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(Soaps & Serials: As the World Turns, Book #1)



Chapter One:



“Good morning”

“Good morning, dear.”

“Coffee, Chris?”

Without waiting for an answer, Nancy poured a cup for him, then a careful half cup for herself. They had been married nearly twenty years and that first cup of coffee never tasted quite right to Nancy Hughes unless she had poured one for her husband first.

Poor man, he’s certainly the worse for wear, she noted with concern. Being up half the night preparing a brief for today’s court appearance hadn’t done much for his appearance either. She slid the morning edition of the Oakdale Gazette a few inches closer to his left hand, then moved the cream and sugar within easy reach of his right. He’s been driving himself too hard lately, she fretted, and Jim, who’s supposed to be helping him on the case, is no use at all. And now for Jim to go gallivanting off to that convention in Buffalo – it was just plain irresponsible, that’s what it was, especially at a busy time like this.

Instantly, she felt a twinge of guilt. Though she often questioned their values in life, she was nonetheless very fond of the wealthy Lowells, especially Jim’s wife, Claire. Now there was another disturbing thought. Poor Claire. What was going on with her? Sad and angry, vulnerable yet hardened, she seemed resigned to some fate Nancy could only guess at. The Lowells, the most fashionable couple in the country club set, seemed so perfect on the surface. Still, some questions lingered in Nancy’s min, some as yet unformed suspicion.

There now, she chided herself, don’t meddle in other people’s affairs. Your own family needs your attention, particularly that groggy man staring blankly at the front page of the paper. How soon will it be, she wondered, before Chris can share his workload with one of the boys? With any luck it’ll be Don – he’s a good deal older than Bobby, and he certainly has that lawyer’s way with words. But that’s years away, she reminded herself. All things come in good time, she thought, sighing, as she padded to the stove to scramble some eggs.

“Nancy, did you see this?”

Of course she hadn’t. She liked to give Chris a fresh paper each morning, as sort of an everyday affirmation of his position as head of the family. Then, when he left for the office and the rest of their family had gone their separate ways, she would settle down with a nice cup of coffee and take her own sweet time absorbing the day’s news before she began her housework.

“Read it to me, dear. I’ve got to watch the toast.” She checked for a reaction but saw none. Nothing registers yet, she thought with amusement.

The toast was a running joke in the Hughes household. For all her skill in the kitchen, somehow she could never make toast to her husband’s specifications. She relished the familiarity of the routine, mostly because she suspected that Chris’ gentle complaints were all part of a playful game designed to remind her how important she was. With satisfaction, she compared her skills to those of her sister in law, Edith and chuckled aloud. Then she stopped immediately when she saw the expression on Chris’ face.

In one swift motion she pulled the frying pan from the stove and turned the eggs onto the plate. Breakfast in hand, she moved quickly to her husband’s shoulder. “What on earth,” she asked, “has you so –“ then stopped abruptly as she saw what had caught Chris’ eye.

Jim Lowell woke with a start. Where am I? Why am I here? His eyes darted around the darkened room in a frantic search for familiar objects. He flung back the damp and knotted sheet and struggled to extricate himself. Free at last, he lay back down on the pillow and inspected the room once again.

In the pre-dawn gloom, he saw what he hoped he’d never see, the realization of his worst and most private fears. It couldn’t have happened, yet somehow it had. What should he do now? The last agonizing days of his life flashed before his eyes and he saw himself as some sort of B- movie patsy, in mockery of his actual standing as a pillar of the community. Uncontrollable rage welled up through every fiber of his being, and it’s force frightened him through and through. He fought an urge to run, to escape everything. Quickly he made a last ditch effort to re-assert himself. Don’t panic, he ordered himself, then listened helplessly as his mind echoed back panic, panic, panic.

“No!”

He leaped out of bed, shocked by the sound of his own voice. His feet hit the floor with a thud and suddenly he realized where he was. He was back – he was home. Relief flooded his body. His pulse slowed and he checked the other bed to make sure Claire was still sleeping. He wriggled his toes into the carpet as if to assure himself that he was indeed in his own room, his own house, his own life. Shivering less from the cold than from an effort to rid himself of that intrusive nightmare, he slipped on his robe and headed for the door.

