Smitty and The Girl (A Blog Novel)
Smitty and The Girl is an ongoing story, more like a soap opera than a traditional novel. There are no chapters but mini-episodes. Each time there is a new episode, we will add the latest installment to the end of this page. So if you come to the party late, just start at the top of this page and work your way to the bottom. Soon, you’ll be ready for the next installment just like everyone else. Enjoy!
Elvira Toolidge put the coffee down with something like a slap. The coffee splashed up and over the sides. “Shoot,” Elvira muttered. She grabbed a napkin off the table, the one the man wasn’t using and wiped it all up. “Sorry about that.”
She was off before he could answer, before she could even see what he looked like or how he felt about her getting stale coffee all over the edges of his breakfast. She wouldn’t think of him at all, truthfully, until she collected the bill and found a pathetic quarter inside for a tip. A quarter. She was off her game that morning but was any service worthy of a measly, greasy quarter?
“Shoot,” she said again and this time, she pocketed the sad change and stole a few minutes in the hallway off the kitchen, the one opposite the hallway with the bathrooms. It was barely a hall, in truth, and only about a foot deep but it was the ideal place to lean up against the wall and catch your breath.
One of the girls a few years back had stuck a mirror up on the wall. It was too dark for them to do any good repair work on their makeup but suited their purposes all right. Elvira took her position against the wall and took stock of herself.
She was zeroing in on fifty. Some days, when sleep was decent and the weather was nice, she looked closer to forty. Today, she looked and felt about a hundred. Her brown hair, barely gray at the ears, was cricked at the top which is what happens, she thought with a scowl, when you fall asleep with wet hair and a strappy headband on. She tried, once more, to smooth down the strands but the little poof just popped right back up.
Her brown eyes were cracked with red and she’d been sloppy with her foundation that morning. The beauty mark over her eyebrow held no appeal in the mess that had become her face. And she’d gotten makeup on the collar of her white collared shirt. Hell.
She leaned her head back, reveling in the silence of the early morning shift. Smitty’s on a Monday morning, especially, was a breeze. It was only seven and the rush, if you could call it a rush on a Monday, wouldn’t shuffle in for another two hours.
Elvira felt her hand rest lightly against the tan wallpaper. Syl had insisted on texture the last time she’d went on a redecorating kick and the whole of the place was wrapped up in a series of lightly embossed circles. They complemented the new, globe-like light fixtures she had suspended over the mahogany tables, she’d explained at the time to no one.
Personally, Elvira thought she wasn’t being as subtle as she thought she was. Everything in the place was round now. The salt and pepper shakers were even globe-like- where she’d found them, God only knew. They were ugly as sin, a strange bluish marble and a pain to refill.
“Order up!” came the bark from behind her. The kitchen stood between the mini-hallway and the long one, with a big cut out window space for Manny and Fred to slide plates out to the staff. Elvira sighed and pushed herself up. She grabbed the plate, the piece of pie that sat on it looking so delicate and tall like it was about to crumble any second, and noted the remainder of it sitting in a wide pie plate on the counter in the kitchen, just as perfectly round as everything else in Elvira’s decidedly pear-shaped life.
She took it to the table up front, the good one that sat by the big picture window and mustered up a grin for Old Hat, whose ancient face lit up at the sight of her. “Enjoy, Hat,” Elvira said, finding it easier to smile suddenly.
“Looks delicious,” Hat mumbled and Elvira felt her smile wobble when she realized the old man had forgotten his teeth again. She made a mental note to check any juice glasses lying around. And the bathroom too. Still, he lifted her eyes to Elvira’s and shook his head. “That Manny knows his tarts.“
“Good thing too, otherwise he’d be out on the street.” She dropped an extra stack of napkins for him and patted him on the shoulder. “Holler if you need anything, Hat.” She was about to step away when the front door opened with a jingle and an unfamiliar face walked through it.
Was it raining outside? The girl was barely twenty, in a slouchy sweatshirt and jeans and looked like she’d just been caught in a downpour. Her hair was a light red and soaked against her thin shoulders. She wore no makeup that Elvira could see and had no purse either. Trouble. Since Letta was decidedly not manning the front counter, the girl looked around, a bit lost and uncertain.
“Welcome to Smitty’s,” Elvira said, trying to clear the judgment from her expression and her voice. “Can I get you a table?”
The girl met her eyes and for a second, couldn’t seem to find her voice. “Uh. Yes. No.” She blinked. “I need to talk t-to Sylvia Mathers, p-please.”
Elvira raised her eyebrows at her boss’s name. “She’s not here right now. She only comes in during dinner. And never on Monday.”
The girl swallowed visibly and swayed. “I need,” she said through gritted teeth. “I need to talk to Sylvia Mathers.”
“Ok. All right.” Tougher than she looks. “Why don’t you take a seat before you fall over? I’ll give her a ring. What’s your name?” she asked and led her to one of the many empty booths that lined the far right wall.
“Why?” Elvira sighed, her patience wearing as thin as their cocktail napkins. “Because I’m about to call my boss into work on a peaceful morning and I want to give her the reason why. That’s why. Can you tell me your name?”
The redhead frowned and kept her light blue eyes on Elvira’s for a long time, just long enough to unsettle her. “P-Petula.” She took a deep breath and said the rest in one breath. “Petula Jerome Mathers.”
Elvira tried not to stare. “Hunh.” The redhead was related to Sylvia? “Mathers, you said your last name was?” Letta was walking by, and eavesdropping, and Elvira all but heard her whip her giant, nosy head around at the name.
The girl gave her that tough look again, that defiant look, but it was ruined when she sneezed. And when she grabbed the nearest napkin, making a jingled mess of the silverware so that half of it tumbled to the floor, Elvira sighed. “I’m going to go make that call. And get you something hot to drink. You want coffee? Tea?”
“I don’t have any money.” But Elvira saw the way her gaze caught on the pies and cakes they had displayed behind the register. And she heard the shame in her voice, just the barest whiff of it before her pointy chin shot up. Hell.
“Yeah, of course you don’t.” She turned around and saw Letta waiting for her, all but braced against the counter like a leopard in a tree ready to pounce. Elvira decided to grab her coffee, and the phone, in the kitchen.
“Hey, beautiful sexy times!”
Elvira ignored Carlos and elbowed past Manny who took up far too much space in the narrow kitchen. But he was quiet and quick, too things she appreciated in a short order cook. “Manny, I need a piece of one of those pies. Or maybe the crumb cake. No, the shortcake. Can you get me a shortcake?” Manny, as always, looked slightly startled at being spoken to and nodded. “Thanks. And you, shut up for a second please,” she said without heat to Carlos who was trying to dance with her on his way to the sink. “I need to make a call.”
She got Sylvia’s voicemail, which was typical for an early morning. Elvira had never seen the woman’s “boudoir” as she heard her call it once but she imagined there were big fluffy pillows and one of those eye masks involved. She left her a message and said it was urgent but didn’t say, “There’s a skinny redheaded with your last name taking up space at my station and demanding to talk to you.” Lest one of the guys get the wrong idea.
When she stepped out again, Letta was sitting across from the girl, what was her name? Something weird. Petula. And she was chattering a mile a minute. Elvira flashed her a look and dropped the shortcake, which came in a bowl as pretty as you please, in front of the girl who looked as if she hadn’t said a word the whole time. She slid the coffee in front of her and held out the clean fork, waiting until the redhead’s light blue eyes met hers. “On the house.” The girl opened her mouth, shocked, but Elvira had already turned to Letta. “Can I talk to you for a second?” She used her mother’s tone, the one that left no room for argument.
She heard Letta grunt and pull her large form out of the booth and as soon as they were out of earshot, Elvira pinched her on the elbow. “Ow! Cripes, El,” Letta said with her thick Louisiana accent. She had a round, pretty face and glasses as thick as soda bottles. “Just trying to talk to the girl.” The desire to gossip outweighed her irritation as she glanced over at the booth. “You think she’s really related to Lady Fartsalot?” she muttered.
“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Elvira nudged her back until she was sitting on her stool behind the counter. “You leave her be. Don’t try to weasel anything out of her. If she is related to Sylvia and she finds out you interrogated her, her whatever she is, we’ll both be in for it. Sit here and try to find something else to think about.”
She was walking away when she heard Letta mutter, “Nothing else to think about. Not like anything ever happens around here.” And if Letta wasn’t a slow-witted, eavesdropping, gossipping pain in the butt, Elvira would’ve been inclined to agree.
Sylvia Mathers awoke to the sound of music.
It was tinkling and light, just as she preferred all of life’s things, so why did it seem to stab her in the brain stem? Sylvia groaned and when she rolled over, silk sheets crinkling around her, she remembered all too clearly why she felt like death.
Her party. So much fabulousness. She grimaced. Too much champagne. She fumbled for her phone and squinted at the screen, not comprehending why it was black for a good, long minute. With a sigh, she ripped the eye mask off her head. Every damn morning.
The restaurant. Sylvia scowled. What disaster could possibly warrant her attention at such an ungodly hour.
They could wait. With tremendous effort, Sylvia sat up and jabbed her impeccably manicured nails into the keys of her phone, hit send. Collapsed back into her eight pillows with a sigh.
In her opinion, it took Aggie far too long to grace the door of her suite. “You called, mistress?” Aggie was painfully short, with a shock of curly dark hair and bead-like eyes. She called her things like “mistress” and “madame” when she was in a snit about something.
“I texted. Yes.” Sylvia let out a rumbling sigh and tapped her fingers against her slim stomach. “Help me,” she whimpered. The pain. Insufferable.
“There are pills on the dresser.”
Her head shot up so fast that one of her false eyelashes fluttered off her face. “Ah.” Sylvia grabbed at the aspirin and unscrewed the bottle of sparkling water, guzzling both fast and remembering, in a flash, the way she’d tipped back that last flute.
Feeling at last like she was on the way to feeling at least a little more human, she slid back on her bed and leaned up against the pillows. When she arched one slim eyebrow at Aggie, the response was instant- the small woman tottered over and adjusted the pillows until they cupped her thin frame perfectly. Sylvia eyed her maid. “What’s wrong with your face?”
Aggie looked affronted. “I beg your pardon-“
Sylvia waved a hand. “Oh, you know what I mean. You look irritated. Why? Bring me my mirror please.”
Aggie shook her head. “You might want to stay up here for a while. It’s going to take some time to get the house right again after last night.”
“Well, forgive me for having a party. I didn’t realize it would give you actual work to do, how inconsiderate of me.” She brightened as Aggie handed her the antique mirror. It had belonged to her mother, who was perfect in every way and so the mirror was too. Her expression faded slightly as she took in her appearance.
