Chapter Ten They were expected at Philip's parents for Christmas Eve dinner, her first as part of his family. But after what she had seen the day before, she didn't feel much like celebrating. When Philip came home yesterday, she had been in the attic, reflecting on her life with Sam. She felt so good about those times, she just couldn't bring herself to deal with Philip's 'indiscretion'. Now, it was Christmas Eve, and she didn't want to ruin it for his mother. She knew that the older woman would have worked all day to prepare the perfect meal and would be heartbroken if everyone wasn't there. Philip had commented on her lack of enthusiasm, considering the festive season, but she had made up some excuse about having a headache. She was sure, she had said, that once she got to his parents, she would feel better. He seemed geniunely concerned, whether because he didn't want her to feel bad, or because he didn't want to put on a bad show for his parents, she wasn't sure. She had almost told him to go on his own, but knew he would never allow that. So she dressed in the outfit he bought for her especially for Christmas, he had brought it home with him the day before. She forced a happy face over the one she really felt like wearing. She had placed the wedding ring set from Sam back into her jewelery box. If Philip had seen her wearing them, there would have been a terrible fight, and she wasn't ready to handle that. She had wanted to bring something, contribute to the meal, but his mother wouldn't allow it. Christmas, it seemed, was her time to cook all day and night, without any help from anyone. From what Donna had seen at the other family gatherings this past year, that was all his mother did. Cook, clean, wait on his father. Donna couldn't remember her ever mentioning having a job outside the home, which is where Philip probably got his idea that she shouldn't work. At first, she didn't mind, but now she was ready to do more than just play 'happy housewife'. She had a brain, a rather brilliant one at that, and she wanted to use it again. She hadn't mentioned it to Philip yet. First she wanted to see what was out there for her. She had begun to contact a few old friends from Project Star Bright, to see if they knew if there were any openings where they currently were, or of anything coming up. Although everyone wished her well, no one really knew of anything. Government cutbacks again. Two people, doing the job of five, at the salary of one. At least, that's what they'd told her in their letters. But after catching Philip playing at his new game, she was even more determined to get back to work, and not just as somebody's secretarial 'girl Friday'. She wanted back into scientific research. Or was it the vision of Sam that had put the living back into my life? They drove along the street that led to his parents' home. Donna watched the lights on each house, imaging the joy within. Children excited about Santa's imminent visit, parents trying to hustle them off to bed, grandpas good naturedly adding to the hysteria by inciting the youngsters, while grandmas admonished them, everyone enjoying the revelry. Everyone, except her. Before long, they turned into the driveway of the home of Gene and Bonnie Brecknall. This house, too, showed an exterior of seasonal bliss. What it held inside, the outside world never saw. She stepped from the car, her feet touching on the pavement of the driveway. It was warm in San Bernadino this Christmas Eve. She hadn't seen a white Christmas since the last time she and Sam had gone home to the farm, the year before his mother had sold it. She remembered how much it pained Sam to know that he would never be able to run through the fields of his childhood þ not that he had actually been home in the summer to do just that for a very long time þ but it still wounded him to see his childhood sold to the highest bidder. [Check timeframe of sale of farm to debt?] "Come on, Donna. Mom's at the window watching us. Get it in gear." So much for the compassion he had shown her earlier when he thought she wasn't well. Seeing that Philip had already gotten the other gifts from the trunk, she reached back into the car and removed the gift she had bought especially for Bonnie þ a cut glass crystal vase. It was a gift just from her, not Philip. She had felt that everything seemed to be given to either both his parents or just his father, so she had wanted to make a special effort to centre her out. She had also bought a bouquet of flowers, knowing that Bonnie wouldn't have such luxuries on hand. Closing the car door, she started towards the sidewalk that lead to the front porch. As she glanced back, she realized how strange Philip's brand new expensive car looked in this middle class neighbourhood. Bonnie Brecknall opened the door with her usual semi-enthusiasm. She never seemed