by Jes Stone
1667 Words

The museum sighed. At last, the pesky Living Ones were gone—if only for a few hours. Her children were now free to move about—to romp and play, to snarl and snivel. They could go and beat their drums and dance. They were released to call out insults from their gilded frames, now able to preen thick feathers and scratch matted fur. The Living Ones spoke of her children as being acquired, but she preferred the term adopted. Each one, no matter what shape or size, had been welcomed into her safe embrace.

Over the many decades, she’d been the gracious hostess to a horde of Living Ones. Still, none of them, not even the clever Good Time Girls, had given her as much delight as the members of her large and culturally diverse family—dysfunctional as they might be. The life they shared—in the darkest hours—was a good life, and she wanted it to go on for centuries. But now, something threatened her family, and this worried her.

The Living Ones wanted to make changes to her world—changes to her family. Some of them wanted to rearrange the housing, do a little remodeling. Well, certainly, she could live with that. Some of them wanted to bring in more children—paintings from France, sculptures from Italy. Bravo! She’d welcome them all. But some of them—at least one of them—wanted to break up her family. And there is nothing worse than splitting apart members of a family. A female Living One seemed the most threatening. That Living One—the one they called Toni—wanted to sell her and scatter her family members to the winds—probably through a massive yard sale.

As the dolls bickered among themselves and the dinosaurs chomped plastic greenery, the museum thought of the Living Ones, and she wondered what she, an ancient, crumbling building, could do to protest her clutch of adopted children.

***

Pete Masters leaned against the black leather sofa in their massive living room and waited. He’d always considered himself a patient man though lately, he’d begun to feel antsy—uneasy. True, his boredom and his loneliness had something to do with his feeling of discontent, but there was something else. A nagging hunch that something wasn’t right. A suspicion that maybe, just maybe, he’d outstayed his marital welcome.

Despite the fact that Toni seemed proud to introduce him to colleagues and to show him off to clients, he had a sense that somehow, it was all a show—that somehow, his wife was playing a role she no longer found entertaining.

Pete had approached Toni with his concerns on two different occasions, but both times, things had gone poorly, and he’d been forced to let the issue drop. But she’d seemed, at least to him, to be unusually preoccupied with her work over the past several weeks. His need to discuss his fears, to find out what was going on with his beloved wife, had grown intolerable. He felt it was time that he knew where he stood. It was time to learn the truth—no matter how much it might hurt. No matter what it took, he would find out how his wife felt about him—about the state of their marriage, and he would find out tonight.

But he had to be careful with the timing. Toni’s feelings, and sometimes her thoughts, were as secret as black ice. And, like a sleek Siamese cat, she could go either way—she might respond with a sensuous stretch and a rumbling purr, or she could strike with talons and teeth. The very thought of her fury gave him gooseflesh.

As he watched her pace the room, he thought about who he could talk to—who might listen to his concerns. Who might offer reasoned council?

He didn’t have any close confidants in this town—all their friends, their dinner guests, the people they met for cocktails—they were all associates of Toni, they were all rungs on her personal ladder. Nice enough, as casual acquaintances go, but no one that he felt he could share this sort of thing with. He did enjoy chatting with the young museum director, Lindsay DeMan. Whenever Toni dragged him to a fund-raiser or a collection opening, he would seek out Lindsay’s company. Lindsay always attended events as a single person—never brought a plus one—and she was consistently friendly and seemed interested in what he had to say. But she was too closely associated with Toni and with the other members of the museum’s board for the two of them to discuss anything more than the weather and the museum’s recent acquisitions.

