Home > Thick as Thieves(2)

Thick as Thieves(2)
Author: Sandra Brown

“I suppose the rooms upstairs are as empty as these,” Lisa remarked. “Doesn’t appear as though you’ve been in here at all.” She gave the staircase a sweeping glance, then turned back into the kitchen. “Where are you sleeping?”

Arden nodded toward the room off the kitchen. Lisa gave the partially open door a push with the knuckle of her index finger.

It was a square and featureless space with a square and featureless window. Their mother, Marjorie, had used it as a catch-all to store Christmas decorations, castoff clothing bound for Goodwill, their dad’s rarely used golf clubs, a portable sewing machine, and such.

When Arden moved in, she’d decided to set up a temporary bedroom in here rather than use her old room upstairs, saving herself from having to go up and down the stairs as her pregnancy advanced and she grew more ungainly.

That was no longer an issue.

When the first pain gripped her, Arden dropped the apple she’d been testing and splayed her hands over her distended abdomen. Although the sharp and unexpected contraction robbed her of breath, she gave a cry of fright.

“What’s the matter, honey?”

She turned toward a voice filled with concern. She registered a pleasant face framed by gray hair, a blue-and-white-striped blouse, and kindly eyes. Then another pain seized her, meaner than the one before. Her knees buckled.

“Oh, goodness. Your water broke. You’re going into labor.”

“No! I can’t be. It’s too early.”

“How far along are you?”

“It’s too early!” Her voice went shrill with panic. “Call 911. Please.”

Lisa was commenting on her drab, makeshift bedroom. “I simply don’t understand why you chose to come back here and live like this.”

Arden had furnished the room with a twin bed, a nightstand and lamp, and a chest of drawers that she had assembled herself over the course of two days. She remembered feeling a great sense of accomplishment and had imagined herself assembling a crib soon.

The mirror that Arden had mounted on the wall above the chest reflected Lisa’s dismay as she came back around, shaking her head slowly and regarding Arden as she would an indecipherable ancient transcript.

“Is there anything to drink?”

Without waiting for an answer, Lisa returned to the kitchen and checked inside the refrigerator. “Good. Diet Coke. Or would you rather have something else? Does the ice maker work?”

Arden tried to keep up with Lisa’s brisk thought processes, but her mind was fettered by vivid recollections.

“You’ll be all right. Lie back. Take deep breaths.”

A young woman in yoga attire had responded to the older lady’s shout for help. She eased Arden down until she was reclining in the supporting arms of another stranger who’d taken up position behind her. Kneeling at her side, the young woman continued to speak to her in a calm and soothing manner. But nothing she’d said helped, not with the pain that assailed her, not with the despair that was equally intense.

Desperate, she shoved her hands between her thighs in an effort to hold inside the life that her body was prematurely trying to expel.

Lisa located the drinking glasses in the cabinet in which they’d always been and poured them each a drink. Bringing them to the table with her, she sat down across from Arden.

She sipped from her glass, then reached out and covered Arden’s hand with her own. “Baby sister.”

Lisa whispered the endearment with affection, caring, and concern. All of which Arden knew to be genuine. Lisa was as baffled by her life choices as she was annoyed.

She said, “From the moment you called me yesterday, I’ve been in a tizzy. I don’t know how much you remember of last evening, but when I got to the hospital, you were in hysterics one minute and near catatonic the next. I was beside myself. Then this morning, trying to get you out of there…”

“What’s your name?”

At her side and bending over her, the EMT had replaced the yoga-clad woman. He was young and fresh-faced.

“Arden Maxwell.”

“Arden, we’re going to take care of you, okay? How far along are you?”

“Twenty-two weeks.”

His partner, who looked like a career bodybuilder, was taking her vitals. They asked everyone who’d congregated around her to move aside, then lifted her onto the gurney, and rolled her out of the store.

The midday sun was directly overhead. It was blinding. Her vision turned watery.

She blotted tears from her eyes now.