Then, all at once, without warning, his heart pounded wildly. The panic had been so close, so palpable and the very thought of it brought him on the brink of terror once again. I can’t live like this, he told himself, and again the echo came back. Live like this, live like this, live like this. That insistent voice, so moralistic; it would drive him mad. He hurried for the stairs, hoping against hope that the voice would stay in the bedroom. Before he could stop himself, he asked, do I deserve this? Yet again came the awful answer. I deserve this, I deserve this, I deserve this.

He grasped the rail for support. What a way to wake up! He prayed that the rest of the morning would go better, the, with a rueful grin, he asked himself what right did he have to make any requests from God. He’d solve this dilemma himself. It was quite a predicament, but at least he had one advantage: no one suspected. Not Claire, thank God, or Ellen, that sweet innocent girl, or Chris, or Nancy. There had to be a way out and he’d find it, if it was the last thing he did.

Immediately he regretted his choice of words. It would be the first thing he did and he’d do it today, this very morning. Resolution strengthened him and he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Perhaps this would work out after all and he might even be able to turn the situation to his advantage. His strode purposefully through the living room and pulled open the French doors which led to the terrace. Ah, the intoxicating smell of spring, he thought, such a reaffirmation of life. It gave him just the sense of renewal he so desperately needed.

Instinctively he turned to gaze at the northern sky, the way he had as a small boy. The unfulfilled longings of his youth pulsed through him and their familiarity both comforted and reminded him how far he had strayed. But all would be well, he vowed firmly, and there was a fine life waiting for him. He could find his path to happiness – it was right in front of him, right here in Oakdale. He only had to extricate himself from….

“What are those lights, dear? The aurora borealis?” His wife had materialized soundlessly at his side.

“No Claire, it’s Chicago.” He regretted the sarcasm in his voice as soon as he heard it, but she had interrupted his fantasy. His slid his arm around her shoulder and held her close to him. He would have to work very hard to keep his resolution.

“Can I fix you some breakfast? Please, dear?”

She was begging to be needed, and it irritated him. This was going to be much more difficult than he thought. “I’m late,” he said abruptly and turned on his heel, leaving her alone on the terrace staring blankly into the sky. Yet Claire Lowell saw only a dark and meaningless void.

“Last one in is an old maid!”

“Oh no, I’m not!”

“Yes you are! You don’t even have a date for the prom yet.”

“Only because I can’t decide who to say yes to.”

The excited, high-pitched shrieks brought Nancy out of her reverie with a jolt that she dropped the whole bag of clothespins to the ground. She peered between the rows of sheets and towels, across the backyard, through the breezeway and onto the front lawn. Was school out already? She’d been so preoccupied all day that she must’ve lost track of the time.

“I’ll be right in, girls,” she called but they were already out of sight, no doubt rummaging through the refrigerator, she was sure. She pulled the remaining clothes off the line and hastily folded them. Today she was particularly glad Penny was home, and she was pleased she’d brought Ellen with her. Their innocuous chatter was certain to chase away any unpleasant thoughts. She parked the laundry basket in the pantry and paused for a moment to fondly at her eldest daughter. It hardly seemed seventeen years since that wondrous day Chris had rushed her to Oakdale Memorial.

Actually, it hadn’t seemed so wonderful then, she recalled. She had been terribly frightened, not so much by the excruciating pain she was sure would come, but by the awesome responsibilities of impending motherhood. Would she measure up? Her simple girlhood, spent in several tiny towns in the Midwest, seemed inadequate preparation for the complexities of raising a family in the suburbs of Chicago. Even then, Oakdale was losing it’s bucolic charm, and Nancy remembered being concerned that life here would soon begin to move faster than she could handle. It all seemed so ludicrous now that she, Nancy Hughes, might fail at being a mother, but at the time it had been a deeply troubling worry. Only Chris’ solid support and quiet strength had restored her confidence.

And now before her sat Penny, the first of her four children, and the one upon whom Nancy had place all of her most precious hopes and dreams. A woman loves all her children equally, but no matter how much she tries not to, she reserves a special place in her heart for her firstborn, Nancy believed. And at the moment, Penny was occupying that spot with grand and youthful style.

