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Forgotten a novel, p.6
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       Forgotten: A Novel, p.6

           Catherine McKenzie
 

  Matt’s eyes slide away from mine. My stomach re-forms into a hard knot of nervousness. In my experience, nothing good ever comes from a man who can’t look you in the eye.

  “Matt, what is it?”

  “I’m just a bit surprised you want to come back, after everything that’s happened.”

  “What do you mean? What else would I do?”

  His eyes return to mine. I can’t read their expression. “Have you given any thought to going back to school?”

  “Why would I want to do that?”

  “Perhaps a change might do you some good.”

  “Why would I need a change?”

  “No reason. Forget I said anything.”

  I put my hand on his arm. “Matt, come on. What’s going on?”

  He clears his throat. “Nothing, only . . . you might find it hard rebuilding your practice after being gone for so long, that’s all.”

  “Susan was gone longer when she had her baby.”

  A muscle twitches in Matt’s jaw. Bringing that up was a mistake. Susan’s yearlong maternity leave was extremely controversial. Rumor had it that she had to promise she wouldn’t have another kid to get it.

  Why do I like working here again?

  “That’s true. But, Emma, her clients knew she was coming back.”

  I put two and two together. “And mine thought I wasn’t.”

  “Yes.”

  “You mean . . . my clients have all been reassigned?”

  Matt looks sad. Sad for me. “I’m sorry, Emma, but yes.”

  This is not good. Partnership in TPC is based on a complicated formula of billable hours and number of clients. You have to have a certain client base that generates a certain number of billable hours to even be considered. So what Matt just said means I’m not a year away from partnership; I’m going to have to start back at the beginning, as if I’d just graduated. As if the last seven years had never happened.

  No wonder he thinks I should go back to school.

  “But I can still come back if I want to?”

  “I’ll have to check with the Management Committee, but if that’s what you really want, I’ll back you.”

  “It’s what I want,” I say with more certainty than I feel.

  “Well, well, well, what do we have here?”

  Sophie’s standing in the doorway with her arms crossed across her chest. Her perfect veneer of makeup emphasizes her high cheekbones and gives definition to an otherwise weak chin. Her apple-green blouse matches her cat eyes.

  “It’s true,” she says in her precise diction. I catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5, a scent I used to like before I met her.

  “Looks like it.”

  “Well, that’s just grand. Everyone was so concerned.”

  “I’ll bet.”

  She looks me up and down. “You’re looking well.”

  I push up the sleeves of Dominic’s sweater, feeling dowdy.

  I will not let her goad me into saying something bitchy in front of Matt. I will not let her goad me . . .

  “How are you enjoying my office?”

  Damn. And I was trying so hard too.

  “Have you finished the opinion for Mutual Assurance yet, Sophie?” Matt says with a disappointed tone in his voice.

  Mutual Assurance is one of the firm’s biggest clients. Aspiring litigators cut their teeth on the hundreds of cases it throws TPC’s way every year. In my first year at the firm, I wrote The Defendant denies the allegations in paragraph x, y, z so many times it felt like I was doing lines for punishment.

  “You’ll have it by three.”

  “Good.”

  “What are you working on?” I ask Matt, trying to seem interested.

  “Someone stole a Manet from Victor Bushnell’s collection. Mutual is on the hook for millions if we can’t find a contractual exclusion that applies.”

  “Right, I saw that in the paper this morning. I’m sure there must be something.”

  Sophie gives me a Cheshire smile. “Of course there is. Why don’t you stop by my office later and we’ll catch up?”

  “Will do,” I say brightly, both of us knowing it will never happen.

  She leaves, and I lean back on the couch, feeling worn out by our exchange. Six months away has left me too weak for a catfight.

  “I wish you girls would get along better.”

  “I know, Matt. I’ll try.”

  “Good.”

  “So, when do you think I can start?”

  Chapter 6: Far and Away

  Six months is a long time to spend in the company of strangers. Not that Karen and Peter aren’t great people. People who I now love dearly. But in those first few days and weeks, when I was weak and missing my mother in a way I hadn’t since I was eight and had to be fetched home from Girl Guide camp, I felt cautious around them. Unsure of my place.

  This feeling was compounded by the obvious connection between them. And while I’m sure—I know—they had squabbles and different points of view, their relationship seemed easy and seamless.

  I was jealous, I admit. I wanted that closeness, that connection. Something I thought I had until I saw the real thing, up close. Something I thought I knew until it came time to explain myself.

  It was a few weeks after the earthquake when Karen asked me about Craig for the first time. We knew by then that we’d be cut off from the world for a while, that we weren’t going anywhere. That the power and cell service weren’t coming back on anytime soon. The quake had knocked out the hydroelectric dam that supplied power to Tswanaland and the surrounding countries, and had felled cell towers like trees in a clear-cutting operation. We were safe, better off than most, but alone.

  Karen found me on my daily walk, the Daily Weep as I’d started to call it, poking fun at my own behavior to try to break the spell I seemed to have placed myself under. It wasn’t working yet, but I had hopes.

  “Is this about the boy?” Karen asked as I brushed my tears away and wiped the dust from my shorts.

