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       Fractured, p.13

           Catherine McKenzie
 
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  I took a gulp of my drink and pretended nothing odd had happened. Thankfully for her, the music was loud enough that no one seemed to have heard. I wondered if she suffered from a mild form of Tourette’s.

  “That’s never happened before,” she said, after she’d taken a few large sips of her drink.

  “I sang out loud in class once.”

  “You did?”

  “In high school. Took me two years to live that down.”

  “I’ll bet.”

  She put her drink on the bar. “This thing is awful.”

  “I kind of agree with you.”

  “Why did we order it, then?”

  “Because Queen Bee did?”

  I was referring to Kathryn Simpson, the undisputed beauty of our class. Tall, blonde, thin, she was the kind of girl who must’ve been the most popular in high school and yet also seemed nice and smart. The men in our class had all flocked to her, and she was on the dance floor as we spoke, surrounded by a bunch of them. They were trying to show her that despite the fact that they were law nerds, they could dance, too!

  “She’s really pretty,” Heather said.

  “She is.”

  “We totally hate her, right?”

  “Yup.”

  “Seems kind of unfair to be that beautiful and be able to get into law school.”

  “Maybe she slept her way in?” I said.

  “Maybe she cuts the inside of her arms at night to remind herself not to eat?”

  Now it was my turn to almost bark with laughter. But also: Who says something like that?

  “You’re a little dark, aren’t you?”

  She shrugged and kept on watching Kathryn. And eventually, I turned my back to the bar and joined her. A few weeks later, Kathryn and I would be assigned to do a legal research project together. She would introduce me to Booth and Kevin, friends of hers since boarding school, and suddenly, I had a group of friends. School became fun. Heather faded into the background.

  Was that what started the worm turning?

  How can you ever know?

  After finding the bag and the note, I managed, somehow, once John had calmed me down and I’d sent him away, to get through the rest of my day. I didn’t write anything—I couldn’t—but I went to the grocery store and bought supplies for a week of dinners and lunches and breakfasts. I spent the afternoon cooking meals I could pull out of the freezer: lasagna and baked chicken nuggets and dumplings I could fry up in a pan, which the kids loved dipping in soy sauce. I kept the TV on in the kitchen, my phone in my pocket. When everything was in the oven or tucked away, and my house smelled like a restaurant, I frantically Googled home security systems until my MySanity settings set in. I started when the phone rang, but when I picked it up, there was only the sound of ragged breathing, then a dial tone. A blocked number, probably nothing, but everything felt like something that day.

  It was Daniel’s day to pick up the kids. I was supposed to be seeing Susan that night, but I texted her to cancel, not offering an explanation.

  Something came up, was what I wrote.

  Something came out, was what I almost wrote.

  When Daniel got home with the twins, I let them haul me to the floor in the living room, turning me into a Mommy sandwich, the strength of their love literally crushing me. I told Daniel I’d cooked because I felt like it, and I opened a good bottle of red to go with our lasagna and garlic bread. We ate as a family in a show of domesticity that felt like a stage play. Polite queries about each other’s day, reflexive disciplining of the twins, first one and then another glass of wine. The phone rang twice, then cut off midring before Daniel could get there. “Wrong number, I guess,” I said, as if I were reading a line.

  When Daniel came down from giving the kids their bath and tucking them in, he sat down next to me on the couch, poured himself what was left of the wine, and asked me what was going on.

  “And don’t tell me nothing, because I know that’s bullshit.”

  “Heather left me this today,” I said, handing him the piece of paper that had been resting on the feces. I’d placed it in a plastic bag like the evidence it was, but also in an attempt to mask the odor that was still wafting off it. Despite the wonderful cooking smells that now soaked the house, I couldn’t get the stench out of my nose. I’d almost thrown up twice that afternoon, hovering over the bowl like I had too many times during my pregnancy.

  “What is that smell?” Daniel asked.

  “Shit.”

  “What?”

  “That note came in a bag of shit.”

  He dropped it on the table, then left to wash his hands. Daniel had been working hard on his compulsive hand washing, and I should’ve known better. I was a jerk, really, for even putting that bag anywhere near him.

  When he came back, his hands red from the scalding water he used, I explained how I found the note. I made a point of mentioning I’d been with John, knowing my screams had likely drawn the attention—if not the immediate action—of more than one of my neighbors. He’d never said anything about our friendship from that first day, but I knew Daniel. He wasn’t a jealous person, but he was watchful, and he knew me better than anyone. By mentioning it like I would’ve mentioned I was with Leah, I was defusing what might, or might not, have been an issue. Exposing it to sunlight and air in the hope it would evaporate.

  “I’m glad someone was with you, but why didn’t you call me at the office?”

  I’d asked myself that more than once, but calling him wouldn’t have changed anything. Calling him would’ve made it all too real, something I wanted to put off as long as possible.

  “You had that big meeting today.”

  “This is more important.”

  “No. If we make it more important, then she wins.”

  He ran his hand through his hair. He’d had a haircut recently, and I hadn’t even noticed.

  “When did you cut your hair?”

  “I . . . a couple of days ago. How do you know it’s her?”

