Frannie Wellington picked herself up off the kitchen floor and winced at the sharp pain in her side.
Has he cracked my ribs this time?
She righted the kitchenette chair that had broken her fall, then staggered to the sink and ran water over her hands and face. The slam of a car door below the kitchen window broke the stillness. Edward was finally leaving for work.
In the bathroom, Frannie gasped at her reflection. A large violet-red bruise had started to form below her right eye, spoiling the angelic heart-shaped face her old customers had always said they enjoyed seeing when she'd served them at Milligan's. Always happy. Always smiling. That was Frannie…once upon a time. Today, instead of a smile, her lips trembled, and her short bob of blonde curls lay limp against her clammy cheeks.
I won't cry this time. I won't. I won't!
But salty tears brimmed along her bottom lashes. She tried to hold back the sob, but it rushed out in a stuttered wail and tears slid down her cheeks.
Why can't I get it right?
A year ago, when Frannie married Edward Miles Wellington III after a brief courtship, everything seemed right. The handsome, older, and undeniably charming CEO of a successful music company had liberated her from an exhausting dead-end job at Milligan's Diner, and put her dreams of pop-stardom within reach. But the rosy glow of new love faded once she discovered Edward was more interested in his executive status and his image than her dreams.
"No wife of mine is going to parade around like she's Madonna," Edward said shortly after the marriage. "Your karaoke is embarrassing to say the least."
Frannie's plans for the future, once just within her grasp, suddenly became pure fantasy. Her yard was now spacious and green, no lines of drying laundry obscuring her view of the sky, no altercations between neighbors interrupting her sleep. But without her musical dream, how much did the reality matter? How much was a life with Edward worth now?
Frannie stood in the garage, her side still aching from their most recent disagreement. She stared at Edward's sleek, blue Mercedes convertible--his summer car. She wasn't supposed to leave the house until the bruises had healed, but this morning, that stupid chair had been in the way when Edward shoved her. Her side hurt and she might have broken a bone.
Her hands shook as she considered the risk she'd be taking. But an unfamiliar courage blossomed in her heart. She had to take care of herself. Get to the emergency room. She wouldn't tell anyone what really happened, but if they guessed on their own....
The minute the car hit the road, an overwhelming sense of freedom filled her heart. The white lane markings approached at rapid speed. Her eyes traced the dashed lines back to their origin, back to where the sky met the road at a tiny point far in the distance. Would it ever be possible to drive into the horizon and disappear forever? Not go back to Milligan's, not stay with Edward, just go away.
A block from the center of town, Frannie's ribs felt better. She gingerly touched her side and took some deep breaths to confirm the pain had receded. Her whole body suddenly relaxed. No need for doctors, no need to worry Edward would find out. As brave as she'd tried to be in taking the car this morning, she welcomed the relief washing over her. Things could go back to the way they were.
I'm okay this time.
Frannie fought the urge to think about "next time." She searched for a junction at which to turn the car around. Ahead, a one-story tavern caught her attention. A single neon light reading "Jake's Bar" buzzed in the window. Frannie pulled up to the curb across the street. She couldn't remember noticing the building before. Dwarfed on two sides by expensive townhouses, its concrete walls were painted a murky brown. The tavern hardly appeared to be the social gathering place of the elite. Something about the frontage reminded her of the karaoke clubs she'd frequented when she worked at Milligan's. But this was definitely not the neighborhood you'd find that sort of bar in.
The "Open" sign on the tavern's faded, wooden door beckoned.
Just a short visit, then straight home.
When Frannie stepped into the darkened room, her eyes struggled to adjust to the drastic change in lighting. A woman sat on a stool at the hardwood bar to the left of the doorway, and one man slouched at a small table to the right of the bar. The two patrons gave the appearance of a crowd in the small room.