Without a stitch of makeup and that godforsaken light that was slipping through her heavy curtains, she was looking quite… ragged. There was no other way to put it. Sylvia frowned at the graying curls of reddish hair that were sticking out in all directions. Her creamy white skin, always her strongest feature as her nose lacked “character” and her thin lips were indistinct, was dreadfully lined. She would need another session with Seamus immediately, she thought. A few herbal remedies and one of his little rituals and she’d be tight and fit in no time.
She wasn’t going to inject her face with those ridiculous chemical concoctions. Only aging, desperate women did such things. But a few Eastern remedies always righted the wrongs.
Aggie sighed. “You should eat something. Here. I brought it from downstairs.”
Sylvia glanced down at the plate of limp appetizers and blanched. “You’re joking.”
“There’s nothing left in the house!” Aggie replied, exasperated. “That French friend of yours thought it would be funny to cook with everything in the refrigerator. So here. Some of his ‘Summer Mix.'” She nudged the little corn and tomato concoction closer to her. It, at least, looked faintly appetizing. Sylvia’s stomach rumbled. She ignored it. “Oh, and someone from the diner called for you,” Aggie added.
“It’s a restaurant,” Sylvia mumbled. “Why are they calling? What’s happening?” She scowled past the plate and at her own phone, the voicemail light blinking red.
Aggie eyed her. “What?” Sylvia asked. She narrowed her eyes. “Out with it, Aggie. What did they want?”
“Someone’s at the diner asking for you. Pet-pet something.”
“Pet something?” Sylvia didn’t bother trying to hide her horror. “Pet what? What?”
“Her name. It was something with Pet. And her last name was like yours, mistress.”Aggie’s eyes were sharp, judging. It was the same expression she’d had when Sylvia had sat on Monsieur Ralphio’s lap the night before.
“What? That’s-” Sylvia stopped. “You’re certain? That’s what they said?” She had no family. No parents, no relatives at all. Just an ex-husband who was dead, of which he deserved nothing less, the bastard. There was no one.
Except. But no. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Sylvia swallowed, her mouth dry. The pain wasn’t gone, not by a longshot, but for the time being she ignored that too and swung out of bed. “Get my clothes. Get my things. Now, Aggie.”
She needed a drink.
“Aggie! Step on it for God’s sake!”
“It’s this car! This stupid car!” Aggie shouted back. They were put-putting along the main road in one of Sylvia’s antique cars and the blasted thing barely tipped over at twenty-five miles per hour.
Still, the little tin can had cost her a fortune. Sylvia scowled and clutched her sunglasses as the wind threatened to snatch them off her face. “We wouldn’t be in this thing,” she shouted back to Aggie as they zipped, or puttered, through the open air, “if you hadn’t driven Priscilla into a damn mailbox!”
“I told you, Eduardo was driving!” Aggie had a death grip on the giant wheel. She looked the same way she did when she piloted the boat around the marina. “Why are we going to the diner?” she shouted.
“It’s a restaurant.” Sylvia waved gaily to a farmer on his tractor. So charming, she thought with gritted teeth, and tried to ignore the way the idiot country boy shook his head at her.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Sylvia screamed back and this time, the pain shot through her head at the same time a gale-force wind took her amber sunglasses. “Stop! STOP!”
Aggie wrenched the wheel to the right and the little red toy shot off the road and into the dirt, which clouded up around them. Sylvia seized her throat with her slim hands and gagged. “My god, are you trying to kill us?”
Aggie was breathing heavily and as the dust settled, she started to laugh. Sylvia stared at her. “What is wrong with you? We could’ve been killed!”
“We were going five miles a hour,” Aggie gasped out, laughing. “We couldn’t even kill a gopher at that speed.”
Sylvia shook her head and adjusted the scarf that was barely keeping her head on her neck. “You’ve lost it, Agatha. You’ve completely lost it. Well, I hope you can get yourself together long enough to go back and find my sunglasses!”
That shut her up. Aggie sighed. “I told you not to wear them in the convertible. This happens every time.”
“Yes, well,” Sylvia smiled sweetly. “You’re always so good at finding them. Hurry up, will you?” She nudged her maid off the death trap and back towards the field where her amber babies had skittered off like a diamond-encrusted tumbleweed.
“First, you say we’re in a hurry to get to the diner,” Aggie muttered. “And now we’re making pit stops.”
“It’s a restaurant, you old bag,” Sylvia leaned back in the leather upholstered chair and sighed. It had rained that morning. The air was still damp and smelled like manure and wet grass. Her slacks were already prickled with mud from the road. Sylvia groaned over the linen, though it was slight when compared to her current predicaments.
Like her sunglasses. And the child that had suddenly appeared. The child with her last name.
The one she’d tried so hard to forget.
They heard the car first, of course.
Tom leaned back against the wall of his shop and put a finger in the air. “Hear that?” he said to his son.
Bobby was sixteen, had his hands full of grease while working on an engine that refused to turn over, and he rolled his eyes. “What?”
“That,” Tom said with his signature slow drawl, “is the sound of trouble.” Father and son looked up and over the porch rail as the antique car came roaring around the corner and down the road, though it was more like jerking and heaving down the road. They winced at the same time as the old jalopy chugged out a sinister puff of black smoke behind it. Puff, puff, croak, puff, boom.
Tom wasn’t surprised when the heap swerved toward his shop, sputtered and stopped. He shook his head and pushed the cap back on his head as the woman driving tumbled out of the front seat, the fashion plate next to her trying to be graceful even though her hair was sticking up and her sunglasses had a leaf stuck in them. “I told you not to drive this car anymore, woman,” Tom yelled out to her, over the engine’s roar.
They were like a cartoon- one tall, one squat. One in heels, the other tennis shoes. One shaking her head and looking regretful and the other tripping over her heels, looking ragged and like she was trying to slice him open with her eyes.
“Mr. Mulpepper,” the tall one said. She had on too much lipstick if Tom Mulpepper’s opinion counted for anything. She ripped the sunglasses off her face and glared, stumbling as she approached the porch. “I thought you were going to fix my car- not cut the breaks and put my life in mortal danger!”
Tom crossed his arms over his barrel chest. “I fixed it fine.”
“You call this,” Sylvia Mathers hissed, waving her arms at her antique car, “fixed?” The car coughed. “I pity the poor souls who are driving around with children and small dogs in cars that you claim are fixed!”
“Woman,” he said, taking a step forward. As he expected, she recoiled from his grease-stained hands like he was on fire. “I told you it was not safe for driving. Not the way you drive it.”
“Hey!” The short woman said now. She put her hands on her hips.
“No offense, Aggie,” Tom said with a friendly wave. “It’s not your fault she’s always screamin’ ‘Step on it!’ in a car that’s not suited to go more than twenty miles per hour!” Sylvia narrowed her eyes at his high-pitched impression of her.
Sylvia glared and threw the keys at him. They hit Bobby in the shoulder. “If you weren’t the only mechanic for thirty miles, we would have words, sir. Gah, I can’t do this now. Aggie, my things! Let’s go!” And she turned and flounced off, aiming for the diner she owned across the street. “Move!”
Tom watched her go, a skinny mess in heels and a dress that was far too fancy for a regular Monday morning. He shook his head.
Bobby picked up the keys, they had a feather sewn into the key ring, and handed them up to his father. “You about done with your morning fun?” his son said wryly and Tom snatched the keys back.
“Don’t be a wise guy.” He sighed and looked at the old heap that was blocking his drive. It suddenly gave one last sputter and seemed to shudder, dark smoke billowing out from its hood. Not only that, it had disturbed the great tree behind it and a cascade of figs suddenly rained down, pelting the windshield. “Great.”
Elvira saw her stomping up the walk in a tear. She turned away from the window and looked down at the sad-eyed redhead in the booth. “You wanted to see Sylvia Mathers,” she told her.
“Be careful what you wish for.” Elvira could hear Letta’s high-pitched voice from across the diner, greeting their boss and expressing careful surprise at the unexpected visit.
“Oh, shut up, Letta.” Sylvia threw her bag at Aggie, who had a smudge of dirt across her cheek and looked like she’d seen better mornings, and stalked over to Elvira. “You called me, Elvira?” And then she did a double-take at the redhead in the booth, sucking in a breath.
Elvira bit her cheek, studying the pair of them as they studied each other. “Yup. Petula here came in a while ago, asking for you. Sorry for the intrusion of your morning.”
Sylvia’s lips pursed into a thin, tight line. “Thank you for calling me.” Abruptly, she grabbed Elvira’s arm and dragged her away from the booth. “You didn’t, erm, tell anyone about this, did you?”
Elvira glanced over the boss’s shoulder where Letta was practically sitting on top of the counter, straining to hear every word. She didn’t have to look to know that the work and chatter in the kitchen had stopped either. She looked Sylvia in the eye. “Well, everyone here knows.” She shrugged as Sylvia turned pink in the gills. “It’s a small di- restaurant,” she continued. “In a small town. She your daughter or something, Sylvia?”
Sylvia narrowed her eyes into slits and then, like a snap of her fingers, an expression of pure sweetness crossed her face. “Do you have any of that wonderful sweet potato bread leftover from yesterday, Elvira?” she asked, her voice dripping with honey.
They stared at each other. Sylvia batted her eyelashes. Elvira considered the stack of bills on her kitchen table. “Yes,” Elvira replied. “Would you like a piece brought to the booth?”
“The table, yes.” Sylvia smiled and smoothed down her sophisticated do, fixing her cat-eyed gaze on the girl who watched them from the corner, the girl with her very eyes. “And then give us some privacy, would you, dear?”
Once Elvira was off and running, it only took a scathing glare from Sylvia and the other members of her staff scattered like cockroaches. Letta dropped her head and began whistling so loudly she nearly drowned out the music playing overhead.
She walked up to the booth and smoothed a hand over her hair, aware of how ragged she must look after the morning she’d had. “Petula.” The name got caught in her throat like a burr.
For her part, Petula peered up with warm eyes and a saintly expression of peace. Her red hair was sopping wet and plastered to her neck and shoulders though Sylvia knew it hadn’t rained in nearly a week. “Hello, Aunt.”
Another word that stuck in her throat. Sylvia waved a hand and sat down across from her. “What are you doing here?” she hissed, her head low. She caught Letta looking and this time her eyes of death did nothing. Letta stared.
“Can’t a girl come and visit her favorite aunt?” Petula asked.
“You gave me your word that you would never return.”
Petula opened her mouth to reply as Elvira returned with the plate of sliced bread. Before Sylvia could stop her, Petula fluttered her eyelashes and demured politely if she could order something else. “I’m in the mood for something sweet.”
