April Fools

 

Helen Belden sat at the table in the warm red and white kitchen of Crabapple Farm.  The coffee pot was on, the orange juice was poured, and there was a basket of homemade muffins sitting in the middle of the table alongside a bowl of fresh fruit.  While waiting for her family to appear for breakfast, Helen was trying to complete a shopping list of last minute items she needed for the party she and her husband were hosting that night.  They usually limited their entertaining to the yearly Thanksgiving Open House and having their kids’ friends over informally, but lately, they had been attending a number of events at the Manor House and Lynch Estate, and she felt that she really should do something to pay back her neighbors’ hospitality.

 

Besides, Helen had felt a little stuck in the doldrums lately and really needed something to look forward to.  She glanced out the window at the gray, drizzly sky.  It seemed like it had been gray for weeks now, and even though tomorrow was the first of April, there was still snow on the ground.  It wasn’t the exciting, clean white snow of early winter, either, but that dusty, tired-looking snow that made everything look messy and depressing. Being in the house most days, cleaning, cooking and taking care of her family, Helen was beginning to feel somewhat akin to that snow.  

 

She sighed heavily, trying to remember the excitement she had felt when she first started planning this party.  She had been looking forward to dressing up and socializing with her friends, and had spent many happy hours carefully planning out the menu and the small guest list.   What she had failed to remember, though, was how much actual work putting on a party involved and how much of that work would fall on her own shoulders.  She and the kids had cleaned the house from top to bottom last weekend, but it never seemed to stay that way for long, and now it was badly in need of a fresh scrubbing. 

 

Why did I ever plan this party for a Friday night? she asked herself regretfully. It was true that she hadn’t wanted to host a party on April Fool’s Day, but now the kids would be in school all day and Peter would be at work, and there would be no one to help her. She knew they’d help when they got home, but she’d still be cooking and cleaning all day.  She’d have to cancel the appointment she’d made to get her hair and nails done.  Hearing the shower turn on overhead, she quickly went back to her list.  She had done all the major shopping yesterday, but there were a few things she’d forgotten, and she hoped to have the list ready for Peter to take with him so he could stop for the items on the way home from work.  Let’s see, candles, toothpicks, and tonic water…what else? Maybe some extra ice?

 

“Moms!” her daughter’s demanding voice interrupted her from the top of the stairs.

 

“What is it, Trixie?” Helen called, moving into the hallway.

 

“Bobby says he won’t go to school without Oscar,” Trixie yelled in an exasperated voice.  “I can’t get him to budge from his room.”

 

Helen shook her head and raced up the stairs to find her youngest son sitting on his bed, his pet lizard in its little aquarium held firmly on his lap. 

 

“I’ve tried everything,” Trixie said. “I’ve pleaded, begged, ordered…”

 

“Cajoled, beseeched, implored, entreated, demanded,” Mart supplied, sticking his head in the door.  “Why don’t you just let him take his chameleon to school, Moms?” He quickly retreated, though, as he received glares from both female members of the Belden clan.  “Just a suggestion,” he defended himself as he walked away. “Is breakfast ready yet?”

 

“Yes, it’s on the table,” Helen told him.  As she heard his footsteps descending the stairway, she called out, “And don’t eat all the muffins!”  Shaking her head, she turned back to Bobby, kneeling in front of him.  “Bobby, honey,” she told him, “Mrs. Mayen doesn’t permit guests in her class without asking her permission first.”

 

“What’s permission?” Bobby asked.

 

“It means I have to call her or write her a note and arrange it ahead of time. Remember? Even when I go to visit your class, I have to do that.”

 

Bobby nodded solemnly.  “Will you call her now so he can go on the bus with me?”

 

“No, there’s not enough time this morning,” Mrs. Belden said firmly.  “And I don’t think Oscar would be allowed on the bus. We’ll ask Mrs. Mayen if Oscar can visit next week, and I’ll drive you to school that day.  And maybe bring cupcakes for your snack time?” 

 

Bobby’s face brightened. “Well, okay,” he agreed, “maybe you and Oscar can both visit that day.”  He carefully placed the lizard container back on his desk, earnestly telling his pet, “You can come to school with Moms next week, but you have to stay home today.”

 

Helen and Trixie exchanged smiles over his head. “Now, come on down to breakfast, or you and Trixie will both miss your buses.  And I really don’t have time to drive anyone to school today!”

 

Shepherding Bobby and Trixie quickly out of the room, Helen met her husband in the hallway.  He was humming to himself as he adjusted his tie.  She tried not to grimace as he gave her a good morning kiss on the cheek.  Couldn’t he have handled this one little problem? she couldn’t help thinking.  He knows I have a million things to do today, and he certainly couldn’t have missed Trixie yelling at the top of her lungs.  Just once, I wish he would take the initiative and help out without being specifically asked to do something.

 

In the kitchen, Mart was helping himself to another muffin. Helen judged that at least three were gone, maybe four. She hoped there were enough left to go around.  As Trixie and Bobby sat down and started eating, she began pouring a cup of coffee for Peter.  “Don’t bother with coffee this morning, Helen,” he stopped her. “Remember I have that breakfast meeting?” 

