Friday, October 24, 2014


"Hey, what's really bothering you?" Bekka asked, looping her arm through Stacy's.
"Huh? No--" Stacy blinked and realized they had walked three whole blocks while her mind was lost in her painful memories.
"You have been alone way too much. Come on home for dinner with us, okay? Kat's having dinner with her folks, so it's just Rene and me. She made all this incredible food because Hannah and Xander were supposed to come over, but Hannah's new niece decided to make an early entrance so they're all camping at the hospital. Shane has a class, so he's not coming over at all. You gotta come." She tugged harder on Stacy's arm, as if she would pull her across the tree lawn and into the street.
"Bully." Stacy managed a credible laugh.
Bekka was right, she decided a moment later. She was alone too much. She skipped too many Singles group activities at church and took more opportunities to put in extra time at work, so she didn't have to go home to her empty house until she was so tired she ate a bowl of soup and went right to bed.
The cure for loneliness, her grandmother had always said, was to find people who were lonely and be their friend. If she felt sorry for herself, she had to find people with worse troubles, and help them.
        Stacy resolved to find more places to volunteer and get involved, and get out of her silent, too-big house. After she spent a fun evening with friends she didn't know nearly as well as she would like.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Stacy looked down the street, blinking away sudden tears as she pretended to check for traffic that was practically non-existent at this time of the day. It was a one-way street and all traffic turned out of the parking lot headed in the other direction. She remembered clearly those silly summer evenings spent scouring different home goods stores with Dinah, looking for the perfect dehydrator for her to take to Virginia with her when she moved for her nursing job. They had made plans for Stacy to come visit in the summer, when BWU shut down for a few weeks between terms. They had made plans for Dinah to come home in the winter and visit the Metroparks toboggan chutes. They had emailed regularly at least once a week for the first three months. Then it was every ten days, then twice a month. Then Drake introduced Dinah to Troy and Stacy had understood completely when her good friend had practically no time for her.
Then Harmony and Susan had cornered her at Heinke's, by the salad bar, and made sure she knew all the sordid details of Gretchen's new PR job which had resulted in her meeting up with Dinah and renewing their friendship. They had a message from Gretchen specifically for Stacy -- a bit of advice: stop pestering Dinah with her pitiful emails. They didn't even make her laugh anymore, although Gretchen found them rather amusing, especially where Stacy asked if she wanted her to send some of her grandmother's lemon mince bars for Christmas, since Dinah couldn't come home for the holidays that year.
That little detail had told Stacy all she needed to know. Dinah and Gretchen were close enough that Dinah let Gretchen read her emails.

Gretchen finally had what she wanted -- she was Dinah Ashcroft's best friend, and Stacy Belmont had finally been discarded, once and for all. It wasn't like it had been in elementary and middle school, when Dinah would drift away for a week or two and then come running back, apologetic over letting Gretchen and her crowd tempt her away. There was more to life than makeup and gossip magazines and boy bands, after all. This time, the change was permanent.

Monday, October 20, 2014


          "Stace?" Bekka Sanderson's voice came as a welcome relief and distraction when Stacy approached the massive arched sandstone entrance of the administration building at quitting time that evening.
Mr. Ashcroft chatted with several men at the landing midway between the first and second floors. His voice was distinctive, especially that rumbling, infectious laughter that hadn't been heard nearly enough since he fell ill last fall. Despite him being busy, Stacy just knew he would see her as she passed by the base of the stairs on her way to the door. There was no other way out of her part of the administration building. The last thing she wanted was for him to call her name -- she would have to stop and wait for him, and then he would link his arm through hers and make her walk out to the car and get in and come home with him, assuming that she was free and planning on coming to a nice, cozy family dinner.
The sad thing was, she was definitely free, but nothing in the world could be more painful than to walk in the door of the Ashcroft house as if nothing had changed. As if she hadn't been ignored by Dinah for the last two years, since she moved to Virginia and Retchin' Gretchen latched onto her to become best buddies. Finally. As if she hadn't lost sight of Drake. As if she hadn't been forgotten like worn out linens since her grandmother died. It was easy to see she had only been included in the Ashcroft family because of her grandmother, and not because they actually wanted her and loved her as if she were one of their own.
"Hey, you okay?" Bekka said, catching hold of Stacy's arm. She glanced up the stairs, where the four men were still chatting, their voices echoing up the massive vaulted entryway to the fourth floor and back down.
           "Huh? Oh -- sorry. Spaced out." Stacy tried to laugh. "Too much time staring at my monitor, I guess. You spend too long untangling coding, you start thinking and seeing codes. What's up?" She stepped out into the entryway, putting Bekka between her and the stairs.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


