This story is in answer to a challenge from my editor, ErikThread. He challenged me to write a story that had only two locations and no more than six characters. This story has two locations, a cafeteria and a home. It has a total of five characters. I hope my switching time frames doesn't confuse the reader.
Lauren and Bonnie
He was sitting alone at a table in the far corner of the cafeteria of his office building. In front of him was a bowl of soup, a sandwich and a glass of milk. It was the same lunch he ate every week day. The soup and the sandwich changed daily, but the trio was constant.
His fellow workers had come to realize he wasn't very social anymore and chose to avoid being with him. At thirty-nine years of age, Zachary Thurlow had developed a thick skin and the ability to disassociate himself from the turmoil going on around him.
He never knew his parents. Not really. They were killed in an automobile accident on New Year's Day when he was two. His father had been drunk and lost control of his car, driving it into an overpass abutment. Both were killed instantly. He lived with his grandparents until he was almost ten, when they were no longer able to look after him.
He was taken into foster care, being farmed out finally to a couple who provided a foster home. He was one of the lucky ones. They were good people, Byron and Melinda Thomason. A little older than the norm, but fine people who truly cared for Zachary and raised him as if he were their own son.
He earned a scholarship at a local university and, with hard work and part-time jobs, was able to complete his education, ending up with a BSc in Mechanical Engineering. His grades were good, and upon graduation he was offered a job at Kildare Manufacturing in his home town. He was assigned to the engineering department and worked with a number of other colleagues as they planned and executed preventive maintenance, equipment replacement, and other modernizations on the shop floor. He found it a very rewarding job.
While still in college, he met and courted Lauren Withers. She was a year behind him in school and he waited for her to graduate before proposing to her. She accepted readily and they were married in September. The marriage produced two children, Tanner and Lance, born eighteen months apart.
After the boys were born, the family purchased a modest home in the suburbs. It was a three-bedroom bungalow with a full basement and a single-car garage. Since they both owned automobiles, his sat outside as he left first in the morning and was home last in the evening. Lauren didn't work, preferring to be a stay-at-home mother. Zach's salary was sufficient to give them a good standard of living.
They raised their sons to be good students and good citizens. Both boys went through scouting but stopped as they discovered girls. They participated in school activities and both played on the varsity soccer team. They had typical teenage social lives, including a couple of girlfriends to keep them company. Zach never had cause to worry about them and he was sure Lauren felt the same.
Lauren, Zach, and a Friend at Work
As the boys entered their middle teens, Lauren began to talk about finding a part time job. She had a bachelor of arts, but no special training for any particular occupation. Zach wasn't totally against the idea, but wanted her to make sure it didn't interfere with their home life. She assured him it wouldn't.
After several months without success, Lauren found a part time job as a sales assistant at kitchen and bathroom remodelling business. Her job was to qualify the potential customer (whether they were serious or just looking) and direct them to the proper sales representative. She didn't have to be an expert, but she dove into the opportunity head first. Within a couple of months she was fully versed in the company's products. On her six month review, she was given a nice raise in pay and a written copy of the review, rating her "Superior."
When she took the job, she made it clear she would only be available on weekdays until four o'clock. She had a household to run and meals to prepare for her sons and husband. In the beginning, that was quite acceptable to her employer. However, a year after her first review, she began to feel some pressure to work on Saturdays, normally the busiest day of the week.
At first she resisted, but when her manager offered to put her on salary plus commission, she could see the dollar signs being dangled before her eyes.
"Zach, can we talk after dinner?"
"Sure. What's it about?"
"An opportunity that's too good to pass up."
"Okaaay," he said warily.
When the dishes had been put into the dishwasher, Zach and Lauren sat at the kitchen table.
"I've been asked to go on salary plus commission instead of just salary," Lauren began. "I would mean a lot more income for me ... and us ... since my sales have been so good."
"Okay ... sounds good," Zach said, still not sure what the punch line was. "We make enough money now, honey. Your salary is looking after the boys' college fund with some left over. How much more are you talking about?"
"It would mean about twenty to twenty-five percent more," she said, beaming.
"That's a big jump. What's the catch?"
"Well ... uhhm ... I'd be working on Saturdays."
"Oh," he said, nodding. "That means we would only see each other one day a week."
"No! I'd be home every night and be here for breakfast in the morning. It would just be Saturdays that I would be gone."
"So, what do we do on Saturdays now?" he asked.
"Well, we go shopping, have lunch together ... you know ... the usual."
