I sat in front of Darren Prescott’s house for fifteen minutes before he noticed my car parked in his driveway. Snow blew down from the January sky, and though it wasn’t yet dark, Prescott flipped on the porch light before stepping outside.
“Shit,” I muttered, resisting the urge to duck low in the seat. Instead, I opened the car door and climbed out, pulling my coat tighter around me. I’d left school that afternoon determined to come here, and I wouldn’t lose my nerve now. My head ached, and as I inhaled a deep breath, the air felt like tiny needles burrowing into my sinuses.
Prescott lived on a gravel road, with acres of woodland surrounding his log cabin. I walked toward the porch, and he put his hands on his hips, eyes narrowed. “You’re Heidi’s girl,” he said. “Bronwyn, right?”
I slowed my pace, alarmed that he instantly recognized me and was able to rattle off my name. Had Mom brought him to our house when Dad and I weren’t there? Had this man studied my pictures hanging on the walls?
“That’s right,” I said.
I feared he would order me off his property, threaten to call the cops, but he only smiled and stroked his beard. “You’re not here to make trouble, are you?”
“I just want to talk.” I paused on the sidewalk. “Are you expecting my mom to show up this evening?” Her shift at the bank would be ending soon.
As we looked each other over, I tried to understand what my mother found so irresistible about him. His receding hairline exposed a prominent forehead, and his dark curls were streaked with gray. He wasn’t as tall as my dad, but beneath his jeans and sweatshirt, I could see that his frame was more muscular. “Not this evening,” he said. His stare drifted over my shoulder and searched the yard. “You alone?”
I jutted out my chin. “Yes. Are you?”
Prescott laughed. “I am.” He leaned against the porch railing. “I guess I should invite you in.”
“That would be the polite thing to do.”
He gestured me inside, and I walked past him into the warm entryway. “We’ll talk in the kitchen,” he said. I followed him down the hall and noticed that his house was sparsely furnished, without a trace of clutter. Not the way I imagined a bachelor living. I sat at the kitchen table and shrugged out of my coat. “Can I get you something to drink?” he asked.
I started to say no, but then I remembered how my mouth grew dry when I was nervous. “Just water, please.”
He poured a glass of water from a pitcher in the fridge. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to have something a little stronger.”
“It’s your house.” I brushed my hair from my face and waited as Prescott poured some scotch over ice. He carried both glasses to the table and sat across from me. I wondered if he always drank this early in the evening, or if my presence made him break out the booze. Maybe he’d decided to stay home because of the weather. He ran a construction company, so I figured he set his own hours.
He sipped his drink and leaned forward. “Now what can I do for you, Bronwyn?”
I looked around the kitchen and guessed at the number of times Mom sat here with him. Maybe they had screwed on this very table. The thought made my face and neck flush. “I’m here to ask a favor of you.”
He took another drink. “And what would that be?”
I pretended we were conducting a business transaction, and I sat up straighter in the chair. “I want you to stop seeing my mother.”
Prescott let out a heavy sigh, and I caught the odor of liquor on his breath. “I figured as much.” He studied the glass in his hands. “It’s not like we planned this. Last fall, I opened an account at her bank. Every week, I saw her sitting behind that counter. She always smiled, but her eyes were so fucking sad.” He shook his head. “One day I couldn’t stop myself from asking her just what it would take to make her happy.” His eyes and mouth softened, and I didn’t know if it was from the scotch or the memory. “Here’s what you’ve got to understand, Bronwyn. Heidi’s the kind of woman a man wants to make happy.”
I wished I could cover my ears, but I was like a rubberneck at an accident scene, unable to resist hearing the gory details of their relationship.
“She looked shocked at first,” he went on. “Then she leaned close so the people around us couldn’t hear, and she said that meeting me for a drink later would make her happy.”
I thought of my dad, a pharmacist at the local drugstore. What was he doing the day Mom offered to have a drink with Prescott? I imagined him filling prescriptions, unaware that his life was about to implode.
“Did you not notice the ring on her finger?” I asked. My hands clenched into fists under the table.
“Oh, I noticed,” he said. “Do I strike you as the type of man who would care about a thing like that?”
It took every ounce of self-control not to lunge at him. “The story of how you started fucking my mom is very touching, but your actions are hurting other people.”
A few nights ago, my parents had another fight over Mom’s affair. They thought I was in my room doing homework, but I sat on the stairs, out of sight, and peered around the corner into the living room.
“Why can’t you leave him the hell alone?” Dad paced before the sofa where Mom sat. He looked like a small boy on the edge of a tantrum. “Think about what you’re doing to me—to our daughter.”
“I’ve tried to break it off.” Mom rocked back and forth. “I know I’m a horrible person, but I can’t stay away from him, Matthew.” She began to sob. “I just want to die. I hate myself.”
I mashed my fists against my lips, silently pleading with Dad not to give in. I’d seen Mom’s dramatics before. If Dad didn’t agree to her every whim, she raved and accused him of trying to control her life. If he still didn’t relent, she locked herself in the spare bedroom, leaving only to go to work. She refused to eat meals with us, giving Dad the silent treatment until she wore him down.
“Don’t say things like that,” Dad told her. He sat next to Mom and rubbed her back. “You know how much Bronwyn and I love you.”
“I told you twenty years ago I was never meant to be a wife and mother. But you just had to have the house and kid and minivan, didn’t you, Matthew?”
A sharp cramp stabbed through my abdomen, and my bowels felt like they were turning to liquid. Dad flinched and moved away from her. “You seemed happy enough until you met him. I’m willing to go to counseling to work on the marriage, Heidi.”
“I’m not blabbing to a shrink about our problems.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I love you, and I’m willing to stay with you, but I’m not leaving him.”