fully happy with her life, even at times when everyone around her was, and at that moment, Donna resolved not to let her life end up being like this woman's. "Philip, Donna. Merry Christmas. I'm so glad you made it. We were beginning to worry." "I wasn't worried. Knew you'd make it just fine." The condescending voice of Gene Brecknall rang from the livingroom, barely making it over the sound of the television. No matter what the occasion, the tv was always on in this house. Maybe tonight he'll turn it off, or at least maybe Philip will, she thought to herself. "Merry Christmas, mom," Philip said, bending to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. "Dad." He barely acknowledged his father, even on holidays. Philip walked into the livingroom and placed the gifts they had brought under the tree. "What's on? Anything good?" He sat down on the sofa, not even bothering to remove his jacket. "Nah. Your mother likes to watch 'It's A Wonderful Life' every year. Not like she hasn't seen it a million times by now, but I figure what the heck. It's only once every three hundred and sixty-five days." How gracious of you, Donna thought as she stepped in from the hallway. Her gift to Bonnie still in her hands. "Wanna beer?", Gene said, draining the last of what was left in his bottle. "Yeah, sure." "Bonnie! Your son would like a beer, and get me one, too." Philip's mother immediately turned towards the kitchen, but Donna cut in. "It's okay, Bonnie, I'll get them. You're probably busy enough." With Gene's back to her, Donna gave him a look of exasperation, then followed her mother-in-law into the kitchen. The smell of the roasting turkey, together with the stuffing, vegetables and pies, reminded her of when she was a little girl and she and her mother would go to her grandmother's for Christmas dinner. There wasn't much back then, but the love was plentiful. Unlike this house. [Check againt "Star-Crossed" re: Donna's father.] She placed the flowers and the box containing the vase on the table, then walked to the refrigerator. Removing two bottles of beer, she reached for a glass. Philip always took his beer, when he drank any, in a glass. Drinking from the bottle was so, 'middle class', in his words. While her mother-in-law began to fill the serving bowls, she took the beer into the livingroom, handing the glass to Philip and the bottle to Gene. Neither one acknowledged the act before she turned and headed back into the kitchen. "Bonnie, I brought you something. It's a gift, from me to you." She pushed the box slightly, indicating that it was to be opened now. "Oh, Donna, you shouldn't have. Really. You and Philip already buy us too much." The sincerity in her voice sounded genuine, unlike that which she knew would come later from Gene. "I know, but I wanted to give you something, just from me. Philip isn't a part of this. Open it. Please." Bonnie looked at Donna, as if wanted reassurance that it was okay, then, wiping her hands on the bottom of her apron, slowly stepped towards the table. With hesitant hands, she unwrapped the package, being careful not the tear the paper. When she finally opened the box and removed the vase, tears began to form in her eyes. "Donna, it's beautiful. You shouldn't have. Really. It's far too expensive." Her voice shook with restrained emotion. You would think that no one has ever given her anything before, Donna thought, but then, remembering just who her father-in-law was, it didn't surprise her. "Here," she said, picking up the bundle of flowers, trying to break the uncomfortable silence that was forming, "let's put these flowers in it. Then we can set it on the diningroom table as a centrepiece." "Would you mind doing it, dear? I've still got plenty to do and ..." "Sure," she said, taking the vase, then filling it with tapwater, placed the flowers in it, arranging them slightly. She stepped out into the diningroom and placed the vase in the centre of the table, which was already set for dinner for four. "I guess Ben's not coming. Surprise." She hadn't seen Philip's brother since their wedding. He always managed to find something else to do, or have somewhere else to go whenever family gatherings arose. Today, instead of scorning him, she envied him. He protected his wife from this family. Brushing away her negative thoughts, she returned to the kitchen. Bonnie had already placed everything into their proper serving dishes and was cutting the turkey. "Anything I can do?", she asked, knowing what the answer would be. "No, dear. Everything's nearly ready. All that needs to be done is to carve the turkey, then get it on the dinner table and call the troups." Donna began to take the bowls overflowing with assorted vegetables into the diningroom, allowing Bonnie to carve the turkey. She felt useless in this house, Philip's mother always had everything under control, but she always offered to help. Philip had once told her that it was his mother's job to take care of everything, a statement that had shocked her. 