Melody waited for Harmony to get into bed, but the cute little goober stood there grinning at her like she knew something.
The girl pulled back the sheets. “You’re so pretty, mommy.”
Melody smirked. “Thanks, baby. Now, go to sleep.” She sashayed across the small room and tucked her in.
“Are you going out with daddy?” she asked between yawns.
“How would you guess that?”
“Because you look so nice.”
Melody smiled. She should have known the kids would figure it out. They were all so smart despite what some of their report cards said. She wanted to avoid getting their hopes up and chose not to disclose her plans for the night.
She kissed the sweet child. “I love you. Go to sleep.”
“I love you too, mommy.”
Her little sleeping beauty who had claimed not to be tired was knocked out within seconds. Melody chuckled to herself as she watched her for a few moments. Her fingers flexed and relaxed at her sides as the butterflies flitted about her stomach. She had no idea what to expect that evening. River called the previous night and said he wanted to take her to a nice restaurant and show her something afterward. Hopefully, he was finally ready to either tell her what was going on or admit to knowing why she made him leave. She wanted him back home as much as he wanted to be home. She missed him waking her up before she was ready when he arose before everyone else. And, those kisses that made her knees buckle. Before she turned out the lights and left the house, she took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Here’s to a productive evening…
She asked him to meet her there instead of picking her up. He didn’t appreciate that, but those were her terms he needed to accept if she agreed to the date. When she arrived, he was waiting for her at the host’s station with a smile as wide as the Willow Creek River.
“Wow! You look amazing, Bae.”
The host showed them to a table and left them with menus to look over. Memories of Melody’s childhood flooded her mind as she recalled dining in fancy places like Chez Llama from time to time. In a way, it was nice to be back in that environment, but their reality pushed those memories away when she saw the prices.
“Can we afford this?”
“Please don’t worry about that. Just get whatever you want.”
For a quick moment, she wanted to get angry and start accusing him again. Their situation didn’t make sense. How could they afford a mortgage, a hotel bill, and a fancy night out on an adjunct professor’s salary? She remembered what he said the night she kicked him out about being involved in something he couldn’t tell her about. Was it drugs? Where did all this money come from? She wanted answers but decided to be patient. After all, she hoped that was the purpose of the date.
“These dishes sound funny,” she said.
“Yeah…I knew they had experimental food, but I didn’t know that’s all they had.”
“I think I’ll try this volcano pasta. It sounds relatively normal.”
He chuckled. “Yeah…I think I’ll play it safe too. I wonder if the beets are good.”
Her nose wrinkled. “You like that?”
“My mother used to make the best beets.”
She stuck out her tongue as if she were gagging. “The only beets I ever had were those canned pieces of crap from school.”
He laughed. “Those were pretty gross, I have to say.”
The server took their orders and left them alone again. Someone began playing the piano which added to the already posh environment. It felt so familiar yet foreign to her as she sat and listened.
River cleared his throat. “You look great, Mel.”
She smiled. “You said that already.”
“I’m saying it again. I miss you…”
Melody always enjoyed her husband’s silver tongue, but she didn’t go through the hassle of looking amazing to be schmoozed. Her defenses went up immediately. “What’s this all about, Riv?”
He waved his finger. “We are going to enjoy ourselves before we get down to business. How is Stefan?”
She let out a frustrated sigh and rolled her eyes. Why is that even a question?? It’s not like he never saw him. In fact, he was just at the house a couple of days ago. Maybe he wasn’t asking about his son’s well being. After all, sometimes River didn’t say things like everyone else. Maybe he wanted her own assessment of how their son fared. Yeah. That was it. At least it was the only explanation she would accept to keep herself in check.
“I think he’s trying to move on, but it’s hard, you know? Like, he wants to believe she’s still alive and will be found one day, but he also knows he’s not doing well and needs to do better.”
He nodded and looked a bit saddened. Despite him not being a hands-on parent as of late, she knew he cared deeply for her and the kids. And, she knew his love was part of what kept him away despite everything she accused him of. His absence was like a puzzle she tried to put together. She had placed many pieces and could see a picture forming, but the most important pieces were still missing.
The server came back with their meal, and Melody was so delighted at the presentation she couldn’t stop looking at it.
“Volcano pasta!” She laughed. “Look, Riv. The sauce is actually flowing from the shell! I wonder how they make it do that…or maybe I don’t want to know. I’m not sure I need to be eating this now.”
“That is kinda freaky. Let’s see what’s going on with these beets.”
They both ate a mouthful of their meal and were surprisingly dissatisfied with the flavors.
“Ugh,” River shouted. “That is WAY too much vinegar!”
“And this sauce is too salty!”
“Is everything all right?” the server asked.
“No,” River said. “Her food is over salted, and mine is drowned in vinegar.”
“I’m sorry you’re not satisfied. Let me take those for you, and we’ll try again, ok?”
He took the plates and disappeared once more. While they waited, they fell into a nice conversation about Harmony and Melody swimming together. When their meals returned, they talked about Maurice and his attitude. They also wondered when he would begin showing an interest in girls not that they wanted to rush him.
