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Chapter 5

I took a presidential break for the entire next day. It was Parent’s Day at the kid’s school and I gladly spent the day there instead. I sat in classrooms at tiny desks in tiny chairs, surrounded by tiny people. I ate two separate lunches, not because the canned spaghetti was so tasty, but because I didn’t want to stir up any jealous sibling rivalry between Katie Nicole and Dylan. I even spent a fair amount of time trying to decipher the collage of colorful artwork that lined the hallways.

Katie Nicole excitedly introduced me to all of her friends, including her best friend Kiley, whom I’d met on several occasions, and who was planning on spending Friday night at my house.

Katie Nicole proudly showed me off to her art teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who commented that Katie Nicole must have gotten her talent from me. She steered me by my elbow to a corner table where Mrs. Fowler, the principal, was seated. They began speaking to me in mutually hushed tones. They wanted me to volunteer as Mrs. Anderson’s assistant for a day. It sounded like fun and I eagerly agreed to do it on Monday.

Dylan was captain for his kickball team during recess, and he flattered me immensely by choosing me for his team first. Our team won by a landslide, and the look of rapturous joy on Dylan’s face was well worth the skinned knee I suffered from.

The kids told Bill about our day over dinner; being extremely careful to not omit a single detail. At least with the way they recounted the story, it was anything but boring. We were all laughing hysterically by the end of the tale.

“I wish I could have been there,” Bill said regretfully. “But I won’t miss your Awards Ceremony next week.”

“Yay!” the kids sang in unison.

Later, as Bill and I lay in bed, we talked about Bill’s job. Or rather, I worked on sketches for ‘A Puppy’s Tale’ while Bill talked about his job. He was griping about the tremendous political b.s. that went along with being the Safety Director for a company that handled security for top secret agencies like the CIA and NASA. There’s b.s. with any job, but Bill’s position held more than the average amount of potential snafus and resultant stress.

At various times over the past eight years as Safety Director, Bill had thought about returning to the engineering aspect of his job. It’s what he’d started out as and had only become interested in safety after he witnessed the deaths of his two best friends. They had become trapped in a sewer shaft and had suffocated from the gases. Katie Nicole was a toddler, my parents had moved to the other side of the country, and my depressed husband decided to start a brand new career. It was a bleak time indeed.

As he grumbled, I noticed a poignant similarity between our two jobs: there was a lot we couldn’t tell each other. I, as president, couldn’t share my neighbors’ secrets to Bill and he was like a vault when it came to handling government affairs. I hadn’t kept a secret from Bill ever before and the recent need for secrecy troubled me deeply because it was so foreign.

I lay awake for a long time, thinking about the one major drawback from my new presidential position. As Bill began to snore, I finally drifted off to a troubled sleep, filled with secrets, lies, and phantom poltergeists.

I awoke from a terrifying dream at two in the morning. Tendrils of the dream clutched at me like smoke, and I was only able to shake off the feeling after I jumped out of bed. Bill stretched out, spread-eagling the bed, and I marveled at his ability to sleep through anything.

I went to the bathroom and drank some water straight from the tap. I wandered into the adjoining loft that overlooked the living room below, and gazed out of the huge picture window. I thought I saw a shadow flit across the front lawn and I crept downstairs with my heart racing and the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.

Whatever I thought I saw was gone by the time I reached the window and pulled the sheer drapes back for a better look. I shrugged it off as a remnant of the nightmare and proceeded to check on my kids.

Katie Nicole’s room was illuminated by dozens of twinkling lights threaded in the canopy above her trundle bed. She was sleeping soundly, surrounded by posters of singers, stars and boys. Bill rarely set foot in her room because it freaked him out so much to see “his little girl’s” idea of her dream boyfriends gazing back at him. I didn’t like it either, but tolerated it better because I knew it was just part of growing up.

Dylan’s door creaked loudly when I opened it. I immediately saw Frank’s beady eyes staring at me from the middle of Dylan’s bed.

“You’re not allowed on the bed,” I whispered, taking one step into the room. I stepped on a sharp edged toy, which not only hurt my foot but also let out a loud squeak. Dylan mumbled something incoherently and I froze. Frank watched it all with a look of mild interest on his face.

I retreated to the doorway. “Come on, Frank,” I whispered.

He lay his head back down on his paws and cocked an ear at me.

“Frank!” I whispered, louder than before.

