The women were escorted out a side door of the courthouse. None of them spoke. Their last conversation before leaving the courtroom was disturbing to all of them. Megan realized she had no idea where her umbrella was, but the clearing clouds and the events of that morning persuaded her to leave the umbrella behind. She found her way out to 3rd Street and walked briskly in the opposite direction of the National Mall. She had no desire to be anywhere near her former office building on Independence Avenue.
She ducked into Firehook, a local bakery and coffee shop, and ordered a latte and cinnamon bun. Though she wasn’t hungry, she needed comfort food, and in the heart of the judicial district, Firehook was the only place to go. Sitting in the coffee house, she gazed through the window toward the Metro Police Department. She watched a young police officer enter the building and thought about Nick. How was work going for him? Was he settling into his new job? She picked up her phone and scrolled to her contacts. She stared at the tiny circular picture of his face and held her finger over the call button for a moment before clicking off the screen and putting the phone back into her pocket. Why bother? She had blown it on Sunday, and he was moving on.
Megan pulled apart a piece of the cinnamon bun and put it in her mouth, sucked the icing off her fingers, and let the sugary concoction melt on her tongue. She thought about the conversation in the courtroom after Brad and his attorney left. The judge declared a short break in the docket, so the women had a few minutes to talk once the room was empty.
“What does this mean?” Megan asked what the rest of the women wanted to know.
Rebecca sighed. “It means, we’re going to trial.”
“Why?” Jaycee asked. “What does he think he’s going to prove? It’s the word of five women against one man. How does he think he can win?” Though she sounded indignant and even somewhat confident, Megan saw the perspiration on the young woman’s brow.
“His attorney is going to try to prove that Mr. Gallagher is a hard-working, upstanding citizen whose generous offers to help you all advance were misconstrued.”
“In other words,” Megan said, “he’s going to lie.”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. Chances are better than good that Mr. Gallagher won’t take the stand, so there won’t be any chance of him perjuring himself. Instead, his attorney will take advantage of each of you being on the stand and will attempt to discredit you.”
“He’s going to dig up anything that can damage us and our reputations,” Mary said. “Is that what you’re trying to say? He’s going to bring up any and all former relationships, any mistakes we made in the past, and anything else he thinks will make us all look like opportunists or sluts. So, we’re either lying about what he did, or we’re lying about it not being consensual.”
Megan tuned out the rest of the conversation and was glad when the bailiff told them they had to move on so that the next case could be heard.
Now she sat in the coffee house, holding a cinnamon bun that no longer tasted good and a latte that had gone cold. Megan stuffed the bun back into the pastry box and gathered her things. She tossed the box, coffee cup, and napkins into the trash before going outside. Despite the rainy start, it was a beautiful May day as she headed down Indiana Avenue, not too hot even with the sun beaming down overhead. The park across from the coffee house was filled with young urban professionals taking a quick break to enjoy the mild weather.
Megan stopped to look at the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the DC Court of Appeals, in her opinion, one of the prettiest buildings in the city with its Roman architecture and high row of columns. She frowned as she thought of the framed quote her grandmother had hanging in the small bathroom off the kitchen. It said, ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. – Abraham Lincoln.’ As a child, Megan hadn’t understood what Mr. Lincoln meant by that, but her grandmother often repeated it to Megan and her brothers when they were growing up, particularly when they got into some kind of trouble. Once Megan was old enough to comprehend the advice, she scoffed at the pretense. What good was one’s reputation when their upbringing followed them around wherever they went, no matter how far from the past they tried to run?
She was the one who was supposed to go far. She was college educated. She had a real job. She was going to make something of herself, become a journalist working for a big magazine. She was going to see the world. But her job was the pits, and all she seemed to be good at was hanging out at bars and attracting the wrong kind of guys. Her grandmother had raised her to be a person of good character, but she had turned her back on everything her grandmother had tried to instill in her, and her reputation in this town spoke for itself. Now that she finally understood why reputation mattered, it was too late to repair the damage she had inflicted upon hers. Soon, everyone in the country would know all the mistakes he had made when living as a party girl in the city.
