Fractured, p.15Catherine McKenzie
We drive back to the prosecutor’s office in silence. Our perfect parking place is gone, so I put the car in the lot across the street. Hanna and Alicia walk ahead, back in their huddle. Chris waits for me by the front doors. He watches the women enter before he speaks.
“You really want me to tell the truth?” Chris says, when we can’t see them anymore.
His posture is aggressive, like a caged animal. What has brought about this transformation in my son?
“We’ve been over this. Like Alicia says: you have to answer the questions that are asked, but you don’t have to volunteer information.”
“Okay, Dad. Okay. I won’t volunteer anything. If they don’t ask, I won’t tell.”
My gut twists. I regret having eaten anything for lunch.
“What’s going on, Chris?”
“Clearly there’s something.”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything.”
“How can you know that if you don’t tell me what it is?”
“Because it’s the kind of thing where it doesn’t matter what the truth is. It only matters what I thought when I saw it.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets. I doubt he’ll ever wear this suit again. Like the suit I wore to my father’s funeral. Maybe I’ll burn it along with this one in a barrel in the backyard.
If this day ever ends.
“Nothing, okay. Nothing. Who knows what I saw.”
“Was it the morning of the accident?”
He shrugs his teenaged shrug.
Hanna’s head pops out of the doorway.
“John, Chris, let’s go.”
Chris shrugs again. Then he turns and follows his mother’s instructions.
I stand waiting on the sidewalk, trying to understand his meaning.
What was he trying to tell me?
My stomach gives that empty thump again, and I remember.
Another morning where something momentous happened.
But he couldn’t have seen that.
I’ll Be Watching You
Six months ago
“And the police really aren’t doing anything?” Susan asked, on one of our nightly walks in April.
Most nights we talked about our kids, the little aggravations and dramas of the day. Or she’d tell me a bit about her divorce, can-you-believe-what-Brad-did-now stories. Every once in a while, I’d talk to her about where I was in Book Two, getting another perspective to help me solve a corner I’d written myself into as I neared the fifty-thousand-word mark. Leah and I used to do that on our runs, and being away from her made me feel cut off from the kind of gentle support I needed to get from point A to point B.
I’d never really let Susan in before. I didn’t know if I could trust her, and something always held me back, even though she didn’t feel the same restraint, but there was something about that night. The air was pregnant with rain, and the scent of wood smoke wafted from more than one of the colorful houses that made up our neighborhood. Though the days were warming up, the nights still clung to winter. It all felt alien, otherworldly, and yet comforting. Like the bluebells that poked through the remnants of the snow in Eden Park, something opened up inside me.
I told her everything. Why I’d run out of the coffee shop the first day we met, and the attempt to break into my e-mail while I was in Mexico, and the breach in my network that John had helped plug. I told her all about the “present” left at my door, and the amateurish note left with it, how it was similar to something Heather had done right before we decided to move. I told her all the things Heather did, and why what was happening now felt both foreign and familiar.
It poured out of me like a river breaching its banks. The hang-ups I’d been receiving for the last couple of weeks, so that now I wrote with the phone off the hook. The time I was certain the back-door lock had been picked when I’d left it locked because I always do. And the heart-chilling moment when Melly talked about the new teacher at school named “Header,” who turned out to be a friendly woman in her midtwenties.
“What do the police say about all of this?”
“They think I’m being hysterical,” I said. “I didn’t even bother telling them about the hang-ups.”
“Couldn’t they trace them?”
“Maybe. If they actually investigated.”
“But what about the fact that you had a stalker before? And that this was exactly the sort of stuff she was doing?”
“You’d think that would matter. If I’d had a heart attack before, and I had the same symptoms, wouldn’t that bring me to the front of the line?”
“Of course it would. Men.”
Susan said this often, as if all men were as faithless and disappointing as her ex.
“I haven’t told you the craziest thing. I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’s Heather.”
It was true. When I’d had time to sit and really think it over, I realized it couldn’t be her. Heather was smart, I always had to give her that. And though she’d left a note or two, she never repeated herself, or did something that would leave traces of her DNA behind. She’d won the criminal-law prize, after all. Although I’d succeeded in getting a restraining order against her, it was more fluke than the result of mistakes, a haphazard passerby who saw what she was doing and called 9-1-1 instead of walking away.
“How can you be sure?”
“They did check on her, at least. She’s in Seattle, and there’s no evidence she’s left there recently. She turns up at work, does her community service, no flights booked in her name, et cetera. End of story.”
“So, who, then?”
I hesitated. It was one thing to discuss the possibility with Daniel, another to release it out into the open. “Most likely, it’s someone who lives here.”
We turned onto a new street. We structured our walks like we were doing hill training. One block up, then down the next. Although I’d gotten used to the terrain, my pulse was usually beating in my ears by the time we crested each street.
