Read Twilight Child Online

Authors: Warren Adler

Tags: #Fiction, General, Psychological, Legal

Twilight Child

BOOKS BY WARREN ADLER

Banquet Before Dawn

Blood Ties

Cult

Death of a Washington Madame

Empty Treasures

Flanagan's Dolls

Funny Boys

Madeline's Miracles

Mourning Glory

Natural Enemies

Private Lies

Random Hearts

Residue

The Casanova Embrace

The Children of the Roses

The David Embrace

The Henderson Equation

The Housewife Blues

The War of the Roses

The Womanizer

Trans-Siberian Express

Twilight Child

Undertow

We Are Holding the President
Hostage

SHORT STORIES

Jackson Hole, Uneasy Eden

Never Too Late For Love

New York Echoes

New York Echoes 2

The Sunset Gang

MYSTERIES

American Sextet

American Quartet

Immaculate Deception

Senator Love

The Ties That Bind

The Witch of Watergate

Copyright ©
1985
by Warren Adler.

ISBN
978-1-59006-104-6

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced
in any form without permission. This novel is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, incidents are either the product
of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Inquiries: WarrenAdler.com

STONEHOUSE PRESS

For my grandparents
Se niente va bene, chiama nonno e nonna.

1

 FRANCES
watched him as he stood in the patch of garden in the sweltering
night, squinting into the grate on which the steaks sizzled, intense and
absorbed in his task. In the air conditioned cool of the den, she sipped the
martini he had mixed with scrupulous care. It was strange and bitter to her
taste. Music spilled softly from the speakers. Mozart, he had said. She
whispered the name and continued to watch him.

 He wore a
blue blazer, light gray flannels, and a floppy polka dot bow tie, which, in
Dundalk, would have certainly seemed eccentric. But in the environment of this
townhouse in Columbia, it was, she supposed, perfectly appropriate.

 The candles
he had lit in the den cast a flickering orange glow on the books, some
helter-skelter, some standing like soldiers, in the paneled bookcases. On the
walls were paintings, real paintings, not just prints. Mostly, they were splotches
of deep colors in strange shapes. Abstract art, he had called them, expressing
the hope that she loved them. She did not give him cause to think otherwise. It
was all very wonderful and mysterious and she felt transported into an
environment totally different from any she had ever known.

 She had, in a
way, expected this first formal date to be exactly as it was turning out. No,
there were no disappointments. In her life, that was most unusual.

 “I know it's
confusing.”

 Those were
his very first words to her, soft and considerate, yet unmistakably
authoritative. It was, after all, his department and she was hired merely as a
temporary to check input forms for some computer program, of which she
understood little. He did not know, of course, that she was mortified by her
failure. Nor could he see the symptoms of her agitation, the sudden tightness
in her stomach, the tremors in her knee joints, the dryness in the roof of her
mouth.

 Patiently,
like some kindly teacher, he had re-explained the process, and by the time he
looked up at her, showing dark brown eyes with yellow flecks, her symptoms had
disappeared.

 “I'm terribly
sorry,” she had whispered. She hadn't expected the apology to be as abject as
it must have sounded. Apparently, though, it struck a chord of sympathy in him,
and later in the day he had stopped by her desk, looking over her shoulder
until she felt the symptoms begin again.

 “Now you got
it,” he had told her. This time, the receding symptoms left anger in their
wake. He is treating me like a child, she thought defensively. The way she
sometimes treated Tray, her five-year-old, when he did something right after
repeated failures.

 “Thank you,”
she had replied, wondering if he caught the tinge of sarcasm. It frightened her
to think so, and she turned to look up at him and flash him a quick smile. In
that instant, she sensed that he had, in some strange way, photographed her
with his mind. It was so unexpected and illogical and ill-timed that she tried
to force herself to deny it. But that didn't stop her from thinking about it,
and soon she simply dismissed it as a mirage.

 This is
ridiculous, she had told herself the next day as she hunched over the forms,
feeling his gaze at her back destroying her concentration. And when she got up
to drop her batch of finished forms in the collection tray, the gaze continued
to follow her. To test her imagination, she turned swiftly, only to confirm her
instinct. Through the glass partitions of his office, he was, indeed, watching
her, too absorbed to discover his embarrassment. When he did, he grew
flustered, blushed scarlet, and his hand inadvertently brushed against a
half-filled coffee mug, which sent its contents onto his lap. He knew, of
course, that she had seen the mishap, and now it was her turn to be
embarrassed.

