“Okay everyone, thank you all for coming.” Pete called across the backyard where all the guests had gathered for the great mystery reveal.
Natalie was a bit sad it was over. All night she’d been playing as Esmeralda, a snobby heiress who loved to tell lies and manipulate the people around her. She wasn’t the thief, but it had been fun playing someone so devilish. Plus it meant Bryce’s classmates were bombarding her with questions every few seconds. She hadn’t had any time to herself, and no one, say like Ryan, had any chance to approach her.
She scanned the crowd of people, looking for Scott, and spied him talking to an attractive blonde, one Natalie recognised from the Maple Lodge, the town’s most popular bar. She was their best bartender, and everyone liked her. She was charming and flirty, and she could refuse the angriest drunk and they’d happily accept it rather than fight her for another drink. Natalie watched as she reached into Scott’s pocket and pulled out his phone. He smiled as if the whole situation amused him as she typed something into it before handing it back and walking away.
Once she was gone Natalie made her way over to him. He met her eyes and smiled, and she raised an eyebrow in question.
“What was that?” She asked, nodding in the direction the blonde had walked.
“Nothing.” He replied, smiling cheekily.
“She gave you her number?”
“She might have.” His cheeky smile grew bigger, his eyes twinkling mischievously, as if asking her what she planned to do about it.
She stepped to him, standing on her tiptoes and kissing him gently across his lips.
“What are you doing?” He asked against her lips.
“Marking my territory.” She replied, kissing him one more time before pulling away.
“Ryan was watching.” He said.
Crap. Now Natalie felt awful. She and Ryan had only just broken up, and she’d broken up with him for Scott, she didn’t need to be rubbing it in his face.
“Natalie, he’ll need to get used to it sooner or later.” Scott said, reading her expression.
“Yeah I know.” She said. “I still feel bad.”
“I don’t.” He replied, taking her hand and threading his fingers through hers. She rolled her eyes at him, smacking his side with their clasped hands, but she didn’t pull away, she let him hold it, because she just liked having his hand in hers. She was being selfish, she knew that, but her desire to have him close beat any guilt she felt at Ryan seeing them like this.
“Okay, now, would all the players step forward.” Pete instructed. “You were all given answer cards. On that write down what you think was stolen, who stole it, where it was stolen from and at what time. Then form a line, bring that card to the front here and my lovely assistant…” Eliza waved from where she stood next to Pete, a fake smile shining out at the crowd. “Will go through the answers and see who guessed right and who didn’t. Remember to write your names on your cards.”
The kids quickly formed a line, everyone desperate to get to the front. A few of the parents stepped in to calm them down, insisting that if someone guessed before them it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“Remember kids, it’s not who guesses first, it’s who guesses right.” Pete called in an attempt to calm them down. “If you all guess right you all win a prize.”
His words seemed to get through to them, and although some pushing and shoving remained it was a lot tamer than it had been seconds ago.
“Bryce totally has this in the bag.” Scott said from beside her, beaming with pride. Natalie’s chest leapt seeing the expression on his face, and a warm smile crept across her lips.
Eliza took each slip of paper from each kid, reading through them all quickly. She gave nothing away, but from the way she bunched them all together, as if she didn’t care about their contents, Natalie could see no one had guessed right. Bryce stepped up next and handed his card over. A small smile formed on Eliza’s lips, one she quickly tried to hide as she discretely slipped Bryce’s card into her back pocket, separating it from the wrong answers.
Finally the line ended, and Eliza whispered something to Pete before taking the microphone from him, a smug gleam in her eyes.
“Only one person guessed right.” She called out to the crowd. “Before I reveal the answer, is there anyone who’d like to come up and share their theories?”
Her eyes landed on one person, and she smiled and gave a slight nod for him to come up on stage. Natalie followed her gaze, and saw that she was staring straight at Cooper Bronson, the kid Bryce often complained about whenever Natalie came over. Cooper smiled a smug smile, walking up to stage with his head held high, cocky and confident as if he’d just won the lottery.
“Eliza, you savage.” Scott mumbled under his breath, his lips curling into that half smile of his.