“Do you have any chocolate?” Elvira nodded with a frown, her gaze flitting to Sylvia and then discreetly away. “Wonderful.” Petula smiled broadly and dropped her chin to her palm, her voice playful. “It’ll be just the thing.” Her eyes flashed to Sylvia’s and only Sylvia saw the shadow there, the threat, beneath the cloying sweetness. “We have so much to catch up on.”
The arrival of the young redhead was the talk of the town for the whole day. Nowhere more so than the pub on Middlebury Road, where gossip was treated like a bowl of salted nuts and passed around until said bowl was dry.
Tom Mulpepper wiped a smudge of engine oil from his thumb and lifted his beer. “Old Hat told me she looks just like Sylvia, right down to the chin.”
“You don’t say.”
He leaned toward his friend Barry. “She’s young too. Too young to be her daughter.”
Barry snorted into his coffee. “I should hope not. What a miracle of nature that would be.”
“Crime of nature, more like.”
Lucy rolled her eyes as she wiped the counter in front of them. “You two are worse than a pair of old hens,” she chided them. She blew a curl of blond hair from her eyes and fixed a drink for a patron down the bar, without missing a beat. “And she’s not old at all. She can’t be sixty yet.”
“Can I have another pint of Guiness please, Lucy?”
She scowled at Old Hat who looked seconds from falling off his stool. “This is your fault, you know.” His bleary eyes widened as she continued to scold. “Spreading talk. It’s none of our business who this girl is and what she wants. Is everyone in this town so bored that this is the topic of conversation?” Her voice had risen to a dangerous pitch and the pub fell quiet. It seemed every conversation in the place had centered around the mystery girl and the woman who owned half of their town.
Mike, who was working the register, gave Lucy a poke in the ribs and she sighed. “All right, all right.” She threw up her hands and the chatter resumed. She went back to get Hat his drink. “It’s a small town,” Mike reminded her quietly. “People will always talk.” He was about her age and had taken over ownership of the pub from his father, who now preferred to drink himself to the grave in the privacy and quiet of his own home at the edge of town.
Lucy sighed once more and went back to the counter to attack a stubborn ring that had formed where Barry’s coffee mug had been. “I know. I’m just tired. And if I hear one more word about Petula Mathers tonight. Jesus, Mike!” She jumped back as a roll of pennies dropped from her friend’s hand and right onto her foot. She winced and rubbed it against her leg. He had frozen and was staring at the register as if it had bitten him. “Are you all right? What’s wrong with you?”
Not only had he frozen but he’d gone white as well. He looked at Lucy, his dark eyes wide. “What did you say her name was?”
Everyone stared when Mike put down his rag, flipped open the bar top and walked out. One of the pints was under the tap, flowing over. Lucy goggled after him. “Where the hell are you going?” she called but he was already out the door.
He walked down Middlebury Road and turned right and kept going until the diner was in his sights. When someone hollered for him across the street, it felt as if the words just drifted by him, as if they just evaporated when they hit his ears.
She was still there. The chattering hens at the pub had said as much but Mike wasn’t really listening until they said her name. He stood on the sidewalk, as frozen outside the window pane as he had been behind his own bar.
Same red hair, same half smile. She was in a booth and he could make out her profile, the careful grace of it. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and eased her arm over the back of the booth. Mike felt his heart just stop cold in his chest. It was the last of him to go.
She looked the same, exactly the same. Was it possible? She glanced up just then and Mike’s body moved of its own accord, into the shadows of a towering oak. He stayed, hidden, until someone ran up beside him, gasping. “I was callin’ for you,” Pete said. Pete was thirty-two, same as Mike, but looked older for it. He doubled over and grasped his belly, where he held most of his nightly beers. “Your nephew called for you. At the bar. You left your phone.” The words came out in gasps.
They were words that came through, loud and clear, the first Mike heard. He stared at Pete, dumbfounded at the timing of it. “You’re sure? Freddy’s on the phone? Now?”
“Yeah, said it was important. What are you doing here anyw-” Pete glanced over at the window and his eyes widened. “Oh, hey. That’s her, isn’t it? Why are you-”
“I got the message, Pete,” Mike snapped back. He turned and gave him a shove back toward the bar. “Come on, let’s go. I just- I needed something for the bar at the diner and you made me forget what it was.”
Over Pete’s protests, Mike shoved him down the street, towards the bar, away from the diner.
Away from the redhead who sat in it, who had just been so close to hearing her own son’s name. The son she’d never met.
Petula had stayed in the booth for hours. This hadn’t been her intention, not at all, but she’d soon grown comfortable on the plush leather seat and the wait staff, a particularly nosy bunch, had begun trying to eavesdrop under the guise of bringing her every single dessert in the case to sample, one after the other. And Petula was damn hungry.
Her dear old aunt had left after it had been clear that Petula was not going to tell her why she was suddenly there, in town, when she had sworn never to return. Instead, Petula had sat back, twirled her fork through a bite of creamy, dreamy cheescake, and they parried back and forth, like a tiresome tennis match. Their exchange unfolded as follows:
Sylvia sipped her tea, forced a smile. “What are you doing here, Pet?”
Petula smiled back. “The town’s changed so much since I’ve been gone. Was that an actual stop light I saw on King Street?”
They both laughed, laughs neither of them felt in the slightest. “It’s been so long since you’ve been home,” Sylvia replied sweetly. “How many years has it been, anyway?”
“Not long enough if there’s still only one bar in town. Wouldn’t you agree, aunt?”
“I’m curious.” Her aunt’s smile stiffened, just a touch. “Why the impromptu visit if you hate it here so much?”
Petula’s hair was long dry now, long enough to twirl around her finger. For the first time, she turned to her aunt and looked her dead in the eye. “I don’t hate it here at all. It’s you I can’t stand.” She said it with a lilt in her voice and when Nosy Waitress Number 1 walked up with yet another plate, Petula ignored the weight that suddenly pressed down on her chest. She smiled brightly at the woman and accepted the marbled pound cake as if she was being granted an award.
That was what had sent her aunt packing for the door. She didn’t say a word, merely watched Petula eat her cake, and then she stood up, wrapped her coat over her shoulders and headed for the door. Under the glare of the horrible diner lights, she looked far older than she would’ve wished and decades more tired than when she’d stormed in earlier.
Perhaps Petula should’ve felt sorry for that. Instead, she reached for the cake.
Lily Newell put down the phone and glanced down at her grandson. Freddy had gone back to his homework. He slipped his headphones back on and went back to the pile of books on the table, unaware of how strange his father had sounded on the phone, how strained his voice had been. How odd it had been for him to declare that he was coming home early though his shift at the bar had barely begun.
At fifteen, Mike’s son was a study in contrasts. His hair was wild and unkempt, a blue streak dyed down the center, but his clothes were always neat and spotlessly clean, almost preppy in style. He wore spikes on one wrist and a watch from his grandfather on the other. He blasted his music at all hours, driving them all to distraction, but his grades were perfect. What was more, he seemed to crave school like others drink. Lily leaned back against the counter, watching him tap away at math, happy as a clam. He may not utter more than a grunt to her all evening but he was happy just the same.
Lily started as the wind picked up outside, sending the shutters flying against the window frame. She’d been jumpy all evening, truth be told, though if pressed she would be unable to say why. Lily sighed and finished what she’d started before Freddy had leapt up for the phone to call his father, needing an answer for his homework. She wiped up a drip of vanilla ice cream from the side of the blue bowl and scattered the top with a handful of blueberries, cold from the fridge. Blue for your hair, she thought with a secret smile and set the bowl at Freddy’s arm.
He grunted his thanks.
With a snort, she leaned down to give him a kiss on his forehead, just to spot her son standing silently in the door. At thirty-two, her oldest boy filled the frame, as tall as his father and grandfather before him, nearly as wide too. He was as white as a ghost. He locked eyes with his mother and she knew, instantly. Hadn’t she waited for this day, she’d think later. Hadn’t she dreaded it for fifteen years. “She’s back,” she whispered. Freddy did not hear.
Mike nodded once. “She’s back.”
Lily ushered Mike into the other room and shut the door behind them. “Are you sure?”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Yes, Ma. I’m sure. I saw her myself.” Red hair, sweet face, underlying treachery and deceit. He grimaced. “She looks the same as she did years ago. Is that even possible?” He knew how much the years had aged him. He faced a different man every time he looked in the mirror. There was a streak of gray in his hair, a premature one, that matched the blue streak in his son’s, like a before and after.
He couldn’t meet his mother’s eyes at first, couldn’t. When he did, they were soft and sad. “Fifteen years.” She swallowed hard and he saw her gazing at the door and beyond it, to where his son was sitting at the kitchen table, oblivious to the world and to them. “Do we say something? Do we tell him?”
The uncertainty in her voice cut through him. He looked at her, at a loss as well. He’d raced home from the bar, needing to be at home, needing to see his mother and his son, at the table, with his own eyes. “I don’t know.” He sighed. “I think I need to talk to her first.” His mother scowled. “See what her plans are, why she’s here. Ma.”
Lily Newell was the quiet one of the family but she’d always been fierce when it came to her boys. She looked now, standing in the darkened dining room, like Pet Mathers was seconds away from marching through their front door and dragging Freddy out with her. “What? I’m fine.” She shrugged edgily and took a deep, shuddering breath. “All right, I’m not fine. I’m not fine. I want her to disappear. Right now.” But there was something else behind her eyes. She looked at the door again, beyond him. “And yet…”
She sighed, her head in her hand. “The funny thing is that I want to tell him. I want to tell him right away. Isn’t that funny?”
Unbeknownst to them, Freddy stood on the other end of the door, listening to every word.
Elvira had suffered through a long, tiresome shift, gone home, taken a nap, and headed down to the pub for a drink, only to face the same conversation there as she had in the diner all day.
She caught up on all the gossip in just ten minutes from Tom Mulpepper, who was holding court as he usually did at this time of night on a weekday. She shook her head over her usual (Irish Coffee) at her usual table (right corner, beneath the stained glass window of St. Michael holding a pint glass) as Tom loudly recalled the day’s events.
Elvira, being at work all day at Smitty’s, usually had a good vantage point for town gossip. Not much transpired in the middle of Cliffwood without someone from the diner, smack dab in the center of town, being among the first to notice. Usually, she liked her silent one-up game with Mulpepper. She’d sit over her drink and think, “Yup, heard that. Saw that. Knew that.” But today, she was tired. And if she heard someone else mutter over Petula Mathers, she was liable to scream.