 She must have
been to him some kind of a curiosity, she decided. Certainly he was not looking
at me as a woman, she assured herself, although vanity dictated that she take
stock of herself, which she did immediately in the mirror of the ladies room.
That morning she had allowed herself a light dab of lipstick and only the
faintest touch of mascara, wondering if even that little makeup was appropriate
to her recent widowhood.

 Charlie,
Chuck's father, still wore a scrap of black crepe on his shirt. It was as if he
had dedicated his whole being to memorializing his son. Of course, she did
understand his pain, the lonely agony of his and Molly's loss. Chuck had been,
after all, their only child, the entire product of their long marriage. It gave
her guilt feelings to assess her own grief and find it wanting. At times she
wondered if Charlie wore his scrap of black crepe solely to remind her of her
widowhood. It was, she knew, an unworthy thought. By then, she was having lots
of those. Particularly disturbing was the eerie sense of freedom that Chuck's
death had given her. Grass widowhood had actually been more lonely than the
real thing was. Now there was no more apprehension, no more anxiety, no more
waiting. Chuck was never coming home, ever again.

 Her scrutiny
of herself had proved that she was reasonably neat. She had ironed her skirt
and blouse the night before. There were no tears in her panty hose. Her
chestnut hair, washed, set and brushed that morning was, well, in the flattering
light, nice. Her skin, if one ignored the little milky way of freckles over the
bridge of her nose and cheeks, was clear. As always, she ignored the circles
under her eyes, a genetic gift from her mother, destined to deepen and darken,
as her mother's had done as despair over her father's loss and declining health
slowly destroyed the woman's life.

 Her image in
the mirror had been oddly reassuring, marking what was, in retrospect, a new
chapter in her life. At the time, it was impossible to acknowledge such a fact.
It was too soon. Even now, watching Peter squint into the smoke, it was still,
chronologically at least, too soon. Or was it?

 She had
squirreled away the memory of their first full-length conversation. Most of her
responses had been evasions. Had she been too frightened, too conscious of her
own vulnerability? He had materialized beside her in the company cafeteria. She
had sidled off by herself, deliberately eschewing the company of her
co-temporaries. Later she would question that contention, since she had
observed him in line behind her and it had set her wondering why he was not in
the executive dining room where he belonged.

 “Do you
mind?” he had asked, putting his tray down beside hers.

 “Of course
not, Mr. Graham.” What else could she have said? She was, after all, not
exactly annoyed. Surely curious. But she refused to give herself permission to
feel flattered. She did remember, however, that she had posed to herself the
inevitable question, “Why me?”

 “Peter,” he
had said. “My name is Peter.”

 After an
awkward silence, she had said, “This seems like a very nice place to work.” It
seemed an embarrassingly trite response, and she had had to pause to ride out a
difficult moment.“ . . . Peter.”

 “Yes, it is.
I am happy here,” Peter said tentatively. But the message he conveyed was very
clear. Happy here? He was clearly advertising a condition of his life outside
of the office and scrutinizing her for a reaction. When he observed nothing
definitive, he looked down at his tray and cut his beef patty with a fork. “Do
you live around here?” he asked, obviously seeking a new tack.

 “About forty
minutes away,” she said. She wasn't sure if she was being clumsy, guarded, or
merely afraid to tell him Dundalk, as if it would define her as being beneath
him, a thought that brought an immediate sense of belligerence. “Dundalk,” she
said, slightly snappish. She felt better after getting it out.

 He shrugged.

 “I've never
been there. I live in Columbia. Just ten minutes from the office.” He looked up
at her, but when she returned his gaze, he withdrew his own. “I've got a
townhouse. Not bad for a bachelor. I'm divorced.”

 There was no
mistaking the approach, of course. She wasn't that naive, she told herself. She
also couldn't yet quite conceive herself to be available, even for this type of
conversation. Besides, she had forgotten how to participate in the ritual. No,
she had never really known. With Chuck the evolution was natural, the
contrivances nonexistent.

 She had been
working as a receptionist in a daytime radio station with its studios and
towers on the edge of a marsh north of Baltimore. Chuck's job was to climb and
check the structure of the three directional towers that sent out the station's
signal. From the window beside her desk, she would, with her heart in her
throat, watch him climb, a romantic and courageous figure in cowboy boots and
tight jeans, golden hair flowing in the breeze.

