For Lynn Loud Sr., life was like a turtleneck sweater two sizes too small: Tight, suffocating, and if he moved wrong, downright unbearable. He was almost forty, graying and going bald; he worked an office job he hated for a boss he despised; his mortgage seemed to get higher every year; his wife was over a hundred pounds heavier than she was when he first met her; and each day, the walls seemed to close in on him just a little more. The only car he could afford was a hand-me-down piece of junk from his old man - the only thing that worthless drunk gave Lynn besides mild abandonment issues - and his kids cost him what little money the house and grocery store left over. He loved his children, but each one was like a millstone around his neck, anchoring him in place, choking him, holding him back.

Feeling that way deeply disturbed Lynn, but as time marched ever on and the face staring back at him from the mirror became more sallow, more wrinkled, he couldn't help it. He'd been a married father since before he was even out of high school, and at thirty-eight, he was coming to realize that he missed his youth.

It was his fault, really. When Rita became pregnant with Lori, he was all too willing to grow up, all too willing to be a man, father, and husband. He fell into the role easily and painlessly enough, but then, twenty years on, he began to regret it. He regretted that he never got to have a nice car, a one-bedroom apartment where he could watch sports and leave empty pizza boxes strewn around without being nagged, a bevy of girlfriends and one night stands...he regretted that he never got to live.

His fault or not, he found himself resenting Rita. He'd watch her from the corner of his eye as they sat before the Wheel of Fortune like an elderly couple, and his lips would pull over his teeth in a hateful sneer. Because of her, he missed out on all the things a normal man enjoys in his early twenties, the things that logically progress to marriage and family. He skipped them all, and while the foundation of their lives was solid bedrock, his was shifting sand. The burden of his wife and children, his dead end job and clunker van, weighed heavy upon him, and unlike those other men, those normal men, who developed in the natural course of things, he couldn't bear it.

Sometimes he dreamed about throwing off his responsibilities and leaving. He saw himself cooly packing a suitcase, snapping it closed, climbing into the van, and driving away. He didn't know where he would go or what he would do, but that was part of the allure; being totally free and unencumbered. He would not have a rigid schedule in his new life. He would go where the wind blew him, like a tumbleweed. It would be an adventure, it would be fun.

He couldn't simply abandon his family like that, so he stayed, and the longer he did, the keener his loathing of Rita became. She sensed it, he thought, but never spoke of it. She had never nagged (much), but these days, she frequently sought, and often found, reasons to be dissatisfied. He didn't make enough money; he spent his weekends relaxing instead of working on the house; he didn't use a coaster. He tolerated it as much as he could, but every man has a breaking point, and Lynn had reached his. One evening, as he sat at the table, Rita started in on needing a "spa day." Lynn gritted his teeth, but finally snapped when she remarked, "Not that you can afford."

"You don't even do anything," he spat. "You sit on your ass while I work. You don't need a spa, you need Jenny Craig."

Rita's jaw dropped and the kids all looked uncomfortably down at their plates. When she recovered, they argued, and Lynn stormed out. All the while, the kids sat there, ten shades of discomfort on their faces. Part of Lynn felt bad for them, but another part...a deep, malignant little clump of cancer in his heart...didn't care.

That night, lying in bed next to his fat, frumpy wife, Lynn stared up at the ceiling and wished he'd never met her...and that they'd never had children together.

Soon, his thoughts drifted to the only bright spot in his life.

Carol Pingrey.

A tall, slender girl with long blonde hair and delicate features, Carol had been Lori's best friend since they were little. They played together, had sleepovers together, and were always at one another's house. From the time she was a child, Carol had been a constant fixture at 1216 Franklin Avenue. At first, Lynn looked at her the way he would any other little girl, but as she blossomed into womanhood, his eyes lingered and his throat swelled closed the way it once had when he was a boy and standing next to a girl he liked. Sometimes, when he was making love to Rita, he thought of her, and felt terrible afterwards. He tried to deny it to himself, but he couldn't: He was smitten and had been for a very long time.

