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I live on the ocean, write women's fiction, love to read so much that it's an addiction rather than a hobby (I read an average of a book a day). I live on the wet west coast so it's a good thing that I like to walk in the rain.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Wrong Sister

This is a story I wrote a very long time ago and haven't read in at least ten years. It's like reading a story written by someone else. It's interesting how much it's like what I write today - and how much different it is. 

In the coolness of the early morning, John McIntyre almost ruined his not-so-bad life. Completely. And for no good reason. It started out as a perfect fall Saturday. No errands to run, no dripping taps or broken vacuum cleaners to fix. Even the lawn had been mowed the day before.

The day stretched out in front of him, waiting to be filled with the things he’d wanted to do all summer. Golf, maybe, or a drive in the country. He sat on the front porch contemplating his options, a steaming mug of fresh ground coffee warming his hands.

Corrie opened the screen door behind him. He cringed at the harsh screech of the metal hinges, another thing he needed to fix, but the house was falling down around him and the screen door was at the very bottom of his mental fix-it list.

“You have to fix that door, Johnnie, it’s driving me crazy.”

She sat down on the top step of the porch and wrapped her arms around her knees. Even after twenty years he couldn’t believe he’d married the wrong sister. But what did he know at seventeen? Corrie’s burgeoning breasts encased in a tight black sweater were all she needed to turn his eyes from Colleen. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Breasts did not equal goodness; John McIntyre could vouch for that.

“Here’s your list,” Corrie said, handing him two pages filled with work to be done around the house. He automatically reached to take it from her. The pages began the transfer from her hand to his but sometime before the transfer was complete, John McIntyre made a big mistake. He curled his hand into a fist and watched the pages fall to the floor. At that moment and for a few seconds after, he could have recovered by apologizing and picking up the pages. He didn’t do it.

Corrie, her temper always just below boiling point, stared at the pages on the floor. The silence stretched out in front of John like a tightrope over a cliff, each step carrying him closer to the precipice. It wouldn’t matter now what he said or did, he didn’t need to imagine the steam as her anger boiled over.

She snatched the pages from the floor, ripped them into tiny pieces, and threw them in his face. She turned on her heel. She grabbed the handle and wrenched the screen door from its hinges. It followed the paper into his face.

John cursed under his breath. He should have expected her to throw something, should have got his hands up in front of his face. Instead, he stood there, his arms at his side, the blood from the cut on his left temple running down his cheek and dripping onto the screen door laying at his feet. He knew what he needed to do but he couldn’t do it.

He pulled one of the cushions from the porch chair, took the flowered cover off, and used it as a bandage for his head, the blood almost invisible against the red hibiscus and flame-coloured tulips. John began to shake, his shirt immediately and magically drenched with sweat. Corrie’s anger always made him feel out of control. This time, though, he refused to follow the prescribed making-up routine. He would not follow her into the bedroom. Their lovemaking had almost always been confined to anger’s aftermath and he suspected Corrie of raising the stakes to increase the passion.

He walked down the steps to the car, each step setting off a tiny earthquake of pain in his head, and sat down in the driver’s seat. It took a few moments to remember that the keys were in the house. John’s misspent youth came to his rescue. He hotwired the car and drove off, going nowhere in particular, only away from the mess he’d made of his life.

The road out of town ran past the house and he took it without thinking, totally focused on getting away and on the pain in his head. He turned left, then right, then left again. The road began to seem familiar through the pain-haze.

Colleen. She lived down this country road. Neither he nor Corrie had seen Colleen since her mother’s funeral – the year after he’d married Corrie. It took John less than six months to acknowledge his mistake in marrying the wrong sister but by that time Corrie was pregnant with the twins. He shrugged his shoulders and vowed to make the best of it. He thinks now he would have been able to do that except for the sight of Colleen at the funeral, her body thin and fragile in black, the hurt look in her eyes at the sight of Corrie’s bursting belly, the heat in the gaze she turned on John when Corrie was in the bathroom throwing up.

He drank too much and talked too much that night. Corrie’s anger stemmed from that day. She made him promise he’d never leave, made him swear it on her belly filled with their children. He promised never to see Colleen and he’d kept that promise.

But he knew where she lived and worked, when she married, late and to a much older man. A father figure was John’s take on it. He knew where her kids went to school, and he thought he’d seen her once, almost five years ago now, in a Safeway parking lot with a baby in her arms. That day he’d been tempted to speak to her but he’d remembered and kept his promise. Now he was going to break it.

He turned onto the gravel road and stopped the car. This was irrevocable. Once he got up to the house and out of the car, he would have chosen. He put his foot on the gas.

An older woman stood on the front porch, a dog at her side. She wore faded baggy jeans and a man’s sweater, two sizes too big. It wasn’t until John stopped the car and got out that he recognized her. His pounding heart slowed to its regular pace, he actually felt his blood pressure drop, the flush fade from his face and his erect penis return to rest. This woman was not the Colleen he remembered. He wanted to get back in the car and drive away before it was too late but he hesitated one second too long.

“John? Is Corrie okay?”

He nodded, setting off fresh waves of pain. He sat down on the porch steps.

“That bitch,” Colleen said. “I’m not surprised she’s injured you. She’ll kill you one of these days, you know. She’s stark raving mad. We fought all the time as kids – once I had to leave her tied up in the closet for two days before she’d agree to stop hitting me.”

It was then John knew. Breasts or not, he’d made the right decision and yet here he was, about to make the biggest mistake of his life. He stood up, shook off Colleen’s offers of assistance, coffee, sex, and carefully made his way back to the car.

The road home seemed endless but he forced himself to obey the speed limit and stop at every stop sign. He needed to get home in one piece.

He released the breath he’d been holding since he left Colleen’s when he turned onto his street and saw Corrie’s car in the driveway. He pulled in behind her car and hurried up the stairs into the house. The main floor slumbered silent and cool in the dim light of the fall morning. He was in time.

He ran up to the second floor, pushed open the door of their bedroom. Corrie lay across the bed, tears staining her sleeping face, her arms wrapped around his pillow. John smiled. She slept like a child, limbs loose and sprawled all over the bed.

John dropped his clothes in a pile on the floor and pulled the quilt from the foot of the bed. He touched Corrie’s shoulder to shift her over, tugged the pillow from her arms, and curled around her, the quilt over both of them, their hearts beating in perfect time.


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