Don’t I know you?”
I glanced up from the frozen foods case where I’d been considering the overabundance of packaged meals, narrowing down the choices according to Hayden’s likes and dislikes, to find an older gentleman staring at me with his eyebrows raised. A healthy-looking type of guy, robust. Full head of salt-and-pepper hair, probably in his mid-sixties, wearing a casual pullover and blue jeans.
Distant alarm bells.
It was late, nearing midnight on a Friday; my favorite time to do the weekly shopping, because usually I could avoid these types of run-ins. I was no fan of idle chitchat with my neighbors, or anyone else in particular, if I could help it. Tonight when I’d entered the Harris Teeter, the big glass doors sliding apart at my approach, whisper soft as the airlock on a spaceship, it was as though I had the place completely to myself. That clean, lonely, safe feeling, exclusive to public places when they are emptied of the public. Of course I wasn’t actually alone: the teenaged employees leaned drowsily in the checkout lanes, a couple of single men (second-shift types, nonprofessionals) wandered the beer aisle, trying to kill some time before returning home to their sofas. One of these guys was checking out my ass; I saw him staring after me in one of the parabolic mirrors that hang from the whitewashed girders in the warehouse-type ceiling. At my age, I could’ve taken it as flattery, but instead it made me feel exposed, so I pushed my cart a little faster. Most often, the clientele roaming the store at this time of night were all perfectly self-encapsulated, as unwilling to meet my eyes as I was to meet theirs. Which was exactly how I preferred it.
But now this older man was staring at my face, and his question wasn’t posed rudely. So I shook my head and said politely, “I don’t think so.”
“Leigh Wren?” he guessed.
I felt a measure of relief, and searched my memory for where I may have met him. He was familiar, wasn’t he? A stirring in those pools deep down below, a single blip that wouldn’t coalesce. My social engagements had been few and far between for longer than I liked to consider; mostly it was just me and Hayden and the office, and that was just fine, thank you, so I surmised that I must have met this man at some work-related function. I felt a moment’s guilt at not being able to place him. Although, to be honest, there was nothing in particular to distinguish him; his kind was ubiquitous in Cary. I could even envision his SUV in the parking lot, a Jesus fish on one side of his license plate and a Bush/Cheney campaign sticker on the other.
“That’s me,” I answered. “I’m sorry, you are?”
I extended my hand.
He took hold of it, and his eyes changed. They flared and flashed. He took a deep, tremulous breath and commenced: “My name is Charles Pritchett. I’ve never had to use any other name than my own, because I’ve never been ashamed of who I am. Your real name is Nina Mosley, and on November 18, 1997, your husband, Randall Roberts Mosley, killed my daughter, Carrie.”
The whole world telescoped. My hand went numb, as did all my other extremities, but I could feel the overt pressure Charles Pritchett was exerting, cracking my knuckles and pinching my fingers together. I tried to pull away, but he was holding on fast, his eyes like strobe lights now. He was shaking all over; I could see that he’d been rehearsing this very moment for a long, long time, and now that it was upon him he was having some sort of near-debilitating reaction, a galvanization that fired his every nerve. In his transport, he seemed capable of levitation; it was obvious that a Truly Meaningful Moment was upon Mr. Pritchett.
All I could think was, You mean my ex-husband.
But I couldn’t seem to activate my voice. My throat was locked down against what could only be a horrible scream waiting to surge free if I dared to open my mouth. My teeth ached. I felt sick and panicked, withdrawing at light speed, receding toward a blessed and familiar disconnect. The half-full grocery cart, with its neatly bagged bundles of fruit (green grapes because Hayden hated the purple ones, too seedy) and vacuum-sealed sliced meats and cheeses, the health-food bars for me and the sugary cereals for my son, was forgotten. I was still trying to get away from Pritchett, backing up and bumping into the cart, which turned on its wobbly squeaking wheel and lodged between my butt and the cold glass door of the freezer. Pritchett followed, still gripping my hand, still speaking in steadily rising tones.