 It was always
a relief to see him descend and move gracefully toward the little building that
housed the studios. While he waited to give his report to the engineer, they
would drift into conversation which, in time, turned into what she supposed
people termed courtship. Then came marriage, motherhood, estrangement, and
widowhood.

 In her mind
the chronology of events became blurred, leaving her with only the terrible
memory of perpetual loneliness and the never-ending search within herself for
blame. So not everything natural was automatically good, she had told herself
later when the comparisons between Chuck and Peter rose more sharply in her
mind.

 But, in that
first conversation, Peter had persisted.

 “They say
it's supposed to be easy for men. I can tell you, it's not. Even though I
wasn't married very long.” He drew in a deep sigh and offered a smile. To
foreclose on his asking the inevitable question, she interjected her own.

 “Any kids?”

 “No, thank
goodness.”

 “You don't
like kids?”

 “Oh, I like
kids, all right. I mean it's lucky we didn't have any. No. I do like kids. She
didn't, you see.”

 “I have a
five-year-old,” she had replied.

 “That's
terrific,” he had said, but she had noted the considerable damper her seeming
unavailability put on his initial enthusiasm. He actually flushed, and she
noted that he pushed his tray a trifle forward, as if he had suddenly lost his
appetite. She debated telling him of her marital status, but by the time she
made her decision, he had looked at his watch as if he had just remembered an
important meeting, gotten up, muttered a good-bye, and gone off. She wasn't
certain whether to be insulted or relieved.

 Assessing her
reactions later, she had wondered why she did feel even a smidgen of
righteousness. She was, after all, a very recent widow and very conscious of
propriety. How could she not be? With Charlie still in deep mourning and Molly
breaking into an occasional lip tremble and Frances herself trying to look
appropriately grieved, although it was difficult to maintain the pose, since
she wasn't feeling it. It was, in fact, awful to live with the feeling of
liberation that Chuck's death had given her. Yet it was only a partial
liberation, since she continued to search for reasons her marriage failed.
Death could not erase her own failure. If she only knew where it lay. What were
her marital sins of omission and commission? Was she destined to repeat her
mistakes and relive her disappointments? On the plus side, at least she had
been left with a fine, beautiful, healthy child and some semblance of family.

 It took her a
week to tell Peter the truth about her status. Not that he wasn't friendly
after their conversation in the cafeteria, but it was in a purely office sense.
He had continued to watch her. There was no mistaking that. Actually, she
watched him as well, and not without some womanly reaction. It was a fact that
was troublesome to admit to herself, especially at night, lying on her back
looking at the endless expanse of shadowless ceiling. She took her mind off it
by listening for Tray's breathing, waiting for his heart-stopping little sighs.

 “A widow? Are
you really?” he had said, a reaction that did not hide his elation. “You're so
young.”

 “I don't feel
so young.” Somehow, twenty-five did not seem very young. Considering what she
had already been through, orphaned and widowed, that quarter of a century
seemed like eons. But she had hastened to put her widowhood in its accurate
time frame. “Less than two months ago. He fell off an oil rig in Saudi Arabia.”

 “How
terrible,” he had replied.

 What she had
wanted to say was that it had been terrible for him to have been there in the
first place, terrible for him to have felt this need of both adventure and
distance, terrible for Tray to have been left fatherless. For her, the tragedy
had been her inability to engage his permanent interest. True husbands and
fathers did not volunteer to go off to die in faraway places. Not without wars
or compelling and unavoidable reasons. It was odd, but the idea of his death
filled her more with anger than with remorse.

 Frances and
Peter had begun to take their lunches together every day, and although she did
feel that others in the office were taking notice, she chose to ignore their
occasional odd glances and chance remarks. There was, indeed, no doubt about
his interest in her.

 “How does
your boy take it?” he had asked. His probes were, she observed, very careful,
as if he were frightened of offending her. It's all right, she wanted to say.
But she had her own fears to contend with. After all, he was her boss, even
though she was temporary. And he was vastly more educated, a computer engineer,
an executive in a big company, a man of means and substance. Her life had been
so . . . so inconsequential compared to his. Was the mysterious
power of attraction able to bridge that gap? She had no trouble thinking up
questions to nag at her.

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