He reached for her in his sleep and came groggily awake when his hand touched only pillows. Kelly was typically a fairly heavy sleeper; once asleep she was usually out for a solid eight hours. Straining at the clock, Keith saw it was nearly three a.m. and came more fully alert. Where could she be? There was no light from beneath the bathroom door, none from the hallway. He yawned and stretched and padded quietly down the hall.
He'd been mildly concerned about Kelly for several days. He was vaguely aware that something was wrong. She seemed quiet, distracted, a little remote. In truth, he'd been more than a little distracted himself lately. A new contract at work was sucking up time and effort. He'd worked through the last several weekends and brought home hours of reading more nights than not. She'd been an awfully good sport about it though, he reflected. There'd been no nagging or whining, no bickering. Lord knows he'd had enough of that in his first marriage. He'd been divorced for more than five years, but the thought of how Christina would have gnawed at him as payback for this recent neglect made him reflect fondly on how different Kelly was, how different their relationship was.
There was an ease between them that he had almost despaired of finding. He had dated casually for such a long time that the pattern of getting-to-know-you dinners and awkward cocktail parties had become wearing. But then, quite unexpectedly, he had met Kelly. She liked to say he picked her up while squeezing the tomatoes at the grocery store, but it had actually been in the checkout line. It had been a long and slow-moving line, but Keith found himself wishing the blasted checker would slow down even more because he was so enjoying the young lady in line ahead of him.
She was unruffled by the delay and they joked and chatted for the fifteen minutes it took for her to work her way to the front--at which point he debated what to do. He could risk being seen as a creep by trying to follow her to her car or he could risk never seeing her again by walking away. She made the choice easier by continuing to chat after her order was bagged, and she was still there when his order was finished. He suggested they go for coffee at a nearby shop and laughed when she pointed out that the ice cream and frozen orange juice he had in his bag had probably not fared well during the wait in line and would not survive a leisurely stop for coffee. He volunteered to drop them in the nearest trash can if she'd go out with him, and it was her turn to laugh. She countered by inviting him back to her condo, where they had coffee on the porch, and his groceries sat in her refrigerator and freezer for hours.
It was weeks before he understood how unusual their first meeting was, weeks before he would realize how shy she could be. She rarely made the first move in a friendship and never had in a romance. But there was an easy rapport between them from the first exchange in the grocery store line, and they quickly became almost inseparable. She was bright and articulate, with a dry sense of humor that caught people completely off guard. She was patient and lovingly attentive to those few who were close to her, and it was clear to Keith that he was lucky to be among that group. She exuded an aura of calm confidence that let him completely relax almost the instant he was in her company. Whatever hassles he might encounter at work--and there were many--she could sweep them away with a smile or loving arms around his neck. Wherever she lived--her condo or their townhouse--became the calm harbor he sought at the end of the day.
Keith had married the first time in his mid-twenties, which should have been old enough to know what he wanted. It wasn't. What had seemed excitingly bubbly in a date felt flighty in a wife. He had, irrationally, expected that once they settled into family life, Christina would see the importance of sticking to a budget and working toward common goals. She, though, resented what seemed like an increasingly staid, austere life. The last two years of their five-year marriage were miserable. They argued all the time, in voices that often seemed to penetrate the entire apartment building. She spat out accusations and threats; he criticized and complained. It was only a question of who would throw in the towel first, because there really was not enough love to carry them through. By the end, neither was sure why they married each other in the first place. It was exhausting.
The second time, though, Keith got it right. Kelly was far too introverted to ever be called bubbly, but she could read his moods from that first day. She provided something he had not fully realized that he needed from a woman: support. She had a way of smoothing the edges and easing his worries that made him yearn for her company. She would wink at him unobtrusively during a boring business dinner just to see him smile, pick up thoughtful birthday presents for his nieces, read him Dave Barry's column from the Sunday paper while he was shaving. She was always available to listen and was genuinely interested in what he thought.
She, in turn, fascinated him. She was a cauldron of emotions, most held under tight control. A lot of people didn't take the time to find out what was going on in that charming head of hers, but that was their loss, as far as Keith was concerned. She had only a few friends outside of her family, but they were enough for her. For all her apparent shyness, she was unapologetic about her personality. Early in their relationship, she had made it plain that he could take her "as is" or not at all. While she could be flexible about a lot of things, he wasn't to think that marriage would somehow change her basic personality. There wasn't a mean bone in her body, but she could be a bit ... uncompromising. She could humble her younger brothers into embarrassed compliance with a tilt of her head or a raised eyebrow. To the criticism (sometimes friendly, sometimes not) that she was too strict with them, she would respond, "Not strict, just clear." She was thorough and meticulous, traits that served her well as a technical editor in a small publishing company but which sometimes made her seem rigid. Her tendency toward perfectionism could make her seem unapproachable.