Natalie was completely lost. She knew Bryce had the answer, and yet the way Eliza had stared at Cooper, practically inviting him up on stage, made it seem like he had it. Did he have it? Had Bryce lost?
Eliza smiled sweetly, handing the microphone to Cooper, who in an obnoxiously loud voice screeched over to the crowd,
“The Rare Bible was stolen, from the Prayer Room, at midday by Sir Clayton.”
“That’s what I guessed.” One of the girl’s called from where she stood on the grass.
“Yeah me too.” Another echoed.
“So did we.” Two boys added.
“How can only one person be right if we all guessed the same thing?” Some other kid wanted to know.
Beside Natalie, Scott smiled, relishing the fact Cooper had gotten it wrong and just made a fool of himself. Eliza had the same smile plastered across her face.
“Because you’re all wrong.” Came Bryce’s voice as he jumped onto the stage.
“I’m not wrong.” Cooper objected.
“Yes you are.” Bryce said snatching the microphone from Cooper so quickly the bigger boy had no time to react. “Yes, the item stolen was the Rare Bible, and it was stolen from the Prayer Room at midday. But it wasn’t Sir Clayton, it was Anne Clayton, his daughter.”
“No it wasn’t.” Copper objected.
“Yes it was.” Bryce insisted. “You thought it was Sir Clayton because he lost all his money, but it was actually his daughter Anne. She had a gambling problem, and since her father lost their money she couldn’t pay off her debts. So she stole the bible.”
Everyone stood in silence, processing the big reveal. Natalie knew he was right, she’d had the answer since last night when Scott had called her and explained the whole thing. He’d told her that everything pointed to Sir Clayron, but there was no motive. Sure he was broke, but he’d soon regain his fortune. His daughter Anne however, who needed to quickly pay off her debts did have motive. Bryce had figured it out, he had all the clues and he’d put it all together.
“He’s right.” Eliza revealed, going over to a board covered in a black cloth. She pulled it down to reveal the answer, the Rare Bible, from the Prayer Room, at Midday, stolen by Anne Clayton.
All of Bryce’s classmates stared up at him in amazement, then all at once they starting firing questions his way, asking how he figured it out and complementing him on his detective work. He was the centre of attention, Cooper completely forgotten except for the few students who made jokes about how much he’d embarrassed himself stepping up on stage and shouting out the wrong answer.
That’s when Natalie figured out her own mystery, the reason why Eliza had practically carried Cooper onto stage. She knew he was wrong, but she’d convinced him he was right so he’d do what he’d done, step up on stage, announce his wrong answer and then slink away mortified when Bryce, the kid he always made fun of, showed him up.
Eliza was a savage.
No one messed with her kid.
“I’m gonna go get a drink.” Scott said. “You want one?”
“Sure.” Natalie replied. “I’ll just have some water though.”
“I will kill you.”
He laughed before letting go of her hand and heading inside toward the kitchen where all the ‘grown up’ drinks were being stored.
Up on the makeshift stage Bryce looked over at his nemesis, a big smile of victory across his face, a smile that instantly fell when he saw the look of mortification on the other boy’s face. Bryce then pushed passed the adoring people that had circled him and made his way over to Cooper.
“Good game.” He said to the boy, extending his hand for Cooper to shake. “You were good, and you almost won.”
Cooper stared at Bryce’s hand for a second, then he slapped it away, not interested in mending fences.
“You only won cause your mom told you the answer.”
“And you lost because you’re stupid.” Bryce shot back.
“Bryce.” Pete chastised.
“I tried to be nice.” Bryce said, throwing his hands up in defeat before turning away from Cooper and back to all the other kids who were still desperate for a play by play recount on how he’d figured it out.
“He’s a lot like his mother that one.” A quiet voice said beside Natalie and she turned to see Scott’s mother standing beside her, Cecilia Garrison. “He tries to be like his dad, kind, fair, well-behaved, always doing the right thing, but then you do something to upset him and he’s hurling insults, sulking and refusing to speak to you.”
“I’m not saying Eliza’s bad. She just expects you to act a certain way, and if you don’t that’s when she strikes.” Cecilia said wistfully. “She’s grown into a very strong and confident woman. I’d be lucky if my grandson turns out like her.”
