Just Once Excerpt

Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. June, 2016

   Francesca Sicari started up from sleep, disoriented. Her cell phone was ringing.

   The TV flickered a rerun of Two and a Half Men, casting just enough silver-blue light across the coffee table to reveal the remnants of her take-out supper, her MacBook and her Canon camera. No sign of her iPhone.

   Nothing new there. Frankie misplaced her phone a lot. Usually because she held her camera in both hands, and she was more interested in what she saw through the lens than anything that might appear on the display of a mobile device.

   She followed the sound of her ringtone – ‘Whooooo are you? Woo-woo, woo-woo!’ – which indicated the caller was not in her contact list. She should probably let it go to voicemail, but anyone calling in the middle of the night must have a good reason. Or a bad one.

   Frankie hurried into the kitchen, thrilled to see her phone plugged into the wall where it belonged, though she had no memory of doing so.

   She’d come home from work, set her kung pao on the counter and become fascinated with the way the setting sun turned the cut glass vase on her farmhouse dining room table the shade of blood.

   She’d spent the next hour photographing the vase with various props – a green pepper, a white tennis shoe, a yellow begonia yanked out of the garden – as the colors shifted from red, to orange, to fuchsia, gold and finally blue-gray.

   Then she’d warmed up her ice-cold supper and taken it, along with the camera and her computer, into the living room.    Setting everything on the restored wooden trunk that served as a coffee table, she’d uploaded the pictures she’d taken that day of the Basilica of St Josaphat on the south side of Milwaukee and started editing. Several hours later, she’d closed her burning eyes ‘just for a minute’. Next thing she knew, the phone was ringing.

   Woo-woo, woo-woo!

   That ringtone was getting on her last nerve. She’d have to change it.

   Frankie snatched up the phone. ‘Hello?’
   ‘Francesca?’
   She knew that voice. Considering she’d met the woman once and talked to her on the phone never, Frankie wasn’t sure why. ‘Hannah?’

   ‘Is Charley there?’

   Frankie had divorced Charley Blackwell twenty-four years ago. He’d married Hannah soon afterward. Considering he’d been boffing her, that made sense. Or as much sense as anything had made back when Frankie had discovered the love of her life loved someone else.

   ‘Why would he be here?’

   ‘He was supposed to fly in from Africa tonight. When he didn’t show, I tracked him there.’

   Frankie tightened her lips over the words how do you like it? Not productive.

   ‘By “there” you mean Milwaukee?’

   ‘Yes.’ Hannah’s voice was clipped, but she sounded more scared than pissed. Why?

   ‘How’d you get any info out of the airlines?’

   Frankie had always had a heck of a time hunting down Charley when he didn’t show. With TSA and privacy laws, she couldn’t imagine it had gotten any easier.

   ‘He was shooting for National Geographic. They made the reservation so they were able to pull some strings.’

Funny. They hadn’t been all that willing to pull strings for Frankie. ‘Maybe he got another assignment,’ Frankie said.
   ‘In Milwaukee?’ Hannah didn’t exactly sneer the word, but she

might as well have.
   ‘I know it isn’t the Congo, but we do have worthwhile images

to photograph.’
   For instance, the Basilica, which was modeled after St Peter’s

in Rome and had one of the largest copper domes in the world. The structure was exquisite, as were many other local churches, such as the Greek Orthodox church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Frankie planned to go there tomorrow.

  But Charley was a photojournalist. One of the few left in an era where everyone had a camera on their cell phone and speed trumped technique. That he was still employed at sixty-three was a testament to how good Charley was at his job.

   In the last couple of decades since they’d called it quits he’d become even more famous. If Frankie took one of his more well-known pictures on to the street and showed it to the first person who passed by, she’d bet a hundred dollars Joe Public would recognize it.

   Charley had begun his career as a combat photographer in Vietnam. He’d been drafted shortly out of high school, then re-upped for a second tour. Once the troops had been withdrawn following the Paris Accords, he’d stayed on, which meant he’d been there at the end, and the photos he’d taken of the fall of Saigon had landed him a job with Associated Press. From there he had moved to Time magazine, then National Geographic, even- tually becoming a freelance photographer so he could pick and choose the best jobs from each of them.

   ‘Charley wouldn’t fly off on another assignment without letting me know,’ Hannah said.

   Interesting. He’d done that often enough to Frankie. She wondered how long it had taken Hannah to train the asshole out of him.

   ‘You still seem to have lost him.’
   ‘Be that as it may,’ Hannah said, and Frankie laughed. Hannah didn’t seem the ‘be that as it may’ type. But what did

Frankie know? As previously mentioned, she’d met her once. The circumstances had shown neither of them in their best light. How could they, considering?

   Hannah had been a kid, which had only contributed to the unpleasantness. Not only because she had no idea how to handle the situation, but because her age had made the situation even more of a . . . well, situation. She hadn’t been too young – as in pedophile young – but she’d been young enough to really piss Frankie off.

   Charley had asked her if he’d fallen in love with a woman his own age, would that have been better? Frankie had punched him in the mouth. She still had the scar from his front tooth on her middle finger. She recalled holding that finger up, drip- ping blood, waving goodbye with it as Hannah fussed over his soon-to-be-capped front teeth.

