"Bridges to Cross, Bridges to Burn" by Jae Gecko

It's still too early in the year for Alicia's gray coat, and the air is cold where it's gapping open at her neck. She could button it. She should button it.

She starts to lift her arm, but it's a lead weight, tethered to her side. Her eyes focus briefly, then unfocus again.

"Hey lady, you okay?"

Alicia turns her head toward the voice, but slowly, as if through molasses. The boy has a shaggy haircut and a tattoo of a star on his bare forearm. He looks about Zach's age, but if he's out by himself after dark, he's got to be older.

"I'm fine," she says. Her voice sounds hollow, like an echo on the other side of a wall.

"It's just that you've kinda been standing on the same step staring off into space." He smacks his gum. "For about five minutes."

"I—" A breath shudders through her lungs. It's just shock. The numbness, the disconnectedness—she's been here before. "I'm trying to remember where I left my car," she says.

"Wait, didn't I just see you on TV?" The kid squints at her. "Aren't you that politician guy's wife? The one who went to jail?"

Alicia opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. That's exactly what she is—the long-suffering, ever-loyal wife.

A big grin spreads across the kid's face. "He's the shit, man! When he swore in that debate? Badass. I must have watched that twenty times on youtube." He leans back against the cement wall and crosses his arms. "What was he running for again? I hope he won. Did he win?"

"He did," she says with a careful nod. He won, and now he's surrounded by adoring fans at his victory party, celebrating the triumphant return of the rightful heir to the state's attorney throne.

Alicia presses her lips together. In the end, Peter always gets what he wants. He wanted to win the election tonight, and before that, he wanted a new start with his loyal, devoted family. And apparently, once upon a time, he wanted Kalinda, too.

#

"I know it's silly." Lauren gave the gold band on her ring finger a nervous twist. "I just—I can't stop thinking about it."

Alicia's fingers tightened around the steering wheel. This was the third time they'd had this conversation since Alicia had picked her up for lunch. She'd thought Lauren had been all talked out after she'd sobbed through her third glass of wine, but by now it was clear that the only thing that was going to put an end to the topic was dropping her back off at home.

"I know," Alicia said, keeping her voice smooth and soothing.

"She's never been anything but nice to me, but I actually hated her last night." Lauren's lower lip was quivering. "With her perky breasts and her long blonde hair and her innocent smile and her skinny little bottom."

"Look at it this way. You know Richard hasn't cheated on you."

"No, but he wants to."

"You don't know that."

"I do, Alicia." Lauren dabbed at her eye with a knuckle. "You haven't seen the way he looks at her."

Alicia pressed her lips together. If Lauren's marriage wasn't strong enough to survive her husband taking a second glance at the occasional babysitter, Lauren had bigger problems than a sixteen-year-old's skinny little bottom.

"I need to go back on Weight Watchers," Lauren muttered. "I never should've quit."

Alicia pulled the car into the empty parking spot in front of the jewelry store and put the car in park. She turned toward Lauren. Her face was bright red, and there were dark circles of mascara under her eyes.

"Listen." Alicia put a hand on her knee. "You are a smart, attractive woman. You're warm and you're funny and you're a great mom. Kenny thinks he's grown up, but he needs you—both of you. And Richard knows that. All of it."

Lauren drew in a shuddery breath. "Yeah," she said. Her voice was a little stronger, with just a hint of defiance.

"He's not going to do anything to risk what you have." Alicia shook her head. "He's really not."

"I know you're right." Lauren sucked in her cheeks. "He's just so busy. And when he gets home, he's too tired—"

"I know." Alicia patted Lauren's knee.

Lauren's forehead creased, and her eyes darted over to one window, then the other. "Why are we pulled over?"

"I have to pick up Peter's suits. I'll only be a minute."

Lauren shook her head. "I'm a mess."

"So wipe your eyes, put on some lipstick, and practice your confident smile on old Mr. Horwitch."

Lauren breathed out a laugh. "I—"

"Or you can wait in the car." Alicia gave Lauren a tight-lipped smile.

"No." Lauren steeled herself and sucked in a long breath. "You're right."

Lauren pulled open her purse and pulled out a compact. She dabbed at her eyes with the applicator, looked up, and pressed her mouth into a stern line. Alicia gave Lauren's knee one last squeeze and opened her car door.

The line in the cleaners was long, almost to the door, but Mr. Horwitch saw her and gave her a wave. She guided Lauren toward the back and got into line. "How're you doing?" Alicia murmured under her breath.

"Good," Lauren said, looking over at Alicia with steely eyes and a brave face, and Alicia gave her a nod.

Alicia had been just tough enough, this time. There would be no more tears, at least not until it happened again. She'd take Lauren home, make sure she didn't decide a Valium would be a great way to ease off the lunchtime alcohol haze, and finish her other errands then.

Alicia let her eyes wander over to the television behind the counter. The guy from that CNBC business news show was on—the one Peter called a blowhard—but the sound was too low for her to hear. Beneath him on the ticker that crawled across the screen, Alicia's eye caught on her name. Florrick.

Then, in little white letters against the blue background, she saw the rest: State's attorney Florrick admits to sex with Chicago prostitute, possible corruption charges pending.

A fist clenched around her lungs. She felt disconnected from her feet, as if her head was hovering in the air with no body beneath it. The world slipped away, as if it was being tugged from beneath her feet.

Peter and a prostitute?

The images came, flitting across her mind and disappearing as quickly as they appeared. Peter, younger then, his fingers trembling as he slipped the engagement ring on her finger. Peter at their wedding, his hands cupping her face just before he kissed her in front of everyone. Peter at Zach's birth, his eyes wide and full with a totally new kind of love. Peter, just last night, reaching for her after crawling into bed, his hands fumbling at the buttons on the little black negligee she'd worn just for him.

Alicia squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again, only to find the same words still crawling across the ticker. The fist loosened its grip on her lungs and clawed upward toward her heart. Peter. Peter Peter Peter.

"Mrs. Florrick." Mr. Horwitch's voice was bright and welcoming, but it was far away. "What can I do for you today?"

Alicia tried to step up to the counter, but her feet were chained to the ground.

"It's your turn, Alicia." Lauren gave her a little nudge on her forearm. "Hey, you okay?"

