Ignoring the “Notice of Foreclosure” sign on her front door, Brooke Sandstrom struggled with her bag of groceries as she found the right key and opened the door to her townhome.
Setting the bag in the kitchen, she turned on her voicemail and listened while putting away the groceries.
One message got her attention.
“Mrs. Sandstrom, this is Katrina down at the elder care center,” she said without emotion. “We’re going to have to discuss your mother’s options; please give us a call.”
Tapping in the number to the facility, which she knew by heart at this time, Brooke asked for the woman who handled her mother’s care.
“What ‘options’ are you talking about?” she said without greeting the woman.
“Health care won’t pay for a longer stay,” Katrina said. “If you come down to the center, we can discuss other options. Maybe a state-run home in the city,” she lectured. “We could also leave her in your care; that would be another option.”
“How am I supposed to take care of my son, and my mother, I just got laid-off, and my home just got foreclosed on?”
“I can only discuss the options with you, Mrs. Sandstrom,” Katrina said as if they were discussing a late credit card payment, not her ailing mother’s health care.
Outraged, Brooke kindly told Katrina she would be by tomorrow to talk about the "options."
Brooke stood in her kitchen and held the phone to her chest. Slamming it back down on the cradle, she picked up a bag of frozen peas and threw it at the refrigerator, which popped open. Peas flew like a hailstorm of hard, frozen little green pellets. Sinking to the floor, Brooke cried. Sobbing loudly and screaming, she finally fell against the cold tile floor, exhausted.
Looking at the clock, she realized it was time to pick up her son from kindergarten, so she pulled herself up, washed her tear-streaked face, and combed her hair. Only looking long enough to see she was presentable, she carefully walked around the boxes marked “Matthew storage” and touched a picture of her and Matthew smiling and holding baby MJ, Matthew Junior, before heading out the door.
Walking to the school, Brooke hoped her son’s teacher wouldn’t want to have another "discussion."
Like Katrina, MJ’s teacher always wanted to discuss "options" regarding his education. MJ was thought to be slow. Brooke sent him to a specialist, who determined he might have to attend a special school. They didn’t have a clear diagnosis. Brooke had set up an interview for a second opinion. Her son was not slow.
Buying food and keeping their health insurance was a priority for Brooke. Getting the best education for her son was also a high priority, but what would an education matter if they couldn’t eat?
MJ greeted her at the gate, and Brooke signed him out quickly before his teacher could lecture her. Brooke didn’t want to hear she was a bad parent today. Katrina already thought she was a negligent daughter. A person could only handle being bad at one thing at a time.
Arriving at home, a new sign had been placed on her door. It was a “3-Day Notice.” Fear ripped through Brooke, but she didn’t want her son to get concerned, so she acted as if it were just another ordinary notice.
“Why do they keep putting notes on the door, mom?” he asked while putting away his backpack and waiting for a snack.
“I wasn’t home, and they wanted to make sure I got the message,” she said, spreading jam on wheat bread.
“What’s the message?” he asked, getting jam all over his face.
“Nothing, just a reminder to pay a bill,” she shrugged.
After dinner, there was a bath and story time. Kissing him goodnight, Brooke looked into her son’s eyes before he closed them to sleep. Eyes the same as his father’s always made her sad. His father was extremely intelligent; there was no way MJ had developmental problems. She thought there must be another explanation as she turned out the light and went to the living room.
Dialing her friend Melinda, Brooke sat down and looked around the room, wondering how long it would take to put what she needed in storage.
“It’s Brooke,” she said when her friend answered.
“How’s everything going?” she asked while distracted with work.
Unable to contain herself, Brooke started crying.
“I’ll be over when I can,” Melinda sighed and hung up the phone.
“Damn it,” Brooke hissed as she put the phone in the cradle. Wiping her tears away, Brooke assembled a packing box and filled it angrily with books and toys.
