By Amy Gutman
Published by Little Brown & Co.
June 2003; 0316381209; 352 pages
Wednesday, April 5
She almost didn't see it. Juggling a pizza box with a load of books, she yanked open the unlocked screen door, her mind on other things. The smell of pepperoni. The sharp spring breeze. Next week's midterm in Abnormal Psych. In retrospect, these thoughts would seem a sort of victory. A sign that, after more than a decade, she'd managed to reclaim her life. But it was days, or maybe weeks, before she realized this, and by then it was too late. She could only look back, helpless, at the world she'd left behind.
By some trick of gravity the envelope stuck, as if tacked against the doorjamb. Later, she'd try to reconstruct this moment, remembering that first impression. An ordinary business envelope. White. Her name - Ms. Callie Thayer - in clear black type. Later even that would seem strange, but at the time she'd barely noticed. She'd seen the envelope, grabbed it, stuffed it into her leather bag.
For the next three hours it had been forgotten, a time bomb in her purse.
"Anyone home?" But of course she knew they were here. It was Wednesday afternoon, just after five. Anna would be home from school. Rick, who worked an early shift, would have started dinner by now.
Putting down her books, Callie gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror at the end of the hallway. Pale heart-shaped face. Thick chestnut hair. A vagrant curl had tumbled loose from the clip she'd used to pull it back. Reflexively, she unsnapped the barrette, pushed the tendrils back. Last month, she'd turned thirty-five, and today she looked her age. Faint lines around the large, dark eyes. Two deeper creases in her brow. Not that any of it bothered her, quite the opposite. She watched the shifting landscape of her face with hungry fascination, concrete proof she wasn't the person she'd been ten years ago.
"Hey, babe! In here." She followed Rick's voice to the kitchen. He was standing at the sink washing vegetables, the Dixie Chicks playing in the background. Wiping his hands on a towel, he stepped toward her for a kiss. Tall and lankily boyish, he wore faded jeans and Birkenstocks with a white short-sleeved T-shirt. He had dark brown hair and a lazy smile. Green eyes flecked with gold. He looked like a carpenter or maybe an artist, someone who worked with his hands. It was still hard for her to believe that she was dating a cop. As Rick's lips grazed hers, Callie touched his shoulder. He smelled of oregano and mint, a rich, earthy scent. They'd been together for eight months, sleeping together for four, and she was still sometimes caught off guard by the looping surge of attraction. But when Rick's lips moved to her neck, Callie pulled away. Anna was just upstairs. Besides, they had to get dinner ready. "Here. Take this." Callie held out the pizza box, with its cargo of fat and meat. He set the box on the counter, then turned toward her again. She couldn't read his eyes, but she knew what he was thinking.
"Don't you have things to do?" she murmured with mock severity. "Like this?"
As he ran a hand down the curve of her back, something inside her sparked. She let her eyes drift shut, her head resting on his shoulder. He pressed against her rhythmically, once, twice, again. "Not now," she whispered into his chest. "Come on, Rick. Please."
Still, she was almost disappointed when he dropped his arms and stepped away. A last chaste kiss on the cheek, and he was back at the kitchen sink. For a moment, Callie stood where he'd left her, flushed and slightly bereft. Then she went to the refrigerator and grabbed a San Pellegrino. She took a glass from a cabinet, sat down at the table.
"Tough day?" Rick's back was turned to her, and she couldn't see his face.
"Not too bad, really." Callie took a sip of sparkling water, the bubbles sharp in her mouth.
Roseanne Cash was playing now, a song about the wheel going 'round. Outside, the sky was a dappled gray, streaked with red and gold. Callie watched as Rick moved easily through the snug brightness of the kitchen. He pulled three plates from a cupboard, tasted the salad dressing. The flash of arousal she'd felt was gone, replaced with a sense of contentment. A delicious awareness that, just for now, all was as it should be. "You want me to help?" Callie asked. "Nope, we're pretty much set."
Again, her eyes moved over the room, a scene of order and comfort. Notched pine floor, granite counters, pots hanging on the wall. Fresh herbs growing on the windowsill: tarragon, basil, thyme. It was the life she'd wanted for herself but most of all for Anna. Callie thought, as she often did, how lucky they were to live here, in this cozy Cape Cod cottage in this picture-perfect town.
Merritt, Massachusetts. Population: 30,000. White-steepled churches. Brick storefronts. Astounding autumn foliage. A place where kids still went out to play without the bother of play dates.
