Equal Shares Ch. 32bysteveh11©
Elizabeth was worried.
Stan had come in, sat down at his desk with barely a "Good Morning," and appeared to be listlessly looking at something on his computer.
"Stan? Is everything all right?" she'd asked him.
"Yeah, sure" he answered, continuing with whatever he'd been doing.
She looked at him. Hair unkempt, what looked like yesterday's shirt on, Stan had clearly not taken time this morning to look in a mirror. His face lacked animation, his eyes lacked sparkle.
Elizabeth felt sad, and a little afraid. Stan, it seemed, was re-entering his depression, and she'd been the only person he'd told of his "Night with the Pills" as he'd put it. She really hoped he didn't get that bad again.
'Maybe it's just a bad morning,' she thought.
Later it was clear that it wasn't just a bad morning. Stan had been barely communicative early on, now he merely grunted when addressed, offering no conversation at all. Bob had come over to ask him something and, getting a minimal response, had glanced over at Elizabeth, a knowing expression on his face. He'd gone back into his office with a slight shake of his head, and picked up the phone.
A little later Elizabeth stood and walked off to find some paperwork, but on the way she made a detour and went to the Lab to find Anne.
Elizabeth didn't often enter this part of the building, and when Anne saw her she turned with a smile on her face, which fell when she saw Elizabeth's grim expression.
"Elizabeth, what's up with Stan?" she asked. On seeing Elizabeth's quizzical expression she explained "Bob called and said Stan looked down, and I haven't had a chance to get out of here this morning."
"He looks like he hasn't slept properly, he's uncommunicative, uninterested. He looks bad, Anne, and I rather hoped you'd be able to tell me."
"I haven't seen him. I called last night and he told me he was busy catching up with some stuff, so we agreed to meet today here. He seemed happy enough the day before..."
Elizabeth saw the slightly dreamy look in Anne's eye and joined the dots. She smiled at the younger woman.
"No need to say any more, Anne! But he's not himself right now, I think. I believe he's re-entering the depression he felt when Caron died. It'll be about a year – yes, it's the anniversary on November the eleventh."
Anne looked stricken. "I'd forgotten. Actually, I'm not even sure I knew the date, anyway, but it was this time of year, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was Remembrance Day last year. It's going to be really difficult for Stan this year, Anne. Everyone is going to remember that day, because of what it was, and the tie-in with Stan. It looks like he's already triggered on it."
"Oh, God. I feel awful, I didn't know. What do I do? What do I say?"
Elizabeth was a little taken aback by Anne's reaction. She didn't know her well, but she looked scared, unsure of herself. This was not the confident young woman that Elizabeth had seen before.
"Anne? Is everything all right?"
"Sure..." Anne didn't sound 'sure' at all, and Elizabeth wasn't buying that.
Anne looked down at the steam rising from her coffee, then across, beyond Elizabeth, focused in the distance.
"I don't know how to do this, Elizabeth," she said, at last. "I mean, I can think my way through most things, but what do I do for Stan, now? I'm no psychologist!"
"You're the woman he loves though, Anne," Elizabeth answered. Anne muttered something under her breath that Elizabeth couldn't quite catch, but it sounded like it began with "One..." Anne shook her head and indicated that Elizabeth should continue.
"You're the woman he loves, and that's all that really matters, Anne," Elizabeth doggedly continued. "Just be with him, listen to him, talk to him – doesn't matter what about, really, just the sound of your voice. Think of Stan as a kind of coma patient, but one who you know can hear, see, touch, smell. Taste, too!" she finished with a smile and lifted eyebrow, and Anne blushed like a schoolgirl.
"Oh, God." Anne was visibly struggling, but the she took a deep breath and told Elizabeth, "Okay. I can do this. For Stan, I can do this!"
- - - - - - - - - -
That lunchtime, Elizabeth was sitting with Denise. They were both finishing their salads when Denise spoke.
"What's up with Stan? He seems to have gone quiet again."
Elizabeth looked at the young woman. Denise was feigning mild interest, and Elizabeth could see right through her.
"Stan will be fine, Denise. He's got Anne looking after him."
Denise looked down at her plate, now almost empty. "Oh."
Elizabeth picked up her last forkful of salad and said, before putting it between her lips, "I thought you were with Elaine and Susan."
"Mmm! I am!" Denise tried to answer around her last mouthful of carrot and celery. She swallowed hastily. "I am, Elizabeth!"