It took a few gulps of her drink to realize that the chatter over Sylvia Mathers’ mysterious relative was not going to die down. And when she heard old Barry muse, once more, loudly and drunkenly, about the girl’s intentions in town, Elvira slammed down her mug.
Barry, Tom and Jessie Clemmons all looked up at her, startled by the way she threw her chair back against the table and tossed on her coat. “What’s crawled up your behind, Elvira?” Jessie snapped. Her chair had jostled Jessie’s drink but that was the least of Elvira’s offenses against Jessie over the years. They glared at each other.
“Just tired as hell of all this talk, is all,” Elvira snapped back in return. She was halfway out the door before she really knew what she was doing. “Y’all want to know what that redhead’s doing here?” She threw open the heavy wooden door. “Why don’t we just ask her?” And it slammed behind her.
She headed across the street to the diner, wasn’t looking and slammed right into the girl herself.
Elvira was in such a riled up state that when she stepped back and caught sight of the girl, she did a double-take. “You.”
“Me.” For a split second, the girl’s mask of wide-eyed innocence slipped and Elvira saw a flash of steel wariness. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”
“Not so fast.” The street was dark, the only lights coming from the pub and the diner across the way. Elvira stepped up to block the girl’s path and put her hands on her hips. “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
The girl slid her eyes behind her to the pub and for a moment, Elvira wondered if she was even old enough to drink. On the street, alone, she looked younger than she had all day. “Why not?” She replied with sugar sweetness. “It’s a bar. And I need a drink. Excuse me.”
“Look, who are you, exactly?” Elvira narrowed her eyes and they did the dance again as Petula stepped to the right and El stepped with her. “And don’t give me that wide-eyed innocence crap. I was there at the diner all day, I saw the look on your face when you were talking to Sylvia.”
There it was, that flash of steel again. Petula narrowed her own eyes. “What was your name again? Waitress, was it?” Elvira sucked in a breath. “Mind your own business.” She tossed her red hair over her shoulder and that was her mistake, right there, because Elvira recognized the movement. It hit her like a sensory memory, like when she walked into the diner in the early morning on days when Manny was making sugary apple donuts and Elvira was suddenly not at work but in her mother’s kitchen, standing at her knee.
She saw Petula’s face in her memory. She was younger, smaller and her hair was not red but plain Jane brown. “I remember you,” Elvira said softly and both the fake innocence and wariness faded away on the girl’s face, replaced by fear. “You’re Aggie’s-”
“Shut up!” The girl hissed and she was pale now as she stepped back and tripped off the curb, looking for all the world like she’d just walked over her own grave.
Sylvia wasn’t a fool. She knew the moment Elvira called just who was waiting for her at the din- erm, restaurant. When they threw the keys to Priscilla at Mulpepper and the red haze of her justified rage had cleared, Sylvia slowed her walk to a stroll. “Aggie,” she said thoughtfully. She dusted her slacks and grimaced at the grime now gracing her fingertips. “Could you be a dear and run to the grocer while I tend to this?”
“Oh, you know, things.” Sylvia racked her brain desperately. “I’m out of that lavender soap I love so much. And uh, we need kibble for Mr. Bobbins. And toys for Mr. Bobbins. And, you know, other things that cats enjoy.”
Aggie narrowed her eyes and said nothing. This nervous chatter was nothing new, especially the morning after a party where the previous night’s events were still largely a mystery, but now the woman was referencing a Syphnx cat that had been dead for six weeks. Whatever had made her so uncomfortable was deep enough to make her forget the 3 day wake she’d held for that damned feline beast. She’d forced Aggie to recite a sonnet, for God’ sake.
So Aggie gave her an exaggerated bow (which made Sylvia roll her eyes, as intended) and stayed back. She turned as if to go and then stayed behind the corner of Gelbert’s General Store, watching as the woman righted herself, smoothed her hair and sailed into Smitty’s like the Queen of Sheba.
As soon as she was inside, Aggie tiptoed up to the door and peered through the little window. She watched as Sylvia approached a booth in the corner, where a young woman sat, her hair the color of caramel, much like Sylvia’s had been, when she was a girl herself.
Aggie’s body realized who the girl was before her brain caught up- all at once, her heart began to beat faster. Her palms started to warm. She blinked the mixture of tears and sweat from her eyes. When the door behind her opened, Aggie took a deep, gasping breath, causing the man who’d just entered to exclaim in alarm. He wanted to help her outside but Aggie refused. She wanted to stay where she was, at the window, her daughter, long believed lost forever, on the other side.
There was a moment when Aggie thought she might be spotted, seen, by the girl in the booth. Fear grasping at her with both hands, she ducked down and away from the door, reeling. She caused quite a scene as she stumbled off the sidewalk.
She did not think of Sylvia or her duties. She walked, dazed, down the street and into the town park. She sat on a bench and sat there, staring into the cove of willow trees, for what felt like forever.
Only when the sky began to darken did her thoughts darken too, as she finally turned away from the baby she’d been forced to give up and the woman who’d conspired to take her. The woman she now worked for. Aggie’s eyes narrowed.
There were many places in Cliffwood and the surrounding towns where Sylvia Mathers was known to make a spectacle of herself. If she wanted to be seen, she could be found in the lobby of the Claraton Hotel or at The Piano Key in Bridgeton.
There was only one place she would go to hide.
It took Aggie only minutes to retrieve the temporary car from Mulpepper and minutes more before she arrived on the edge of town.
She found Sylvia in the far corner of The Waffle House. She had a silk scarf wrapped over her head and her largest sunglasses, covering nearly half her face, and was tucked in a booth, facing a table full of waffles, all of them stacked high and the nearest to her was drowning in butter and blueberry syrup.
She could’ve had better waffles at her own damned diner. But then people in town would know that when Sylvia Mathers was feeling guilty, or blue, she liked to drown her sorrows in enough crispy carbohydrates to feed a small nation.
Aggie couldn’t see her employer’s eyes, or even her eyebrows, behind those shades but she knew they were as wide as saucers when Aggie stalked up to the table and slid into the booth opposite her. The thin hand that grasped the fork shook slightly and clattered against the plate. “Aggie-”
“What did she want?” Aggie cut her off quietly. She was feeling oddly calm. Her own hands, worn from more work than age, clasped together lightly on the formica tabletop. The gaze she fixed on the woman across from her was steady too.
”You tell me everything. Now. Right now.”
Sylvia’s mouth was dry and her stomach was heavy. She wiped the drifts of powdered sugar off her trembling hands and faced her maid across the table. Aggie, who was ten years her junior and had been with her family since she was a girl of fifteen. Who had been her own personal maid for almost twenty-two years. Who had, just that morning, pulled Sylvia off the piano in the sitting room where she’d fallen asleep, carried her up the stairs on her warrior back and deposited her in her bed.
Aggie had learned quite a few things about Sylvia and her family during that time but she kept them all to herself. She was a vault of information, of lies and terrible secrets and humiliating slights. And she had few requirements of her mistress. The truth was one of them.
Sylvia wondered briefly what she would do without Aggie. Then, she met her eyes across the table, removed her sunglasses from her face and set them down. “She wants money, of course. And to cause no shortage of trouble.”
“She called you this morning.”
“No.” Sylvia narrowed her eyes. “Ursula, the waitress, she called me.”
“Whatever.” Sylvia waved a hand. “I knew who it was the instant she described her. I didn’t tell you,” she continued quickly, before Aggie could ask, “Because I wanted to be sure. I needed to be sure that it was her.”
Aggie’s face was like stone. She was unreadable. “And when you saw her? You didn’t call then. You didn’t tell me to come. You kept me away.”
Sylvia felt something inside her harden. She hoped it wasn’t the waffles. “Yes. I did.” She shook her head in disgust. “She called me Aunt.”
Aggie’s words came out as a slap. “You are her aunt.” Sylvia glared at her. “She’s yours as well as mine. Though I know you’ve done everything you could to erase her.”
“Not enough, apparently.”
Aggie slammed her hand down on the table, her expression no longer stone but red with fury. “Aggie!” Sylvia said, her hand pressed to her heart, her eyes wide.
“No! You have said and done enough.” Aggie started to rise. “I want to see my daughter. I want to see her right now.”
When Sylvia informed Aggie at the Waffle House that she had no idea where the girl was, it was the truth. She had no idea where the little schemer had wandered off to; she certainly had no idea that at that very moment, Petula Mathers was breaking into her aunt’s mansion on Mathers Hill Road.
Pet herself wouldn’t have called it “breaking in” since it took less than five minutes for her to find the spare key. It was exactly where her feckless father had said it would be, on the ledge of the third window, above the pogonias. Pet let herself in, amused to see that though it was dark, every light in the house was on. The Mathers were not known for their conservation efforts.
She dropped her bag by the door and kicked off her flats, a part of her pleased to see that she had trailed in a fair amount of dirt. She caught a glimpse of red hair but was relieved to see it was only an ornate mirror in the hall. It faced an enormous portrait of Aunt Sylvia, the largest oil painting Pet had ever seen outside a museum. She rolled her eyes at the figure in the painting, reclined on a loveseat and draped in furs. “Subtle. As always.” Her words echoed in the hall.
Her stomach spoke up too as she wandered the halls and she found her way to the silver and steel kitchen before pitching a yawn. It was late. Perhaps a bite to eat before bed, she thought, as surely her aunt would be home shortly and Petula was far too tired for another scene. She moved quickly through the kitchen. A jar of olives went into her pocket. A sleeve of water crackers, half-filled. The pantries were pathetic.
But the fridge was a glory. Pet smiled at the shelves of silver trays and their remnants from her aunt’s last party. She grabbed the tray closest to her and used her free hand to grab the handle of a champagne bottle (almost full! and no need to bother with the cork. Or glasses, she decided giddily.)
It took only a few more moments to find an empty room on the third floor. Pet deposited her wares on the antique dresser and shut the door behind her. She collapsed into the overstuffed arm chair in the corner and coughed as the motion kicked up dust.
Her stomach was full and she was halfway through the bottle when her phone begin to purr in her pocket. Pet growled at the sight of the number and the pleasant buzz was gone in an instant. But before she could demand why he was calling her, now, after all this time, after everything had finally been set into motion, she heard the front door being thrown open downstairs.
Petula pulled herself out of her chair, the phone oddly silent at her ear, and crept to the side of the bedroom door. She heard the breathing on the phone but it did not register that she should worry or wonder about it in the least; she was caught of guard by the ominous feeling that had swept over her as the footsteps out on the stairs, and then in the hall, grew louder and louder and louder still.