Assembling another box, she threw all her clothes and shoes from her room into it. Pictures were removed from their frames and placed in a baggie. Stuffed animals and souvenirs of personal value were packed among the clothes. Her life fit in two brown cardboard boxes.
Melinda showed up late and hugged Brooke after seeing the sign.
“So it’s official?” she said, taking off her coat and sitting on the couch.
“Almost nine months without a payment,” she said, trying to find the bright spot in her dark hour.
“What’s the plan?” Melinda asked.
“Put some stuff in storage and find another place,” she shrugged.
“I have a spare room, so it’s yours until you find another place,” Melinda offered.
Brooke lowered her head. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“My other offer still stands,” her friend asserted while putting on her jacket and preparing to depart.
“I am at the point of accepting,” Brooke said. It was a last-chance, end-of-the-world scenario that seemed unimaginable three years earlier. But she had run out of insurance money and had no job. Going on welfare was only lower on her list. That would still leave her mother with less than subpar care. This was not the future she intended for her child, for their child.
“You say the word, and I’ll set something up,” her friend urged.
Brooke nodded, and they hugged before Melinda left Brooke with the aftermath of her life.
Grabbing the special family photo by the door, Brooke stared at it and wondered how she got here, in a foreclosed home without a job raising a child with special education issues and a sick mother about to be thrown out of the facility that had provided her care for the past five years.
Why aren’t you here to help? she pleaded to the photo of the happy family.
Packing the frame carefully in clothes, Brooke taped up the boxes and put them in her room so her son wouldn’t wonder why she was packing quickly. He knew they were moving, but Brooke didn’t want him to worry that they were leaving in two days.
After sending him off to school with a friend and his mother, Brooke packed up her son’s room, filled two suitcases with just enough clothes and toys to get by at Melinda’s, and then packed a suitcase for herself.
Calling a storage facility that offered moving services, Brooke packed her life into a 5x10 foot space and headed to the elder care facility.
Meeting with Katrina in her office, Brooke reminded herself to leave her other problems on the other side of the door, or else they would remove her mother from her care entirely.
“I wanted to know what you think of the options,” Katrina announced after reading the short list.
“How long until this takes effect?” Brooke asked in the same unemotional monotone manner.
“Two months,” Katrina noted, looking at the paperwork.
“I will let you know in a month,” Brooke said and left while Katrina stammered for her not to leave until a decision was made.
Heading to her mother’s room in a blur of fury she had to contain, Brooke sat in the chair next to her mother’s bed and waited for her to recognize her only child.
“Is that you, Brooke?” she asked, reaching out for her.
“It’s me, mom,” Brooke choked, then took a deep breath and asked her mother how things were going.
“I’m fine, dear,” she said, patting Brooke on the arm. Brooke remembered how comforting it was in her mother’s care as a child. There was never a problem she couldn’t solve. She had to solve her mother’s issues but no longer had financial or emotional support.
Unable to confide in her mother without causing her more distress, Brooke stayed and talked and then said she had to pick up her son.
“You look so tired, Brooke,” her mother said as Brooke got up to leave.
“I’m working hard, mom,” she said, trying to get out of the center before breaking down.
“I love you, Brooke,” her mother said, clasping her hands in prayer. “I pray for you, dear.”
“I love you, too, mom,” Brooke said and headed out. Walking to the bus stop, Brooke sat down and cried in her hands until the bus pulled up. Waving it away, she caught her breath, wiped her tears, and waited for the next one.
When she got home with her son, she had to console him because he was distressed that his room was almost empty.
“What happened to all my stuff?” he said, puzzled.
“We’re going to have to move in with Melinda,” she said, cheerfully not showing that his questioning brown eyes were breaking her already broken heart.
“What about school?” he insisted. Even though his teacher didn’t believe in her son, he still loved going and being with his friends.
“You’ll still go to your school; we’re just gonna be living with Melinda until we find a place to live,” she shrugged as if it were normal.
“Where’s all my stuff?” he asked again.