 

Helen sighed. Of course, I forgot all about that meeting, she thought, as Peter grabbed his coat and headed out the door, and now I won’t be able to finish this list to give him.  I’ll have to do the shopping myself, unless Brian

 

“Morning, everyone!” 

 

Helen’s oldest son entered the kitchen, a cheerful expression on his face.  Helen sniffed the air.  Was that his father’s cologne he was wearing? His next words answered her question.  

 

“I have to run. I promised Honey I’d drive her to school this morning,” Brian explained. “She has to bring her history project and set it up for a report she’s doing first period.”  He grabbed a muffin and picked up his backpack and jacket from the sideboard.

 

“Great!” Trixie enthused. “Just give me a sec and I’ll come with you.  Honey and I have a lot to talk about.  I just have to bring Bobby to the bus first. Come on, Bobby,” she urged, grabbing his arm.  “You’ve had enough to eat. Let’s get your coat on.”    

 

Helen watched in some amusement as Brian’s face fell.

 

Mart apparently noticed his expression, too.  “Methinks my esteemed elder sibling would enjoy escorting the unrivaled Ms. Wheeler in his faithful chariot without benefit of the company of my younger sister,” he observed pompously.

 

Bobby eyed him, confused for a minute, and then he grinned.  “I think Brian just wants to be alone with his giiiirlfriend,” he teased, dragging out the first syllable and rolling his eyes suggestively.

 

Bright red spots appeared on Brian’s cheeks.  “She’s not my girlfriend,” he mumbled.

 

“Then why didn’t Honey ask Jim to drive her to school?” Trixie asked, a look of feigned innocence in her blue eyes as Mart winked at her across the table.

 

“I don’t know,” Brian answered shortly.  “She mentioned that she needed a ride, and I offered to take her.  Can’t a guy even help out a friend without getting the third degree around here?” he asked.  “If you’re coming, Trixie, hurry up, or you’ll be late,” he told her grumpily. 

 

Helen decided it was time to intervene.  “Trixie will never make it in time. You run along, Brian,” she said, eyeing Trixie and Mart to let them know she’d had enough of their teasing.  She knew it rankled with Brian that Mart had been dating Di for several months now, and he still hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask Honey out. If he was finally getting around to making a move, she wanted to give him all the help she could.

 

“Fine!” Brian said, a look of relief passing over his handsome features as he stalked out the door. Helen hid a grin, and then, too late, realized she still hadn’t completed her shopping list. Brian poked his head back in. “By the way, Moms, I have to go help set up the floating lab after school today, so I won’t be home till late.”

 

Helen sighed for the third time that morning, as she told him, “Come home as soon as you can.  Don’t forget, we’re having that party tonight.”  He nodded and disappeared out the door, and the other three left a few minutes later, after Helen had helped Trixie search for a missing homework assignment and helped Bobby find a lost mitten.

 

In the silence that followed their departure, Helen sat down at the table with the coffee she had poured for Peter, surveying the breakfast debris and trying to think where she would get the energy to begin clearing it up and doing all the cleaning and cooking for the party.  She had just about had it with cleaning and cooking lately and now she had a whole day of it stretched out ahead of her.  What could she have been thinking when she decided to have this party? She’d be cooking and cleaning all day, waiting on people half the night, and then cleaning up the other half.  How glamorous was that? All of a sudden, she knew she just had to get out of the house for a while.  She glanced out the window and noticed that the drizzle had turned to a full-fledged shower, but now that the idea of going out was in her head, she wasn’t about to let a little rain deter her plans.

 

I’ve been stuck inside too much lately, she told herself.  I know I don’t have time, but maybe a quick walk will raise my spirits and give me some energy.   Smiling to herself a little wildly, she grabbed her jacket and an umbrella out of the hall closet and headed out the front door, thinking to herself with some satisfaction, and I just may not come back!   

 

At the Manor House   

 

Maddie opened her eyes and stretched lazily.  A glance at the clock on the bedside table told her it was almost ten o’clock.  I guess I slept in again, she told herself ruefully.   Last night, she and Matt had gone to a party and stayed out until almost two in the morning.  And Matthew must have left hours ago, she thought guiltily as she dragged herself out of bed.  I didn’t even hear him get up.  She quickly bathed and dressed and headed downstairs. She poked her head in the kitchen and found Celia and the cook sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying their morning coffee together.  Celia jumped up. 

 

“I have coffee and fruit all ready for you, Mrs. Wheeler, and would you like toast this morning?”  When Maddie nodded her head, she continued, “I’ll bring it into the dining room right away.”

 

“No hurry,” Maddie assured her. It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest that she just join the two of them for coffee.  They looked so comfortable that she hated to disturb them, and it seemed silly to sit in the dining room all by herself while Celia waited on her.  They’re servants, she chided herself, as she walked in to take her seat at the big dining room table. Her mother would have a fit if she ever heard her even entertaining such a thought. Celia came in from the butler’s pantry with a bowl of fresh fruit and a plate of toast.   A few minutes later, she reappeared with the coffee pot. 

