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Orangeberry Book of the Day - January Exposure by Sunny Benson

SUNDAY

With a twinkle of deadly silver and a whoosh of stale air, I stabbed my way from law-abiding to law-abreaking. The injured parties, two tires of the mammoth EZ-Move truck parked in my sister Tandy’s driveway, melted across the concrete into a rubbery puddle. I zippered the pocketknife safely back inside my ski jacket, brushed the snow off my jeans, and rubbed my throbbing temples. I didn’t relish sabotage, but hobbling the truck was unavoidable and now irreversible. Unless Tandy’s husband, Rick, strapped on a pair of snowshoes and backpacked the truck out, I’d completed phase one of my plan. Tandy would be livid.

My stomach churned like a snowplow as my boots crunched over the ice toward the house. I clutched the iron railing, maneuvered up the slippery steps, and jabbed the doorbell. Rick opened the door, his brawny upper body crammed into a puffy pink ladies’ jacket. Sweat dampened his wavy brown hair and darkened the matching pink scarf slung around his neck.

“Ellie, it’s six in the morning. Why are you here?” he asked, wariness nudging recognition from his gaze.

“I came to help you move.”

Rick smiled in disbelief. “Seriously?”

“Yeah right. Are you okay? What’s happening?”

Averting his eyes from mine, he shrugged, ripping the shoulder seams of the pink jacket to expose wisps of white stuffing.

I stepped forward and challenged the comfortable distance between us. “An emergency? A calamity? A lobotomy?”

“My life and my decisions are none of your business. Go home.”

“When your life and your decisions involve my sister, it is my business. Besides, Tandy called and invited me over.”

Rick crossed his arms and widened his stance. I considered trying to shove past him, but he stood over six feet tall, and at five-one I didn’t stand a chance. Lucky for me, growing up a small, hockey-playing tomboy, I enjoyed being outsized, outmatched, and underestimated. I leaned forward and scrutinized the triangular gap between his legs. I was small and quick, but could I wiggle through without being Venus flytrapped?

Realizing maneuvering around him and muscling through him weren’t viable options, I resorted to immaturity and brandished my cell phone like a spray bottle of Roundup. “My mom is number one on speed dial. My grandpa Craven is number two.”

With a sarcastic sweep of his arm, Rick ushered me inside, silent as he retreated into the living room. Unease replaced my frustration as I eyed the barren, echoing front hall. I pocketed the cell phone, peeled off my ice-encrusted gloves, and hollered for Tandy. After hearing Tandy’s faint reply that she’d be downstairs soon, I slouched against the wall to wait.

All that remained of the entryway furnishings Tandy collected over the years were the framed pictures on the walls. To the left, the stairwell stretched up to the second floor, still plastered with familiar photos of the Anderson family in happier times: grinning in front of North Dakota’s famous albino buffalo, four-wheeling past fields of sunflowers at my grandma and grandpa Johansson’s farm, hiking though the striated rock formations of the Badlands, and ice fishing in parkas and snow pants on Big Cormorant Lake. To the right, in stark contrast to the cheery family photos, the lonely living room held only a china cabinet, several cardboard boxes, and Rick, who seized antique gold-and-cream china from the cabinet and stacked it in one of the boxes.

I fingered the pocketknife through my jacket. “Where are you taking that china?”

Rick continued packing.

“That was my great-grandma Craven’s china. It’s a Craven family heirloom.”

Rick secured the last piece of china into the box.

“My parents gave Tandy that china before she married you.”

Rick taped the bulging box shut, strapped it to a dolly, and pretended I didn’t exist as he rolled the dolly past me. Although Rick and I possessed little in common, we usually went out of our way to be cordial to each other for Tandy’s sake. Apparently the seriousness of the situation warranted forgoing our unspoken pact.

“Jackass,” I said and made an unladylike hand gesture at him as he exited the house.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” my sister said from the second floor. My eyes focused on the debacle shambling down the steps, and my fingers zipped up to my temples and rubbed. Transformed from her usual lovely grace into a lovely disaster, Tandy sported Rick’s oversize attire: a navy ski jacket over a man’s dress shirt, a neon-green pair of boxer briefs, argyle socks pulled up over her knees, and a pair of men’s Italian shoes. A blue winter scarf restrained a tangle of frizzy blonde hair, and her drippy nose shone scarlet. When she reached me, she threw her arms around my neck and sobbed into my shoulder.

“What the hell is going on? Did you find out why Rick is moving out?” I asked.

Pulling away, Tandy sniffled and made a tisk-tisk sound. “Watch the foul language.”

