“WHY DID YOU give me peanut butter instead of cream cheese?”
Caroline Webb looked at her eight-year-old daughter, Melinda, who was peering critically between slices of wheat bread. “Daddy said cream cheese could spoil before noon.”
“Jenny brings cream cheese sandwiches.”
“Jenny also came down with a mild case of food poisoning two weeks ago.” David Webb straightened his tie in front of the kitchen mirror, then turned to grin at his daughter, his craggy features creasing with homely amiability. “You don’t want to get sick, do you?”
“I guess not.” Melinda clumsily rewrapped her sandwich in Saran Wrap and poked through her Barbie lunch box. “Cherry Kool-Aid in my thermos?”
“Apple juice,” Caroline said.
“Yuck. And where are my Reese Cups?”
“I gave you a granola bar instead.”
Melinda groaned in agony, and her father swooped over her, his fingers digging into her thin sides. “Shut up and stop pestering your mom, kid.”
“Daddy, quit it!” Melinda laughed.
“Not until you tell me how much you love granola.”
“Never!” David tickled harder. “Okay, I love it, I love it!” Melinda shrieked. David let go and she fell into a gasping heap of giggles on the yellow-and-white linoleum floor. George, their black Labrador, rushed over to bathe her in kisses, which brought on a fresh attack of hysterics.
“What’s all the noise?” Greg Webb, fifteen, ambled into the kitchen, his curtly black hair still wet from the shower.
“Mommy gave me apple juice and granola,” Melinda told him in injured tones as she struggled to her feet.
“Hippie food,” Greg announced. “They ate that kind of stuff in the sixties.”
Caroline cocked an eyebrow at him. “Around here we still eat it. And Melinda, if you want to be a ballerina, you have to eat healthy food. Reese Cups will make you so fat no one can lift you.”
“Baryshnikov And he’ll be retired by the time you’re a prima ballerina.”
“Oh, damn,” Melinda muttered, then flushed and added hastily, “I mean darn.”
“Sunday school’s doing the child a world of good,” David said, dropping a kiss on his daughter’s chestnut hair. “Can you sue Sunday school teachers?”
Caroline put the last plate in the dishwasher and shut the door. “No, only doctors.”
David grimaced. “Don’t remind me. I just wrote a check for my malpractice insurance last night.” He shrugged into his raincoat. “I’m getting out of this madhouse.” He wrapped an arm around Caroline’s slim waist. “What’s on your agenda today?”
“I’m taking some things over to Lucy’s, then going to the grocery store. Fidelia’s coming.”
David rolled his dark eyes. “Out of all the cleaning ladies in the city, why are we blessed with the one who practices voodoo?”
“Just because she’s from Haiti doesn’t mean she practices voodoo.”
“Well, she’s always messing around with tea leaves.”
“Not tea leaves, Daddy,” Melinda piped. “Tarot cards. Fidelia says I’m the Page of Cups.”
“Reese Cups, no doubt.” Melinda giggled, but David frowned into Caroline’s eyes. “I don’t know that I like all this hocus-pocus around the kids,” he said in the fogyish tone that drove Caroline crazy.
“It’s just for fun,” she explained, keeping the irritation from her voice. “She’s a perfectly respectable person. She even taught school in Haiti.”
“So why is she cleaning houses here?”
“Something about not having the teaching credentials, and there was a sick father until a few months ago. They couldn’t afford a nursing home, and Fidelia had to spend most of her time with the old man. But anyway, she cleans for six other families, not just for us. She’s thorough and polite. She’s even teaching Melinda a little French.”
“And I’m an old sourpuss.” David kissed her cheek. “I’m sorry. If you’re happy with her, that’s all that counts.”
And it was, Caroline knew. Her husband adored her in his preoccupied way, and he did his best to tolerate her acceptance of people who were very different from herself, although he didn’t understand it.
Caroline kissed David’s cheek, which always showed an underlying shadow of heavy black beard that no longer matched his mostly silver hair. “Don’t deliver too many babies today,” she said affectionately.
“There’s nary a one on schedule, but that doesn’t mean a thing.” He turned to the kids. “Who wants a ride to school?”
“Me!” Melinda clicked shut the offending lunch box. “When Greg walks me he always drags along looking at girls, and I want to get there early to check on Aurora.”