Trevor’s words came back to her once again. She had spent much of the past twenty-four hours thinking about what he said. He had a pretty terrible upbringing but look at him now. Ronnie was the sweetest and most caring person Megan knew, and she loved Trevor deeply. She didn’t care about his past. And while some things about the past might still haunt him, Trevor hadn’t let it define who he became. Megan wondered, could she do the same?
Still thinking about Trevor, Megan turned from the President and continued walking, paying little attention to where she was or how long she walked. Before she knew it, she was at the end of the street. The entrance to the Archives Metro Station loomed in front of her. She reached into her purse for her metro card and slowly made her way through the turnstile and down to the tracks.
The train was crowded, and Megan was forced to stand, holding onto the germ-infested pole, surrounded by people staring at their phones or bobbing their heads to music only they could hear. Megan casually glanced from one person to another. They were all in their own worlds. Nobody looked at anyone else. Nobody asked how she was doing or how her day was going. For the first time in her life, Megan stood in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, surrounded by people, and felt utterly and completely alone. Closing her eyes and leaning against the pole to keep herself balanced against the motion of the train, Megan pictured Memorial Park with its view of the Assateague Lighthouse. She smiled as she imagined the gentle breeze blowing off the Assateague Bay, and she realized, that even on cold winter days, when she was the only person standing on the rocks looking out over the water, she had never felt as alone as she did at that very moment.
It was all-hands-on-deck Friday morning at the Kelly house. Though Nick was at the station, Zach, Aaron, Trevor, and Zach’s father, Walter, were at work erecting the rental tent. It took all four men the better part of an hour to raise the canvas. Megan and the other women watched through the windows and laughed at the spectacle of the standing and falling of the poles while the men figured out the logistics. Even with the spring breeze, all of the men were drenched with sweat by the time the last support rope was tied.
Inside, vegetables and fruits were being sliced and arranged on trays. Several hams were roasting, and potatoes were being peeled for the potato salad. Peeling potatoes was actually comforting to Megan, something she had done many times for her grandmother. Potatoes were a staple in her family’s kitchen.
“You look good,” Kate said to Megan. Kate was taking a break from cutting vegetables. She arched her back, causing her stomach to stick out even farther. “You have a bit of color in your face. You were starting to look pale. You need to get out more.”
Megan smiled, not at all insulted. After all, she knew Kate was right, and she didn’t want to get into a discussion about why she was keeping to herself so much. “I took a couple long walks around the city this week. I needed some fresh air after being locked inside the attorney’s office and the courtroom for hours on end.”
Kate cocked her head to the side. “Fresh air on the streets of DC?”
Megan laughed. “Well, not as fresh as the air here, but better than that stuffy courthouse.”
“I can imagine.” Kate looked around at the others.
Megan knew they were listening in while trying to act like they weren’t. She wasn’t sure who knew what, if anything.
Kate leaned over and asked quietly, “Um, how’s it going?”
Megan shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I’ll be glad when it’s over.”
“How’s it going in here?” Trevor picked up a cucumber slice and popped it into his mouth as he surveyed the process with the food.
“Just fine, Dad. We don’t need any more cooks in the kitchen.” Kayla smiled as she poured the water from the potatoes that had just finished boiling.
“Who says I want to cook?”
“We don’t need any test tasters either,” Ronnie told him. She motioned to the backyard with a smirk on her face. “I see you finally got the tent up.”
“Do I detect an air of superiority in there somewhere?” Trevor narrowed his gaze at his wife.
“Not at all,” Ronnie said. “Be it far from me to criticize your tent-raising skills. How long did it take you guys to get it to stand?”
“Oh, Ronnie,” Mitzi Middleton interceded for Trevor. “I’m sure it’s harder than it looks. I know that it’s much more complicated than any tent Walter and I erected in our days of living in the wilds.”
“Mom,” Kate said with a laugh. “We never lived in a tent.”