'So long as you don't expect me to do everything by myself,' was her reply. 'Of course not. I'll hire a maid.' His answer to everything menial ... have someone else do it. As she bent to light the candles, Bonnie appeared carrying the tray of white and brown meat. "There, everything's finally ready. Do you want to get the men? Then we can start. I'll just get the wine." Obliging, Donna stuck her head into the livingroom. To her surprise, the television was turned off. Then she noticed that the remote control sat beside Philip, out of reach of his father. Philip hated watching television, unless it was something he found interesting. It seemed that he was the one person who could control his father. Perhaps his extra two inches in height and younger, stronger physique had something to do with it, but whatever the reason, she was grateful. Philip was telling his father about his latest big client. Gene's face held it's usual 'I'm bored' look, his eyes wandering the room, looking everywhere but at his son, but Philip kept talking, trying to impress him. He worked hard at trying to impress everyone, as if no one would like him unless he proved himself worth liking. "Dinner's ready." Two male faces turned towards her, surprised to be interrupted by another voice. "Everything's on the table." Her father-in-law stood up, obviously relieved to have been saved from Philip's ongoing discourse. "About time. Let's eat." Gene Brecknall could turn a state dinner with the Queen into a backwoods barbeque, she thought, but kept the smile on her face as the two men rose from their usual positions in the livingroom and sauntered into the diningroom. Bonnie was just pouring the wine when the three took their places at the table. Gene immediately sat the head and placed his beer bottle on the table with a thud. Philip, ever the gentleman, pulled the chair out, first for his mother, then for Donna. Sometimes, he just amazes me, changing from one mood to another without even blinking. Gene had already begun stabbing at the plate of turkey when Philip spoke up. "Shouldn't we say grace, first." His mother looked thankful, as she lowered her head. "Mom." "For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful. Amen." It was the only prayer she had ever learned, and it was what Bonnie Brecknall said every time she was called on to say grace. "Can I eat now?" grumbled Gene, not waiting for an answer. "Everything looks wonderful, mom. You've outdone yourself again," Philip chimed, reaching for the potatoes. "Thank you, Philip. I do so love cooking Christmas dinner." She held a bowl out to Donna. "Carrots?" "Yes, thank you," she replied, taking the bowl and placing a few on her plate. She didn't feel much like eating tonight, but would make some effort. She didn't want Bonnie to think she didn't appreciate all her hard work. "Where'd that thing come from?" Gene snarled, stabbing the air with his potato-covered fork towards the vase, leaving a trail of gravy splatters across the tablecloth. "Donna gave that to me, in the kitchen." Bonnie spoke in low tones, as if not wanting to answer, but knowing she had better. Donna came to her rescue. "I wanted to give a special gift to my charming mother-in-law, just from me to her." "Hrmph," was the only reply elicited from Gene. She saw that Bonnie's head was dipped low over her plate. Poor woman. She can't even enjoy a gift without that man making some sort of comment. The table fell silent as they ate, silverware making contact with china being the only sound. "So, where's Ben and Marcia?" Philip asked, knowing exactly what the answer would be. Bonnie opened her mouth to reply, but Gene beat her to the punch. "Seems he found something better to do tonight. Probably at her parents again." The hurt showed in Bonnie's eyes. She kept her head low so no one would see, but Donna knew without looking at her she felt wounded by her younger son's absence. "He called this afternoon to wish us, and you two, a Merry Christmas. He said he'd try to drop by tomorrow, for sure," she said weakly. She's always trying to defend her children to that man. Gene Brecknall snarled, "It'll be a different kind of miracle if he does. Maybe if I go out, he'll come by." You can't even be civil on Christmas Eve, you miserable bastard. "Gene, please, it's Christmas Eve." Donna was surprised to hear her mother-in-law speak these words, her manner usually being subservient. "Please, what. You know damn well that the only reason Ben ever shows up here is because of you. He'd probably come around more often if I wasn't alive." His eyes turned towards Philip. "Same goes for you." Donna could see Philip trying to maintain control. "Dad, I, we come to see