“Excuse me, but it’s a foul situation. Why in the h-e-double hockey sticks are you wearing Rick’s boxer shorts?”

“Because they’re his favorite boxer shorts. They’re quite expensive.”

“I’m confused.”

“I thought maybe he wouldn’t leave without his ski jacket and favorite clothes. But he’s leaving. Oh Lord, he’s leaving me, and I don’t even know why.”

Unable to find the right words of solace, I squeezed her hand.

“Thank goodness Carmen slept at a friend’s last night,” she said, using Rick’s jacket sleeve to dab her teary cheeks. “How can Rick abandon us? And how dare he pack up and steal eight years of her happy childhood memories?”

My neurons fired faster with fury as I visualized my small, sturdy niece, Carmen, and her shining cap of mahogany hair, huge brown eyes, and insatiable enthusiasm.

“How did he pack so much in such a short time?” I asked Tandy.

“I asked him the same question when I woke to an empty house this morning. Apparently, his strategy included forgoing sleep and downing energy drinks. Plus last night he paid three high school boys to help him with the bulky things, like couches and tables.”

Rick banged back into the house, pushing the dolly.

I blocked his path. “You two spent nine relatively happy married years together. Please spare Tandy a few measly minutes and explain your behavior.”

“What’s to explain?” Rick asked, fidgeting with a dolly strap and avoiding our questioning stares. “You’re both smart women. My actions are perfectly apparent. I’m moving out and taking my furniture purchased with my money.”

“Apparent actions, yes,” I said. “Apparent motivation, need for speed, and destination, no. Start with destination.”

“Obviously I’m staying in Fargo,” Rick said. “I’d never leave my princess behind.”

Tandy’s face brightened with hope.

“I’m referring to Carmen,” Rick said, wincing a little when Tandy’s expression collapsed back into melancholy. “Look, Tandy, this conversation is unproductive and needlessly painful. I have boxes to fill and a schedule to keep.” He attempted to maneuver the dolly around me.

Exasperated, I waggled my phone at him and mouthed mother. He glowered at me, but halted and released the dolly.

Tandy dashed to Rick’s side and clamped her hand on his bicep. “Don’t be upset. Please talk to me.” Her eyes brightened with panic as her malfunctioning brain whirred out outlandish explanations. “You can’t be leaving. There has to be another reason. You aren’t surprising us with a new house?”

Rick’s mouth turned down and he kicked at the floor with his boot. “Tandy, please. I’m not surprising you with a new house.”

“It’s been terribly cold and cloudy lately,” she said. “You aren’t suffering from cabin fever?”

Rick twisted his eyes shut and massaged the bridge of his nose. “I’m not suffering from cabin fever.”

The corners of Tandy’s mouth seesawed down and back up. Her eyes twinkled with forced merriment. “You aren’t an undercover operative for the CIA? Your cover hasn’t been blown, forcing you to flee to the Yukon to protect Carmen and me, has it?”

Rick scuffled with a weary smile. “I’m not in the CIA. I’m moving to an apartment, for now, and I’m taking some of the furniture with me. You get the house, I get the furniture. Seems fair to me.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Tandy said. “Yesterday you talked about hiring someone to retile the master bath. Yesterday you brought home a new television for the family room. Today I wake up and there’s a moving truck packed full of our furniture in the driveway. You’re only thirty-one, too young for a midlife crisis. It doesn’t make sense.”

Tendons burst through Rick’s neck, and he wrenched his arm out of Tandy’s grasp. “I’ll tell you what doesn’t make sense. Not doing anything to change my crappy mediocre life. I refuse to be like my father, working my bones to the marrow for chump change. When he died, he had nothing to show for a lifetime of hard labor. He was just an uneducated, blue-collar hick farming leased land with next to nothing in his bank account.”

“You’re nothing like your father,” Tandy said. “You have a great job with the railroad, a white-collar job.”

“But I’m stuck in middle management and trapped in a middle-class life. Middle. I’m better than middle.”

Anger kindled in Tandy’s eyes. “So you’re escaping your middle-class life by escaping from me? You think I trap you, hold you back? I enable your success. I care for our daughter. I cook. I clean. I do laundry. I pay bills. It’s my job to enable you to do yours.” Her shoulders slumped, and her head bowed. “It’s fine if you want to change jobs. But please, don’t leave. I love you.”

Rick’s eyes watered and reddened. “It’s too late.”

Tandy threw her arms around him. “Too late for what? Tell me.”

Rick shook his head, squared his shoulders, and wiped his eyes. “Let go.”

“Too late for what?”