Peter slinking through some back alley behind the courthouse. Peter slipping a hundred-dollar-bill into some hooker's bra. Peter—

"What is it? Did you see something on the TV?"

Alicia's eyes snapped into focus. Lauren was turned toward the screen, squinting at it.

"It's nothing," Alicia said, injecting a note of strength into her voice. "I—I just remembered something I forgot to do." She maneuvered herself between Lauren and the screen and gave her a bright smile.

Lauren met Alicia's gaze. The worried lines in her forehead faded, edged out by confusion. Alicia maintained her smile, freezing it into place.

Alicia's eyes broke the contact first. "Just a couple of suits, Mr. Horwitch," she said, sliding the little yellow slip out of her pocket and across the counter, clenching it hard to keep her hand from trembling. "Thank you."

#

Alicia's foot shudders against the brake pedal as she pulls to a stop at the light. Her eyes travel up to the rearview mirror, and she pulls it toward her. Her eyes are sunken, her face pale. She looks about eighty years old.

Kalinda was a master at secret-keeping, but she'd outdone herself this time. Every time they laughed together in Alicia's office, every evening they sat next to each other at a bar, the whole time, she knew. Whenever Alicia was talking about her doubts about her marriage, Kalinda had to have been thinking about it. And she never said a word.

"Damn you," Alicia says through clenched teeth.

It sounds bitter and raw and good.

A muscle loosens in her chest. "Damn you, Kalinda!" she repeats, shouting this time. Her breathing is audible, quick and shallow.

She flicks on the radio. Loud rap music fills the empty car—Zach's—but she turns it up anyway. Louder, then louder again. She slams her fist against the steering wheel, one thud for every beat.

The ball of her hand hits the horn, and it lets loose a long honk like a throaty wail. From behind her, another car honks back. She turns toward him in her seat and glares at the guy. He shakes his head and holds up his hands. What the hell? he mouths.

Alicia spins back around. "Yeah, well, screw you too!" she shouts to the empty car and leans on the horn. The guy shakes his head and pulls around her, speeding off.

She glances up at her face in the mirror again. Her face is red, now, but her eyes are wild and bright. Kalinda would approve.

A sob chokes out of her throat, dry and stiff. And then the tears are flowing, and she can't stop.

#

Peter grabbed onto Alicia's hand, holding it in a vise grip. Turning, steered her through the sea of reporters and off the stage. The reporters were shouting questions, but it was as if they were speaking a foreign language, because they hit Alicia's ears and bounced off without ever entering her brain.

A camera flashed in her face, and she flinched a little, but kept her expression even. Peter's hand was sweaty, and Alicia resisted the urge to pull hers away and wipe it on her skirt.

The door slammed behind them then, and it led them into a long, sterile corridor. One of Peter's entourage—the bald man with the glasses—pounced on Peter and started talking to him about the interviews he'd set up. Alicia fell back, but Peter didn't notice.

She'd served her purpose.

Her feet stopped moving. Her stomach was still a knot of anger, but the tension from the press conference was receding, and it was sending a ripple of fire straight up to her throat.

Finally Peter stopped, and then turned around. The others kept walking, but he doubled back and stopped about a foot from her. "Hey," he said, almost in a whisper, leaning in toward her. His voice was gentle, conspiratorial, like they were still a team. "You all right?"

The slap echoed through the empty corridor. It took the sharp sting of her palm to convince Alicia that she'd actually hit him. He recoiled, and his mouth fell open in shock. A jolt of adrenaline shot through her, blanketing over the numbness that had taken up residence in her chest over the past few days. It made her want to do it again.

Peter lifted a hand to his face. Alicia straightened her jacket and walked toward the glass doors that led out into the public part of the hotel. The bald man slipped through them, and from outside, the muted roar of the reporters swelled again, cameras flashing through the glass. Alicia stopped just short of the doors. She closed her eyes.

His footsteps echoed behind her. "Okay, maybe I deserved that."

"Maybe?" Alicia spun around. She narrowed her eyes at him.

Peter held up his hands. "I deserved it."

"You slept with a hooker."

"Alicia." His voice was low, but there was an edge of exasperation underneath. "We've been over this—"

"No, you've been over this. I've sat there quietly each time and listened." Alicia pressed her lips together. Even his apology had only come after the discussion of where she fit into his strategy for how to minimize the damage.

"I'm sorry," he said, as if on cue.

Alicia sucked in her cheeks. It didn't sound any better the second time.

Peter closed his eyes, rubbing in a line along his brow. "Look. I'm—I'm a flawed human being."

The anger flared in her chest again. "Oh, for God's sake." She turned away from him.

"I made a mistake. I didn't—"

She whirled back around. "You do not try to spin this with me, Peter," she said, stabbing him in the chest with an outstretched finger. She gestured to the door. "I'm not one of those reporters, I'm your wife. And you cheated on me with a hooker."

He recoiled again, further this time, as if her words stung more than the slap.

"How could you do that to me? How could you?" Her voice was shaking. This time it wasn't shock, it was rage.

Peter's shoulders were hunched as if braced for a blow. It only fanned the flames.

"A 'mistake' is flirting with a waitress. A 'mistake' is fantasizing about your secretary. But to turn betrayal into a business transaction? To break not just your marriage vows but the law you've sworn to uphold in such a calculated, premeditated way? That's not a 'mistake.' That's inexcusable."

Peter's head dropped. He curled his arms around himself like a shield.

"And who knows what kinds of diseases you brought home to our bed—"

"I was always careful," he muttered. He wasn't looking at her.

"Oh, well, that makes it okay, then," Alicia spat.

"I didn't say that." His head still bowed, he drew in a long breath and pushed it back out in a sigh. "I know it's not okay."

Alicia folded her arms, her hands balling into fists. "Damn right it's not okay."

For a long moment, all Alicia could hear was the low murmur of the horde of reporters on the other side of the door. Slowly, Peter rocked from one foot to the other, then back again. Then he lifted his head, meeting her eyes. "Look. I know I need to make this right." His voice was brittle.

The fire in Alicia's chest faded to a low burn. Her arms dropped to her sides. Peter's own shoulders rolled back into place, and he raised both eyebrows at her with wide-eyed sincerity.

He edged toward her. All at once his hand was on her arm. "And I want to make it right. Because I need you, Alicia. I've resigned my position, they're bringing charges against me—"

"Wait—you want to make this up to me because you need my support?" Alicia shook off his touch and rocked back on her heels.