After dinner, Melody felt decidedly lighter and less guarded. It was nice to be away from the kids’ curious eyes. And, not talking about their problems was a nice change too. But, she hadn’t forgotten he said there was something he wanted to show her. She crossed her proverbial fingers and hoped whatever it was wouldn’t ruin their nice evening.
River was glad she wore flats, not that they would walk too far. “Ready?”
“Where are we going?”
“Just across the street.”
She eyed him suspiciously. He knew he made her nervous with all the secrecy, but he couldn’t risk telling her anything beforehand and lose her before they ever made it there.
Walking out into the balmy night, he let her get ahead of him. He was getting nervous. What would she think? How would she react? Would this be the last nail to close the coffin of their marriage? Why didn’t he tell her long time ago and deal with the consequences? Would that have been easier?
When she saw he meant for them to go inside the tall, fancy, glass building, she paused and tensed up. “What is this place?”
He smiled. “You’ll see.”
“Wow,” she said, looking around the place. “This is beautiful! Where are we?”
“This is where I work,” he said hesitantly.
He couldn’t see her face, but he knew her smile had faltered. “Come on.”
They rounded a corner.
“Are we going up or down?”
“What’s down there?”
“Ummm…storage.” Temporary storage of notorious criminals to be exact.
She kept her eyes on him while they mounted the stairs. He simply smiled and hoped it would distract her from the fishiness that was the entire evening.
With his heart pounding in his chest, he opened the door in front of them and showed her into the office. “This is where I come every day. I sit right here.” He pointed to his station. “This is Joaquin. He works the night shift.”
He didn’t need to see her face to know all the wheels in her brain were spinning as fast as they could.
They exited the office and proceeded to another one.
“This is my boss’ office.”
“Pretty sweet for a principal’s office.”
He was glad she found humor from somewhere.
River would have much rather sat there all night gazing into her emerald eyes, but the night had only begun and he felt his courage slipping away. Her patience melted away with her smile.
“Riv…why did you bring me here? And…why do I get the feeling you’re about to tell me something bad.”
He sighed. Showtime. “It’s not bad. It might sound bad, but I promise you it’s not.”
Her eyes pleaded with him. “Riv, please just tell me!”
“Ok.” He looked away from her and took a long deep breath. His clasped hands accompanied a silent prayer for everything to turn out well. “I’m not a fishing instructor. This is not the university.”
His stomach churned so much he swore she could hear it. “This is the Sims Intelligence Agency. I work for them. The fishing thing was a cover.”
He heard the sounds of her heart breaking in that gasp.
“You’re a spy?”
“When you’re not home, you’re here?”
“Sometimes. Other times I’m out trying to solve my case.”
“All this time…you’ve been lying!”
He panicked. “Yes, but only because I had to! I wasn’t allowed to tell you anything. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone anything.”
“I get it, Riv, but it still hurts. I feel like I don’t know you anymore. I think I liked it better when I thought you were hanging with your friends every night.”
“Mel, please! You know me! I haven’t changed! I’m still the same Riv. I just have a different job than you thought. Yeah, it’s dangerous and secretive, but that’s the only difference! I swear! Please try to understand. You know I would never lie to you like that. I’ve only not been truthful because of the job. The world is getting so dangerous, and I’m just doing what I can to keep my family safe! Please believe me, Mel! I need to come home!”
River felt like she was peering directly into his soul. He wished she would say something. Finally, she looked away for a moment, closed her eyes, and breathed. When she came back to him, she looked less upset.
“This was a lot, Riv.”
“I…I don’t even know where to begin!”
“I just…I need to process all this.”
“Of course. Take all the time you need, but please…don’t take too long.”
Back at the hotel, River let a few tears fall as he thought about the possible outcomes. Despite him living in that tiny room for the past few months, he never considered their marriage would end. They were going through a rough patch and needed time to get through it. But, for the first time, he considered the possibility of the end. He didn’t want that and couldn’t bear the thought. In the midst of the tears, the phone rang. He knew it wasn’t her that quickly but hoped it was. He couldn’t look at the caller ID.
“It’s a great day for fishing!”
Guy was the last person he wanted to talk to. “Yessirree,” he said unenthusiastically.
“Are you and Eor having a party over there? What’s got you so glum?”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry about it. What’s up?”
“I just thought you’d like to know I went ahead and recommended you for paid leave. You didn’t ask me to do that, but–well–you wouldn’t do that so I did. It was approved, so don’t come in tomorrow.”
River was conflicted. He should have been happy to have more time to spend with the family and get back in Melody’s good graces. But, at the same time, he wanted to see this case through until the end no matter how much of a conflict of interest it was.
“Is that all?”
“Boy. Something’s got your panties in a wad.”
“Hold on, hold on, now. There’s one more thing.”
River pretended like he punched the phone. “What??”
“We picked up the good doctor…”
Something that felt like lightning struck through River’s body. “Dr. Smiley? She-she’s guilty??” He felt like shouting and dancing through the halls. Maybe Melody really could take as long as she needed with their biggest threat out of the way.
“Guilty as sin. But, she’s just a worker bee. We still need to find who she’s working for. That’ll be our big fish. This will all be over soon, Riv.”
River’s stomach dropped. Children would continue to go missing. His family was still not safe, and now, there wasn’t anything he could do about it except sit in his hotel and wait.