The air in the bar smelled unusually clean, crisp even. Frannie took a deep breath, immediately and strangely comforted by the odd environment. She approached the bar, glancing at the woman again. The woman appeared to be in her thirties. She wore a fuchsia leather mini-skirt and a black spandex halter-top. A slight tint of fuchsia appeared in her short, tousled red hair as well, but her face displayed little make-up.
Frannie pulled up a stool next to the woman. A hint of citrus lingered in the air, but Frannie couldn't tell if it was the woman's perfume or the garnishes behind the counter.
"I'm about to make meself another, luv," the woman said with a strong British accent. "Fetch you one?"
The woman walked behind the bar and picked up an empty glass.
"Diet Coke, please," Frannie replied. Her voice echoed in the quiet room. "Are you the bartender?"
"We serve ourselves," the man at the table mumbled as he poured a shot of Bourbon. He lifted the glass to his lips and emptied the contents in one swallow.
With his long brown hair, black shirt and dark jeans, the man practically dissolved into the tavern's many shadows. Only his pale face reflected the light from the neon beer signs above the bar. His dilated pupils even hid the true color of his eyes, which might have been blue.
The woman filled a glass for Frannie, then slid it across the bar to her. "I'm Sydney Sydel, singer," she said. Selecting one of the many bottles lining the back of the bar, she added, "I make a fabulous margarita."
Sydney smiled as she manipulated the various ingredients behind the counter and fixed herself a drink.
Frannie smiled in return. "I'm Frannie Wellington." Then muttered under her breath, "Trophy wife."
Returning to her seat in front of the bar, Sydney pointed to the man at the table. "That bloke's Marlin Sky. He's a brilliant guitarist, but practically comatose everyday. He gave up everything for the drugs, yeah? But I don't think he likes where it got him. Doesn't want to be here's me guess."
"Why doesn't he leave if he doesn't like it here?"
"Nowhere to go, luv."
"I used to listen to a lot of music before, but I don't think I've ever heard your names," Frannie said.
"That's because we spend all our time in this bleeding pub!" Sydney slammed her hand down on the bar. "But we'll have a comeback real soon. Ain't that right, Marlin?"
"If we ever leave this bar," Marlin mumbled.
"Don't you want to continue with your music, Marlin?" Frannie asked.
"This is my Hell. I'm condemned to live here forever."
"I don't understand." Frannie looked back at Sydney.
"Marlin was the first to come to Jake's," Sydney explained. "He wanted to get away from it all, but after a while you don't want to leave, do you?"
"Or can't," Marlin whispered.
"Oh, shut it, you," Sydney said. "The lady here doesn't need to hear such depressing talk."
"Why do you come to Jake's?" Frannie asked Sydney. "Are you taking a break from something as well?"
"Only a bloody manager who liked to rough me up and stole me last penny. You get pushed only so far before you need to escape."
"Sounds familiar," Frannie glanced down at her drink.
"Why are you here today?" Sydney asked.
Frannie wasn't sure how to answer. "When I saw the sign out front," she finally said, "I felt drawn to the place. It seems familiar, but I know I've never been here before."
Sydney nodded and took a sip of her drink. "I used to get that feeling when I was out on the road with me band. All the stops start to look alike, every town feels the same."
Frannie regarded Sydney with a touch of envy. "Before marrying Edward, I actually thought I'd be a singer one day, too."
Frannie snorted. "Can you imagine?" She gestured at her conservative attire. "Me, a big pop star. I used to bop along to all the songs on the cook's radio.” She laughed. “Customers used to get a kick out the singing waitress. Management wasn't so impressed.” She toyed with her glass, tracing the drops of condensation with her index finger. “The other waitresses called me Queen Frannie for my grandiose dreams of stardom. They didn't really believe I'd ever make it, but I believed and that was all that mattered.”
"Your husband do this?" Sydney asked, pointing to the bruise on Frannie's face.
Frannie raised a hand to her cheek, suddenly embarrassed. She'd forgotten all about the horrible mark beneath her eye.
"S'okay," said Sydney, "I've been there, haven't I?"