It was more than six years since she'd moved here, an anxious single mother and student. She'd attended Windham College on an Abbott Scholarship, a special grant for older "nontraditional" students working on their B.A.'s. She'd majored in English and, three years later, graduated with high honors. By then, she'd bought the house and fallen in love with the town. They'd lived here for going on seven years, and it was lucky she'd bought when she did. She'd been astonished when the house across the street sold last year for more than six hundred grand, purchased by a wealthy family moving from outside Boston. Bernie Creighton had kept his job in the city, commuting two hours each way. It was worth it, he and his wife said, for the quality of life. It seemed a little ridiculous - what was wrong with the suburbs? - but their youngest child, Henry, was Anna's best friend, so Callie was hardly complaining.
She herself had once considered a move to Boston, where job prospects would be better. But after a stressful round of interviews, she'd decided to stay put. She already had the house. And if salaries were low in Merritt, so were her expenses. After finishing her degree, she'd gone to work in Windham's alumni office, a job that gave her flexibility and ample time with Anna. Now that Anna was older, Callie was back in school part-time. She'd switched her focus to psychology and hoped to go on to grad school. Rick was chopping carrots, intently watching the knife. The steel made a muffled clicking sound on the wooden cutting board. He brought to cooking the same dedication he brought to making love. Callie had teased him about it once, his rapt concentration.
"The kitchen," he'd said seriously, "is the most dangerous room in the house." An odd thing to say, she'd thought at the time, though probably accurate. "So how're things going?" Callie asked. "Did you talk to your dad today?"
"I'm going back down this weekend," Rick said. "I got a cheap flight on Saturday." Callie looked up, concerned. "But I thought the tests were normal. The electrocardiogram."
Rick put down the knife. Picking up the cutting board, he dumped carrots into the salad. "It wasn't definitive. Now they want to do this thing called a thallium stress test. To find out how much blood is getting to different parts of the heart. Depending on what they find out-"
The phone rang sharply behind her, a shrill bleating sound. "Go ahead," Rick said, tossing his head back toward it. Turning in her chair, Callie picked up. "Hello?" She recognized the voice immediately, soft and hesitant. "Nathan, I'm really sorry, but we're about to sit down to dinner."
"Oh, sure. Sorry." Callie imagined him flushing crimson on the other end of the phone. She'd never known a boy or man who blushed so easily. She'd met Nathan Lacoste last fall in Introductory Psych. A Windham junior, twenty years old, he'd somehow latched onto her. Smart, she thought, and not bad looking but painfully self-conscious.
She could tell he'd had trouble making friends, and she tried to be kind to him, remembering the pain of feeling lost and alone during her own years in college. Lately, though, she'd come to wish that she'd kept a bit more distance. He'd taken to calling her at home much more than she liked. "I'll let you go. To eat." But Nathan didn't hang up. For someone almost pathologically shy, he could be very persistent. "I... could you just tell me what you're having?"
"Excuse me?" Callie was barely listening. She shouldn't have picked up the phone. As she watched Rick finish the salad, she thought how tired he looked. His parents lived in North Carolina, outside Chapel Hill. This would be his third trip in the past six weeks, and the travels were taking a toll. "I was wondering what you're having. To eat. I was sort of feeling hungry, but, I don't know, I couldn't think what to make." He seemed to be angling for an invitation. She had to get off the phone. "Pizza," she said shortly. "Pepperoni pizza. And salad." "Pepperoni pizza." He slowly repeated the words. "That sounds good. What kind of salad? You know, I never know what to put in the dressing. Sometimes I buy it, but I think that's stupid. It costs-"
"Listen, I really have to go. We'll talk tomorrow, okay?"
"Yeah, okay. Sure." She could tell he was hurt, felt a twinge of guilt, then told herself he wasn't her problem. She could be Nathan's friend to a point, but she wasn't going to adopt him.
"Who was that?" Rick asked when she'd hung up the phone.
"Nathan Lacoste. You know, that kid I told you about."
"The weird one?"
"Well. . ." Callie stopped. It was as good a description as any. "Yeah. That's the one."
"He calls you a lot."
"Not that much." Annoyed as she'd been with Nathan, she could still feel sorry for him. "A couple of times a week, maybe. I'm a mother figure or something."
Callie shook her head. "Oh, come on, Rick. He's a kid. He's lonely." She paused, still carefully watching him, ready to drop the subject. "So what about your dad? What were you telling me?"
"I think I pretty much said everything. Hey, could you set the table?"
Callie pulled out three place mats, red-and-white-checked gingham. "So you're leaving on Saturday?"