both of you. Don't we, hon?" "Uh, yes, of course. We love to see both of you," Donna added hastily, only just realizing she had been included in the impending argument. Keep me out of this. "Yeah, right," Gene sneered. "Then why is it we only see you on holidays ... Easter, Thanksgiving." "Because I'm very busy in my law practice, dad. I have to devote a great deal of time to it. Any spare time I do have, I spent with Donna. After all, she is my wife." Spare time with me? When was the last time we even went out to see a movie? But she kept her thoughts to herself. His parents home was not the place to air her hurt and anger. "Would anybody like some coffee?" The plaintive sound came from Bonnie. Donna had actually forgot the woman was even in the room, she was so quiet. Donna, thankful for the break in the heated exchange, removed her napkin from her lap and pushed her chair from the table. "I'll get it." "No, it's okay, dear. I'll get it." Bonnie also stood. "Then I'll start to clear the table. Everyone is done, aren't they?" Her voice was strained, her attempt at holding in her amotions almost a losing battle. "Not yet," Gene grumbled, stabbing at another piece of turkey. "Now, I'm done." Donna picked up a few bowls and followed her mother- in-law into the kitchen, placing them onto the table. Bonnie busied herself preparing coffee, not making conversation or eye contact with Donna, who had returned twice more with the remnants of the evening's meal. "Bonnie, I'm sorry. Philip shouldn't be prodding Gene on like that. He knows what will happen, especially when Gene's been drinking." Bonnie half-turned from her position at the counter. The coffeemaker gurgled, the first sounds of coffee dripping into the pot. "It's alright, dear. Philip is the only one who can control his father." "Bonnie," Donna began hesitantly, "I need to ask you a question. Something's happened that I need to discuss with, well, with another woman." She wrung her hands into a tight knot. Bonnie's face showed her concern. "What is it, dear?" "I ... oh, just forget it." She turned away, but Bonnie touched her shoulder. "Donna, what is it?" "Philip ...". She didn't know how to tell her that her son was an adulterer. "Donna?" Bonnie's eyes became her own mother's eyes þ loving, caring. She began to cry. Mothering arms surrounded her. "Whatever it is, it can't be that bad. You've only been married ten months." She gathered herself, more upset at her outburst than Philip. Bonnie released her hold on her long enough to reach across the countertop to the box of tissues that was always there. She handed it to Donna. Sitting in a chair at the kitchen table, she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, slowly stemming the flow. Bonnie sat and waited patiently. She placed her hands in her lap, her eyes centring on their task of pulling at the tissues. "Yesterday, when I was at the mall, I saw ... Philip. He was ... with ... another woman." There, she'd said it. Looking up at her mother-in-law, she was surprised at the blank look. "They weren't just out for lunch. I overheard them talking. They're having an affair." She couldn't say anymore. "Well, dear, you know it's very common for a man to seek ... comfort ... outside the home." Donna looked up into the face of the older woman. "What?" It was a whispered question and a statement at the same time. "It's quite natural, really. You shouldn't let it upset you this much." "What?" Her voice became louder. "Gene's always stepped out on me. I never let it bother me and you shouldn't let it bother you." Bonnie stood, stepping away from the table and returning to the counter. Donna couldn't believe what she was hearing. In this day and age, this woman fully believed what she was saying. "You can't seriously believe that it's okay for any married man, or woman for that matter, to have an affair." Bonnie looked back to her. "Certainly, dear. My father did it. My husband does it, or at least did. It's only natural." That phrase again. "It is not 'natural'. My father never cheated on my mother. They were so in love. That's the kind of marriage I should have." The kind I did have, with Sam. [Confirm re: father] "Well then, I think they were the exception and not the rule. It's been my experience that most people marry because it's better than being lonely for the rest of your life." She turned back away, her hand reaching up into the open cupboard above her head and removed four cups and saucers and dessert plates. As Bonnie's dress hem rose, Donna was sure she saw faint purple spots on the backs of her mother-in-law's legs, one on each at the exact same place. Before she could be sure, Bonnie's arms came back down, lowering the hem to its proper position. "I've made apple and pumpkin pies. That should be enough for dessert. Why don't you get the whipped cream from the fridge, and