Lisa must have noticed, because she stopped enumerating the aggravations associated with being discharged from the hospital. “What I’m leading up to is that this is the first chance I’ve had to tell you how sorry I am. Truly, truly sorry, Arden.” She stroked Arden’s hand.

Fresh tears welled up in Arden’s eyes. She looked into her untouched glass of Coke where bubbles rose in a rush to the surface, only to burst upon reaching it. Something vital and alive, extinguished faster than a blink.

In the ambulance, her jeans were cut away. She was draped. When the young-looking medic examined her, his smooth brow wrinkled.

She struggled to angle herself up in order to see what had caused his consternation, but the bodybuilder kept her pressed down, a hand on each of her shoulders, not unkindly, but firmly.

“My baby will be all right, won’t she?” Arden sobbed. “Please. Tell me she’ll be okay.”

But, thinking back on it now, she believed she’d known even then, on a primal and instinctual level, that her girl child would never draw breath.

“You probably won’t believe this,” Lisa continued as she rubbed her thumb across Arden’s knuckles, “but I admired you for electing to have the baby. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was appalled when you told me about it and what you planned to do. Coming back here to live and raise the child. Here of all places?”

She took a look around as though seeking to find an explanation for the inexplicable written on the faded wallpaper. “It’s masochistic. Does this self-inflicted punishment have to do with the baby’s father?”

Arden picked up her glass and tried to hold it steady as she took a sip of Coke. The glass clinked against her lower teeth. She set it back down.

In a hushed tone, Lisa said, “Is he married, Arden?”

She cast her eyes downward.

Lisa sighed. “I figured as much. Did he even know you were pregnant?”

She took Arden’s silence as a no.

“Just as well,” Lisa said. “You’re under no obligation to tell him now. If he didn’t know about the child, he doesn’t need to know about its fate. That episode of your life is behind you. You can start afresh. Clean slate.”

Again she covered Arden’s hand and pressed it affectionately. “First thing on the agenda is to get you away from here. I want you to move in with me until you figure out what you want to do with your life.” She gave Arden time to respond, but when she didn’t, she continued. “Since Wallace died, the house seems so empty.”

Lisa’s husband, who had been much older than she, had died two years earlier. No doubt their huge, rambling house in an elite neighborhood of Dallas did feel empty.

“I’ll give you all the privacy you wish, of course, but Helena will be delighted to have you there to fuss over. She and I will pamper you until you’re completely recovered.” She smiled and patted Arden’s hand again before checking her watch.

“You can’t have much to pack. If we get away soon, we’ll be there by dark. Helena will have dinner waiting.” She was about to leave her chair, when she paused. “And, Arden, you’re not under a deadline. Give yourself time to think things through. Really think through an idea before you act on it. Don’t rush headlong into something.

“In all honesty, I had a bad feeling about your move to Houston, and, at that point, I didn’t even know about your relationship with this married man. Granted, the job held promise, but your pulling up stakes and relocating seemed impulsive and doomed from the start.”

The attending physician in the ER clasped her hand. “Ms. Maxwell, I’m sorry.”


“Your daughter was stillborn.”


“Don’t blame yourself. Nothing you did caused it. It was an accident of nature.”

Doomed from the start.

Feeling as though her breastbone was about to crack open, Arden pushed back her chair and went over to the sink. Opening the blinds on the window above it, she looked out at the backyard in which Lisa and she had played.

The fence was missing slats. The grass had been overtaken by weeds. Her mother’s rose bed, to which she’d given so much tender loving care, was a patch of infertile dirt.

She sensed Lisa moving up behind her even before her sister encircled her waist and rested her chin on her shoulder so she could share the view through the window. “I remember the day Dad brought the swing set home for you.”

It was still anchored in the ground with concrete blocks, but it was rusty, and the chain was broken on one of the swings.

“I was around twelve years old, so you would have been two. There was a little seat for you with a bar across your lap.”

Lisa rubbed her chin against the knob at the crest of Arden’s shoulder. “You were too young to remember that, but surely you remember when I taught you how to skin-the-cat.”

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