Peter blinked. Confused lines shot across his forehead.

Alicia's jaw slid forward. She shook her head. "You disgust me, Peter. And right now I'm not sure there's anything you can do to change that."

She shoved the door open with a palm and stepped out into the crowd alone. The camera flashes were blinding, but she didn't even flinch.

#

Alicia's heels shuffle against the concrete floor of the parking garage toward the elevator, her purse dangling limply from her arm. Her eyes are dry now, but her throat is still raw. Gravity tugs on her legs, dragging her toward the ground.

It was just a week ago—last Friday, it must have been—that Kalinda was waiting for her here when Alicia got home from work. She was leaning against the buttons to the elevator, her arms folded. You owe me a drink, she said, the corners of her mouth turning up in a smile. For finding Karen Jennings. Alicia protested—it was the weekend, the kids were expecting her, Kalinda shouldn't be breaking into private parking garages anyway—but Kalinda blocked the elevator door buttons until Alicia relented.

She'd been quiet that night, even for Kalinda. It was like she knew something was coming. Like she knew it would be the last time.

Alicia digs her fingernails into the back of her other hand. Her breath is shuddering again, and suddenly it's as if her whole body has hollowed out and replaced itself with pins and needles. She leans back against the elevator buttons, filling the space where Kalinda had been.

Alicia rubs the back of her hand against her eyes and dries it against her coat. She pushes herself back from the wall, turns around, and presses the elevator button.

#

"Okay. So they think you've been taking bribes to DP cases." The voice of Peter's attorney sailed into the kitchen from the living room through the French doors. "For financial gain, but also for other kinds of...benefits."

Alicia hugged her arms across her chest and traced another line against the kitchen floor with her feet. She'd already heard the charge twenty times this week, but neither repetition nor euphemism could make it sound any less horrible.

"To make your case, we have to prove that you weren't hiding what you were doing because it was illegal. You were just hiding an affair from your wife."

Alicia steadied herself against the stove. It was all about the corruption charges now. The hooker—or the affair, as the lawyers were calling it—was yesterday's news, admitted and atoned for. You could cheat on your wife; boys would be boys, after all. Cheat on your wife as part of a bribe, though, and they could slap you with a five-year sentence.

"Oh, sorry." The voice in the doorway was clipped, and Alicia turned toward it. It was a young guy, one of the associates.

"Can I help you?" she said.

"The bathroom?"

"Down the hall and to your right."

He nodded a thank you and was gone. In the other room, Peter was saying something about real estate. As if the injured parties were limited to a bunch of developers. Alicia's teeth clenched.

She had to get out of here.

Within five seconds, her car keys were in her hand. She stepped into the living room. "I'm just going to—"

There were five of them, and they were huddled in close. No one looked up.

"—go out for a bit," she mumbled under her breath.

Keeping her eyes fixed on the huddle, she opened the door and stepped outside. There was no reaction. Slowly, she closed it behind her.

A haze hung over the town like smoke, turning the colors as drab and gray as if someone had turned down the tint knob on an old television set. At first Alicia drove in circles, past the country clubs and north onto Skokie, then a right onto one of the exits heading east toward the lake, back south on Green Bay Road, and around again. After ten years, she knew these streets like she knew her own name, but today they only seemed to be pushing her further away.

When she pulled up in front of Lauren's house, she realized that was where she'd been headed all along. The hedges that were trimmed just a little too close to look natural, the old trees that lined the sidewalk, the heavy arch over the doorway—it wasn't home, but it was as close to familiar as things got right now. It had been two weeks since Alicia had checked in with her; the shame had just been too strong. But it was time.

Alicia's stomach fluttered as she stepped up to the door, and for a moment, she hesitated, her hand hovering over the bell. No, she told herself firmly. If there was anything she needed right now, it was a friend who knew all too well the power of a reassuring hand on her arm and a soothing voice telling her everything would be all right. The bell buzzed beneath Alicia's hand.

Seconds stretched into minutes, and Alicia let her eyes wander along the familiar fixtures in the door, tracing the lead in the stained glass window. She checked her watch nervously. A little after two on a Saturday. Lauren was always home then.

Finally, the door slid open, and behind it was Lauren's son Kenny. His dusty blond hair was clipped short, revealing a tiny silver hoop in his right ear. So Lauren had lost that battle.

"Mrs. Florrick!" His eyes widened. He held the door in one hand.

"Hi," Alicia said, giving him a tight-lipped smile. "Is your mother home?"

"Uh." He looked back inside the house. "I don't—" He looked back at her, but his eyes didn't quite meet hers. "Let me check."

He closed the door again behind him. Suspicion crawled up the back of Alicia's neck. He hadn't asked her in.

Another minute stretched by, bleeding into two, then three. The door slid open again, just a crack this time. Kenny's head was bowed, and he didn't look up. "She's, uh. She's not feeling all that well right now."

Alicia's teeth clenched, a pain along her jaw. While she'd been avoiding Lauren, Lauren had been avoiding her.

"Maybe if you just let me come in, I could—" Alicia's voice was quivering. She cleared her throat. "If I could just talk to her for a minute. Please."

Kenny looked up at her then, quickly enough that she caught him wincing, but then his gaze bounced away. "She's really not doing all that well, Mrs. Florrick. She says she'll call you when she's feeling better."

His words were a fist in Alicia's stomach. Her lips parted, but no sound came out, not even a breath.

"I'm really sorry," he said, and closed the door again.

For a long moment she just stood there, thoughts and memories tumbling through her mind like leaves in a stiff wind. Lauren as hostess, a parade of Junior League guests marching through her house in matching knit sets. Lauren's tears, her insecurity, her neediness. So this was how a ten-year friendship ended. It could be over in an instant, in the two weeks when you had your back turned.

Alicia stumbled down the steps to the car. Not crying, she admonished herself, straightening her shoulders. Not crying.

#

The apartment feels empty without Grace's laughter and Zach's booming new baritone. The lamp in the living room casts a shadow on the floor, but Alicia doesn't bother with the overhead light. For now she'd rather just shrink into some dark, hidden place, out of reach.

