I don’t have a good handle on Melissa or her reactions, but I think it surprises everyone when she lets out a simple, quiet “No.”
“Honey,” Rusty says, in the most sugary, condescending voice possible, “it ain’t up to you.”
“Enough,” Carey says with tight, quiet rage. She looks at Melissa, at Rusty, and then shouts, “Can you even hear yourselves? How is this my job?” She looks at me, eyes on fire. “How are they okay having this kind of conversation in front of us?”
I give her a helpless shrug. “No idea.”
“Carey, honey—” Melissa begins, but Carey cuts her off.
“What happened to the down-to-earth couple I met?” she asks. “What happened to the two people who worked hard for a living, personally greeted everyone who came into their store, and took pride in their business?” She looks at them, but they only stare back; I’m sure neither of them has ever heard Carey speak this forcefully and they aren’t quite sure how to handle her. If I hadn’t had sex with the woman, I might be surprised, too, by this display of fire, but instead I’m just standing here holding her hand and feeling proud as hell.
“Rusty, you’re wrong,” Carey says. “Melly used to do her own work.” He starts to protest, but she shushes him. “She did. She decorated. It’s not the same, but she did. She loved putting together a room with your pieces, and you know it. Don’t trivialize that.”
Melissa starts to say something victorious, but Carey interrupts her again. “No, wait. I’m not done.” Carey turns to her. “Yes, you used to decorate, but you never designed, and you know it. You know I came in and designed the daybed and the coffee table. You know I designed the collapsible stairs, and the desks, and the tables, and everything else that came after it. You know the entire Small Spaces book is my work. You know it’s always been me, and you were happy to let the world think it was you, that paying me a lot of money meant that your conscience could be clear, but it’s not true. You took advantage of my need for insurance, for a job. You took advantage of my insecurity about growing up poor and not going to college or being good enough. You know you’ve been doing this, Melly, and it’s terrible.”
Melissa stares at Carey, and the color slowly drains from her face.
Rusty leans his arm against the fireplace mantel and reaches for a poker to stab at the burning logs. Carey walks over, takes the poker from his drunk hand, and gently shoves him away from the fire. “Russ, go sit down.” She sounds so tired.
“You quitting?” he asks, obstinately leaning an elbow against the mantel.
Carey nods. “Yeah. I’m quitting.”
Rusty lets out a long, slow whistle. “Isn’t that something? All this work. We get a TV show, we get books.” He points at me. “He gets a big promotion, and you end up quitting.”
My stomach drops out, and a hush falls over the room. Slowly, Carey’s eyes move from Rusty—who looks only now like he’s said something wrong—and then over to me. “A promotion?”
In all honesty, I haven’t thought about the promotion in hours and was going to tell her as soon as we got back home. What had once been the most important part of my life—the trajectory of my career—has slid down the ladder of priorities. I open my mouth to tell Carey that I’ll explain it later, but Rusty speaks first.
“Ted told me,” Rusty says, grimacing in my direction. There’s guilt in his expression, but if I’m not mistaken, I catch a subtly evil gleam in his eye, too. Maybe if he can’t get his way, no one can. The good ol’ boy has a darkness.
“What are you talking about?” Carey asks.
“Jimmy here negotiated an executive producer credit and the title of lead engineer if we made it to season two.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Carey says to me quietly.
Russell reaches up, picking at his teeth. “I figured you knew. What with you two being so close.”
I open my mouth and close it. I don’t want to lie to Carey and tell her that it wasn’t a big deal, and telling her that I tried to bring it up earlier just feels like a cop-out. My mistake feels so obvious. “Shit—Carey. This isn’t how I want to have this conversation. I wasn’t trying to keep it from you. When Ted called—”
“In San Francisco?” she says, floored. “The morning—?” Her eyes fill as she puts the timeline together. The morning after we had sex.
I nod again. “I was about to throw in the towel,” I tell her. “I wanted you to quit, too, but—”
Melissa cuts in. “Excuse me?”
Both Carey and I give her “Shut up, Melly” in unison.
“But you didn’t want to,” I remind Carey. “You weren’t sure you were ready. When Ted called, I had it in my head that you weren’t going to leave, that Melly wasn’t going to be cool with us being together, and so when Ted offered it, it was the way that I came to terms with staying to help you with them but getting something out of it, too. We made a deal and then when I got back to the hotel, you’d started to change your mind but I’d already made a commitment.”
