Arlington Woods Public School let out at 3:30, and the newsletters on the school website not only told us where the school bus could be found at the end of the day, but also outlined in detail the student pick-up procedure for the children who had adults to collect them. At 3:25, I claimed a parking spot in the middle of the lot, and stationed myself at a spot in the pick-up area where I had a good view of the bus, the parking lot, and the school’s entrance. I was hyperconscious of my new hat that didn’t quite fit, of the sunglasses that pressed my prescription glasses against my face; of my phone, wallet, and keys jangling in the oversized handbag; of the pleated, off-white pants that were already stained with a smear of salad dressing. But the other adults, mostly mothers, waiting in the yard chatted amongst themselves, and the teachers on duty were watching the children; no one in this security-conscious school noticed the imposter in their midst.
I saw the woman before I saw Gary. She was wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat and a long, loose skirt, and she held a younger boy by the hand. She strode purposefully into the waiting area, the child taking two steps to her one. She stopped at the edge of the group of mothers, and I slid into position a few feet behind her. A few minutes later the woman lifted her hand and waved, and I followed her line of sight to the boy with the Lego watch, whose face lit up in recognition as he skipped toward her. Once beside him, the woman leaned down and said something I couldn’t hear. The older boy nodded and grinned, and the trio headed into the lot.
I bounded back to my car, keeping the three within view, no longer concerned if anyone noticed me. She was parked on the far edge of the parking lot, but it took her a few minutes to buckle the toddler into a car seat and to check Gary’s seatbelt, so I was able to get to my car and pull up near hers. There were two cars between us by the time we pulled onto the street, but traffic was light, and she stayed easily within view.
She drove down the short, now-familiar route, and I followed her for all three minutes of it, until she pulled into the plaza and parked near the bank. I waited in my car as she took the children inside, and as the three left and then entered a frozen yogurt place two doors down. When they emerged, the younger boy was craning his neck and pressing his face into a cone topped with a swirl of chocolate, while the older one carefully picked at a strawberry- or raspberry cup with a spoon. The woman was empty-handed.
She led them behind the store buildings, and I left my car, no longer worried about losing them. On the other side of the street was a park, and they crossed with the exaggerated look-both-ways ritual of young families, and headed down a path toward a picnic table. The park was nearly empty, so I hung back in the heavy heat by the buildings, keeping an eye on them as I texted my father with an update and pretended to continue to fiddle with my phone. The boys finished their treats, and Gary skipped off to the swings while the woman took a napkin from her purse, spat on it, and then dabbed around the younger boy’s mouth. He stood in front of her for a moment while she examined him, hands on his shoulders, until she nodded in approval, and then he ran off to join his brother. The two played there together, on the swings and on the slide and on the monkey bars, for nearly an hour as the woman sat at the picnic table. Fifteen minutes in, I crossed the street and sought shade under a tree on the far side of the park, resigning myself to ruining the off-white pants.
The woman didn’t notice me. She didn’t notice anyone, or anything, besides the two boys, and her eyes didn’t leave them for a second.
The next drive was short as well: back down Greenbank Road, back toward the school, and around to Craig Henry Drive, where they pulled into an empty driveway in front of a yellow house. I parked on the street a few feet away and watched as the woman exited the car. She’d removed her hat and sunglasses, and her thick braid fell down her back, the tassel brushing against the top of her thighs. Gary stood by the door as she hoisted the younger child, now asleep, onto her shoulder, and then fished in her handbag for her keys.
I stepped out of my car, leaving my own hat and sunglasses on the passenger seat, and walked up the driveway. The woman, her back to me, was busy negotiating the door with one hand, but the older boy saw me, and tugged at her sleeve and pointed.
She turned to face me, brow furrowed. Her eyes were dark, almost black, and someone who wasn’t looking closely could easily miss the outlines of the contact lenses. And only someone who knew exactly what to look for would notice the darker line extending from the left pupil to the perimeter of the iris.
“Hello, Anoushka,” I said, and in an instant her face froze, and she knew who I was as well.
“Who’s that?” whispered Gary.
“Somebody from before.” Her words were clipped, precise, and her gaze didn’t leave me. The sleeping child was beginning to slip, and she propped him up again, anchoring him with her left arm as she pushed the door open with her right. “Gary, go inside. Take your shoes off.”