“But Ellen, did you see him?” she bubbled gaily, the fabric of her skirt a whirl of blue as she pirouetted across the linoleum. “I think he’s the dreamiest!”

Nancy wondered how the language of teenagers could change so much from year to year, yet always remain the same. Surely she hadn’t been so frivolous when she was Penny’s age, she thought, then realized that it was only because she hadn’t had the opportunity.

“Jeff doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in school, you know,” her chum countered primly.

At times, Ellen was an uncomfortably accurate reflection of her parents’ less admirable qualities, thought Nancy. “Who’s Jeff, dear? I haven’t heard you mention him before.” She disguised her motherly curiosity with an offhand tone.

“Just the handsomest boy in the whole senior class, that’s who. And I don’t care who likes him and who doesn’t.” She flounced to the refrigerator, plucked out an apple and took a large juicy bite.

“Oh Penny, you always try to sound so rebellious,” snorted Ellen. “Gimme an apple too.”

“Try and make me.” With a mischievous grin, Penny tucked an apple behind her back.

Eyes sparkling, Ellen made a grab for it. “Hand it over, or I’ll….” Triumphantly she snatched the fruit from her friend. Consumed by giggles, the girls gathered up their schoolbooks and papers and dashed out of the room.

“Is that going to be enough nourishment for you children?” Nancy asked with amused tolerance but they were already thundering up the stairs to the room Penny shared with Susan.

Teenagers are such peculiar creatures, she thought. One minute they are acting like kids and then the next minute they’re all grown up.

“Am I interrupting?”

Nancy turned around smiling. “Dad.” The gentle voice belonged to Chris’ father, the children’s beloved Grandpa Hughes, and she wished she could have the benefit of his counsel right now. Instead, she asked, “What can I get for you?”

“Just some of your time, dear. You’ve been a million miles away all day – and I can tell you’re worried about something.”

“Oh it’s nothing really. At least I hope – I mean, I think it’s nothing.” Nancy was doing a poor job of convincing herself, and her father in law didn’t look as if he would buy it either. “Anyway, it doesn’t concern you or the family or anyone you care about.”

Nancy never snapped at Grandpa but the strain of telling an outright lie had made her unexpectedly angry. She looked around for refuge and suddenly remembered the laundry. She brought the basket into the kitchen and carefully folded the last few items.

“Um, Dad, I’m really not myself today, though that’s hardly a good excuse for talking to you like that.” Her apology brought a tolerant and understanding smile to Grandpa’s face, but Nancy didn’t feel any better for it. Why couldn’t she and Chris just tell him the truth? Chris wanted to. But it wasn’t their secret and besides, they weren’t even sure it was true. Or, at least, Nancy wasn’t sure. And this time she was holding off passing judgments.

She picked up a pile of fresh linens, sniffed it with satisfaction and made for the stairs. The girls wouldn’t be as inquisitive as Grandpa. They were so much more interested in boys, school, clothes, and hair that they didn’t have time for adult problems. As she walked past Chris’ den, she looked in, and in her mind’s eye she saw a tiny Penny rolling around on the floor, merrily tumbling in her father’s strong arms. That picture was as clear and vivid to her as if it had happened only yesterday. And now that innocent baby was about to graduate from high school. Nancy’s only regret, and it was a painful one, was that her own parents couldn’t be there for such a milestone.

She quickly filed away the sadness her realization produced, took a deep breath and headed for the stairs. Life is a continuum, and that knowledge brought her comfort. Her father had given her inner strength and an unshakeable belief in God’s power, and in that way, he remained a part of her forever. From her mother, she learned a joyous, zestful philosophy of life, tempered by the practical common sense that was a part of her now. Yet of all her mother’s gifts, the most priceless was her capacity for unconditional love. It was the one quality she was determined to pass on to Penny, so that Penny’s children would be loved as much as Penny was, and as much as Nancy had been by her parents.

Ellen’s voice reverberated down the stairwell. “Well she sure doesn’t dress the way I’d ever care to. And her behavior!” She tsk-tsked in just the way Nancy found most annoying, especially in one so young. “I certainly wouldn’t want all of Oakdale talking about me behind my back and she doesn’t even seem to notice.”