  “No, it’s about . . . I don’t know what it’s about, really.”

  She raised her eyebrows in a way that said—to me—that maybe it should be.

  I stood and followed her through the grove of jackalberry trees. There was a circle of flies hovering around my ears. I stifled the useless desire to swat them away. Wasted energy that only seemed to bring on more flies, not fewer.

  “What is this boy like?” she asked in a tone that reminded me of my mom. My mom always wanted to know about the boys I was dating and never showed her disapproval, even when I was sometimes trying mightily to attract it.

  I searched for a description. “Tall. Cute. A lawyer.”

  “You have a lot in common?”

  “Oh, sure.”

  “How come he didn’t come with you on the trip?”

  I ran my hand over the back of my neck, wiping away an accumulation of dust and sweat. “He wanted to.”

  “But?”

  “I don’t know. The trip didn’t seem to be about him, us. I thought . . .”

  “That if you had some space, you could figure things out?”

  “Yeah, maybe.”

  She shook her head and took a left along the path, a direction I hadn’t been in before.

  “What?” I asked.

  “Well . . . we don’t know each other very well, Emma, but it seems to me that if you have something to figure out about a person, it’s better to do it with him than without him.”

  “You’re probably right. Where are we going, anyway?”

  “We’ll be there in a minute.”

  A breeze blew. The leaves rustled overhead, mixing with the buzzing insects, creating a din I hadn’t grown used to yet, especially at night.

  We walked in silence through the last stand of trees before c
oming to a large grass field. Karen came to rest in front of a dirt mound that I realized after a moment was a rounded piece of corrugated iron painted to fade into the landscape.

  “Here, help me open the door,” Karen said.

  “What is this thing, the Hatch?”

  “Huh?”

  “Nothing.”

  “It’s where we keep our food supplies. I want to take stock to figure out if we need to start rationing.”

  “Do you really think that’s necessary?”

  Karen glanced at me over her shoulder. “We’re going to be out here for a while, Emma. I thought you understood that.”

  “No, I know, it’s just . . . rationing.”

  She nodded. “More serious than boyfriend troubles?”

  “Something like that.”

  I stood next to Karen and put my hands on the rough edge of a round piece of metal, thick like a manhole cover. We pushed against it, the arms in our muscles taut, and I thought at first that it wouldn’t budge. But then the seal gave, emitting a sound like a door into a clean room, and it rolled across the ground to reveal a relatively large bunker lined with cheap metal shelving. Karen picked a flashlight up off the nearest shelf and clicked it on. She snapped it into my hand.

  “You take the right side and I’ll take the left, all right?”

  It was hot and stuffy inside; a patch of sunlight followed us through the door. I looked down the long, dark row of jars and cans, half expecting to see the Dharma Initiative’s logo somewhere. It looked like there was enough food for months, but I guess that was the point. I watched as Karen took a clipboard off the wall and affixed a sheet of paper to it, then I did the same, adjusting the flashlight to illuminate a tub of peanut butter.

  Another day in paradise.

  When I get home from TPC, it’s after dark, and the apartment is cold and empty. I turn up the heat and walk toward my bedroom. On the way, I glance into the room where Dominic’s been sleeping. It’s full of boxes, and there are a couple of blown-up black-and-white photographs in large black frames propped against one of the walls. I’d always meant to turn this room into a proper study. Maybe Dominic is going to make it a darkroom. Either way, I really shouldn’t stay here for much longer.

  Feeling exhausted, I decide to take a shower. I peel off Dominic’s clothes and step under the hot spray. Maybe if I scrub hard enough, I can erase this day along with another layer of skin?

  Not bloody likely.

  If only my mother could see me now. I know she thought I needed to change some things in my life—why else would she have sent me so far away from it—but she couldn’t have meant for me to have to go through this. And why did she think that, anyway? I was on the brink of partnership at a prestigious law firm. I had a handsome boyfriend. I was, to be honest, the daughter to boast about, the one other parents used with their own disappointing children, saying, “Why can’t you be more like Emma?”

  Craig, Craig, Craig. His numbers are still sitting in my coat pocket, uncalled. What the hell is wrong with me? Why isn’t he the first thing on my mind? Why hasn’t he been for months? Craig, the perfect guy on paper, who loves me and wants to be with me and understands me, but who didn’t feel like enough a continent away.

  When my hands turn to prunes, I turn off the shower and wrap myself in a towel. I hear my cell phone ringing in the distance.

  Steph!

  I run from the bathroom and skid across the floor toward my coat.

  “Hello?”

  “Em?”

  “Craig?”

  “Jesus Christ, Em.” He sounds upset, really upset. “When I didn’t hear from you again, I thought . . . I mean, they said . . .”

  “I know.”

  “Where’ve you been? Why didn’t you call me?”

  “Didn’t you get my email?”

  “What? No. When did you send it?”

  “Four days ago. Five, maybe. From London.”

  “The first time you tried to email me was five days ago?”

  “No. I mean, yes, but I couldn’t before. There wasn’t any way—”

  “Do you really expect me to believe that?”

