It was a slow night at Kelsey's Bar and Grill when the woman walked in right at dusk.
Kelsey's was a combination roadhouse/steakhouse several miles outside of town on the main highway. It had once been a strip club that had an illicit casino in the back, but those days were long past.
Kelsey was an ex-Marine who had seen the potential in the site and bought it for a song. He'd converted the casino into a dance floor where he had up-and-coming local bands perform on weekends. He also had a crackerjack cook whose steaks and seafood platters were the best around.
The place was usually hopping on weekend nights when the local university was in session, and even many weeknights, there was a good crowd. But weeknights in the summer were pretty slow, and Kelsey was manning the bar himself, with just one waitress waiting tables on this particular night.
Right from the moment she walked through the door, Kelsey had an odd feeling.
For one thing, single, unaccompanied women rarely visited his bar. Women in pairs or in groups on a girls night out? Sure. Women with dates? All the time. But not many wandered in alone, because the bar was known to be a meat market most nights.
For another, she had hesitated just inside the door, as if unsure whether she wanted to be there or not.
Moreover, she didn't look like the usual predatory woman on the make. She was dressed quite casually, in denim capris and a thin knit shirt with three-quarter sleeves, both of which were snug but not tight.
Kelsey took the moment of hesitation to give her the once-over, and that deepened the puzzle.
She was quite tall, probably around 5-10, and slender, but with definite curves to her figure. She had red hair that fell straight past her shoulders and was cut with slight bangs in the front. From across the bar, Kelsey could see that she looked well-kept, and very pretty in a soccer-momish way.
But it wasn't until she set her shoulders, walked in and sat down at the bar that he noticed her most striking feature -- the deepest blue eyes he'd ever seen -- and they were eyes that seemed ... not sad exactly, but definitely somber.
Kelsey had tended bar long enough to know that this was a woman carrying a burden.
"What can I get you?" Kelsey asked.
"What do you have on draft?" she replied. Kelsey went through the choices and she settled on a Bud Light. When he placed it in front of her, she took a big drink then set it down and stared into the mug.
Yes, something about the woman unnerved Kelsey. She was definitely a fish out of water, and courting trouble.
Already, he could smell the land sharks sniffing around, and he'd already caught sight of the rings on her left hand indicating she was married. There weren't any women for the single guys looking to score to choose from on this night and her appearance had set the game in motion.
There were only three other women in the bar that night. One was a barfly regular who was sharing her time with a couple of bikers in the far corner, and the other two were soldiers drinking with a half-dozen guys from their unit.
Kelsey's wasn't far from the main entrance to the large Army training base that prepared National Guard and Army Reserve units for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.
The two women in his bar that night had the short hair and hard look of career soldiers about to go to war. They were there to unwind after a hard day of training and were not in the mood to be trifled with.
That left the soccer mom at the bar as the only prey in sight, and the more Kelsey saw, the more he realized just how striking she was, even without the smile.
He knew it wasn't any of his business to protect some fool woman who was out looking for trouble, but he got the sense that this one wasn't out for a night of illicit activity -- at least not intentionally.
But a lot of things could happen in an alcohol-fueled environment, especially on a hot, steamy night like this one. And, too, he was curious as to why a woman like this one chose to wander into his bar at this particular moment in time.
So, to protect her as much as possible and to satisfy his curiosity, Kelsey decided to engage the woman in conversation.
"So, tell me, what's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" he said. "I know, it is a cheesy line, but I really am curious. You don't strike me as the type that would frequent a place like this."
"Why? Do I look too much like a ... mommy?" the woman practically spat before draining the mug and pushing the glass toward Kelsey, indicating she wanted a refill.
"Sorry, lady, I didn't mean to pry," Kelsey said, handing her a fresh beer. "You just seem a little troubled, and I was just trying to lighten you up a little."
"I'm sorry," she said, and her face softened, but she didn't smile. "I didn't mean to snap at you. It's not your fault."
"Lady, I'm a good listener," Kelsey said in a kindly voice. "Why don't you tell me about it. It might make you feel better to get things off your chest."
"Oh ... I guess," the woman sighed, and she began to tell Kelsey about her day...
^ ^ ^ ^
The music of Pink Floyd suddenly blaring out of the alarm clock was the last thing Rebecca Murphy wanted to hear at a quarter to six in the morning.