Every afternoon, Carol came over to tutor Lincoln, and if Lynn happened to be home from the office, he made every excuse he could to talk to her and walk past so that he could steal secret whiffs of her perfume. Sitting in his armchair, he watched her from the corner of his eye, tracing the graceful slope of her throat and the soft curve of her jaw. Her big brown eyes sparkled in even the faintest of light, and if she were to turn them in his direction, his heart would stop dead in his chest.

Today, September 15, Lynn woke to the sound of rain hissing in the streets. He got up, dressed, and pulled his shoes on, all without being fully awake. He didn't need to be: He'd been doing the same thing every weekday morning for the past twenty years, one day blurring into the next like ink until he was lost in a corridor of years, each one exactly the same as the last.

Rita was a lump under the covers when he went downstairs and Lynn silently hoped she didn't wake before he left for work.

In the dining room, the kids sat around the table with bowls of cereal and teased one another. Each morning, they selected a victim and pounced. Today it was Leni. They missed a beat when he came in, and their greetings were leery and half-hearted, almost like they were afraid of him.


Wasn't that funny? Wasn't it funny that with all he did for them, they treated him like nitroglycerin that would explode if jostled too hard?

Lynn grumbled under his breath.

At the coffee pot, he poured himself a cup and tensed when Rita shuffled in wearing only a robe and a pair of fuzzy slippers. Her blonde hair stuck out at funny angles and her double chin jiggled with every step. "Are you going to be home early?" she asked without preamble.

"I don't know," Lynn said and took a sip of his coffee. "Why?"

"The gutters need to be cleaned out."

Lynn sighed. She was right, the gutters did need to be cleaned out before the trees started shedding their leaves, but the last thing he wanted to do was get on a wobbly ladder and spend two hours digging in muck up to his elbows. "I'm not doing that today," he said, bracing himself for a fight. It was always a fight with Jabba the Rita. "I'll do it Saturday."

He couldn't see her, but he could feel her standing behind him, probably with her arms crossed over her fat chest. The disapproving expression she no doubt wore rankled him. "You've been saying that for six months," she said acridly.

Lynn grimaced. A biting reply bubbled up from him before he could stop it. "Don't fucking nag me today, Rita. I work fifty hours a week. Leave me alone."

The air went out of the room, then the atmosphere darkened the way the world does when a cloud passes across the face of the sun. Lynn steeled himself for her rejoinder. "Well, maybe I wouldn't nag so much if you touched me every once in a while."

Her voice dripped with accusation.

This time, Lynn didn't even try to cut off his retort. "Maybe I'd touch you if you lost some weight."

"Fuck you, Lynn," Rita spat.

"Every time I do, a kid pops out."

She didn't respond, and he pictured a seething look of rage on her face that was both satisfying and oddly exciting. He expected her to yell, to scream, to call him names, but the only reply was the thudding of her rapidly ascending the stairs. When she was gone, Lynn drew a deep breath through flaring nostrils and let it out of his mouth in a shaky rush. A part of him - a weak, withered, cowardly part - was sorry, and he almost went after her, to apologize and to make love to her. It had been six months since they were last intimate. Just like every time in recent memory, she initiated it, and he simply laid back and let her sate herself, the cloying, funeral-flower scent of her perfume and the loose, doughy feeling of her skin slapping against him turning his stomach.

Lying there with a frumpy, two hundred pound middle aged woman on top of him, her hair in her frenzied eyes and her hands pinning his shoulders to the bed, Lynn fantasiesd about Carol.

Sighing, he finished his coffee, rinsed the mug out in the sink, and sat it in the drying rack. He went into the dining room, and all the kids glanced at him; from the looks on their faces, they had heard every word. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, to put them at ease, but the energy ran out of him and he simply went into the living room, grabbed his briefcase, and left.

On his way to school that morning, Lincoln Loud ducked his head against the rain. His brown eyes focused on the cracked sidewalk unfurling before him and his mind strained to think about things he didn't want it to.