  “Read it,” I said, turning the baggie over so he could see the text.

  You can run, but you can’t hide.

  “Is that written in . . . it’s not blood, is it?”

  “I think it might be.”

  “This is what she wrote before.”

  “Yeah, and she’s a cutter. She was anyway, in law school.”

  Heather’s suggestions about other people, I was to learn, always had something to do with herself. Her remark that Kathryn might be cutting herself was because she was. A casual mention that she’d heard Kevin stayed up all night on Ritalin meant she was stealing pills from her younger brother to make her grades. And so on. Back then, I thought it was an odd quirk of hers. Later, it became a kind of warning system.

  Daniel drained his wineglass. Then he went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a large scotch.

  “You want?”

  “No.”

  He added another finger and sat on the ledge in front of the window.

  “We have to call the police.”

  “I know.”

  “Then why haven’t you?”

  “I’m not sure I can go through all that again.”

  It wasn’t only the intrusion and the questions and the fear it would leak to the media; it was the scrutiny, the feeling that no matter what I said, they’d be looking for holes in my story. It was one of the reasons I stopped practicing law. I didn’t want to be scrutinized, and I didn’t want to be the person doing the scrutiny.

  “But if this is really her,” Daniel said, “if she’s really found you, us, started all this again, then we can’t take the risk. It’s dangerous, Jules, it’s—”

  “I know, okay? I know.” I pulled my knees up and rested my chin on the knobby bones I could feel beneath my jeans. I wasn’t eating enough lately, and it was starting to show.

  “I keep thinking . . . remember that article?”

  “The one you wrote about Heather?”

  “Yeah.”


  “What about it?”

  “It said all the stuff she did. The notes she left, the way she got to me. What if this isn’t her? What if it’s someone in the neighborhood imitating her to get under my skin?”

  “You think that because of what they used . . .” He waved his hand around, indicating the smell I feared would never go away. “You really think someone would do that to you?”

  “Have you looked at that iNeighbor thing lately? They’re calling it the ‘dog incident,’ and there’s a whole update section. Like it’s People.com or something. People are watching what I do with Sandy: where she is, whether she’s on her leash, whether I’m picking up after her. They’re logging my activities.”

  Everything is innocuous until it’s written down.

  6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Ran with dog and John Dunbar. Again.

  2:20 p.m. Seen entering Kroger’s. Not carrying reusable bags.

  2:50 p.m. Seen leaving Kroger’s. Non-use of reusable bags confirmed.

  I’d spoken to my lawyer, Lee, about it, but he’d said that so long as what they were writing were things I’d done in public, there wasn’t anything I could do. I was sick of hearing that from him. Maybe I needed another lawyer.

  “That’s fucked up,” Daniel said.

  “Completely. Cindy is crazy, and she’s got half the street under her spell.”

  Truth be told, Cindy was the one doing most of the logging, but a woman two doors down had added an entry yesterday, and almost everyone had stayed registered on the site.

  And yet: not one person had written anything about the package left on my doorstep.

  “You can’t think Cindy did this?”

  “Probably not. Maybe it was one of the kids?”

  “Did you ask John about Chris?”

  “How could I do that? After what Sandy did? I feel so bad.”

  Daniel shrugged. “He shouldn’t have been creeping around at night.”

  “Daniel.”

  “What? He shouldn’t have. And anyway, whoever it is, we have to call the cops.”

  I motioned for him to come sit by me. He picked up his drink and sank into the couch. I felt better having him next to me, which felt like something I needed to remind myself. The fact that I had to sat like a yoke across my shoulders. I knew this feeling. The creaky neck, the need to cough when there wasn’t anything in my throat, the fading appetite. It was the feeling I got before depression set in. Sometimes it was transient, and sometimes it moved in and took me down. I needed to do all I could to make sure that didn’t happen.

  “I know,” I said. “In the morning, okay?”

  I leaned back, and he gathered me to him. I took the glass of scotch from his hand and sniffed it.

  “This smells almost as bad as that bag does.”

  “That’s heresy, that is.”

  “Burn me at the stake, then.”

  “Never, even if you are a witch.”

  “Is there any doubt?”

  He smiled into my hair, and we sat like that till the moon rose high and the street settled into silence. We’d spent many similar nights over the course of our relationship, the quiet our companion, our heartbeats keeping time with the clock on the mantel. Sometimes, like that night, I’d even fall asleep, and Daniel would carry me to bed as if I were one of the children.

  It was, I think, the first time I’d felt at home, at peace, since we’d moved.

  If I’d known I’d never feel that way again, I would’ve stayed on that couch forever, and barred the dawn from coming in.

  Mount Adams Record

  Famous Author ‘Julie Apple’ Claims Harassment

  Police: No leads yet

  March 10

  New Mount Adams resident Julie Apple Prentice recently advised the police that she has been the subject of harassment at her home on Pine Street. Mrs. Prentice, forty-two, is the author, under her maiden name, of the New York Times #1 bestselling novel The Murder Game.