   Ah, good times.
   ‘What is so goddamn funny?’ Hannah asked.
   ‘Nothing.’ Frankie didn’t plan to share anything more with Hannah than she already had.
   The woman on the other end of the line bore little resemblance to the Hannah Frankie held in her head. Soft voiced, a bit meek, not Charley’s type at all. Of course Frankie had been as wrong about Charley’s type as she’d obviously been about Hannah herself. Tonight Hannah sounded anything but meek; tonight Hannah sounded a bit ball-busty.

   ‘If he shows up there would you call me?’
   ‘Why would he show up here?’
   ‘Why does Charley do anything?’
   Once Frankie had thought she understood Charley Blackwell better than she understood anyone, even herself. She’d been wrong. But she’d have thought, by now, that Hannah might. They’d been married longer than Frankie and Charley had.

   ‘Are you two having problems?’ Frankie asked.
   ‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
   Maybe twenty-four years ago – even fifteen – Frankie mighthave enjoyed hearing that Charley and Hannah were on the outs. She’d have called her BFF, Irene Pasternak, and chortled. But now?

   ‘I couldn’t care less.’

   Hannah snorted, and irritation danced along Frankie’s skin. While she didn’t have any feelings about their marriage one way or another, apparently she still hated Hannah.

   ‘If he shows up, I’ll have him call. That work?’

   If anyone had told her back then that she’d be having this conversation – any conversation – with Hannah Blackwell – that there’d be a Hannah Blackwell – Frankie wouldn’t have believed it. She almost didn’t believe it now.

   ‘I’m not sure,’ Hannah said. ‘You might have to—’

   ‘You know, it’s almost three in the morning here. I don’t have the patience for you.’

   ‘That makes two of us.’ Hannah hung up.
   ‘Wow,’ Frankie said. ‘That was fun.’
   She set the phone on the counter, realized she was holding

her camera in the other hand, and set that down too. It wasn’t the first time she’d clutched the device like a security blanket.

   She headed for the stairs, intent on her bed and a few hours of real sleep, her mind still on the weird phone call. Why would Hannah think Charley would come here? Why had she seemed jittery and a little scared?

   Why would you think you know what the woman feels, thinks or even sounds like when she’s any kind of way?

Frankie didn’t know Hannah Blackwell at all. She didn’t want to.

   For years Frankie had thought of the woman as the twenty- three-year-old bimbo Charley had left her for. But Hannah was no longer twenty-three or a bimbo. She was the forty-seven- year-old owner/editor of You, a fashion magazine in a time when magazines were tanking and being over forty in fashion meant you were on your way down the other side of the mountain. She would probably lose her company soon. Frankie should feel sorry for her. But she didn’t.

   The front door rattled. Frankie paused with her foot on the first step leading to the second floor, listening for a wind gust that would explain said rattling, but the late spring night was still.

   The knob turned right-left, right-left.

   Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

    ‘Fancy? Open up.’

   Frankie felt a chill so deep it made her dizzy. Only Charley had ever called her Fancy.

   Though she’d just gotten off the phone with his wife, she still couldn’t believe he was here.

   Tick-tock, tick-tock.
   And trying the door as if he expected it to open.
   ‘My key doesn’t work.’
   ‘No shit.’ She’d changed the locks the day after she’d seen him kissing her.
   ‘I’m tired. I’ve been traveling forever.’
   Frankie swirled her finger in the air – the universal sign for whoop-de-doo.
   ‘I can see your shadow on the floor.’
   Sure enough, she’d moved closer and the light from the TV outlined her silhouette on the reclaimed wood of the entry hall, her shadow clearly visible through the frosted glass windowpane to the side of the door.

   Frankie stepped back. She didn’t want to let him in. She didn’t have to. This was her house and it was the middle of the night.

   ‘I forgot to call again, didn’t I?’

   The hair on her arms prickled. Something was very wrong. Charley hadn’t forgotten to call in twenty-four years. That’s what divorce meant. He no longer had to call; she no longer had to care when he didn’t.

   ‘Come on, baby. Let me in.’

   An odd sound escaped. It would have been a sob if she hadn’t cried herself sick over the man long ago. It almost sounded like a laugh, but nothing was funny about this. Even though it must be a joke.

   It just had to be.
   ‘Fancy, come on.’
   Charley sounded exactly as he had all those years ago whenever he’d come home late, forgotten to call, or left for some god- forsaken corner of the earth without telling her.

   And none of that had ever mattered. She’d known the man she was marrying; she’d understood his passion, his conviction, his need to record how he saw the world through a camera. She’d shared that passion, but where Frankie saw light and color, contrast and composition – the way the world came together – Charley saw how the world came apart.

   They said it was his gift; Frankie had always thought it more of a curse. Charley’s view of life had been pretty damn dark. She’d spent a lot of her time lightening him up. Dragging him into the sun after he’d spent weeks in the rain. And if it insisted on raining, then she’d dragged him out anyway and convinced him to dance. 

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