"Yeah, the usual. The usual being we do it together and have some time to ourselves. We unwind from the week and talk about what we want to do or places we want to go."
"We can do that Sunday," she said, now showing irritation with Zach's comments.
Zach was quiet for a few moments, obviously thinking.
"Would it make any difference if I asked you not to do it?" he asked, looking her straight in the eye.
"You'd do that? You'd stop me from trying to better myself?"
He was shaking his head. "This isn't about bettering yourself, Lauren, and you know it. It's about recognition and reward. That always comes with a price."
"What do you mean?" she asked, now beginning to get angry.
"With every chance to make more, you get more pressure to perform. You'll find that your boss expects to you stay late to finish up a job or quotation or something that just has to be done and can't wait. Your time ceases to become your own."
"Well, you'd better spell it out, Zach," she spat. "Are you going to support me with this opportunity or not?"
"I would never prevent you from doing what you think is important. I'm trying to point out the change it will make in our family."
"I think you're exaggerating the changes. You just don't want me working on Saturdays. Maybe you don't want me working at all," she snapped, getting up and striding out of the kitchen.
Zach let out a breath and sighed. He knew from the beginning she was going to take the job. What worried him was her attitude at dismissing his concerns about the family and the brief time they had to spend with each other. He had a bad feeling about this, but knew he was going to have to let it play out or risk a real blow-up in their relationship. It appeared that money was becoming a major factor in her life.
It was a surprise when a young woman sat down across from him at his solitary lunch table. He looked at her, realizing she was familiar, but not someone he knew by name.
"Hi, it's Zach Thurlow, isn't it?" she questioned cheerily.
"Yes, that's me."
"I'm Bonnie Cosworth. I work in H.R."
"I'm in engineering."
"Yes, I know. I made the changes to your life insurance and your 401k.
"Nice to meet you, Bonnie," Zach said with a faint smile before returning to his lunch.
"I notice you sit by yourself at lunch. Does my being here bother you?"
"No. I'm not much for socializing, so most people get bored when I don't contribute much to office gossip or whatever the current topics might be."
Zach looked the woman over for the first time. She was about five-foot-five and about twenty pounds overweight. Much of that excess weight seemed to be located on her chest. She had a round face, reddish-brown hair, cut short, a nice complexion, a cheerful smile and a pleasant voice. Her lunch looked like a typical diet lunch: salad, tea and Jello.
"I'm sorry about your divorce," she said after a long quiet spell.
"Why?" she asked in surprise.
"I made an error in judgement and it needed to be corrected."
"Oh. I'm sorry, I shouldn't pry. I know better, especially since I work with so much sensitive information."
"Based on the gossip I hear, there aren't many secrets around this place," he said with a wry smile.
"Speaking of gossip, I heard you turned down a promotion last week."
"You heard right."
"Can you tell me why, or is it none of my business."
"Hah!" he laughed. "It is none of your business, but I don't mind telling you why. My reason is purely financial. I would have received a nice raise to go with the promotion. When I worked out how much the tax man would take, I realized I wouldn't be a great deal better off. On top of that, I'm pretty sure my ex-wife has a couple of spies in here and they would be the first to tell her about the extra money. The next thing would be her lawyer trying to extract higher alimony out of me. So ... all in all, it isn't worth it."
"Oh," she said, looking quite forlorn. "That's a shame."
"No ... don't feel sorry for me. I'm going to be fine. I've come to terms with what's happened and I'm dealing with it. At some point in the not too distant future, I'll be back on track with my sons in college and my ex-wife having to live on whatever she and her paramour can afford. Life does go on," he smiled.
"What's a paramour?" she asked.
"That's an old fashioned name for boyfriend. In this case, my ex-wife is living in what used to be our house. Her boyfriend is living in a rather ordinary apartment since his wife kicked him out. My ex can't allow lover boy to move in with her for two reasons. One, my lawyer is watching her like a hawk and if she tries it, he will jump on her for living common-law and petition to end alimony. The second reason is that my oldest boy would probably beat the living shit out of him if he tried it."
"I take it all is not well between your ex and your sons."
"The moment they can escape, they probably will. That will happen when they go off to college and live on campus. They have a very nice fund that will pay their way unless they get overly ambitious and enroll at Stanford or Harvard. I talk to them regularly, and they tell me they are going to enroll at the local university and stay close to home."
She looked at her watch. "I've got to run. I'm due back at my office." She stood and picked up her tray. She turned to leave and then stopped, turning back to Zach.