Cold raindrops pelted his head and shoulders, dampening his hair and the fabric of his polo shirt. A gust of damp wind washed over him, raking goosebumps up and down his arms, and he suppressed a body-wide shiver.

On his right, Lynn stared straight ahead, her thumbs thrust through the straps of her black Nike backpack. To his left, Luan throughtfully prodded the inside of her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue, The others - Lisa, Lana, Lola, Lucy, Luna, Leni, and Lori - trudged behind. The atmosphere was dark and heavy between them, like a funeral shroud, and even though he was in the great wide open, Lincoln found it hard to breathe.

"You think Mom and Dad will get divorced?" Luan asked, breaking the uneasy silence.

Lincoln's stomach knotted and his step unconsciously quickened as if to outrun the terrible possibility.

"I dunno," Lynn said soberly. He black Nikes splashed in puddles, kicking up drops of cold water. "They act like it, though."

For as long as Lincoln could remember, his parents had been loving and happy. Over the past few months, though, something had changed. Mom and Dad were always snapping at each other, and when they weren't, they didn't talk. Dad used to come up behind Mom and give her hugs while she cooked, and Mom used to bend over and peck Dad's cheek as he sat in his armchair.

They didn't do that anymore.

What felt like eons ago, the atmosphere at home was light and cheery. Now it was tense and suffocating; every time Mom and Dad were together, the room darkened and the air crackled with electricity like the air before a violent thunderstorm. At various points, Lincoln and each of his sisters - both alone and together - had overheard them fighting. Mom usually started it, but sometimes she'd say something completely innocent, and Dad's attitude would sour, as though anything she said was the wrong thing. Dad stayed later at the office than he ever had before (Lincoln was sure he did it so he didn't have to come home), and Mom sat in the kitchen and drank copious amounts of boxed wine, her tongue loosening until she said all kinds of terrible stuff about Dad. He didn't make enough money, he was lazy and cheap, his...thing...was small, and he didn't "touch her."

Lincoln was eleven, almost twelve, and he knew as much about sex as any boy who watched TV and hung out on the playground. He felt the call of nature himself, and sometimes his penis got hard for no reason. He understood the mechanics of the act and the emotions and biology behind it. But never in a million years did he want to know anything about his parents' sex life.

Yet he did.

Way too much.

One of Mom's biggest complaints was that she and Dad weren't having sex anymore. He was always "too tired" or "not in the mood." Sitting at the kitchen table and swirling a glass of amber liquid, she said He doesn't want me because I'm fat. Then started to cry. She felt like he didn't love her anymore. Lincoln got that. But sometimes, she came across like she was really obsessed with sex.

Was she a whore?

That thought hit him like a fist to the midsection. No one wants to think that of their mother, but sometimes he wondered, and that bothered him so deeply that he couldn't sleep at night. Even worse than that was the dread prospect of his parents getting a divroce. There was a girl in his class whose parents split up: She lived with her mom and visited her dad on weekends. Before it happened, she lived in a big house in a nice neighborhood three towns over. Once her dad left, she and her mom had to move into a smaller house. She left behind her friends, her home, and everything else she knew to live in Royal Woods. If his parents broke up, would that happen to him? Mom and Dad struggled to pay the mortgage already. Neither could do it on their own. Mom would have to downsize, but how? They couldn't live in a smaller house. There was no room. Would they have to move somewhere else? He'd been in Royal Woods his entire life, and the idea of leaving all his friends and starting over somewhere else, in a new school, the odd man out, stoked panic in his chest.

He didn't want his parents to get divorced. He wanted them to be happy and love each other again. He wanted everything to be okay, the way it used to be when they hugged and kissed each other and didn't brood in silence, close in body but apart in spirit.

"It'll be fine," Luna spoke up. She flashed a wan smile that did nothing to convince Lincoln she was right. "They're just going through a rough patch. Most married couples do."

"We should, like, do something nice for them," Leni said.

Without looking up from her phone, Lori said, "No, just leave them alone. They have to work through this on their own. Us getting involved won't help."

