Strangers by Meowser Clancy
Melinda is dismayed to realize that as the years progressed, Jim feels more like a stranger. Their fight about Aiden devolved into sleeping in different rooms, and truly, things haven't been the same since Sam. Can they find their way back to each other? Takes place after season five ends.
"I didn't have it in myself to go with grace" -Taylor Swift
Melinda stared into space. There hadn't been a customer in three hours and she was beginning to consider just closing early. They were in the slow season; early November. Right after Halloween, but too early for christmas shoppers. She probably should just close up. Aiden was at Faith's this weekend; she and Jim had never told his mother that he'd been able to return, they just weren't able to, but Faith did know that Aiden was Jim's biological son.
Melinda couldn't give Faith her son back, but she could let her spend time with her grandson. Holidays were awkward with Sam, and Faith didn't visit Grandview anymore except to pick Aiden up.
Thankfully, Aiden knew enough about weird ghost habits that he never questioned that Jim was never to be called that around Faith. Melinda trusted implicitly that he would never give that secret away.
She finally walked to the shop door, flipping the sign to closed. She could stop by the market and pick up some fresh vegetables; a bottle of wine. Try to cook dinner for her and...Jim.
Was he even off tonight? Had he even told her his schedule? If he had, she couldn't remember. She pursed her lips. They didn't really talk anymore, not since their fight over Aiden. Even after they'd realized that taking his gift away was not the answer, Melinda hadn't healed from his comments. She didn't know if it was possible.
Jim seemed to sense that she wasn't feeling it, and she wasn't sure of the reason, but for the first time in their marriage, he wasn't pushing her for more. Wasn't trying to go deeper. He was backing off. He'd started sleeping in the other bedroom a few weeks ago when he'd had the night shift. "I don't want to wake you up," he'd excused it, which was bullshit. Early in their marriage her favorite part was when he'd wake her up. When their schedules were first meshing, that was sometimes the only time they got to spend together. That had been why pillow talk and bedtime was so special for them.
And now here they were. "I don't want to wake you up." Even beyond that, his two week stint of only night shifts was over, but he hadn't moved back to the bedroom.
She didn't know what to think, so she'd avoided thinking about it. Now, however, she had to. Somehow she hadn't considered that she'd be alone in the house with him when she'd said yes to Faith's last minute request.
She got in her jeep, driving to the market. She walked through the aisles in a haze, leaving with wine and an already prepared dinner. She didn't know if she'd feel like cooking after all. On that note, she grabbed a pint of ice cream too, and left for home.
Jim's truck wasn't in the driveway when she got home. She breathed easy, turned the oven on, and when it dinged she slid in her lasagna. That was a good sixty minutes to wait, so she poured a glass of wine and headed upstairs to fill the bathtub.
Jim hadn't been using the master bath lately, even. He'd been using Aiden's bathroom, what had been the guest bathroom.
She wondered how he'd explained it to Aiden. Probably that he didn't want to wake mommy up.
She took a bitter sip of wine, unable to enjoy it as the tub filled. She slid her work clothes off, and climbed into the tub, clutching her knees to her chest and considering her life.
Was this where she'd imagined herself ten years ago when she'd married Jim? Alone in a bathtub, one kid, sleeping in separate beds?
Was there even anything left to fix?
She breathed out, and looked up. To her surprise, she locked eyes with her husband. He stood in the doorway, seeming almost as surprised to see her, on hand on his cuff. He was in dress clothes, so no surgery today.
"Hey," she said, forcing herself not to cover herself. He was her husband, even if they didn't act like it anymore. She had nothing to hide.
"I didn't expect to see you home," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"I had the slowest afternoon so I closed up early," she said. "Aiden is with your mom."
"Right," he said. "Well, I didn't mean to interrupt. I saw your lasagna in the oven."
"Yeah, I know it's not as good as homemade but I didn't know your schedule today," she rambled.
"Of course," he said, waving his hands. "I'll probably just make myself a salad then, get out of your way."
You aren't in my way. The words hung in the air. Melinda leaned back in the tub, forcing a smile.
"Okay then," he said, and backed away from the door.
She wondered what he'd thought, upon seeing her there. Was seeing her naked such a shock?
She felt a tear on her face, which surprised her. She'd grown so good at compartmentalizing, just shoving everything down. She didn't let herself feel anything anymore when it came to Jim.
He wasn't the man who had defeated death itself to come back to her anymore. Maybe it was the Sam in him. Maybe their marriage had just come to an inevitable stalemate.
Maybe it was time to admit defeat. They weren't special. She wasn't a princess. This was a modern fairytale, with no happy ending.
She didn't even know if she wanted him anymore. He wasn't the man she'd married. Did she want to love a new man?
They were just strangers, really. Right now, that's all they were. Sleeping in different beds, pretending to kiss when Aiden was around, carefully coordinating their schedules and life to make sure that they were never alone anymore. Separating.