“It’s in storage,” she said, putting peas and hot dogs on the table. “We’ll get it out when we move into our new place.”
Eating in silence, Brooke didn’t deviate from their normal routine. There was a bath and story in the very same room Brooke and Matthew had brought him when he arrived from the hospital six years prior.
As she read the last page, she realized it was the last story time in their home. Brooke read the one book she didn’t pack. It was MJ’s favorite about the sleepy elephant. Without him asking, Brooke read the book over and over until he fell asleep.
Brooke sat frozen on his bed. Once she got up, turned off the light, and left, there would be no turning back. MJ was supposed to grow up in the room. This was supposed to be his home, where he would bring his kids someday.
Closing her eyes and holding back the fresh hot tears, Brooke watched him sleep that first night as a family.
Kissing her on the forehead, he admired the tiny baby.
“MJ,” he had marveled. “Matthew Junior. I have a son. We have a son,” he beamed and hugged her. Brooke hugged back. It was supposed to be like that forever, a happy family.
Six short years later, she faced decisions that never entered her mind back when Matthew held her and always vowed to be there for her and protect them.
For three years, Brooke had tried to protect what she had left. Soon one thing after the other wore at her resolve. She couldn’t do it alone anymore.
Turning off the light for the last time, Brooke crawled into her bed and rolled into a ball. Gathering all the strength she had left, Brooke dialed Melinda.
“We’ll be there tomorrow,” she told her friend.
Melinda acknowledged, and then Brooke gave in to the last chance in the world as she lay in the darkness.
“Set it up, Melinda, set it up,” Brooke whispered. “I’m ready.”
In an upscale bar at the top of the ritziest hotel downtown, Brooke sat in a lounge chair surrounded by Melinda’s male “friends.” Sipping sparkling water and laughing at whatever seemed to need an acknowledging laugh, Brooke tried to be as charming as she could under the circumstances.
Dressed in one of her friend’s designer black mini dresses, her hair professionally styled and straightened to remove the unruly waves, Brooke had been transformed into a woman again. Three years of neglect had taken a toll, and her friend set her up with her hairstylist and makeup team before the get-together.
“So how do you know Melinda?” one of the men asked. There were four, two on chairs across from her and one on either side. Brooke was trying to move away from the man on her left, who kept trying to brush her leg with his fat hand.
“Family friend,” she said without adding details. Melinda was Matthew’s boss’ wife, and they had become good friends in the past three years.
Everybody stood when Melinda returned from wherever she had gone, and Brooke mingled with each of the men.
Melinda interjected whenever there was a lull in the conversation or sensed Brooke freaking out.
“Brooke has a degree in art, and she speaks French,” Melinda offered, and the men were impressed. The fat man on her side whispered, “Would you like to voulez-vous with me?” and grabbed her ass.
Brooke was through with his impertinence.
Pulling him away by his fat arm, she looked down at the man and scolded him.
“I like that,” he declared. “You’re not what I’m used to, but I’d do you,” he chuckled and slapped her on the ass. Brooke slapped him on the face just hard enough to get his attention on her face.
“Listen, you fat, little, stupid man,” she whispered threateningly. For a moment, she was distracted by a man with intense green eyes standing at the bar entrance. “I’m not for sale, and you couldn’t get me in your wildest fantasies,” she hissed, turned, and headed to the bar. Locking onto the gaze of the man standing by the door, Brooke looked down, humiliated.
“Give me something with alcohol,” she told the bartender.
“This is a bar, lady,” he said sarcastically. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“White wine, two,” the man with green eyes said and held up two fingers for the bartender, who nodded and left to get the order. Sitting beside her, the man stared straight ahead with his hands folded on the bar.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” she confided to the man while looking for the fat man she had just scolded.
“I didn’t see anything,” the man with green eyes said as the bartender brought him two glasses of wine. The man pushed a glass toward Brooke.
