A Contest of Wills: Chapter 1

Kate Szczepanski was sitting at the desk in her den, signing the letter she had just finished writing. Hurriedly, she folded it and slipped it into an envelope. She heard the decisive footsteps of her husband down the hall, and the car keys jingling in his hand as he pulled open the front door. He called out to her.

“Kate, are you ready? We need to go!”

“Just a minute Bill, I’ll be right there!”

She heard the sigh from the front door and hurried to write the address on the envelope. She didn’t like to keep her husband waiting; although he was usually patient with her last minute scrambling he was in a hurry today, anxious to get to the county zoning meeting a little early to get a good seat.

Kate quickly sealed the envelope she had just addressed and winced as she felt a slight sting on her tongue. Darn it! She hated getting a paper cut on her tongue! She hated feeling rushed like this, and the letter was important so she needed to get it out today. But she also knew that Bill wasn’t going to be patient for much longer, and she didn’t want to have to ride to the meeting in stony silence. She quickly put a stamp on the letter and was standing up to go as her daughter Tiffany walked into the room.

Tiffany had recently moved back home from Chicago. She had gone there two years before to live with a man that Kate hadn’t ever liked or trusted. When Tiffany had come home one day to find another woman sitting at her kitchen table, wearing Tiffany’s bath robe and drinking coffee as if it were her kitchen, Tiffany packed her bag and called her mother from the airport, crying. Although Bill didn’t think having Tiffany come back home to live was the best idea – he had said something about making her responsible for the consequences of her decisions, and making her stand on her own two feet – as a mother Kate couldn’t stand to hear her daughter’s pain, and had immediately paid for a plane ticket to get her home. Not that Bill had really objected. They were both glad to have their daughter home, but Kate was starting to wonder if letting her come home without a discussion of her future plans had really been such a good idea.

“Mom, you better get going. I think dad is about to have an aneurism.”

Kate frowned slightly and walked toward the doorway where her daughter stood. “Tiffany, don’t say things like that, it isn’t funny. Here,” and she held the envelope out to her daughter, “I’d like this to go out today and I know we won’t have time to stop at the post office. Would you please go to the post office for me and make sure it goes out today?”

Tiffany crossed her arms and looked down at the envelop in her mother’s hand. “What’s in it?”

“Nothing you need to worry about. Please just make sure it goes out.”

Tiffany sighed and shifted her weight so her hip was leaning against the doorjamb. She looked at her mother and said with a pout, “Mom I don’t want to go out, can’t you take it later? There’s an old movie on T.V. I really want to watch. You know how hard it’s been for me going out lately. I’m just not sure I’m up to it.”

Kate squared her shoulders and looked her daughter in the eye. “Tiffany,” she said firmly, “listen to me. I’m sorry that you had a bad experience in Chicago, and I’m sorry that your heart got broken. But you’re living her now, and….” Tiffany abruptly straightened up and grabbed the letter from her mother’s hand.

“Please, I don’t need a lecture. I’ll mail the stupid letter.” She looked down at the name and address on the envelope then up at her mother with undisguised amazement. “Why are you writing him?”

“KATE!”

Tiffany jumped slightly and Kate pushed past her daughter into the hallway. As she headed toward the front door Tiffany called after her, “I don’t know why you care about saving all this land. You don’t need it and you could get a ton of money for it if you just sold it to that developer.”

Tiffany heard her mother’s response coming down the hall. “There are more important things in life than money Tiffany. We know what we want to do with our land, and it isn’t selling it off so it can be turned into condos and strip malls. Please just make sure that letter gets to the post office. Today!” Tiffany heard the front door close and the key turn in the lock. A moment later she heard the roar of the car engine and the sound of popping gravel as the car headed down the driveway.

She ambled into the den and looked around. Although it was only September her mother had a fire going in the fireplace and the room was quite warm. Tiffany walked over to the Queen Anne desk and sat down. The desk was neat and clean; a new brand new laptop computer sat off to one side of the desk, the lid closed and the power off. Tiffany looked at the computer and snorted. Although her mother had been trying to use it, she always seemed to have some kind of problem, undecipherable error message or other failure.

She pushed back from the desk, stood up, and looked around the room. It was the same room, exactly as it had been throughout her entire childhood. Nothing ever changed here, and her parents seemed to think they could make time stand still. She looked down at the letter in her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the letter opener from her mother’s desk and slid it under the flap. Quickly, she sliced open the envelope, pulled out the letter and began to read. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked up and spoke into the empty room. “What on earth are they thinking? They can’t do this!” She stood thinking for a moment, then jammed the letter back into the envelope and walked over to the fireplace.

“This is one letter that will get lost in the mail,” she muttered. She hesitated for just a moment, and then tossed the letter onto the flames watching as the envelope and its contents curled up, turned black, and dropped into ash through the grate. She knew her mother would eventually realize the letter hadn’t reached its intended recipient, but Tiffany figured she had at least a month to come up with an idea that would reverse the action the letter would have put into motion.

“And a lot can happen in a week,” Tiffany declared to the empty room. She knew that from hard experience. Her entire life could change in the course of a week. And this time, she intended to make sure that the change was for the better.

Bill Szczepanski was in a hurry. He had wanted to get to the county planning meeting early so he could be sure to sit up front where he could look everyone in the eye. He didn’t trust all the committee members, and wanted to be sure he could see exactly what was going on. He loved his wife tremendously, but her habit of finding things to do as she was walking out the door was extremely irritating, especially on a day like today.