As the oldest sibling - "middle management," she called it - Lori's word was law, and no one offered any protest against her declaration. She wasn't perfect (was anyone?), but she was the wisest and most experienced among them, and they begrudgingly accepted that, even if Lynn grumbled about it and Lola rolled her eyes. Lincoln took what she said as gospel, not because he really believed she had special insight into the intricacies of marriage (wise or not, she didn't), but because he desperately wanted to believe that she was right and that Mom and Dad would work it out.

Three blocks later, the older girls broke off and turned right on Schoolhouse Road; in the distance, the glass facade of Royal County High peeked through the trees like it was playing peekaboo. Hiya, Linc. The middle school, where Lynn went and where Lincoln would be going next year (provided his entire life wasn't thrown into disarray) was next door, a low, L-shaped structure with a slat roof and a covered walkway. Now it was just Lincoln, Lucy, Lana, Lola, and Lisa. Lisa scrolled through scientific notes on her phone, and Lana and Lola bickered. From what little Lincoln was able to glean, Lana kept Lola up late watching monster truck videos on her phone again. Lucy, her eyes hidden behind her bangs, walked beside Lincoln, her expression as inscrutable as ever. She could be so happy she was moments from bursting into song, or so sad she was considering a tap dance routine on mid-air, and you'd never know the difference.

"You think Lori's right?" she asked.

Lincoln considered his reply for a long time. He didn't know. He didn't say that, however. It was his job to be strong for his little sisters, the way his big sisters were always strong for him. "Yeah," he finally said. "She is."

He hoped he was right.

But deep down, he was terrified that he wasn't.

On Monday morning, Carol Pingrey rose promptly at six, showered, and then sat on the edge of her bed in nothing but a towel. Crossing her toned legs, and picked a hairbrush up from the nightstand and ran it through her long, blonde hair. At seventeen, Carol was one of the prettiest girls in school and knew it; boys asked her out, carried her books, held doors open, and turned their heads when she passed in the hall. She would have to be blind and dumb not to realize what kind of power she exerted over them. She did not relish it, however. In fact, there were times she hated being the apple of every boy's eye, for none of them interested her. Not the preppy ones or the Post Malone wannbes; not the seniors or the underclassmen; not the fat ones or the skinny ones or...or any of them.

Other girls her age (like her friend Lori) were all about dating, but she wasn't.

Because boys scared her.

Maybe 'scared' wasn't the right word. Boys made her nervous. There, that sounded better.

Guys...well, guys are dogs. They think about one thing and one thing only, and they will do or say whatever it takes to get it. With them, you could never be sure that meant what they said. They could recite the most beautiful poetry and make you believe they were madly in love with you, then they'd forget you existed after you gave yourself to them.

Maybe that sounded cynical, but it was true. Like any girl, Carol wanted to be swept off her feet, but she was afraid of letting that happen and then having her heart broken.

It was best to be careful.

While she knew and believed that wholeheartedly, sometimes she longed for the kind of romance she read about in Danielle Steel paperbacks, yearned for someone to hold her and kiss her and never leave her. There were moments when she was weak and knew in her heart that she would fall for any lie a boy gave her just so long as he promised to stay.

That made her easy prey.

Knowing this, she hardened her resolve not to fall victim to a sweet talking man the way her mother had. Every time someone asked her out, even if they were cute or had a good personality, she turned them down. She didn't trust them, any of them...and she didn't trust herself either.

Done with her hair, Carol got up, stripped the sodden towel from her shapely body, and went to the dresser against the far wall.. Her small but full breasts quivered with the even beat of her heart and her rounded hips rolled with a smooth undulation she was not conscious of. She opened one of the drawers, rummaged around, and took out a brown plaid skirt, along with a pair of white panties. She bent, pulled the underwear on one leg at a time, then the skirt. Topless, she went to the closet, took out a blue button up blouse with white trim, and slipped into it; she didn't bother with a bra because she didn't like how restrictive they were. She buttoned the shirt over her navel and breasts, then tucked it in. She grabbed a pair of socks, sat on the bed, and dragged them on, followed by her shoes.

