Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In July, we're reading Andrea Bartz's The Spare Room, a tension-filled thriller following a woman who's found herself in a risqué, yet dangerous world when she stays in the spare bedroom of a glamorous couple's home. Read an excerpt from the book below, then find out how to participate. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
I’ve chosen Amtrak’s quiet car, so I stifle the urge to sob, to scream, to whimper in exhaustion or screech in fear of the strangers around me. It’s wild how quickly I got used to staying home. Now riding a largely vacant train feels complicated and draining, like navigating a foreign country.
Virgo meows on the seat next to me, and I unzip the carrier to scratch her ears. Mike didn’t want me to take her—he even reached for her carrier as I headed for the door.
Reach for me. Fight for me. I’m the one you should keep from leaving.
My breath hitches, and a sob plucks at my throat. I look down at the sandwich I bought before boarding, but my stomach has that hollow, wrung-out feeling from crying so much the past three days. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel hungry again.
While I sat in the cavernous belly of Thirtieth Street Station, the vibe was fearful, hushed, crackling with distrust. Masked travelers eyed one another warily. It seems like a lifetime ago that we moved freely and breezily breathed in the air, sucking it into our bodies like milk-drunk babies. I’d felt relieved to board the train, but then a man sat behind me and now he’s eating a salad, infusing the car with his hot breath.
Did I think this through? It’s been sixteen hours since I shelled out $59 for a one-way ticket from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. It might not sound like much, but my personal bank account isn’t bulging. Mike’s company funded our move; his new salary and signing bonus have been carrying us through my unemployment. The sandwich was another stupid $12.
But of course, my mental math is just a distraction, an anxiety more comfortable than the true problem that looms.
I gaze out the window, where pretty houses and church steeples poke out of the distance. Sabrina has a meeting at my arrival time, so her husband, Nathan, will pick me up from Union Station. I feel a squeeze of fear every time I remember this fact. I’m nervous enough to see Sabrina, and now I’ll have to start this bonkers open-ended visit by finding a stranger in a train station.
My phone buzzes in the seat pocket. Mike. Hope crackles—has he changed his mind?
“Hello?” I keep my voice low. I shouldn’t have picked the quiet car; a woman a few rows up turns to glare.
“Kelly. Hey.” He swallows, and all the molecules in my body hold still. “Uh—I can’t find the laundry detergent.”
My insides drop. “What?”
“I’m trying to wash the sheets and—”
“Under the kitchen sink. With all the other cleaning products.” Everything about the image fills me with sadness: Mike helpless in the hallway, peering at the washing machine; the fact that he’s already cleaning our bedsheets, ridding them of my scent. I hear the clunk of a door springing open.
“Found it. Sorry to bother you.” Static fizzes and moisture coats my eyes.
What happened to us? I want to scream. We’re supposed to be planning a life together.
“The train okay?” he asks.
I whisk away my tears. “Yup. Text me if there’s anything else, okay? I shouldn’t be on the phone.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I hesitate. “I’m sorry too.”
“Look, let’s not—” He cuts himself off, clears his throat. I know I screwed up. I thought we could move past it, but now I’m less sure than ever. “Text me when you get there. Bye, Kelly.” He hangs up before I can reply, and I feel a plunge of despair.
This is not how I pictured year 34. It was supposed to be the best one yet, the year when life finally began: I had a fresh start in Philadelphia with my sweet, successful fiancé. A wedding planned, the real-life incarnation of a Pinterest board I’d been secretly updating since long before I met Mike, the invitations sent, the venue—a rustic barn near my parents’ house in Illinois—locked down.
Others have it worse. I’m not sequestered in a field hospital, a ventilator controlling my lungs. My body wasn’t shunted into the back of a refrigerated truck.
But this? It sucks. It really, really sucks.
I blame myself—Lord knows I’ve beaten myself up enough—but the caterer bears some responsibility too. Our other vendors were so understanding: We get it, no one’s holding gatherings. But the farm-to-table eatery we’d hired wouldn’t stop blowing up my phone, demanding we secure a new date or lose our deposit. My future father-in-law was underwriting the whole affair, and Mike refused to call him about it. I attributed it to Mike’s overwhelm—or even his laziness, in my less-kind moments.
We fought about it. We fought about lots of things. And then, three days ago, he cracked my life in two, snapped it like a wishbone.
I catch myself worrying a nail over the gash in my palm. A gash of shame, a scabby reminder of the ugliness that poured out of me last week.
I snatch my phone back up, then reread the casual text that stopped me in my tracks yesterday. I still can’t believe it’s real, not something I hallucinated: “You should come stay with us.”
Heart pounding, I’d given the “ha-ha” reaction. But Sabrina doubled down: “I’m serious! We have a spare room. And Lord knows, we could use the company.”
That’s when my hands started shaking. I was alone in our bedroom in Philadelphia. It faced the street, with bars over the windows ostensibly to keep the riffraff out, but they made it feel like a jail cell too.
“That’s so nice of you!” I replied. “But I wouldn’t want to intrude.” She began typing back right away. “It wouldn’t be an intrusion at all—honestly, Nathan is such an extrovert, he is DYING for someone to talk to who isn’t me. (And as an introvert, I am dying for him to have someone to talk to who isn’t me, lol.) No pressure but it’s a serious offer! Maybe for a week or two? Could be good for both of you.”
Both of us. Something my mom drilled into me, a lesson gleaned from forty-plus years of married bliss: You and your partner are a team. You make decisions together. When I floated the idea, he jumped right on it.
But I wanted him to fight for me. To beg me to stay.
Excerpted from The Spare Room by Andrea Bartz. Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Bartz, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Brooke Knappenberger is the Associate Commerce Editor at Marie Claire, where she writes across the board from fashion and beauty to books and celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, Brooke obsessively consumes and writes about the latest movie releases, streaming TV shows, and celebrity scandals. She has over three years of experience writing on fashion, beauty, and entertainment and her work has appeared on Looper, NickiSwift, The Sun US, and Vox Magazine of Columbia, Missouri. Brooke obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with an emphasis on Magazine Editing and has a minor in Textile and Apparel Management.
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