"I could drive you to Hartford. To the airport."
"I've got an early flight." From upstairs, the sound of canned laughter exploded from Anna's room.
"How's she doing?" Callie gestured toward the stairs.
"Good. She's fine."
"Sure. She came home. I said, 'How was school?' She said, 'Okay.' Then she grabbed a bag of cookies and went upstairs. No complaints."
"She's supposed to set the table before she goes upstairs."
"I guess she forgot."
Callie sighed. "She didn't forget."
"Well, then, I guess she just didn't want to."
After she'd set out the silverware, Callie plopped back in her chair. "I wish she-"
"Just give her some time, Callie. She's still not used to having someone else around. She's used to having you to herself."
"I know. You're right. I just - I just wish it was easier for her. It's not like we just met. She's had time to get to know you. I don't know what the problem is.""Let it go, Cal. She'll come around in time. Once she sees that I'm not going anywhere."
Once she sees that I'm not going anywhere. The words were like a gift that she welcomed but didn't quite expect. Her mind held them awkwardly, uncertain where to put them. "I thought ten was supposed to be easier," she finally said. "I was reading somewhere that nine is a hard age, then things settle down at ten. It's supposed to be one of the ages of equilibrium. I thought there'd be some, you know, break before she's a teenager."
"Kids are individuals. They don't grow according to plan." A pause.
Callie stretched her arms overhead, then folded one at the elbow and dropped it behind her back. Using the other hand, she pressed down on the upper arm. A yoga stretch she'd learned years ago, back when she did such things. "At least she's speaking to you," Callie said. "I guess that's an improvement."
"There you go."
Dropping the other arm, Callie repeated the stretch, this time on the other side. She was more tired than she'd realized. She'd love to go to bed early tonight, but she still had reading to do. If she let herself get behind, she'd be screwed by the end of the school year. She was way beyond the age when all-nighters seemed like fun.
"Ready to eat?" Rick was pulling the pizza from the oven, where he'd stuck it to keep warm. The yeasty scent of dough wafted through the room. Callie looked at him and smiled, the tension subsiding again. She loved their Wednesday pizza nights, haphazard and slightly festive. She got to her feet, stretched again, and headed toward the stairs.
"Just put it on the table. I'll go get Anna," she said.
The sign on Anna's door was a new addition. With a slight sinking feeling, Callie read the words again. She thought about what Rick had said downstairs, how Anna was simply jealous. The sign on the door was like a cry for help, or at least a cry for attention. Callie knocked on the door. No answer. From inside, she heard a cartoon character's high-pitched, excited voice. The words were followed by a bonking sound, then a whistling and a crash. Callie knocked again, louder this time, then cracked open the door. "Hi, bug."
Anna was sprawled on her bed in a sea of stuffed animals. She was wearing gray sweatpants and a Merritt Elementary School T-shirt.
"Hi, Mommy," she said.
"May I come in?"
"Okay." Anna's eyes had moved away from hers, drifting back to the TV screen.
The room was its usual chaos, and Callie had to pick her way through the obstacle course to reach her daughter's bed. A hairbrush, a necklace, a black patent shoe, a Harry Potter book. Callie's old computer, which Anna had begged for, had become an impromptu clothes rack, barely visible beneath a pile of pants, skirts, and sweaters.
Perching on the side of the mattress, Callie leaned down for a kiss. As her lips brushed her daughter's cheek, she smelled something unfamiliar, a cloying chemical sweetness that clung to Anna's hair. "That smell," she said. "What is it?"
"Remember? We got it in the mail. You said that I could have it."
A shampoo sample, Callie remembered now. One of those minuscule bottles tossed by the millions into consumer mailboxes. A puke-green-colored container with a picture of daisies on the label.
"I like your usual better."
"But Mom, that's baby shampoo."
"They just call it that because it doesn't sting your eyes. I use it, and I'm not a baby."
"Mom." Anna rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, as if her mother's views on this subject were too embarrassing to consider. Callie sighed, and sat back. There'd been more and more of these moments lately, and she had to pick her battles. The mess in Anna's room, for example, was something she didn't push. Maybe once a month or so, she'd insist on a full-scale cleanup. The rest of the time she told herself it was Anna who had to live here. The TV had been another concession that Callie at times regretted. But she limited Anna to an hour a day, and only after homework.
"Homework finished?" she asked now.
"Uh-huh," Anna said.
