Rating: T/PG-13 for mild language and adult themes.
A/N: The final chapter…
Chapter Six: Hard Day’s Night
Carl arrived home at about 5:30 and started cooking dinner. He’d grown quite comfortable in the kitchen over the years and had actually grown to like cooking. On Thursday night, he pulled a pair of chicken breasts from the freezer and started seasoning them. As he worked, his thoughts turned towards Brian Johnson and his burned out locker. Like Jack, he felt sorry for the kid, too, and wondered how his mother had reacted to the news. He knew Marie Johnson from company functions and had always found her to be critical and overbearing. He hoped she’d gone easy on him this time. It was obvious the kid was having a rough time as it was.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I had it?”
Carl used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow. Now he knew what everyone meant by “don’t bring your work home with you”.
Just as he was finishing pulling apart lettuce for the salad, Carl heard a key turn in the lock before the door to the apartment swung open. Carl ducked his head out into the living room. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Julia tossed her keys and briefcase onto the couch and removed her coat. “That smells good.”
“Of course it does. I made it.”
Julia gave him a peck on the lips. “How was your day?”
“Shit. How was yours?”
Julia sighed and leaned against the dining room table, which was approximately two feet from the entrance to the kitchen. “Long.” She removed her shoes and let them dangle off of her fingertips, high heels knocking against one another. “I’m gonna go change.”
Carl nodded and Julia disappeared down the hallway to their bedroom. He finished the salad and distributed it onto a couple of plates, then pulled the chicken breasts out of the oven and did the same with them. By the time Julia returned to the dining room wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Carl had the plates on the table and two beers open for them. Julia sat down at the table as Carl went to the tape player in the corner of the living room.
“I know what you’re gonna put in.”
Carl looked over at her and grinned. “Do not.”
“Wanna put your money where your mouth is?”
Julia thought about it for a moment. “Fifty bucks.”
Carl laughed. “Okay, you’re on.” He turned his back towards her and pulled a cassette from the large box sitting on top of the stereo unit. He slipped it into the tape player, but didn’t press play, then turned back to Julia expectantly. “Give it your best shot.”
“Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Carl’s eyes widened in surprise. “How the hell did you do that?”
“I know you that well.”
Carl glared at her doubtfully and she laughed. “Okay, fine. You were singing ‘El Condor Pasa’ in the shower this morning.”
“Damn, I thought you’d already left.”
“I came back for my scarf.”
“Cheater.” Carl pushed play and returned to the table. He started to take a sip of his beer, but Julia held out her hand.
“Where’s my money?”
Carl scoffed. “You really expect me to pay you?”
“Of course. That’s the nature of a bet. The loser pays the winner.”
“It that a law or something?”
Julia grinned. “Maybe. You gonna argue with me about it?”
“Do I look that stupid?” Carl laughed. “Come on, Jules. Where’m I gonna get fifty bucks from?”
“Not my problem.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Isn’t there someone you can blackmail?”
Carl grinned. “Hundreds.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
Carl rolled his eyes. “I should’ve known better than to marry a lawyer.”
Julia smirked. “There are plenty of divorce specialists in my department. I can give you their number.”
Carl managed not to laugh. “Nah, I’ll take my chances.”
Julia shrugged and took another bite of chicken. They ate quietly for a while as Simon and Garfunkel carried on in the background. After a while, Carl looked across the table at his wife. Her hair was long and blonde, coming a few inches past her shoulders. Even in a baggy old t-shirt, she looked as good as the first time he saw her from across the courtyard next to the Accounting building. He was just getting out of class and she was eating lunch by herself, sandwich balanced on her knees. He’d stopped to watch her eat, standing there for God knows how long before she finally looked up. He’d smiled and she’d blushed, which caused him to grin even wider. When she burst out laughing, he knew he was all over.
Julia glanced up at him, mouth full of salad. “What?”
Carl smiled. “Nothin’.”
Julia smirked. “Liar.”
Carl shrugged innocently and finished off his beer. He watched her eat for a few minutes before he set the bottle back down on the table. “I saw Harold Johnson today.”
Julia froze, fork suspended in the air in front of her mouth. Carefully, she put the fork back down on her plate and looked up at him. “Where?”
“School. He was picking up his son.”
Julia nodded. “Did you say anything to him?”
“No, he never saw me.”
Julia watched him closely. “What are you thinking?”