Dylan rolled over and wrapped his arm around Frank, pulling him tight against his chest. Frank responded by closing first one eye, then the other. He let out a deep sigh of contentment, knowing he’d won. I would have to wake up Dylan to remove Frank from the bed; a risk I wasn’t willing to take. I shook my head, realizing the “No Dogs on the Bed” rule had somehow gone out the window while I wasn’t looking.

I awoke in the morning feeling chipper, despite my haunting dreams and broken sleep. So as soon as I got the kids on the school bus, I showered and took Frank for a long walk. I was on my way back home when I ran into Amanda, pushing Gabby in her stroller again. Amanda’s striking amber eyes were puffy and her mocha skin was blotchy. She was aimlessly shuffling along in her bathrobe and slippers like a sleepwalker. For once, I felt like I looked better than her, but then again, it wouldn’t have been hard. A zombie could have beaten her at a Beauty Contest.

“How’s it going?” I asked conversationally.

Her red-rimmed eyes met mine for a second and she bit her lower lip so hard I thought she would draw blood. Instead, she abruptly burst into tears.

“Oh, Amanda,” I said lamely, not knowing if I should hug her or simply ignore the tears. Ignoring the tears was impossible, so I settled on patting her back like I was burping a baby.

She pulled a bedraggled tissue from her bathrobe pocket and blew her nose. “I’m sorry.”

I shook my head at her and patted faster. “It’s okay. But what’s going on?”

“It’s silly.” She gave a tearful laugh to show me just how silly it was. “It’s just been such a long time since I last had a newborn. I guess maybe I’m just a little tired.”

I wondered if she even knew she was wearing her robe in public. “Maybe you’re suffering from post-partum depression,” I suggested.

She laughed; the first real laugh I’d heard from her. “Impossible,” she managed the say.

I didn’t want to push too hard, but I also didn’t think she should dismiss the notion so quickly. In my mind, any woman who was crying on the streets in her bathrobe was more than just “a little tired,” and should accept unsolicited advice being given by someone not wearing a robe. I decided to say one last thing before letting it drop.

“Come to think of it, I stopped sleeping after Katie Nicole was born. And I cried over nothing. I didn’t think anything of it until Bill pointed out how odd my behavior was. So, I saw my doctor and she gave me a prescription that I took for the next six months. By then, Katie Nicole was sleeping through the night and I felt like my old self again.”

Amanda studied me for a second, the bloodshot streaks in her eyes causing the iris’ to appear as golden as a cat’s. “I appreciate your candor.” She gave me a quick hug. “Thanks,” she whispered in my ear before releasing me.

She steered the baby carriage across the street and waved over her shoulder at me. I steered Frank through our front door, and got him settled in the living room with a pigs’ ear in his mouth and Animal Planet on TV. I added an ice cube to his water bowl, patted his head, and headed back out again.

I had only been Neighborhood Watch President for a short time, but I’d already solved Ruth’s problem with Bert. He may not have even known he’d had a problem, but I’d solved it for him nonetheless. Also, I had interviewed Ms. Gertie and had spoken to Heather. I was only left with Mrs. Matilda’s supernatural problem to address. I was flummoxed by the prospect of meeting a poltergeist, and I was anxious to test the vibes in her house myself.

I arrived at the unheard-of hour of nine in the morning, yet Mrs. Matilda didn’t seem surprised by my unexpected visit. In fact, she was completely unperturbed, although she was still wearing her house coat and floppy-eared bunny slippers.

We sat in her cramped, peculiar-smelling living room, sipping French roast coffee and eating fresh scones. Not one of the many Tiffany lamps were lit, and with all the drapes drawn we sat amongst dim shadows.

Mrs. Matilda must have thought my visit was merely a social call because she immediately launched into a tale about Tootsie’s grandson. I let her chatter on for a while about how Henry had been caught stealing a candy bar at the corner 7-11 the day before. Instead of calling the police, the manager had phoned Tootsie. She had picked up Henry and was so mortified that she swore she wouldn’t be able to show her face there ever again. A lull in the conversation provided me with the opportunity I’d been looking for, and I quickly steered the conversation to the true nature of my visit.

“So tell me about your poltergeist,” I blurted out.

My tactic startled her and her coffee cup clinked against the saucer as she set it down. She paused only for a moment before she began to speak. It didn’t take long for Mrs. Matilda to unburden herself to me. I sensed almost immediately that she was frightened; less of the poltergeist than the prospect of people thinking she was senile.