David frowned. “Who in the world is Aurora?”
“My bean sprout. I told you already. I call her Aurora because that was Sleeping Beauty’s name, and my bean sprout’s still sleeping.” She looked forlorn. “All the other kids’ sprouts are growing.”
“Maybe Fidelia can cast a spell on Aurora,” Greg said, peeling a banana in spite of the massive breakfast he had consumed twenty minutes earlier.
“Bean sprouts,” David sighed. “In my day we read Shakespeare.”
“In the third grade?” Caroline asked dryly.
“I was a child prodigy.”
“Don’t let him kid you, squirt,” Greg said to his sister. “When he was in the third grade, Shakespeare hadn’t even been born.”
David threw a dishcloth at him and Caroline laughed, knowing that age jokes didn’t faze her husband, even though at fifty-six he was older than the fathers of Greg’s friends. “You can walk to school.” He took Melinda’s hand. “Come on—by the time we finally make it to school, Aurora will be a foot tall.”
“I’ll see you guys after school,” Caroline said.
Melinda shook her head in a violent negative. “I’m supposed to go to Jenny’s after school, remember? Her mom’s making spaghetti.”
Caroline frowned “Is her mother going to pick you up at school?”
“Sure. And she’ll drive me home.”
“I guess it’s okay then, although I’d feel better if I were picking you up.”
“But Mommy, it’s all fixed.”
“And I have basketball practice,” Greg said, tossing away the empty banana peel. “Then I’m taking Julie for pizza.”
“I want you home by eight.”
“Eight! None of the other guys have stupid curfews like I do.”
“It’s a school night, and considering your grades—”
“Eight is a little early, Caroline,” David said.
Greg’s face settled into the prickly lines that had become familiar since he reached adolescence. “Great. I ought to be safe from werewolves at that hour.”
“Not if there’s a full moon,” Caroline said sweetly, and Greg grinned in spite of himself. She looked at David. “Looks like it’s just you and me.”
“Honey, it’s Monday. I have evening office hours.”
“Oh, David, I thought we decided you were only going to be in the office Tuesday and Friday nights. Three nights a week is too much.”
“I know. I’ll cut back as soon as I can get things squared away.” Caroline had no idea what had to be “squared away.” It was merely another one of David’s excuses when he didn’t want to argue about his work, which consumed him. She sighed and let the point go. “I promise I’ll be back by nine,” David said.
“Sure.” Caroline forced a smile, knowing that meant ten at the earliest.
The four of them trailed out the door into the garage. While David helped Melinda strap herself into the seat of the Mercedes, Caroline snapped on the automatic garage door opener and the big door whirred upward. With exaggerated teenaged nonchalance, Greg loped away without a backward look, but Melinda waved as if she were leaving on an ocean voyage while David backed out.
Thank goodness she’s over those crying jags that sent her home from school at least two days a week last spring, Caroline thought. Lots of attention and time at home with her mother over the summer had eased whatever anxiety Melinda was feeling but refused to reveal. Now she seemed relatively content with school, although her teacher Miss Cummings said she had a tendency to cling. Maybe she picked that up from me, Caroline mused. I’ve always been overprotective with her and Greg. But what mother with my experience wouldn’t be?
She smiled and waved back at Melinda. Then she shut the door, poured a second cup of coffee, and sat down at the kitchen table with George stretched out beside her.
They had moved into the house nine years before, when Caroline learned she was pregnant with their second child, and she had loved the place since the first day. But especially, she loved her big, airy kitchen with its island range and the huge antique maple table facing a floor-to-ceiling window. This morning she looked out on their acre of front lawn, still green beneath a wisteria-blue October sky. White and yellow chrysanthemums massed themselves in thick beds beneath the window, and a crimson cardinal perched importantly atop the wrought-iron lawn lamp.
“I’m a very lucky woman,” she said aloud, listening to the thump of George’s tail on the floor as he stared up at her. “I’m an incredibly lucky woman. If only I could forget …”
Her stomach was starting to tighten in that sickeningly familiar way, when someone tapped on the kitchen door and she ran to open it, absurdly happy to see Fidelia, gazing back at her. “I’m early. Too early? I can go away for a while.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m glad you’re here.” Fidelia stepped in, her bare arms speckled with goosebumps. “I don’t know when you’re going to realize you’re not in Haiti anymore and start dressing for cold weather. How about some coffee to warm you up?”