I'll get the pies. They're warming in the oven." Donna knew that she would get no support from her mother-in-law. She had lived her entire life believing that men were supposed to, expected to, have affairs. She dropped the subject. Standing, she reached towards the refrigerator and opened the door. Bonnie moved towards the stove, bending as she opened the oven door. As she turned, whipped cream bowl in her hand, Bonnie's back was towards her. It was then that she saw the bruises on the backs of Bonnie's legs. Not just one, but several large ones. They were all in the exact same place on both legs, as if she had been shoved hard against something. Donna placed the bowl on the table, then approached her mother-in-law as she stood up, closing the oven door. "Bonnie, what happened?" "About what?" She could tell by the tone in her voice that Bonnie knew exactly what she was talking about. "About the backs of your legs. What happened?" Bonnie gave a small, cautious laugh. "Oh, that. I was vacuuming the livingroom and didn't see the footstool behind me. I tripped over it and fell into Gene's chair. That's all." Donna didn't buy her answer. "Bonnie, those bruise patterns aren't consistent with your story. They're too high to be the footstool or Gene's chair. What really happened." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. She wanted an answer. "I told you, I fell. Just leave it at that, will you." Bonnie turned away and reached for the knife sitting beside the pies. Donna approached her, standing so close that Bonnie had no place to go. Bonnie cowered slightly, causing Donna to step back. "Bonnie." "Donna, it's nothing. Really." Grabbing her by the shoulders, Donna spun her mother- in-law to face her, but the look of physical pain on the older woman's face made her release her grip. "Where else, Bonnie. Your arms, shoulders, back. Where else." "Where else, what?" She didn't want to speak out loud the words she knew Donna wanted to hear. "Where else are you bruised. Where else has Gene hit you." Bonnie feigned surprise. "Gene doesn't beat me. What in the world would make you say such a thing." "Because a good friend of mine is a psychiatrist. She's told me about the signs of physical and mental abuse. I've wondered about you and Gene, but until now, didn't have any proof. How long." Bonnie turned away, lowering her head, speaking in whispered tones. "For as long as I can remember." Her head shot up. "But never in front of the boys. Never. And never when I was pregnant or where anyone would see." "That doesn't make it alright, Bonnie. He doesn't have the right to beat you, or anyone." "He's my husband." "That doesn't give him the right!" A voice from the diningroom cut in. "Hey! Where's that coffee." Gene. Bonnie started to turn, a pie in each hand. "Bonnie, we're not finished." "Yes, we are," came the low response as she left the room. Donna stared momentarily at the door, a look of disbelief on her face, then reached for the coffee cups, dessert plates and whipped cream. She took them into the diningroom, grabbing the remaining dinner plates for her return trip into the kitchen for the coffee pot. Bonnie had begun to serve the pies. Philip dropped a generous dollop of whipped cream on his own two slices, a small one of each, then diving into it. He ignored the slice for his father. She could feel the tension coming from Bonnie. When they briefly made eye contact, the older woman implored her to keep silent. Donna placed the cups in a line, then began to pour coffee into each one. Gene reached for a cup almost before she had finished pouring, causing her to trail a small amount of coffee from the pot onto the tablecloth. The brown stain spread, matching the colour of the gravy he had splattered earlier. He then reached across in front of her, grabbing the whipped cream and a large slice of apple pie. Donna's eyes followed his movements, every inch of her wanting to, at the very least, slap his hand. At the very most, she wanted to inflict on him what he had been inflicting on his wife for too many years. "Donna. Donna?" Philip was calling her back. She turned and looked at him, as if only just realizing he was there. "Are you going to sit down, or eat your dessert standing?" "Huh, oh, sorry." She took her seat while Bonnie finished serving. The group finished their meal in silence, the only sounds coming from the occasion car passing the house outside. Despite the season, no festive music played in the house. "Well, I've had enough," Gene said, sitting back in his chair and patting his stomach. "Everything was great, as usual, mom," Philip added in his usual 'trying to lock in the client' voice. "Wasn't it, dad." "Of course. She's knows it. I don't have to say it." But it wouldn't kill you to. "Yes, Bonnie. Everything was wonderful." Donna stood, pushing her chair back and began