“You didn’t tell me,” she says again, and the simplicity of that betrayal feels totally gutting. “You should have told me. I tell you everything and you—what? Did you think I wouldn’t understand? I would have been happy for you. It would have made sense why you did a one-eighty and told me to stay. If you’d have just let me in on it, I would have understood.”
This feels like a punch to the gut. She did tell me everything; I’ve become her person, her safe space, and I kept this from her. Why did I do that? She’s been quietly doing all the work for a decade, and after one grueling week, I get the promotion of a lifetime and she gets nothing.
“Is there anyone in this house who isn’t out to ruin me?”
We all turn to look at Melly when she shrieks this. With wild, furious eyes, she stares at each of us in turn before tilting her head back and letting out a scream so feral and enraged it sounds like it tears up her throat.
“Melly,” Carey says with trembling incredulity, “did we dare forget for two minutes that everything is about you?”
“Rusty’s asking for a divorce,” Melly yells back at her. “You’re quitting just like he’s been trying to get you to do since you started fucking and—what? I’m the only one who cares about the business anymore?”
Rusty wipes a slow hand down his face and looks at me. “I need the keys, Jimbo.”
“Not happening, Russ.”
He shrugs and turns to leave the room. There’s movement in my peripheral vision, but Carey must comprehend what’s happening before I do because she’s moving with lightning speed to try to stop Melissa’s glass just as it leaves her hand to go hurtling toward Rusty and the roaring fireplace. Rusty ducks in shock, and the heavy crystal tumbler jets past him, barely missing his temple and crashing with a frighteningly shrill blast against the stone hearth.
We gape in the echoing silence, stunned by the violence of it. The glass would have knocked him unconscious, at best, but as close as Melissa is to him? It could just as easily have killed him. For a few tense moments, Rusty just stares at her.
And in those seconds, I watch his heart finally break.
An odd whoosh, like a gust of wind, passes through the room. Carey and I look at each other, some shared instinct making us suspicious. With a start, Rusty stumbles back and we all look down at his muttered “Holy shit”—the carpet at his feet is on fire, flames licking at the hem of his jeans.
“Rusty!” I yell, shoving him.
Cursing in shock, he falls back onto the silver bar cart, which topples over. Rusty scrambles quickly away as crystal decanters of alcohol crash to the floor. After an eerie beat of silence, the fire turns from a small trail of flames into a blinding explosion bursting from the fireplace.
Without thinking, I tackle Carey, rolling us to the side. A huge crash booms, and then we hear the rising hiss of the fire coming to life behind us, fed by a river of strong spirits and a room full of wood and fabric. A chair is on fire … on fire … flames grow instantly, licking higher beside us. I drag Carey over to the wall, clutching her as we take it in, trying to piece together what the hell we’re supposed to do now.
Melissa is screaming, and Rusty is throwing ice and yelling, and I realize that Melissa’s glass was full of booze, for once in her goddamn life it had to be only booze, but I can’t think about any of it because the rug is burning now, the couch, the fire is tearing through the room almost like it’s been waiting to climb out of the fireplace and take over this house for decades.
The room is a square, and we are on the far side, away from the exit, where we could dart into the hallway toward the entryway or the kitchen. Carey and I scramble along the walls, crouch-walking to stay low. The entire time she is whispering “Oh my God. Oh my God” in this high, terrified voice and I want to tell her that everything is going to be fine, that I’m sorry, that we’ll fix this and make it better for her but the only thing we need to do right now is not die. In the middle of the room, the flames are giddily swallowing every bit of furniture and fabric, and just to the side, near the windows, Rusty and Melissa are still ineffectually trying to put the fire out with the ice bucket, with bottles of soda. It’s a delusion; this fire is too big.
I yell at them to go call 911 and get the hell out of there.
Reaching the door to the hallway, Carey and I stand and make a run toward the kitchen. Rusty is already there, shouting the address into the phone, and then he drops the receiver. It slams against the wall and hangs there, swinging limply. He meets my eyes; his are wide and terrified. Without saying a word, Rusty sprints out the back door, saving himself.
“Melly!” Carey shouts, pulling her shirt up over her mouth before turning back toward the living room. Even in crisis, even after everything that happened back there, she’s still taking care of Melissa.