“Sounds good. Sugar, no cream.” Caroline loved Fidelia’s honeyed Caribbean accent an English-speaking, Ohio-born father and several years in the United States had done nothing to temper. She stooped, her faded red-print cotton dress flowing out around her thin, bare legs. “Hello dere, George, my handsome man!” The dog rolled on his back for a belly rub, which Fidelia laughingly administered. “Dis is de biggest baby in de house.”
“You’d be surprised at how protective he can be, though,” Caroline said, pouring coffee. “Last year a man broke in one night when David was gone, and George nearly took off his hand. Then the guy had the nerve to try to sue us, but of course he got nowhere.”
“You should be glad you live in Ohio, not California. A judge might have listened to him out dere.”
They sat down at the table, and Fidelia, looked at Caroline closely, her strange light-blue eyes sharp in her café-au-lait face. “You all right dis morning?”
“Of course.” Caroline smiled. “Well, at least I was until about ten minutes ago. Then I started thinking about something sad.”
“Your little girl—Hayley?”
Caroline looked at her in surprise. “You are psychic.”
Fidelia shook her head. “You don’t have to be psychic to know when a woman is grieving over a child.”
“But I’ve never mentioned Hayley to you.”
“I’ve lived in dis town five years. I’ve heard a lot of talk in all dat time, especially since I work for another lady who knows you.”
Caroline’s eyes drifted back to the gay chrysanthemums. “Yes, I should have thought of that. I think Alice Anderson’s favorite topic of conversation is the kidnapping and murder of my little girl and my divorce from Chris.”
“Yes, Mrs. Anderson she talks a lot. But why is Hayley on your mind today?”
“She’s always on my mind. But last night I dreamed about her. It was a terrible, frightening dream about her death. It was very brutal.”
“I know all de details,” Fidelia said softly.
“And also, today is Hayley’s birthday. I always put flowers on her grave on her birthday. She would have been twenty-five. That’s how old I was when she died.”
Fidelia wore beautiful dangling silver earrings that caught the light when she shook her head. “Hard to tink of you with a child dat old. You look tirty-five.”
“You’re sweet, Fidelia.”
“I’ve been called many tings, but never sweet.” She laughed, a deep, smoker’s laugh, her even teeth white against red lipstick. Caroline had never been able to guess her age—the glossy, undyed black hair said twenties; the leathery skin said sixty years in the sun. “Why don’t you get out, cheer yourself up?”
“I was planning to go by Lucille Elder’s place.”
“Buying or selling?”
“Selling.” Elder’s Interiors was the most popular interior design studio in the city. “She commissioned six needlepoint pillows and eight crewel dining chair seat covers for Pamela Fitzgerald’s new house.”
“I don’t know her.”
“Her last name is really Burke now. She’s married to Larry Burke. His father owns Burke’s Construction Company.” Caroline frowned. “Maybe that’s part of what has me down today. Pamela was in Hayley’s kindergarten class, but I’d forgotten her until Lucy started talking about her lately. I keep thinking that if things had been different, maybe Hayley would be the one married to a rich young man and decorating a big, new house.”
“You can’t second guess de fates.”
“I’ve never believed in fate, Fidelia. Life’s always seemed a matter of chance to me.” She drained her cup. “Good heavens, now I’m waxing philosophical. It’s definitely time for me to get out for a while.”
“Go for de day,” Fidelia said. “Enjoy yourself. I’ll make de house sparkle for you, and lock up when I leave.”
Caroline went upstairs, took a shower, washed her hair, and, after blowing it dry, wound it on hot rollers. She wore it shoulder-length and softly curled, although lately she’d been wondering if she shouldn’t change to a more mature style, even though it was still a shiny chestnut, the gray limited to a few hairs she always quickly pulled out. She told herself she wore it long for David, but she knew he wasn’t particular. It was Chris who years ago had loved her thick, then-waist-length hair, Chris who had painted her naked, sitting on the bed drawing a silver-backed brush through a half-concealing veil of russet-tinged strands.