My fingers dug into the carpet on the stair, and I waited for Dad to tell her he wanted a divorce. I figured Mom would get the house, because Mom always got what she wanted, but Dad and I could move into an apartment, and I’d take care of him until I left for college next year. I’d fix his meals and keep him company in the evenings when he got home from work.
Dad stared at the floor, his shoulders sagging. “I’m not giving you an ultimatum. Just think about what I said.”
Yesterday evening, Mom was late for dinner again, and I found my father in the kitchen heating up leftover meatloaf.
“You know she’s with him right now.” I took three plates from the cabinet and slammed the door shut. “Why don’t you divorce her? Stand up to her for once in your life.”
Dad peered into the oven. “You don’t understand, Bronwyn. You’re too young.”
“I understand that people are talking about us.” Dad turned to me, and I flinched at the pain in his face. “She hasn’t exactly been discreet about this, you know.”
My best friend Laura and I never discussed the rumors about Mom, but what we didn’t say lingered in the air between us, reeking like a bag of rotting garbage. Laura no longer came over to my house. And earlier yesterday, Scott Aldridge, a stocky football player, pressed up against me in the school corridor. “Can I get some of what your mom’s been giving to Darren Prescott?” he whispered.
“I’m sorry, Bronwyn,” Dad said. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you—”
“Stop apologizing and do something about it! We don’t need her.”
Dad pointed a finger at me. “I need her. She’s my wife, and I’d rather have her this way than not at all.” He drew himself up to his full height and briefly closed his eyes. “This conversation is over.”
Mom glided through the front door as I was setting the dining room table. The cloying perfume she wore made my eyes water. Did she really think bathing in the stuff would hide that she’d been with Prescott?
The three of us ate in silence. I slathered ketchup on the dry meatloaf to make it edible. Mom hid behind her curtain of red hair, so I couldn’t see her face. Dad focused only on the food before him, lifting his fork with a trembling hand.
Mom raised her head and caught me glaring at her. “Don’t you dare look at me that way.” She threw down her fork and grabbed my wrist. “You have no right to judge me.”
My shock turned to rage. “Let go of me!” With my free hand, I tried to pry her fingers from my skin, but they didn’t budge. We grappled for several seconds before I managed to loosen one finger and wrench it backward. Mom screamed and released me.
“You little bitch!” She cradled her injured finger and blinked back tears.
Dad stood up so fast he overturned his chair. “Stop it.” His booming voice made me freeze. “For God’s sake, both of you just stop it.” He started to say something else but then covered his eyes with his hand. “I can’t take much more of this.”
His words repeated in an endless loop in my head as I sat through classes this morning. Terror washed over me like ice water as I imagined coming home from school and finding his body. The man was a fucking pharmacist—it would be all too easy for him to take his own life.
I realized I had only one option, and that was visiting Prescott.
“She’s making a fool of my dad and herself,” I said to him now. “I know you don’t love her. I’ve driven by your house plenty of times, and there’s always a different car parked outside.” Prescott started to speak, and I raised a hand. “If you have any decency at all, you’ll break it off with her. This is killing my father.”
He leaned back, out of the overhead light and deeper in the shadows. His face looked thoughtful. “Years ago,” he said, “I was driving home from work. It was October, near dark. A buck ran out in front of my car. He was huge, a ten-pointer. I couldn’t avoid hitting him. Tore my car all to shit, but the buck didn’t die right away. The impact broke his back, and he dragged himself along with his front legs, trying to get out of the road and into the woods.”
I felt sweat beading on my forehead. “What happened to him?”
“I called the game warden, and he came out and shot him. But that’s not the point, Bronwyn.” Prescott splayed his fingers on the tabletop. “The point is, your mom is like that buck. With you and your dad, she’s just dragging herself along, barely alive. You’re a smart girl—you realize she’s going to self-destruct eventually. But I’m giving her a reason to live now.”
Despite the warm room, my teeth chattered. I clamped my lips shut, afraid he would see, but then I bit the side of my tongue hard enough to draw blood. I cried out and cupped a hand to my mouth. As Prescott stared, I reached for the glass of water and took several gulps. When I set it back down, the remaining liquid was tinged pink.
“If that’s true,” I said, “then the kindest thing you can do is end it. Put her out of her misery.”
Prescott raised his eyebrows. “This is your mother you’re talking about. The woman who gave birth to you, nursed you when you were sick and looked after you all these years.”
I smiled. “You really don’t know her at all, do you?”
“If I do what you’re asking of me, if I end things with her, I can’t be responsible for what happens. That’s all on you.”
“I understand.” My voice was even.
Prescott tilted his head, looking at me with something like begrudging respect. “It’s obvious you’re Heidi’s daughter. Both of you are determined to get what you want, no matter how high the cost.”
I stood and pulled my coat on. “I hope you don’t forget that, Mr. Prescott.”
We didn’t speak as he escorted me to the door and followed me outside. It was dark now, and an inch of new snow coated the ground.
“You drive safe,” he said.
I turned to him. “Are you finally taking an interest in my well-being?”
With the porch light behind him, his eyes looked black. “I don’t need any more blood on my hands.”
I lifted my open palms. “Remember what you said before. It’s all on me.”
Prescott watched as I scooped a handful of fresh snow from the porch. I opened my mouth and packed it against my wounded tongue, wincing at the cold. Even after I walked to my car and got inside, he remained on the porch. I started the engine and flashed the headlights twice. His face was grim, a stark contrast to how he appeared when we first met. I felt a low tingle of satisfaction when I realized I’d brought about this change in him.
On the way home, I drove well below the speed limit as I scanned the roadside for any sign of deer.