"Would you mind if I joined you here at lunch again?"
Zach shook his head. "No ... feel free. I hope you won't be too bored."
"I have a feeling I won't be," she smiled, then left.
Zach looked at his watch. He had at least ten minutes before he was due back. Normally he had a half-hour to kill after lunch. On a nice day, he'd go for a walk around the outside of the building to get some exercise. Today, he just sat and thought about Ms. Cosworth. She was the first person who had the courage to ask him about his personal life, even though almost everyone in the plant was aware of his situation. Was she being nosy? Perhaps. Time would tell.
It didn't take long for Zach to see the changes after Lauren began working Saturdays. Within a month she was getting home later and later during the week and bringing home work with her as well. It was exactly as he had predicted. Success breeds higher expectations. The money was considerably more, of course, but so were the hours. Lauren was still on a high from getting the recognition and the opportunity. She was excited about her work and talked about it incessantly.
At first it stimulated their sex life. She was the aggressor and Zach had to admit it was a side benefit he hadn't expected. A very pleasant side benefit at that. As the months passed, Lauren was given even more responsibility. She was now assigned to specific contractors. This represented more and more opportunity but, along with it, more and more work. The only consolation was that she could do some of that work at home. At least she was in the house, if not available to the other members of the family.
When their personal time diminished once more, so did their sex life. Lauren would be tired, or still working when Zach went to bed. He tried to talk to her about it, but she paid lip service to the problem and made empty promises that seldom were kept. Zach could see the decline in their personal lives and wondered what to do about it.
It was the day of Lance's sixteenth birthday, and they had planned to take Lance and Tanner out to dinner at a nice restaurant to celebrate. Zach made a reservation for seven o'clock at The Penny Farthing, a former bicycle shop that had been converted into an upscale restaurant. When six o'clock came and went with no sign of Lauren, Zach picked up the phone and called her cell.
"Have you forgotten about Lance's birthday?" he asked in an irritated voice when she answered.
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry, Honey, I'm in the middle of something and I can't get away. You go ahead and I'll meet you at the restaurant. I'll get out of here as quick as I can."
"Yeah ... okay. We'll see you when you get there," he said, hanging up, frowning.
"Everything okay, Dad?" Tanner asked.
"Yeah ... I suppose. Your mother is working late and will meet us at the restaurant. We might as well go now. I don't want to lose the reservation."
"Jeez ... what else is new? You'd think she was president of that place."
Zach chose not to respond to his oldest son's snide comment.
They waited a half hour for Lauren to arrive, but finally had to order before starvation set in. They ate their meals in relative silence, hardly the kind of atmosphere for a birthday party. The special cake arrived as dessert and they celebrated the big day for Lance in moody silence. Their mother had still not arrived and it was now evident she wouldn't. Zach paid the check and drove the boys home in silence. It was not a happy occasion.
Lauren arrived home at ten past ten, full of apologies for missing Lance's birthday dinner. She was greeted by stony silence from both her sons and Zach.
"What?" she said in response to the cold shoulder treatment. "I was busy. I had work to do." It was apparent that she wasn't in the least embarrassed by her actions.
"Would a phone call have been too much to ask of you?" Zach asked quietly.
"I lost track of time. I was busy. What's the big deal about a birthday party anyway? For Pete's sake, he's sixteen, not some nine-year-old."
"That's quite an attitude you've developed toward your family," Zach said, standing and moving toward her. "It was never about the birthday, Lauren. It was about one of those now-rare occasions when we can all get together."
"What do you mean, rare occasions. I'm home every night. Why are you making this such a big deal?"
"Because it is a big deal. When was the last time you were home in time to make dinner? Did you know that the boys and I are now the official cooks? Probably not, because you've been so wrapped up in your own little world that it never occurred to you. Most of the time you don't even eat with us despite the fact that we've kept moving dinner time back to allow you to join us."
"I'm getting tired of this constant carping about my job. You've never supported me in what I wanted to do and all you can do is complain. Well, I'm sick of it."
"Do you want a divorce?" Zach asked, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
"What? Of course not. Why would you even ask such a question? You're over-reacting, Zach."
"Well then, let me make something plain. I'm not going to go through much more of your remote control version of a marriage. Make up your mind what's important to you, Lauren. Right now, it looks like the job comes first and everyone and everything else comes third."
With that said, he walked to the bedroom and began to prepare for bed. He lay awake for almost an hour before sleep finally overcame him. Lauren had still not joined him.
"Hi, Zach," Bonnie said in her usual cheerful voice.