She rubbed a window in the steam on the mirror. “Caroline, you are a melancholy soul today,” she said, grinning. “You should be wearing flowing white robes and carrying a candle.” Then the grin faded, and she peered closer. Fidelia was right—she didn’t look her forty-four years, which somehow made her feel shallow. After all she’d been through, why should her pale forehead be only finely lined, her eyes as clear green and steady as they had been twenty years ago? Melinda will look like me when she’s forty-four, she thought. Melinda is the image of me.
Half an hour later, wearing brown wool slacks, a bright yellow sweater, and a tweed blazer, she loaded the pillows in her Thunderbird and waved good-bye to Fidelia, whose long, still gaze followed her out the driveway.
Caroline rolled down her car window, drinking in the crisp air that tasted as crystal blue as the sky. The sun had turned the pale yellow of autumn, and the trees blazed gold and red. She passed the grade school and glanced over, zeroing in on the room where Melinda had third grade. Construction-paper leaf cutouts decorated the windows, and a jack-o’-lantern grinned at her. Which reminded her, Halloween was in two days. She would have to put the finishing touches on Melinda’s costume and be sure to stock enough candy for the hordes of children who drifted up and down their street until nine, when the city decreed all ghouls must return home.
Caroline stopped for gasoline and oil, then headed for Elder’s Interiors. As usual she pulled around to the tiny private lot in back, where Lucy’s white Corvette and her assistant Tina Morgan’s Volkswagen huddled in the building’s shade. She angled the Thunderbird in beside a tree so she wouldn’t block the other cars. She could easily move if anyone needed to get out, but she doubted that young Tina would ask—the store seemed to be her life. Lucy said she arrived at 7:30 in the morning, brought a sack lunch, and usually left well after six in the evening. Caroline had seen for herself how devoted Tina was when Lucy redecorated the Webb home two months earlier. Tina always seemed to be around—measuring, making suggestions, insistently poring over wallpaper and paint samples with Caroline until at last Caroline had simple closed her eyes and pointed to selections, telling Lucy to correct any major blunders she’d made. But for all her intensity, Tina was beautiful and lively. By the time she left, Greg had developed a crush on her, and Melinda announced that except for Mommy and Lucy, Tina was her favorite grown-up girl.
Caroline opened the back door and stepped into the storeroom, which was more dimly lit than usual. One fluorescent bulb set in the eighteen-foot-high ceiling was out and the other buzzed weakly, throwing the room into bluish pallor. For some reason Caroline suddenly felt uneasy with the gloom, and she picked up her pace, trying to skirt all the table legs she couldn’t see clearly over the top of her sacks full of pillows and seat covers. She was nearly to the showroom door when she tripped over a hassock, tumbling sideways and landing heavily on her hip.
“Damn!” she muttered, grabbing up the pillows that had spilled and smiling when she saw they remained spotless. She was stuffing them back in the sacks when the crawling sensation of being watched spread up her spine and touched her neck. She sat still, looking around her. “Lucy? Tina?”
No one answered, but someone watched. She felt a presence in the room just as strongly as she felt the throbbing in her hip. The single fluorescent light hissed, then went out. Caroline blinked in the total darkness. “Is someone there?”
Whoever it was didn’t intend to answer, and Caroline was as unnerved by her thudding heart and suddenly icy flesh as she was by the darkness. “Get hold of yourself,” she muttered as, clutching her sacks, she got to her feet and began inching around furniture toward the crack of light where double doors opened into the showroom.
Then she heard it. A soft whisper. “Mommy?”
Caroline went rigid. She knew that voice, even if it was only a whisper. “Hayley?”
This time the voice rose. “Mommy, I need you!”
“Hayley?” Caroline looked around wildly, although she could see nothing but gray. “Hayley, are you here?”
Silence, but a compelling silence that thrummed in her ears and beat in her stomach.
Caroline’s tongue touched her dry lips. “Hayley, darling, where are you?” she asked, while her mind said, This is insane. Hayley is dead.
The light flickered back on with a faint buzz.
Caroline stood trembling, her gaze shooting into every corner and up the wide back staircase leading to the second floor. But whatever it was had vanished. The silence once again turned empty, and eyes no longer trailed up and down her body. She let out a faint whimper and rushed headlong toward the shop.
