“Oh for God’s sake, Char! When are you going to stop trotting out that moth-eaten story?” Thomas said pouring another round of wine for all. He gave a wink to Brittany as he topped her off, sure she appreciated the attention. Thomas elected himself ambassador to all of Alan’s girls. Somebody had to pay attention to them during the day.
Charlene finished her story, laughing as much as those listening. The wine had saturated everyone’s mood. “The little brat!” Charlene cackled.
Brittany, who had been watching Alan’s phone as he played some game, tuned back into the story. “Was it your kid?”
The group’s laughter died to an awkward titter. Glances darted from one member to the next.
“Do you and Thomas have any kids?” Brittany went on eager to keep Charlene engaged. Alan’s hand shot out to her thigh and squeezed hard. Brittany flushed. The room was uncomfortably silent.
“No. Thomas and I were not that fortunate.”
“Christ! Six bottles of wine?” Thomas exclaimed, jumping up from the sofa. “We’re going to need more than cheese and crackers to soak that up.” He went to the refrigerator and began rummaging through its contents.
“I, uhm, I… “ Brittany stammered. “I… “
“Thomas, we are sitting in France for Christ’s sake.” Alan cut Brittany off. “When are we actually going to go out and eat? I think I’ve heard the food’s not bad here.”
“But we’re doing this… “Thomas said sweeping his arm across the air. “Why break this up to go out?”
“Again I will point out: because we’re in FRANCE.” Alan said to everyone’s amusement.
“But first, another round of drinks!” Charlene said. The sting of their dead fetus rarely affected her anymore. She took satisfaction in Thomas’ discomfort on the subject, though, and let the weight hang in the room a bit longer.
“Is there anything other than red wine?” Brittany asked.
Charlene gasped in pleasure, “Champagne! What a delightful suggestion Brittany!”
Brittany shivered at Charlene’s recognition. She had wanted Tequila but Champagne would be just fine, if Charlene wanted it that way.
Janie waved her hands and shook her head with a big grin. The others pointed to her while whistling and cat calling.
“You’re not getting out of this one!” Paul said wrapping an arm around her. Alan jumped up to get glasses.
“Oh no! Please let me pass!” Janie said giggling into Paul’s chest.
Thomas took Alan’s seat next to Brittany and leaned into her, closer than necessary to be heard. “Janie gets particularly bubbly on champagne. It’s a real hoot to watch.” Brittany smiled politely and nodded.
“Come on, Jane my dear. Consider yourself the entertainment.” Charlene called out robustly.
Alan produced six flutes and three bottles of Champagne from their seemingly endless supply of alcohol. Each man took a bottle and popped the corks in unison. The corks hit the roof. The cracks in the ceiling surely were there from before tonight. Victorious whoops rang up from the group. Glasses were poured, toasts offered. The mood was buoyant. Janie began hiccupping almost immediately. The others barked out in laughter and began imitating her.
Alan came up behind Janie and hugged her. “You are, without a doubt, my favorite drunk ever.” He said nuzzling her neck.
“I am not (hic) drunk. (hic)” Janie sputtered out. “It’s the bubbles (hic). Oh forget it.” She leaned back into her chair and dramatically took another swig of champagne.
“So Alan, my friend, when are you going to regale us with your latest project?” Paul asked in a loud voice.
“What do you want to know? Dissecting a budget does not get any more exciting than the time before.” Alan said plainly.
“Six months in Brazil and no tales to tell?” Thomas prodded.
Alan shook his head. “Only the same debauchery and hedonistic rituals as before. That and reorganizing their government so we could loan them millions of dollars. But this time they had a sexy accent.” He added with a wink.
Alan knew Paul’s game. At some point Paul’s ego took a hit and he was systematically trying to take the others down to build himself back up. Alan’s numbers did not equal Paul’s words in Paul’s mind and took every opening to remind Alan of that. Alan cared little about Paul’s opinion. He had run into a mutual acquaintance from school sometime last year. Paul reign of intellectual superiority had been built on a lie. Alan held his cards close to his chest.
“Brittany, did you meet Alan in Brazil?” Paul asked into the magazine he was leafing through.
“No. We met in San Diego. At a car show.” She said draining her glass.
“She was the prettiest thing in the room.” Alan said pouring her a new glass. “Well, outside the Maserati.” He said with a laugh.
“Alan.” Janie said with a dismissive wave.
“No, the Maserati was really nice.” Brittany said emphatically.
“Ah, Alan. If only we could all hang out in foreign ports of call and attend car shows. Must be rough.” Paul said smirking once again.
“You had your chance, Paul. But then that fertile mind of yours would be lost to the world. And wouldn’t the world be the worse for it?” Alan said with a cocked brow.
Another thud came down through the stairway.
“Oh!” Janie squealed, jumping to her feet.
“Careful Janie. You’ve been drinking.” Paul said almost affectionately.
Janie frowned. “Not as much as you.” Smiling, she added, “Besides, I like to loosen up a little before I speak to ghosts.” She shot up the stairway.