It had finally started to rain, the fat drops plopping against the pavement and the hoods of our anoraks, but somehow, I didn’t mind it the way I usually did. It felt like the proper backdrop to everything that was happening, or going to happen.
“Any idea who it might be?” Susan asked.
I hadn’t shared our theories with the police. I’d done enough damage to John’s son. If he was getting back at me for the dog bite, perhaps I deserved it. And if it was him, then I didn’t have anything to worry about.
But if I wasn’t worried about it, why was I spilling my guts to Susan?
“Not really,” I said. “God, I hate how paranoid it’s making me. It’s hard enough getting used to a new place, plus that bloody website of Cindy’s isn’t helping. And then the newspaper article. Heather didn’t know where I was, but maybe now she’s found out.”
“I never even thought about that.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s Cindy’s.”
Cindy with her constant checking on me. I was sure she was the one who saw the cops arrive at my door and set the local reporter digging.
“Have you talked to Cindy?” Susan asked. “Maybe if you told her some of what you’re telling me, she’d calm down.”
“You really think it would make a difference?”
“She’s not that bad. She has too much time on her hands. You know how it is. Her kids are in school all day, and she’s probably bored out of her skull.”
I knew what she meant, but I didn’t know how it was. I never had enough time to think about things. Whether the twins were home or not, my thoughts were always cluttered, trying to find enough space to stretch themselves out. Was there an opposite of “bored out of your skull”?
“So that makes it okay for her to turn everyone into spies?”
“I doubt she sees it that w
“I’m sure she doesn’t, but it’s pretty ridiculous, and it’s not making us safer. John said that if someone hacks the website, which would be pretty easy given the security levels on it, then they’d know exactly when people are home or not. That’s going to make it easier for someone to break into your house, not harder.”
I pulled my head back farther into my hood. “John Dunbar. He does IT.”
“I know. I’ve known him a long time. When did he tell you that?”
“We run together sometimes. I thought you knew.” I thought everyone knew. “Why?”
I tried to catch her eye, but her own head was deep within her bright-green hood.
“Say what’s on your mind,” I said. “I can take it.”
“I’m overly sensitive to this kind of stuff.”
A streak of lightning flashed in the sky. I counted the seconds till the thunder reached us: at least three. I only get nervous when it strikes within one.
“Brad’s a cheater,” Susan said. “Was. I guess he can do what he wants, now.”
“I’m really sorry about that, but . . . how did we get to cheating?”
“I’ve . . . heard some things.”
I stopped. “Such as?”
“I don’t think Hanna likes that you guys hang out, that’s all.”
“We don’t hang out. We run. I hang out with you.”
I started moving again, and Susan trotted to keep up with me.
“Are you mad?”
“No. Thank you for telling me.”
“But you’re something?”
“I wish no one was talking about me. Ever.”
“They aren’t. Not really.”
I wiped the rain away from my face, but rain isn’t salty.
“Talk to Cindy, Julie. I think that will really help.”
I doubted it, but I said I’d try.
The whole year I was in bar school, I tried to keep Daniel at bay. We’d met during my law-school finals in my fourth year. He’d sneaked into the new law library, and we spent a week studying at adjoining tables. There wasn’t much time for talking, and it wasn’t really the place for flirting, what with the law nerds shushing everyone if you said more than ten words. But he asked for my number, and I gave it to him, even though my heart still felt trampled by Booth, the guy I’d dated since first year. When exams were over, Daniel called, and we went for drinks a few times. I liked him, and I wanted to really like him, but we didn’t catch fire. I didn’t, anyway. Then bar school started—this ridiculous yearlong thing that most people failed—and all my time was allotted to the part-time work I was doing at the prosecutor’s office and studying for my exams.
I suppose you could say I put Daniel in the friend zone. Daniel acted as if he was okay with it, but he was only biding his time. He’d come over and cook me a meal before each exam, making sure I didn’t forget to eat—something simple and filling like spaghetti with meat sauce, as if I was carbo-loading for a race. As I passed each exam, he’d take me for a drink, just one, and listen while I complained about the arcane questions the exam contained. Then he’d tell me funny stories about the weirdos in his program, and I’d be laughing so hard my sides hurt.
Then one day when my exams were finally over and I had started articling, Daniel asked to get together and surprised me at the bar by telling me he was going to stay through the summer, but then he was pretty sure he was going to leave and go do his PhD somewhere else. As he pulled me to him for a hug, I felt like an idiot. A sad, misguided dummy. Daniel was leaving? No. Daniel couldn’t leave. He was the only good thing in my life. I had to tell him. I had to show him.
I kissed his neck.
He backed away, startled, and I felt even worse. That whole year, neither of us had talked about anyone else. I’d assumed he was single, still interested, waiting, but of course he wasn’t. Of course some other woman wasn’t as dumb as I was.
He stepped toward me, taking my face in his hands, curling his fingers through my hair.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Looking at you,” he said. “Okay?”