The doors flew back and hit the wall as she burst into the showroom. A young woman in a stern gray suit turned to peer at her disapprovingly over outsized glasses. Caroline threw her a nervous smile and looked around the room.
“Ms. Elder is upstairs,” the woman announced, gazing at her warily. “She and Ms. Morgan have gone up to get some cloth samples for me.”
She emphasized me, letting Caroline know that even if she’d arrived in a flurry, she could just cool her heels until Lucy and Tina had finished more important business.
So it wasn’t either of them in the storeroom, Caroline thought as she walked past the woman and laid down her sacks on a Hepplewhite dining table. But of course if it had been Lucy or Tina they would have answered her. And they certainly wouldn’t have lurked around in the darkness saying Mommy.
In Hayley’s voice.
Stop it! That was not Hayley’s voice, Caroline told herself firmly. You’re just imagining things because you had that awful dream about Hayley, and she’s been on your mind all morning.
She sat down on a hard Boston rocker and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Look at the shop, she commanded herself, ignoring the curious glances the woman in the gray suit was tossing her way. Look at all the pretty things in Lucy’s shop and stop letting your wild imagination run even wilder.
She forced herself to gaze over the exquisite furniture artfully arranged in the big showroom. She remembered when Lucy started the business twenty years ago. Everyone had expected her to fail, certain that behind her off-beat, bohemian manner there wasn’t a dash of business sense. And of course Chris had been appalled that she was going to “squander” her impressive artistic talents “selling living room suites and bric-a-brac to the up-and-coming.”
What a snob Chris had been then, Caroline thought mildly. But of course he was riding high in those days when a major art critic had noted that “Christopher Corday will someday be the premier landscape painter in this country, if he isn’t already.” She had been thrilled for him, happy she could tell her parents, “I told you he was wonderful, even if you didn’t approve of him or of my marrying when I was eighteen.” And she had known the years she’d worked as a receptionist for David instead of going to college had been worth it. They had allowed Chris the freedom to paint, with none of the dross of humdrum employment to drag him down. Yes, they had been riding high when Lucy opened her first small store.
“Caroline!” She looked up to see Lucy poised at the top of the spiral showroom staircase holding an armful of material swatches. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“I think I’m a little early,” Caroline said, noting that Gray Suit was heading determinedly toward the stairs, afraid the batty woman in the yellow turtleneck was going to claim her time. “Finish with your customer and I’ll take you to lunch.”
Lucy smiled. “Fabulous. I’m starving.”
Good old excessive Lucy, Caroline thought. She was never just hungry; she was starving. She was never tired; she was exhausted. And she was never afraid; she was terrified Would she have been terrified in the dark storeroom where a long-dead child begged for help?
Caroline felt a tremor pass through her. She would tell Lucy what had happened, and Lucy would tell her all about the weird acoustics in the storeroom and describe exactly what sound had been distorted into something resembling a little girl’s voice. Caroline had learned to count on Lucy’s down-to-earth interpretations of life, which always surprised a lot of people because of the way she dressed. She glanced over at her friend, who was patiently showing the customer sample after sample of material. They looked ridiculous together, one all severe lines, sleek hair, understated makeup, a study in neutral tones; the other a rainbow of purple, green, and gold with shaggy copper-colored hair and lovely, heavily accented violet eyes in a slightly equine face. She was flashily attractive thanks to makeup and clothes, and she looked just as unconventional as she had twenty-three years ago when Chris introduced them.
Chris had brought Lucy home to dinner one evening, saying, “Caro, this is Lucille, an old friend of mine. I saw her today in Mallory Park, looking absolutely rapt while she painted that statue of old man Mallory. I thought, ‘How could that sanctimonious buzzard inspire anyone to capture him on canvas, much less look so ardent doing it?’ Then I came up behind her and I saw she was painting the old guy naked, of all things, and I said to myself, ‘Lucy hasn’t changed one bit. I’ve got to take her home to meet Caroline and the baby.’”
Lucy had laughed uproariously as Caroline gave her a tentative smile. “I’m really not a pervert, Caroline. It’s just that my art teacher made me paint that hideous tribute to Mallory’s ego, so I decided to shock him into letting me paint what I want to from now on.” Instead she had received an F in the class, which she seemed to take with good grace, as she did most rejections, although Caroline had always felt the grade was partially responsible for her turning away from painting.
