When Stella saw his car in the driveway, dread slithered out of her belly and up into her throat. Inside the house, Rod Stewart crooned Best Days of My Life on the stereo, and Jack held a full glass of wine out for her.
“You’re home before dark,” she said, taking the wine.
“I came home early to talk to you,” he said.
She took up position on the far side of the table from him. “What’s up?”
Jack sat and gulped his beer. “I know this will sound crazy.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “A few months ago I met a woman who told me she’d been secretly in love with me for years.”
She sipped her wine, watching him.
“She reminds me so much of you, Stel, you know, funny and smart and creative. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I fell in love with her.”
He stretched across the table and cupped her hands. “The thing is, Stel, having a relationship with this woman made me see how much I love you, and I don’t want to lose you.”
Stella noticed the bluebonnets in the mason jar on the table had wilted, their heads bowed like they were embarrassed by the scene in front of them. She studied Jack, the loose skin bagging under the pale brown eyes that had changed from love to fury in a heartbeat; the weak upper lip camouflaged by a moustache that twisted into a snarl as his hands had lashed out, punishing her for what she never knew.
Stella glimpsed movement in the window behind Jack’s head and saw the young girl she’d been when she moved to Texas. Naïve and overdosed on Hollywood and Happily Ever After, she’d been easy prey for the Machiavellian puppeteer who dangled her from tiny wires and made her dance. As she watched the parade of lies she’d told to hide his abuse and the other women who’d notched his pistol march past her, a spark of rage ignited inside her. She poked at the feeling to see if it were real, and it reared up, hot and bright, and poked her back.
When she looked down at Jack’s hands covering hers, Stella shuddered in disgust and yanked them free.
“Dammit, Stella, are you listening to me? I said I love you and don’t want to lose you.”
She stared at him. “You already have,” she said, her voice calm.
“No, dammit. You listen to me. I’ve figured out some possibilities that will work if we behave like adults about this thing.”
“There are no possibilities, Jack, and there is no ‘thing.’ I’ll be packed and gone by morning.”
“What in hell’s gotten into you?” He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Listen, Stel. I know you’ll really like this woman. I think the three of us can live here together, happily, as a family …”
She flung what was left of her wine into his smarmy face.
“Bitch.” He jumped up and swiped at the wine.
She grabbed her phone, dialed 911 and hovered her thumb over the call button. “Get the hell out of here this instant, Jack, or this call goes through. I mean it. Get-the-hell-out.”
Jack hurled his beer bottle at the kitchen wall, spraying them both with shards of glass and beer foam. Stella brought her thumb down on the phone’s button and pressed.
“All right, damn you, I’ll leave.” Jack grabbed his jacket and strode past her. “But I’ll be back tomorrow when you’ve come to your senses.” He punched a hole through the screen door, jumped into his truck and peeled down the driveway.
Stella bolted the door and went to the refrigerator for more wine, kicking the broken glass out of her way. She collapsed into her rocking chair, breathed deeply to calm her trembling, and surprised herself with the laugh that bubbled out of her. “Well done, Stella girl,” she said out loud. “You grew yourself a nice set of balls this afternoon.”
At daybreak, her car crammed to the headliner and her rocking chair bungee corded in the trunk, Stella headed for her favorite hideaway, an old 1950’s motel tucked far back in the Hill Country. She needed a day to eat up some road and let the wind tug at her hair. She’d stop somewhere along the way and pick up supplies for a night of serious thinking.
At the motel, Stella dragged her rocking chair onto the tiny porch and sat rocking and drinking wine while the day crawled into the trees and disappeared. Tree frogs, crickets and an occasional train’s mournful wail kept her company as she reviewed her life and her options. She’d lived a lifetime defined and denigrated by men, first her father then her husband, her dreams scoffed at, her opinions ignored, her body bruised. “No more, dammit,” she shouted and raised her glass to the stars. “I am free now and will by-damn stay free the rest of my life.”
As Stella stared up into the night sky, a picture formed in her mind of Jack staked out on a large fire ant bed, face twisted, arms and legs jerking against the ropes. Two gloved hands, one holding a barbeque baster and the other a bucket of glistening honey, slathered the writhing body, paying particular attention to the holster area.
“I swear, Jack darlin, I’ve never seen you look so good,” Stella grinned and toasted the vision. “Know what I’m going to do first thing tomorrow, Jack? I’m going to send that floozy of yours a big bouquet of yellow roses and enclose a thank you card signed, From the One Who Got Away. Or would a sympathy card be more appropriate, do you think?” Her laugh was high and light, like that of a child chasing butterflies across a field of wildflowers.
When Stella pulled onto the highway the next morning, Garth Brooks’ The Dance played on the radio. She listened to his lament, then rolled down the window and shouted into the wind. “Yo, Garth-Baby, from now on this girl chooses her own songs and her own goddamned dancehalls.” The sun beamed at her over the horizon, and she sped into her new day.