“It’s all a question of what’s important to people.” Nancy swallowed with pride as she heard her daughter stand up for a person’s right to individuality. “Personally, I like her. I admire her for not always doing exactly what other people expect of her. She believes in herself and I hope I grow up just like her.”

Who was this mysterious person? Clearly it was not a classmate. Nancy paused midway on the stairs, curious about this controversial person.

“Well,” Ellen retorted, “Of course you like her but you don’t need to stick up for her all the time. My mother can’t stand her, and neither can I. I’d just die if she were my aunt.”

Edith!

Nancy took in her breath in one sharp gulp. Frankly, now she wasn’t quite so thrilled at Penny’s passionate defense of nonconformity. Edith thought she was too fascinating, too independent to be bothered with the tired conventions of Oakdale, but to Nancy, she was selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. She simply thought of no one but herself, and she made no secret of the fact that she considered Nancy an interloper in the Hughes family. Nonetheless, Nancy was cordial with her and never failed to include her in family functions. But having Edith serve as a role model for impressionable Penny was another matter indeed, and Nancy didn’t know how to put a stop to it. The problem had been building for quite some time, and she had simply preferred to ignore it. Edith was a strong adversary – Nancy knew that only too well. Furthermore, she did have a right to live her life the way she saw fit, no matter what Nancy or the rest of Oakdale thought about it.

“If you’d seen her yesterday,” Ellen continued, “You wouldn’t be so proud of her. She was acting downright peculiar.”

“What are you talking about? Aunt Edith was out of town until the weekend. I know, ‘cause she told me herself. She went to Chicago to look for some summer clothes. Heaven knows, there’s nothing in this town that’s suitable for her.”

Penny was right. Edith had gone out of town on a shopping trip, or at least she said she was going to go, Nancy recalled with growing anxiety.

“I saw her at the train station yesterday, when Mummy and I went to pick up Daddy. He was so exhausted from all those meetings in Buffalo. I’d never seen him like that. Mummy and I were helping him with his suitcases when I saw you aunt Edith get off the same car as Daddy, except from the rear door. At first I didn’t think it was her. For one thing, she was wearing a big floppy hat so you couldn’t see her face, and then, when she saw us, she headed the other way. Now you know as well as I do that she and Daddy are friends, and she acted like she didn’t even see him. Except – and here’s the odd thing – when she thought Mummy and I weren’t looking, I saw her give Daddy this really strange look, like… well, I don’t know what it was like.”

In a flash, Nancy realized what that glance had signified and she dreaded facing it. It was all too obvious now. When Chris had shown her the picture in the paper this morning, her first impulse was to think it was all a mistake. That just couldn’t have been Edith in the background of that photo from the lawyer’s convention. After all, Edith was in Chicago, buying a new wardrobe so she’d be chic in the summer heat in Oakdale. That was what she had told everyone, and after all, what could’ve been more plausible? It really had been a great cover story and Nancy had bought it. She’d defended her sister so many times, saying that Edith was an essentially good, though misguided woman. Now she felt betrayed. Edith had been lying to everyone, but, most of all, to her brother Chris. How could she have done such a thing? Edith had not gone on a shopping spree. She hadn’t been in Chicago at all. She had been in Buffalo with another woman’s husband, and the very idea of it made Nancy sick. And to think that this was the woman her Penny idolized. Well, not for long, she concluded grimly.

“She must have just changed trains or something and come back early.” Penny’s explanation was a trifle glib. Had she suspected all along?

Nancy cleared her throat and stepped into her daughter’s room. Trying to sound casual, she said, “Here honey, will you put these away for me?” and handed her a stack of towels. “I’ve got to start dinner. Ellen, would you like to stay?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Hughes. I want to be home tonight. My father has been gone all week and then last night, he had to go out for something or other, so he promised that tonight he would spend some time with me.”

Nancy’s heart ached for her. And her anger rose and rose until she felt she would burst. So many innocent people were being hurt. Ellen, poor Claire, Chris, and Grandpa. But Nancy couldn’t bring herself to meddle. This was one time she would keep herself out of it. Definitely, positively, she would keep her mouth completely shut. Maybe if she repeated that to herself often enough, she might believe it.


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