me tonight?" Marie asked. "Why, after all this time of keeping it inside, let it out now?"
Jason met her eyes. "You asked. You never have before; you've always just let it go. But tonight you demanded to know, and in the face of that, I couldn't stay quiet anymore."
Marie nodded in acceptance. She took in Jason's bent posture, the weariness in his face. An idea occurred to her, a way that she may be able to mend this divide that had built between them. She stood. Jason turned to look at her questioningly.
"Give me a second," she said to Jason, then left the room. She appeared moments later with their baby in her arms. He was a plump little boy, who had inherited Jason's fine blond hair and her dark blue eyes. She had awakened him from his sleep, which she would pay for later, and he was blinking sleepily in the darkness of the room.
Marie placed him in Jason's arms. He held Benjamin awkwardly, unused to handling a baby even after having one for a good three months. He'd been gone so much that he and Ben hadn't had time to really bond, and the baby looked up at his father in puzzlement, as if unsure who this strange man holding him was.
"I've let you talk, but now it's my turn," Marie said calmly. "I'm sorry that you've had a hard time of it these past few months. But look down at him and tell me that whatever you're doing now, no matter how much you may hate it, isn't worth it. Tell me that our son isn't worth the sacrifice."
Ben made a happy baby gurgle at the sound of his mother's voice and Jason's hands trembled a little. He drew Ben close and buried his face in the fine hair, breathing in the clean baby smell. Ben's chubby little hands clutched at a piece of Jason's fair hair, trying in his own way to hug his father back. Marie smiled.
"I'm sorry," Jason said, his voice muffled, either from clutching a baby to his face or tears - Marie couldn't quite tell. "I'm so sorry."
She went over to her husband and her son, placing a hand on her baby's back and stroking Jason's hair soothingly. "It's alright," she said. "We'll be just fine now." And she covered them with her arms and hugged them tight to her chest.