Cuddled up with her battered stuffed bear, Anna still looked like a child. And yet, Callie was well aware of the crossroads just ahead. There on the wall by Anna's bed was a poster of Britney Spears. Balloonlike breasts. Slick, wet lips. A pale froth of hair. An ominous intimation of the years that lay ahead. Callie looked at her daughter. "So what's with the sign?" she asked.
"What sign?" Anna said. She kept watching the cartoon. A green squirrel scampered to the edge of a tree limb, not watching his step. The branch ended, but he kept going until he glanced down. Then, in sudden panic, he found he was suspended in space. The knowledge seemed to trigger the force of gravity, hitherto suspended. A whistling, whooshing noise as the squirrel plummeted to earth.
Anna laughed loudly.
Callie, knowing her daughter, could tell the sound was forced. "The sign on your door," she said, refusing to be put off. Still not looking at her mother, Anna shrugged her shoulders. Callie waited for something more, but Anna didn't go on. After another few seconds of silence, Callie tried again. "What's up with you and Rick? You used to like him fine. Remember how you went sledding last winter, you, Henry, and Rick?" Still no response.
An explosion on the TV screen sent the green squirrel hurtling through outer space, through the stars, past the moon, past the rings of Saturn. "Anna, turn off the television."
"Turn it off." With a sigh, Anna clicked the remote, but she still didn't look up. In the sudden silence, Callie had an impulse just to let it go. But they had to talk about this sometime, and it might as well be now.
"Come on, Anna. Tell me." Anna shrugged again, more elaborately this time. Her eyes shifted from Callie's face to someplace beyond her shoulder. As if she were seeking an escape route to somewhere her mother was not.
"He's okay," she finally said. "I just don't see why he has to be here all the time."
"He's here because he cares. He cares about both of us." Callie studied her daughter. "I think there's something else. Something you're not telling me."
"I don't have to tell you everything." Anna stared at her lap, hair shielding her face.
"No. Of course not," Callie said gently. "But you might feel better if you talked about it." Anna shifted her position, and as her hair fell away, Callie glimpsed her trembling mouth. She looked both defiant and miserable, and Callie yearned to touch her. To do something - anything - to soothe her daughter's pain. But she knew from past experience that this would just make things worse. When Anna was in this sort of mood, she had to wait it out. "He's not my father."
Anna said the words so softly that Callie almost missed them. She looked at her daughter in astonishment, wondering if she'd heard right.
"He's not!" Anna's voice was stronger now. Her eyes squarely met her mother's. Callie took a deep breath, trying to compose herself.
"No," she said. "You're right." Her mind was flying now, trying to frame a response, trying to come up with an answer that Anna would find reassuring. At the same time, she was casting around for a clue as to where this had come from. She couldn't remember the last time that Anna had mentioned Kevin.
"You've been thinking about your dad?"
"No!" Anna said. And then, "A little." She'd dropped her head, and once again her face was veiled behind a swath of hair.
"So ...what do you think about?"
"Just some stuff we did. Like that place where we got pumpkins for Halloween. And at that park, where he pushed me on the swing."
She'd been so young, only three. Callie was amazed she remembered. When she herself thought of Kevin Thayer, almost nothing remained. Just the monotony of trying to pretend that she'd been right to marry him. Even his face was a blur now: plump cheeks beneath the thinning hair, small pug nose. When she tried to picture her ex-husband, she thought of a smooth, round egg. Yet he hadn't been a bad man. Just not the man for her.
"You liked doing those things."
"Yeah." Callie moved a hand to Anna's back, but Anna wriggled away. After a moment, though, she looked at Callie, her gaze shrewd, assessing. The look of a seasoned gambler weighing the odds of a bet.
"Are you going to marry Rick?" The question caught Callie off guard.
"I...I don't know, honey," she hedged. "We haven't talked about it."
"But you might marry him."
"Look, sweetie, I'm not going to marry anyone unless...unless we both agree. Unless you and I both decide that it would be a good idea."
"Really?" Anna's face lit up. This time when Callie touched her, she didn't squirm away. Reaching beneath her daughter's shirt, Callie tickled her lightly, trailing her fingers down the narrow back in the way that Anna loved.
"You know, if you want to talk about your dad, you can tell me."
"Okay." Anna's voice was muffled, her face pressed against a pillow.
"Do you...miss him?" It was painful to ask the question. Maybe because she wanted so much to believe that she could make Anna happy.
"I'm okay, Mom," Anna said. Callie didn't say anything. For an instant, she had a strange sensation that Anna was protecting her. Then, leaning forward, she kissed Anna's flowery hair. "C'mon, honey, let's go downstairs. It's pizza night," she said.