She dropped the phone on the carpet. Fear gripped her whole body as the door to her room was thrown open. How had she known to be afraid? How did she guess that the footsteps in the hall did not belong to her aunt at all? It was as if she had known, from the instant the front door opened below, that the person who now faced her in the doorway would be holding a pistol aimed right for her heart.
Petula stared down the barrel of the gun. It was aimed right for her heart.
The champagne made her dizzy. It was only when the glass slipped from her hand and fell noiselessly to the floor did she realize it was because her hands were shaking. Across from her, the gun shook too. Like looking in a mirror.
In more ways than one. Petula stared at the red-haired woman who matched her in every physical way. Same pert nose. Same light blue eyes. “Rose,” she croaked out and she grasped at her slender throat as if it betrayed her, revealing her fear. “What are you- how did you find me?” She stepped back, tripped over the glass and fell to the floor with a gasp.
Her twin stood over her, the gun now steady in one hand. Petula pushed past the champagne haze and ordered herself to focus, to take in the details and to keep her eyes glassy and blank, just as she was taught. Her sister wore dark jeans and boots and a sweatshirt. Her eyes were cold and calm. She studied Petula with disdain. All of this was typical.
What was not typical was the gun she carried. It wasn’t the 9mm Rose Mathers used in her day job as a big city cop. It was smaller and had a pearled handle, almost delicate. There was a deep scratch on the barrel. It was the kind of gun you wiped clean and tossed down a drain. Petula knew it because she had one just like it. Several, in fact.
Rose nudged Petula’s leg with her boot and gestured with the gun. “In the chair.”
“Are you going to shoot me?” Petula scrambled back like a spider and found the chair. She made her voice tremble even as she turned to steel on the inside. She’d pounce on her sister if she needed to, no way she was dying. Not like this. Not in the old bat’s house.
Rose didn’t answer. Petula’s way was to wheedle and charm. Rose’s was more straightforward. She moved fast and clocked her sister on the head with the butt of the gun. Petula slumped out of the chair and onto the floor, the world suddenly a much darker place.
March 1, 1981
Frank Mathers was bored.
He sat out on the back patio with a cigar and stared out at the trees. Stupid old house. Stupid one horse town. (Literally, there was one horse in it!) He took two long drags from the cigar and put it out. They were his father’s Cubans and if the old man had been lurking and saw Frank, he’d cuff him good in the head. Just for good measure, Frank mashed the cigar into the ashtray. He didn’t even like cigars.
Behind him in the parlor, there was a sound like a chandelier breaking. His sister’s laugh drifted out onto the patio. Frank cringed at the sound and sunk down further into the chair. He’d rather face his father than Sylvia, especially these days, so close to her damned wedding. She was insufferable on a good day and wedding planning had sent the staff scattering at the sight of her.
He shut his eyes, dreaming of Paris and Prague. In his mind, he packed his bag and threw it over his shoulder. He counted the cash in his pocket, and made a stop at the old man’s safe for good measure, he thumbed his passport and grabbed an orange, fresh from one of their trees, put it in his pocket. It felt so good to step out the front door, even if it was just in his head.
But he’d made a promise to stay for the wedding. His mother had pleaded, his father had demanded, Sylvia had cried and shrieked but that wasn’t what had done it. Frank scowled and wished he had a drink. 30 years old and he couldn’t get a drink in his own damned house.
There was a noise to his right, someone clearing his throat. Frank sighed but when he opened one eye, he saw it was a girl. The new maid. Sylvia’s new maid. A gift from Bo, her fiance, who was the type of person who gave people as gifts.
She was small and slight and thin with dark hair, her features in that place between pretty and plain. She was studying him with cautious eyes. Frank frowned. “Erm, can I help you? Or something?” Staff made him nervous. He never had his parents’ imperious way with them.
The girl hesitated but then, when she spoke, she surprised him with a clear, confident voice. “I’m Agatha, sir,” she said, lifting her chin. “I’m Miss Mathers’ new maid. She said she smelled cigar smoke out here and asked me to politely request that you put it out. She says it’s filling the parlor.” She glanced down at the glass table beside him and lifted an eyebrow. “But I see you’ve already put it out.”
“Right. Sure.” Frank scowled at her and then, when she merely looked at him, he felt something in him give out and release. She looked at him the same way Colleen did, patient and bemused. Just the one similarity to the housekeeper who’d raised him, the same woman who’d asked him plainly and simply to stay and see his sister marry, made Frank change his mind about the new maid. He decided to be kind to her.
Frank stood at the bar and swirled the drink in his glass. “What’s the point of a rehearsal anyway?”
Aggie took the drink from his hand and set it on the bar. It was early and he’d already dropped one drink. “There’s a rehearsal so the best man could get stinking drunk the night before the wedding.”
Frank scowled at her and then past her where Jasper Callahan, the groom, was charming the pants off a waitress in one of the parlor’s darker corners. “Best man my ass.” He felt her reproving look and shrugged uneasily. “Sorry.”
Together, they watched the scene unfold as Sylvia called through the room for Jasper and the crowds parted. “Here it comes,” Frank muttered under his breath.
Jasper didn’t ease off of his flirtations, just ignored his fiance as she marched across the room, her long pink dress swirling around her ankles, and cooed for him to come talk to Senator McGary.
Frank felt a stirring of sympathy for his tyrannical sister. She loved a party but even she seemed to be having trouble with this one. He saw his father move toward the pair in the corner. No one but Aggie noticed Frank shrink back towards the bar at the sight of his father, tall and in his best suit, walking smoothly over to his only daughter. He took her firmly by the elbow, so firmly that she winced. “Leave the man be, Sylvia.” His father said with a charming smile. “You’re causing a scene.” Frank felt his sympathy for her deepen and darken.
He watched Sylvia steady herself. She smoothed back her red hair and extracted her arm from her father’s painful grip. “Perhaps you’d like to speak to the Senator then, Father. He’s in the study. I’m sure he’s eager to hear your own plans for re-election.” And she smiled brightly and clapped her hands to invite the guests to the piano for a song.
“Here.” Frank looked down as Aggie handed him a full glass of scotch. She filled her own glass, with the good stuff, Frank noted, and clinked his glass with her own. “The hell with it.”
“Wait, wait. I want to say something.”
She giggled as they stumbled forward and crashed through the branches of one of the garden’s poplar trees. “No! No more. No more toasting.”
Frank tightened his grip on her arm and raised his glass. He had found a woman’s hat somewhere and had it on its head, the brim tilted down over one eye. “To my big sister Sylvia. And her loving husband Jasper. He may sometimes forget her first name but we all know it’s the last name that matters. Clink!” He swung his glass toward her but she had dropped her arm to her side. Frank frowned and stumbled sideways. “Ag, you’re supposed to cheers or it’s bad luck.” She wasn’t looking at him but ahead, the laughter gone from her eyes.
Frank felt his stomach tighten at the voice. “Father.” He tried to smile and raised his glass towards the hazy figure of his old man, who stood under the trellis. “Happy almost wedding to you.” He felt Aggie’s hand tighten on his arm now and found himself staring at it. How small it was. He looked too long and the floor swung up to meet him.
His father didn’t even look at him, stretched out on the floor he noticed. Frank shoved the brim of the hat up off his head and tried to get his balance as Francis Mathers Sr. fixed his stare on Aggie instead. “You’re the new maid, I presume.”
Aggie, who’d matched him drink for drink Frank had noted, was doing a better job of staying on her two feet. In fact, she stood shock still and seemed to regard Frank Sr. with the same intensity. “We’ve met three times, actually, Mr. Mathers. Once this morning in the kitchen, in fact.” Frank stopped struggling and stared up at her, amazed at the cold calm of her voice.
“I didn’t realize I was now paying my staff to correct me. And to imbibe my alcohol.” He adjusted the cuffs on his sleeves. “I imagine such an opinionated young woman would have a preference on how she’s dismissed. What shall it be? Will you go quietly or shall I have you forcibly removed from my sight?”
Aggie took a step forward and put her hands behind her back. She was a foot shorter than the man but to Frank she looked like a sentinel in the dark. She smiled thinly. “I think I prefer you take the matter up with your daughter. Since she hired me. And since she made it clear, from the very first day, that my salary comes from her directly. And not from you. Sir.” She inclined her head and gracefully swooped down to pick Frank up on the floor.
Sylvia liked the rambling estate best at night. She favored the last few minutes of a great party, when a few guests were still about, laughing and sipping champagne, and the rest of the house fell quiet into sleep. But having the place to herself was a close second. It was almost three in the morning when she made her way downstairs for a bite to eat, not in the imperios dining room but the kitchen. She sat down with a plate of ripe, sliced tomatoes, a hunk of bread and the remnants of a cheese tray. She opted for a glass of water instead of wine, rare for her but she did have a big day approaching.
She sat in the quiet and contemplated the wedding that approached. Her fiance was passed out in one of the countless spare rooms, no doubt with some maid or one of the guest’s wives. Sylvia felt her stomach turn and wondered if she shouldn’t have a glass of pinot after all.
She heard a sound behind her and felt her stomach clench in response but it was just Agatha, the new maid. Sylvia sighed. “Are you hungry too?” Whatever instincts to order the girl back to bed or to get her something had seemingly fled with her ability to sleep.
The new maid was short, slim and dark-haired, Sylvia’s polar opposite. She took the seat across from her and pressed her hand to her forehead. “I’d prefer aspirin.”
Syvlia snorted and pushed the glass of water toward her. “It’s hard to keep up with Frank. I gave that up years ago.”
“Your father fired me tonight.”
She raised an eyebrow at that and smiled behind a bite of cheese. “Oh, really? Congratulations.” When Aggie made no moves for her water glass, she picked it up and toasted the girl. “Might be the first time he tries but it won’t be the last. You tell him what I told you to say?”
“Yes.” Aggie grimaced. “It went over as you predicted.”
They sat silently for a while. Sylvia ate and Aggie stared out into the dark, at the full moon. “It’ll be morning soon,” Sylvia said quietly. “The day’s almost here.” There went her stomach again.
Aggie studied her for a long moment. “I can have the car packed in five minutes, you know.” Sylvia stared at her, stunned into silence. “I’m too tired to care if that’s inappropriate to say,” the girl continued and she met Sylvia’s eyes with a measured calm. “What I said to your father was true. You hired me. You need me. And if you want to be gone, we’re gone. Just say the word.”
There was not one person in Sylvia’s life who had ever uttered such words to her. No one had ever put her before her duty, what was expected of her. And for a second, just a split second, she wondered if she should take the girl’s advice and go.
She did not flee in the night. She finished what was on her plate, left Agatha to tidy up the kitchen, and retreated to her room. And the next day, when she was awoken by her day maid, she rose and got ready for her wedding in silence.
