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Chapter 12

I woke up several hours later, still tired. I blearily looked at the clock and came fully awake in a second when I saw it was after nine and the house was silent. I raced downstairs and was relieved to see the front door was still locked and my kids were sitting on the couch watching TV. They gave me a strange look, and I went back upstairs to brush my teeth and hair.

I reemerged moments later more presentable and wide awake. I chatted with the kids about our plans for the day as I made breakfast. I dropped an egg on the floor when Katie Nicole told me to cross “walking Frank” off my list, because they’d already done it.

I stooped over to push Frank out of the way so I could clean up the broken shell; he’d already taken care of the yolk and was trying to lap up the remainder of the white. I also took a second to compose myself, out of the line of my kids’ scrutiny.

My kids had been allowed to roam our neighborhood (within a certain radius of our house) without adult supervision for quite some time. I trusted them, and I’d always felt safe in our neighborhood before. But with a burglar roaming around, Rain Lane didn’t feel quite so secure anymore. I knew a burglar was a far cry from a kidnapper or a pedophile, but I still panicked at the thought of my kids strolling around while I lay sleeping and oblivious in bed. I hadn’t wanted to frighten them before, and had thought I was actually protecting them by keeping the burglaries from them. A bit of honesty seemed to be the best protection with this latest development, though.

I stood up and let Frank have free rein on the floor, then looked at my kids. I took a deep breath and blurted out the truth: a string of robberies had been occurring throughout Misty Meadows and several of our neighbors’ houses had been robbed. I didn’t mention our own home’s attempted intrusion. I didn’t want to scare them needlessly, but also because I hadn’t told Bill and didn’t want him to inadvertently find out from our kids over dinner one night.

“Cool,” Dylan said when I was finished.

I shot him a look.

“Well,” he said a bit less enthusiastically, “it’s not cool that people’s stuff is getting stolen.”

“Yeah, and most of our neighbors are old,” Katie Nicole reminded him. “They could have a heart attack or something.”

They continued talking about the break-ins while I finished making breakfast for them. I managed to shift their gears when we sat down at the table together. I steered the conversation back to the original topic: our plan of going to the library for the day.

Some kids would have found the prospect of being surrounded by shelves of musty books incredibly boring, but not mine. I’d raised a couple of bookworms and I couldn’t have been happier by the fact. I’d been taking them to the library since they were babies; they’d attended the weekly story hour as toddlers and they were both currently old enough to have their own library cards.

There were shops around the library and a beautiful park surrounding it. It wasn’t a playground, just shrubs and flowers, trees and benches, and a large fountain. It was a tranquil spot and we often packed a lunch and had a picnic on the grass. The kids would take turns reading passages from their new books to me; the gurgling fountain acting as background music to their clear voices.

I still had to clean up the kitchen, take a shower, and pack us a lunch, so we got off to a late start. At the last minute I decided we should take Frank for a short walk before we left. My intent was to check on Ms. Gertie, and we made a quick detour to her house.

As we walked past the Jones’ empty house, I noticed the For Sale sign had been replaced with a Sold sticker. I was still looking at the sign as I knocked on Ms. Gertie’s door. She took the four of us in with one quick glance, and stepped onto the porch, firmly closing the door behind her. She looked no worse for wear after her nocturnal ordeal, and I was relieved to see her smiling face and eye-searing orange pantsuit. I cryptically explained I’d noticed a disturbance during the night and wanted to see how she was doing.

She glanced at each of my kids before meting my level gaze. “Everything’s just fine and dandy, sug.”

I narrowed my eyes and she gave me a barely perceptible nod and a warm smile.

“In fact,” she directed the next part to my kids, “I was just baking cookies. You wait right here and I’ll run and fetch you some.”

She didn’t wait for a response, and returned a moment later with a Ziploc bag full of chocolate chip cookies. My kids’ eyes lit up as they eagerly took the bag from her. Frank’s eyes tracked the ensuing skirmish over who got to hold them, which was settled as soon as I plucked the bag from their hands.

“Thank you, Ms. Gertie,” we said in unison.

“Thank you for stopping by,” she replied, looking directly at me.

After depositing Frank in our living room, I loaded the kids and our lunch into the car and we headed to the library. We weren’t the only family to kick off the summer by borrowing books, and soon my kids were quietly chatting with a few of their former classmates.

I was always amused to come across a book I’d illustrated, and was immensely flattered when I saw a child reading one. I couldn’t help noticing the girl in front of me at the check-out line was borrowing “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” that I’d drawn to look like Mrs. Matilda. I smiled with pride but, as usual, didn’t say a word.

The librarians had known me since I was a child and they always treated me like more than just a minor celebrity in the community. This time was no different, and the head librarian smiled brightly at me over top of the girl’s head. Then, with a look of hero-worship in her eyes, she pointed at me.