"What's wrong?" his mother said, coming in with the third and last tray, full of coffee and punch cups. She tipped her head at the bowl of stroganoff, still steaming from a visit to the microwave. By this time, Drake had settled down at the counter on a stool with his food. But he wasn't eating. "You didn't catch something on that drive home, did you?" She immediately stepped up to him and pressed her cool, smooth hand against his forehead.
"I'm fine, Mom." Drake caught hold of her hand when she would have withdrawn it. "Just a lot of memories. I keep wishing Mrs. B was here."
"Oh, so do I. She'd be so delighted with Dinah and Troy. I miss not being able to share the whole celebration with her." His mother settled down on the other stool. "But it's more than missing her funeral, isn't it?"
"There was a present on the back step when I came in. From Stacy."
"Stacy? Now why would she leave it by the back door? And why didn't she come in with it? As far as I know, she still has a key to the house." His mother's frown deepened and she sat back, withdrawing her hand.
"How come Stacy wasn't here, in the middle of things with Dinah?"
"I don't -- I don't know." She shook her head. "It's been such a whirlwind since Dinah got home, I guess I didn't even think about it. I guess I just assumed that she had to work today. And your sister didn't say anything."
"What, Mom?" Drake didn't like that deeper wrinkle in between his mother's eyebrows, that frown and flicker of sadness, maybe even hurt in her crystalline gray eyes, which he had inherited.
"She didn't RSVP for Friday. I expected her to stop by and tell us, but she hasn't called or returned the card from the invitation."
Muffled giggles startled Drake, and he looked up to see Gretchen and another girl who was vaguely familiar, standing in the swinging door from the kitchen.
"You know how that Belmont girl always used to be, when we were kids. So disorganized. She probably lost the invitation or she threw away the RSVP. She probably doesn't even know what RSVP means," Gretchen said. She punctuated that with a toss of her platinum curls as she stepped into the kitchen.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


"Should have said something," Stacy muttered as she checked the coding for the new page in the alumni section of the BWU web site. "Why should I suffer just because Dinah finally gave in and let Retchin' Gretchen brainwash her?"
She smiled at her faint reflection in the monitor, remembering how she and Dinah and Drake had laughed at that nickname. They must have been about twelve, which meant Drake was seventeen. Gretchen had decided that summer that boys weren't disgusting, and when she grew up, her destiny was to marry Drake. She had also decided that she was fat, so she had to start losing weight. Somehow, she got hold of syrup of ipecac and took a dose every time she ate something. The ice cream truck had been a twice-daily fixture on the street that summer, and there were always snacks at summer school and Vacation Bible School and the old youth center, so Gretchen seemed to be always eating. And always puking a short time later. At least, those were Stacy's memories of that summer.
She flinched at the sound of that smooth baritone voice. The Ashcrofts, especially Drake, had been on her mind too much lately -- ever since she heard Mr. Ashcroft tell the chancellor that Drake was coming home for Dinah's wedding reception.
"Stacy, what are you doing here?" Devon Ashcroft stepped around to the side of her desk.
"Hi, Mr. A." Stacy hoped her face only felt hot and didn't look neon red.
"Sweetheart, I thought you'd be over at the house, helping with Dinah's mess." He leaned against her desk, giving her that adorable, slightly fuzzy, warm grin she had loved since she first stepped into the Ashcrofts' home with her grandmother.
"Nope. Gotta work. The Dean wants the new alumni offerings functional by the end of the month." She gestured at her monitor.
"You know, I haven't seen you at all since Dinah got home. Used to be, you girls were thicker than thieves. Drake is due home today -- you'll be there for the family dinner, right? Catch up with Drake and Dinah, and finally meet Troy."
           Stacy thought up a silent, desperate prayer for help. There was no way she wanted to admit to dear, slightly befuddled Mr. Ashcroft that she hadn't talked to Dinah, hadn't seen her except from a distance, hadn't even gotten a text message or voicemail, since his daughter returned to town a week ago.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