Rick’s eyelid started ticking. “Tandy, I said let go.”

Tandy released him and shrank back to where I stood. Not knowing how to help her, I took her hand and squeezed.

“You don’t have the inner drive required to understand what I want or need,” Rick said. He pressed his lips together and finally met Tandy’s watery, pleading eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you, but obviously you need some closure. Fine, cruel to be kind it is. The reality is you are a morally uptight priss obsessed with PTA meetings, church events, and gardening. You’d never make the necessary sacrifices to help me succeed in life. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish packing.”

Tandy’s eyes stalked Rick as he careened into the living room with the dolly. “What sacrifices?” she asked me. “I don’t understand him. When we married nine years ago, he loved me. I know he did. I haven’t changed much. I’ve always loved church and gardening. When did I become so unlovable? Did I grow cellulite or get too many wrinkles? Should I invest in plastic surgery?”

A needle of irritation pricked the compassion I felt for my sister, because she was gorgeous. If she needed plastic surgery, my only hope was having my brain transplanted into a supermodel. “You’re only thirty-one,” I said. “Besides, what would a surgeon change? Your huge violet eyes and high cheekbones? And a lot of women would cheerfully kill their dietitians for a body like yours.”

“Maybe I’m skinny, but my bosom could be bigger. I should get implants.”

I shrugged and glanced down at my chest. Tandy’s bosom could be smaller too.

“I like my life with Rick,” Tandy said. “We have a beautiful home, a wonderful daughter, and great friends. Until today, I thought we were happy.”

Compelled into comforting mode by Tandy’s bewildered expression, I put my arm around her and patted her shoulder. “You did nothing wrong.” I said. “Any man would be lucky to have you as his wife.” I tugged at the hem of the green boxer shorts dangling from Tandy’s hips. “You must be chilly. Why don’t you change back into your own clothes? I’m afraid Rick’s leaving, with or without his favorite pair of boxers.”

After Tandy changed into her own jeans and a cashmere sweater set, we moved to the kitchen. Only the white cabinets, stove, and fridge remained. With nothing to sit on, we leaned against the wall where the kitchen table used to be.

Tandy wiped her eyes, patted her golden hair, and reverted to her usual good-hostess form. “Would you care for a pop?”

“Sure, thanks.”

I cracked the can open and took a long, bubbly drink. Tandy wrapped a pink SUPER MOM apron around her slim waist, rummaged in the cupboard under the sink, and pulled out a bucket and a rag. She filled the bucket with a mixture of water and lemon Mr. Clean and scrubbed at the linoleum.

“Cleaning?” I asked. “You should be scheming. You need a plan.”

Tandy took a deep breath and blew the air back out. “Cleaning is calming. I should vacuum. Vacuuming is way better than meditation.” She arched an eyebrow at me. “Not that you would know.”

I shrugged and didn’t disagree. My pale, emaciated vacuum hadn’t been fed in over a month.

Tandy dropped the rag. “My turn to ask you something. Why haven’t you ordered me to kung fu Rick’s behind? Not that I would do it.”

“Now there’s the start of a scheme. Incapacitate him and move the furniture back in the house. Mighty Rick doesn’t stand a chance against The Kung Fu Queen.”

After reading an article on spiritual enlightenment in a fashion magazine a few years ago, Tandy signed up for feng shui, meditation, and kung fu lessons. At the time, everyone in my family believed she’d scaled new heights of flakiness, but she surprised us. She stuck with the kung fu and could kick some serious butt. She relished competing, and I often went to cheer and marvel at the personality change she underwent every time she stepped on the mat. Tandy, who classified shut up a swearword, turned calculating and ruthless, landing kicks and jabs with punishing precision. The first time I saw her compete, she reduced her opponent to a quivering lump, and I dubbed her The Kung Fu Queen.

“I don’t have any answers regarding what to do about Rick,” I said. “But on one front you can relax. Furniture-wise, I took care of the problem.”

“Do you realize he packed great-grandma Craven’s china?”

“Trust me, I’ve already done some scheming of my own. The china’s safe. By the way, does he plan to take the heavy china cabinet?”

“I have no idea.”

“Tell Rick it’s his.”

“What did you do?” Tandy nibbled on her lower lip. “You didn’t plant a bomb in it, did you?”

“I’m not that crazy.”

“You are a chemist. The question’s not totally far-fetched.”

I kneaded my temples. “I don’t use TNT or nitroglycerin for testing water quality. Just tell Rick to take the china cabinet. Tell him to take everything.”

“This day can’t possibly get any more bizarre.” Tandy threw up her hands. “What the heck. Why not? I’ll do it.”