"So you're only concerned about Stan as a friend?" asked Elizabeth, mildly. She didn't believe it for a moment.
"Of course!" Denise answered. Elizabeth looked at her, calmly. Once again, Denise looked down at her (now empty) plate.
"Oh, all right, you know me too well, Elizabeth. Damn it to hell and back, did you have to be so perceptive?" Looking back up at her, Denise said, "I still have feelings for Stan. I mean, more than just a 'friends' feelings."
Elizabeth let the silence go on, giving Denise time to think.
"I still love him, Elizabeth," she said eventually. "I never stopped, even when I was with Jim, or Tom. Even now that I'm with Laney and Susan, I still love him." She looked forlorn. "I just can't give him up."
Elizabeth considered for a moment. "Denise, are you saying you'll try to take him away from Anne?"
She looked up in concern when Denise didn't answer straight away.
"I might, Elizabeth. I might. If I have to, that is. Oh, not now, I've got Laney and Susan to consider. It's altogether new, and wonderful! So I'll see how things go for a bit, just be a friend who's there for him."
Denise picked up her glass of fruit juice and took a sip. "I expect it'll all work out in the end, Elizabeth. He loves Anne, that's easy to see, and Anne loves him."
Elizabeth felt relieved, a little. "Yes, let time pass, Denise. That's probably best." She took a drink herself. "I told you, back in my day it was easier. You simply asked the girlfriend if it was okay and then grabbed the guy. But what you're talking about isn't the same at all, it'll have longer term consequences. Don't hurt people, Denise."
She leant forward. "Not unless you're prepared for the consequences yourself. You may fight, but that doesn't mean you'll win. I don't know Anne well, but she seriously loves him you know. She'll fight you if she has to, I think."
- - - - - - - - - -
Later that evening the object of these deliberations was at home, sitting in his recliner, staring at the wall, unseeing.
Stan had opened up a drawer in his bedside cabinet and pulled out some papers, looking for some headache pills. What he'd found was an old photograph.
The woman in the picture looked in impossibly good health, looking over her shoulder towards the camera as she was walking away, long dark hair obscuring the other shoulder. She wore a cream cardigan. He remembered buying that for her, a present for her twenty fifth birthday. She'd loved it, and wore it a lot. In the photo she seemed to be saying goodbye, ready to walk off into the distance. It seemed so appropriate now.
Stan saw it, and flashed back to that day, and Caron's happy face, her broad smile, and the love that they'd made when Caron told him that she wanted to show her appreciation. Oh, what a night that had been!
But now she had forever gone from him, and he took one look and burst into tears, holding the picture to his heart, lifting it to his lips and kissing her sweet face.
Stan hardly remembered the rest of that day.
Actually, Stan hardly remembered the rest of that week. He vaguely heard himself answer Anne's queries ("No, Anne, not tonight."), he mechanically got his work done, but there was nothing of him there. Stan simply withdrew.
- - - - - - - - - -
A week later, and Anne was getting more and more frantic and frustrated. Stan was barely communicative, even when she called around in the evenings and tried to talk to him. Dinner was an ordeal for her, as her culinary skills were never great, but at least she was able to get Stan to eat – even if he didn't actually say that he appreciated it, at least it was consumed.
In fairness, there was the odd spark of life. Stan always made sure he gave her a kiss goodnight, and there always seemed to be some point during the day or night when he'd come out and take part in what was going on. Today he'd been eating lunch with her and she'd sneezed, and he'd automatically said "Bless you!" – but had also reached for her hand, conveying in touch the love that he still felt. 'Okay, so shortly after he went back under that fucking shell of his!' she thought, but at least it showed that there was hope.
Elizabeth was trying mightily as well. Stan would perk up for a moment and then fall back again for her, as well. She knew that Bob had noticed, and given the time of year he was taking as much as possible off Stan's workload, but he couldn't completely protect him.
Denise felt serially elated and confused. Whenever she was with Elaine or Susan, or both of them, she felt on cloud nine. The friendship, the companionship, the love was wonderful, but afterwards, when she was alone, she knew there was something missing. Increasingly she felt the need for a man, for a hard cock filling her, but even more the feel of his body, the planes of muscle, the maleness that life, and love, with Elaine and Susan would never be able to give her. One man in particular, even though those 'planes of muscle' were well disguised, drew her more and more. But now he'd hardly talk.