We slowly walked through her immense house and she showed me where each item had disappeared from. I carried around a notebook and took the occasional note, but mostly I just listened to Mrs. Matilda prattle on in breathless gasps as we climbed up and down her countless stairs.

Her house was crowded with a mixture of rare antiques and pricelessly ancient furniture. The large rooms were so packed with baubles that the walls seemed to close in on me. Original paintings adorned every wall and sparkling trinkets filled every available surface. All-in-all, the effect was so overwhelming that I soon suffered from eye strain.

I felt nothing out of the ordinary, though, as we walked; not an evil presence, nor anything else for that matter. I experienced no cold chills or irrational feelings of dread, and I was soon confident her nocturnal intruder was of the human variety, not the paranormal.

Mrs. Matilda remained calm throughout the entire tour, leaving no doubt in my mind that she was clearly still sharp as a tack. Her tranquil demeanor cracked, though, when we descended to the dining room and she opened a cupboard in the polished mahogany sideboard. She’d been about to show me where an antique plate (“that Abraham Lincoln ate a chicken potpie from”) had been displayed.

“Eek!” she let out a shriek from where she knelt, and I jumped in surprise. I bumped into her massive backside and almost sent her sprawling headfirst into the empty cabinet.

“It’s gone!” she screamed, her tight gray curls bobbling on her head like fat little caterpillars and her three round chins quivered with righteous indignation.

“What’s gone?” I asked as I struggled to help her to her feet.

“My mother’s platinum urn,” she cried as she pointed to a lace doily on the bottom shelf of the cupboard. “I kept it right there with the missing plate hanging above it. Now they’re both gone!”

I sat her down at the table and went to get her something to drink. After opening several kitchen cabinets and still not finding any glasses, I tried the pantry door. There at eye level, near the front of a prominent shelf, was a crystal decanter with a glass tumbler upended on the stopper. I opened the bottle, noting there was no dust on it, and gave a sniff. It appeared that Mrs. Matilda’s drink of choice was bourbon.

I returned to the table with the bottle and quickly poured her a hefty slug. She tossed it to the back of her throat in one well practiced gesture. I wondered if drinking bourbon before noon was a common part of her day; it would certainly explain her loneliness.

We sat together at her glossy dining room table, and at my insistence Mrs. Matilda began describing all of her missing pieces. I sketched in my notebook as she talked; my hand keeping pace with her quick details. I didn’t stop drawing until the four items met Mrs. Matilda’s approval. I labeled the page “Inventory” before closing the notebook.

“Do you think my house is haunted?” she asked me in a querulous voice. Her beady eyes were magnified behind her thick glasses and they searched mine for reassurance.

I bit my lower lip and shook my head truthfully. The case had an all-too-real air of humanity to it that a poltergeist couldn’t lend. However, I didn’t want to frighten her further so I quietly suggested she call the police.

She dismissed the idea with a wave of her dimpled hand, reminding me that she had done just that a few weeks earlier after the first item disappeared. Officer Jackson had filed a report and laughed at her suggestion that a poltergeist was the culprit.

My own first conclusion was to think the culprit was the same burglar who was responsible for the recent break-ins around the neighborhood. So, I encouraged her to tell me why she thought it was a poltergeist. She answered me with a list, ticking the points off on her stubby fingers as she spoke.

“1) The doors and windows are always locked and there’s no sign of forced entry. 2) It always happens when I’m alone. And 3) I hear floorboards squeaking, and once I even saw a shadow crossing my bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night.”

She’d more than adequately answered all of my questions and I reluctantly made my farewells. I glanced back at her from the doorway; never a lonelier figure had I ever seen. She sat alone at her formal table set for twelve--- her only company the bottle of bourbon, of which she slowly poured a second shot.

I saw myself out, and guiltily hoped nothing would happen to her before I could solve her poltergeist problem. I worried about the “poltergeist;” just because he hadn’t harmed her before, didn’t mean he wouldn’t in the future. I hated leaving her all alone but was unwilling to act as her bodyguard and protect her at night until the issue was resolved.

I had no idea how to stop her thieving nocturnal presence, nor about Ms. Gertie’s dilemma over Mrs. Matilda’s constant physical presence. I was so deep in thought on my way home that it took me second to realize someone was calling my name.

