Our short story series continues. I hope you’re enjoying Jen’s Secret as much as I am! Don’t forget to read PART 1 and PART 2 before you dive in. Enjoy!
The quiet unnerves me as I toss and turn, each movement causing the metal springs of the mattress to squeak, which along with the whir of the ceiling fan is the only thing that breaks the silence. I sigh and open my eyes, giving up on the sleep I desperately need and shuffle over to open the patio door. I take a deep breath and let my eyes skim over the shimmering aqua blue pool. A strong breeze rustles the towering palm trees along the back fence of Mrs. Posada’s property and wind chimes create a tinkling melody, relaxing the tension from my shoulders.
These moments of peace seem stolen. Whenever I feel them, guilt swiftly follows. The brief peace I sometimes get is probably far less than that motherless child who’s been haunting me for years ever has. I bite my lip and wrap my arms around myself. I force myself to think of the barbecue we’ll have when the girls get home from church. One of Mrs. Posada’s grandchildren wants a pool party for her birthday. I imagine the squeals and laughter only children in a pool on a hot day can produce. It brings a smile to my face. But it quickly fades as other horrible thoughts enter my mind.
I know sleep won’t find me now. I probably should have gone to church with Mrs. Posada and the girls. I know she took them because she thought she was doing me a favor by giving me time to rest, but time alone is the last thing I need. My plans of sleeping in, taking time to bathe without rushing and actually reading a book dissipate. I know what I need to do. Maybe today I can get one step closer to it.
Taking an Uber for anything other than grocery shopping feels like an unnecessary luxury to me. But what I want to do today is necessary, so I shake off the guilt and hop in the car. Thankfully, the driver is not a chatter. He asks me what I like to listen to and that’s pretty much the only thing he says. We cruise up PCH listening to a pop station that has an affinity for Taylor Swift. I look out the window, watching the scenery change from electic store fronts to clean modern boutiques, always with glimpses of the sea peeking through between buildings.
Soon, the spaces between buildings get larger and larger, until we’re winding up narrow two lane highways with cliffs on one side, and the wide expanse of the Pacific on the other. The wind from the open car windows whips my hair around. I can almost let myself forget where I’m going; almost let myself get caught up in the spirit of possibility a drive along the ocean brings.
It’s not until we pull off the highway that my anxiety returns. The Uber stops at the restaurant I picked as my destination, and I ease out of the car, already feeling out of place on this busy street full of trendy shops, an art gallery, a yoga studio, a community garden. To keep up appearances I head inside a juice bar/bakery, though I doubt if the driver is thinking twice about me. I duck into the restroom and try to pull myself together. I wet my hands and run my fingers through my hair, trying to tame the frizz that the wind created. I smooth the long white t-shirt I’m wearing and pick lint off my black stretch pants. I roll the sleeves of my gray cardigan up and finger the simple gold-plated jewelry at my throat and ears. I spare a glance at the printed gray Nike’s I bought at the thrift store last week. Had some part of me known that I would do this after the breakdown I had at work? Why else would I go out of my way to put together a typical suburban housewife ensemble?
I swallow and close my eyes against the sudden dizziness that overwhelms me. I’m come too far to back down now. Besides, today is not about anything except satisfying my own bizarre need to see who she is, how she lives, what her life is like after…well, just after.
Enough of this.
I stroll out of the restroom with calculated casualty and stop to buy a bottled water. The clerk says it’s $4.99. I wish I would pay that much for 16 ounces of H20! I politely put it back and duck into a 7-11 across the street. My ‘disguise’ complete I walk about a mile into a residential neighborhood lined with an interesting combination of new modern mansions and standard 1950’s stucco houses. Regardless of size, all of the lawns are manicured and well maintained.
There are a lot of things you can learn from internet sleuthing. These days, hoards of people put a play by-play of their every waking moment online. She’s not quite that bad, but she did post a copy of her daughter’s birthday party invitation last year, her address displayed for the world to see. She probably didn’t think twice about it, but I did. When I saw it, I knew I didn’t have any excuse for not doing the right thing. Not that I ever did.
I power walk past the house, moving like I’m out for exercise. But I take in the robin’s egg blue shutters, the large two-story white stucco with bay windows and perennials in the yard. It’s picture perfect, and I know instantly that something like what I did was not ever supposed to happen to someone like her. Someone who lives in a house like that, who’s brave enough to have another child after losing one in such a tragic way, who manages to go on with her life and plant flowers, and plan birthday parties.
Someone who posts a picture of her baby boy every year and vows to find the person who ran him down in cold blood.
I turn the corner, my breath coming in short spurts. It’s not from the walking. I do that everyday. It’s the shock. He should be riding his bike up and down this very street, living the life he was meant to have. I make myself keep moving. What did I expect to accomplish by doing this? Did I think torturing myself by learning the details of her life would make a difference? For three years I’d obsessed over her life on social media, wishing I had the courage to give her the answers she wants so badly. Wishing that I could give her what she deserves, while also giving my daughters what they need.
But I can’t. It’s impossible. Still, I circle the block, go back for more. When I turn the corner, there’s a car pulling into the driveway. Without thinking, I quicken my pace, timing it so that I approach as she exits the SUV and circles around to her trunk. She pushes a button that lifts the hatch and glances up right as my foot turns beneath me. The last thing I see as I hit the ground is the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant smile of neighborly friendliness before her expression changes to horror as she hurries towards me.
Things happen quickly after that. She’s by my side in an instant, her hands on my arm and my back as she helps me sit up. The concrete burns beneath me, hot from the sun that’s been warming it all day, but her hands are like fire. Through the fabric of my shirt, they scorch my skin and my conscience. She’s helping me. The realization of how absolutely wrong that is propels me to my knees where I awkwardly attempt to stand by putting all of my weight on my good foot.
“Stan!” She booms. For a tiny woman, she’s got a commanding voice. Almost instantly, a large man races out of the house. It’s just like the stereotypes on TV. She’s delicate and petite. He’s big and brawny. “Help me get this poor lady in the house.”
He lifts me to my feet, or really, foot, like it’s nothing as she hurries ahead to hold the door open. His help, I can tolerate. Barely. He supports my weight as I hobble and try to stand.
I dust my clothes off and stammer, “I’m fine. Really. I’ll just head home and put some ice on it.” I say it in a way that makes it seem as though I live down the street.
She stops holding the door. “Well, at least let us give you a ride home. You’re in no shape to make it back the way you came.”
Briefly, I consider letting them drive me to some random house and waving them off before I get to the door. But I can tell that they aren’t the kind of people to drive off until I’m safely inside. And she’d probably come by the next day with some gift, trying to check on me. The thought makes me sick. For her to do anything for me…it just turns my stomach. “Really, I’m fine. See?” I put my bad foot down and grimace through the pain that shoots up my ankle.
“Poor thing, you’re trembling. Come inside and sit down for a few moments. Please.”
And with that one word from her, this women who should never be in a position to plead with me for anything, I lean against her husband and allow him to guide me inside.
Say whaaattt? What do you think Jen’s motives are in spying on the woman whose child she accidentally killed? Remorse? Guilt? Obsession? All of the above? I promise y’all I’m learning about all of this at the same time you are. I just show up and write! I can’t wait to see where this story takes us next.
©Faith Simone 2018