Only once did she meet Aggie’s eyes in the mirror. It was while she was having her hair done and the damned woman stuck her in the neck with a diamond-encrusted hairpin. Sylvia had rounded on the woman and unleashed a seething tirade against her, leaving her nearly in tears. Sylvia felt the rage retreat within her and saw Agatha watching her from the edge of her bed, where she was readying the dress. Sylvia saw the pity in the maid’s eyes and almost turned on her too. But there was a knock at the door, a signal from the wedding coordinator that it was almost time. Sylvia forgot about everyone else in the room.
She made it, somehow, into her dress, a slip of white satin from Paris that fit her like a dream. She put on her shoes and took the bouquet of flowers that rested on her vanity. She walked down the hall to the top of the curved stairs. She wished her mother could be there. She wished very badly that someone who loved her could be there.
It was that thought that ruined her. She grabbed the banister and looked down at the sea of people gathered below, so finely attired, all peering up at her as the orchestra began to play. She saw one woman smirk at her from behind her hand. She saw men whispering, discussing business in the corner by the makeshift bar. She saw her brother, weaving at the edge of her proposed path, beside Jasper, who looked hungover and bit back a yawn. Sylvia gripped the banister. “Aggie,” she whispered. But she heard nothing behind her, no one. There was no one there. “Oh, god.”
She started to take a step and stopped. Her legs trembled. And suddenly, she felt a hand touch her shoulder, heard Aggie’s voice in her ear. “Just walk down the stairs and out the front door.”
Sylvia shook all over. Her father, Jasper. All those people. She turned and met Aggie’s eyes. “I can’t.”
“You can.” She thought she saw Aggie’s eyes flicker down to the altar, where Jasper stood beside Sylvia’s brother. “We have to get out of here. Now.” There was a fierceness in her eyes, a certainty, and Sylvia felt the calm extend out of her and into herself.
She walked down the stairs, the music swelling, louder and louder, her heart thrumming in her ears. She walked down the stairs and right out the door, leaving the murmurs of the crowds behind her.
It was fear that drove them first. For the first five hundred miles or so, neither of them said a word. Aggie drove and kept a death grip on the wheel. Sylvia sat in the seat beside her, still in her wedding dress, and every so often, she gave in to the urge to look behind her to see if they were being followed.
They stopped at a crossroads just over the state line and Sylvia Mathers, daughter and heiress to the Mathers fortune, gathered up the folds of her custom-made wedding dress to change clothes in the bathroom of a greasy spoon. She put on a pair of linen pants, a polka dot blouse and stuffed the dress into her suitcase. She was tempted, just for a moment, to leave it in that bathroom but couldn’t bear to dispose of anything so fine in a place so dirty.
She stepped out and used the tissues in her sleeve to swipe at the rouge on her cheeks and the color on her eyes. Down came the pins that kept her tidal wave of red hair. She took her time combing it and pinned the top half of it back over her ears. She studied herself in the mirror and wondered what kind of woman walked away from her own wedding and didn’t even cry. Not a single tear.
She tried to imagine what was happening at the house just then as the room buzzed with gossip and the weight of the scandal reached her father’s understanding. His career, his political aspirations… She shuddered at the thought of him, his white-fisted rage, the way he would no doubt offer quips about his daughter’s “cold feet” and then calmly walk into his study and smash something, maybe a bottle of liquor, against the wall, maybe his own hand. Francis Mathers Sr. preferred to show his true feelings in private. His anger was for closed doors and his family. Sylvia thought of her brother and for a fleeting moment, she prayed and prayed hard that he would read the writing on the wall and leave.
Sylvia swallowed hard and met her own eyes in the mirror. She would never be able to go home, she realized, her chest tightening. It would not be possible. Not while her father lived.
The thought echoed through her as she made her way out of the narrow bathroom and to a counter stool beside Aggie, who had taken a road map with her from the car and unfolded it so she could study the routes over her cup of coffee. Sylvia sat down in silence and nodded with thanks when the waitress came over and poured her a cup of coffee. The two women sat in silence, Aggie staring at the map and Sylvia looking somewhere beyond it.
After two refills of good, strong coffee, Aggie looked up at Sylvia. “So, where are we going anyway?”
She nearly left Sylvia at the Waffle House, that’s how mad she was, but at the last minute, Aggie left the rental car running and the doors unlocked. Sylvia wrenched open the door to the backseat and climbed into the back. Any other day and Aggie would’ve snorted at the sight of her boss attempting to turn a rented Chevy into their Lincoln town car but tonight she was in no mood. She peeled out of the parking lot.
“By all means, Agatha,” Sylvia shouted from the back. “Do try and hit every pot hole in Cliffwood at top speed, would you?” Aggie caught a glimpse of Sylvia’s green face as she pitched from left to right and felt no sympathy. In fact, when she saw the familiar dip in the road at Fallswell Rd, she aimed for it. Sylvia’s swearing filled the car.
“Maybe if you hadn’t eaten your weight in buttermilk waffles,” Aggie snapped back. “Put your belt on.”
They didn’t speak another word to each other until Aggie pulled the rental up the long, winding drive. The mansion was silent and dark and behind its eaves, the moon had risen, swollen with light. In the backseat of the car, Sylvia moaned. “I still don’t understand why you think she’s here.”
“She wasn’t at the diner or the bar. Where else would she go?” Aggie replied.
Her suspicions were confirmed when they spotted the old sedan parked behind a cluster of trees at the far end of the curved drive. But when they walked into the house, it was dark. Aggie moved fast and turned on lights but only Sylvia used her voice. “Petula? Are you here? Anybody?”
They followed a trail of crumbs, a champagne cork and a fallen napkin upstairs. Aggie opened the door to the room on the third floor and stared at the mess that had been left there. A chair was overturned, a plate was on the floor. She reached down and picked up the champagne bottle that was half full and dripped onto the Persian rug. “She was here,” Aggie murmured. “Something’s happened.” But before she could call for Sylvia, Sylvia called for her. She screeched, in fact, and Aggie dropped the bottle, her heart in her throat because Sylvia sounded afraid and she was never really ever afraid.
She followed the sound down the stairs and to the corner of the house, the part of the house that they never, ever used, the one that had once held the study of Frank Mathers Sr. Aggie followed the light into the former study and there, she saw Sylvia, her hands clenched, and with her stood the son of the house, Frank Mathers Jr., helping himself to a stiff drink.
Frank Mathers Jr. had aged well, like the Mathers men before him. At sixty-two, he was gray at the temples and had the same charming smile. He stood where his father’s desk had once been and regarded the two women over a fifth of scotch. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
Sylvia had clasped a hand over her chest and gripped the doorway for balance. Aggie was irritated at first at what she assumed was a typical overreaction but then saw that she was white as a sheet. “Sit down,” Aggie barked at her but Sylvia shook her head.
“Not in here.” Sylvia leaned against the doorframe instead.
“Give me that,” Aggie said and she wrenched the glass from Frank’s hand. “Drink it,” she told Sylvia and she put the glass in her hand before either of them could notice that her own hands shook. “What are you doing here?” she asked Frank as Sylvia sipped the scotch with one eye on her brother.
Frank ignored the question and continued to study the room. “The last time I was in this room was the day of your wedding, Syl. And it looks completely unchanged. Except for the desk, of course. Where is the desk?”
Sylvia didn’t answer. At least her color had returned, Aggie thought. “We don’t know,” Aggie replied finally when the silence loomed on too long. “We came back to the house after your father died and the desk was gone. It was the only item in the house that was missing. No one knows where it went.”
“The old bastard probably had it buried in the plot next to his.” Frank frowned. “Can I have my scotch back? That’s my lucky glass.” He gestured to the dusty glasses on the bar.
“Who carries around their own bar glass?”
Frank smiled at Aggie. “Old drunks with sentimental streaks.”
“Why are you here?”
“Now, Ag,” he replied smoothly. “Can’t a fellow come back home for a visit?”
“Answer her,” Sylvia said from the door. Her color was back all right, as well as her voice. It rang out in the room. She’d fixed her eyes on her brother’s and held his lucky glass precariously at her fingers, high above the ground. “Now.”
Frank’s smile faded. He actually looked nervous, Aggie thought. She wondered if the night could get any more strange. “I’m here because of my daughter.”
Sylvia’s grip tightened just slightly on the glass. “We saw her. She made quite an entrance today, Petula.”
She hadn’t seen him in thirty years but Aggie knew his tell. She saw the corner of his mouth twitch, just once, and she pounced. “You said you were here because of Petula.” When he said nothing, Aggie glanced at Sylvia. “Throw the damn glass.”
“Wait. Dammit.” Frank sighed and leaned back against the wall, beat. “I’m not here because of Pet. I’m here because of Rose.”
They didn’t tell him anything. That’s what Freddy Newell thought as he laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. He had given them all night and they hadn’t said a word.
Every once in a while, his father would pull his grandmother aside and they’d talk in hushed tones in another room. But after his first eavesdropping, Freddy didn’t have to be a genius to know that they were debating whether or not to tell him that his mother was in town. He could read the guilt and indecision on his father’s face as he swung back into the room each time.
He felt more than justified, then, in sneaking out of the house.
He spent most of his time bashing around the house, crashing down the stairs, slamming doors, and the result, as he’d hypothesized, was that his father and grandmother thought he was a really loud kid- the kind of kid who would wake you up going down to the kitchen for a glass of water (which he’d done, a few times). This calculated misdirection allowed Freddy free reign to do as he wished, since what he wished for most often was to be out of the house after midnight.
Out the front door and to the side of the house without a sound… He grabbed his bike and moved it cautiously through the dark and picked it up right where he knew the sensors to be for the porch light. Down the street, he hopped on and started pedaling.
He’d always been a night owl but lately it had gotten worse and the only way to stop his racing brain was to get on his bike and zip through the silent neighborhood. Cliffwood at three in the morning seemed to stay perfectly still, even the trees. It slumbered so deeply that Freddy felt like the last boy on earth.
Around the corner, first one right and then a left. He avoided Main Street, just in case some stragglers hung out in front of the closed bar where his father worked, and surveyed the town in silence from his bike.
He came upon them by accident. If his grandmother had been there, she would’ve snorted and said something about fate but Freddy didn’t believe in such things. The fact that he turned down a dozen random streets and decided, at the last minute, to see the reservoir, and the fact that such a decision brought him to a narrow side-street where, under a glowing street light, a red-headed woman struggled with something in the back seat of her car (“something” he would discover was actually “someone” and that someone was actually his own mother), that was nothing more than a very, very large coincidence. And nothing like destiny at all.