He thought about the only person he’d taken into his confidence since they’d moved to this town—the barista at the Subdued Brews Coffee and Pub. Her green and lavender dread-locks were exotic and bizarre in a fun sort of way, and the three silver rings in her lower lip intrigued him. But more than her looks, he was attracted to her kindness—to her openness. She seemed to know all the regulars by name, and she frequently asked them about something they’d shared during their exchanges at the coffee counter. He especially liked the way she always beamed when he walked up to the register. They had not shared much more than brief, friendly banter as he gave his order each morning. Still, in less than a month of triple lattes—decaf, hazelnut, no fat, no foam—he’d learned that she was working toward an on-line MFA and was on the eighth draft of her novel, a sci-fi romance set under the sea in the City of Atlantis. And, over the course of those thirty sugary drinks, she’d somehow managed to draw out his secret desire—he too, wanted to become a writer. He told her that he wanted to write western romance novels set in Utah during the Nixon era. When he’d mumbled about his wife having dismissed the idea as pure insanity, Sunburst Fawn-Flower (the name on her badge) had reached across the counter and touched his hand. Her fingers were warm and slightly sticky with hazelnut syrup. Now, while he waited for Toni to speak—or to do whatever she wished—he thought about those sticky fingers on his skin and about how he hadn’t washed his hands for the rest of that day.

“Pete? Are you paying attention?” Toni stood in front of the sofa and held her empty glass to him.

“Sorry, darling, I must have drifted off. I’ll be right back.” He stood, took her glass, and walked to their kitchen for a refill.

When he returned, he found that Toni had changed from her tailored slacks and silk blouse to a flowing satin robe. She’d tied the robe—loose—at the waist.

“Thank you, sweets.” She took her glass and raised on tip-toes to brush her lips across his. “You are such a dear.”

“What’s this about? Let go of the stressful day?” With his heart thumping, he took a sip of wine and tried to look casual, calm. Toni was up to something—this he knew for sure.

“Yes, it was a stressful day. Problems with the Henderson deal, foreclosure on the hotel, a hit to my portfolio, and, to top it all off—that ridiculous museum board meeting. Bunch of small-town ninnies who want to preserve a conglomeration of junk that probably wouldn’t sell at a garage sale. Which brings me to a little problem, and I’m hoping you can help me work through it.”

“Anything, darling. You know that. What can I do for you?”

Toni smiled, sipped her wine, and looked at him over the rim of her glass. Her eyes glittered. She sat the glass on the table and smiled.

For the second time that evening, Pete shivered. He thought of the seductive danger of cats.

“It’s just that I need to work something out, and sometimes, when we’re close—you know,” she glanced at the sofa, “it helps to clear my mind—helps ideas to flow.” She tugged at the satin tie on her robe and gave a small shrug. The fabric slid from her shoulders and pooled at her feet.

Pete didn’t say a word. He simply set his glass on the table next to hers, wrapped his arms around his wife, and lowered her to the sofa.

Their time together was a well-choreographed dance that rarely held surprises. Toni knew precisely what she wanted and how she wanted it. Early on, she had educated him, and he’d been a perfect student. Now, at the apex of their love-making, he glanced at their reflections shimmering in the expansive wall of glass—wavy images backlit with points of light—star and city. They fit so well together—male and female, taunt in mid-arc, husband and wife, melding. If only the rest of their marriage could be this effortless. He looked down at her beautiful face—her eyes closed, fringed with long lashes, her pouting lips open just wide enough for a gasp. He breathed deep, moved slow, now faster, now only a single shudder away.

“Wait!”  Her eyes snapped open.  

He froze, mid-thrust—held her immobile. He hoped that she wanted…but he knew she didn’t.

“What?” His word came out like a croak.

“Paul Hanson.”

“Who?”

Her eyes flashed sparks in their dark pools. “Paul Hanson—the developer. He’s looking for a building—something with character—something Avant guard. He wants to create a high-end community with condos, galleries, a café. The old museum is exactly the right property. And I would represent both the seller and the buyer. Oh, darling…” she dug her nails into his shoulders, her voice breathy, “Do you think the timing is right?  Do you think it’s too late for me to call him?”

Pete pulled back, lowered his wife to the black leather, and stood.

“No, my darling. Your timing is perfect.”

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