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    Two women sit at a deserted bar Contest Winner 
 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: October 29, 2016      Views: 154

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Mom of three, grandma of one, literary enthusiast.

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This work has reached the exceptional level
Two women become bound together in their love for a child.
"The Meeting" by pit viper

Michelle entered the darkened bar, which was deserted at mid-day. She nodded to the bartender, a dour-looking older man with a drooping mustache, who was slicing limes behind the bar. 

"What can I get you, young lady?" he asked.

"Just a... maybe a Sprite?" Michelle replied. She wasn't much of a drinker in the best of circumstances, and certainly not on her noon lunch break from work.

She glanced around again, wondering if Kristen had been delayed, or if she had arrived early and left, or if this whole thing- Kristen's terse phone call the night before, the instructions to meet her- had merely been a trick, yet another in a long line of Kristen's petty attempts to get to her, to drive a wedge between her and Paul.

She paid the bartender, took her drink, and sat at a booth near the window. She vowed to stay ten minutes and no longer. If Kristen didn't show up by then, too bad. And if Kristen didn't show up, Michelle decided, she would tell Paul about the phone call, even though she'd promised Kristen she wouldn't. Married people shouldn't keep secrets from each other, especially when the secret involved the husband's ex-wife. She owed Paul full disclosure. She owed his ex-wife nothing, especially after all the trouble she'd caused. Sitting here now, she couldn't fathom why she'd kept Kristen's request to meet a secret, except that Kristen had sounded so different on the phone last night- concilatory, almost contrite- and Michelle had hoped that this meeting could mark the beginning of a new era; an era where the three of them behaved like adults and worked together for the best interests of Paul and Kristen's four-year-old son, Andy.

Michelle had been Andy's nanny from the time he was six weeks old. She was not proud of the fact that she'd almost immediately become hopelessly, secretly infatuated with her young charge's father, even as she fell head over heels in love with Andy himself. Although she had never had a child, Michelle was certain she could not love the little boy more if he had come out of her own body. As time went on, and it became clear that her employers' marriage was irreparably broken, Michelle lavished more and more affection on the child, hoping to shield him from his parents' coldness and hostility toward one another. Then came the weekend, when Andy was only two years old, that Kristen decided to fly, alone, to her high school reunion in Florida. Michelle agreed to stay at the house and care for Andy while Paul worked overtime at the law firm where he was hoping to make partner. Paul arrived home shortly after she'd gotten Andy into bed, already tipsy off several glasses of bourbon. He went immediately to the kitchen and poured himself another. He asked Michelle to join him. 

That was the pivotal moment- the moment her entire life could've gone one way or the other. She knew she ought to say no. She ought to leave, now that Andy's father had arrived home. But she did not. She joined him on the living room sofa, and she listened as he poured out his frustrations with his wife and his marriage, and one thing led to another. A month later, he and Kristen were separated. Six months after that, they were divorced, and Paul and Michelle married at his parents' home later that same year. Now, she was something she never thought she'd be: a stepmother. A stepmother to a little boy she'd loved almost from the day he was born.

Andy still called her "Nanny", which was his name for her from the time he was first learning to talk. She didn't mind, even though it sometimes raised embarrassing questions from strangers. He couldn't call her "Mommy"- Kristen was his Mommy- and she didn't want him to call her Michelle. The worst part about the entire divorce was that, although she had gained the man of her dreams, she had lost the child she had come to love as her own. Now she only saw Andy every other weekend, and Wednesday nights for three hours. It was very hard, almost not worth it. Yet she and Andy had maintained their bond. It was she who had been there for his first words, his first steps, his first tooth. She who had nursed him through Strep Throat, Roseola, and a handful of other common childhood illnesses. She who knew the names of all his stuffed animals, she who knew what he was afraid of in the dark, and developed elaborate rituals and incantations to keep the monsters in his closet at bay. She could not love him more, and many nights she cried herself to sleep, wondering if she'd made a devil's bargain: she'd finally found the true love she'd longed for, only to have the child she loved as her own ripped away from her. She and Paul had half-heartedly discussed having a child of their own, but they'd had no luck so far, and Michelle's doctor had recently informed her that because of her Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, it would be difficult if not impossible for her to conceive without medical intervention. She hardly cared. She was positive she could never love another child the way she loved Andy.

Gazing out the window, lost in thought, Michelle did not hear the door of the Ladies' Room swing open, and did not notice Kristen until the other woman slid into the booth across from her. 

"Sorry, I was in the bathroom." Kristen said, by way of greeting. "I wasn't feeling well."

