ONCE IAN MOVED into the house full time, the atmosphere at 44 Charles Street changed totally, just as it had when each of them moved in. It became a family and a real home, with a child in their midst. Marya cooked and baby-sat for Ian when Chris was too busy to take care of him after school. Francesca took him to the gallery with her and went on outings with him on weekends. He loved hanging out at the gallery, meeting the artists who dropped by regularly, and was fascinated by the paintings. And Eileen demonstrated her teaching skills and played wonderful games with him, and taught him to make origami birds. With Eileen directing them, they all made puppets in papier-m?ch? one weekend and turned the kitchen into a total mess but the results were beautiful and Ian was thrilled. Eileen had an amazing knack with kids, and Ian followed her like the Pied Piper. He’d go up to her room, and she would read him his favorite books for hours. Chris was always grateful to her. Ian loved it.
And they all dyed Easter eggs with him, and put them in little baskets with brightly colored shredded cellophane “grass.” Eileen provided the supplies. Ian suddenly had a grandmother and two aunts whom he’d never had before. And Francesca’s father and Avery came to Easter dinner, where Marya prepared a splendid ham and decorated the table with Easter eggs, with a gigantic chocolate egg in the center of the table, which she allowed Ian to eat for dessert. He went to see his maternal grandmother several times, and Chris was good about getting him there, but it was in the house on Charles Street where Ian felt the most loved and had the most fun. The women in the house were devoted to him, each in her own way, and Ian loved them.
Chris beamed as he watched the child blossom, and it was an agonizing day when he had to go back to court in May when Ian’s mother claimed to be back on her feet, and was out of rehab again. She wanted Ian to come home. Chris looked gray when he left for court, and worse when he got back. She had done it again with her father’s help, and convinced the judge. Chris had to take Ian back to her the next day, and return to the visitation schedule they’d had before she OD’d. It was his worst nightmare come true again. She had appeared angelic and remorseful in court.
Ian looked painfully subdued when he said goodbye to all of them.
“You’ll be back next weekend,” Marya reminded him. “We’ll make almond cookies then. See you soon, Ian,” she said as she kissed him goodbye, and Francesca had a lump in her throat the size of a fist when she hugged him. Eileen gave him her own teddy bear to take with him. All three women were crying when they walked back into the house after he and Chris left in a cab. And Chris looked devastated when he got home after dropping Ian off. He looked sick, and Francesca knew he was. He went upstairs and went to bed, and stayed there for two days, while Marya brought him comfort food on trays and he refused to eat. He was morbidly depressed that weekend and worried sick. What if something happened to Ian? Or she used and put him at risk? Chris could hardly function until Ian came back for the weekend the following week. The child had been sorely missed, and the house felt like a tomb once he left on Sunday night.
Without Ian, the house took up its old more adult rhythm again. Marya went to Vermont to check on things there. Eileen started dating more again, and was out almost every night. She had slowed down for a while. During Ian’s time there she had stayed home more than usual, and enjoyed being with him. She had been through several boyfriends in the past few months, and she got involved with someone new in June. And Francesca was trying to force herself to think about dating too. Everything had been on hold in all their lives while Ian lived with them. Without him, they became single adults again with lives of their own to lead. But on the weekends he was there, they all concentrated on him. It touched Chris’s heart. They had acquired a new family at the house on Charles Street. And he had three good friends to help him through tough times. And at least for now, his ex-wife was clean according to the tests, and being responsible with Ian. But judging from past history Chris knew it wouldn’t last.
June was a busy month for all of them. Marya was working hard on her new book. They had new dishes to try every night. Chris loved to tease Marya about it. As time passed, he seemed more relaxed and less anxious about Ian, although still skeptical about his ex-wife’s ability to stay sober long term.
“If I don’t come home to a five-star meal every night, I feel deprived. I think I’ve gained ten pounds since I moved in,” he complained to Marya with a grin.
“You needed it.” Marya smiled at him. And she was teaching Ian to cook when he was with them on alternate weekends. So far his mother was behaving, but Chris knew it was only a matter of time before she screwed up again. He had been through it with her for ten years. He had discovered her addiction to drugs before Ian was conceived. He had seen her through two rounds of rehab and then she got pregnant. The only time she had been totally off drugs was while she was expecting him. She fell off the wagon again three months after he was born. He no longer believed that she could clean up for a reasonable amount of time. He was sure she’d start using again any day. He just hoped that when it happened Ian would somehow be spared the agony of it. Chris was waiting for the other shoe to drop and he knew it would. The only question in his mind was when.