Thirty minutes later, Tandy and I stood in the living room and watched Rick close and lock the truck’s rear door, climb in the cab, lean out the window, and wave up the driveway at the house.

“He’s waving like he’s headed downtown for a quick cup of coffee and will be back in ten minutes. What a jerk,” I said.

Tandy opened her mouth to defend him, sighed, and snapped it shut.

Rick started the engine. Growling and groaning, the truck shuddered and swayed and barely budged. After a few minutes of griping, the engine fell silent. I hurried to the entryway and opened the front door. Tandy trailed after me with her brow creased. Rick checked the front tires and ran up the driveway to the rear of the truck. Shouting something, he threw his arms up, punched the side of the truck, and lost his balance on the slippery driveway. He toppled back and flailed his limbs like an overturned beetle.

I couldn’t stifle a snicker. “Isn’t that sweet. He’s making a snow angel.”

“What did you do? Plug the tailpipe with a banana?” Tandy asked. “That’s not so bad. All you have to do is take the banana out, right? Then the truck will work?”

“I did something a bit more permanent.” I showed her the pocketknife and bared the largest blade. “I’ll reimburse EZ-Move for the damages of course. Those truck tires are probably mighty expensive, but it’s worth it.” I closed the knife and zipped it back in my pocket.

Tandy’s lips whitened, and her cheeks reddened. “Darn it, Ellie, you should have asked me first.”

“You would have said no.”

“And you went ahead and did it anyway?”

“Only because I love you.”

“Only because you’re a science nerd know-it-all who thinks I can’t handle my own life.”

“Hey, you called me.”

Rick banged through the front door, tears of frustration brightening his eyes. “The back tires are flat.”

“Gee, that’s too bad, Rick.” I said, feeling the first niggle of doubt creep through me at the sight of his tears. Was Rick about to lose it? What if Rick suspected me? Until then, I hadn’t considered the possibility of backlash. I’d never experienced a truly angry Rick. Over the years he habitually restrained any unpleasant emotions behind a stronghold of slick social grace. My heart rapped an irregular rhythm against my ribs.

“EZ-Move better come out and change the tires,” Rick said. “I sure as hell am not unpacking all that stuff.” He pushed past us and entered the kitchen.

“Oh boy, I’m glad he doesn’t suspect me,” I said. I peered down the hall and into the kitchen. Maybe he wasn’t calling EZ-Move. Had Rick packed the utensils? Maybe he was selecting the sharpest knife from the kitchen to slice my throat like I’d sliced the tires. “Has Rick ever done anything violent?” I asked Tandy.

“Don’t be silly. He never even yells.” Tandy raised her eyebrows. “I do believe you are perspiring, Ellie. Getting a guilty conscience, are we?”

“More like worried about getting caught,” I said.

We edged closer to the kitchen to eavesdrop. I peeked inside, verifying Rick wasn’t sharpening a meat cleaver, and my heart rate returned to normal.

“What do you mean you can’t come until tomorrow?” Rick said into the phone. “You get someone over here pronto. Let me speak with a supervisor.” After a few minutes of arguing with the supervisor, he admitted defeat. “Fine. Tomorrow morning at eight sharp.” He whacked the phone against its cradle several times.

Tandy and I skittered to the living room and sat on the floor.

Seeking an innocuous topic, like most North Dakotans, my mind gravitated toward the weather. “Nice day we’ve been having,” I said. “What is it, ten below today?”

“Only five below,” Tandy said. “But maybe ten below counting windchill. Pretty balmy for January.”

Rick stormed in, his eyes rabid and spittle glistening on his chin. Tandy and I climbed to our feet and backed away.

“I have to unpack the entire truck,” he said. “Those EZ-Move guys refuse to send a tow truck and a replacement truck until tomorrow. Unpacking will take hours, and I have an appointment.” Rick tossed the keys to Tandy. “Aw, forget it. Give these to those idiots when they show up, and tell them to transfer the furniture to the new truck. I’m out of here.” Rick disappeared down the hall, the garage door opener hummed, and his BMW purred away.

Tandy stood and pressed her hand to her forehead. “I can’t believe my husband left me. I’m an unemployed single mother with no job skills and a huge mortgage. I’m doomed.”

I shrugged. “Doesn’t Rick have a death and dismemberment policy with a huge payoff through the railroad? Maybe you should off the bastard.”

Tandy started cackling, her violet eyes radiating crazy. I realized Rick wasn’t the only one who was in danger of losing it.

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Genre – Mystery

Rating – PG13

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