  I sink to the floor, resting my back against the textured wall. “But it’s true! If you only knew what it was like there. I tried to contact you, more than once, but there just wasn’t any way.”

  “But even if that is true, it doesn’t explain why you haven’t called me since you’ve been back.”

  “I know, Craig. But I did try. Your home number is disconnected. And your voice mail at work said you were away. I didn’t know how to reach you.”

  “Why didn’t you try emailing me again? Or calling someone else at work?”

  Yeah, why didn’t I?

  “I don’t know. Everything has been kind of overwhelming since I got back. My landlord rented my apartment to someone else and threw out all my things. Matt thinks I should go back to school, and Stephanie’s missing—”

  He sighs loudly. “Okay, Em, please. Stop.”

  I can imagine him, wherever he is, running his hand over his face, his fingers squeezing his temples. Craig’s never liked confrontation. He doesn’t have the stamina for it. It’s why he left litigation for the corporate department. It occurs to me that I’m using my knowledge of him to get myself out of trouble that I should be in. My chest feels tight, like someone’s squeezing, squeezing, and I’m glad I’m already on the floor.

  “I’m sorry, Craig. I’m just trying to tell you what happened.”

  His tone softens. “Tell me.”

  I give him the synopsis.

  I leave out the thoughts in my head.

  He listens the way he always has, with sympathy and interest and intelligence. When I tell him, briefly, about Dominic, he even offers to let me stay at his place, if I need to, though he seems tentative in his offer, like he hasn’t quite forgiven me. But the longer we talk, the further I feel from the distance I felt in Africa.

  “I’ll be home in three days,” he says when I’m done.

  “Not any sooner?”

  “No, I’m sorry. I can’t.”

  And what’s wrong with being with Craig, anyway? What’s wrong with having a perfect-on-paper life?

  “It’s okay. I understand.”

  “We’ll talk when I get back, all right?”

  Nothing. That’s what. And only someone who doesn’t know how good she has it would think there is.

  “Yes.”

  He pauses. “I missed you, Em.”

  Maybe this is my turning point?

  “I missed you too,” I reply. And in this moment, it’s the truth. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”

  “I’d like that.” He pauses again. “Good night, Em.”

  I take a deep breath. This is our code for “I love you.” No matter what the time of day, he always says, “Good night, Em,” and I always answer with “Sleep tight, Craig.”

  So he still loves me. And don’t I love him too? Haven’t I always? If he were standing before me now, wouldn’t I walk into his arms, breathe in the familiar spicy scent of his skin, and feel safe?

  “Sleep tight, Craig.”

  I can almost hear his smile down the line, and as I stand and close the phone, there’s an answering smile on my face. Right at this moment, it feels good to hear Craig’s coded “I love you.”

  “Who were you talking to?” Dominic asks.

  I squeal in fright, jumping a foot in the air and spinning around to face him. He’s standing in the entranceway, unbuttoning his coat. His camera bag rests at his feet.

  “You shouldn’t sneak up on a girl like that.”

  “Apparently not.”

  I feel a cold draft and realize I’ve let the towel slip, partially exposing one of my breasts. I pull it up hastily, hoping Dominic didn’t notice. One glance at his fa
ce tells me he did.

  “Um, I think I’m going to get changed.”

  “Right. You hungry?”

  “Very.”

  I close the door to the bedroom and lean against it. My head feels like a buzz saw has been let loose inside it. I lie on the bed for a while, trying to collect my thoughts. When that proves impossible, I change into another set of Dominic’s old clothes (cords and a sweater with holes in the elbows) and pull my damp hair into a ponytail. In the kitchen, Dominic’s standing over a large orange stew pot, a wooden spoon in his hand. The cutting board on the counter is full of meat and vegetable scraps.

  “Whatever that is, it smells amazing.”

  “It’s Irish stew.”

  “An old family recipe?”

  “But of course.”

  I sit down. The table holds two wineglasses and an open bottle of red wine. I pour a large glass and swallow a mouthful. It tastes delicious and familiar. Too familiar.

  I look at the label. It just happens to be my favorite wine, several cases of which were in my storage locker (along with my road bike, my skis, and any number of things I shudder to think about) the last time I checked.

  “Where did this wine come from?”

  “I found it in the storage locker.”

  My heart gives a hopeful beat. “You didn’t happen to find anything else down there, did you?”

  “Just some questionable framed movie posters.”

  “The Breakfast Club is not a questionable movie.”

  “True, but have you watched Pretty in Pink lately?”

  “John Hughes was a formative influence.”

  “I can tell.”

  I take a few sips from my glass, thinking over the conversation with Craig, wondering if I should take up his offer to stay in his apartment. Whether the solitude of the familiar or the company of a stranger is the better choice. Assuming, that is, that I have a choice.

  “Um, Dominic, I know I only asked to stay the one night, but—”

  “You need some more time to find a place?” he says with a resigned tone.

  I nod, feeling guilty about keeping Craig’s offer a secret. But I feel reluctant about staying there without him. I can’t quite locate why, but it’s enough for me to press my luck. “Is it okay if I stay a bit longer? I can pay you rent if you like.”

 
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