“I’m ready,” Lucy was saying, then, “Caroline, are you all right?”
Caroline’s gaze jerked up to Lucy, who stood five-nine barefoot. “Sure, I’m fine. Just a little jumpy today.”
“We’ll talk about it.” Lucy touched Caroline’s hair and smiled. Many years ago her little physical signs of affection made Caroline uncomfortable; now she was used to them. “Where do you want to eat?”
“How about Zeppo’s?”
“That place with all the young people and guys sliding down the firepole with a cake when it’s someone’s birthday and huge greasy hamburgers? Sounds wonderful.”
Caroline noticed Tina coming down the stairs, her long, straight black hair gleaming under the lights, her slim figure outlined in sleek black slacks and a white silk blouse. Her features were classic, from the high cheekbones, slender nose, and large dark eyes to the perfect, rose-accented lips. Caroline had often wondered if she’d considered modeling as a career.
“Tina, Lucy and I are going to Zeppo’s for lunch,” she said on impulse. “Would you like to go with us?”
Tina’s quick smile flashed. “Thanks, Mrs. Webb, but I have to mind the store,” she said in her slightly husky voice that always reminded Caroline of Kathleen Turner’s.
“I don’t think we’ll go bankrupt if we shut the place down for an hour,” Lucy said, looking encouragingly at her. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Lucille, in that hour we’re closed Jackie Onassis could come here wanting us to redecorate all her homes.”
Lucy made a face. “Sure. And Queen Elizabeth will be right behind her. But if you’re determined to devote your life to business, there’s nothing I can do about it. Want me to bring you back something?”
“No again. I brought a lunch.”
“Probably something wonderful like tuna fish and hardboiled eggs,” Lucy said to Caroline. “She eats nothing.”
Tina winked at her. “We’re not all naturally thin like you.”
“Skinny, you mean. And believe me, if eating hardboiled eggs would give me a body like yours, I’d never touch a hamburger again. But unfortunately …” Her eyes shot to the front of the store. “Oh, hell, there’s old Mrs. Edwards, and if I’m not mistaken, she’s carrying that horrible moth-eaten swatch of brocade with her. It’s about a hundred years old, and she’s been in here at least five times trying to match it, but nothing ever suits her. She can’t even remember she’s brought it before.”
Tina grinned. “You two go have fun. I’ll handle Mrs. Edwards.” She strode to the front of the store, delight edging her voice. “Why, Mrs. Edwards, how lovely to see you. Have you brought something with you?”
“Cloth, my dear,” the old lady quavered, holding out a faded square. “I’ve just come across it. I thought perhaps you could find a match and make some draperies for me just like the ones we had in Grandfather’s house.”
“We’ll go through the sample books and see what we can come up with. My goodness, isn’t it beautiful? Now you just sit down here in this comfortable chair and I’ll bring down my books. And how about a cup of tea?”
Lucy shook her head in wonder. “She’s an absolute gem, Caroline. Not only talented, but unbelievably patient with our most tedious customers. And speaking of tedious customers, did you bring the stuff for Pamela?”
Caroline had almost forgotten why she came. She retrieved the sacks from the dining table and pulled out pillows and seat covers all stitched in peach and turquoise.
“Oh, Caro, these are exquisite!” Lucille held them up. “Just beautiful. You do gorgeous work.”
“Let’s. just hope Pamela likes them. You said she’s a real nitpicker.”
“I believe I called her worse than that. She’s impossible, but I don’t know how even she could find fault with these. Why don’t you come with me to drop them off? We’ll go before lunch, and that will give me a good excuse to leave in a hurry. She’s a great one for thinking up things to complain about if you don’t make a fast getaway.”
Little Pamela Fitzgerald. Caroline hadn’t seen her since she was in kindergarten. Even then she hadn’t liked Pamela, and according to Lucy, time had done nothing to sweeten her personality. Still, it would be interesting to see her—she had been a beautiful child. And she knew Lucy wanted her to see the Burke home she was decorating. “Okay,” she said finally, “but remember we’re both hungry. I don’t want to linger around there for hours, and I don’t want to invite Pamela to lunch.”
“Easier said than done,” Lucy laughed ruefully. “The girl has a way of getting what she wants.”
Copyright © 1991 by Carlene Thompson.