Felicity Martinez murdered her husband.
I learned about it when I was eight years old.
My mother had dragged me to the library, insisting that I needed research for my upcoming school report on an animal of my choice. I’d chosen dogs. We had a dog. And a perfectly serviceable computer. Regardless, I was firmly sat down at a short, square table whose chairs were painted like dinosaurs. I knew better than to argue. My mother had been a police officer in her past life—no-nonsense was the name of her game.
“What about this one?” she asked me, and slapped an encyclopedia-sized volume on the little table. The frame shivered ominously.
I lifted the cover and fanned through the pages so quickly they created a breeze. I wouldn’t argue, but I wasn’t above making things difficult.
“There are no pictures,” I declared.
Undeterred, my mom dropped another book in front of me. This one was shaped like a long rectangle and featured an image of a snarling wolf on the cover.
“That’s a wolf,” I whined. “I’m working on dogs.”
“A wolf is a dog. There are all different kinds of dogs.” Another book on the pile. This one said “Dingoes” across the front in orange block letters.
I slumped down in my T-Rex chair and crossed my arms.
I stared at the multi-colored carpet. It was emblazoned with letters of the alphabet in contrasting colors and was clearly for babies.
Mom put her hand under my chin and forced me to look at her. The pressure was gentle and so was Mom’s expression.
“Melanie, I know you’re bored. But it’s almost summer. Just a little more and you can have a break.”
I breathed stubbornly, but couldn’t hold out for long. I could see the concern in her eyes. Usually it was just frustration. I nodded into her hand.
Mom leaned in and kissed the top of my head. I could feel her relief.
When she let me go, she said, “Why don’t you pick out a book? You might find something you like if you go looking.”
I’d already agreed, so I stood up. The sooner this was done, the sooner we could leave.
I started by grabbing the first volume I’d rejected. Despite my protest, it was well within my range and probably would interest me. I brought it with me and walked into the children’s aisles alone.
The shelves were packed, the spines so thin you could barely read the titles. Just above my eye-level, the shelves displayed books with their covers facing forward. Gorilla, Cheetah, Alligator. All brightly colored, all with barely one paragraph of information on each page. It was disappointing. I already knew that I’d be going home with the book in my hand, but my mom wouldn’t be let me back at the table after such a brief search. I looked down at the book I was holding to give it a real try and kill some time. It hadn’t even come from the children’s section.
Defiantly, I moved deeper through the library to find the rest of the real books. The further I went, the higher the shelves became, until I felt lost in a maze of fragrant texts. I wandered aimlessly, unsure of a better way to navigate. I let my free fingers trail along the spines, satisfied by their texture.
My mind felt the pull before my body did. My feet kept walking, my fingers skimming, and my mind screamed at them to stop. They obeyed. I stood as still as if I were playing freeze tag, trying to figure out what had happened. I decided that I’d seen something out of the corner of my eye—a black cover with red lettering that had caught my attention.
Intrigued, I returned to the spot, located the book, and pulled it down. The cover featured the black and white image of a tattered palm tree, the library sticker on the spine said True Crime. The red letters continued on the front, the title screaming: Trouble in Paradise: The Felicity Martinez Story.
I flipped through the pages. This book did have pictures, an insert in the middle that featured men and women, some scenery shots, and what looked like family portraits. One picture had “Felicity Martinez” written underneath. It took up the whole page.
The woman in it was beautiful in a way that always drew my eyes to magazine covers. Her skin was tinted brown, her long black hair a braided snake over her shoulder. She was smiling. It showed in her eyes. I stared at them the longest, entranced. They were an ordinary brown, nothing special, but they made me feel safe, like I could be myself, always. She felt familiar and alien all at once.
Reluctantly, I turned more pages; curiosity got the better of my desire to keep staring. I saw Felicity as a girl, Felicity holding a diploma, Felicity in a wedding dress. I turned another page and clenched my fingers until they left indents on the paper. Here was Felicity in an orange jumpsuit, blank faced, the beauty siphoned away. I began to cry. Her expression was stoic but I could feel the grief, the fear, the loneliness. It overwhelmed me in a way that felt like being suffocated.
“There you are,” my mother’s voice, annoyed at first, and then alarmed. “Melanie, what’s wrong?”
I wiped my eyes, but didn’t answer. I didn’t know how.
“Oh, Baby, don’t read that,” she took the book from my hands and gave it a cursory glance. “You’ll get nightmares.” She took my hand. “Let’s go home.”