“That woman drew the pictures for this book,” she said, tapping her finger on the front cover, right beside the old woman’s crooked nose.

Everyone standing in line turned to look at me and I took a step backward, bumping into the stranger behind me. I felt my face grow hot, and I knew it was as red as a stop sign. I smiled at everyone and told my kids to meet me outside. I left them to check out their books since they both had their own library cards, and I retrieved our lunch from the car and waited for them by the fountain.

It was nearly three in the afternoon before we finally spread a blanket on the grass by the fountain and ate lunch. We each had a stack of books by our side and we gorged ourselves on Ms. Gertie’s cookies. Judging by the look on their faces, the kids were as content as I felt.

We happened to drive past Henry on our way home. He was loitering outside of Comical Candies, smoking a cigarette and slapping a rolled-up comic book against his thigh in time to some internal music. I slowed the car down considerably in order to check out his footwear, which caused the person behind me to honk angrily. I was hoping to see a pair of black Converse on his feet with their unmistakable white star, but I was sorely disappointed. He was wearing the same pair of beat-up shit-kickers as before. I quickly sped up and turned the corner just as I noticed him looking my way.

I had reminded Bill of my plans with Bethany three times during the past week. He tended to forget things faster than our kids. I understood he had a lot on his mind with work and didn’t need unimportant things gumming up the works. However, I sometimes wished he didn’t deem all of my things “unimportant.”

After dinner, I helped Bill load the dishwasher before preparing to go next door. I kissed the kids goodnight and politely refused Katie Nicole’s self-invite. I gave Dylan an extra hug after he told me how much he’d miss me. I didn’t think Bill would forget again, but I jokingly reminded him where he could find me.

I was greeted at Bethany’s by the sound of a blender rattling through the open window. I let myself in and found Bethany in her kitchen, mixing up the first of many batches of margaritas. Bethany looked about twelve years old in her ponytail, bare feet, and scrubbed face.

Prissy sat on the windowsill watching birds, unperturbed by the commotion caused by the blender. When she saw me, though, she arched her back, puffed out her tail, and jumped down from her perch. She darted past me with a growl and disappeared into Bethany’s bedroom.

We quickly settled in her living room with a full pitcher and two salt-rimmed glasses within easy reach on the coffee table. The margaritas were strong, and the first sip was straight tequila. It burned its way down my throat and hit my stomach like a fireball. Bethany’s margaritas were legendary; and were even better than what you’d get in an authentic Mexican restaurant.

Bethany and I chatted about mundane things before the conversation turned to the interesting topic of her love life. By then, I was sipping my second margarita and my taste buds had gone numb. A tingly warmth spread throughout my languid body as I drained my second margarita and sloppily poured a third.

I had to cock my head to listen to Bethany over the buzzing in my head, and I heard her say that Brandon had come over for dinner the night before. They’d sat on her back porch, listening to my family catch fireflies “like a troop of howler monkeys,” when Brandon had said the three little words Bethany had been longing to hear.

“He told me he loved me.” Bethany sighed dreamily with her eyes closed and a jubilant smile on her face.

“Oh, Bethany!” I gave her a quick hug and she didn’t seem to notice the margarita mix I inadvertently sloshed down the back of her silky red t-shirt.

As I listened to Bethany ramble on, I was transported back in time. I could clearly remember the overwhelming rush of emotions that accompanied the beginning of my first true love. I’d experienced it myself with Bill so many years ago. Over the subsequent years the feeling had lost its distracting edge and had softened into something like a security blanket around my heart. A tap at the door broke Bethany’s train of thought, along with my reverie. She stopped in mid-sentence and smiled at my raised eyebrows.

“I ran into Heather at the grocery store when I was getting the margarita mix and I invited her to join us,” she said, crossing the room to open the front door.

“Hey!” I yelled at Prissy, who was slinking around both sets of feet, right out the open front door. But between my tequila soaked brain and Heather’s dramatic entrance, I promptly forgot all about Prissy’s escape the second her black fur disappeared into the night.

Heather spied me immediately and rushed to sit down beside me. Oh shit, I thought. I hadn’t told Heather about my awkward encounter with Tiffani and Chavez, and I knew the moment was now upon me. She grabbed my hand, squeezed it lightly, and let it go as she thanked me. In my hand was a folded-up check. She’d slipped it to me in much the same way I’d seen Bill pass a twenty to a harried waiter in order to secure us a patio table at the Outside Inn one long-ago summer night. In my inebriated state, the slickness of her maneuver and her gushing words caught me off-guard, and I pocketed the check without even thinking.

“I just can’t thank you enough,” she was saying. The smell of jasmine clung to her, and its sweet scent filled my nostrils.

