Chapter 6

Helen was right. Mark wasn't particularly shocked when his dad informed him that his mom had moved out.

"I'm surprised she waited this long," Mark remarked that first night, causing EJ to wonder if he had been so distracted by Ally in recent months that he failed to pick up on his wife's unhappiness.

EJ worked all day that Saturday, allowing Helen free access to the house. He came home to find several furniture pieces gone as well as some art work and Helen's grandmother's china but he wasn't about to put up a fight about what she took. It was just as much hers as it was his.

He sent Ally a quick text – "Need some time – shit hit the fan here" and she respected his need to focus on his son and regroup after separating from his wife. EJ avoided Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and the run up to Christmas felt unusually empty and strained. There was no tree in the house or other decorations and EJ had to force himself to go out and do some holiday shopping. Mark went out to brunch with his mom on Christmas Day and spent the afternoon with EJ at Aunt Shirley's house before going to his girlfriend's family's home for the evening.

EJ spent Christmas night alone in the empty undecorated house resisting the urge to contact Ally in his loneliness and sorrow. It wasn't until Mark's Hillsboro Hurricanes basketball season got off the ground that EJ finally found a reason to get engaged again. He noticed Helen at the first game with some guy a few years younger than them, confirming EJ's suspicion that there was another guy involved in the mix. He would eventually learn the guy was in Helen's masters' program with her and that they had a lot in common professionally which led to their personal attraction and interest. The guilt EJ had been feeling regarding Ally didn't feel quite so intense now (as long as he didn't factor Kyle into the equation).

EJ finally bumped into Ally five games into the basketball season – she was manning the snack table when he came out at halftime for some refreshment. It was too busy to chat beyond the cursory "Hi, How are you?" but Ally suggested they meet up after the game to 'check in'.

EJ spent the second half of the game thinking about Ally which made focusing on the game difficult, but Mark had another stellar performance and the Hurricanes won their fourth straight.

Ally was waiting for EJ outside the locker room after the game. Mark appeared a few minutes later – he knew who Ally was from the football snack shack stuff – and he was classmates with her daughter Nancy. If he was wondering why his father was with her he didn't let on. Mark's girlfriend was also waiting so there wasn't a lot of interaction before the two teens slipped off into the night, leaving Ally and EJ alone together for the first time since Helen left him.

They walked out the side entrance of the school together into the rapidly emptying parking lot.

"So," Ally said, sucking in her breath in the cold winter night air. "How are you?"

"Lost," EJ admitted.

"I understand," she said. "Wanna go get some coffee and talk about it?"

"Do you still want to do this now that I'm single?" EJ tested.

"If I was willing to do this when you were married why wouldn't I be willing to do this when you're single?" She asked.

EJ didn't have an answer for that one. "Leave your car here," he said. "I'll bring you back after."

"Okay," she agreed.

EJ drove them to Johnny C's Diner in downtown Hillsboro for a late coffee and a piece of coconut creame pie.

"So, how are you doing?" Ally wanted to know once they were settled in their booth.

"Okay," he said. "Sorry I dropped off the radar."

"It was the right thing to do," Ally replied. "Take some time for yourself. Heal. Actually I kind of admire your conviction to not do anything rash in the moment."

"As long as you didn't take it personally," he said.

She gave him a quizzical look. "Why would I?"

"I don't know," he admitted

"Where are we going with this, EJ?"

"With what?"

"With us."

"Oh," EJ said nervously.

"Well?"

"Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately," he said.

"And?"

"Are we friends?"

"Of course," she said.

"Do you ever think of us becoming...more than friends?"

"All the time."

"What about Kyle?"

"What about Helen?"

"Helen's gone."

"Kyle might as well be," Ally said. "Actually, I suppose I should be the one gone since I'm living in his house."

"What about Nancy?"

"What about Mark?"

"He's doing okay."

"Nancy will too."

"I guess," EJ agreed.

Ally leaned across the table. "If we were sitting here naked, I'd lift my foot up under the table and rub your genitals with my toes and you'd take that coconut cream pie and squash it between my legs and eat it in a snatch snack shack version," she whispered.

EJ's face turned red. "Jesus, Ally."

"Well, that's what I'm thinking," she said earnestly. "I hope that doesn't freak you out."

"It doesn't," he blushed.

"I could never tell you what I was thinking," she sighed. "I could never tell you how I really felt these past few years." She flipped her hair from her face. "Did you ever want to tell me?"

"All the time."

She laughed, but then replied, "No, you didn't!"

"You're right," he admitted. "I was too chicken shit."

"Starting off as friends makes us stronger, EJ," Ally told him. "Not just these last four years, but all the way back to high school."

"I've been so lonely," EJ sighed. "But I knew how dangerous and destructive an affair would be so I used you for my own emotional survival."

"It's okay," she said. "I've enjoyed your company."

"But now I want to express my love for you."

"By getting sexual?" She asked hopefully.

"Isn't that the natural progression we've been resisting?"

"Yes," Ally confirmed. "But what about Helen?"

"It's over," EJ sighed. "She wasn't happy. She wanted out. I can't forget how much we once meant to each other but it's time for me to move on too."

"With me?"

"What about Kyle?"

"I'm done," she decided. "I'm going to move in with my mother for a while."

EJ nodded but didn't comment, knowing it was too soon for them to commit to anything drastic or sudden like moving in together, especially with two same-aged teenagers to be concerned about.

"I think I'll rent a room at the Greenville Quality Inn on Friday night," Ally announced. "Want to visit my snack shack there?"

"Game on," EJ smiled.