“Thank you,” she said and tossed back half the glass in one unladylike gulp. Sighing, Brooke carefully placed the glass on the napkin provided by the bartender and moaned.
“Shouldn’t you get back to your party?” he asked, still looking straight ahead as he held onto the stem of his glass. Brooke wondered if he was waiting for someone or just a guest coming for a drink.
“I think I’m done for the night,” she replied. Staring off across the bar at whatever fascinated the man, Brooke reconsidered her friend’s option.
Melinda, divorced from her very wealthy husband, always tried to set Brooke up with a new man like it was just easy to forget about Matthew and get another man to take care of her.
For three years, Brooke did everything in her power to care for herself, her son, and her mother. Meeting an eligible bachelor interested in marriage and the responsibility of taking on her issues had been the last resort of last resorts. Sitting at the bar, Brooke just wanted to go home and relax in the darkness until she melted away in the nothingness.
It didn’t work. Morning always came, and the problems never ceased. The insurance money had run out. Everything would have been fine if she hadn’t lost her job at the gallery. For months she tried to get another job, any job. Barely making it at the gallery, Brooke had been living on borrowed time in her home.
Welfare was an option. Brooke had been seriously considering it, but Melinda said there were plenty of single men, and she was still young enough to start over. Unfortunately, these men knew she was desperate, and Brooke would rather live in a homeless shelter than compromise her principles. The only problem was that she had other people to consider.
There would be no choices on welfare. She would have to send her child to the school the government chose for her, and her mother would end up in a state-run home. The nurses at the elder care facility didn’t have many good things to say about those homes.
So she sat in a bar being groped by entitled jackasses who thought they could afford her at any cost.
“What are you guys celebrating?” he asked casually.
Brooke was getting numb. It didn’t take a lot of alcohol to give her a buzz.
“The loss of my independence,” she declared, holding up her glass and pouring the last half of the wine down her dry throat.
“Do they know that?” he asked, puzzled as he turned to her. Brooke met his intense green eyes and leaned in close enough to be transfixed by his masculine cologne.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“It can’t be that bad,” he said, taking another drink. Brooke was getting very relaxed.
“It’s worse,” she confessed.
Looking back at the men, Brooke realized only one of the nicer men was left, and he was sitting and talking to Melinda. Catching her gaze, Brooke nodded, and Melinda returned to her conversation with the man.
Brooke leaned her head on the bar.
“I am such a disaster,” she moaned.
“Yeah, why is that?” he asked softly and casually drank his wine.
Talking to the stranger was comforting. Knowing she’d never see him again relaxed her even more.
“Three years ago, I had everything,” she said aloud, not caring if the man listened. “I had a husband. We had a home. ... Now here I am, and I’m feeling guilty. I scared them all away. They’re throwing my mom out of her care facility. My son needs special education. I haven’t been able to find a job.”
“What about you?” the man interjected, and Brooke realized he had been listening. Looking into his eyes, Brooke answered sincerely.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“How do you feel about marrying a stranger for security?” he asked.
“I want everyone to be happy and healthy,” she shrugged. “That’s what I want more than anything else.”
“What about you?” he asked again.
Brooke didn’t understand. That’s what she wanted for herself.
“I want for everyone…” the man interrupted her before she could repeat herself.
“You’ll be happy if you give up what you want so that everyone else will be happy?” he asked incredulously.
Brooke looked into his eyes and saw that he wasn’t being rude. They were two chums at a bar trying to figure things out.
“You’ve never been in love, have you?” she said, feeling sorry for the man. “Nothing matters except the happiness of the ones you love. You’re right, what I feel is also important, but I would never give up what I have for my happiness and nothing else. I would be happy if my son got the best education and had a stable life. I would be very happy if my mother were in an excellent care facility where they catered to her every need. If I had security again, I would be happy. If that means giving something up of myself, that’s a small price to pay,” she said.
Realizing she had been too candid with the man, Brooke thanked him for the wine and waved goodbye to Melinda. Melinda quickly got up and met Brooke at the elevator without waiting to say goodbye to the man.