She checked the clock, saw that it was quarter to seven.

Collecting her books from the nightstand, she went downstairs. The living room was cold and alone, but posh and uber modern, with its black sofa, glass coffee table, modern art adorned walls, and Ikea bookshelves. Her mother was the director of events at the Detroit Opera House and a cultured woman who came from a family that had once been very wealthy. She left before the sun was up and came back long after it had set, later on weekends; there were always gallery showings, cocktail parties, and black tie galas to attend, after all. Carol saw very little of her, and for the most part, she didn't mind. But in those all too common moments of weakness, when she was so alone she could cry, she wished she was around more.

Her father left when she was two and she'd never met him. He was a painter, mother told her, and now worked as a commercial artist in San Francisco. He sent the child support checks each month like clockwork but never called or visited. That didn't upset Carol...until it did.

In the kitchen, she laid her books carefully on the counter, opened the fridge, and fetched a container of Yoplait from the door. She peeled the top off, licked away the accumulated yogurt, and dropped it into the trash. She plucked a spoon from the drawer, stirred, and took a creamy bite. She had exactly ten minutes until she had to leave. That was more than enough time to eat, but even so, she wondered if she shouldn't have skipped breakfast. Running up against the clock like this always made her feel like she was being squeezed in a steely grip. Ignoring the rising pressure in her chest, she hurriedly ate, being extremely careful not to drip any on her shirt. Done, she threw the container away, licked the spoon clean, and sat it in the sink. Normally, she would wash it and put it away, but she didn't have the time. Knowing it was here, cluttering the sink, would niggle the back of her mind for the rest of the day, but she would survive.

She gathered up her books, went into the living room, and peered through the segmented windows flanking the front door. Rain hissed in the street and rushed through the gutters, sweeping leaves and bits of litter into storm drains. Large, tastefully appointed houses on lush parcel lots sat back from the sidewalk, where stately wrought iron lamps mingled with spreading oak trees. A silver Bentley crept past in the direction of town, and the paper boy zoomed by on his bike, a clear plastic poncho pulled over his head. Carol scrunched her lips to the side and rocked thoughtly back on her heels. Should she call a cab?

No, she didn't have the time.

Grabbing an umbrella from the holder, she left the house. During the six block trek to school, rain tap-tap-tapping on canvas in a monotonous pattern, she meticulously planned her afternoon. She had a debate club meeting immediately following the final bell, then she had to go to Lori's house for her daily session with Lincoln. Carol liked Lincoln. He was cute and sweet. He always complimented her hair or her clothes and every year on her birthday, he made her a card. If she were to ever date - which she didn't know if she would - she would want it to be a guy like him,

The Pingrey residence was situated in the fashionable Royal Hills section of town, a vast tract of palatial homes, manicured parks, and high end shops catering to the well-to-do and the moderately upscale. Two streets converged to form a Y, and in its center was a narrow, grassy commons dominated by a piece of modern art on a stone pedestal bearing an iron plaque. It resembled a ball of twisted metal left over from a helicopter crash, and Carol couldn't say she liked it (her tastes in art were more pragmatic, Rockwell and Pollock being her favorites). Every time she passed it, however, it drew her like some magical relic. Standing on the opposite side of the street, she waited for traffic to pass, then hurried across. The flagstone walkway leading up to the pedestal was slick and plastered with the first fallen leaves of autumn like dull embers. Carol avoided them to keep from slipping, and stood before the display with her back straight and her shoulders squared, looking for all the world like a reverend little girl basking in the presence of something holy.

Standing there in the dripping rain, Carol read the inscription even though she knew it by heart. PEACE IN OUR TIME, it said, and below that: ASHTON THOMAS. 2001. Her heartbeat quickened just a little every time she read her father's name. She didn't know why, nor did she know why this tangled clump of metal exerted such power over her, but she had learned to not question some things, and these were two of those. A child asks a million questions in search of knowledge, but an adult realizes that not all inquiries have answers. She was an adult and had been for a long time, despite her age, so even though it was hard, and even though she sometimes bursted with questions of her own, she strove to accept that fact.