 

“It seems like a nice day,” Maddie said, trying to break the silence.

 

Celia glanced doubtfully out the window.  “A little gray and drizzly if you ask me. I hope it’s not like this on Sunday.  Tom wants to go to Opening Day at Shea Stadium.” She shook her head.  “I hate those early season games.  You always end up freezing your butt off.”

 

Maddie nodded in agreement.  She remembered suffering through a few of those early spring games herself when she had accompanied Matt in their box at Yankee stadium. “I guess Tom’s still a Mets fan,” she commented with a smile.

 

Celia sniffed.  “He’ll always be a Mets fan, no matter how much Mr. Wheeler tries to turn him into a Yankees fan.  The Mets will have their year yet,” she said loyally.  “The Yankees are on a downswing.”

 

Maddie knew that Celia wasn’t really upset.  Tom and Matt had had a good-natured rivalry going over the two teams since Tom had started working for the Wheelers, and they both seemed to enjoy the friendly bantering.  Privately, Maddie hoped that Celia was right and the Yankees were on a downswing.  Matt could be almost insufferable about them, especially since they had done so well over the past few years. She smiled and said aloud, “You just might be right.  Speaking of Mr. Wheeler, what time did he leave this morning?”

 

“I thought you knew,” Celia said, looking at Maddie in surprise.  “He’s still here.  He’s been making phone calls in his study all morning.”  

 

“Oh!”  Maddie said.  “I hadn’t realized that. I thought he left hours ago.  I’ll join him in there for coffee, then.”

 

Celia nodded her head.  “I’ll bring in a fresh pot.”  She lowered her voice and added, “Just between you and me, he’s in a bit of a temper this morning.”

 

Maddie raised her eyebrows, but remained silent.  She didn’t encourage confidences from the servants, but she did wonder what Matt was in a temper about. Maybe she shouldn’t disturb him, but she hated the thought of sitting here drinking coffee all on her own. She got up and walked toward her husband’s study.  He was on the phone and gestured her into a big leather chair as he finished his call. 

 

“Well, good afternoon, Ms. Wheeler,” he said congenially as he came around the desk and kissed the air next to her cheek.  “You’re just the lady I wanted to see.”

 

“Very funny, Matthew,” Maddie returned, grateful that he didn’t seem to be in a temper, but wishing that if he was going to take the trouble to kiss her, he’d actually kiss her and not the air next to her.  “Why did you want to see me?  Celia’s bringing coffee in.”  She motioned to the area with two armchairs and a low table where they often had coffee.  “Do you want to sit by the window?” 

 

Matt glanced at his watch.  “I only have a few minutes. I was just about to ask Tom to bring the car around, but sure, I’ll have a quick cup.” 

 

As Celia brought in the coffee, he picked up the house phone and called the garage, asking Tom to have the car ready in fifteen minutes. 

 

“Crazy morning?”  Maddie asked as she poured his coffee.  

 

“Very,” Matt answered tiredly.  “Don’t let me stay out that late again when I have to work the next morning.”  Maddie glanced at him, not quite sure if he was blaming her or not.  It was true that she had been the one who wanted to stay, and given the choice, she was sure that Matt would have left much earlier.  She started to apologize, but he stopped her with a wide grin.

 

“I didn’t want to drag you away too early,” he teased, “when you really seemed to be enjoying your champagne and gossip.  How’s your head this morning, by the way?”

 

It’s fine,” Maddie answered, although it was still aching despite the two aspirin she had taken earlier.  “And I didn’t have that much champagne.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Matt said, still grinning.  He obviously wasn’t convinced, but was willing to drop the subject. “Listen, Maddie, I’ve just been on the phone with Scott Horsley, the president of that company I’ve been trying to set up an account with since before Christmas.”

 

Maddie nodded. Matt had talked about it many times.  

 

“I think he’s ready to talk business, so I invited him here for a dinner party tomorrow night.”

 

“But Matthew, we’re not having a dinner party here tomorrow night,” Maddie protested.

 

“This is really important, Maddie. You know I’ve been trying to swing this deal for a long time. Couldn’t you just throw something together?”

 

Maddie sighed.  Throw something together?  It was never as simple as that.  Even though she didn’t have to cook and clean, there were still a lot of arrangements that needed to be made. She knew this deal was important to him, but she really had no desire to host a formal dinner party tomorrow night, especially since they were going to the Beldens’ tonight, and she was right in the middle of organizing a charity fundraiser which was to take place next weekend. 

 

“We’re supposed to go out to the country club with the Lynches,” she objected.

 

“That’s no problem.  Just invite them, too.”

 

Maddie knew she just might as well give in now. Otherwise, they would have a big argument and she’d probably end up giving in anyway.  And she knew that the account was very important to Matt’s business or he wouldn’t ask this of her.  “I suppose if it’s that important, I can manage something,” she told her husband.  “Have you invited anyone else?”

