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CHAPTER TWO - Introduces protagonist, antagonist, setting, tone, inciting incident, and primary conflict. CHAPTER TWO _______________________________________ Mallory They say life can change in the blink of an eye. Mine changed in the carpool lane. After I pulled myself out of bed, after the blur of packed lunches, signed permission slips, and kisses, I received an unexpected email while dropping the girls off at school. One I wouldn’t notice or read for another thirty-four minutes. Those thirty-four minutes on that fateful Friday were filled with blissful ignorance of how the life I had built for myself would start crumbling around me. It seemed like just another ordinary day. I drove with the windows down. The California sun hit my face, and the wind blew back the loose strands of my hair. I sipped my coffee and sang along to Train’s Drops of Jupiter album. I swung by the dry cleaners and picked up Ryan’s suits, returned a call to my mother, and waved to Rebecca, my husband’s administrative assistant, who I passed at the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore on the way home. I stopped in our driveway and chatted with our neighbors, who were trimming their annoyingly immaculately maintained hedges. If I had known what was sitting in my inbox waiting for me, I wouldn’t have done any of those things. When I finally was sitting in front of my computer, I didn’t recognize the sender of the email. It was from a generic Yahoo account, firstname.lastname@example.org, but the subject line was two simple words: Read Me. It was the type of email I usually disregarded as spam, but the subject line was so simple it caught my attention and made me pause. It came across as a pleading and urgent request from a friend, not the typical “Bad Babes All Access” junk mail that I deleted upon receipt. I clicked the subject line and staring back at me were two lines of text and an image that changed everything. Mallory, I debated sending this but decided I would want to know if it was me. This isn’t a one- time thing. Ryan has been cheating on you for months. I am so sorry. I froze. My hands shaking. The empty, nauseous feeling in my gut grew. Panic and fear swept over me as I hesitantly scrolled down to view the entire image. A grainy picture loaded on the screen, one that would live on in my head unwelcome for years and be recalled by the smallest of triggers. In it, my husband was in his office standing in front of his desk, not working. He was standing between the legs of his assistant, Rebecca, while she sat atop his desk. Her head was thrown back, mouth open in ecstasy. Even with bad lighting and a poor angle, his eyes appeared to be smiling while he licked up her neck. They thought they were alone. They were wrong. I could feel my face getting hot, the blood pooling in my cheeks as I stared at the screen. I closed my eyes and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm myself down, but it didn’t work. The rhythmic thumping of my heartbeat picked up pace and grew louder in my ears as I scrolled through the email and analyzed all the details of the photo, over and over again. Driving myself crazier with each passing minute. I scrutinized every piece of punctuation, every curve of their bodies, and every conversation I could recall having with Ryan in the weeks leading up to today. I scanned my memory trying to remember every interaction I had with Rebecca. Every time she answered his phone, added something to his calendar, or greeted me as I walked passed her into Ryan’s office. Were there tells I had missed along the way? She had been his assistant for three years. How long had this been going on? I would have been caught off-guard less if someone had driven a semi-truck through our house. After all, car accidents happen every day and are an expected part of life, but this betrayal was earth-shattering. How could he do this to the girls? What are they going to think when they find out? Who else knew? Were they all laughing at me? How long have I been lied to? The pathetic clueless wife. I continued spiraling and obsessing. I counted the number of words in the message and would later realize while lying in bed that night, that it was the same number of minutes it took me to open the email after it had been sent. Thirty-four. It surely couldn’t be a coincidence and must mean something. A sign. A warning from the universe. My mind raced days, weeks, and months into the future as I tried to strategically plan every action and counter-reaction that might happen once I confronted him. After several hours of my crazed examination of anything I could recall or get my hands on, I stopped and called Colleen. Ryan might have been my husband, but Colleen was my person. She answered on the second ring and listened patiently as I spilled all the details, my concerns about the girls, how the situation would play out if I ignored the email versus how it would play out if I confronted him. Then I repeated for the hundredth time, “I’m so embarrassed. This is going to crush them,” and she interrupted me. “Stop! Please stop it. Mallory, breathe and hear yourself. I just listened to you go on about how this would affect the girls, how you couldn’t believe he could do this to them, how you don’t want them to grow up in a split home, and never once did you say how upset you were he did this to you. How hurt you are. How angry you are. How betrayed you are. How you don’t want to think about how he likely has been inside another woman or -” “Stop, Colleen. I don’t want to think about that,” I interrupted, my voice catching in my throat as I tried to clear the image from my head. Seeing it on paper or in my inbox was one thing but having the image of his infidelity live out inside my head was too much to bear. My imagination was a dangerous place where extreme scenarios played out daily. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head in frustration. “Of course, you don’t. No one does. But don’t you see, you aren’t jealous or scorned for yourself. You’re reacting for the girls. Mal, be honest with me for a minute. Did you see this coming? Are you even in love with him anymore? Because for someone that just found out her husband has been having an affair, you aren’t nearly as pissed off or hysterical as you should be”. Instinctively, my hand squeezed down on the arm of the chair, and I leaned forward defensively. “Seriously, Colleen? I find out my husband is cheating on me, and this is your response? I’m hanging up now”. “Mal, wait...” But I didn’t wait. I hung up before she could get another word out. I picked up the cold cup of coffee I had been nursing for almost an hour and walked to the back patio, propping myself up in one of the wicker chairs. Knees pulled to my chin, I stared out across the meticulously manicured lawn in a daze. Ryan had paid more attention and care to our grass than our marriage. Not a blade was out of place. Clean, straight, crisscross lines showed where he had pushed the mower the night before. How had I missed this? I braced myself for the tears that were supposed to come, but they never did. I willed them to the surface. Nothing. Instead, anger bubbled. I stood and marched through the house directly to our master bedroom, threw back the door to our walk-in closet, grabbed his overnight bag from the top shelf, and began angrily balling up and stuffing his clothing inside. Shirts, ties, pants, shoes, anything I could grab. Some went in the bag still on the wooden hangers. I couldn’t be bothered to do it neatly. I didn’t want to have to look at anything that reminded me of him. When the bag was full, I grabbed the empty laundry basket from the corner and started stuffing his belongings into that too. Within minutes, his side of the closet was empty except for a row of empty swinging hangers. Throwing the overnight bag on top of the full laundry basket, I made my way back toward the backyard. The corners of my lips crept into a smile as the grass tickled the bottom of my feet. I closed my eyes and began throwing his belongings across the lawn. When the last shirt hit the ground, I marched toward the spicket and turned on the sprinkler before walking back to my chair on the patio to take in my work. I don’t know how long I sat like that, watching the sprinkler go round and round soaking his clothes and shoes and leaving muddy puddles on the lawn. An hour? Two? But when I was able to pull myself back to reality and named my feelings: anger, distrust, and rage, I realized sadness, jealousy, and shock were not among them. Colleen was right. She usually was. I picked up my phone and hit redial. “You don’t need to say it,” Colleen answered. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are. So, we’re going to leave him?” Colleen asked reluctantly. Bracing herself for my honest reply. “Yup,” I spat out, smiling at her use of we instead of you in her question. Even now she had paired us together as a dynamic duo. “I had that unread email in my inbox when I waved at her this morning. She is cheating with my husband, and she fucking waved at me like she wasn’t going straight to the office to slide her hand down his pants. I feel like a fool.” “Oh girlie, I wish I could make it better. Why don’t you drop the kids off at your parents? Give yourself some space and time to think and come stay with me in New York for the week. A change of scenery would do you good.” I sat up straighter in my chair. A flutter of hope filled my chest as I considered her offer. I hadn’t taken time alone in years. “I’ll book you a flight out on Monday morning. You won’t need to do a thing. Just pack and drop the girls off at your parents'.” “Okay,” I answered quickly before I could think my way out of it. “I love you.” “I love you, too,” she responded. I could hear the hug she so desperately wanted to give me in the tone of her voice. I set the phone down and stared out across the lawn strewn with Ryan’s sopping wet clothes. The blood rose in my cheeks again. Each perfectly cut blade of grass that hadn’t been touched by the sprinkler or my temper tantrum seemed to taunt and anger me further. Screw Ryan and his stupid lawn. I’d see to it that he knew the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side.