Carl shrugged as though he wasn’t all that bothered by it. “Not much. Just… it’s just bringing up old memories.”
Julia nodded. She knew what memories he was talking about because they were hers, too. When Carl was fired, Julia was almost finished with her first year of law school with two years to go. Not only did they have to move out of their dream home and into an apartment, but she was also forced to ask her parents for the money to finish school. Even with her partial scholarship, Carl’s salary as a janitor wasn’t doing much but paying the bills, and sometimes it wasn’t even doing that. It was a rocky time for them and there were days that Carl worried she might leave him. Hell, there were days when he thought he might leave her. Much as he wanted to believe good old Johnny, he had to admit that they needed more than love to keep a marriage going. A little bit of patience and a lot of compromise went a long way. A steady paycheck didn’t hurt either.
“Well, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Carl glanced up at her. “What doesn’t?”
“Harold Johnson.” She shrugged. “He’s a greedy bastard and he screwed you over, but he’s not in our lives anymore.”
Carl nodded, though on days like this one, it felt quite the opposite. “Yeah.” He got up from the table and started clearing away their plates. Julia picked up her briefcase from the couch in the living room and started spreading out stacks of papers on the dining room table.
Carl let the dishes soak for awhile and went into the living room to watch the college basketball game. It was Houston versus Virginia and the winner was going to the finals. Carl didn’t have a stake in either team, but he liked sports and enjoyed watching the games. During halftime, he got up to do the dishes, then settled back down on the couch for the second half, fresh beer in hand.
The game went into overtime and Houston ended up winning 49 to 47. Carl turned off the television and dumped his beer bottle in the garbage. Julia, who was still looking over some papers at the dining room table, took off her reading glasses and looked up at him. “You going to bed?”
Carl nodded. He came up behind her and looked over the papers in front of her. Julia was the assistant to the head of the research department for her firm, meaning that even though she didn’t stand up in front of the jury, she still had a lot of work to do. Carl picked up one of the papers. “What’s the case?”
“Class action lawsuit. Securities claims.”
Carl nodded and glanced over the numbers listed on the page. Funny, but even after eight years, he could still understand what it all meant. He put the paper back down on the table and kissed his wife on the cheek. “Night.”
Carl changed clothes and brushed his teeth before climbing into bed. He figured that sleep would come easy since he was so tired, but he was surprised to find himself still staring at the ceiling thirty minutes after lying down. He just couldn’t keep his mind still. It wasn’t Harold Johnson anymore, though he would always be a part of it all, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise. This time it was his own decisions that were bugging him. He’d often wondered how his life would have changed if he’d just taken Johnson’s offer and resigned. He’d wanted to; it was obviously the best move career wise. But Carl didn’t want to give in, to admit to something he didn’t do. It felt too much like defeat and, like most people, he didn’t like losing.
But he lost anyway and not just him either. He could still hear his mother crying on the phone the night he called her, could still hear his father’s gruff, disappointed tone as he assured his son that everything would be alright, that he’d done the right thing. But had he really? In one single moment, with one single decision, he’d decided his and Julia’s future. He’d decided to give up the dream home, the dream job, the dream life. He’d decided it for the both of them. Sometimes he wondered if it hadn’t been selfish of him to do something like that when the stakes were so high.
Carl lay there for a long time, rolling it around in his head. At about 10:30, nearly an hour after he’d gone to bed, the door opened slowly and Julia came into the bedroom. She disappeared into the bathroom, where Carl could hear her brushing her teeth and washing her face. A couple of minutes later, she turned off the light and reentered the bedroom wearing one of his old shirts and a pair of sweatpants. She climbed into bed very carefully so as not to wake him and curled up on the left side of the bed, facing away from him. Carl scooted over next to her and wrapped his arm around her waist.
Julia shifted a bit to accommodate him. “I thought you were asleep.”
Carl didn’t say anything. A few minutes passed and Julia’s body started relaxing as if she was falling asleep. Carl reached up and brushed the hair away from her ear. “Julia,” he said quietly.
“Hmmm…” she murmured.
Carl hesitated. “If you could do it all over again…”
Julia didn’t say anything, just moved her hand over the one he had lying against her stomach and brought it up to her chest. She entwined their fingers together and rubbed her middle finger against his wedding ring. He could feel her heart beating against his knuckles. After a moment, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.