 

“The Nelsons.”  Maddie nodded.  Matt’s vice president and his wife.  That was fine.

 

“And the Munsons.”  Maddie sighed again.  Harold Munson was an insufferable bore, and his wife never stopped talking.

 

“The Joneses and the Connollys,” Matt continued, glancing at his wife.

 

“Matthew,” Maddie objected immediately, “we’ve been through this before.  You know Jack Connolly never stops pinching and pawing me whenever we’re at the same party, even when his poor wife is right there.”  She shuddered involuntarily, thinking of the time they had gone out to dinner with several couples recently, and she had ended up sitting next to Jack in the dark restaurant. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to socialize with him any more.” 

 

“I know we did,” Matt said, “but Jack Connolly is a good friend of Scott Horsley’s.  He’s the whole reason this deal is so close to going through.  He really needs to be here.”

 

Exasperated, Maddie gave in.  “Fine!” she told her husband, crossing her arms in front of her and leaving him with the impression it was anything but. 

 

Matt nodded uneasily. “I’ve really got to go now,” he said.  Setting down his coffee cup, he leaned forward and touched Maddie’s knee.  “I’m sorry about all this,” he said helplessly.

 

Maddie held his gaze silently for a few moments, and then relented. He really did seem sorry.  “I guess it can’t be helped,” she said resignedly.

 

Matt leaned forward to kiss her good-bye.  At least this time the kiss landed on her cheek, but it was perfunctory at best.  “And be sure to wear that new dress you got in Paris,” he told her.

 

“What new dress?”  Maddie asked, surprised that he was suddenly taking an interest in her wardrobe.

 

“You know, Maddie, the short one with the slits that show off your legs.”

 

Maddie looked at him suspiciously.  “I’ll wear that the next time the two of us go out to dinner,” she said slowly.  “I really don’t think it’s appropriate for the dinner party.”

 

“Oh, wear it to the dinner party,” Matt urged. “It looks great on you, Maddie, and you’ll really wow everyone in it.”

 

Maddie looked at her husband for a long moment, considering his words. When she finally spoke, her tone was chilly.  “You mean I’ll wow Jack Connolly,” she corrected.

 

“No, I didn’t mean that at all.”  Matt denied her words, but avoided her gaze, confirming her suspicions about his motives.

 

“Don’t even bother to deny it,” she told him coldly.  “I can’t even believe you’re asking me to do this.”

 

“Do what, Maddie?” Matt asked.  “Dress up for an important dinner party?”

 

“That’s not all, Matthew, and you know it.  You’re feeding me to the wolves so you can cement your business deal.”

 

“Feeding you to the wolves?  Don’t you think you’re being a little overdramatic, Maddie?  You’ve dealt with guys like Jack Connolly most of your life without much of a problem. All I’m asking you to do is show a little leg.”   

 

“And you honestly don’t see anything wrong with that?”  Maddie asked, her voice icy cold.

 

“No, I don’t,” Matt answered a little impatiently. “It’s not like I’m asking you to have sex with him.”

 

Maddie’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “Well, I should hope not, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s not far from the same thing. You’re asking me to use sex to help tie up your business deal.”

 

“I’m just asking you to use your charms to help keep everyone happy.  Is that so terrible?” Matt argued. “If I was dealing with a female client, I wouldn’t be beyond a little flirting to get the deal completed.”

 

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Maddie returned sarcastically.  “And would you let her pinch your behind and run her hand up your thigh and try to manhandle you in various other ways?”

 

Matt paused, taking in the hurt and anger in Maddie’s hazel eyes. He knew he’d better answer this question carefully, or he’d be in a lot worse trouble than he already seemed to be.  “You’re a big girl, Maddie,” he said carefully.  “I’m sure you’ve avoided those kinds of advances before.”

 

“I can remember a day when you actually got upset when other men looked at me in a certain way, let alone made those kinds of advances,” Maddie said bitterly.  “It’s hard to believe that now you’re actually encouraging them.”

 

Matt made the mistake of rolling his eyes.  “Really, Maddie, I’m not encouraging them.”

 

“Oh, no?”  Maddie asked.  “Then what do you call asking me to dress up in something sexy for your party? I may as well be a pretty little doll you have on display on your shelf.  Every now and then you take me down and dust me off so you can dress me up and impress your business associates.”  

 

“Do you really think that, Maddie?” Matt asked, his voice dangerously quiet.

 

“It’s all about keeping up appearances, isn’t it, Matthew?” Maddie’s eyes flashed as she held his gaze. “After all, it’s not as though it really matters what I wear when the two of us are alone anymore.”  

 

Matt’s face darkened in anger and confusion.  He swallowed.  “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked.  “You always look nice.”

 

“Nice?”  Maddie echoed the word venomously.  “Why thank you, Matthew.  I guess as long as I always look ‘nice’, everything’s perfectly perfect, isn’t it?  It doesn’t matter if I’m wearing a strapless evening gown, or a business-like suit, or even a new French negligee that’s barely there, as long as I look ‘nice’.”