Eileen showed up with her new boyfriend, and Francesca was discouraged to see that he was one of the ones with pierces and tattoos. She seemed to ricochet between preppy young men who worked in ad agencies or banks, were school teachers, or had other traditional jobs, and wilder ones who worked on the fringes of the arts or related fields. This time she had gone a little further off the beaten path, and her new man was a motorcycle mechanic. Francesca couldn’t stand him and thought he was intolerably rude. He was handsome, there was no denying it, and sexy, she could see his physical appeal, but there was an underlying current that made everyone uncomfortable, and he wanted to control everything that Eileen did. It infuriated Francesca whenever Eileen talked about it. It seemed as though his wanting to control her flattered her, and she mistook it for love. It reminded Francesca more of abuse. And he didn’t hesitate to put Eileen down in front of them and belittle her. He had just done it one morning, after Marya had made breakfast for all of them, and Brad, the new boyfriend, made a nasty comment to and about Eileen. Francesca bristled immediately, but didn’t say anything. And then he did it again. This time she called him on it, while Eileen looked mortified and stared into her plate. She didn’t like to upset him.
“Why do you say things like that about her?” Francesca challenged him. She had only seen him a few times, but she didn’t like anything about him.
“What’s it to you?” He glared at Francesca across the table, intending to intimidate her. He didn’t. It just made her angrier at him.
“It’s mean. She’s a wonderful woman, and she’s nice to you. We’re her friends. Why would you say something like that about her?” He had called Eileen a dummy, repeatedly, which she certainly wasn’t, except maybe about him. And he hadn’t said it affectionately.
Francesca and Brad had an encounter at the coffeepot a few minutes afterward, when he grabbed it away from her, still angry about what she had said to him. He felt humiliated. And a little bit of the hot coffee splashed onto Francesca’s hand, which he had intended. She gave a sharp shout as it burned her, and gave the coffeepot up to him.
“Oh, did it burn you?” he asked sarcastically with a grin. “Sorry, dear,” he said as he poured it into a cup and started back to the table, and walked right into Chris, who stood looking at him with murder in his eyes.
“Don’t ever do anything like that again. Don’t even think about it,” Chris said to him. “This is a family. We stick up for each other, and you’re lucky to be here. So you’d better be nice to everybody while you’re here, and that includes Eileen. Got that, mister?” Francesca was stunned when she saw the look that passed between the two men. Chris was shaking with anger, and Brad took one look at him, threw his napkin down, and stormed out of the kitchen. Eileen stayed just long enough to apologize to everyone, and then ran after him. They could hear him shouting at her at the front door, and a moment later his motorcycle roared off.
“I don’t like that guy,” Chris said through clenched teeth. “He’s dangerous. I don’t know what she’s doing with a guy like that.” No one did, but he was sexy and she was young, and so was he. The bad-boy syndrome. Maybe she was going out with him just because she could, and she figured she could handle it. Francesca was thinking about asking her not to bring him to the house again, but it was Eileen’s home too. She wondered if Chris’s outburst might keep him in line, or maybe he wouldn’t want to come back either. She was touched by what Chris had said, and she loved the family feeling they now shared.
Francesca started dating someone too that month. She had only been out with him three times, and he seemed nice enough, although she wasn’t in love with him. But he was nice to go out with.
He was an artist, but not one she represented. She had a good time with him, although she wasn’t serious about him. He had very left-wing ideas, and he thought her father was a sellout for becoming successful and charging big prices. He thought artists should do their work for the people, which was a little too out there for her. But he was intelligent and fun, and slightly irresponsible. In some ways he reminded her a little of her father when he was younger. He had something of his looks and charm, and he was a little vague the way her father had been in his youth. There was something very familiar about him. She knew the type, although she didn’t have Avery’s patience with it. She had no desire to reform him. Dinner with him was enough. More than that would have been too much. But he was really the first person she had dated since Todd. It was good practice, but she knew she’d never be serious about him. He made her laugh, which was nice, and feel like a woman again, which wasn’t bad either. But she had no chemistry for him whatsoever. He was na?ve and unrealistic and seemed like a child to her. She didn’t want to date a boy, she wanted to go out with a man, if she took that step again with anyone. She knew the type, a lot of the artists she knew and represented acted like children. She didn’t want to mother him.
The day after Chris’s run-in with Eileen’s new boyfriend in the kitchen, Marya was going to try out a new recipe on them. They had all promised to be home for dinner, and they were looking forward to it. And just before they sat down, Eileen called Francesca on her cell phone and said she had a terrible cold and a fever. She hadn’t come down that day at all, and Marya was concerned.
“Poor thing, I’ll send up some soup,” Marya said. She put together a nice tray for her, which Francesca carried up to her room. She knocked on the door and was surprised to find it locked, and Eileen wouldn’t let her in.
“Marya made you some food,” Francesca explained through the door, and Eileen said she was too sick to eat. “I can’t take it back downstairs, it’ll hurt her feelings,” Francesca said through the locked door.
“Just leave it outside,” Eileen said from the distance. “I don’t want to make you sick.”
“You won’t. I’m as healthy as a horse.” But Eileen still wouldn’t open it. “Hey… are you okay?” Francesca persisted. “You’re worrying me. Let me in. I’ve got some Tylenol for you too, for the fever.”
“Just leave it outside on the tray. I’ll get it in a minute.” Francesca could hear that she was crying, and she was panicked.