Peter's books are lying on the end table, his jacket is draped against the back of the chair, there's a circle on the table where he left his coffee mug the other morning. And down the hall, there's a closed door to a room where he hasn't slept in months because she let him back into her bed.

She's folded him into her life again, but in the end it's been nothing but an elaborate illusion—no different, really, from the big house in Highland Park and the fancy car. She thought she'd made changes, turned things around, but somehow she got stuck before she was done.

Early on, Kalinda asked her why she'd stood by Peter. Back then, Alicia assumed it was idle curiosity—a question everybody wanted to ask her, but most other people didn't have the guts. Now all she can hear in the echo of those words is a taunt. Look what an idiot you are for trusting people like Peter. People like me.

It can't go on like this.

The weight of the thought drags Alicia down onto the couch, and her purse lands with a thump on her lap. She's shivering now, goosebumps shooting over the surface of her skin. Her body's reacting like it's heading off frostbite, but the apartment is warm, and all Alicia is right now is terrified.

What would her life even look like without Peter in it? She should be able to picture it after all those months that he was in prison, but she's looking around her now with all the imagination she can muster, and all she can see is the empty spaces he'll be leaving behind.

She tries to get up again, but her muscles won't move.

#

The high ceilings of the courthouse were designed to feel imposing, and they were clearly having the desired effect on Grace. Her eyes kept crawling up the walls of the hallway as if searching for a window. Alicia wished she'd made the kids wear anything but black jackets. The walk back to the courtroom was already feeling a little too much like a funeral march.

She hadn't wanted the kids here in the first place, but Peter's lawyers had insisted they be there for the closing arguments, and they'd both been adamant about staying on for the verdict. Jackie wasn't available to take them home, anyway. These days, you couldn't pry her away from Peter's side with a crowbar.

"The jury was out almost six hours. That's a good sign, isn't it?" Jackie was scurrying to keep up with Mr. Golden's long stride. "Surely that means they've taken their time, looked at all the facts—"

"He has a good case," Golden responded, but his voice had an edge to it. He was worried.

And Alicia wasn't going to think about that right now. "Come on," she said firmly, one hand on Zach's back and the other on Grace's arm. "We'd better take our seats."

The courtroom seemed bigger after an afternoon spent trying to forget what it looked like. Peter had stayed cloistered away with his lawyers, but Alicia and the kids had walked over to a little park a few blocks from the courthouse. The swingset probably hadn't seen any kids since Zach and Grace had been the right age, but they'd found themselves a patch of grass in the middle of the city and for a couple of hours, a makeshift Panera picnic had managed to put everything out of their minds.

There was no more forgetting. Peter slid into the bench first, and Zach followed him, glued to his side. Alicia moved over to let Grace in next, and finally took her seat next to Jackie. The jury's faces were all blank, not a single expression betraying what they'd decided. "It's going to be all right," Jackie assured her with a condescending hand on her arm. "Peter has a good feeling about it."

The judge banged his gavel once, and the low murmur of conversation dissolved into silence. The judge turned toward the jury. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

The foreman nodded. "Yes, we have, your honor."

Zach slipped his hand into his father's. Alicia put her arm around Grace. She drew in a long breath and held it.

"How do you find?" the judge asked.

"In the matter of the people of Illinois vs. Peter Florrick, on the charge of soliciting bribes, we find the defendant guilty."

The gasp was Jackie's, but it was Peter who slumped backward as if he'd been hit. A sudden rush of cold fear washed over Alicia and lodged itself in her pores.

"On the charge of conspiracy to solicit bribes, we find the defendant guilty."

Grace stiffened against her arm. Alicia pulled her closer.

"On the charge of conspiracy to accept bribes, we find the defendant guilty."

Three charges. Three strikes. Alicia's fear hardened around her like a shell.

"Thank you for your service to the state of Illinois," the judge said, his voice flat. "The jury is dismissed. We will reconvene on Friday for sentencing."

"We'll appeal," Golden was saying, but the officers were already waiting with handcuffs.

"Alicia!" Peter called out, reaching across Zach and Grace to find her. As if by rote, she stretched an arm out toward him, but a strong hand on each of Peter's shoulders pulled his back. For a moment he looked beaten. "I'll fix this," he said, his voice rough and frantic. "It's going to be all right." The handcuffs clicked into place.

They led him out through the back door, away from the crowds of reporters who'd been standing poised to pounce at the first hint of a verdict. Alicia followed Golden out through the front, one child's hand in each of hers, her head buzzing with thoughts. The house they could no longer afford. Their ever-dwindling bank balance. These two little kids who were so brave, but had never known a life without their father.

"But—he's innocent!" Jackie's voice trembled, and she turned toward Golden, keeping her back to the reporters. Cameras flashed in their faces, and Alicia lifted a hand to shield her kids from the questions.

Moving quickly through the crowd, Golden escorted them into a tiny conference room with dark wood paneling and black-cushioned chairs. One of the associates pushed the door shut behind them. None of them sat.

Jackie looked around. "So, what, he's just gone? That can't be right." She looked up at Golden, bewildered and offended. "That's not right."

"This isn't over," Golden said, patting her arm. "We've got a great case for an appeal."

"But—when will we see him? You don't know Peter. He tries to be strong, but he needs his family." She collapsed into one of the chairs, a hand at her chest.

"The judge wants to see us on Friday for sentencing. I know he'll want you there then, and in the meantime, I'll tell him you're all on his side." Golden said. He turned toward Alicia. "I promise, we're not going to take this lying down. We'll get it overturned. You have my word."

"Thank you," Alicia managed. Her smile was stiff.

Zach's mouth was pinched into a scowl, and Grace's head was down, but Alicia could still see her face, and it was as white as the sweater she was wearing. They looked lost. Alicia's heart tightened.

She looked up at Golden. "Can you just—can you give us a minute?"

Golden nodded. "Of course."

The lawyers headed back out through the doorway, but Jackie didn't budge from the chair. Alicia shot Golden another look, pleading.

"How about a cup of coffee, Mrs. Florrick?" he said quickly.

Jackie looked at Alicia, then back at Golden. Her forehead creased. "What? Oh." Her lower lip quivered for a moment, and then her mouth puckered. "All right."

The door clicked shut again, and a long silence stretched across the room. Zach shuffled his feet and rolled his shoulders forward. Grace looked up at Alicia, but her gaze bounced away.