Megan watched the two families interact and thought about her own family. Had her father and her grandmother ever liked each other? Were there ever times when they all laughed and joked or cooked a meal together? Megan was the middle of three children. Her parents had stayed together for five years before her father disappeared and her mother drowned herself in the liquid of a needle. There must have been some good times…
Zach poked his head through the back door. “Hey, Kate, can you come here for a minute?”
Zach quickly glanced at Megan before addressing his sister again. “Yeah. I just need to talk to you.”
“Dad, can you keep an eye on Miren?” Kate asked her father-in-law.
“My pleasure,” Trevor said. Miren sat on the floor, content with her building blocks. “Why don’t you tell your Dad to come in, too. I get a lot more time with Miren than he does.”
“Will do,” Kate answered as she headed toward the door.
Trevor wasted no time in getting right down on the floor with Miren. He talked to her the same way he talked to the rest of them—with a self-assured, no-nonsense voice that made Miren pay attention. When Walter joined them, Trevor scooped up Miren, and Walter picked up the blocks so that they could move to another room where they wouldn’t all be in the way.
Megan’s eyes wistfully followed the grown men and wished she had more memories of her grandfather. He passed away of a heart attack at the young age of 37. She always believed it was the many fire calls he made, but Nana blamed Megan’s absent father, saying that her mother’s fall into drugs, after her husband left, broke her father’s heart.
Turning back to the job at hand, Megan reached for another potato. When Kate returned, she avoided looking at Megan. Whatever was going on, Megan was sure Nick was involved.
At four in the afternoon, Kate stood outside and surveyed their work. The food was prepared, the tables and chairs were set up, the dance floor was laid, and thousands of white lights were strung above it all, as if God had filled the tent with all the stars of the heavens just for the special couple. Kayla left to pick up the boys so they could all have dinner together before Kayla and the boys returned to Ronnie and Trevor’s. Though they had been married for months, Kayla insisted on keeping with tradition. She didn’t want to see Zach until they renewed their vows the following day.
Kate wrung her hands as she thought about what she had to do. She hated to tell Megan the news, but the alternative was to let Megan find out the hard way. If Kate told her ahead of time, Megan would have time to deal with it. Of course, the risk was that Megan would skip the renewal of the vows and reception, and Kate didn’t want that to happen. Megan needed to be surrounded by people who loved her even if one of them was being a pompous—
“Hey, did you talk to Megan yet?” Zach appeared by Kate’s side inside the tent.
Kate shook her head. “What do I say? It’s going to break her heart.”
“Maybe not. She’s the one who stopped answering him.”
“Men,” Kate said in a huff. “You just don’t understand anything.” She glared at her brother and then stomped toward the house, hoping that Megan had slipped out unseen. Unfortunately, Megan was inside, helping Ronnie with the last of the pots and pans.
“Megan,” Kate said tentatively. “Can we talk?”
Without answering, Megan nodded, put down the dish towel, and followed Kate to the front porch.
Kate headed toward the swing, but Megan went the opposite direction and sat in one of the Adirondack chairs. Kate changed course and sat in the chair beside her.
“Megan, I’m not sure how to tell you this.” Kate looked off into the woods, silently praying that she would be divinely inspired to say the words in the least painful way.
“Just spill it,” Megan said. “Whatever it is, it can’t make my life any worse.”
Kate felt herself wince as her heart ached for her friend. “I’m not so sure. It’s about Nick.”
Immediately, Megan sat up in the chair and reached for Kate’s hands. “Nick? Is he okay? Is he hurt? Was he shot?”
“Whoa, Megan, slow down. This is Chincoteague, not Southeast DC. People don’t get shot here.” Kate winced again, recalling that her own ex had been shot here in her own bedroom. Then she remembered Megan once telling her that she had grown up in Southeast, and she felt bad for making the reference. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay. Just tell me about Nick. What’s wrong?”
Kate nervously licked her lips. “He, um, well, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this.”
“Kate, you’re making me a nervous wreck. Spit it out.”
“He’s bringing a date to the wedding.”