“You seemed pretty cozy with the man at the bar,” Melinda surmised as she steadied her inebriated friend. Brooke just wanted to go home.
“Nice eyes,” Brooke shrugged. “He bought me a drink. I’m so sorry I slapped your friend.”
“He’s a jackass,” Melinda shrugged. “I won’t be seeing him again.” The elevator doors opened, and Brooke got in, but Melinda said she would meet her at the valet station. Shrugging, Brooke agreed and took the elevator down. Not a thought entered her brain as she waited for Melinda, and they drove home.
Melinda seemed to be in a good mood.
“Did you like that guy you were talking with?” Brooke asked the beaming Melinda.
“Dave? I’ve known him for years, nice guy; he thought you were nice as well,” Melinda said.
“He was one of the nicer ones,” Brooke agreed.
“You spent a lot of time with the guy at the bar,” Melinda noted.
“He was just listening to me spill my guts,” Brooke shrugged.
When they returned to Melinda’s condo, Brooke checked in on her son sleeping on the couch in his sleeping bag. Brooke had bought it so that the move would seem like an adventure to him. Paying the babysitter, Brooke said good night, and then she sat with Melinda in the kitchen.
“What if one of the men were interested?” Melinda asked as they drank sparkling water.
“Not the short, fat one,” Brooke said, disgusted at how he thought he owned her. It had nothing to do with the way he looked. It was the way he acted.
“Not him, another one,” she insisted.
“The others were nice,” she replied, not needing to know which one specifically. They all seemed the same to Brooke. They were polite and treated her respectfully. She wasn’t looking for love. She just needed security.
“Well, one of them is looking for a wife, the same way you’re looking for a husband,” Melinda continued, getting to her point. “He has a proposal.”
Brooke looked puzzled. Is that what she had been talking about with the nice man while she was at the bar?
“What kind of proposal?” Brooke asked, listening very carefully.
“He’s got a mother who has been bugging him for years to marry his on-again-off-again girlfriend,” she said as if she were trying to sell the proposal to Brooke. “He needs a ‘family,’” Melinda said, using finger quotes to emphasize her point, “to appease his mother while he continues seeing the woman and going off on business trips and whatever.”
“Why doesn’t he just be a man and tell his mother to lay off? It’s his life.” Brooke asked. She knew relationships with parents were more complicated, but this was supposed to be a grown man.
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “He wants a wife for appearance's sake. That’s all.”
“How does that help me and my situation?” Brooke asked.
“He’s a wealthy businessman,” Melinda explained as if Brooke were slow to understand. “He’ll send your son to the school he needs; he’ll continue payments to your mother’s elder care facility, and all you have to do is marry him.”
Brooke spat out her water and covered her mouth. Staring Melinda straight in the eye, she could see Melinda was serious.
“He’s a wealthy businessman who can’t deal with his mother?” Brooke wasn’t slow to understand; she was just confused about why this man needed a wife he didn’t love. “He just wants to marry me to keep his mother off his back?”
“It’s not like that,” Melinda corrected her. “There would be no ‘marital duties,’” Melinda explained with the air quotes. “You just have to put up with his overbearing mother who lives in the back house.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” Brooke said, still trying to figure out the bizarre proposal. “I marry him. We don’t sleep together. I live in his house and pretend to be a family for his mother so he can see his girlfriend?”
“That’s it,” Melinda said, excited Brooke understood the arrangement.
“What guarantee do I have?” she asked. “What happens if I marry this guy and everything changes?”
“He can have his lawyer draw up papers; it would be a legal and binding arrangement,” Melinda shrugged at the detail. “Like a prenup.”
Brooke found herself very awake.
“He would take care of my son and mother, guaranteed, and I wouldn’t have to do anything?” she asked, considering the option seriously for the first time.
“Except marry him and change your name,” Melinda said, offering the fine points of the proposal.