Alicia had to be Mom now. There was no other choice, no other way forward from here. The full weight of that struck her like a bullet in the back, and her knees turned to rubber. She stumbled sideways a step.

No.

She straightened her legs, locked them into place and held out her arms.

And then they were there, Grace's head in her chest and Zach's arms around them both, pulling them tight. Alicia leaned in toward them, her cheek against Zach's hair.

"I'm so scared," Grace whispered.

"I am, too, baby," Alicia said, the words sticking in her throat. She reached up to stroke Grace's cheek and found it wet. "But we have each other, right? So we're going to be all right?" She meant it to sound reassuring, but it came out as a question.

"I'll protect you," Zach said in a voice that wasn't quite his father's, but it wasn't quite his own, either. A sob almost escaped, but she bit it back.

She reached around behind Zach and pulled the kids closer. She was supposed to be holding onto them, but just now, it felt more like they were holding her up.

#

There's hardly anything in the refrigerator: a bit of plain yogurt, a couple of oranges, an expired carton of milk. Alicia meant to do the shopping on Saturday, but there wasn't any time.

And now there's really no time.

Alicia lets the refrigerator fall closed again. She's got about three hours to figure this out. If she puts it off any longer, Peter will come home, tired but triumphant, and then in the morning the kids will be there, full of excitement and plans for the move to their big new house.

She came so close to doing this once before. That's how she knows just how easy it is to derail. After she'd caught Peter talking to Kozco in the stairwell at the church, she was actually ready to leave. And then the police were there, and Zach was hurt, and Peter was being sweet, and she put it off. Again.

If she's going to end this, she has to start now.

The room pulses around Alicia, her nerves crackling with adrenaline. She whips off her coat, tosses it along with her purse on the back of the chair. She grabs the scissors and tape from one of the kitchen drawers, and in the back of the storage closet, she finds their empty boxes.

There's no one here to help her, no one here to applaud her or to cheer her on. She's going to have to do it all herself.

#

The door slammed, and the chimes that hung from it clanged like the lid of a trash can. Alicia woke with a start, and the dream images drained away, drifting beyond consciousness.

Two sets of footsteps thumped against the floor. "You were supposed to be there at 4:00!" Grace yelled.

"I said I was sorry." Zach's voice was gruff. He sounded anything but sorry.

Alicia groaned and pulled the comforter over her head. With the master bedroom at the top of the stairs and the tile floor forming an echo chamber at the base of them, every sound from the kitchen got channeled up to the second floor. It was a design flaw in the house, one that Peter had always complained about. She pressed her eyes shut. The sadness was back, mushrooming inside her lungs, filling them.

"I was ready to walk home all by myself."

"So?" Zach challenged. "I walk home by myself all the time."

"Yeah, well, Mom asked you to walk me home."

Alicia tossed the covers off and threw herself flat onto her back. Three days of moping around the house and feeling sorry for herself was apparently more than she could afford.

She stood, blinking away the late afternoon light that was seeping in through the cracks in the blinds. In the mirror her hair was loose and matted, her eyes sunken. She tugged her hair back into a clip and snapped it shut.

She glanced around the room. The rich emerald paint on the walls, redone just last year, the new bedroom set. With the trial costs and still no money coming in, this life was more than she could afford, too.

Alicia steeled herself against the dresser and pressed her lips together. Her reflection in the mirror grimaced.

"Dad wouldn't care," Zach insisted from downstairs.

"He would too."

"He would not. Dad thinks it's good for us to take responsibility."

"Yeah, well, do you see Dad here? What Mom says goes. I waited for you for a whole hour."

Alicia glanced down at the beginning of the list she'd left on the dresser. Her usually neat handwriting was barely a scrawl. Call real estate agent topped the list, and beneath that was call Jackie. She picked up a pen and added talk to Will.

"You did not wait for a whole hour," Zach said. "I was there at, like, 4:30."

"That's still a whole half hour late!"

Alicia grabbed her blue silk robe from the back of the door and made a beeline for the top of the stairs. "All right, that's enough!" she yelled, her tone light but firm.

The voices fell silent. Alicia drew in a deep breath, tied the robe around her, and padded downstairs, the tile cold against her bare feet.

Grace was standing in the middle of the kitchen, her face as red as her soccer uniform. Zach was sitting on a stool at the counter, his shoulders slumped. Their anger crackled hot in the air between them.

Grace put her hands on her hips. "Zach was late picking me up at soccer practice!"

"I said I was sorry," Zach grumbled.

Alicia pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down at the table. "Come here," she said gently. She patted the back of one of the other chairs.

Grace's mouth pinched into a pout. Zach folded his arms. No one budged.

"I know these last few weeks have been hard on you both. And I'm sorry about that." Alicia laid her palms flat on the table. "But with your dad away, you've probably already guessed that there are going to have to be some—changes."

In an instant the anger was sucked out of the room, taking the color in the kids' faces with it. They exchanged a nervous look.

The back of Alicia's throat was stinging. She swallowed around the fire and forced her face into an expression of calm. "And I wanted to talk to you about what some of those changes might look like."

Grace stepped quietly over to the table and sat down. Zach pushed his stool back, walked across the room, and followed suit.

Alicia looked first at Zach, and then at Grace. "First thing tomorrow morning, I'm going to start looking for a job."

Zach's eyes narrowed. "Like what kind of job?"

"Well, back when your father and I got married, I was a lawyer."

"You mean like Connie Rubirosa?" Grace piped up.

"Who's Connie Rubirosa?" Alicia asked, shaking her head.

Zach smirked. "She's one of the lawyers on Law and Order."

The corners of Alicia's mouth turned up. Glenn Childs was going to love that idea. "Well, I would probably be defending people rather than prosecuting them. But it's a little like that, I guess."

But that wasn't the hard news.

Alicia's smile drained away from her face, and she grabbed hold of the edge of the table for support. "There's something else too."

Zach's eyebrows pressed into a wary line. Grace looked at him, and then back at Alicia.

"We're going to have to sell the house," she said, as firmly as she could manage.

Grace's eyes bugged out of her head. "Mom!"

"Our house?" Zach's mouth dropped open. His hands clenched into fists against the surface of the table.

"I know how much you both love this house. I love it too. But keeping it just isn't realistic right now. I don't know when I'll be able to find work, and how much I'll be making, and—and—that's just how it's going to be."