"So you'll be back on Tuesday?"
"That's the plan." It was a little before eight. They were sitting at the kitchen table. Rick flipped through the Merritt Gazette, while Callie scanned the mail - applications for credit cards, catalogues, a sweepstakes entry.
"I'll miss you," Callie said to him. And was surprised to realize it was true.
Rick looked over and smiled at her, faint lines deepening around his eyes. He looked both older and younger, smiling at her like that. In fact, he was thirty-two, three years younger than she was. They'd met late last summer at a neighborhood barbecue. Rick didn't live in the neighborhood, but his pal Tod Carver did. Tod was Rick's best friend at the Merritt Police Department. He had curly hair, a rueful expression, and Callie was fond of him. He reminded her a bit of a guy she'd dated back in high school. Like Callie, Rick was a Merritt transplant, having moved up from New York. At the barbecue, they'd traded stories over paper plates of food. "Burnout," he'd said simply, when she asked him why he'd moved. For her part, she'd told him how she'd come here for school, then fallen for the town.
He was so appealing, so easy to talk to, she'd liked him right away. Still, when he'd asked her out for dinner, she'd found herself hesitating. She'd been on her own for so long now. It seemed safer that way. There was no one to tell her what to do, no one to report to. No one to ask her difficult questions, to dredge up the painful past. Her life was simple, streamlined. For the most part, it worked. And yet there was something about Rick that had caused her to reconsider. I'll go out with him once, she'd told herself. And that was how it started.
A rustle as Rick turned the page, and a flyer fell to the floor. Pushing aside the mail, Callie reached down to get it. A two-for-one sale on Easter candy, worth remembering. Once again, it was almost time for the neighborhood's Easter egg hunt. When was Easter anyway? Two weeks? Or was it sooner?
She reached into her purse for her Filofax, meaning to check the date. But as she pulled out the date book, she saw that something was caught between its pages. The envelope she'd picked up earlier, the one stuck in the door. She'd totally forgotten about it. Now she pulled it out. Edging a fingernail beneath its flap, she neatly ripped it open. Inside was a single sheet of paper. Two short sentences, typed.
Happy Anniversary, Rosamund. I haven't forgotten you.
The shock was so intense that at first she didn't feel a thing. Like plunging into ice-cold water, unable to catch your breath, hurtling down and down and down, not knowing when you'll stop. She clutched the note tight in her hand. Everything had changed.
"Callie? What is it?" She started at the sound of Rick's voice, pulled back from the precipice.
"Just a note from Anna's teacher," she lied. "I've got to talk to her."
With thick, unwieldy fingers, she quickly refolded the page. Stuck the note in its envelope back in her Filofax. She was about to close the leather cover when her eyes caught today's date. The large block letters in the small square box said Wednesday, April 5. She stared at the date, hardly able to believe it.
April 5. Today was April 5. How could she have forgotten?Copyright © 2003 Amy Gutman
Reprinted with permission.
Three women reach the edge of terror as the secret past they all share is unearthed and turned against them. . .
It's been five years since the execution of Steven Gage, a devious, charming psychopath who took the lives of more than a hundred women. In those five years, three women connected with his case have moved on. His attorney has rid herself of the stigma of defending Gage. A true-crime writer has started on a new project after her bestseller about his rampage. And Steven's ex-girlfriend has made a new life for herself-one where she won't be reminded that she once shared her home with a monster. But someone hasn't moved on. On the fifth anniversary of Gage's execution, each of the three women gets a private message. And the message is something that only Steven Gage could have known.
At the time of his sentencing, Gage issued a terrifying edict, which all three women believed was meaningless. As threats against them turn deadly, the past explodes into the present. And one of them is in the fight of her life to uncover who really committed those crimes-a killer who is determined to start up the string of murders right where they stopped.(back to top)
Amy Gutman was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. After graduating from Harvard University with honors, she began a career in journalism. She worked briefly in Washington, D.C., Tennessee and then Mississippi. Eventually, a job offer from the state's higher education commissioner lured Amy away from journalism, and she went on to become the founding director of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a nationally renowned program that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in rural Mississippi school districts.
After three years in Mississippi, Amy decided to make her way back to the East Coast, where she enrolled at Harvard Law School. Amy graduated in 1993 then moved to New York City to pratice law. After four years, and two firms, she left to become a full time author. Amy splits her time between Manhattan and western Massachusetts and now serves on the New York City Bar Association's Lawyers in Transition.