Episode #578

- Cassandra’s ex-husband, JD, came to her hotel in search of her. When he encountered Tim, he left a cryptic message for Cassandra: the word “equinox.”
- While Travis applied to colleges, his younger cousin, Tori, began high school.
- Brent and Molly separately thought that they might be close to repairing their marriage, but when they came face to face, it was clear that their problems were as significant as ever.


“Are you ready? You sure about that?”

Brent Taylor holds his arm aloft, a Nerf football gripped in his right hand.

“I’m ready!” Caleb yells through the dark.

“Come on, Dad! Throw it!” Christian says.

Brent sets his sights on his son and lobs the ball across the driveway and the lawn. Caleb runs for it and makes a completely unnecessary dive onto the grass as he stretches for the ball. It bounces off the tips of his fingers and settles on the lawn.

“You almost had that,” Brent says as he joins the boys.

“Can we try again?” Caleb asks.

Brent picks up the football and tosses it to him. “We’ve gotta get you two inside. Your mom is waiting.” He picks up the bags that he set down beside the car as the boys make their way to the front door. Christian tries the doorknob but of course finds the door locked, so he rings the bell.

Molly answers an instant later. “Look who it is!” she says happily, bending down to hug both her sons. “Did you guys have fun with your dad?”

Brent cannot help but notice the way that she asks the question as if “your dad” might be someone she’s never met before. She doesn’t even look his way.

“Why don’t you guys take your stuff upstairs?” he says, handing them their bags. The twins grumble and then do as they’re told.

“They were really good,” Brent says as he lingers at the open front door. He never thought the prospect of entering his own home would seem so loaded with implications. “Josh and I barbecued for them tonight.”

“In this weather?”

“We put on hats and coats. Wasn’t too bad. And they enjoyed it, so that’s what really matters.”

“Yeah.” A light smile touches her lips, and for the moment, Brent is reminded of how they are partners in this. Like they used to be partners in everything.

Molly’s hand moves to the door. “I should go up and get them ready for bed. I’m sure it’ll be an ordeal to settle them down.”

“Christian asked me when I was going to sleep over again.” He watches the comment drop on her with all the grace of a grenade. “I don’t even know what to tell them anymore.”

“Tell them that we love them.”

“That’s a bullshit answer, and you know it. They’re not stupid.”

“There isn’t anything else to tell them,” she says, her voice suddenly taking on a sharp edge.

He doesn’t even know why he brought it up. He knew this is where it would land them. Frustration forces the next words out of his mouth: “So what is this, then? A full separation? Should we start calling it that? File for one? At least then we could give them some answers.”

Molly’s gaze falls to the floor. “Maybe we should.”

The swiftness of her response makes him realize that she has been thinking about it. He didn’t mean--

“Maybe,” he says, cutting off his own thoughts. He pulls his keys from his pocket. “I’ve gotta get going.”

He heads back to his truck. Not once does Molly make any attempt to stop him--and that tells him everything he needs to know.


A fresh beer clutched in his hand, Travis Fisher pushes his way through the crowd of partying friends and classmates. He doesn’t walk so much as allow himself to be carried by the wave, thrust forward half a room at a time, then idle until another swell pushes him further along. He finds Landon Esco and some of the other soccer guys on the stairs, caught between the warring iPods in the living room and upstairs.

“Better than I expected,” Travis says as he surveys the house full of partiers. He recognizes most of the kids as seniors and juniors from their school.

“Brittany actually pulled off a good party,” Landon agrees. He stops to take a pull from the can of soda that, as designated driver, is the most he will have tonight. “What do you guys think would happen if I went up to Brooke and burped in her face?”

A few of the boys laugh; the others shake their heads.

“I’m not even gonna pretend to understand where this shit comes from,” Travis says.

Landon is poised to fire back when something across the living room catches his eye. He points. “Hey, man, isn’t that your cousin?”

As Travis’s eye follows Landon’s finger over the crowd, he doesn’t even know who Landon would be referring to--until he spots Tori and two of her friends dancing next to a bunch of senior guys.

“Uh, yeah.” Travis brings his beer to his lips as a reflex, to buy him some time to formulate a thought, but knowing Tori is half a room away makes him self-conscious about the fact that he has been drinking.

When he sees one of the boys--Tad, who is wearing his perpetual costume of an Abercrombie polo and a hat cocked slightly to the side--pull Tori closer to dance, Travis knows what he has to do.

“Crap,” he mutters, as he hands Landon his beer and then pushes his way off the stairs and back into the throng of kids.