She was pretty to look at: brown hair with enough natural curl that it tended to have a mind of its own with every change in humidity, a short, but nicely-proportioned body, and green eyes that sparkled and seemed to take in everything. But when those eyes fastened on him and she flashed her dazzling smile, she wasn't just pretty; she was beautiful. And she was his--almost from that first day at the grocery store.
They were married eight months later.
Their marriage had a glow about it, a radiant peace and happiness he treasured. That wasn't something Keith would give up without a fight. No, whatever it was that was bothering her, he would fix it. But first he had to find her and find out what was going on. He moved through the kitchen and living room, flipping on lights and calling her name. Both the kitchen door and the front door were latched from the inside, just as when he went to bed, he noted automatically. She hadn't gone out. He moved to the basement to double-check that door as well. Where could she be? He crossed through the combination TV room-home office and tugged on the sliding glass door. The doors were locked and the security bar was in place, just as he knew they would be. No one had come in or out down here either. This was ridiculous. Where could she be? It occurred to him that he had never actually checked the bathroom before coming downstairs; he had just assumed she wasn't in there because he hadn't seen a light. He crossed back through the TV room with a lighter step. Yes, that had to be it: she was in the bathroom, but hadn't turned on the light for some reason. No need to panic.
He was almost to the steps when something made him stop. Maybe it was movement out of the corner of his eye. Maybe she made a sound. Maybe it was that he was always very aware of her presence. Just as he had missed her in their bed, now he knew she was near. He scanned the room again.
And he saw her. Under the desk. Folded up in the kneehole of the old wooden desk that had been her father's and now was hers--theirs, really, as they agreed they only needed one desk and she had sentimental attachments to this one. It had the usual collection of bills and bank statements on one side, the current Consumer Reports, a few catalogs, and, he noted absently, his briefcase, which was packed with the proposals he'd reviewed earlier tonight. That all registered automatically, but his attention was focused on Kelly, hugging her knees and rocking silently in the kneehole of the desk. She could barely move three inches either way; the space was cramped and she seemed very small. And she had yet to look up at him, which alarmed him.
"What on earth are you doing there?" Disbelief warred with concern. The result sounded like exasperation, and she shrunk further, trying to disappear into the wood and shadows.
He gentled his tone immediately and crouched down next to her. "What are you doing here, honey? Are you okay? Why didn't you answer me?" Finally, she brought her chin up and met his gaze. Good Lord, she looked terrified. "Oh Kelly, what's the matter?" He dropped to the floor and moved close but made no attempt to pull her from her hideout. He touched her gently on the face, down her arm, along the inverted V of her legs, reassuring himself that she was not physically hurt. No, it was something else, and that thought was frankly scaring him. She looked ... desolate. His solid, calm, capable Kelly looked like her world had shattered, and he had no idea why. He sat next to her and coaxed and soothed with his voice and his hands.
She stopped rocking at his first touch and gradually seemed more able to meet his eyes, but she stayed under the desk until he gently prodded, "Do you think you want to come out of there now?" Seeing her hesitation he added quickly, "You don't have to. I just thought you might be more comfortable in my lap." He saw the first faint return of light in her eyes, so he smiled reassuringly and opened his arms. He had to slide away to give her room to scoot out, but he stayed on the floor, leaning back against the desk once she was secure in his arms.
He murmured soothing words and rubbed her back, but she remained rigid in his arms for long minutes. Then, as though collecting herself, she sat up straighter, trying to pull out of his arms, and said formally, "I'm sorry to have worried you. Everything's fine. You should go back to bed. You have a long day tomorrow." She tried to stand but found his arms wouldn't let her. "Let me up, please," she said in that same flat voice that might have been asking him to pass the green beans or close the door but seemed totally out of place in the middle of the night in his lap.
It was the flat, unemotional tone, even more than the rigid muscles or the strange venue for this conversation that unnerved him. Once he had reassured himself that she was physically safe, he had relaxed somewhat. While searching the house he had unconsciously suppressed the idea that something really scary had happened to her. He checked the doors to make sure she hadn't gone out to the twenty-four hour grocery store, he told himself, not to make sure someone hadn't broken in. He checked the rooms downstairs to see if she was watching a late-night movie or playing on the computer, not because he thought he might find her lifeless body at the bottom of the steps. When he found her, the relief overwhelmed the worry for those first few minutes. She was safe; everything would be all right.