“I want you to let me in,” she said, sounding stern, and feeling like an intruder, but she had the feeling that something was wrong. And Eileen didn’t sound like she had a cold. There was a long pause where neither of them moved on either side of the door, but Francesca wasn’t leaving. She could hear the bolt turn in the lock, but Eileen still didn’t open the door, and setting the tray down, Francesca gently turned the knob. Eileen was on the other side of the door, crying silently, in her nightgown, with the worst black eye and bruises on her face that Francesca had ever seen. And there were bruises on her body too, her arms and her breasts. Someone had beaten her to a pulp, and Francesca suspected who it was. “Did Brad do that to you?” Eileen didn’t answer, and then she nodded and began to sob.
“Don’t tell anyone… please promise you won’t… he said I humiliated him in front of all of you… and I didn’t stick up for him.”
“I want you to call the police,” Francesca said, shaking as she looked at her. Seeing the condition she was in made her want to cry too. She put her arms around her and held her as Eileen sobbed.
“He said he’d kill me if I call the cops on him, and I think he will. Promise you won’t do anything, Francesca. I won’t see him again. I promise.”
“I don’t want him back in this house.” Francesca didn’t say it, but if Eileen had him there again, she would have to ask her to leave. Brad was clearly dangerous, to all of them, not just to her. He had burned Francesca’s hand intentionally, and God only knew what he would have liked to do to Chris, and would if he got the opportunity. She really wanted to call the police but didn’t want to put Eileen at greater risk. “Do you want me to take you to the ER?”
“No,” she said miserably. “They might report it to the cops. I’m okay, I’ve been through it before. My father used to beat me and my mom up all the time when I was a kid. He’s a drunk. That’s why I left home.”
“I’m so sorry,” Francesca said, wishing they could do something to Brad, like put him in jail where he belonged. “Eileen, you can’t keep meeting guys like this. You don’t know who they are. It may be fun and exciting to meet them online, but some of them are dangerous. And you can’t bring anyone here again.”
“I won’t. I swear,” she sobbed as she clung to Francesca. “Please don’t make me leave. I love it here. It’s the only real home I’ve ever had.” What she said tore at Francesca’s heart.
“Then I want you to be careful from now on.”
“I promise… I will…” And then she looked at Francesca guiltily. “He took my key. I tried to stop him, but he took it and ran after he beat me up. He said he’d come back and do it again if I told anyone.”
“I’ll change the locks,” Francesca said grimly. She kissed her gently on the forehead then, promised to come back after dinner, and ran back downstairs. She had been gone for half an hour.
“What took so long?” Chris asked her when she got back. They were halfway through the main course, but Marya hadn’t wanted it to get cold. “She must be really sick.”
“Sick as a dog,” Francesca confirmed, not wanting to upset either of them, and not sure what to say. She said almost not a word through dinner, and Chris could see she was upset. They had all gotten to know each other well. He spoke to her in an undervoice when Marya was getting a chocolate souffl? out of the oven, and then made cr?me Chantilly and sauce anglaise to go with it. It was yet another feast.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked in a whisper. Francesca hesitated for a minute and then decided to tell him. She wanted his advice.
“Brad beat her up. Badly. She’s got bruises all over her face and body and a black eye.”
“Jesus.” Chris looked furious. “Did she call the police?”
Francesca shook her head. “She said he told her he’d kill her if she told anyone. She can’t even go to work. She looks a mess.”
“Do you think she should move out?” he asked practically, as Marya worked on the whipped cream and made so much noise she couldn’t hear what they were saying.
“She begged me not to. I told her she can’t have him here again. He took her key. I’ll get the locks changed tomorrow. We can put the chain on tonight.”
Chris sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I hope she’s not addicted to the guy, or getting beaten up. Physical abuse is a tough addiction to break, one of the worst.” But as far as they knew, it had never happened before. Francesca was encouraged by that.
“I think he’s just a random bad guy she met on the Internet. I wish she’d give that up. She doesn’t mean to, and she’s a sweet kid, but she’s putting all of us at risk along with herself.” Chris nodded, and Marya arrived with the dessert. Francesca picked at it, and Chris ate most of it. It had been a delicious meal. Marya’s recipe was flawless, but what was happening upstairs was upsetting to Francesca and Chris. They didn’t tell Marya, and agreed that she didn’t need to know.
After helping Marya clean up the kitchen, Francesca went back upstairs to see Eileen. She looked terrible, but she had eaten some of the food Marya sent her and felt better. She made a thousand promises to Francesca, who went back downstairs to talk to Chris. They were uneasy about Brad, but they hoped he’d leave Eileen alone after this. She had sworn to Francesca that she’d never see him again.
Francesca put the chain on that night, and Chris said he’d call the locksmith the next day and get the locks changed while she was at work. There wasn’t much else they could do, except keep an eye out for him. And Francesca had told Eileen that she would call the police if he showed up at the house again. Francesca could hardly sleep that night, thinking about the bruises on Eileen’s face, and she wondered what Chris had meant about physical abuse being a hard addiction to break. Who could possibly be addicted to abuse? It made no sense. She was sure Eileen had learned a lesson, and would stay well away from Brad from now on. After seeing what he’d done to her, Francesca had no doubt about that.