 Stacy Belmont's feet were damp and cold for the first two hours of work. Part of that could be blamed on the age of the administration building at BWU -- well past a century, and still relying on steam heat. Those marble floors were gloriously cool in the summer and fought the humidity, but in the winter they made for slippery walking and chilly rooms. Part of her discomfort could be blamed on the fact that she cut through the Ashcrofts' backyard after dropping off her present for Dinah.
It was ridiculous, she knew, to have put the present down and fled. Mrs. Ashcroft would have welcomed her, and she missed seeing the woman, who had been like a mother to her. With Mr. Ashcroft ill over the holidays and Dinah living and working in Norfolk, there had been few holiday celebrations, and she hadn't felt like celebrating or seeing much of anyone, this being the first Christmas without her grandmother. Stacy knew Mrs. Ashcroft would have pulled her into the house and insisted on feeding her.
But she would have either apologized for Dinah not including her in the wedding party, or she would have insisted that Stacy take the day off work and join the crew anyway. Stacy couldn't stand that. She had gone to too many parties in her childhood where she learned after arriving that she had either been invited at the last minute, or had been included on the list as a pity invitation -- the token motherless child, or whichever other detail in her life was uppermost in the mind of the high society matron throwing the party. By the time she was ten, she had learned to discern which birthday girl or slumber party hostess really wanted her there, and which one only invited her because her mother made her do it -- or didn't even know Stacy was on the list. By that time, she had come home with enough headaches and upset stomachs that her grandmother let her refuse the invitations and stay home. Dinah's parties had been the only ones Stacy always went to, because she knew without a doubt Dinah wanted her there.
           But Dinah didn't want her there now.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


 Logic said that if Stacy left the box on the back step, then she wasn't in the group laughing and talking and working in the living room. But that didn't make any sense. Stacy and Dinah were like sisters. They had promised each other since childhood they would be each other's maid of honor.
After thinking a few more moments, Drake tucked the box under his arm, gathered up his briefcase and suitcase, and sidled out of the swinging door from the kitchen. His mother stood in the arched doorway between the dining room and living room -- if he knew her, she did it intentionally, to let him escape sight unseen. He walked slowly, quietly, heading for the wide staircase in the center of the house, and crept upstairs. He stopped on the second floor and left the present in his mother's office, which, as he had suspected, overflowed with wrapped wedding presents. Then he continued up to his domain on the fourth floor. He dropped his briefcase in his office, where bookcases were crammed with volumes and mementoes of childhood triumphs and adventures -- pictures, models, trophies. Then he carried his suitcase into the old-fashioned bathroom with the long soaking tub, and peeled out of his clothes before he thought to close the bathroom door. Usually he wouldn't worry about someone coming up into his domain uninvited. After all, Dinah and his mother were busy hosting the festivities downstairs, and Stacy was the only other person who had free access to anywhere in the house. Despite that, she would still knock before entering. She was just that kind of person.
But Stacy wasn't here, and Gretchen was.

            Drake mused over that while he filled the tub with hot water and some of those herbal bath salts that Dinah had given him for Christmas -- which he had accidentally left behind -- guaranteed to ease bruises and stiff muscles and sinus problems. The green, tangy scent couldn't ease the growing sense that something was very wrong.