 

Matt stared at her, and Maddie could tell that he was racking his brain trying to figure out what she was talking about.  After a few minutes, he gave up and shook his head.  “I don’t have time for this now. I’ve got to get going. Wear what you want to the dinner party, Maddie,” he finished shortly.  He got up and went over to his desk, shoving papers mindlessly into his briefcase.  Maddie watched him for a long moment.

 

“Maybe I should just wear the negligee to the dinner party,” she suggested.  “That way I’d be showing some leg and a whole lot more, so everyone should be happy, don’t you think?”

 

Matt stared at her again, obviously at a loss for words.  Maddie knew she had already said more than enough and that she should just close her mouth now, but she was on a roll and couldn’t quite stop herself.  She continued in the same sarcastic tone, “And at least that way, someone would appreciate the way I look in it.”

 

Maddie regretted what she had said almost immediately. Her words seemed to hang in the air.  Matt turned away, and she could feel a huge chasm rising between them like dark, angry water rushing through a swelling creek.

        

Tom chose that moment to knock on the study door.  “The car’s ready, Mr. Wheeler,” he called. 

 

Matt picked up his briefcase and slowly walked toward the door.  He paused for a minute with his hand on the door handle to look back at her, and Maddie caught just a glimpse of the dazed expression in his green eyes before he turned and was gone, the door closing quietly behind him.  Maddie sat in stunned silence, the tears running down her cheeks, wondering what she had done, and how things were ever going to be right between them again.

 

 

Helen walked quickly, despite the slush and mud under her feet.  The air was damp and chilly, but it felt good to be out.  She spotted a few crocuses that had popped up in the snow on the side of the road and it gave her hope that maybe spring was finally arriving. She continued briskly along, leaving behind all the worries of her house, her family, and the impending dinner party.  In a few minutes, she found herself at the entrance to the path to Mrs. Vanderpoel’s house.  She hesitated, tempted by the thought of her neighbor’s good strong coffee and warm windmill cookies.  I really shouldn’t, she told herself. I have so much to do.  

 

Almost of their own accord, however, her feet dismissed her objections and started quickly up the path to the old, yellow brick Dutch colonial.  Within a few minutes, Helen was knocking on her neighbor’s kitchen door. 

 

A broad smile graced Mrs. Vanderpoel’s rosy face as she greeted her visitor.  “Helen! I’m so glad you came by. I was just wishing for some company.”  Mrs. Vanderpoel ushered Helen into the little back hall.  Helen left her umbrella by the back door and then glanced at her feet in dismay.  Her shoes were soaking wet, and one of them was completely covered in mud. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she started to apologize with a rueful smile. 

 

“Don’t even give it another thought,” Mrs. Vanderpoel cut her off. “Just leave those here and I’ll get some slippers for you.”  Helen started to object, but the older woman had already disappeared into another part of the house.  In a few minutes, however, she was back with a pair of brightly-colored hand-knit slippers.  Helen slipped them gratefully onto her feet and followed her hostess into the warm kitchen.

 

“You came just at the right time,” Mrs. Vanderpoel said as she poured coffee for the two of them.  “I was just taking some apple turnovers out of the oven.”  She put several on a plate in the middle of the table and sat down across from her company.  “You need something hot,” she said, “after being out on this miserable morning.  Did you walk all the way here in this rain?”

 

Helen nodded as she took a blissful bite of the flaky turnover.  Following it with a sip from her coffee mug, she added, “I really shouldn’t be here at all.  I have that party tonight and a hundred things to do today.”

 

“Well, it can’t hurt to take a little break,” Mrs. Vanderpoel said, taking in the sigh that Helen had not quite successfully repressed, and the tired look on her friend’s face.  “You work hard between raising the family and the house and garden,” she continued.  “I remember when my family was young. I loved them, but there were some days that I was so tired that I counted the hours until bedtime.”  She paused, obviously remembering the days when children’s laughter had filled the big house.  “Of course, I miss those days now,” she finished quietly.

 

Helen smiled. “I guess someday I’ll miss them, too,” she said.

 

“But it’s hard to imagine right now?” Mrs. Vanderpoel asked astutely.

 

“I love my family.” Helen was horrified when the words didn’t even sound convincing to her own ears.

 

Mrs. Vanderpoel appeared not to notice. “Of course you do,” she said reassuringly.  She waited for Helen to go on.

 

Helen paused for a few minutes, before finally continuing in a quiet voice, “It’s just that they seem so busy with their own lives and don’t seem to notice everything I do.”  Mrs. Vanderpoel made soothing noises, and Helen found herself telling the older woman all about the scene at breakfast this morning. “The kids really try to help out, but they’re so busy with their own lives now. Brian is involved with the floating lab, Mart has been spending time with Di, and you know how Trixie is with her mysteries.” She smiled ruefully as Mrs. Vanderpoel nodded her head in agreement.  “Bobby is still a handful and Peter…”

 

Helen paused, biting her lip and blushing slightly.  She had been about to reveal intimate details of their marriage, and to Mrs. Vanderpoel, of all people.  She was glad she had managed to stop herself before she shocked the poor woman.