“Oh.” She knew she sounded stupid, but she was lost for words. She’d never known what to say in Cecilia’s presence. Cecilia was quiet, she watched the world and processed everything that happened around her in a way Natalie could never understand. She was a lot like Scott, thoughtful, introspective, a bit brooding and cynical. You’d think she and Scott would have been closer, that out of everyone she’d be his biggest champion. Instead she’d always been hard on him, impossible to impress, always serious, never once praising him on his accomplishments. Natalie never knew if it was because she wasn’t impressed by her son or if that was just who she was, the woman who hated being vulnerable so she was always cold.
“You’ve grown up well too.” She said. “For a while there you were floundering, but you picked yourself up, got back on your feet, made quite an impressive life for yourself.”
“I’m just a preschool teacher.” She replied, she didn’t know why she dismissed herself like that, it just felt weird being praised by this woman.
“There’s more to life than our profession.” Cecilia said. “I’m talking about the way you live your life, with optimism, grace, tenderness. You leave your mark on everyone you meet, and you make a person happier just by being in your presence. When I met you I knew straight away why my sons had fallen for you. Both of them.”
“Don’t be naive my dear. Pete once cared for you just as much as Scott does.”
“He never said anything.” She said. Sure, she’d once thought maybe Pete might have had a thing for her. Only for a second, that second right before she’d been consumed by Scott.
“His feelings faded.” Cecilia commented. “Feelings often fade. It’s in rare cases that they don’t.” Again Natalie was lost for words. Anything she wanted to say seemed stupid compared to the deep and truthful words this woman always spoke. “I’m glad you and Scott have found each other again. He needs someone like you. You make him feel loved. And that’s…” She paused, swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat. “That’s something his father and I failed at.”
She turned her gaze back to the makeshift stage that had been set up for the game. Bryce still stood surrounded by all his friends, smiling brighter than Natalie had ever seen him. Off to the side were Pete and Eliza, their bodies rigid as they stood side by side, only a small amount of space between them, but somehow they made it look like miles.
“I don’t think Pete and Eliza are going to make it.” Cecilia said sadly, but Natalie didn’t know if she was sad because of that, or because she’d said out loud how much she regretted failing her son, the one person a mother was never supposed to fail.
Scott grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge before shutting the door and heading back toward the yard where Natalie was waiting.
“Scott.” He instantly cringed at the sound, wondering if there would ever be a time when Elena’s voice didn’t make him feel like jumping out of his skin.
“So close.” He mumbled to himself. If only he hadn’t come for that beer he could have gone the whole night without bumping into her. It was just another sign that drinking was bad for him. “Do we really have to do this?” He asked her.
“Yes, we do. Natalie’s not listening to me, so maybe you will.”
“Elena.” He said, shaking his head in condescension. “If either one of us were going to break, it would be Natalie. She’s the one with the perfect life all but set up for her. I’m the one with nothing to lose here.”
“I’m not here to break you.” She replied, surprising him.
“No?” He asked. “You here to compliment me on my fantastic performance as a man of the cloth?”
“I’m here to ask you to let Natalie go.” She said. “Please. Let her go.”
Her voice did a weird thing then. Where it usually sounded bitchy, serious and filled with disdain it now sounded desperate. Elena Wilson sounded desperate.
“I’m begging you Scott. Don’t do this to her.”
“I know you don’t plan to hurt her.” She said. “But you will. Just like you did before.” Her words were spoken so earnestly, with so much conviction that he almost believed them. But he had to be stronger, he had to tune them out, he couldn’t let them break through.
She opened her mouth to say more and almost immediately shut it, whatever she’d been about to say gone.
“I don’t know why she loves you.” She said instead, voicing the same question he’d asked himself countless times before.
He knew why he loved Natalie. He loved her because she made everything better. She would smile at him and everything would be fine. She was funny, and dramatic, and she had an insane obsession with Gilmore Girls, and when she loved someone she loved them with everything she had. She was beautiful and humble and so incredibly sexy. She could have anyone, countless guys were there waiting at her feet. Why had she chosen him? Why him?