“What?” I was having a hard time keeping up with the bizarre turn of events.

“Tiffani broke up with Chavez!” she cried triumphantly. I must have looked even more confused because she patted my hand like a child before continuing. “She told me you stopped by the other day when Chavez wasn’t supposed to be there-“

“She told you?”

Heather’s breasts strained against her sequined, unlined tank top, and they jiggled in time to her nodding head. “She said you made her see the light. She wanted to come clean with me; she even admitted she’d been sneaking him in through her bedroom window while I was asleep at night! I don’t know what you said to that girl, but it sure did the trick.”

Bethany was sprawled on a nest of jewel-toned cushions on the floor nearby. She silently followed the conversation like a tennis match, with a puzzled frown on her face. Finally, she couldn’t help but break in.

“Who’s Chavez?”

I quickly filled her in, and noticed Heather looking at me dubiously. I assured her I hadn’t shared any of my neighbors’ problems with anyone; not to my best friend nor my husband. The women were flabbergasted at my loyalty to my friends at the expense of my husband. They exchanged a meaningful look before explaining that no one would mind if I confided in Bill.

“Even Ms. Gertie assumes you tell Bill everything,” Bethany admonished.

“I haven’t kept a secret from Bill in ten years of marriage and I tell you, this has been driving me crazy,” I admitted.

With the subject of secret-tattling disposed of, the conversation turned to lighter matters. Less weighty matters like TV shows, movies, and the seasons’ hottest style trends. Bethany was the youngest of our trio, and also the most conservative. I found it interesting how much her opinion differed from Heather’s. Heather may have been the oldest but acted as young, if not younger, than her daughter. I was in the middle of our respective ages, and I smiled indulgently as I listened to their good-natured bickering over music. A mixed CD of Bethany’s was currently playing, and we’d heard Blondie, The Rolling Stones, and Christina Aguilera. Heather didn’t like any of them, and suggested Bethany needed to get some “country, or blue grass even.”

Bethany and Heather were surprised to find out they both frequented the same salon to get their hair and nails done. Bethany also chose to have her eyebrows waxed there, but Heather groomed her own brows with a pair of good, old-fashioned tweezers. She did, however, have the salon “groom” her below the belt. I listened with rapt fascination as she described a Brazilian bikini wax to us. It sounded extremely unpleasant, and I shuddered before fortifying myself with another gulp of my margarita. It also sounded incredibly intimate; I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Bill or my gynecologist getting that close to my bikini area anymore.

“I have a standing appointment each month to get my legs waxed,” Bethany said when Heather was finished. “But I still have to shave in between.”

“I can’t get my legs waxed anymore because of my varicose veins,” I said, “so I have to shave. I absolutely hate it because I always get ingrown hairs.”

“That’s because you’re doing it wrong,” Bethany said.

“Yes, but you have to be a human pretzel to contort yourself into the required positions to shave the hair in the direction it grows,” I said.

“Have either of you ever read the directions on a bottle of shampoo?” Heather asked, not waiting for a response. “Lather, rinse, and repeat.” She snorted. “Who does that?”

“I do,” Bethany replied indignantly.

I looked at Bethany’s shiny head of healthy black hair and reconsidered. Perhaps I should start following directions more closely, I thought.

“Here’s something else I hate about washing my hair,” Heather said, tossing a strand of her long hair over her shoulder. “After I use conditioner, the loose hair runs down my back and gets caught in the crack of my ass.”

“I thought that only happened to me,” Bethany exclaimed.

“Me too,” I said.

I wondered how many other women suffered silently through feminine procedures, thinking they were alone. I also wondered who had come up with the idea of women being smooth while men got to remain hairy. I figured it was probably the same misogynistic man who’d invented six inch stiletto heels, girdles, and panty hose.

Heather and Bethany began talking about various hair colors they’d experimented with over the years, and I was unusually quiet because I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Every six months or so, I would have my hair trimmed, but that was the extent of my professional grooming. I chose to shave my own legs on occasion and I plucked my own eyebrows. I kept my nails short and saw no reason to indulge in manicures because of my work. Nail polish would rub off on a canvas and turpentine would not only clean oil paint off my hands, it would also wreak havoc on my nail polish.

Bethany offered Heather a drink for the third time since she’d arrived, and for the third time Heather declined. She reminded us that she was a recovering alcoholic, a fact that Bethany had been previously unaware of. Again Heather shot me a doubtful look, but refrained from chastising me again for my trustworthiness.

So, Heather spent a sober evening sipping Evian and watching us with bemusement in her eyes. Bethany was the perfect drunken hostess: keeping our glasses brimming at all times and keeping the conversation flowing along with the alcohol.