to collect the dessert dishes. "You don't have to do that, Donna. I'll get them," Bonnie said, standing and trying to take the dishes from Donna's hand. "No, really. I'll do it." "Let her do it, Donna. It's her job." She took a deep breath, then spoke through gritted teeth. "I said I'll do it. God knows, she doesn't get anywhere near enough help around here as it is." Snatching up the dishes, she stomped into the kitchen. She didn't see the horrified look on Bonnie's face. Setting them on the counter with a thud, she placed both palms on the counter's edge, leaning forward, trying to control her anger before she had to face that man again. She heard the door swing open behind her and turned, fully expecting to see Bonnie. It was Philip. "What the hell was that about?" He stood with his hands on his hips looking every bit like his father. "What was what about." "You know damn well what I mean." And she knew he wouldn't repeat himself. "Your mother works herself to the bone around here on a daily basis, not counting things like this," she motioned around the kitchen to the remains of their meal. "And that man doesn't lift anything but a beer bottle. All I did was offer to help her clean up, so that she could have a Christmas as well." Deep masculine bellowing came at them through the walls from the diningroom, cutting off any response Philip might have made. "You what?!" They both turned towards the door, as the sound of something heavy hitting the wall and shattering resounded. Philip was through the door in a split second, closely followed by Donna. "What did you tell her?" Gene had forced Bonnie up against the wall, his face so close to hers she had to turn her head to have any breathing room at all. "I said, what did you tell her." "Nothin'. I didn't say anything." Bonnie's entire body trembled with fear. A bright red patch was starting to form on her left cheek. "You lyin' bitch. I know you said something. She wouldn't have said what she said if you hadn't." A hand raised, poised to make contact again, when Philip grabbed it. "That's enough!" Gene looked back in surprise. "What the ... what the hell do you think you're doing?" "Stopping you from hitting my mother, that's what I'm doing." Gene tried to force his arm free, but Philip's younger and greater strength won out. He could feel his father giving up, his body relaxing as the anger ebbed. Bonnie quickly slid out of harm's way. Donna stepped towards her. "Bonnie, are you alright?" "Fine. I've, uh, gotta get these dishes done." She busied herself by gathering the remaining cups and saucers on the table. It was then that Donna noticed the vase was missing. There was a large wet spot on the wall adjacent to the kitchen, parts of flower petals sticking to it. Her eyes followed the damp trail, finding the destroyed vase on the floor. She turned on her father-in-law. "What did you do that for?" "Because she doesn't need you to give her anything nice. Anything she needs, I provide. That's enough." Gene left the room as she tried to digest his words. "She doesn't ...," but she couldn't finish the sentence, her outrage so intense. "Donna, control yourself. This isn't our fight. Get your stuff, we're leaving." She looked at Philip. "Leaving? We can't leave. He might try to beat her up again, or worse." "No, he won't." His voice was louder than it needed to be. Loud enough for Gene to hear him. "He knows what will happen if I find out he's started beating her again. Now get your stuff, our you'll have to find your own way home." She was so dumbfounded she couldn't move. She had never encountered such violence, and it shook her to the core. "Donna. Now." His commanding voice penetrated her stupor. "Just let me say good-bye to your mother, then I'll be out." She turned, walking into the kitchen. Bonnie was scraping the food remnants from the dishes into the garbage. The red spot on her cheek was brilliant now, and palm-shaped. She turned her back towards her daughter-in- law. "Bonnie, I ..." "Just go, Donna. Please." Her voice came in a tear-choked whisper, as if speaking louder was painful. Donna turned and left the room. Gene had returned to his usual place in front of the television, the last of the bottle of beer from before dinner in his hand. Philip waited at the front door, her coat in his hand. He helped her into her coat, then held open the door as she reached for her bag. With one last angry glance at Gene, she stepped out into the chilled evening air. Philip followed, slamming the door shut behind him. He passed her, his open coat flapping behind him, and headed straight for the car. Pushing the automatic doorlock on his keychain while he charged ahead, he reached the car and got in before Donna. He left her to get in by herself, any gentlemanly behaviour he had used inside the house had been left there. They drove home in silence.