 

She found she had underestimated her neighbor, however.  Mrs. Vanderpoel was unwilling to drop the subject.

 

“And Peter?” she urged.  “That handsome man doesn’t pay you enough attention in the bedroom?” she guessed, laughing as the blush on Helen’s face deepened. “Don’t forget I was young once, too.  There were times when I wanted to hit my Harry over the head to get him to get a little frisky with me.”

 

Helen found her friend’s laughter and honesty contagious. “Well, not exactly.  In fact, I have the opposite problem.  I’m so tired at the end of the day that a lot of times, I just want to fall into bed…to sleep, that is. Peter thinks things should continue just as they did when we were first married.  He always seems to be full of friskiness,” she added with a girlish giggle. 

 

Mrs. Vanderpoel nodded her head sagely.  “You’re just plain worn out,” she stated sympathetically, “and I know just what you need.”

 

“A vacation in Aruba?” Helen suggested with a grin.  “I know, it’s been ages since we’ve been away, but we can’t afford it and even if we could, Peter can’t take the time off right now.”

 

“No, I was thinking of something a little different.  More along the lines of an old home remedy. It’s good for what ails you.”   She glanced at Helen appraisingly.  “You might think it’s a little silly.”   

 

“Not at all,” Helen said with more confidence than she felt.  What kind of remedy could Mrs. Vanderpoel be talking about? Whatever it was, it couldn’t do any harm, could it?   “At this stage, I’d be willing to try almost anything,” she told her friend. 

 

Mrs. Vanderpoel was already on her feet.  “Now, let’s see, where did I put that?” she mused to herself as she disappeared into her pantry.  “I know it’s here somewhere. Maybe up here?  Ah, here it is.”

 

When she came back in, she was holding a bottle that suspiciously resembled a champagne bottle. 

 

“Champagne?” Helen laughed.  “There are days when I could almost resort to getting tipsy, but I don’t quite think...”

 

“No, it’s not champagne,” Mrs. Vanderpoel interrupted her.  “It’s just a similar bottle.  Now let me see.” She extracted a pair of reading glasses from her front apron pocket and peered at the label.  “Oh! This works out perfectly! It can only be taken at midnight on the last day of the month.  I didn’t remember that from when I took it.” 

 

“You took it?” Helen questioned.  “When? Did it work for you?”

 

“Yes, of course it worked. I wouldn’t give it to you otherwise,” Mrs. Vanderpoel said reprovingly.  “And I guess I must have been about your age when I took it.”  She handed the bottle across to Helen.  “It says you open it a half hour before midnight to let it air, and then you must drink a glass just as it turns midnight.”

 

Helen nodded as she carefully took the bottle from Mrs. Vanderpoel.   “And what exactly does this elixir do?”

 

“It does what you want it to do,” Mrs. Vanderpoel replied.  “When you drink it, you think about how you want your life to improve, and the next morning when you wake up, changes will take place.”  When Helen still looked confused, she went on. “You might wish that your family not take you for granted so much, and that your husband is a little less…um….frisky. Or maybe you’ll wish that you’ll have a little more energy and friskiness yourself.”   She winked, and Helen laughed.

 

“Well, it’s worth a try,” she said doubtfully. “The way I feel now, I’m willing to try just about anything.”

 

“That’s right, just give it a try,” Mrs. Vanderpoel urged.  “I think you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.”  She paused.  “There are just two things you should remember,” she warned.  Helen looked at her expectantly, feeling a bit like Cinderella being cautioned by her fairy godmother.  “Make sure you put it away in a safe place,” Mrs. Vanderpoel went on. “It could be disastrous if someone else in your family found it and drank some without knowing its powers.” 

 

Helen nodded.  She could just imagine Bobby getting into it. Or Trixie. She tried not to think what would happen then.

 

“And just be careful to drink only one glass.  More than one glass could cause confusion in your life instead of the good things promised.” 

 

Helen agreed, and then quickly got up, thanking Mrs. Vanderpoel.  “I really have to go. I still have so much to do.  Will I see you tonight at the party?”

 

“I’ll be there,” Mrs. Vanderpoel assured her as she walked her to the door.  “And be sure to let me know how the elixir works for you.”  Helen agreed as she slipped out of the slippers and back into her shoes, saying goodbye to her neighbor before picking up her umbrella and heading out the door.

 

As she walked out into Mrs. Vanderpoel’s back yard, she realized she no longer needed the umbrella.  The rain had stopped, and there were glimpses of sun peeking through the clouds. She sang softly to herself as she headed down the path toward Glen Road,

 

          I can see clearly now the rain is gone

          I can see all obstacles in my way

          Gone are the dark clouds that had made me blind

          It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright,

          Bright sunshiny day. 