“Go.” She was still staring directly at me, and I saw Gary’s mouth twist as he abandoned a half-formed question.
“Can I play Lego?”
“Yes.” She didn’t turn from me, and the boy stepped into the foyer, kicked off his shoes, and disappeared into the house. She reached for the knob, still looking at me, and left the door ajar. When she was content Gary was out of earshot and his brother still asleep, she addressed me again. “Why are you here?” she hissed.
This time I had an answer, and I met her eyes as I spoke it. “Because I want to know what happened,” I said: the product of five hours of contemplation on the plane, and utterly inadequate.
“Now you know.” She pushed the door open again, and turned from me for the first time.
I inserted a foot into the entryway. “Not everything,” I said. “I know where you are and where the children are. I know why you left Calgary. I know why you and Manny didn’t want me to find you. And I know that the police came over here a few days ago, and that as far as they, and Julia are concerned, Anoushka –”
She spun around, and I saw the boy stir. “The children go to bed at eight,” she said. “Come at eight-thirty.”
I nodded and stepped back outside, and she slammed the door.
I left my car in her single driveway, parked behind hers, and on foot I turned the nearest corner, the sun hot against my neck. A block away was a park, and there I climbed to the top of a hill that overlooked the entire area. Below, in a basketball court, a boy on a bicycle spun in a tight circle; a few feet away, two little girls shoveled fistfuls of sand into an array of containers and presented their work to a woman around my age, who nodded with solemn approval. I took out my phone and gave my father a proper call, updating him with my coordinates and telling him where I’d be for the next few hours. “I’ll probably be done later this evening, around when you finish dinner, and I’ll call you again then.”
“And then you’ll come home?”
“Oh, that’s good to hear,” he said, too quickly, and I knew that it was better for him to hear than he let on.
There was an uncomfortable pause, and then I asked him how his day had been. He babbled on for a few minutes, about his lunch and his new exercise plan and his medicine, and soon I was no longer listening to what he was saying, but it was nevertheless good to hear.
The neighbourhood where Gary and his family had made their new home was a relentlessly residential one, with only a convenience store and a few takeout restaurants breaking up the landscape of houses and condominiums and parks. I entered the tiny storefront of the plaza’s pizza place – takeout and delivery only, with just two chairs near the counter for waiting customers to pick up their meals – and ordered myself a dinner, something I gathered the flustered cashier wasn’t accustomed to doing in person. I settled into one of the chairs, the cashier’s eyes flitting between me and a textbook she had open in front of her; but after another half-glance from her, I left, circling the block a few times before returning to collect my food.
I carried the box back to the park around the corner from the yellow house. There were no picnic tables, and a trio of children, seven or eight years old, had claimed the small hill, running up and somersaulting down and then running back up again. Behind them, in the field, two teams of uniformed girls in the gangly stage between childhood and adolescence chased a soccer ball, their attentive parents cheering from the sidelines. I found a bench across the play structure, where the two little girls were now bouncing on a pair of painted horses on springs. I sat down, setting my handbag beside me and propping the pizza box on my pleated slacks, a pathetic sight even by my own standards.
The older of the girls, a toddler with blonde ringlets spilling out of a pink baseball cap, dismounted the wooden horse and approached me. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I echoed through a mouthful of food.
“You have pizza.”
“Can I have some?”
“If it’s okay with –” your mother? – the children’s caretaker, a dark-haired, sharp-featured woman, looked nothing like them. “That’s not up to me,” I said instead.
The girl seemed to be thinking about this. “Okay,” she said, and then ran back to the toy horse, our conversation already behind her.
The little girls soon left, with the boy on the bicycle and the dark-haired woman. I finished another few slices of pizza while I watched the soccer team and the children on the hill, until I could no longer sit still as they ran around. I closed the pizza box and carried it back to the car, where I lingered longer than I needed to. Then, for want of anything better to do, I wandered up and down the street, thirty minutes each way, as the heat broke and the shadows grew longer and the parks emptied of children. On my third pass, the light in one of the two upstairs rooms in the yellow house was on, and visible inside was the woman, head bent, an arm curled around a child and a small hand holding open a book. I stood on the sidewalk across the street, watching, until a dog walker jolted me out of my reverie.
On my fourth pass, the upstairs lights were both off, and I walked up to the yellow house.