She narrowed her eyes in contemplation like a woman squinting to see, and wondered, for the millionth time, what about his sculpture represented peace. How did its creator, her father, look upon it and see harmony, unity, and prosperity? How did his mind take that nebulous concept of peace and spin it into this? She knew precious little about him and gazing at PEACE IN OUR TIME never failed to make her curious about what kind of person he was. She assumed he was very intelligent, very arrogant, or both. Probably both.

It might not be politically correct to say this, but Carol believed you could surmise a lot about a person from the kind of art and media they enjoy. People who like loud, brash artwork are likely to be loud and brash themselves, in spirit if not in body; people who like more conventional styles, the types of styles she liked, are usually more conservative in thought and bearing, but not necessarily politics. On nice days, she could spend hours here, staring at the piece and psychoanalyzing her father, and, yes, maybe yearning for him just a little.

Today was not nice and she had a schedule to keep, so after only a few reflective moments, she turned and walked away.

Rain dripped down the window pane in silvery streaks and a cold wind made the mesh screen snap like a lofty flag on a high pole, Ashen light painted the beige walls a dish water shade of gray. Shadows cast by dancing branches flickered across the plaster like long, boney fingers seeing ingress, and every so often one scraped the glass.

Rita Loud turned her head to the nightstand clock just as the murky red numerals changed from 8:05 to 8:06. She pressed her lips severely together and looked up at the ceiling, where interlaced phantoms made a grotesque latticework of darkness.

After hers and Lynn's fight, she came back upstairs and tried to escape into sleep, but she couldn't, and had been lying here for nearly an hour, alternating between rage and sorrow, wanting to cry one minute and break something the next.

Moments such as this, alone and wrapped in the illusion of tranquility, came few and far between for Rita, and she tried to enjoy it, but the jagged ache of her heart troubled her, like a small pebble in her shoe. She was hurt, she was angry, and to be honest, she was fed up...with what or who, she did not know. Lynn? Herself? Certainly not the children, They were the most precious thing in her world.

She went back to what Lynn said that every time they had sex "a kid pops out." The venom in his voice shocked her and drove the air from her lungs like a punch to the stomach. Instead of tearing into him, she spun on her heels and fled to her sewing room to be alone.

It was obvious that Lynn wasn't happy anymore. When they were first married, he couldn't keep his hands off of her and when he looked at her, she felt like the only woman in the world. Over time, the light in his eyes slowly faded, and his smile fell by degrees until it was a constant grumpy frown that made him look ten years older. Dark energy radiated from him like cold from a block of dry ice, and some days, wouldn't so much as look at her. She tried to deny it, to lie herself into a false sense of security, but she knew, and it hurt her deeply. Their life together wasn't perfect, but no life ever is. They got by financially, but only just, and he worked longer hours than most just to make ends meet. Rita herself was laid off from her job six months ago and hadn't been able to find anything else, which added to the strain. It was like this in the beginning, though, and they were happy even so. Lynn used to touch her then, and to caress her with those adoring eyes that she'd come to miss so. Now, he refused to make love to her or to even kiss her; the most he allowed was a peck on the lips, and though it might have been the newfound insecurity of an overweight middle aged woman, his face seemed to crinkle in disgust each time he did it.

Some nights, as they lay on their separate sides of the bed, an invisible wall between them, Rita ached with gnashing intensity for him to hold her the way he used to, tearfully wished he wasn't so distant and cold.

Was there something wrong with her? She stood naked before the full length mirror on the back of the bedroom door and studied her body with a perturbed frown. Her breasts sagged, her stomach lapped over her waist, and ugly, purplish stretch marks criss crossed her sallow flesh. Her heart twisted with the revelation that she was most decidedly not beautiful the way she had been in youth; she was vaguely aware of changing over the years, as anyone is, but she had never looked at herself full on from a critical perspective. Now that she had, she could almost understand why Lynn didn't want to touch her.