 

She knew it was silly to pin all her hopes on a silly elixir.  It was probably just an old wives’ tale, but Mrs. Vanderpoel had been so convincing that she couldn’t help but feel that things were starting to look up already.

 

At the Beldens’ party, 11:25 PM

 

Helen hurried into the kitchen with a tray of empty glasses. She quickly deposited them on the counter and, pulling over a small stool, she climbed onto it, reaching up onto the top shelf of the cupboard and extracting the bottle she had hidden there earlier.  Climbing down, she examined the cap and, for the first time, realized that the top had a cork like a champagne bottle.

 

Puzzled, she wondered how Mrs. Vanderpoel had opened it and resealed it all those years ago. Is it even safe to drink? she wondered.  Mrs. Vanderpoel must be a good thirty to forty years older than she was.  Is it really worth the risk?  I must be crazy to even be thinking about doing this! Just then she heard tinkling laughter from the other room, and it made her even more determined to go through with what she was doing.  She knew only too well the source of that tinkling laugh, and she wasn’t feeling very kindly toward her tonight.

 

In the last year or so, she and Maddie had become friends, but because of their differences, Helen doubted if they would ever become close friends.  There were days when they got along fairly well and she could almost overlook those differences, but nights like these only seemed to make them more apparent.  For some reason, the sight of Maddie, perched on the edge of a chair in her elegant silk dress, her perfect legs crossed in front of her as she sipped wine and made small talk with the other guests, had made Helen grit her teeth all evening.

 

And when Helen had stopped to chat with her a little while ago, Maddie had gushed on and on about how charming Crabapple Farm was, and how lucky Helen was to live here in this warm, cozy farmhouse.  Of course, Maddie never even noticed how flushed Helen was from running around all night or the dark circles under her eyes from tiredness. Maddie never seemed to concern herself with how menial chores managed to get done.  She probably thinks food and drink just appear, and dishes magically wash themselves, Helen thought resentfully.  Maybe she wouldn’t think Crabapple Farm was quite so charming if she had a taste of the work involved to keep it that way.  Helen shook her head against her thoughts.  I know it’s kind of mean to think about Maddie like that, Helen told herself.  She’s never been anything but nice to me, but honestly sometimes I expect her to smile and say, “Let them eat cake.” 

 

Helen couldn’t quite banish her thoughts about Maddie, but they gave her renewed determination to take the elixir.  If Mrs. Vanderpoel is right, my life should become a little easier tomorrow.  Maybe I still won’t be leading the life of the Lady of the Manor, but things should at least improve a little. 

 

Helen set to work opening the bottle, hoping that no one at the party would hear the cork popping and come in to investigate.   It sounded very loud to her when it came flying out, but after she had waited a few minutes and no one appeared, she let out a sigh of relief.  Looking down at the bottle, she realized that she didn’t know quite what to do with it for the next half hour.   It was supposed to breathe and she didn’t know if it would breathe enough if she put it back in the cupboard.  And Mrs. Vanderpoel had already left so she couldn’t ask her.  Chagrined, she looked around for another hiding place.

 

“Helen! Are you in here?”  Peter’s voice came from the other side of the kitchen door, and as the door started to open, Helen quickly climbed up and put the bottle back on the shelf.  It would have to do for now. Apparently she hadn’t been quite quick enough, though, because Peter peered up onto the top shelf as he entered the room. 

 

“What’s that?” he asked curiously.  

 

“It’s champagne,” Helen told him, praying that he wouldn’t notice the open cork.  “I decided to save it for a special occasion.”   

 

“Good idea,” Peter agreed, as he stepped behind her, grabbing her around the waist and nuzzling her neck.  “We’ll have to have a special dinner soon – just the two of us.”

 

Helen laughed.  “If you can find a way to get rid of all four kids for a night, you have yourself a deal.”  As Peter’s kisses grew more persistent and his hands started to wander, she stepped away from him.  “Peter, our guests!” she reminded him.  She picked up a tray of cheese and crackers.  “Can you take these out and pass them around?”  

 

Peter reluctantly took the tray, but after raising his eyebrows and whispering, “Later, baby!” he disappeared with it into the other room.

 

Helen rolled her eyes, but had to laugh, thinking of her conversation with Mrs. Vanderpoel earlier that day.   After taking a few deep breaths, she stepped through the kitchen door, glancing into the den where the Bob-Whites were huddled.  She noticed that Honey and Brian sat very close together, and that Mart was accusing Trixie, mostly in words of three syllables or more, of misplacing his bike helmet.  Trixie was vehemently defending herself and accusing him of losing it himself.

 

Helen shook her head with a half-smile and continued to the living room.  By the fireplace, Ed Lynch, Matt Wheeler, and Mr. Maypenny were in a deep discussion about hunting.  Regan, Tom, and Harrison kept company in another corner of the room, while Peter seemed to have stopped his cheese and cracker delivery at Maddie’s chair.   The tray was sitting on the side table next to her, while Peter sat perched on the hassock in front of her, regaling her with some tale that she appeared to find extremely fascinating.  Helen banished more uncharitable thoughts about her neighbor from her mind and went to chat with Carolyn Lynch.