Michelle looked at her former employer- Andy's mother, Paul's ex-wife- and had to hide her shock at how unwell Kristen looked. She had been a beautiful woman when she first hired Michelle to be her son's nanny; formidably, intimidatingly beautiful. She made Michelle feel overweight and plain by comparison, even though she was a good twenty years younger than Kristen. Over the course of the divorce and her marriage to Paul, she had seen that Kristen could be an ugly, vindictive woman- she had, on the night before their wedding, phoned Michelle's parents and informed them falsely that Paul was an abuser; she had also, in the time Michelle and Paul had been married, criticized every aspect of their care of Andy. Like clockwork, every time he returned home from a visit to them, there would be an accusatory phone call: how did he get this bruise, that scratch? Where was the jacket she sent him with, why hadn't it been returned? Why hadn't he been allowed a second helping of ice cream after dinner? Any little thing she could find to nitpick at them, to imply that they weren't good parents. But now, looking at her nemesis, Michelle felt overwhelmed with concern. 

Kristen had always been slender, even weeks after giving birth to Andy, but now she looked emaciated, and far older than her 43 years. Her ash-blonde hair, always perfectly coiffed in a sleek bob, appeared to be falling out; Michelle could see parts of her scalp through it. But the main difference was in Kristen's eyes; those sharp, piercing gray eyes that had so intimidated Michelle when she first entered Kristen's employ- eyes that perpetually seemed to be judging and finding failure in everything around her- now those eyes looked dull and tired. Softer. Red-rimmed and swollen, as if Kristen had recently been crying.

"That's okay. I haven't been here long." Michelle replied pleasantly, fiddling with the straw in her drink and hoping her nervousness didn't show. What had she been thinking, agreeing to this meeting without telling Paul? What was Kristen up to now? Was this some sort of cruel trick, some attempt to harm their marriage or take their visitation rights with Andy away entirely? 

"Look, I'm not feeling well at all, and sitting here across from you is making me feel worse, so forgive me if I skip the pleasantries and get right to the point." Kristen said, with a trace of her old imperiousness. 

"Please do, " Michelle replied, attempting to rally her confidence. Don't be a doormat. Don't let her walk all over you, she told herself. "I need to get back to work soon anyway."

With the amount of money the judge had awarded Kristen in child support, Michelle had been forced to take a full-time secretarial job at a local elementary school, just so that she and Paul could keep the house and make ends meet.  

"I know." Kristen replied. "I chose this place specifically because it's right down the block from your work. Plus, I need a drink. Excuse me a moment."

Kristen stood and approached the bar, and Michelle noticed that Kristen's former brisk, confident gait had also changed- she seemed slumped inward somehow, and she walked slowly, as if she were protecting some injury, touching the backs of chairs for support as she went. Michelle glanced at her watch, then stared out the window at passersby on the sidewalk, trying to will her nervousness away. What could Kristen be so upset about? And why had she called and asked to meet with Michelle alone, without Paul's knowledge? They'd had Andy over the previous weekend. Could Kristen be preparing to level some new, more serious allegation of mistreatment or neglect? Would Michelle lose even the small amount of time she had with her sweet little boy? Tears stung her eyes at the thought, and she swiped them away. She could not afford to show weakness at a time like this.

Kristen returned, set a glass of some clear liquid on the table, and eased herself cautiously into her seat, wincing as if her back or hips hurt.

"Are you alright?" Michelle asked, in spite of herself.

"Am I alright." Kristen repeated, leveling her clear gray gaze at Michelle. "Well, yes and no."

Michelle took a sip of her drink- she was suddenly very thirsty- and waited for Kristen to go on.

"I guess you know- I suppose Paul has told you by now- that I survived breast cancer once, in my early thirties." Kristen said finally.

This was not at all what Michelle had been expecting- based on her previous experience with Kristen, she had feared the worst: some outrageous allegation of child abuse against Paul, and a threat to go back to court and rescind his visitation rights- and she hardly knew how to respond. Of course Paul had told her, over a year ago, about his ex-wife's cancer scare. They had caught it early, and she hadn't even needed a mastectomy. He had been proud of the fact that when Kristen became pregnant eight years later, she had been able to breastfeed Andy, at least for the first month before she returned to work. Michelle considered lying and claiming ignorance- it seemed such an intimate, personal matter that she was ashamed to admit she knew about it- but Kristen would detect a lie, and would not forgive it. Michelle merely nodded.

"Well then, you probably know they caught it early, and that they gave us every reason to believe that it wouldn't return. If I'd thought otherwise, I never would've had a child, at my age."

"It came back?" Michelle blurted, already knowing the answer. She could see it written in the new lines on Kristen's face, the defeated slump of her shoulders. She immediately wished to retract the words, but Kristen merely nodded matter-of-factly.

"It came back over a year ago." She replied. "Shortly after the divorce. I didn't want Paul to know. I was afraid he would use it against me somehow, try and take Andy away from me. I went to great lengths to hide the fact that I was undergoing treatment from the two of you."

She smiled sadly, and Michelle was suddenly struck by pity, that Kristen would think such a thing, that the same fear had been residing in both of their hearts all along.

"We would never do that." Michelle said vehemently. "Andy loves you. You're his mom. We've always respected that. I wish we had known; we would've done more to support you."