“I don’t get it.” Her mother said. “Why you? There’s something broken in you, there’s this hopelessness that you’re not strong enough to fight yourself. That’s why you want Natalie, because she does it for you. She makes you feel better. But what’s going to happen 10 years from now when Natalie no longer makes it better? You’ll just make her miserable so you’re not alone with it all?”
“I would never do that to her.”
“You already did. You let those feelings take over, you let them consume you, and you went to a bar, picked up some trashy slut and brought her back to bed, waiting for Natalie to come home and find you.”
“That was different.”
“You’re self-destructive. You always have been. What you don’t realise is that when you hurt yourself you also hurt the people around you. When you two were 16 you’d get high to feel better, and you’d make her get high with you. You’d go and isolate yourself and wallow in your misery, but she’d follow you and sit beside you, cutting out her friends, just like you did. Then you blew out your knee, you ran out of money, and she started doing pageants again, something she’d always hated, because you certainly weren’t doing anything except drinking.”
Don’t listen to her Scott. He couldn’t listen to her. He knew he’d failed Natalie, he knew he’d hurt her, but things were different now, he was different now. He was ready for this. Ready to be the guy she deserved.
“She supported you through everything, and you repaid her by sleeping with someone else. She came home broken.” Her voice cracked on the last word, like the memory of Natalie miserable brought her physical pain. “She didn’t stop crying. Every night for so long I heard her in the next room crying herself to sleep. She wouldn’t talk to anyone. She became this person I didn’t recognise. All I wanted to do was make her pain go away, help her, but everything I did only seemed to make it worse.”
He didn’t want to hear this. He knew he’d hurt her. He knew he didn’t deserve her or her forgiveness, but she’d given it anyway. He couldn’t turn her away. He didn’t have to. Natalie wanted him too. She wanted to be with him. He didn’t have to walk away.
“The only thing that really helped her was time. And even then, with every new guy she met, even with Ryan, she’d panic and run whenever it started to get serious, scared they’d hurt her the way you did.”
Why was she telling him this? What was she trying to accomplish here? If she wanted him to feel like a scumbag she’d succeeded. She could stop. She didn’t need to go on.
“She finally moved on. She was happy again. Then you came back and suddenly she’s giving up everything for you. Again. She’s giving up her friendship with Pete, her relationship with me, her future with Ryan. She’s even willing to give up her job, one she loves, to go and live in some mountain cabin with you. She’s giving it all up. And for what? For you to eventually hurt her again?”
He’d never hurt her again. He couldn’t. He’d never do that again.
“You’re weak Scott. You always have been. When things get hard you break. I know it’s not nice to hear. But this is my daughter. And I am asking you, begging you, please don’t put her through that again. You can hurt yourself however you want, but don’t drag her down with you. Let her go. Please let her go.”
She was begging. With every word her voice became more desperate, more hysterical. He’d never seen this woman anything but angry. Now she was close to tears, because she knew he was going to break her daughter.
No. He couldn’t. He couldn’t hurt her.
Turning away from Elena he headed up to his room, needing to clear his head. When he got up there the opposite happened. His mind became one huge mess as everything hit him at once. It was like that air vent, all those voices streaming through at the same time. He tried to block out the noise, just like he had with the vent. But he didn’t have enough hands. The noise kept coming.
He was a screwup.
He was a failure.
He disappointed everyone who ever cared about him.
He didn’t try hard enough.
He was a coward.
He was weak.
He was irresponsible.
He gave up when things got too hard.
The noise kept coming. In one big wave. Everything that was wrong with him hitting him at once. They were all right. All of them. He was a screwup, a failure, a disappointment, a coward who was too weak to fight for anything or get serious about his life or try to be better. Giving up was too easy. So that’s what he did.
What the hell did Natalie see in him?
He didn’t deserve her. He never had. He knew this, but he was selfish, so he took her anyway. He’d tried to do the right thing once. He’d slept with that girl because he knew that would be the only way to get her to leave, move on, be happy. That’s exactly what she’d done. Now here they were again, and because he was a selfish bastard he’d tried to convince himself he could be enough for her.
The truth was he’d just ruin her. He ruined everything he touched. And he couldn’t do that, not to her. He didn’t care if he hurt anyone else, but he couldn’t hurt her. Not her. He wouldn’t let it happen again.