Kate knew from her husband’s silence that he was upset with her. He would often stay silent until he could trust himself not to snap at her or say something that would hurt her feelings. Early in their marriage she would press him to talk to her until he would blow up. Then she would cry and it would be a scene. Over the years, she had learned to leave him alone and let him sort through things. When he was ready he would talk to her. But this time was a bit different. She needed to talk to him about the letter that Tiffany was taking to the post office. She wanted to be sure they were both clear on the content so there were no misunderstandings. She also knew he was irritated she seemed unable to figure out how to use her new computer, and decided to begin by addressing that.

“Bill,” she said, turning to her husband, “I don’t want you to be upset, because I really do appreciate the computer you got me.” She waited, but her husband didn’t respond. After a brief moment, he nodded. Kate turned to face the road.

“I’ve been trying to use it, I really have. Maybe I’ll need to sign up for a class or something – it just seems like nothing ever works when I try to use it.” She glanced over. He still didn’t look at her, but she could see his expression had softened slightly. She turned forward and continued, “Anyway, there was a letter I needed to write and I had it all ready this morning. It was all typed up in the computer, but then I couldn’t get it to print. And,” here she glanced nervously over at him, “if I’m being honest there are some letters I’d rather write than type. I can’t help it – I think a hand-written letter is just so much more personal.” Bill gave a tired sigh, and then reached out his hand and rested it on his wife’s thigh. She looked over at him and he just shook his head and smiled.

“Well, I do. Particularly when it’s a special letter and you really want the person reading it to feel your sincerity. The way I look at it, anyone could type a letter and pretend it was from me. But it would be pretty hard to deny that I put a lot of thought and feeling into a hand-written letter. But that aside, the printer just wouldn’t work! It just wouldn’t print out that letter. I figured it would just be faster to hand-write it then spend time trying to figure out why it wouldn’t print.”

Bill had to smile at his wife’s logic. So that’s why she’d been late. She was rewriting a letter she’d already composed on the computer. He had gotten her the computer late last year, thinking she could use it to create her annual Christmas letter. For weeks before Christmas every year she was glued to her desk in the den, handwriting letter after letter to their family and friends. He had hoped the computer would give her more time during the holidays. But she had been appalled at the idea. He had tried to point out that she could learn to put pictures and graphics in her letters, but she wasn’t interested. He couldn’t help but feel that all her issues, errors and problems with the computer were welcome reasons for her to keep hand writing her letters. Although, it sounded like she really had tried to use that morning. Even though she had still hand-written the final letter, drafting it on the computer was a start.

Kate’s voice broke into his thoughts. “And Bill, we really need to do something about Tiffany.” Despite her intention to talk about the content of the letter, she found herself more worried about their daughter.

Bill snorted. He knew what he thought they should do about Tiffany. He loved his daughter; she was still his little girl at heart, but he was disappointed with the choices she had made, and not altogether happy with the woman she had turned out to be.

“How about grounding her for the rest of the year?” he asked wryly.

Kate slapped his leg lightly. “Bill, I’m serious. This break-up was hard for her, and I’m glad her first thought was to come home. But now that she’s here she doesn’t seem to want to do anything with her life. She just hangs out around the house like a petulant teenager.”

“Kate, she’s an adult. We can’t control the choices she makes. All we can do is give her tough love and make her live through the consequences.”

Kate looked at her husband imploringly. “What do you want me to do? Kick her out? Where would she go? Bill, I know you don’t understand it, but I think Colin Dawson was abusive to her.” At the words, Bill’s head snapped around and he glared at his wife. Hurriedly, Kate continued. “Oh, I don’t mean he hit her, don’t worry.” Bill turned back to the road, but was still glowering. “I feel like he abused her emotionally. I’ve been reading about it on the Internet. Yes,” she said at his raised eyebrows, “I have actually been using the computer and I do know how to use the Internet. At any rate, these guys will get women into a relationship, then they slowly separate them from all of their friends and family. They pressure them to spend time with only them, and they start controlling every aspect of their lives. Then they treat them like trash. He probably thought Tiffany would just put up with another woman since he had managed to alienate her from everyone who cared about her.”

Bill cursed softly and Kate looked over, thinking he was upset about what she had just told him. But then she saw that there was a huge tractor ahead of them on the country road. Bill shifted impatiently in his seat, and Kate rubbed his thigh. “It’s o.k. honey,” she said, “we’ll get there in time.” Bill didn’t say anything. He followed the tractor for a few miles at a crawl. His patience ran out at the bottom of a rise, and he banged the steering wheel in frustration.

As if reading what was happening in the car behind him, the driver of the tractor stuck his arm out the window and began motioning that Bill should pass him. Although they were at the bottom of a rise, Bill accelerated the car and pulled into the left-hand lane.

Kate gasped and grabbed the bar above her window. “Bill!” she said, scared. “You’re passing on a hill!”

“It’s o.k.,” he reassured her, “he must be up high enough that he can see over the hill. He wouldn’t motion us to pass him if he couldn’t.” He was just coming even with the tractor getting ready to top the hill when the driver stuck his arm out the window again and began frantically waving for them to get back. In the confused moment it took Bill to understand the gesture, the truck suddenly crested the hill in front of him, going far too fast for the narrow country road.

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