"Will I still get my own room?" Grace asked.

"I promise you we'll make separate rooms a priority when we look for a new place," Alicia said, her gaze bouncing between the two of them.

"Where will the new place be?" Grace shook her head. "What's it going to look like?"

"I don't know that yet, but you can help me look." Alicia reassured her. Zach sucked his lower lip into his mouth. "Zach?"

"What about all of Dad's things?" he mumbled. He didn't meet her eyes.

Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. She hadn't even thought about that. "Well, uh, we'll—I guess we'll take them with us." So any place they looked at would need sufficient storage—

"I want to go see Dad."

A wave of guilt slapped her in the face. He might as well have said she wasn't trying hard enough. Maybe she hadn't been, the last few days. A sour taste coated the back of her tongue.

"We can't just go see Dad," Grace scoffed. "Mom says he's all the way on the other side of the state."

Zach looked up at Alicia. His eyes were red.

Alicia's lower lip trembled. She reached across the table and grabbed his hand, wrapping her fingers around his fist.

"I'm so, so sorry about this," she said, struggling to keep her voice level. "I wish things were different." She reached for Grace's arm with her other hand, her fingers wrapping around her wrist. "And if you two want to go see your father, we—can talk about that."

Zach's hand relaxed. His chair groaned against the floor as he scooted it over toward hers. She bit her lip to stop it from quivering and pulled him close.

"It's not your fault," he said. His tone was somewhere between reassuring and resigned. "But it still sucks."

Alicia breathed out a little laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, it does."

#

Alicia bolts out through the front door of Peter's new apartment, her heart still thudding in her chest. The stars are bright overhead, glinting like ice against the black sky, and she sprints for her car. It's over. His things are gone, and she's told him. This time it's really over.

Her hand shakes as she presses the unlock button on her key ring. She doesn't look behind her, but her heart begins to slow to a steady rhythm as it registers in her mind that there are no footsteps in pursuit, no one shouting her name and begging her to rethink this.

She climbs into the car and slides the seat belt across her chest. Her anger is still there, simmering at a slow boil in the back of her mind, but behind that is something exhilarating, something she hasn't felt in a long time. Something almost like hope.

Memories of Will tumbled into her thoughts, roaming freely, as if she's only been keeping them at bay the whole time Peter's been there. The kiss in his office, the pizza dinner in hers. The night she only got as far as the cab before doubling back and leaving Will sitting in the restaurant, waiting. The night of Peter's announcement, when she demanded a plan. All the minutes that could have been moments, all the little snatches of time that could have led to something more if only she'd let them.

She feels a clutching in her chest. What an idiot she's been.

She slips the key into the ignition and starts the car. The sky is glowing with the first rays of morning sun, and in just a few hours, she has to be at work.

#

The elevator door was mirrored, and Alicia looked herself over in it, straightening her cardigan. She tucked a stray hair back into her clip and licked her lips, trying to drive away the nervous flutters in her stomach. She hoped she'd managed to tread the line between business casual and trying too hard.

The doors dinged open, and she stepped out into the lobby. Stern Lockhart, it read on the wall behind her in block letters. She craned her neck to see around the corner. It was all glass, all the way down the hall.

A black woman in a red sweater rounded the corner. "Excuse me," Alicia said, holding up a hand. "Can you tell me which one is Will Gardner's office?"

"Right down the hall," she said, pointing. "You can come with me, actually, I'm going there now."

"Thank you." Alicia followed her down the hall. Rows of offices lined the outside walls, with cubicles on the interior, like every big law office she'd ever seen.

The woman stopped in front of a cubicle just outside of one of the larger offices. "I'm actually one of Mr. Gardner's assistants," she said, taking a seat behind a desk. "Do you have an appointment?"

"No, but I'd, uh, like to make one?"

Opposite them, in the corner office, was Will. Through the glass she could see him sitting at his desk, his hair combed back slick in defiance of the waves he'd once worn. He tilted his head at her, giving her a half-smile. He stood to open the door.

"Alicia?" His smile widened into a grin, but his eyes were examining her face, questioning.

"Will." Alicia returned the smile. He'd aged a little, but they all had. His navy blue suit was an Armani. It worked for him.

"Now there's a surprise." He strode over to her and reached over to hug her. His cologne was a whiff of spice. He pulled back. "Sheila, this is Alicia Florrick. Alicia and I have known each other since law school." He looked back at Alicia and shook his head. His eyes narrowed a little, still trying to puzzle this out. "So—you were just in the building?"

"Actually, I was making an appointment to talk to you," she admitted.

"Really," he said, his voice light with amused surprise. Then his smile was back. "Well, how about right now?" He looked at his watch. "I've got just about enough time for a quick lunch, and there's a little place just down the street. Nothing fancy, just soup and sandwiches."

"That would be great."

He leaned across Sheila's desk. "Can you cancel my 12:00?"

A nerve pricked in the back of Alicia's neck. "No, wait, Will." She held up a hand in protest. "I can come back another time."

He was already walking. "Are you kidding? What has it been, four years? Five?" He leaned his head back toward the elevator.

Alicia's tension eased a bit, and she followed him. "Something like that."

He pressed the down button, and the doors opened immediately. They stepped inside. "So, how have things been?"

Alicia was still never sure how to answer that. She opted for honesty. "They've—been better."

"Yeah. Stupid question. Sorry." He slid his hands into his pockets. "How are the kids? Zachary and—"

"Zach. And Grace."

"Grace, right."

"They're coping." The doors dinged open again, and they stepped out into the main building lobby. Alicia's eyes caught on their firm's entry in the directory opposite. Three whole floors. Not bad. "How are things at Stern Lockhart?"

"You mean Stern Lockhart Gardner?" Will said, punctuating his own name with a tilt of his head.

Now, this was definitely the old Will. She raised an eyebrow at him. A little laugh fell out of her mouth.

He rolled his eyes and gave her a sheepish smile. "Sorry. I guess I did never get the hang of when to stop trying to impress you." He jangled his keys in his pocket as they walked. "Things are pretty good, though. I mean, it's a tough economy, a lot of firms are folding, but so far we're holding steady." He stopped just shy of the front door and looked down at her, a hand hovering over her arm. "Listen. I've actually been meaning to call. If there's anything I can do to help, just say the word, okay? I mean it."