It takes him maybe a minute to reach Tori. He taps her on the shoulder, and she turns suddenly, quick to conceal the surprise that rushes over her face. She is wearing more makeup than he has ever seen on her, or on anyone in real life. Blue eyeshadow radiates across her lids, and her cheeks are buried under what is supposed to be blush but looks more like face paint. Her pink halter top, with gems around the neckline, would be perfectly appropriate for a 21-year-old starlet hitting the clubs, but not so much for a high school freshman.

“Oh, hey, Trav. I thought you might be here.”

“Why? ‘Cuz it’s a senior’s party? What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?” She turns back to her two friends and dances, singing the words to the Ke$ha song that blasts through the room.

“Tori.” He grips her shoulder and spins her back around. “Are you drinking?”

She holds up her empty hands. “No way. That stuff they have smells like pee.”

Travis never thought he would be so thankful for cheap beer. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”

She backs away from him, as much as she can in the packed room. “I’m fine.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” He can’t believe what a tool he sounds like. “Seriously, let’s go.”

A sneer spreads over her face. “Hey, have you been drinking?”

“No.” The lie is weak and unconvincing. “Come on--”

“I really don’t think your parents would be too happy that you were drinking,” Tori says, and with that, the song’s chorus kicks in, and she points at her friends while singing, “Don’t stop, make it pop, DJ blow my speakers up!”

Travis stands back and tries to figure out what to do next as a stray elbow crashes into his side.


The downtown lights bounce off the pavement, slick from the seemingly endless Washington rain. Tim Fisher steps out of his car and then goes around to the passenger side to open the door for Cassandra Ward.

“Thanks,” she says, though she is already exiting the vehicle on her own. Tim used to worry that she might find the move insulting, an implication that he doesn’t find her capable of doing things on her own, but Cassandra long ago assured him that she appreciates his kindness. It hasn’t stopped her from opening the door before he even makes it to her side of the car, though.

Tim watches her rise from the vehicle. She wears a long black coat, which stands in high contrast to her bold green handbag. Her hair hangs in relaxed curls around her cheeks and chin, barely skimming her shoulders. She has truly become a familiar presence in his life over the past year--and yet, uncertainty nips at him.

“Tell her I said... equinox.”

That’s what Cassandra’s ex-husband told Tim when he turned up at Cassandra’s hotel suite earlier today. There was such a sense of satisfaction about the way he said it--like it meant so much more than the words alone could possibly mean.

“Maybe she’ll even tell you. Nah. I bet there’s tons of stuff she hasn’t told you about.”

“Are you coming?”

Cassandra’s words, spoken with that natural, easy smile that drew him to her in the first place, shakes him from his thoughts. Instead of brushing them off and hurrying to catch up with her, though, he remains planted where he stands. The lightest flecks of rain drop onto his head and face, little more than a mist.

“What does ‘equinox’ mean?” he asks.

He makes sure to watch every millisecond of Cassandra’s reaction. There is no mistaking that she startles at the question, no matter how quickly she covers it.

“What are you talking about?” she says. “You mean, the winter equinox, or...?”

“Whatever kind your ex-husband would talk about.” Tim removes his hands from his pockets, emboldened by the fact that there is clearly something she is not sharing. “I had the pleasure of meeting JD this afternoon, when he came to your hotel looking for you.”

“JD is in town?”

“In the flesh. Charming guy. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t have wanted to spend your life with him.”

“Tim.” She closes her eyes for the briefest instant, as if needing a private moment to gather her strength. “JD is a troublemaker. Not to mention the least capable person of taking a hint I have ever met.”

Tim doesn’t know how to respond to that. Is he accusing her of something? The headlights of a passing car cast a quick but luminous glow over both of them.

“He does this from time to time,” she says. “Tracks me down, wherever I am, and tries to convince me to get back together.”

His worry over JD’s cryptic comment turns to concern for Cassandra’s safety. “Is he bothering you? Stalking you?”

She shakes her head insistently. The dark curls sway from side to side. “Nothing that serious. He’s an annoyance, but I say no and he leaves. The next time he turns up, we replay the same scene again. It’s stupid, that’s all.”

“If you say so.” He begins to feel foolish for having doubted her, but then the unanswered question snaps back into his mind. “What about ‘equinox’? What does that mean? The way he said it...”

“He was trying to get a rise out of you.” She stares off at the sky, marked with wispy clouds stretched thin like cotton candy. “I don’t know. He’s always doing things like that. He gets off on stirring things up.”

The odd statement continues to nag at Tim, but he doesn’t know how to press further without sounding like a lunatic. And he has no reason not to trust Cassandra, right?

“Now let’s get inside,” she says, “before they give away our reservation.”

She heads inside the restaurant, and Tim follows, hopeful that they can put this behind them.