"Water under the bridge." Kristen said, with a wave of her hand. "Maybe I should've done things differently, but it's too late for that now. I received some bad news from my oncologist recently. Apparently, despite our efforts, the cancer has spread, and I've got mets in my liver and bones. There's nothing else I can try; they've recommended I stop chemo and go on palliative care. They've given me three to six months to live."

Kristen delivered this news dry-eyed, but the heaviness in her voice and the sorrow in her eyes told Michelle that she'd already cried plenty over it. Michelle felt tears sting her own eyes, although the news should've pleased her: this was a woman who had been consistently nasty to her for the past two years. This was the woman who had stood between her and the child she loved as her own.

It did not please her, however. For one thing, Andy would be devastated if he lost his mother. For another, well... despite her nasty behavior after the divorce, Kristen was a human being. She had been a stern and distant but fair employer when Michelle had worked for her. The cruelty hadn't started until Michelle had- in the eyes of the world at least, and maybe in Kristen's eyes as well- stolen Kristen's husband away from her. Michelle knew that was not really the case: the marriage had been in shambles, Paul had been on the verge of divorcing Kristen anyway, the two had grown apart, had nothing in common anymore, and had not slept together once since Andy was born. But maybe Kristen hadn't seen it that way. There had never been a chance to ask her.

"I'm so sorry, Kristen." Michelle breathed, and she felt as if she was apologizing not just for the return of the cancer, but for everything that had gone before it. Unexpectedly, she felt tears spilling over her lashes and down her cheeks. "Oh my God. I'm so sorry."

"Spare me." Kristen said dismissively. She pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser on the table and shoved them toward Michelle. "You don't know sorry, little girl. You don't know sorry until you've looked into your four-year-old's eyes and realized that he'll have to grow up without a mother."

 The idea of having to deliver this horrible news to Andy, of how it would destroy his gentle little spirit, almost reduced Michelle to sobs. But when she glanced across the table at Kristen, the cold, steely determination in the older woman's face caused her to pull herself together quickly. Michelle reached for the proffered napkins and blotted her cheeks with them. 

"So here's the thing," Kristen said. "You've always been like a mother to Andy. He loves you as much as he loves me. Do you think I don't know that? Why do you think I went back to work so quickly? I was never a natural mother. I didn't enjoy it. When I hired you, and saw how good you were with him... I just decided that the best thing I could do for him was go back to work. Leave him with someone who actually liked being around babies. Don't get me wrong, I love my son. I love him more than my own life. But I never liked being a parent. Not like you do."

Michelle didn't know what to say to this... compliment? After all the incriminations of the past two years, kind words from this woman left her speechless.

 "Soon I'm not going to be able to take care of Andy anymore." Kristin continued. "I'm struggling already. There's cancer in my pelvic bone, in my thigh. I walk with a cane half the time. Soon I'll be bedridden. I've been approved for hospice care. I'm on a lot of painkillers now, and I'll be on a lot more, I suspect, before this is over. I've accepted this; I've had awhile to come to terms with it. But what I can't accept is leaving my little boy alone in this world without a mother."

Michelle wanted to protest, to insist that if Kristen had beaten the cancer once, she could do it again, to promise the woman across the table that she would never have to leave her little boy. But she knew how hollow and empty such assurances would be. Kristen no doubt had a competent team of doctors on her side. If they told her there was no hope, then there wasn't any. Michelle's false assurances would only be an attempt to make herself feel better. They would do nothing to change the reality of this wretched situation. So instead, she reached across the table, grasped Kristen's hand, and said, "I will always take care of Andy. I promise. I love him as if he were my own child. My doctor recently told me that I may never be able to have a child of my own. And I don't even care, because I know I would never be able to love any other child as much as I love Andy."

Kristen lowered her head and closed her eyes, looking very old suddenly. She squeezed Michelle's hand tightly across the table. A tear slipped down her cheek.

"That is what I needed to hear," she said finally, without opening her eyes. "And that's why I asked you to meet with me today. I don't know how much longer I will live, but I know that I won't be able to take care of Andy much longer. It's already becoming too much for me. But I don't... I can't, I won't... leave him without a mother. So I want to ask you if you'll adopt Andy. Legally adopt him. If you'll be his mother after I'm gone. Actually, I want you to do it before I'm gone. I don't want him to spend one second without a mother." Kristen's voice broke, and her narrow shoulders shook. Michelle continued to grasp her hand. 

"Will you do that?" Kristen asked. "Will you please... please, do that for me?"

Michelle suddenly had the sense that she was standing on the threshold of another pivotal moment, a moment when her life could go one direction or the other.

"Yes," she replied, stepping across that threshold. "I will."

Writing Prompt
Write a story using the premise two woman sit at an otherwise deserted bar. They share a secret. They strike up a friendship.
Two women sit at a deserted bar
Contest Winner

Author Notes
Um... hmm. I scribbled this out in an hour for your contest; didn't have time to do any editing or revision due to the deadline being in a few hours. I hope you like it. :)
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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