 

 

 

Maddie looked up from her conversation with Peter in time to see Helen give her a cool look before going over to join Carolyn Lynch on the sofa.  Come to think of it, Helen had not seemed happy with her all night, although she couldn’t imagine why. Surely she couldn’t object to Maddie chatting with her husband?  After all, she was sure there were plenty of times when Helen had chatted with Matthew.  Thinking of Matthew, she glanced over to the fireplace where he was standing and arguing with Mr. Maypenny about something. Their voices were growing louder, but still sounded good-natured.  For a brief second, Matthew glanced in her direction, and their eyes met before he turned away.

 

Maddie pressed her lips together and turned back to Peter, who was telling her a funny story about an unsuccessful bank robbery attempt.  Peter seems so easy going, she thought, and there’s no denying how handsome he is.  Helen is really very lucky.   She looked around her a bit enviously at the cheery living room with the warm fire burning in the hearth and all the contented faces around her.  Despite the fact that she and Matthew had spent a fortune decorating the Manor House, it irked her a little that it still couldn’t quite compete with the warmth and coziness of Crabapple Farm.  She had tried to compliment Helen on that earlier, but for some reason, Helen had seemed affronted by her words.  Maddie shook her head and picked up her wine glass, finishing it off.

 

“Would you like another glass?” Peter asked politely. 

 

Maddie smiled at him.  “I can get it if you tell me where you’re hiding it.”

 

“It’s no problem,” Peter said, quickly getting to his feet.  “Red or white?”

 

“White,” Maddie answered.  She wasn’t particularly fond of the brand of Chablis the Beldens were serving at the party, but she disliked red wine even more.  A thought struck her as Peter reached for her glass.  “You wouldn’t by any chance have any champagne around?” she asked Peter with a sweet smile. 

 

He hesitated for just a minute, glancing involuntarily in Helen’s direction.  “Yes, I know just know where to find some,” he told her with an answering grin.  In a few minutes, he was back with a glass full of bubbly. 

 

Maddie sat contentedly for a few minutes, inhaling the sweet scent of the champagne and lazily listening to Peter’s conversation.  She felt somewhat sedated by the cozy scene around her, but was brought back to reality when Helen got up and hurried past her again.

 

A few minutes later, Maddie heard the mantel clock begin to strike twelve, and as she raised her glass to her lips, she thought fleetingly, “I wish my house was more like Crabapple Farm and my life was more like Helen Belden’s.” She stopped sipping in surprise and looked curiously at her glass.  It was unlike any champagne she had ever tasted before.  She wondered what brand and year it was.  She shrugged her slim shoulders.  It didn’t matter.  It was really very good.  She raised her glass to her lips again, and this time drained her glass.  She held it out to Peter.  “Would you mind very much?” she asked.  Peter raised his eyebrows, but quickly got up to refill her glass.

 

In the kitchen, Helen had poured a wine glass full of elixir and stood watching the seconds tick away on the big kitchen clock.  When there were about sixty seconds left until midnight, she picked up her glass and thought about her wish.

 

“I wish my family would appreciate me a little more,” she said softly to herself.  “And I wish my husband wasn’t quite so amorous all the time or that I had the energy to be more amorous with him.”

 

She gazed out the kitchen window, wondering if that was enough.  Her wish seemed to be missing something somehow.  Her eyes caught a glimpse of the lights of the big house up the hill through the trees, and she surprised herself by adding in a fervent whisper, “and I wish my life was more like Madeleine Wheeler’s.”  At exactly midnight, she raised her glass to her lips and started to drink.    

 

 

                                                                 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: This story is a CWP # 10 for Jixemitri.  (My own personal CWP!!!! LOL!)  Big thanks go to Misty for providing me with a spring CWP when I was looking for one. The elements used in Part One of this story are:


*A holiday that falls between March 1 and July 1 (April Fool's Day, of course *g*)
*Any song with the word rain in the title (I Can See Clearly Now the Rain is Gone by

Johnny Nash, which is of course used without permission, but I'm not making anything from it.)

*An Umbrella
*A muddy shoe
*A cupcake
*A bicycle helmet
*A missing homework assignment

 

I owe a special thanks to Susan for helping to give me the inspiration for this story with her wonderful story "Spooky Saturday" and of course, her editing skills were awesome, as usual.  Thanks are also due to Kris for her great editing job and to Vikki for catching all those little embarrassing mistakes in her last-minute read-through.  As always, I am grateful to Carol for her wonderful work on the graphics.  Carol, Peter's friskiness is especially for you! *g*  

 

I also owe a huge thanks to Cathy for giving us a wonderful place on the web to call home. Happy Anniversary, Cathy!  {{{HUGS!}}}   

 

Also, thanks to all the readers and writers who help to make Jix such a special place. 

 

Happy Jixaversary!