"We don't need no educaaaa-shun," the radio sang, and just as abruptly as it started, it went silent as her husband, Larry, reached over and rapped the snooze button.
Nine minutes later, though, just about the time she'd dozed back off, it was the Rolling Stones.
"But it's aaaaaaaaaallllllllrrrrrrright, right, in fact it's a..." Mick Jagger's voice was silenced by a hand punching the snooze again.
This time, Larry got up, shut the alarm off and climbed slowly out of bed to start another day. Rebecca rolled back over, pulled the covers over her head and tried to go back to sleep.
All too soon, one or more of her four children would come bouncing in wanting this or that from their mother, and Rebecca wasn't sure she could face another day of motherhood.
She needed some quality time alone with her husband, but he'd been working extra -- including Saturdays and even a few Sunday afternoons -- on this new building project his firm was working on.
Larry worked for an up-and-coming architectural company in the mid-sized city where they'd settled, and they were bidding on a major industrial plant, which would put their company in the forefront of design firms in their area -- if they won the contract.
And it would mean bonus money and possibly a promotion for Larry. In other words, it would mean the realization of the dreams they'd had when he took the job, not long after they had married.
But the cost in extra work was proving to be harder and harder to accept, especially as the weeks had dragged on and on. The company had hoped to have the bid ready several weeks earlier, but some hang-ups -- some on their end, others on the contractor's end -- had delayed the process. It seemed like every day Larry told Rebecca he thought they'd get it done the next day, and then the next day would come with more work still to be done.
Larry and Rebecca had been married for 11 years, and they hadn't wasted any time starting a family. They'd really wanted to wait, but that was not to be. Now they had four children under the age of 9, and the duty of raising the kids had fallen mostly on her.
Rebecca was a middle-school teacher at the Catholic school where her children would all attend. It wasn't so bad during the school year, when there was something to occupy their time, and hers.
But the summers were increasingly maddening, especially with their youngest approaching the Terrible Twos. The girl was actually just a year and a half, but she was proving to be headstrong and fussy -- far more so than the others -- and the other three weren't exactly shy.
Larry was a good father -- when he was around -- but he wasn't around much lately because of work. Besides working late, he was having to travel out of town to the headquarters city of the company with whom they were negotiating on the building bid.
Rebecca couldn't help but worry that Larry was fooling around while on the road. She knew in her heart that the idea was preposterous. She loved Larry and he loved her. Of that she had no doubt.
But their sex life had declined noticeably in recent months, plus a coolness had grown up between them, and her background was not conducive for trusting the man she loved.
Everything was conspiring to make Rebecca's mind, body and soul restless.
They had met at college, when they were both juniors, and the attraction had been immediate and intense. Larry was a little over 6-feet tall and he kept himself in good shape.
Despite the attraction, it took a long time, far longer than it had ever taken Larry before, to get Rebecca into his bed. They would get close, but invariably she would pull away, and finally, he insisted on some answers.
Rebecca realized that if she was to have the future she wanted with Larry, she had to tell him everything about her past.
And the sordid secret she kept well-hidden, the one that still colored her sexuality right to the present was an incident that happened when she was 14.
She'd been staying for two weeks with her grandparents, her father's people, while her mom and dad took a two-week cruise to try and re-stitch together a fraying marriage.
Rebecca was the second-oldest child in the family, with an older sister and two younger brothers. Her sister Mary Beth was three years older and away at band camp, and her brothers were off at Boy Scout camp at the time.
One night while her grandparents were out of the house playing bingo, her Uncle Dave, who was 23 at the time and still living at home, slipped into the bedroom where she was staying and tried to rape her.
Actually, he only managed to kiss her, pull her pants down, fondle her and expose himself, before she managed to fight him off with a well-placed kick to the crotch. As her uncle writhed on the floor in pain, she vowed that she'd kill him if he tried it again.
The next night, she slipped a fillet knife into the bedroom with her, but Dave didn't bother her again. She debated telling her grandparents about it, but chose not to.
When she got back home, though, her sister pried loose the information on what had happened and Mary Beth had insisted she tell their mother, and that was the spark that finally torched her parents' marriage.
Her mom believed her, but her father didn't, claiming his brother would never do anything like that and accusing Rebecca of making it up. Worse, he insinuated that she'd enticed David into doing something and that whatever happened was her fault.