I let her lead me from the aisle. We were nearly back to the children’s section when I felt that mental nudge, something in the corner of my eye. My tears were barely dry, but I knew I couldn’t leave. I had to have that book.
“Wait,” I said, and dug my heels in so my mom would have to stop. “I forgot my book. For my project.”
“Be quick,” she sighed.
I ran back to the aisle and picked the large volume off the floor. I used it to hide Felicity’s book. I demanded that I be allowed to check out by myself. I hid her story under my mattress, except on Mondays when my mother changed the sheets. I completed my dog project and buried myself in my blankets at night with a flashlight and read about Felicity.
I knew everything about her. She had an older sister, she got straight A’s in every school she ever attended, she earned a teaching degree, but could only find a job working the desk at a school in her area. She stayed in that area because of David, who was tied to his job as a vet tech through love and obligation. He was her high school sweetheart and at twenty-four, after college, they finally got married. They never had kids. They lived a small and comfortable life. When they were twenty-seven, Felicity poisoned David with alcohol laced with too many sleeping pills. She murdered him in cold blood with no apparent motive. The last half of the book tried very hard to understand why. I didn’t bother asking. I just let myself cry every time I got to that part. There was never a trial because she confessed, openly and without flinching. Two years into her lifetime prison sentence, Felicity died on her cot of an apparent heart attack. I knew better. I looked at that picture of Felicity in the orange jumpsuit and knew it was the guilt that had killed her. The outraged part of me was glad. The rest just wanted to cry again.
I read the book over and over until I could recite full passages in my head while I pretended to listen to a math lesson. I kept it secret. I knew that my mom would never approve, especially because she had been right about the nightmares. Mostly I just didn’t want to share the story. I didn’t even like that the author knew so much. I grew to know Felicity’s life better than my own.
I got caught when the library called to complain about their missing book. My mother was baffled until one Monday when she was too busy and she changed the sheets on Tuesday.
She was angry about the lie and made me do chores to work off the fine. I lasted a week before I went back to the library and checked it out again. And again. Two weeks at a time exactly, so I wouldn’t get in trouble again. I needed to have it near me. It was a compulsion with no explanation and no means for my child’s mind to try to reach one. Obsessed was a word I’d come across, but I finally understood it in full.
Eventually my fervor made me careless. My mother came home early and caught me reading.
That was when she began to suspect.
She gave back the library book and bought me my own copy. It wasn’t the same, but it scratched the itch. I gave in to my mother’s request and let her borrow it in short bursts. I didn’t like her having it and I liked the way she looked at me when she gave it back even less.
I lived the rest of my young life with Felicity’s story within arm’s length.
I didn’t learn the truth until much later, long after the other children learned their own truths. I watched as puberty hit and my classmates began to understand their pasts. Jimmy, who had always been the fastest runner in the class, had been a paralyzed veteran. Tiffany, who refused to swim at every pool party, had drowned. Elena was special. She would never tell us the details, but she was so lucky now that we all knew something horrible had happened to her in her last life. I didn’t understand how they found out. The books they made us read at school said it could be something as simple as a dream, or a talent, or a relationship that led you in the right direction. My classmates came to school and bragged about the parties their parents were throwing for them, or the new twenty-dollar bill in their pockets. I waited for my mom to lead me through the same process. It was like waiting for your breasts to come in when you could see all the other girls’ shirts getting tighter.
I began to think that maybe I was a new soul. I liked the idea. It made me unique and special, unmarred by a past I would have to live up to, or live down. I didn’t start to worry until my classmates began pointing and whispering behind my back, until they started slipping self-help pamphlets in my desk that looked like they came from a professional office and had titles like “Coping with an Unsavory Past Life” and “Dealing with Your Curse.” They used that word a lot. Students I didn’t even know asked me what my curse was as if someone was taking bets. They were. I was not a new soul. I knew that. I didn’t have the right qualities. But I felt vulnerable like one because everyone else knew something I was afraid to learn.
At thirteen I began to understand that parents were not perfect. At fourteen I knew for sure that my mother was lying to me. I worked for months to summon the courage to ask her why we had never had a party like all of my friends. When I finally gained the nerve to confront her about my suspicion, she wouldn’t look at me. She wasn’t proud to tell me that I had been a police officer, like her, or a judge, or a scientist. She didn’t shove money in my pockets. She didn’t invite the family over for a celebration. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. A tear made her makeup smudge.
At fifteen, I learned that Felicity was my past.
It would take me the rest of my life to learn that some sins can’t be absolved in just one lifetime.