  Although Mrs. Prentice declined to comment for this article, police sources have revealed that she complained of a breach in her home network and her personal e-mail that occurred in the previous months, as well as offensive and threatening material being left on her doorstep on March 8. Mrs. Prentice was previously the victim of a stalker in Washington State named Heather Stanhope, as Prentice famously wrote about in a Vogue article called “Why Me?”

  The official statement from the police department is that they are not pursuing any leads at present.

  Mrs. Prentice’s neighbor, Cindy Sutton, forty-five, said that Mrs. Prentice has had some trouble fitting into the neighborhood.

  “She’s not much of a joiner,” Mrs. Sutton said. “We’re real big on community around here, but she hasn’t volunteered for anything yet. And then there was the issue of her dog.”

  Mrs. Sutton was referring to an incident that occurred last month when Mrs. Prentice’s dog, a German shepherd, attacked the fifteen-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. John Dunbar. Neither of them could be reached for comment, but “he’s probably going to have a permanent scar,” Mrs. Sutton said. “Because of her, we’ve had to adopt a bunch of new rules around here.”

  When asked whether she thought Mrs. Prentice deserved to be harassed, Mrs. Sutton replied, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But we tend to reap what we sow, don’t we?”

  Other residents feel differently. “Julie has been a good friend to me,” Susan Thurgood, forty-seven, said. “And what is happening to her is horrible. I hope the police are taking it seriously.”

  The Murder Game, about a group of law-school friends who plan the perfect murder, and then—maybe—execute the plan years later, caused an impressive stir when it was published two years ago. With almost three million copies sold, there has been persistent online speculation that the book is at least partially based on Mrs. Prentice’s own experiences, in particular, the mysterious death of her law-school classmate, Kathryn Simpson.

  “That is complete nonsense,” Mrs. Prentice’s representative said when reached for comment. “We have serious reasons to believe that Heather Stanhope is behind the bulk of those comments, which is a matter of record.”

  Learning to Fly

  John

  Seven months ago

  “Did you know about this?” Hanna asked me a few days after Julie found the bag of turds on her front doorstep along with that creepy note.

  We were having a lazy Saturday morning. Not our turn, for once, to take our kids to their endless extracurricular activities. Lounging in our kitchen. A patch of sunlight was warming my back. The scent of slightly charred bacon hung heavily in the air. Becky had decided to take charge of breakfast.

  Hanna handed me the local paper, her finger tapping a headline. FAMOUS AUTHOR ‘JULIE APPLE’ CLAIMS HARASSMENT. I read it quickly. It mentioned several things that had happened to Julie in the past few months. It did not mention the details of the note. The one that might have been written in blood. The thought of it made my skin crawl. What could possess someone to cut some part of their body in a way that would produce enough blood to write a note?

  Julie was shaking like a leaf when I reached her and stopped her screaming. I’d wanted to call the cops, call Daniel, do something. But once she’d calmed down, she told me she’d take care of it, and there wasn’t anything I could do but leave.

  She’d canceled our run the last couple of days, texting as I was lacing up my shoes that maybe the next day would be better.

  “Some of it,” I said to Hanna. “I was the one who told her that her Internet could be breached. I could see her Wi-Fi network from here. She thought it was one of her kids who changed the password. And that e-mail thing happened in Mexico. Remember? I was helping her put more security on it that first day we ran into them?”

  “I remember.” Hanna arched an eyebrow. Her hair was tangled and messy from sleep. I always liked her best that way, though she never believed me. “Did anyone call you about Chris, asking for a quote?”

  “Not me. You?”
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  “No. Those guys better watch what they’re doing. They may only be a local paper, but still.”

  “They probably didn’t know what to do with themselves,” I said. “This story is way more exciting than the usual Cat Stuck in Tree.”

  I never used to read the local paper. But now that I was home all day, I found myself perusing it cover to cover.

  I read the rest of the article. The part about Julie’s book being based on her own experiences reminded me of what Daniel had said in Mexico at the bar. I’d thought he was fucking with me. Until I’d seen the glint in Julie’s eye as the crazy taxi driver did his best to put our lives at risk. Was it possible Julie had somehow been involved in someone’s death? That she’d used it as the foundation for her book? I shook the thought away. I clearly needed to get out more if I was taking the Mount Adams Record seriously.

  “She has a ‘representative,’” Hanna said. “She has people! I need some people.”

  “You have an assistant.”

  “Yeah, but I can’t call her ‘my people.’” She took the paper back and read the article again. “This seems pretty mild. I can’t believe she called the police.”

  I hadn’t told Hanna about the package or the note because Julie had asked me not to. And given the lack of details in the story, I didn’t feel as if I could betray her trust. Perhaps the police were holding it back in order to catch the culprit.

  “It sounds kind of serious to me,” I said.

  “Come on, John. You just said at least one of those things didn’t even happen when she was in Cincinnati.”

  “The person who tried to break into her e-mail wasn’t in Mexico. It just happened while we were there. And maybe she was wrong about her kids. It doesn’t seem likely, does it, that a six-year-old could change her network password?”

  Hanna rose and started loading the dishwasher. There was a ring of maple syrup where her plate had been. Becky’s attempt at pancakes was only slightly better than her go at the bacon. I made a mental note to give her some lessons.

 
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