Rose shoved her sister’s legs into the car and shut the door. Her arms were tired. Her brain was tired. Moving a limp body from place to place was exhausting; how did the perps find the energy, frankly?
She took a deep breath in the cool night air, turned around and came face-to-face with a boy. She sucked in the same breath she’d just exhaled. “Whoa.”
The boy almost came up to her shoulder and was as thin as a wire, his hair dark. There was a streak of color in it. Rose frowned. Drug addict? She studied him for a quick second and did a mental shake of her head. In Cliffwood? Not possible. “What are you doing out here?”
The boy studied her for a moment and then tried to peer around her, into the car. He must’ve seen something. Crap. “Nothing. Just riding around.”
“It’s the middle of the night.” The boy shrugged. Rose moved to block the backseat window and, beyond it, the sight of her sister sprawled out on the seat, unconscious. She glanced at the bike beside him. “That your ride?”
“You should get on it. And go away. Go home.” Rose crossed her arms over her chest. She wore her cop face, she knew she did. When he didn’t move, she took a step closer. And she felt every bit as menacing as she knew she looked. An old mentor had told her that was the key to intimidation. “You gotta feel the menace,” he said once. “You gotta feel that it’s true.”
He took a step back, instinct, and when he did, his eyes flickered up to hers. There, in the dim light, Rose was treated to a memory. It was faint, like a glimmer. Did she know this boy? Was that possible? She felt the flesh prickle on her arms as the memory receded, out of her grasp. Everything in Cliffwood seemed to nip at her heels the same way. I hate this town, she thought. I hate it and all its corners.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them.
The boy went white. He looked from her to the woman in the car, back to Rose, and then he dropped his bike and walked to the curb to sit down. Before Rose could say a word, he dropped his head between his knees and breathed. In the yellow haze of the street light, Rose noticed the streak of color in his hair was actually blue. “Hey,” she said, after she’d given him a few minutes and some space.
“That’s her?” he asked suddenly and his eyes were like glass. Rose felt the shame rip through her. Dammit, dammit, dammit, she thought. What was wrong with her? “My mother?”
“Yes.” She swore at herself again. What had she done? It was one thing to lash out at Pet, to drop a bomb, but she forgot what would happen when that bomb actually left her hands. Forgot there would be a boy there, swept up in the blast. A boy who, she was sure, would not easily let her leave. Not now. “I shouldn’t have said that like that. I’m sorry.” She meant it. He looked surprised.
”No.” The boy looked for a moment like he wanted to stand up but then thought better of it. “Thank you for telling me the truth.” And it sounded like he meant it too. When he looked up at her, he looked lost. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” With a sigh, Rose sat down beside him on the curb and surveyed the wreckage, as best she could.
Petula woke up with her mouth pressed against a dusty leather seat. She opened one eye and winced as the pain shot through her head. The blow to the temple had done nothing to her memory; it all came back in an instant and Petula knew immediately where she was and why. It was the same when she awoke with a hangover, no disorientation. Her own strange, useless superpower.
But it came in handy, she thought with her eyes shut, especially when she ended up cockeyed in the backseat of someone’s car and needed to plot an escape. She didn’t move a muscle, not even to blow the tangle of red hair that had fallen over her face and tickled her nose. She went perfectly still and ignored her fallen hair. “Listen,” her father once told her, his voice unusually sharp. “Use your ears. Your ears don’t betray you like your eyes do.”
Petula did what she was told and listened. The car door was open, she realized. She could feel the draft on her legs. No car sounds, a quiet street. It was late, she remembered, very late. She listened harder- where was Rose? She wasn’t in the car. Where was she?
She heard the voices then. Rose’s was unmistakeable- it was always strange to hear Petula’s own voice coming out of someone else. And someone else’s voice. A male voice. She listened harder; a voice that broke, ever so slightly. A boy’s voice. What the hell was Rose doing out there with a kid?
She opened her eyes now, her ears trained on their voices. They were not far away but no close enough to see her open her eyes. Pet moved her head slightly and peered between the two front seats to the steering wheel and, dangling from the dashboard, the car keys. Her lips twitched. Oh, Rose.
She would have to move fast, she realized. She could not slink up to the wheel; there was not enough time and the car would move too much. But not to the steering wheel, she thought. She’d spring up and shut the door and then, as Rose rallied, lock the doors. And then she would climb into the front seat and take off, in Rose’s car.
Petula listened for the voices and her muscles tensed in anticipation. She went over the plan one more time and counted the steps between the backseat to the car door to the lock mechanism to the front seat. When she felt ready, she planted her hands beneath her and moved her body up slightly, into almost a push-up. She honed in on Rose’s voice and her words but it was the boy’s that cut through first.
“That’s her? My mother?”
Petula froze, her arms locked.
Mike Newell became a father on a Tuesday.
That morning, he’d kissed his mother good-bye and left for football practice before school. The kitchens smelled like the dutch pancakes and blueberries she’d made on a whim. It was misty with rain outside. She had no idea that after school, he walked out of school, took the #10 bus across town and walked into the hospital. She had no idea that her grandson was being born or that he had even been conceived. Or that her panicked, terrified sixteen-year-old son would name him Freddy, after his grandfather, when pressed by a kind nurse about the baby’s name in the nursery. It was the first name that popped into his mind. It was just one of the reasons why Lily Newell would cry at the end of that long, hard, wonderful day, the one that started out so normal, so nondescript.
The other reasons why she would cry, in her bed, later that night… the way her son had looked in the hallway when she arrived at the hospital, the way his body shook and trembled. He had grown so much the summer before and was one of the biggest boys on the football team and yet he looked so small as he sat her down in the small metal chair and said, “There’s something I haven’t told you…”
The relief on his face when she took him into her arms and said, “Can I see my grandson?” It nearly broke her in two, his face, right there in the hall. It had always just been the two of them. She cried afresh when she thought of it later, when she was alone. Now there would be three of them. She cried tears of both joy and pain, for herself and for her son who, in just one day, was no longer a boy.
And the girl… the girl with the funny name. Later, after she had cuddled baby Freddy and let the shock wash over her fully, Lily walked into her room quietly and saw the mother laying in the narrow bed, on her side, facing the window. Her red hair was limp and fell over her shoulder. She was rail thin, despite having just given birth. Lily felt a stab of pity as she walked into the room alone.
“I don’t want to see him. Please leave.” The girl’s voice cracked as she said the words, betraying her. She must’ve thought Lily was the nurse, there with the baby.
Lily laid in her bed, remembering the moment; how she knew, in that instant, that the girl would leave them both, Mike and the child. She knew it with every fiber of her being. Lily’s tears slowed and stopped as she remembered. Right or wrong, she would not cry, not for the girl. Never again.
Lily wasn’t the only visitor to the room that day.
Petula’s request to be left alone was largely honored. Her sister did not make an appearance, nor did her Aunt Sylvia. Her aunt’s house maid stopped by once, briefly, but she did not enter the room. Petula had just awoken from a nap and opened her eyes to see the woman standing in the doorway, staring at her. Petula closed her eyes and willed her to leave.
It worked. When Pet opened her eyes, the woman was gone. A small bouquet of flowers rested on the table beside her, though. Poppies. Her favorite.
Mike did not dare enter. It was better that way, she thought, as she flitted in and out of sleep. They had already agreed, after all, that the baby would stay with him, belong to him. There was nothing left to say.
So she was surprised when the night fell and she opened her eyes once more and a stooped, old man sat in the chair beside her bed. Petula thought about screaming or being startled but she felt neither. The man was familiar in that vague way that old men could be- like they all morphed into the same, rough person after the age of eighty. This one held a hat in his hands and had thick, bushy eyebrows. He peered at her. “You’re awake.”
“I am.” Petula’s voice was hoarse. She cleared it. “Are you a doctor?” she asked, knowing he wasn’t a doctor.
“I am not.” The old man sat back in the chair. “I’m a volunteer. The church sends a shuttle to the hospital every day so we can visit the infirm.”
“Am I infirm?”
“You look infirm to me.” The old man shrugged. “No one ever visits the women in post-partum,” he said. “Just the babies. I thought I’d give it a shot. It’s nicer on this floor, anyway.” He glanced around the room and then his eyes fell down to her own. “Your baby isn’t here.”
She looked at him for a long time. “No, he’s not.” And after a moment, he nodded.
“Would you like me to leave you alone?” he asked.
Petula felt her hand slide up under the pillow and grip the case, out of sight. “No. You can stay.”
“All right then. Petula, is it?”
“Yes.” She hated the sound of her own name, she thought. It was like a knife going through her. “What’s your name?”
“Smitty,” the old man replied. “The name’s Smitty.”
It occurred to Petula that the old man, whom she’d never met before, looked vaguely familiar. Had she seen him at the big house? She felt a trace of panic. Did he know her Aunt Sylvia? “Do I know you from somewhere?”
The old man smiled and kicked up his legs to cross them at the ankles. He smelled old, she thought, but it wasn’t that bad of a smell. His pants were neat and ironed, his shirt clean. “Have you been to the old diner in town? The only diner.”
Petula frowned. She only spent summers in Cliffwood and those summers were mostly spent poolside, in the shady escape of their property. “Yes. Once or twice.” Her eyes widened slightly as she remembered the back of the plastic menu there, the photo of a man and woman encircled over a paragraph about the old place. The old man smiled. “There it is. If Vera hadn’t insisted we put our pictures on the menu, I could’ve lived a long, anonymous life in this town.”
Petula thought of the diner and its busy counter, where people met to gossip over pie. She recalled the hustle of the waitresses and the crowded tables where people often jumped up and joined other tables. Cliffwood was small and the people there seemed to relish it in the diner, where they were known by all. “If you were going for anonymity, I think you chose the wrong profession.”
“Agreed.” He shrugged. “It was Vera’s dream. She was the face behind the counter. I worked in the back, on the books. It suited us. Now,” he said abruptly. “Let’s talk about your predicament here, young lady.”
She felt a wave of despair. Crap. A do-gooder. Any second now, this pleasant conversation would take a turn and she’d end up with Holy Water splashed over her. She shifted in her bed uncomfortably and wondered if she could stave him off. “I’m fine,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I’m fine, the baby’s fine. I’m going to take him home and raise him,” she lied with a soft smile. “And we’ll be fine.” She was going to stop there but the words, they just kept coming. “I have a lot of help. Mom and Dad, they were upset at first but we’re going to do this together. And my sister said she’d help whenever she can and we’ll have a room at the house, they have a room right for the baby, and I’ll finish school and go to college and get a job and everything’s going to be great.” She blinked, uncertain why the lie had taken on a life of its own. It worried her. She’d always been a truly excellent liar. Her father said it was her finest quality, in fact.