"Well—" Alicia drew in a long breath. Was this the moment when she was supposed to be taking out her resumé? "I was wondering if you had any openings."

"Openings." He shook his head like he didn't understand the word.

"For first-year associates."

"For—" Will's eyes widened. "You mean for you?"

A nerve jumped in Alicia's chest. Her face was suddenly warm. "You know, never mind. It was a silly—"

"No, sorry, sorry. I was just thinking—okay, wow." He ran a hand along his brow.

She was too old. A forty-something housewife wasn't anybody's idea of a first-year associate, least of all Will's. "No, I shouldn't have—"

"It's fine, really. We'd love to have you." Will gestured back toward the elevator with his thumb. "Let me talk to Diane?"

"Diane?"

"Lockhart."

"Right." And now she looked like someone who hadn't even bothered looking up the named partners' first names. This was going well.

Will shook his head. "You know, the hell with lunch. Let me march you back up there right now and tell Diane I want to hire you. All you need is both our votes, and you're in."

"No, Will, it's okay." Alicia's gaze wandered out through the glass in the revolving door. Her escape route.

"I'm totally serious," he said, tugging on her arm. He pointed at his face. "Look. This is my 'totally serious' face." His mouth collapsed into a line.

She dropped her chin. She peered up at him.

He shrugged. "Top of your class at Georgetown, wife of the former state's attorney? We'd be crazy not to scoop you up."

"I'm not dressed for an interview."

"Who said anything about an interview?" He flashed her a big smile. "Come on."

On the way back up, Will told her about Diane. Alicia tried to listen, but the flutters in her stomach were threatening to turn into an entire army of butterflies. She made sure to punctuate his sentences with a smile or a nod in all the right places. Any sign of nervousness would make him realize just how unprepared she was.

"—and she'll act all tough, but that's just the good-cop bad-cop thing we've got going." Will held up a finger. "Don't let it fool you. She's going to love you. And don't get me wrong, Stern's going to love you, too, but it's Diane you've got to impress."

All the blood in Alicia's body drained down to her toes. She rocked back a step.

"And you will. Don't worry." He held up a hand in protest. "Just wait right there. Look...earnest." He disappeared inside Diane Lockhart's office.

Earnest. Did that mean she was supposed to sit or stand? She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She decided to sit.

"Can I get you something? Coffee?"

"What?" Alicia jerked her head up.

There was a girl at the desk—Diane Lockhart's assistant? She was smiling politely. "Coffee?" she repeated.

"I'm fine, thank you," Alicia said. She pinned her knees together and tugged at her cardigan. She'd thought about wearing a suit. Why hadn't she worn a suit?

The glass wall revealed more of the meeting than Alicia was comfortable seeing, but she couldn't look away. Diane Lockhart turned out to be a tall blonde woman, older than both of them, immaculately dressed in an expensive red suit and a silver necklace to match. Will's back was to her, and he kept gesturing out through the glass with a thumb. Diane lifted her chin to peer out at Alicia through her glasses. An eyebrow crept up her forehead. She wasn't smiling.

Alicia laid her hands flat against her thighs and crossed her legs at her ankles, her chest tightening further. She picked up a magazine from the end table. Glamor. Definitely not earnest. She put it back.

Diane was talking now. She seemed to have started smiling, or maybe it was a smirk. At least she wasn't frowning. Alicia folded her hands in her lap, staring at them. She cleared her throat.

"Alicia."

Alicia jumped. It was Diane, with an outstretched hand. "Ms. Lockhart." Alicia stood. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"It's Diane." She had a strong grip. "So you're looking to come on board as a first-year?"

"I'd—if there's a place for me," she managed.

"You worked at Crosier, Abrams, and Abbott?"

"I did." For two years, fifteen years ago.

"She was one of their best associates," Will chimed in.

"Hmm," Diane said, nodding. "Okay, let me give it some thought. I assume Will's got your number?"

"He does," Alicia answered.

"Good to meet you," she said, and ducked back into her office.

Alicia's head was spinning. She leaned in toward Will. "So this is how this works?" she whispered.

"How what works?" he answered in an exaggerated stage whisper. He leaned back and gave her a cocky grin. "Hey, what can I say? Sometimes it's who you know."

She shook her head. "Thank you."

"No, really, it's the least I could do." He looked at his watch. "Hey, I've got to run, but I'll call you. Tonight all right?"

"I'll be home."

He pointed at her and took a few steps backward toward his office. "Talk to you then."

She followed him with her eyes as he disappeared down the hall. As she made her way back toward the elevator, she was smiling.

#

Zach's music booms through the apartment from the speakers on his iPod dock. It's a quarter to six in the morning after one hell of a sleepless night, and exhaustion is tugging at Alicia's mind, threatening to pull her into unconsciousness. She takes another big gulp of coffee. The only way to get through this day is going to be to bulldoze right on over it.

She grabs a makeup brush and dabs the blush onto her cheeks, pressing her mouth into a line. She unfastens her hair and lets it fall loose around her face. She looks defiant, like a woman with a backbone. She applies her lipstick and rubs her lips together.

People like Peter and Kalinda have long since mastered the art of being selfish. Alicia's always maintained that it was more important to be a good mom, a good friend, a good person. But what if she can have it both ways? What if she can fight for her clients because it's the right thing to do and because it makes money for the firm? What if she can get up early to make her kids breakfast and still be free to work late—or more—with her boss?

Last time she got stuck halfway. But what if she can follow the change through to the finish line this time?

Alicia stands and shoots one last look at herself in the mirror. She presses the stop button on Zach's iPod and points herself at the front door. She's a bit rough around the edges, but it's still a new day.

Maybe she doesn't need a plan. Maybe everything she needs is already staring her in the face.

#

The movers had been and gone. The couch was in the wrong place and there were boxes strewn all over the living room. Tension hovered behind Alicia's eyes, the beginnings of a headache, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. It was going to take a lot of work to knock this place into shape, and a lot of time she no longer had.

She drew in a long breath and pushed it out again. At least she'd have this weekend. She opened up a box and set a picture of the kids on the end table.

Zach looked up at the ceiling, surveying it, then peered around the corner into the living room. His nose wrinkled. "It's about half the size of our house."