Due to Bethany’s conversational skills, I learned Heather was from Texas and she was the youngest of seven children; and the only girl. I also found out the details of Heather’s abrupt divorce after twenty years of marriage.

“I caught the bastard in bed with Tiffani’s nanny!”

Bethany and I were appropriately shocked until she added that she’d also been cheating with Tiffani’s principal.

“So, I guess we’re even.” “Besides,” she proclaimed, “I got the better deal: Tiffani, alimony, child support, the house, the Jaguar, and this,” she pointed at her pert nose, “and these,” she finished by pointing at her ample chest.

“I always wondered about that,” I said, instantly regretting it.

“Me too,” Bethany hiccuped.

“How about you two?” Heather asked. “Ever had any work done?”

Bethany and I shook our heads. Then I admitted to using Miss Kitty’s Pot of Gold.

“Oh that,” Heather said, waving it away.

“Did you know she sells it at Brandon’s store?” Bethany asked. Without waiting for an answer, she continued talking. “He told me something funny that happened the other day.”

She went on to tell us how Henry, Tootsie’s grandson, had been detained trying to leave the store because of the bulge down the front of his pants that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived. The bulge turned out to be a bottle of wine and once again, Tootsie was called instead of the police. She’d been too embarrassed to enter the store and collect Henry, and Brandon had ended up escorting him out to her.

“Poor Tootsie. Before long she’ll have to do all her shopping in Cedar Springs,” I said, referring to our neighboring town some fifteen miles away.

“Henry’s a handful, all right,” Bethany said.

“Better keep Tiffani away from him,” I said, though I didn’t think Henry was her type. “He’s bad news.”

Heather snorted. “That’s just what I need: Tiffani trading in Chavez for Henry.”

I downed the rest of my glass and held it out for more. “You make a mean margarita, girl,” I said as Bethany leaned over and poured more golden slush into my outstretched glass, and just a little bit onto the carpet.

“Thanks,” Bethany replied absently. “I worked my way through college tending my daddy’s bar.”

I had worked my own way through art school by working evenings and weekends at a shoe store in the mall. It had been the only time during my relationship with Bill we’d been separated.

“I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, but I had to work my way through college as a stripper instead,” Heather candidly announced.

The conversation soon turned to the recent burglaries around the neighborhood. Neither Heather nor Bethany had been robbed, and I told them about the attempt on my own house.

“I’d really like to catch the asshole,” I said.

Then we discussed who “the asshole” might be. I told them about Mrs. Matilda’s suspicions about the Johnson family, but “it’s only because they’re African Americans.” I was certain that Amanda and her family weren’t involved, and I shared my own suspicions to them.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Henry,” I slurred, having a hard time saying the letter “s.”

We all trailed off into silence, and my sodden brain began to daydream, which quickly turned to scheming and plotting. Before I could stop myself, I opened my mouth and started talking. I outlined a plan on how we could catch the intruder ourselves, and Heather listened intently as I spoke. I realized she, like most housewives, had been secretly craving some adventure in her life for a long time.

Bethany was less enthusiastic to spend the night in Mrs. Matilda’s gloomy old house in order to catch the burglar in the act. She quickly pointed out that we didn’t need to do anything since Mrs. Matilda had already moved out and the auction was in two days. However, that supposition only prodded me to want to act faster.

“The intruder has come back to Matilda’s house over the past week, but he won’t after the auction on Sunday. We need to do it tomorrow night,” I said.

To relieve Bethany’s anxieties, I promised to give Officer Jackson a call. I knew he wouldn’t allow us, mere civilians, to implement a stake-out, but I figured I could at least ask him to patrol our neighborhood more than usual. He would be our back-up and not even know it.

“So, we’re all in agreement then?” I asked.

They both agreed, Bethany a bit reticent and Heather overeagerly. Judging by the foggy look on Bethany’s face, I wasn’t sure she even knew any longer what she was agreeing to. I also realized I was pretty drunk myself.

“I wish I’d brought my handy-dandy notebook, so I don’t forget all this,” I said, speaking loudly to hear myself over the buzzing in my ears.

“Don’t worry,” Heather said brightly. “I’m the sober one for a change.”

The party broke up shortly thereafter. I stepped onto the porch first and Prissy darted between my legs. She growled at me as she scampered into the house, and I caught a glimpse of bloody fur between her bared teeth.

“Bethany,” I called, “I think Prissy just solved your mole problem.”

I staggered home at midnight. I peeled off my clothes and crawled into my side of the bed in just my bra and panties. Immediately the room began to spin. I tried to focus on a spot of light on the wall without much success and I blinked my eyes several times. I was glad when Bill wrapped his arm around me and pulled me tight against him. It steadied the thrashing ship I was riding and I soon passed out to the sound of his snoring in my ear like the lull of the ocean’s waves.

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