But now, hearing her complete lack of animation, feeling her pull against his arms, the disquiet he felt when he first noted her missing returned full force. Kelly was sweet and affectionate. She loved being held and cuddled. The only time she had ever resisted his touch was during a rare quarrel. She would withdraw physically and emotionally until the anger passed and she was once again herself. That could be minutes or hours, but he had learned--the hard way--not to push her when she tried to withdraw from an argument.
But they weren't fighting now.
His arms anchored her firmly in his lap. "No. I won't let you up."
Instead, he wrapped his arms around her even more tightly, pressing his lips to her hair and sending up a brief, silent prayer of thanks that she was okay and a plea for a clue about what to do next. Searching back over the last ten minutes, he was struck again by the image of her rocking on her bottom in the tight confines under the desk. He began to rock her back and forth in quick, short strokes. She relaxed fractionally.
"Ah, Kelly, what is it, love? You look so sad. Talk to me, please. Everything is going to be okay. You're safe. I'm here. I want to help." The words were unimportant, but he kept talking, relieved to feel her muscles begin to lose some of their tension. Her arms, which had been wrapped around her own knees since she crawled onto his lap, relaxed. She finally turned her face to the familiar security of his chest, and he could hear a jagged breath that might have been a sob before her left hand came up and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt in a death grip. Suddenly, she was holding him as tightly as he was holding her, and they were both breathing a little unevenly as he continued to rock her rapidly to-and-fro.
A long time later, his own muscles tense with the awkward, unfamiliar movement, and feeling, inexplicably, that the most immediate crisis had passed, he said softly, "How 'bout we move to the couch?" She nodded but made no move to get up, so he struggled to his feet with her in his arms. She wasn't particularly heavy--though she might have argued that on a more lucid day--but it was a position that offered him very little leverage. He needed to get his feet under him and still let his arms provide the security that she so obviously needed. Eventually, pressing his shoulders hard against the desk, he stood and held her, cradling her in his arms like a child.
Curled trustingly in his arms, one hand still fisted in his shirt, she stirred his protective instincts. They would get through this, whatever "this" was. He took the half-dozen steps to the couch and settled them both in the corner, nestling her back to his front, before wrapping her in the same tight bundle he'd found her in under the desk. The rocking resumed. He hummed a lullaby and kissed the crown of her head. Minutes passed before either of them spoke.
"This feels really good," she admitted in a tremulous voice. "You make a pretty good rocker."
"Hey, that's what I'm here for," he teased, then realized that on another level, that was what he was there for. She clearly needed him, yet for some reason had snuck off to the darkened TV room instead of waking him. Why?
He knew the answer to that. He had he been so absorbed with the new contract that he had missed what had probably been pretty subtle clues that she was headed for a "meltdown."
Early on in their dating, she had joked about her emotionalism, warning him she was prone to cry at Hallmark commercials and could dissolve into tears over a sappy book or movie. In another, more serious, conversation, she talked about the months following her parents' deaths and the difficult times she struggled through. She had been twenty-five when her parents died in a car accident, leaving her to raise two young teenagers. Her fiancÚ had balked at the idea of the instant family she suddenly presented and exited the scene quickly, offering his condolences and best wishes for a happy life. Bam.
When Keith observed sympathetically that it must have been very hard on her, she had looked at him with dark, haunted eyes and said, "You have no idea. I felt like I completely lost it. I had a complete meltdown. It was weeks before I could pull it together again." While he didn't doubt her words, at the time he couldn't reconcile the image of the calm, always-in-control Kelly with profound depression she described. She must have rallied impressively. Both kids were now college graduates settling into their careers nearby. They clearly doted on their big sister and had been endearingly overprotective when they first met Keith.
Now, rocking her trembling body, he could see what she meant when she told him that it wasn't quite what he was thinking. It wasn't total depression, she said. She had functioned fine at work; people were always telling her how well she was holding up. She was a calming and supportive influence on her younger brothers. But sometimes, late at night, she would fall apart and wallow in the misery of all the terrible things that had happened. The tears and anger that she suppressed so ruthlessly during the day found their outlet in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep, until eventually she was afraid to go to bed at all. It was a hellish six months. He had found it hard to accept, given the strong, solid image she projected, but figured that given the emotional stressors she had been subjected to at the time, she was entitled to fall apart. But he didn't really understand it until now.