It took her a minute to realize that Smitty said nothing in response but just watched her, his face clear of judgment or reproach. He nodded thoughtfully. “The nurses told me that the father’s taking the baby.” When her eyes widened, he did shake his head with some reproach. “Terrible gossips, those old crones.”
“I’m sure they just think he’s so great,” Petula croaked, her hands trembling under the pillow. She gripped the case to steady herself. “What a hero, raising that baby alone, the most popular boy at Cliffhood High, such a promising boy with his whole future ahead of him, ruined by that rich brat who lives on top of the hill.” She felt a full tremor take hold of her and her eyes locked on Smitty’s. Why did she care what this old man thought of her, she wondered. Why did the truth, after all these months, suddenly seem like it was going to claw its way out of her? “They’d be shocked to know the truth, wouldn’t they,” she whispered. “They’d be shocked to know that they met at a party and that she didn’t know anyone and he gave her so many drinks that she felt dizzy and he decided it would be a good idea to take her outside, so she could get some air. And that she didn’t exactly say no,” she said out loud for the first time, her eyes locked on the old man’s, “but it wasn’t yes either. Wouldn’t it just break their hearts, the truth of it all.”
Smitty leaned forward and put his hand over hers, under the pillow. It was thin like paper but warm. There it stayed, for a long time, until there was nothing left to do but for Petula to close her eyes and find her way to sleep.
Freddy stared at the woman, confused. “Home?”
“To your father.” Rose smiled brightly. She leaned on the open door of the car, clearly delighted with her own idea.
Freddy wasn’t sure he liked the look in her eyes. He walked back over to his bike and gripped the handles, his mind spinning. “No thanks.” He saw Rose’s smile fall, her frown, and he tried to ignore it. His heart was beating like a jackhammer. His mother. His mother was there.
Rose said nothing, as if she could hear his thoughts, see his internal struggle. He had turned away to leave but he’d stopped. He heard her sigh. “Petula. Open your eyes, dammit.” And when there was no response, Rose reached into the car and grabbed her sister by the arms and pulled her out, like an angry cat out of a bath. “Time to face the music.”
Freddy watched as the woman unfolded herself from the backseat of the car, emitting low hisses and howls as she smacked her sister for the rough treatment. “You really are,” the red-haired woman said with a huff and she railed on her twin, “the worst,” she huffed and slapped, “possible human being on the planet.” She let out an exaggerated breath and pointed to her forehead. “You could’ve given me brain damage! Do not say it, Rose,” she warned as soon as the sentence was out of her mouth. Both women, mirror images of each other, glared.
He stared at them both, transfixed. “Um.” And they both turned to him, with those angry eyes. But Freddy only had eyes for his mother. He looked at her and tried to understand what it was he was supposed to do or say. What do you say to a woman you’ve just met on a dark street in the middle of the night, if that woman is your mother? Freddy waited. And when the woman, his mother, went to open her mouth, something in Freddy snapped like a rubber band. His heart went into overdrive. In one fluid motion, he hopped over his bike, turned it and raced down the street, and away from them.
The first time Freddy realized he didn’t have a mother, he was four-years-old. The kindergarten teacher asked them to draw a picture of their family and she ticked off names like reading off a grocery list- “Mom, Dad, brothers, sisters, pets, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, anyone you call family!” And then she wandered back to her desk, not knowing that she had just set a small bomb off in little Freddy’s head.
When his father, who worked nights then as a cashier in the supermarket, came to pick him up from school, Freddy asked him where his mother was. He had asked around and had determined quickly that he was supposed to have one. His father stopped walking and Freddy stopped too, on the sidewalk. He watched his young, handsome father stare down the road, not sure how to reply. “Some mothers leave,” his father said finally and he tightened his hold on Freddy’s hand and they headed home.
He asked his grandmother once. He was eleven. The question had lingered in the back of his mind, always there, and finally old enough to snoop around drawers and closets, Freddy had done his share of investigating. When the search proved fruitless, even the earlier pictures of him featured his father and grandmother, he waited until his father had set off on his shift at the bar and cornered, literally, his grandmother in the kitchen where she stood over the sink, washing potatoes for supper. “Who is my mother?” And when she froze, by then he surmised that it was a family trait, Freddy filled the silence with the questions that had surfaced and re-surfaced over the years. “Is she dead? Did she leave me? What was her name? Does she ask about me?”
His grandmother turned off the water, dried off her hands and walked to the phone. Freddy started to feel himself get angry, irritation rising up in him like a well, but she spoke to his father. She said, “Mike, we’re coming over.” And she grabbed her keys and took Freddy and they went to the bar, because his father had just started the job and wouldn’t be able to come home until his shift was over, she told Freddy.
They went into the storeroom of the bar and Freddy sat on a box of pickles and his father said, “Her name is Petula Mathers. We met in high school. She’s alive. She wasn’t ready to be a mother and that’s why she left town. I have not heard from her since, not once, but I’m sure she loves you, Freddy, because you are completely and thoroughly impossible not to love.”
Sylvia awoke in her chambers with a start, the way a person wakes when they’ve just been trapped in a nightmare for hours. She placed one hand on the silk eye wrap she wore over her eyes and instead of removing it to take in the day’s light, she pressed her long, manicured nails against it. She wished she could go back to sleep, sleep through it all.
She didn’t know why her family had decided to arrive back in Cliffwood, and all at the same time, but she knew she’d had a year’s worth of drama in just one epically long day and she was tired. Lord, was she tired. Sylvia Mathers spent the majority of her silvery days swanning around town, perfecting an air of energy and an eccentric lilt, throwing parties, throwing scenes, treating her mansion like an old Hollywood retreat. Now, in her bed, surrounded by silk and cotton, she felt her age settle into her bones.
With a sigh, she removed the wrap from her eyes and they fell on Aggie, who slept slumped on the chaise beside Sylvia’s bed. This was not the first time Aggie had fallen asleep there, in Sylvia’s room. Most often, it was when Sylvia fell ill or drank too much after a party. Truth to be told, Sylvia always thought it was a bit passive aggressive, overkill, that her “loyal maid” would so dramatically position herself at Sylvia’s side, literally, when she was her most vulnerable.
But that morning was different. Sylvia rolled over to her side, felt the sharpness of her hip bones jut into the mattress, and watched Aggie sleep. It wasn’t just Sylvia’s family that had exploded into town, it was Aggie’s family too, the most jagged pieces of her heart had all come flying back at once. Frank was asleep somewhere in the house, probably blissfully unaware of the wreckage that he dragged with him. For a few minutes, Sylvia felt the full weight of the night’s events settle on her and her heart was heavy with it. When she arose from the bed, she would take charge of it all, she knew. She would summon the steel that had settled into her aging bones and protect herself, her and Aggie both. But for a few minutes, there was just silence, Aggie’s heavy breathing and the day’s breaking light.
Petula opened her eyes and didn’t think. She pushed herself off the front seat and kicked open the door. She was halfway out of the old car when something jerked her solidly back and she saw that she was handcuffed to her sister.
Rose was awake and sitting in the front seat. She didn’t even flinch or yelp, as Petula did, when the sharp metal jabbed into her wrist. She tensed her arm and held it still until Petula clamored back into the car. “Are you kidding me?” Petula rattled her wrist, just to annoy her sister, who took another bite of her protein bar and chewed it like a placid cow. “Are you freaking kidding me?”
Rose finished her breakfast calmly. “You’re a flight risk. This was the only way we could both get any sleep.” She slid her aviators on and smiled at her sister. “Did you sleep well, Pet?”
“Where the hell are we?” Petula scowled and reached underneath herself to straighten her clothes with her one free hand. When she looked out the window, all she saw was acres and acres of corn. “Are we still in town?”
“On the border.” Rose leaned back and attempted to stretch the kinks in her neck. “I’m deciding my next move. Would you like to hear my options?”
“Do any of them involve letting me go right now, of my own free will?”
“Then I don’t care.”
“Option 1,” Rose said with a stretch. “Is that I have a buddy in Chicago run a check on you and your aliases. Aliasi? Whatever. To see if any outstanding warrants come up. Civic duty, you understand.”
Rose ignored her and tapped the wheel. “Option 2. I tie you to that tree over there, with the handcuffs, and drop off a note to Mike Newell letting him, and his son, know exactly where you can be found. And then you can have that awkward reunion I was so hoping would happen last night.” She cleared her throat over Petula’s parade of swears and oaths. “Language, Pet. Option 3. I ask you a few questions, you tell me the truth, I verify that you’re telling me the truth, I take something of value from you to verify you’re telling me the truth, I reiterate how I am going to hunt you down and exercise both Options 1 and 2 if you tell me you’re telling the truth but you are not in fact telling me the truth. And then I let you go.”
Petula stared at her sister and wondered what she could possibly want answers to. There was only one possibility and Petula’s mouth went dry at the thought. “I pick Option 2.”
It was Lily’s idea to go out for breakfast. She had expected both of her boys to sleep in but they both stumbled down the stairs at a shockingly reasonable time, their hair equally mussed and their eyes bleary. For a second, it felt like Christmas morning, the only time they appeared in the kitchen so early on a day when they weren’t expected to be at school or work.
It never failed to make her heart ache, those first few years when her son and grandson would appear on Christmas morning. It reminded her how young her own son was, still, when Freddy was just a toddler.
One look at them both and she put away the boxes of cereal and declared that they were going to Smitty’s for pancakes. Mike grunted in reply. Freddy silently went to put on a hoodie and his sneakers. As he passed her, Lily grabbed him by the arm. “You all right?” she asked and she put a hand on his cheek, surprised when his red eyes filled with unshed tears. “Freddy-“
“I’m fine. Just hungry.” He didn’t wrench himself away, he stopped himself, but he did take her hand and pull it from his face. “Let’s just go. Forget it.”
“No, I won’t.” Lily glanced behind her and saw that Mike was busy putting on his shoes, well beyond earshot. She looked at her grandson. “Talk to me, Freddy.”
He sucked in a breath and pulled the hood up over his head. “I heard you and Dad last night,” he said, his voice low and Lily felt her heart give way. When his eyes filled again, she nodded. She needed to recovery from these blows, she thought, faster and faster. There was never enough time to process these little breaks to her heart. And then he shook his head, “Can we just go?”
“Yes.” Lily steeled herself and ushered him out the front door, gestured for Mike to follow them. “I’ll drive,” she said to her son and he shrugged. We’ll go, she thought, but not where you think.
She wondered how long it would take her boys to notice that she steered the car away from Main Street and instead headed straight for the mansion at the top of the hill.