The divorce was ugly and painful, as Rebecca's infuriated mother went for the jugular. Unfortunately, her father was the main wage-earner in the family, plus he had connections and got a ridiculously low child support tab.
Her mother ended up having to go to work as a checker at a local supermarket to help make ends meet.
Although her mom initially got custody of Rebecca's brothers, her father so badly undercut her authority and turned them against their mother and their sisters, that they rebelled.
As soon as they were old enough, they turned their back on their mother and sisters and moved in with their father. And, to be honest, neither Rebecca, Mary Beth or their mom were sorry to see them go.
Nevertheless, even though her mother tried incessantly to convince her otherwise, Rebecca even now believed that if she'd just kept her mouth shut, her family would have stayed together and all the deprivation and ill feeling they'd suffered through during her high school years would have been avoided.
As a result, although not a shy person by nature, Rebecca turned inward during her teen years and sought refuge in books. She became a straight-A student and earned a full-ride scholarship to attend college.
If there was any silver lining in the whole sorry episode, she mused, it was that the three women -- Rebecca, Mary Beth and their mom -- became close confidantes.
Mary Beth was a psychologist and had done wonders with Rebecca's state of mind. Still there would always be those shadows in her psyche that would never quite go away.
After hearing that story, Larry knew he'd have to tread lightly where Rebecca's sexuality was concerned, and she remained a virgin until their wedding night.
Despite her past, she had given herself to her husband willingly -- even eagerly -- because it was an expression of the love they shared.
Now, however, after 11 years and four children, their love life was flagging and she wasn't sure what to do about it. What she and Larry needed was some time alone together, without the kids.
But how? Larry couldn't get away and school would be starting in two weeks. There was no way they could take off, especially on short notice like that.
It was about 7:30 that morning when Larry kissed Rebecca goodbye and started off to work. She sleepily responded and he gazed down at his wife, his brow furrowed. Like Rebecca, he sensed that something was amiss in their marriage, but he couldn't put a finger on what it was.
Finally, he shrugged and headed off to work.
It wasn't a half-hour later when the first sounds of children reached Rebecca's ears. The sound of the bedroom door opening and the sleepy, "Mommy? I'm hungry," from her second-youngest child, a 4-year-old son, got Rebecca up slowly to begin her day.
This was probably the worst time of year for a family with a lot of kids. Swimming lessons and other summer activities were over, but school was still a few weeks off. So the kids were at home, under foot, with pent-up energy and few outlets.
On this particular day, the kids were more of a handful than normal. The youngest was constantly whining about something or another, and the two oldest, a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, were at each other's throats all morning.
The Murphys lived on a corner lot in town, as opposed to a subdivision in an outlying area. Larry had wanted it that way, because his office was downtown and he liked to walk to work. It was part of his way of staying in shape.
It was an older house, built around 1910, with two stories plus an extensive attic, with a decent-sized back yard -- fenced, of course -- and painted pink with green shutters.
They had bought it not long after their first child was born and they had painstakingly made it a home they could be proud of.
Around noon, Rebecca had put on her swim suit and had gotten the sprinkler out for the kids, while she tried to get a little bit of air. She knew her fair skin couldn't take much sun, but she just needed to be outside, hopefully to quell the explosion that was building in her heart and soul.
The kids were just about on her last nerve, she was frustrated and starting to feel like she'd traded in her wife's role for that of a mother.
And when the two oldest got into a screaming fight about some stupid thing, she'd had enough.
She screamed at them to shut up, then marched all four of them into the house, told them to get dressed and start gathering up some clothes, that they were going to Grandmother's house.
Rebecca's mother had developed muscular dystrophy, so she couldn't work, and lived with Mary Beth and her husband in a city two hours away.
By the time Rebecca got her mom on the phone, she was sobbing.
"I just can't take it, Mother," she cried into the phone. "Larry ignores me and the kids are driving me crazy. If I don't get away from them, I'm going to do something awful. I just know it."
"Calm down, sweetheart," her mother said. "It's going to be all right. Come on down, bring the kids and let them stay here for a couple of days. I think you and Larry need to work on your marriage, and you can't do it with four youngsters running around. Go out of town somewhere, just the two of you and if he doesn't want to go, go by yourself."
"OK, see you in a few," Rebecca said. "And thanks, Mom."