Brent sets his glass down on the bar as he sees Claire Fisher enter the restaurant. He doesn’t even want the beer, really, but it seemed like the thing to do after that depressing encounter with Molly.

“Thanks for stopping by,” he says as he pulls out the chair beside him so that Claire can sit.

“I was taking care of a few errands downtown, anyway.” She hangs her coat and purse over the back of the chair. “And you sounded like you could use someone to talk to.”

He picks up the glass again and turns it in his hand. “Molly thinks we should get a legal separation.”

“She said that?”

“I threw it out. She agreed with it. I didn’t really mean...” He doesn’t even know what he meant. He takes a slug of his beer to fill the gap.

Claire signals the bartender and orders a glass of white wine. As she watches him pour it, she says to Brent, “It’s been a long time since you went to stay at Josh’s.”

He doesn’t know what that is supposed to mean. Is he supposed to give up on his marriage, simply because enough time has passed?

“That came out wrong,” she says, as if reading his mind. “All I mean is, I can see why you’re both so frustrated, and why that might seem like the right next step, if nothing else is working.”

“You’ve got that right. Nothing else is working.”

The bartender hands Claire her glass of wine.

“I don’t get how it went this wrong,” Brent says. “I was doing this for Molly and the boys. I wanted to protect them.”

“You are protecting them.”

“By getting my car run off the road with my kids in it? Yeah, some hero I am.” Annoyance pulses through every inch of his body, and he downs the rest of his beer to shut it up.

“Who knows what might’ve happened if you hadn’t started this? Loretta or Clayton or whoever might have done something much, much worse. The way they crashed Ryan and my wedding--who’s to say something like that wouldn’t have happened again?”

The Daughtry song playing in the bar mingles with the clacking of pool cues against balls to replace their conversation for a long moment.

Brent absorbs that statement. “Do you ever think we’re the crazy ones?”

“All the time,” she says with a glimmer of amusement. “But we believe in what we’re doing. You’re protecting your family, even if they don’t recognize it right now.”

The edge of the bar digs into Brent’s elbows. He turns to watch Claire, sipping her wine, and when she notices, she offers him a reassuring smile. He feels the fog of the beer covering his brain, softening the borders of the world around him.

“Why are you the only one who understands?” he says.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

This time, she looks over at him, and their eyes catch. Maybe it is the beer doing his thinking for him, but Brent is pretty sure that they are both noticing the truth in those words. They are the only ones who understand each other these days.

“Thank you,” he says, and his hand reaches out to rest on her forearm. “For everything.”


After Molly convinces the boys to settle down for bed by allowing them to watch half an hour of television first, she sits at the kitchen counter. Leaning forward on the bar chair, with her elbows propped up on the marble countertop, she finally allows herself to think back to what happened between her and Brent earlier.

A legal separation. It sounds so... final. The road to the inevitable, from which there is no turning back. Until Brent spoke those words, she was able to fool herself into thinking that this was nothing more than a disagreement grown to outsized proportions. But a separation--that’s a stepping stone to divorce, and she has never wanted to believe that would be the final destination of this horrible journey they have been on.

She hears the key in the front door and, knowing that it must be Danielle, tries to gather the energy to appear less sullen. But she has not gotten even halfway there before Danielle enters the kitchen.

“Are the boys in bed?” her sister-in-law asks.

“Watching TV in my room. I let them have one show, then it’s bedtime.” Molly forces a faint smile. “How was the show?”

Danielle makes a face. “Open Mic Nights aren’t exactly guaranteed to be good. But it’s inspirational to see people up there, playing their music.”

“Have you been writing any more?”

“Not really. I feel...” Danielle trails off. “...not exactly confident, after I played once and my whole life blew up in my face.”

“I think that had more to do with Diane Bishop than it did with you. She has that effect on a lot of people.”

“What are you up to?” Danielle asks, quite eager to change the subject.

“I was thinking about making some tea. I just hadn’t gotten to it yet.”

“Oh, that sounds good. I think I’ll have some, too.” Danielle pulls out the kettle from a cupboard and fills it with water. “How was your day?”

“Fine.” It sounds like a lie even as Molly speaks the single syllable. “It was a little... not great when Brent dropped the boys off. Per usual.”

Danielle sets the kettle on the stove. “Did you guys fight?”

A fight would have been nice, Molly thinks. At least that way, it might feel like we still cared. “Not even. Brent said... Is it awkward for me to be telling you these things? I don’t want you to feel like you’re caught in the middle.”

“I think it’s a little late for that,” Danielle says with a reassuring grin. She takes a seat beside Molly. “Brent is my brother, and you’re my best friend. I’ll do whatever I can to support both of you.”