"Hello, Bonnie. How are you today?"
"Fine, thank you. And you?"
"Same as always. Just motoring along life's highway, watching out for potholes."
Bonnie giggled. "You always have a new one each day. Do you think them up ahead of time?"
"Only for you, Bonnie. Only for you."
"Well, I'm honored. So how are things in the engineering department?"
"Quite good, I'd say. No real insurmountable problems, that's for sure."
"And what about you, personally? How are your boys?"
"Itching to finish school. Lance is talking about summer school to see if he can get ahead in his final year. He wants to be able to enroll at college and join his brother in the second semester if he can."
"And that would get them out of the house too?" she asked.
"It certainly would," Zach grinned. "I always thought money would be the prime motivator for them, but it turns out getting away from their mother is an incentive that tops any other."
Bonnie's face fell for a moment. "That's a shame, you know. Those boys are going to regret that someday."
"It's possible," Zach agreed. "But they are very angry at Lauren for what she did to the family and what she did to me."
"I can understand that, I guess," Bonnie nodded. "She made the divorce as nasty as possible in spite. She must have known that her sons would take your side."
"I'm not so sure about that," Zach said. "I think she was so removed from reality that she was sure we would do anything to keep the family together. When she turned on me and let the dogs loose, she really alienated Lance and Tanner. I still don't think she understands why."
"Zach, can I ask you a personal question?"
Zach laughed. "Bonnie, all your questions are personal. Go ahead."
"Do you think Lauren cheated on you ... I mean before you asked for the divorce?"
"I don't know for sure," he said solemnly. "I'd hate to think she piled that on top of her other sins, but I have to be realistic and think it's possible. I've heard some rumours."
"You told me weeks ago that she didn't take very long to find a bed buddy," Bonnie said with a sneer.
Zach shrugged. "It doesn't matter, Bonnie. The marriage is over and it wouldn't have made any difference. She isn't the woman I married all those years ago, and I've come to terms with that. When the alimony and child support ends, I'll be a new man with a great job and a great future. I can start again. I just have to get through this bad patch."
"I can't believe how strong you are, Zach. You never moan and complain about what's happened to you. You never look like you're reduced to poverty, even though I know how much you have to pay your lawyers and that ... bitch ... every month. You hold your head up and do your job and everyone here respects you for that."
"Thank you, Bonnie. You know, in all the months that we've been having lunch together, you have been great company. I'll have to think of a way to reward you for that. I really appreciate it and I hope I haven't let you think otherwise."
"Zach ... you're the only man that I can talk to and not wonder if there's another agenda. You look me in the eye, not at my boobs. You share your life with me and never once have you asked me to keep it all in confidence. You must have realized I would never jeopardize our friendship by talking about you to others."
"I never even thought about it, Bonnie. I guess I think of you as a friend and friends don't do those kinds of things. At least, true friends don't."
"Thank you, Zach. That's one of the nicest things you've ever said."
"You're welcome, Bonnie. But there is one thing you should know."
"I do look at your boobs when you aren't watching," he chuckled.
"Oh. You fooled me. They're the only thing that seems to get a man's interest," she sighed.
"Wrong. There's a lot about Bonnie Cosworth that I find very attractive. In fact, I've been trying to work up the courage to ask you out."
"You have?" she said in surprise. "Well ... why don't you?"
"I think I just did," Zach said. "It would be someplace nice and quiet with good food and a decent wine list."
"I'd love to," she gushed. "You name the time and place and I'll be there."
"Well, how about six o'clock this Saturday. I'll pick you up at your place if you'll give me your address."
"Really! Saturday? Six o'clock? You're serious?"
Zach grinned. "Very serious. I'd like to take my favorite lady out to dinner. Have you ever been to The Penny Farthing?"
"No. Isn't that the place you were going to have Lance's birthday party?"
"Yes indeed. However, this time I think it's going to be a lot more fun."
"I'll be ready ... count on it," she said with glee.
"I am counting on it."
"Dad, when are you going to speak to Mom?" Tanner asked. "She's hardly ever home. She never has dinner with us anymore. We might as well not have a mother."
Zach nodded. He had reached the breaking point and it was time to talk to Tanner and Lance about his plans.
"Find your brother for me please. Tell him there's a family meeting and I need him here."
Zach saw Tanner's eyes widen in recognition that something big was coming down. He pulled out his cell phone and called his brother.
"He'll be here in ten minutes," Tanner informed his father.