Brooke looked at the gold band on her finger and massaged it, hoping it would magically give her an answer or absolution.
“He’s not coming back,” Melinda whispered, trying to comfort her friend.
“I will let you know in the morning,” Brooke said in a trance as she went to her room, closed the door, and lay on her bed staring at the ceiling.
Could it be possible? Could such an arrangement exist?
Brooke twisted the band around, hoping for answers or to be transported back in time.
There was no sleep for her. When MJ poked his head in her room, she stood up, got him cereal, and sat him down for Saturday morning cartoons. Sitting next to him, she stared past the cartoons.
This decision was too important for Brooke to continue festering on that tragic night three years earlier. If she fell into that misery, it would take her years to recover again. Her son and her mother needed her to take care of them. They would all have security, and she wouldn’t have to compromise her body. Morals were something that could be compromised on a case-by-case basis.
Melinda woke up, and Brooke announced her decision while her friend headed for the kitchen.
“Have him send the papers over,” Brooke said.
“I’ll do that,” she said. “When do you want to meet him?”
Brooke had thought about that. Getting up, she joined Melinda, and they went to the kitchen to discuss the arrangement privately.
“I don’t,” she asserted. “No ceremony. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re comfortable with it. I’ll have a lawyer review the arrangement, and if it’s what we’ve agreed upon, I just want to meet him at city hall the day we get the license.”
Melinda thought about Brooke’s request.
“I will get started,” she said, hugging the robe to her thin body. Melinda looked so much older without makeup, and the concern on her face was not masked. “Are you sure you want to do it this way?”
“It’s the only way I can do this,” Brooke affirmed.
“I will set it up,” she agreed and made the coffee before making the call.
Monday morning, the papers arrived, and Brooke made an appointment to see one of Melinda’s lawyer friends. After the woman reviewed the arrangement, she looked at Brooke and asked if she was sure about the unusual prenup.
Brooke had reviewed the details.
The main points were acceptable.
There was a clause for taking care of her son and her mother in the event they decided to part ways after a year.
Brooke was to present herself as his wife to his mother and act accordingly. She was to be a companion for his mother.
Brooke would leave with nothing if either decided to dissolve the arrangement within one year.
Jake could dissolve the relationship if Brooke did not uphold her end of the arrangement in presenting herself as a dutiful wife in his mother’s eyes and companion to her mother-in-law.
“I have to be,” Brooke asserted. They went to a notary, signed the papers, and then Brooke called the man’s lawyer’s office to have them picked up.
Hours later, Melinda called to say an appointment had been set at City Hall for the next Friday.
Brooke took a deep breath and agreed to the date.
After sending MJ to school the morning of her second wedding, Brooke put on a dress she borrowed from Melinda. It was a long floral gown that she could have easily worn to a dinner party.
Of all her preparations, the hardest was taking off her gold band. Eight years earlier, the ring was meant to stay on her finger forever. It symbolized enduring love and the last remnant of her first marriage. For an hour, Brooke slid the snug-fitting ring up and down her finger, each time unable to take the ring off her finger.
It was the last step to putting away the past. This was a new day with a new man. Without thinking, she pulled it off like a bandage that had been kept on too long. Brooke couldn’t look at the ring. Stuffing it in her suitcase for safekeeping, she left to meet her new husband at City Hall.
Melinda drove her, and she would be the witness.
“Are you sure you didn’t want to meet him first, have a date, and get to know each other?” Melinda sounded nervous for her friend, who was about to walk down the aisle with a man she had only met for a few hours at a bar.
“Why?” Brooke shrugged. “I just want to get this done to get on with my life. If I stop and think about this…”
“I understand,” Melinda whispered.
At City Hall, Brooke waited as Melinda talked to the lawyer, and they worked on the license and appointment with the judge. A long line of happy couples waited to get their licenses.
Melinda returned to Brooke and showed her the paperwork to be signed before the judge. The man, Jake, was late.
What if he never showed up?