A fifth the size, actually. "It is smaller, that's true."

"My new room is smaller, too," he grumbled.

"Yep, it is," Alicia said, keeping her voice matter-of-fact. The kids had both been pretty surly ever since waking up in the house for the last time, and the whole day had consisted of one little argument after the next. She hadn't kept after them for it, though. None of this was their fault, and they didn't deserve any of it. She picked up a box marked dishes that had been misdelivered into the living room pile and carried it into the kitchen.

"And the movers put the couch in the wrong place." Zach said. "I thought we decided it was going to go in the middle of the room, like at our house."

"You mean our old house," Grace called out from down the hall.

"You knew what I meant," he yelled back at her, his voice gruff.

"We can move the couch." Alicia set the box down on the kitchen counter and opened it.

Zach's shoulders slumped forward. "How many bathrooms does this place have again?"

"There's one right off of my bedroom for me, and there's another one in the hallway for you and Grace."

"So there's nothing for guests."

"The guests can share your bathroom." She tilted her head toward the hallway. "Go have a look."

Alicia lifted a glass pitcher out of the box and shook the newspaper off of it. It was actually a nice kitchen—stainless steel appliances, an island with a sink in it. It wasn't even all that small. She could imagine cooking here. Maybe on the weekends.

"You can have this side of the sink." Grace had her little dictator voice on, and it carried into the kitchen from all the way down the hall. Alicia pushed a breath out in a sigh. At least there were a few things that weren't going to change.

"I'm not putting my stuff right next to the toilet!" Zach's voice was indignant.

"Well, I'm not moving all my stuff again."

"What if you knock my toothbrush off and it falls in?"

"Gross!"

"I'll get you two a toothbrush holder, okay?" Alicia called down the hall. "We can go pick it out tomorrow." She lifted the sugar bowl out of the box and set it on the counter.

Silence stretched through the apartment. Alicia took a step toward the hallway, craning her neck, but stopped herself. They were going to have to find their own way.

The curtains in the living room were open, revealing the view that had been the apartment's biggest selling point. They were about half a mile west of the lake, but even from the kitchen Alicia could make out the skyline through the big picture window. The sky was beginning to darken, but the sparkle of the city lights kept it from feeling gloomy. She walked back into the living room, dragged one of the armchairs over to the window and sat down in it.

It wasn't ideal—there was nothing about any of this that was ideal—but Alicia had a good feeling about this place. She'd known from the moment they stepped inside that it was different from the handful of other places they'd already seen. It wasn't big or showy, but it was a place where they could have a life. She unfastened her hair from its clip and shook it loose, relieving some of the tension at the back of her neck.

"The city looks so big from up here." It was Grace.

Alicia turned to face her. Her eyes were wide. "Does that scare you?" Alicia asked quietly.

Grace shrugged. "Kind of. I mean, we're going to have to go to school with all those city kids. What if they all think we're hicks?" She walked over to Alicia and sat down on the arm of the chair.

Alicia stroked her hair. "You're not a hick."

"Or, like, you know. Snobs."

"You're not a snob, either."

Grace's gaze fell to the floor. "We're going to have to make all new friends, aren't we?"

"You can still see your old friends on the weekends if you want." She gave her arm a squeeze. "And remember, it's just for a little while. Once we get on our feet, we can find another place, if that's what we all want."

Grace stood and walked over to the window. She raised a hand to the glass, splaying her fingers against it. "It's not just scary, though. It's also kind of—"

"Exciting?" Alicia smiled.

Grace looked back at Alicia. Her eyes were as bright as the lights on the skyline, and she was smiling. "Yeah. It looks—shiny. Like it can't be all bad."

"I think so, too." Alicia pulled her hair back again and lifted the clip to fasten it.

"No, leave it like that," Grace said, shaking her head.

Alicia's forehead creased. "What, my hair?"

"Yeah. It looks good down."

"You think?" Alicia squinted at her reflection in the window.

"I like it too," Zach added from behind them, his voice round with approval.

Alicia looked from Grace to Zach and then back again. They were wearing twin expressions, their eyebrows raised in expectation.

"Well, okay, then. Majority rules." She tucked the hair clip into her pocket. "You two ready to move the couch?"

#

"Mrs. Florrick!"

Alicia stops in the middle of the parking garage and turns toward the voice. It's Simran, rolling a dolly with an old stove on it over toward the elevator. She sets it down and walks over toward Alicia.

"Good morning," Alicia calls out.

"I'm glad I caught you," Simran says, a little out of breath.

Alicia's forehead creases. "Is something wrong?"

"Amal mentioned that you were out there with a moving van early this morning," she says, pointing to the back of the building. "We know you have been thinking about getting a bigger place, so he thought you might be gone already."

"Ah," Alicia says, keeping her voice level. They're all going to have to watch that sort of thing. "No, we've just been clearing out some of our old things." Things they don't need, people who no longer belong.

"Well, before you do leave, can you make sure to stop by to see Amal? I know he wants to be sure to thank you again for all your help last year."

Alicia tilts her head toward Simran. "Actually, I think we're going to be staying."

Simran's face brightens. "Oh, good. I'm very glad to hear that." She pushes up her sleeves. "Well, have a good day, then, Mrs.—can you say 'Mrs. State's Attorney'? Like 'Mrs. President'?"

Alicia forces out a little laugh. "You, too, Simran." Her smile isn't quite genuine, but it's good enough.

"Would you tell Mr. Florrick congratulations?"

"I will." Alicia presses the unlock button on her key chain.

"You look different today," Simran tosses back at her as she walks away. "It's nice."

"Thank you," Alicia says, opening the car door. She feels herself smile again, and this time it's real. She closes the door behind her. "I feel different," she says to the empty car.

She pulls the rearview mirror down. It's the same red lipstick she had on yesterday, and her hair is loose around her face, the same way she's been wearing it for going on two years now. On the surface, all that's different today is that she's a little more tired and a little more worn. But Simran is right—look a little deeper and there's something else that wasn't there yesterday, and that really does feel different. It doesn't feel good, not yet, but she'll get there.

Alicia packed all her own baggage away when she packed Peter's boxes. It's a new day, and she's going to seize it. All his life Peter's gotten whatever he wanted: the power, the career, the family. It's her turn.

She slides the key into the ignition and pulls the car out of park. She's on her way.

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