Then again, he wasn't exactly a hunk himself anymore. His stomach was flabby as well, and his chest jiggled. His penis was short and stubby, more than adequate but not what she would call attractive as far as penises go. His legs were bowed, the knees bent slightly inward, and his butt was riddled with cottage cheese like craters. She never complained because love and marriage wasn't about those things, it was about love, fidelity, and partnership. She didn't want a pretty boytoy like one of those aging Hollywood actresses desperately grasping for youth, she wanted a man who would stand tall beside her in life, someone she could cling to for support when she was sick and old, someone to be there for her the way she would be there for him. The decaying state of his body did not bother her, because she was a practical woman, not shallow or superficial.

But he was.

She had shared a bed and a life with that man for twenty years, and had assumed that she knew him. Apparently she did not.

The problem, she told herself, rested entirely with him, but that didn't stop the doubts and self-consciousness. Each glimpse into the mirror repulsed her just a little more than the last until she could scarcely look at herself anymore. She bought lingerie to make herself feel pretty, did her make-up, and tried to entice Lynn, but he was always too tired or had a headache. The physicalities of sex had never been overly important to her, but as weeks dragged into months, passion swelled deep in her loins, bursting against her in sickening waves, her flushed body craving attention and begging for release. There were days when sex was all she could think about, days when the fever burned hotter and her center quivered for Lynn's touch; she would sit at the kitchen table and fantasie about him bending over her, kissing her neck, and putting his fingers in her like he would when they dated. She dreamed of him laying her back on their bed and making slow, sweet love to her, then going faster, getting rougher, until they clutched each other and tumbled over the edge. When she came out of these fuges, her sticky arousal coated her inner thighs, and unless she changed, it would cool just like the love in her marriage.

Naturally, given the circumstances, her temper grew short and so too did her patience with Lynn. His slightest transgressions grated her, and there were times, she was not proud to admit, that just looking at him made her fume. He came home in the evenings, parked his ass in his chair, and didn't get up again until it was time to eat. She made dinner, she helped the kids with their homework, she changed all of Lily's diapers, she did the laundry, the mopping, the dusting, the vacuuming, and Lynn just watched, silently hating her because she wasn't young and pretty anymore. Every time I do, a kid pops out. She ran that jab through her mind a thousand times since he spoke it, and right now, lying under the covers in the washed out light of a rain swept morning, her chest throbbed with anger. It wasn't what he said that infuriated her, it was how he said it. She'd been going over it nonstop, and by now she was convinced that he no longer loved her or their children. That awful realization pressed down on her breast like a million pounds of pressure, and she didn't know whether to be enraged or weep. When Lynn was gone, she would probably do both.

Sitting up, Rita swung her legs over the side of the bed, got to her feet, and used the bathroom. When she was done, she went downstairs.

The living room was a nest of seething shadows. She pulled her silken robe closed over her ample figure and crossed into the kitchen, telling herself she was going to make breakfast but knowing, with a rush of shame, that she was deluding herself. At the pantry, she stood on her tippy toes, reached between two boxes of store brand stuffing, and closed her fingers around a smooth, cool surface. Looking suspiciously left and right to make sure she was unobserved, she took the bottle of wine out, crossed to the counter, and grabbed a white plastic cup with a heart design from the drying rack. She twisted the cap off, poured a measure in, then added more because what the hell. She returned the bottle to its hiding spot, leaned back against the counter, and held the cup up. She turned it slowly in her hand, meditating darkly on the hearts. Hearts represented love, and in her marriage, there was no love.

That made her sad, mad, and claustrophobic all at once. She lifted the cup to her lips, tilted her head back, and gingerly sipped the wine; it was warm and bitter on her tongue, and her forehead pinched. She didn't like the way it tasted, but she didn't care about the flavor, she cared about making it through the day without collapsing under the strain of her failing life. No job, no money of her own, a husband who might very well leave her, eleven children to worry for…

A quick, knife-like pang cut through her middle, and she drained the rest of the wine to drown it. She let out a shivery breath, and after a moment's debate, went back for more.