Zach went to the kitchen and took down a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet. He poured himself a stiff measure into a snifter and waited for his younger son to arrive. Tanner sat silently at the kitchen table, waiting for the meeting with apprehension. He was pretty sure this wasn't going to be good.
Lance arrived just when he said he would, walking in the kitchen door and showing sweat pouring off him.
"What were you doing when Tanner called?" his father asked.
"We were playing touch football. Tanner said it was important, so I booted it over here as fast as I could."
"Thank you, Lance. Why don't you get washed and bring a towel. We can wait a couple more minutes."
"Yeah, sure," he said, moving quickly to the bathroom.
Tanner got up and went to the fridge, taking out two sodas and returned to the table, placing one where Lance would sit. Zach smiled at him for his thoughtfulness toward his brother. It was a simple thing, but sometimes simple gestures like that mean a lot.
"Guys, it's time to tell you what I plan to do. I've done everything I can think of to get your mother to rejoin this family. Oh, I know, her body is here every day at one time or another, but her spirit isn't. For a long time I thought it was about the money and recognition, and maybe that's still so. However, I no longer have a marriage in the way that it once was and I plan to end it. I have filed for divorce. The papers will be formalized next week. That's going to mean some big changes around here."
His sons sat silently, showing neither surprise nor denial.
"The way the law works, your mother will end up with custody of both of you until you are eighteen years old. For you, Tanner, that's only a couple of months from now. Lance, you're going to be a year plus yet.
"I will have to vacate the house and find another place to live. I've already been looking for an apartment and I think I've found one. Once the divorce goes through the courts, the division of assets will take place and I expect the house will go up for sale. I assume we would split the income from its sale and that would allow me to look for something more substantial.
"I will probably have to pay alimony unless we can prove that your mother makes as much or more than me. There will also be lawyer's fees, household maintenance and child support as long as either of you are living here. Your college tuition and board is looked after and can't be touched for any other reason until you complete your education."
Zach stopped and sipped his brandy. Neither of his sons had said a word during his explanation. Finally, Tanner spoke.
"Dad, both Lance and I could see this coming. I wish it wasn't so, but Mom gave up on us for whatever reason. I'm really pissed at her and I know Lance feels the same way. If we have to live with her, she isn't going to enjoy it."
"I appreciate your show of support, guys, but don't make your life any more difficult than it's going to be. You just have to get through a few months and you'll have the freedom to do what you want. I'm not sure how your mother is going to react when I tell her my plans, but it might not be very pretty. Just don't do anything that will really upset the applecart."
"I guess we'll have to wait and see what she does when you tell her," Tanner said sourly. Lance was nodding in agreement.
Zach knew that he wasn't going to be able to delay announcing his intention to Lauren. Although the paperwork wouldn't be ready until Tuesday of the following week, he planned to use Sunday to talk to her. It was now Friday, thus he didn't have to wait very long to release all the tension that had been building while he came to his irrevocable decision.
Lauren arrived home well after seven that evening, walking into the house, briefcase in hand and barely acknowledging Zach's presence. If there was a straw that broke the camel's back, that must have been it. Zach discarded his carefully rehearsed speech for the Sunday and followed his wife to the bedroom.
"There is something you need to know, Lauren," he said, standing in the doorway of their bedroom and she shed her jacket.
"Not now, Zach. I'm tired and I'm hungry. We can talk later," she said dismissively.
"No ... not later ... now!" he snapped.
That got her attention.
"What's so damn important that it can't wait?" she snarled.
"Yesterday, I filed for divorce. The paperwork will be available on Tuesday for your signature. I suggest you get a lawyer to represent you."
"You WHAT!?" she hollered.
"I said, I filed for divorce. The grounds are irreconcilable differences."
"I don't believe you. This is no time for a stupid joke, Zach."
"It's no joke, I'm deadly serious. You've completely abandoned this family over the past year, and I've had enough. I'll be moving out tonight."
"You can't be serious. You are going to divorce me because I have a job?" The expression on her face was one of incredulity.
"Right now and for the last several months, that's all you've had. I'm no longer interested in trying to make this marriage work. Apparently, neither are you."
"You bastard!" she shouted. "You think you can just walk away and leave me alone after twenty years? I'll fight this with everything I have. You've been jealous of me and my success ever since I started work. Now you think you can just dump me like yesterday's newspaper. I've got news for you. I'll get myself a lawyer all right. I'll fight tooth and nail to show you what happens when you try and cross me." Her face had become distorted into a grotesque red mask of rage.