“Thank you.” Molly falls quiet and examines her hands. The champagne-colored polish on her fingernails could really use a touch-up, but that seems so unimportant that she can barely think about going to the salon for a manicure. “Brent suggested--if he isn’t going to move back in anytime soon--that we make this a legal separation.”

Danielle hardly looks surprised at all. That knocks the wind out of Molly all over again.

“I’m sorry,” Danielle finally says.

“Thanks. It’s just... I never expected it to come to that, you know?”

“Of course.” She reaches over and squeezes Molly’s hand. “You’re going to get through this.”

“I hope so.”

Danielle is poised to say something else when a loud whistle sends her running for the kettle. As she retrieves cups and pours the water for their tea, she says, “Do you want me to talk to Brent?”

Molly’s response is more immediate than she would have thought: a swift, insistent shake of the head. “No. This is between Brent and me. I do not want you in the middle of it. Anything we have to say, we can say to each other.” She softens, hoping Danielle knows how much her friendship is appreciated. “But thank you.”

Danielle hands Molly the steaming cup, and she repeats her thanks, happy for even the minimal distraction of blowing on her tea and waiting for it to cool down.


Travis stands in the thick of the dancing teens, feeling completely lame for the way he just tried to act like a parent or something to Tori. He wonders whether he should leave her alone and keep an eye on her from afar, but then his classmate Tad pulls her closer to dance.

“Tori, come on,” Travis says, grabbing her shoulder to spin her around.

Tad lets go of Tori--so that he can get in Travis’s face. “Dude, what is your problem?”

“What is your problem?” Travis challenges him. “She’s a kid.”

“She goes to our school.”

“She’s my cousin, and she’s fourteen.”

Whether because he is actually intimidated or because he simply doesn’t want to deal with it, Tad backs off. He returns to dancing with some of the other seniors.

Tori smacks Travis in the shoulder. “Thanks, idiot.”

“You do not need to be all over that guy. Come on. We’re leaving.”

“I’m not getting in a car with you. You’ve been drinking.” Tori folds her arms across her chest. The words are perfectly reasonable, but there is a devious twinkle about her face, the kind of expression that says, Ha, I got you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Landon’s my ride.” He motions for Landon to join them.

“I didn’t realize you were so boring,” Tori says. “Can we at least drop off Fee and Julie, too?”

Travis looks at Tori’s two friends, who look like they escaped from the Pussycat Dolls Academy for Pole-Dancing Youth.

“Sure. Whatever.”

Landon pushes his way through the crowd and, from a few feet away, calls out, “What’s going on?”

“We’ve gotta go!” Travis yells back.

Landon tries to force his way past the last few kids. He uses his shoulder to edge his way around one couple and almost has a clear path, until a girl backs right into him, knocking Travis’s open can of beer out of his hand--

--and onto Tori’s shirt.

“God! Are you kidding?” she says, holding the shirt away from her body. “Do you know how much this cost?!”

“Sorry,” Landon mumbles.

“See? Now you’ve gotta get out of here,” Travis says, “before anyone sees what a mess you are.” With a grumble, Tori lets him lead her out of the party, her two friends and Landon on their heels.


The unexpected touch of Brent’s hand on her arm sends an equally unexpected charge through Claire’s system.

“Thank you,” he says. “For everything.” He draws his hand away, but there is something tentative about it, something that suggests he would rather not remove it.

The wine glass pauses on Claire’s lower lip until she tilts it back toward her mouth to defuse the moment. Thankfully, her cell phone bursts to life inside her purse, its electronic jingle adding another layer to the bar’s noisy atmosphere.

“Sorry,” she says, reaching into her purse to retrieve the phone. She doesn’t recognize the number on the screen and almost ignores the call, but something tells her that she should answer it. “Hello?”

“Claire, uh, Mrs. Fisher?”

“This is Claire. Can I ask who’s calling?”

Brent watches her have the rest of the confusing, clipped conversation, and by the time she hangs up, he is on alert.

“What is it?” he says. “Everything okay?”

“I think so. It’s... I have to go, that’s all.” She stuffs the phone back into her purse and slides out of her chair to put her coat back on. “I’m sorry to run out like this.”

“No, don’t worry about it. As long as everything’s okay.”

“It is. I’ll fill you in later.”

The momentum of that unexpected phone call carries her out into the winter evening, and the sharp bite of the air forces that weird moment between her and Brent to the back of her mind as she dashes to her car.


Who called Claire?
Does Travis have reason to worry about Tori?
Should Tim believe Cassandra?
Come talk about this episode in the Footprints Forum!

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