Frannie released a heavy sigh. "Edward's given me everything I never had growing up--a big house, nice clothing--but in exchange I've had to give up being me. He's trying to shape me into the perfect socialite. I have to be so careful in everything I do, but nothing I do is good enough. I'm starting to think he only married me for my looks. Edward would die if he knew I was having a drink in a shadowy bar. He'd say it wasn't proper."
Sydney laughed. "He doesn't know what he's missing, yeah?"
As Sydney described the lively pubs she'd known back in England, Frannie's thoughts remained on Edward and what might happen when she returned home. She looked at her watch and inhaled sharply. She'd spent more time in town than she'd planned. She finished her drink, then climbed down from the stool.
"I think I should be going."
"Will you come back?" Sydney asked.
"Do you two meet here regularly?"
"You'll always find us here, luv" Sydney said.
"Then I'll try to see you tomorrow."
Frannie exited the dim bar into sunlight so bright it was as if a dozen flashbulbs had just gone off in her face. As she crossed the street to the car, blinking and dabbing at her watery eyes, a sense of contentment that had evaded her for so long filled her heart. Sydney and Marlin were different from anyone she had ever talked to before. For a short time they had helped her forget her isolated life.
Over the next week, Frannie made daily visits to Jake's Bar to see Sydney and Marlin. One hour easily became two, then three and four as the days passed. At the end of the week, darkness came before Frannie climbed down from her stool.
"Why don't you stay with us, Frannie?" Sydney suggested. "There's no need for you to go back to Edward."
"I-I don't know," Frannie stammered.
"Just stay here and watch the sunrise with us," Sydney said. “We could use some fresh blood to liven up the joint.”
"Edward would never forgive me."
"Forget him," Sydney said.
Suddenly Marlin stood up. The force of his movement sent his chair falling backward with a loud bang. Frannie jumped.
"Stop it!" He staggered over to Frannie. "Don't listen to her. Listen to your heart. There are other ways to solve your problems. Look at what I've become because I wasn't sure of anything. I clouded my mind with drugs and my choice was made for me. If you want to leave, then go now. If you stay 'til dawn, you'll have no choice. Don't choose us until there's no doubt."
Frannie backed away from Marlin's warm, liquor-tainted breath. His hand shot out to grab her wrist. Frannie flinched, but Marlin's touch was gentle. She shifted her gaze to his face. Compassion and desperation shone in his eyes.
"Don't you see what's happening here?" Marlin said. "Haven't you always envied our screwed up lives? A singer? A musician? Don't you see why we're all here?"
"What's he talking about?" Frannie asked Sydney.
"He's ranting like a loony, he is. Marlin, go back into your fog and leave Frannie alone."
Marlin continued to hold onto Frannie's arm. "Listen to your heart. At sunrise, there's no turning back." Then he released his grip and fumbled his way back to his table.
"Marlin has what you'd call a flare for them dramatics," Sydney added as if that might excuse his behavior.
"Maybe he's right," Frannie said. "I can't stay tonight. I'll see you tomorrow, after Edward goes to work."
For the first time, Frannie fled the tavern. Back in the car, she locked the door and sat trembling. Marlin's words repeated in her head.
What am I doing to my life?
Sure Sydney and Marlin were her friends--but to give up her life with Edward for them? She wasn't sure she could do that. It wasn't much, certainly wasn't a dream come true anymore, but it was all she had. Wasn't it?
When Frannie arrived home, Edward was waiting for her.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"Visiting friends, that's all."
"I've called all around the neighborhood and no one's seen you."
"My friends aren't members of your country club set."
Edward's nostrils flared and his eyes bore into her. "Don't start talking smart, Frances. I'll ask you once again--where were you?"
I really wish you would call me Frannie. Just once.
Although she knew Edward expected an immediate answer, she hesitated. Jake's made her happy. It was something that belonged only to her. She wanted to keep it that way.
But he always finds out... and I always pay.
"I was at Jake's Bar, okay?" Frannie finally said, accepting the inevitable.