She discussed this with them of course. They'd all agreed that discussion was of paramount importance. "It is in any relationship, of course," Susan had said, "but it's going to be especially so in our more complex arrangement!"
So, she'd met the other two for breakfast at Iorio's that Sunday morning as usual. After getting their food and drinks Denise spoke up.
"Gah! That man will send me to an early grave!"
Elaine and Susan glanced at one another. This was turning into a familiar story.
"Stan, I assume?" Elaine said with a hint of amusement.
"Yes, it's bloody Stan!" Denise said. "Just as I screw my courage up to do something about him, he shuts everyone down. Even Elizabeth's just about had enough. His wife died a year ago next week, yes, I know, he's having a hard time Denise, we must all be patient, blah, blah, blah. God!"
Susan leant back in her chair. "Denise, that's not being very nice, is it? His wife did die almost a year ago. He's bound to be grieving, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is! But it's so frustrating!" Denise cried. "I'm stuck, and I really hate waiting!"
Denise held her head in her hands for a moment, looking down at her coffee. Then she laid her arms flat on the table and looked up at Elaine, then at Susan. She smiled, tentatively.
"I'm just being silly, aren't I?" she asked. "I know I have to be more patient. But I swear I feel like I'm bubbling over, like I could explode, and all the while Stan sits there with his dead eyes, and I want to go over and help him. But I can't because if I do then Anne will get the wrong idea, except that it's the right idea... and I'm off and running again, aren't I?"
Susan glanced at Elaine, and found her grinning. She smiled back.
"Denise, all any of us can do is wait. But I don't see why you can't try to help Stan too – just speak to Elizabeth and most importantly to Anne, first." Elaine nodded her agreement.
So it was, that on the Monday morning Denise got into The Firm early, and went to see Elizabeth.
Over a coffee for Denise, and a fruit tea for Elizabeth, Denise began.
"How's Stan?" she asked.
"You saw him after I did, on Friday, Denise. No better, I assume. He won't be until after the 11th, I expect. And probably for a while after that."
Denise sighed. "Yes, Elizabeth, I know. I so desperately want to help him, and yes I do have an agenda as you well know. But that's because I love him, and I hate to see him hurting. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"No, of course not. But you have to think how it will look to Anne. You really don't want to be fighting with her over Stan just now. You have more self respect than that, if nothing else, Denise."
"So go easy. Talk to her first, reassure her."
Denise smiled. "That's what Elaine and Susan said, as well. But it still leaves the question. What do I do?"
"What you would do for any friend, Denise. You listen, you provide a shoulder, and you make sure he eats, drinks and takes care of himself... all that. But you know this, you're just looking for approval to begin putting yourself back in his life, aren't you?"
"Well, yes. But he is my friend. He was that before I fell for him, and that's the way I'll play it. Thanks, Elizabeth."
Now to see Anne.
- - - - - - - - - -
Denise found Anne in the lab, of course.
"Anne, can I talk to you for a moment?"
Anne swivelled her chair to look at the young woman. "Of course, Denise."
"How's Stan doing?"
Denise watched Anne's face fall, then crumple. To her amazement Anne looked about to cry, but held herself back, barely.
"Oh, Denise. He won't let me stay with him. He hardly talks to me, hardly talks to anyone. Oh, sometimes he lets me in, but he always slams the door afterwards. He feels guilty!"
"Guilty? Oh, Caron."
Anne looked up at Denise. "Yes. Yes, exactly that."
Denise paused in thought, and then said.
"The anniversary's this weekend, isn't it? The eleventh?"
"Yes, that's right," Anne confirmed, "on Saturday."
"Stan will want to visit the grave. So we'll all go, and support him, and console him, and look after him."
"All?" Anne asked.
"You and me. Elizabeth, I expect. I'll ask Bob, as well. We'll all go with him. It'll be a demonstration of support for him." 'And I can get closer to him, while we all try to pull him out of his grief!' thought Denise.
"In the meantime Anne, do you mind if I talk to Stan?"
"Mind? Of course not!"
Denise was pleased.
- - - - - - - - - -
Stan turned listless eyes on Denise, then his gaze slid away again, going back to his computer screen.
"Yes, Denise?" he answered, lifelessly.
"Oh, come on Stan. I know you miss her, but really!"
"What do you know about it?" Stan almost snarled, but then he moderated his tone and continued, "I'm sorry, Denise. I'm having a bad day, but you didn't deserve that."