“Cami Jo!” Ruth hustled across her lawn to catch up with me. She’d been weeding her flower bed, and there were grass stains on the knees of her pink sweat suit and dirt under her short nails. She wielded a spade in one hand and she pushed a strand of her bobbed silver hair behind an ear with her other filthy hand. She beamed at me and her sharp features were softened, making her appear younger than when I’d first met her years earlier. I’d never seen her look happier.

“I just had to let you know that Bert’s been in hog heaven since you took him to your friend’s comic book shop.” She proceeded to tell me how Bert had volunteered to “organize the entire shop from top to bottom.” I wondered how Ralph was reacting to this intrusion on his domain, but Ruth allayed my worries by explaining how she’d visited Bert “at work” the day before.

“You should have seen the two of them, Cami Jo. I tell you, they were like two peas in a pod.” Then she grew solemn, her eyes round and merry. “Comical Candies now has Fudgsicles, Creamsicles, and Dreamsicles.”

“Oh, my.”

Ruth gave me a hug before returning to the dirt around her rosebushes. I hope she doesn’t regret it, I thought as I went home.

I spent the remainder of the day preparing for the upcoming first Annual Neighborhood Watch meeting. I made a list of things to discuss, including the recent vandalism and robberies. I wondered if I should provide snacks on Saturday morning, then quickly rejected the idea. I made a flier on the computer, advertising the meeting, and printed out a dozen copies.

I awoke Frank and we strolled around the neighborhood, armed with the fliers and a staple gun. We ventured around a three-block radius, stapling fliers to poles or trees as we went. I must have done an adequate job, because my kids even noticed the fliers on their walk home from the bus stop at the end of the street.

They commented on them as soon as they walked in the door and saw me at the dining room table. I had begun adding color to the ‘Puppy’ storyboard I was illustrating, and was surrounded by a colorful array of fine-tipped watercolor markers. Thankfully, they didn’t have any homework so I didn’t have to clean up the mess I was so happily wallowing in.

Bethany dropped by after dinner to announce she had another date with Brandon on Saturday night. I ushered her to my screened-in back porch, with Katie Nicole trailing along behind. We shared some quality girl time as we watched the sun sink in the sky amidst a trail of flaming clouds. The inimitable ambers and fuchsias of nature inspired a painting to take shape in my mind. The sound of Katie Nicole’s voice brought me back to reality, though, before the idea could fully reveal itself to me.

“Don’t forget, Mom, Kiley’s coming home with me after school tomorrow and spending the night.” I nodded absently. “I can’t wait for summer vacation.” She sighed wistfully from beside me on the glider swing.

“Soon, princess,” I said as I began to plait her thick hair into a French braid, our bare legs touching. She turned her head in Bethany’s direction, causing her silky strands to slide through my fingers and the braid came undone before it even got finished.

“I’m glad you have a boyfriend now, Miss Bethany.”

Bethany blushed to the roots of her shiny black hair before she stammered, “Brandon’s not exactly my boyfriend yet.”

“They’re just going out,” I said, trying to explain the nuances of dating to my nine- year-old teenager.

“I tried to trap the mole in a jar,” Bethany said, hoping to change the subject.

It worked, at least on Katie Nicole. She began questioning Bethany about the jar trap in such detail that Bethany couldn’t keep up. I quickly realized that Katie Nicole was hoping to keep the mole as a pet. I decided to put an end to it, and fast.

“Maybe I’ll get a sitter so Bill and I can go out on Saturday night, too.” It would kill two birds with one stone: getting Bill and I out on a long overdue date, and getting Tiffani in the right place at the right time for me to talk to her about Chavez.

“Good idea.” Bethany winked at me. “Keep those home fires kindles.”

I didn’t bother telling her that we didn’t need to go out to do that.

“Will Tiffani babysit?” Katie Nicole asked excitedly.

“I hope so. I should call her,” I said.

Katie Nicole raced inside, her coltish legs pumping, to tell the guys about our plans. She returned a moment later and handed me the phone, hovering over my shoulder as I dialed the familiar number.

Tiffani answered halfway through the first ring, as if she were awaiting a call. Apparently I wasn’t who she was expecting, but she was available on Saturday night. She agreed to come over around six o’clock, and hurriedly explained in a loud voice that she was only free on such short notice because her mother wouldn’t let her “have a life!”

