Five times that night, her mother called her, and five times that night she didn’t pick up.
It wasn’t a bad night, overall, at least at first. The cold snap had finally broken. When she took Crisscross out for his last walk of the day there was finally no more ice on the road, she could have worn sneakers instead of boots. The air was damp and ripe with the smell of mud, and a half block from the farmhouse she suddenly passed into a current of air that had been tinged by the sweet-sour musk of a passing skunk — such a contrast to the sterility of the past weeks’ bitter cold, of the arid piles of snow that had smothered the countryside end to end all winter.
But then Derrick had stopped by.
Her mother loved Derrick.
“If you don’t marry him, I will!” she’d said the last time they’d talked.
Janice had no answer. She was still shocked that there was a ring — that her mother had seen a ring.
“He’s so sweet and old-fashioned.”
“If he was old-fashioned he would have gone to Dad, not you.”
They both knew why he hadn’t.
“That was a long time ago,” her mother said. “He paid the money back. Every penny.”
“I have to go.”
“He’s got the ring,” her mother repeated. “You’ll break his heart. It’s all arranged.”
Three days passed with Janice left waiting — what else could she do? — and then that night as the clouds pressed their darkness across the sky the doorbell finally rang and everything changed.
The dog stopped barking, stood behind her as she opened the door.
Derrick knew her answer as soon as he saw her face.
She didn’t invite him in.
“I’m not ready,” she told him.
But they both knew what she really meant. She was 35. There was no more getting ready.
She heard him slam his car door — but he wasn’t the only one who was angry. Janice was, too. Hearing her own words as they slid out of her mouth . . .
By the time her cell started ringing she was already online.
She was thinking about debts.
But she was writing down the phone numbers of realtors . . .