“That woman and her damn ghosts!” Charlene said rising. “Do you know how many nights I spent with her in Alden Woods with a flashlight and a guidebook to the other dimension? I swear, she missed her calling.”
Charlene peered up the stairwell and began a slow ascent after Janie.
Paul and Alan ended their standoff and went back to their corners. Thomas entered the kitchen area to pull various jars and wrapped packages from the fridge. Brittany joined him, her eyes widening at the bounty before her.
“So why did you and Charlene not have kids?” Brittany asked casually.
“We lost one and never got pregnant again.” Thomas said unwrapping some sliced meats.
Brittany paused. Where she was from, few could afford any form of medical help and lost babies all the time. In Charlene’s class, you could practically buy a baby’s survival. “What about adopting?”
“Uhm… well… Charlene was destroyed. She ruled out any children. She almost died during the pregnancy – before the baby… So we never… “ Thomas tore off pieces of a baguette. Brittany took a piece and slathered it with butter. She waited for Thomas to go on. For once Thomas could not look at any part of her. His eyes stayed on the counter as if staring at a TV. Sensing the story was not going to be told, Brittany tottered off to the living room.
Thomas gripped the counter, until his knuckles whitened. He lowered his eyes to his feet and struggled to regain his balance. It was possible the drinks were catching up to him. It was possible the past was coming back on him. Not ever confessing, not unloading his burden meant reopening the guilt every time the subject was broached. He thought to pray for freedom from this sentence, but praying is what got him here in the first place.
A fingerling of wind shot around the room. Its whistle resembled a baby’s cry.
A yelp was heard up stairs followed my Janie and Charlene’s voices speaking rapidly.
“What is it?’ Paul called up. “What did you find?”
“We’ll bring it down.” Janie called back. Thomas returned to his seat next to Brittany and offered her more bread. Brittany pulled her skirt down her leg. Thomas was no longer useful to her.
Janie entered the room carrying a broken statue. Charlene followed behind with another piece.
“What is it?” Paul asked.
“You know that stairway leading to the fourth floor landing? This was the anchor to the banister.” Janie held up a beheaded cherub excitedly.
“What happened?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know. We checked the door, there is no draft. That last huge gust of wind? Nothing. Not even the weird breeze that is passing through here.” As if summoned, another breeze ran about the room.
“These things are ancient. I am sure it just crumbled.” Paul said turning his back to the decapitated statue. Janie looked disappointed. Paul never played along.
Charlene noted Thomas’ proximity to Brittany and the flirtatious tone in his teasing. She moved closer to him with her piece of the statue – the head. “Look dear, let’s call him Fred.” She said bitterly. Thomas paled and gave a nervous laugh. Charlene pursed her lips and took a seat next to Janie. Brittany watched the proceedings with rapt awareness. Thomas feigned sudden interest in the headless statue.
“So this was just on the floor? Did something knock it over?” He asked Janie under Charlene’s glare.
“Yes!” Janie said.
“He means something real, dear. Not one of your ‘friends’.” Paul condescended.
“Well I don’t see any other explanation.” Janie replied.
Charlene patted her hand. “Me either. I am with Janie: We have a French ghost and his name is… Raul – because he loves the ironic – and he used to own a shoe shop… a cobbler! And he thinks you are a lousy cook.” She finished with a raised chin to Paul.
“Champagne’s gone.” Alan said. He had missed most of the last half hour.
“Then it is time for Calvados.” Charlene said.
“Isn’t that an after dinner kind of thing?” Paul said.
“Stop worrying about appearances. Raul wants it now. Serve us Alan!” Charlene released Thomas. Her anger diminished and she wanted to resume having fun. He wasn’t going to step out of line tonight. Brittany’s agenda had shifted from Alan but Thomas did not seem her target so Charlene sat back to enjoy her trip.
Thomas looked at Charlene and then to Brittany. She was beautiful, if not a bit rough around the edges. She must have been from the deepest South you can be and still get out. Alan reached out to tussle her hair again. Again his eyes were on his phone and not her. This time, she batted his hand away. Thomas sensed a fissure; normally this all the opening he needed. He looked back to Charlene laughing once again. He saw a different reality. He saw Allison laughing with Janie. He saw his son playing in the nook in the dining area. He had Charlene’s smile and Thomas’s ears. He occasionally called Allison mom by accident. Allison winked at him.
Allison turned to Thomas and asked for another glass of Calvados. Thomas smiled at her with all the love he held for her in her heart. “Thomas? Wake up man, my glass is empty!” Charlene’s voice dissolved Allison’s face. Thomas jumped up trying to shake himself back to reality. He grabbed Charlene’s glass and walked into the kitchen to refill it. On the way he tripped over something.
“How the hell did a toy truck get here?” Thomas asked with a combination of fear and anger in his voice.
“Toy truck?” Paul said reaching down. “You tripped over this wine opener.” He said handing it to Thomas. Thomas held the counter for balance.