"Just get a grip on yourself, child," her mom said. "I know you love those children, so quit talking nonsense. I love you."
"Love you too," Rebecca said, feeling calmer already.
Twenty minutes later, she had the kids packed up and in the minivan, and they were off. In her haste, she left no note for her husband indicating where she'd gone, and by the time she thought about it, it was too late to turn around.
And it was just her luck, when she went to call him on her cell phone, she realized that the battery was dead.
^ ^ ^ ^
Larry Murphy sat on the wicker rocker in the screened-in porch at his house listening to the crickets and watching the bugs flutter around the streetlight that blazed from the opposite corner of his house. His house which sat silent and dark behind him.
He was nursing his third beer since arriving home, and since he'd not had dinner, he was already starting to feel the effects of the alcohol.
And that was good in a way, because it numbed him to the gnawing possibilities that his dark and silent house posed.
Larry's first inkling that things were amiss at home came in the mid-afternoon, when he'd called the house and gotten the answering machine. That wasn't unusual, but when he called an hour later, and got the same message, he began to get a little concerned.
He'd had good news he wanted to share with his wife. He was going to be a couple of hours late coming home from work that night, but it would be because they were putting the final package together on the bid proposal, and they would be sending the specs out by special courier that night.
Larry and his team were confident that they would win the contract, and if so, that would mean one more trip to the company's headquarters city, where the contract would be signed and the announcement would be made.
It would be the highlight of his career thus far, but the joy of that achievement was being diminished with each passing hour that his house remained dark and silent.
He had tried the house phone a couple more times then tried Rebecca's cell phone, but that was no good. The call simply went straight to voicemail, meaning her cell was turned off.
Finally, around 7 o'clock, he'd called Rebecca's mother, and had been told that his wife had indeed come down and had brought the kids to stay with her, and that Rebecca had left her house about 5:30.
Larry had wrapped up his work as quickly as he could, hoping to be home when she arrived, and he'd gotten home a little after 7:30.
That had been well over two hours ago.
All sorts of dark thoughts filled his heart and soul as he sat in the chair, slowly sipping his beer and contemplating where his marriage had gotten off track.
That it had was not in dispute, in Larry's mind. Rebecca never took the kids off to her mother's without giving him a heads-up.
He knew how tough handling his four kids was for his mother-in-law, with her physical limitations, and they rarely took all four of them down on short notice.
But Rebecca had done just that, and now she was a good two hours late getting home. There were casinos not far from his sister-in-law's house, places where the lure of easy money and easy sex were ever-present, and plenty of places besides those where a woman alone could court trouble.
As Larry sat in the dark, he thought about his wife, and what she meant to him. He was saddened that their marriage was on such rocky ground at that moment.
She'd always been the rock that held him and his family together, and he'd always admired her for it, all the more so knowing the emotional baggage she'd carried around from the incident with her uncle and the fallout it had caused.
But he could sense they were drifting apart. He'd been absorbed with this project at work and she'd been left to deal with the kids -- four smart, rambunctious youngsters.
As he sat and brooded, he began to realize that it had been awhile since they had really and truly made love.
Oh, they'd had sex a few times over the previous few months, but not as often as they should, and when they did, it was pretty perfunctory, by-the-numbers coupling that took care of the base physical needs, but had been unfulfilling emotionally.
That needed to change, Larry thought to himself. It started to dawn on him then, in the gloom of the night as he sat on his porch, that he could lose the woman he loved -- who he knew loved him -- if he didn't act immediately.
He just hoped it wasn't already too late.
Sighing, he drained the last dregs of his beer, set the bottle down and got up to use the bathroom and to get a refill. He had just sat back down when he saw Rebecca's minivan pull into the driveway.
^ ^ ^ ^
Rebecca was putting the finishing touches on one of Kelsey's famous hamburgers, and she idly swirled a French fry in the little pool of ketchup that remained on her plate.
"This is really good," she said as Kelsey strolled by wiping a glass with a towel. "Compliments to the chef."
Kelsey had insisted that she eat before she left his bar to go home. Although she had only had four beers, he knew how little it took to reach the legal limit, and he didn't want to see this pretty lady go to jail after she had taken the time to unburden herself to him.
He felt like it had been a productive discussion. A couple of the romeos had sidled up offering to buy her a drink, but she'd declined and after one had persisted, Kelsey gave him "the look," that told the guy to back off.