"No, I didn't!" answered Denise. "But Stan, no-one of us deserves to be cut off from you the way we've all been this last three or four weeks. You let me, and Elizabeth and Bob, and then most especially Anne into your world before. I know what the date is this Saturday, but please, let us all help you. Stop fighting us, Stan. Please?"
Stan looked over at Denise. It was nothing that hadn't been said before, and the date was what it was, but for some reason it got through to him when it was Denise saying it.
They talked for a few minutes, nothing terribly consequential, just everyday chat about everyday things. Denise kept it light and refused to allow Stan to dwell on anything, keeping up both ends of the conversation when necessary. Finally, though, she had to go and do some actual work.
Denise leant forward and pecked Stan on the cheek.
"Welcome back, Stan. It's been good to talk to you. Now, go find that beautiful girlfriend of yours and give her a hug. She needs it!"
She left with a backward glance to make sure Stan wasn't looking sad and lifeless again. Reassured, she walked through into reception.
Elaine was there with a visitor, signing him out of the offices, so Denise had to content herself with a 'thumbs up' sign. Elaine smiled at her, and Denise went through the opposite door, and got on with her day.
Stan sat for a moment, then stood and walked over to Bob's office.
"I'll just pop over and see Anne, Bob. I'll be back in a moment," he told his boss. Bob looked over, smiled, and told him "Sure, Stan. See you in a few minutes."
- - - - - - - - - -
Anne whirled in her chair. On seeing Stan her face lit, her smile was like a light bulb.
"Stan!" and she was up and embracing him faster than he could react. Stan was stunned by the vehemence of her embrace, he felt like he'd never breath again. Gently, he put his arms around the tall form of the woman he loved and nuzzled into her neck. He realized that Anne was crying.
"Anne, sweetheart, whatever's the matter?" he asked.
"You! You frightened me, you frightened Elizabeth, you even frightened Bob! We didn't know what you might do, Stan. You withdrew from us so far, and you wouldn't even let me stay and look after you."
Anne took his hand and pulled him into a chair near her own. Blissfully, the lab was empty. Stan realized with a jerk that it was well after five o'clock, that he really ought to have been on his way home.
"Anne? What are you doing here at this time?"
"I've got a deadline to meet, dolt!" she answered, but with a smile on her face. "Don't change the subject. Was it Denise that made you look, made you come back to us?" Stan nodded, so Anne went on to say, "Then I owe her a hug. A big hug. Probably lots of them, really, but she deserves them all. Stan, have you looked in a mirror yet?"
"Er, no, Anne. No, I haven't Why?..."
Anne had never released his hand, so now when she stood and tugged on it, Stan stood automatically with her. He followed her as she walked directly to the toilets.
The Ladies toilets. Stan baulked.
"Er, Anne, I can't go in there!"
"Don't be silly, Stan, there's no-one else here!"
"And there're mirrors in there, and I want you to see."
She pulled Stan and, somewhat reluctantly, he followed. Inside, Anne pulled him to a basin and made him look at his reflection.
Stan saw an image. It was of a man with dark rings around sunken eyes, who hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and who hadn't combed his hair with any great attention. He understood suddenly what Anne was telling him: 'You haven't been looking after yourself, or letting anyone else look after you!'
"Christ I look a mess, don't I?" he said, drawing Anne closer to him. He smelled her hair, slightly fruity, clean. He realized that he must smell quite different, and drew back a little. Anne looked at him, clearly not understanding, worried.
"I guess I need a shower, Anne. And a shave, and then a few night's sleep." Now it was Anne's turn to nod, but with a smile.
"Some clean clothes wouldn't go amiss, too," she told him, wrinkling her nose a little. "Come on, let's get you home."
- - - - - - - - - -
Anne came home with Stan that night, and stayed. She was overjoyed, even though the best Stan could manage was a cuddle.
Late that night, she felt Stan shudder. She held him, waiting for the nightmare to finish, unsure of whether she should wake him or not. But in the end the dim streetlight filtered through his curtains showed a smile. Anne decided she had made the right decision after all.
- - - - - - - - - -
Saturday, the eleventh of November. It was a grey, drizzly morning.
Stan arrived outside the gates in Anne's Mazda. Denise and Elizabeth were in Bob's car, just behind. Anne drove through the gates, the sign saying "District Cemetery" in a no-nonsense script.