Katie Nicole obligingly hung up the phone for me, and Bill wandered out a minute later. The sun disappeared in a blaze like a smoldering ember on the horizon, and Bill’s hazel eyes sparkled with mischief in the fading light.

“I hear we have a date on Saturday,” he murmured as he nuzzled my neck.

“Hope you don’t already have plans.”

“Nothing that I wouldn’t blow off for you.” He kissed my cheek, grinned broadly at me, and left us to resume our girl talk. Overhead, the first star twinkled to life.

“Where are you and Brandon going?” I asked Bethany.

She shrugged. “He wants to surprise me.”

“How sweet,” Katie Nicole teased.

I knew exactly where I wanted Bill and me to go, so the next morning I made reservations at the Outside Inn for seven o’clock the following evening. The name may have fooled tourists, but locals knew the Outside Inn was the best restaurant in town. Therefore, it was also the priciest and the hardest to secure a table at. Years earlier I had tried to display some of my paintings there, but the manager had politely declined. Thankfully, I had better luck getting reservations than I did pedaling my artwork.

I spent the rest of the day “spring cleaning,” because the end of the school year marked a temporary end to my free time. I vacuumed dust bunnies from underneath beds and even did the edging of the downstairs carpet. I Magic Erased fingerprints from doorjambs and windowsills. And I managed to wash all the curtains and re-hang them before the kids got home from school.

Kiley rode the bus home with Katie Nicole and Dylan, and as soon as they finished eating a snack they ran outside to play in the backyard. They played a complicated game of Keep Away (from Dylan, as far as I could tell) until Bill called them in for dinner.

Katie Nicole took one look at the spread on the table and groaned.

Kiley sniffed the air. “Pot roast?”

“I hate pot roast,” Katie Nicole complained.

“I love pot roast,” Dylan said. “With the little potatoes and carrots?”

“Yes,” I said. “Now all of you hurry and go wash your hands. With soap!” I called to their retreating backs.

By the time they returned to the table, the other two children had convinced Katie Nicole that pot roast might not be half bad. At least she ate with a minimum amount of fake gagging and genuine whining. Kiley talked about her upcoming Disneyland vacation and ignored Katie Nicole. Katie Nicole listened to Kiley for a moment before she turned to scowl at me.

“What?” I asked. “I think our vacation will be every bit as fun as Disneyland.”

“Your mother’s right. Touring part of Virginia will be lots of fun.” Even to my ears, Bill’s voice had a defensive and falsely jovial sound to it.

Bill and I took turns pointing out the virtues of driving around for two weeks in a rented camper, stopping occasionally to sight-see and spend money. We were going to tour Luray Caverns and the Historical Triangle of the Tidewater area. The Historical Triangle included Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown. I was especially excited to see the “gaffers” blowing glass by mouth in Jamestown. This fact only elicited an eye roll from Katie Nicole, so Bill quickly reminded her that Busch Gardens Amusement Park was in Williamsburg and we would be spending two days there.

By the time we were done eating and talking about our vacation, Kiley was ready to “bail” on her own family vacation and join us for ours. More importantly, I could tell Katie Nicole no longer thought our tour of Virginia would be so lame. She’d also eaten enough of her dinner to qualify for dessert and everyone left the table happy.

Afterward, Bill took Dylan to see some sort of superhero/adventure movie, which we three girls had no desire to see. So, we sat on the couch and watched a ’tween drama show on TV. I didn’t approve of the starlet’s wardrobe, and with each passing scene her choice of outfits showed more and more skin. I was disturbed when Kiley commented how much she wanted her shoes. But I almost turned off the TV in the middle of the show when Katie Nicole said, “Yeah, but I really love her skirt.”

Kiley wanted to call her parents when the show was over. But first, she needed my assurance that Bill was going to take all three kids for breakfast in the morning then he would drop her off at her house. He would return home with our kids, and the Neighborhood Watch meeting would already be underway.

Kiley was just telling her parents “good night” when Dylan and Bill got home from the movies. We settled the girls into Katie Nicole’s room then tucked Dylan into his bed. He read us a story, and we could hear the girls giggling and whispering from across the hall.

Bill and I went to bed shortly after that. I wanted to get a good night’s sleep because of the meeting in the morning, but I was too nervous about the meeting to actually get to sleep. I’d never been a competent public speaker in high school, and I was pretty sure that fact hadn’t changed much over the years.

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