"Jake's Bar? What the hell type of place is that?"
"It's a little club near the corner of Main and Pleasant."
"You know very well there are two apartment houses at that corner," Edward said. "There's no bar."
"I never noticed it before, either, but it's there."
Edward's stare grew more ominous. "Come out of your fantasy, Frances, and tell me where you've been going every day."
"It's not a fantasy. I've been going to Jake's Bar to visit my friends Marlin Sky and Sydney Sydel."
Edward's eyes widened with surprise. He gripped Frannie's arm with one hand and slapped her forehead with the other. "What the hell is wrong with you? Don't lie to me."
Frannie tried in vain to pull away. "It's not a lie."
Edward yanked Frannie closer to him. She could feel his short, angry breaths on her lips. The sickly sweet odor of alcohol accompanying each word he spat out sent a familiar panic through her body. Her lips trembled and tears welled in her eyes.
"Marlin Sky and Sydney Sydel are crazy washed-up rock stars who had mental breakdowns years ago," Edward growled. "If they're not dead by now, they're still locked away in institutions."
"But that's not--"
Edward shoved Frannie down onto the floor. Her elbow struck the wall, and she recoiled from the pain.
"You're pathetic. How dare you sneak around and lie to me!"
Frannie reached out to Edward, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I'm telling you the truth."
Edward raised his hand and slapped Frannie's face--hard! She fell back against the floor in defeat. The next few minutes were a blur as Edward raged. When he stopped, Frannie's body convulsed with fear and humiliation. Edward stepped over her with a disapproving grunt and left the house. For the rest of the night, Frannie remained huddled on the floor, tears painting her battered face. Edward did not return.
When sunlight broke through the kitchen window, Frannie found the strength to move again. Only one thought echoed through her foggy brain. She had to get back to Jake's Bar.
After explaining her new batch of bruises, Frannie spent the day singing with Sydney and trying to coax a smile out of Marlin. When night fell, she stayed on. In the early morning hours, Sydney mentioned the sunrise.
"Are you coming up to the roof with us this time, Frannie?"
Frannie looked at the front door then back at Marlin and Sydney. For the first time, Marlin appeared lucid. He nodded, and Frannie understood there could be no turning back. She thought of what she would be leaving behind if she stayed and the choice was easy.
"Yes, I want to stay with you."
"Poor thing," the nurse said to the attendant assisting her. They checked the patient once again for any sign of cognition. "Her husband said he found her late yesterday afternoon, crouched in the corner of their house. Appears to be total mental shutdown."
Then the nurse leaned closer to the attendant and whispered, "I heard the husband caused it."
She glanced out the dusty, grate-covered window and pointed to the parking lot three stories below.
"See, the police are taking him for questioning now."
The nurse and the attendant watched in silence as two uniformed police officers escorted Edward into a waiting patrol car.
"Perhaps Frances would like to take a look, too," the nurse said, stepping back from the window.
As the attendant turned Frances Wellington's wheelchair so her catatonic
eyes could view the morning sun from within the pale green hospital walls,
Frannie Wellington sat on the roof of Jake's Bar, flanked by Marlin Sky
and Sydney Sydel. She greeted the new morning with a bright smile. When
the sunrise gleamed over the horizon, she took a deep breath and welcomed
the peace she'd finally found.
An hour later, Wendy Barnes, a young homeless woman from Miami, walked into Jake's Bar and made three new friends: a musician, a singer, and a woman who had everything money could buy.
Catherine Chant is an award-winning writer from the Boston area. A technical writer, computing & communications consultant and web content manager in higher education for fifteen years, she now focuses on writing book-length romantic fiction and short non-fiction/fiction pieces. Catherine is an active member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the National Association of Women Writers (NAWW) and the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She writes online book reviews and serves as the webmaster/book review coordinator for Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. She is also the webmaster for her RWA chapter From the Heart Romance Writers and recently became an editor at Chippewa Publishing LLC.
Published by permission of the author.