I nodded. I’d left a smudge of cherry-colored ChapStick on his neck. I reached to rub it off. He ducked down and caught my lips midway, and although we were in a bar, and there were whoops coming from the next table, and eventually calls for us to get a room, we stood there like that for hours.
Kissing like we had all the time in the world.
I caught Cindy in line at school pickup. Her son, Tanner, was in fifth or sixth grade—I should probably have known which, but I could barely keep the details of my own life straight—at the same Catholic school where the twins were finishing up first grade.
The private school was about a fifteen-minute drive from Pine Street. They wore adorable little uniforms: white shirts and pleated skirts for the girls; shorts or long, blue pants for the boys. No boy above second grade would wear those shorts, and I knew my days of seeing Sam in them were numbered. My favorite shot of him and Melly was one where they were both in their uniforms, but wearing the other’s bottoms. “Look, Momsy,” Melly had said, “I’m Sam now.”
I arrived at pickup ten minutes earlier than I normally did. “Pickup” being a long line of SUVs and third-row-seating Acuras, each waiting to collect their individual children. What had ever happened to carpooling, I often wondered, that loose organization of mutual trust that had ferried me through my childhood unaffected and secure? It seemed an alien concept here, at least in our neighborhood.
I showed up early because I’d noticed Cindy was usually at the beginning of the line, a badge of organized parenthood that was never something I tried to achieve. My goal, every day, was to get there in time for the twins to see me right when they came out the door. That was my pledge to them: they’d never have to search for me, never have to wonder whether I’d forgotten them. My own mother—a single mother of two—had committed that sin more than once. Most of me forgave her, but I certainly wouldn’t forgive myself if I imitated her. So I had two alarms set—one on my watch and one on my computer—to make it impossible for me to miss it, no matter how engrossed I was.
It was raining again; some low-pressure system seemed to have us in its grip. My running shoes were permanently sodden, so much so that I’d gone and bought a second pair at Bob Roncker’s. I traded them off every other day, but I’d still developed two bloated blisters on my big toes, ones I wasn’t sure if I should pop and bandage, or wait to resolve naturally.
My early arrival paid off. I was the first in line—yeah, me!—and Cindy pulled up behind me shortly thereafter. I gave myself a pep talk, then jumped out of the car and rapped on her window. She lowered it, looking puzzled. The humidity had turned her hair abnormally frizzy, and she smoothed the back of it down with her hand.
“Hi, Cindy. Do you have a minute?”
She checked the clock. The bell would ring in four minutes. The implication was clear.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I want to talk to you about iNeighbor.”
“Are you having technical issues? Perhaps John Dunbar could help you with them.”
So, it’s going to be like that, I thought.
“No, I’m not having technical issues.”
“I was wondering . . . I was hoping, actually, that you might consider removing our street from the site.”
“Removing? Oh, no, I don’t think so.”
“But . . . will you hear me out?”
She checked the clock again. Two minutes to the bell.
I spoke as rapidly as I could. “You know who I am, right? You wrote about it in the newsletter?”
“You wrote that book.”
“And you read the article the paper wrote about me, the one that quoted you. So you know I have a stalker, and you know I’m being harassed by someone here.”
“Some jilted ex-boyfriend?”
“I’m sorry for that,” Cindy said in a way that could’ve equally been an expression of sympathy, or regret I’d moved onto her street. “But I don’t see what that has to do with iNeighbor.”
She blinked at me. I wondered what kind of antidepressants she was on, and whether there was a sedative thrown into the mix, too.
“That system is making my stalker’s job easier, or whoever’s harassing me now, and it’s pretty sick what they’re doing.”
“You mean that . . . package that was left on your doorstep?”
“Among other things.”
“That was a prank.”
“Wait. How do you—”
The bell rang. The sound of it always triggered a Pavlovian response in me that made me want to run through a hallway and into the outdoors. Bells of freedom, another day done. Only I was already outside, and I could go wherever I wanted. The feeling-free part, though? I couldn’t remember the last time that was a possibility.
“Cindy, how do you know about the package?”
She was watching the front door. Kids started to trickle out, their uniforms covered by superhero raincoats, some of the girls holding clear, miniature umbrellas. I knew my own kids would be a few minutes late; like me, it was almost impossible for them to show up for anything on time.
“What’s that?” Cindy said.
“You said it was a prank. How do you know that? Do you know who did it?”
“You must’ve misunderstood what I said. There he is!”
She started to open her door. I pressed against it. She pushed at it, but my body’s deadweight held her in place.
“You’re blocking me.”
“Tanner can get to the car all by himself. Please tell me what you know.”
“You can’t . . . trap me in my car like this. Let me out!”
She sounded panicked. I backed away as another woman came up to us.
“What’s going on here? Cindy? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “It’s a misunderstanding.”
Fractured by Catherine McKenzie / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes