They square off in the front hall on Saturday afternoon. Lochlan refuses to allow me to go. He found the envelope in my bag. He opened it and instead of his usual mere outrage, the inclusion of his name on the invitation brought him to a whole new level of fury. He confronts Caleb quietly as Caleb is checking in with Henry after lunch. Quietly because they always keep their violence civilized when the children are home. Caleb, ever unruffled, tells Lochlan that he should come along and then maybe for once, he could save me.
Dinner goes smoothly. Caleb has the servers bring the children ginger ale in champagne glasses and whatever else they want. He chats over their heads with Ben and Chris and Dalton. He generously asks me how Batman is doing. He talks a little about a new plan to dabble in venture capitalism. We are celebrating, for everyone loves a birthday. Once the main course winds down we make our traditional remarks and personal toasts. You can take five minutes or thirty. You can make it a wish or a hope or a memory or a story. You cannot pass. No one's ever passed and yet Lochlan's absence is felt, a glaring cold spot where his arm would be loosely hung around the back of my chair, and he would put on his showman's hat and everyone would feel at ease. Tonight his choice not to attend is a particular display of rebelliousness after our conversations of last week.
I make my toast first. Caleb's eyes well up briefly. A quick recovery and he applauds my words as everyone raises a glass. I drink and take my seat. If only time could go backwards. He could have saved me too.
But he is more interested in exploiting everything. I watch him while he listens to the others. I watch his expressions change and overlap and he comes around to stare back at me across the table so many times I wonder if he is tuning out the words as well but he isn't or his expressions would stop chang-oh, yes, just like that. I tear my eyes away and look at Ben, who brings his arm up loosely across the back of my chair. But I can't get warm. I look down into my lap at my phone. There are nine calls from Lochlan. None have gone to voicemail.
We come home and get the children tucked in to bed, lights off, doors pulled just-so and then we send off all of the others too. I laugh at Duncan, he is positively shitfaced and he tells me to be careful before closing his door clumsily in my face. I frown at the painted panels. I look toward Lochlan's door but it is closed tightly, lights off underneath, not a sound from within when I press my ear very hard against it to check.
Ben said he would meet me at the boathouse, that he was going to go ahead and talk a little business with Caleb, something that drives me to total frustration outside of standard hours so I am grateful. He gave me a kiss and told me not to take long.
I changed into a different dress, fixed my lipgloss and unpinned my hair. Then I put my phone on the charger, checked the kids once more to make sure they were asleep already and that sober-Dalton's door was cracked just enough to keep an ear out and then I passed through the rest of the house, turning off lights, checking doors and windows, taking my keyring as I went out the side door, locking it behind me.
I was halfway across the driveway when Lochlan stepped out from the trees along the edge of the woods. I think I must have jumped fifty feet and then some, heart restarted on the way back down, nerves blown, mind recuperating in slow-motion, all of my thoughts scattered in the night.
If you need me to fight for you, I will. If you need me to protect you, I'm here. But you can't put yourself in danger on purpose, peanut.
I know you didn't.
Then why do you make me go through everything alone? I turn away and walk deliberately until I reach the steps. When I turn back he is gone.
Caleb refills my glass for the third time with whiskey. Neat. Straight. Burn. Slip into the void. Forget everything, dollface. He tells me some things never change. I nod dizzily and stare at him. They don't. Everyone resolved to change and do better and try harder and yet I'm still screaming out safe words in the dead of night, words that will be ignored as always.
Where is Ben? I asked him finally. I'm annoyed. I'm also drunk now. Great.
He slipped back to the house to fetch some paperwork to show me. He'll be back in a few moments.
He starts to pull my rings off, to put in the little dish on the table because he will not touch me with them on and pauses as he exchanges them from his right hand to his left.
Bridget. What is this?
He holds up a simple band, far shinier than the others and my throat closes over in panic. I forgot to take it off when I changed. I didn't want him to see it.
Who gave you this ring?
I'm not answering. I forgot. I didn't prepare a speech for this moment. I have no sweet remarks, no toast to my own efforts at massive and total defection from the crowded position of neutral. My pokerface wasn't in the box when I was opened and constructed. I don't lie, I just freeze.
The door opens and Caleb starts to turn around. Maybe Ben can shed a little light on this develop-
Lochlan is standing there.
Come on, Bridget. Get your things, we're going.
She's here to celebrate with me, for my birthday. Caleb sounds like Henry when he wants to argue an immature point.
It's one in the morning. Your birthday is over. And the ring came from me.