They had been separating for months now, and she'd refused to recognize it.
She stepped from the tub, wine gone, water cold, toweled off before slipping into an oversized shirt. It was Jim's, she realized dully, from early in their marriage. She considered changing, not wanting to send any accidental signals, but she was too weary to care, and walked downstairs.
Jim was in the kitchen, sipping at a beer. He was still in his work clothes, and his cell phone was next to him on the counter. Face down.
She wondered if he'd found another woman. He was still an attractive man. It wasn't ridiculous.
She checked the timer, but her lasagna had some time to go, so she poured herself another glass of wine without looking at her husband once.
"You doing good?" He said casually, so blandly it pierced her armor for one striking second. That was never a question they had ever had to ask each other before. Never. They'd always been so close, and now it was like he was a distant, unwanted acquaintance who'd appeared in her kitchen uninvited.
He was supposed to be her husband. Right now he felt like anything but that. "Can't complain," she said, just as casual, taking a long sip of wine to keep her hand steady.
She wanted to be angry. She wanted to yell at him. She wanted to take this opportunity to finally tell him how much he'd hurt her. That everything he had said the night they fought was fucking bullshit. That she'd spent as many nights alone in this damn house in their damn bed as he had. She wanted to say that he hadn't said no.
He hadn't told her no when she'd challenged him, asked if he wanted a normal wife. He'd said it wasn't fair. He'd said he loved her and Aiden, but that didn't mean anything. Not anymore.
"You're off early too," she suggested, having no idea if this was early for him anymore.
"Habit," he said. "It's Friday night."
As if she needed a reminder. "The house is so quiet without Aiden," she said, inwardly wincing at the words. They'd come to this. They were officially the parents who could only talk about their kid. As soon as they were empty nesters, Jim would probably move out. So that gave her twelve more years of this silence.
She didn't know if she could handle that.
"Do you work early tomorrow?" She asked. "It's Delia's turn to work Saturday."
She carefully avoided his gaze. She wasn't even sure why she'd asked. Did she want to know? Did she want to spend time with him?
"No," he said simply. "I got the weekend off. The schedule was before my mom asked to take Aiden and it was too late to change it. I considered picking up something, but really, how often do I get a weekend." He shrugged. "So I took it."
"We're keeping the shop closed Sunday," Melinda said, her grip like a vise on her glass of wine. "We got almost no foot traffic last week so I figured I'd give us both the day off. It'll start picking back up closer to the holidays, though. It always does."
"Huh," he said.
Was she sharing or inviting?
"So we both have the weekend off."
In previous years this would have been call for celebration. This would have been hailed and planned out to the last second. They would have driven out of town to some small bed and breakfast. They would have tried to find a cabin or something. They would have at least planned on spending the weekend in bed.
There would have been a plan, at any rate. And now, it was Friday night, and this was the first time either realized, or was told.
She had no words in that moment. The timer for her lasagna dinged, and she walked to the oven blindly, setting her glass down to slide on a hot pad. She opened the oven door, waited for the steam to waft out before grabbing the small pan, and placing it on the stove top, pressing the oven's off button. She slid the mitt from the hand, and turned around, knowing she'd have to wait on the lasagna.
A gasp escaped from her throat, and her arms went up instinctively in front of her.
Jim was there. Right there. Closer than he had been in months. She stared up at her husband, seeing only Jim's face, no trace of Sam. He saw her too, looked at her, really looked at her. At the way her arms had jumped up to protect herself.
His hands touched her hands. His hands pressed til hers lowered, falling to her sides. His hands gripped her shoulders. Her lips parted, and she stared up at him, eyes luminous.
She wanted this. She had repressed it, deep inside her, but it had been eating away at her, and there was no way to deny it here and now. She wanted her husband to kiss her.
His thumbs traced circles on her shoulders. His lips started to move. She waited for his head to bend, for their lips to meet. Her eyes drifted close.
"What happened to us?" He said, dropping his hands at his sides. "Are we really so old and boring?"
There was a joking tone to his voice. "Or is it just me?" He said. "You look the same as ever, I must be the old one."
"Uh huh," she said, in a strangled voice. That was all it had been. He was looking at her. Hadn't wanted to kiss her. Of course not.
"We used to have a plan for a weekend alone, but I guess it's doomed to happen to all married couples," he said, grabbing another beer from the fridge. "We are officially lame."
"Yeah," she said, unable to say anything else. She knew her lasagna was behind her, still cooling, and her wine glass was waiting for a refill, but she knew if she was in the same room as him she would cry.
Fuck. She was going to cry regardless.
She just didn't want him to see.
She left the room, tears blinding her eyes. Jim called something about the lasagna. She managed to call back that she was just going upstairs for a second.
She made it to Aiden's room, her heart aching because her son was away this weekend. Her son who loved her. Her son who would have hugged her in this moment, in the way his dad had once.
She walked to his closet, stepped inside, sank down to the floor, and started to cry.