“It took me a long time to find you, Nina, and quite a bit of money, too. You look so different than you did the last time I saw you, at the trial. Your hair’s a different color, and you’ve lost a lot of weight. Did you tint your hair so people wouldn’t recognize you? I suppose I can understand that, wanting to disassociate yourself from your past. But I don’t have that kind of luxury, you see,” he said, his summation spat from behind clenched teeth. “I live with my past every single day, in every single moment that my daughter’s not here. She’s gone. I know what the police said, how it was all your husband, but you were never cleared to my satisfaction, not by a long shot. That’s why I’m here now, Nina. I’ve come to expose you. I’m going to tear apart this tidy little fiction of a life you’ve made, and I’m going to show everyone what you are.”
“Excuse me, are you all right?”
Another voice intervened, and I looked around to find the ass-watcher standing there, a bug-eyed checkout boy slightly behind him, both of them regarding Pritchett and me with some concern. The checkout boy seemed electrically charged, looking for some excuse to get physical and jump Pritchett, his adolescent head likely swarming with some fantasy of sticking up for the little guy. Perhaps Pritchett reminded him of a dominating patriarch in his own history. The ass-watcher was much calmer, holding his olive green basket of single-serving items loosely, a resigned and ready tension that suggested he’d been in such confrontations before, and come out on the winning end. Maybe he was ex-military. Or maybe just a bar scrapper.
Pritchett finally released my hand, but he kept right on talking, directing his commentary now to the would-be interventionists. “You know who she is? Who her husband was? I bet you’d remember his name.” He jabbed a skinny finger at my face, his words coming in a barely checked avalanche. “Should we call the police, Nina? You want to report this ‘incident’? Because I’d love that. I’d relish the opportunity to alert the local authorities as to who’s been living in their midst for the past six years.”
The ass-watcher had had enough. He set his basket down on the floor and stepped between Pritchett and me. I was still backing up, but couldn’t tear my gaze away from the old man. Tears had sprung up in his eyes, the drear emotional weight he’d just jettisoned close to undoing him. The ass-watcher said, “I don’t know what your problem is, sir, but I think you should leave the lady be.”
The checkout boy called Pritchett a bully. Pritchett held up his hands, open palms outward, and backed off a few steps. In a steadier voice, he again suggested calling the cops. The overhead PA switched from a Commodores song to “Take on Me.” On some quiet, murmuring level, I understood that from then on, whenever I heard that trite synth melody, it would be as a soundtrack to this moment of schism.
Pritchett called after me: “Where is Hayden tonight, Nina? You should keep a closer eye on him. I didn’t keep a close enough watch over Carrie, and you know what happened to her. You know what he did to her.”
That was enough to finally get me turned around, to send me running away from him, slipping and regaining my footing as I fled down the aisle to the front of the store. The automatic doors didn’t open quite fast enough and I bumped into one of them. Tomorrow there would be a large bruise along that arm from the shoulder to the elbow. Right then I didn’t feel it; right then my hand was still throbbing from where Pritchett wouldn’t let me go.
I’d made some jokes when they built the shopping plaza directly abutting our development, sour wit along the lines of how much more convenient it was than the one five miles farther down the road. Tonight I thanked God it was so close. A left turn out of the parking lot, then the stop sign at the entrance into Kensington Arbor, which I blew through without even tapping the brakes. Then a right, hugging the curb so tight I heard the tires squealing. In less that four minutes from the time I left the grocery store, I was parking my Camry in front of the McPhersons’ house.
The street was quiet, the homes large and fashionably expansive, all built close together, with minimal yard space between. Moisture in the night air collected in shiny rings around the streetlamps. The front porch light was on at the McPhersons’, but nothing looked askew from the outside. Then again, nothing ever looked askew in this neighborhood, this settlement of cookie-cutter single-family homes and town houses that had become our refuge. Our own place was three blocks over, a town house with a one-car garage and a nice patio out back where Hayden played. I didn’t often let him spend the night away from home, but he’d begged all week and I knew I had the midnight shopping to do, so I’d relented and allowed him to sleep over with his friend, Caleb. A burgundy Yukon was parked halfway on the sidewalk. It was Caleb’s mother’s “old” car; the garage space now undoubtedly reserved for the Escalade Doug McPherson bought his wife for Christmas.
I softly closed my car door and then slipped through the yard, glancing up and down the street to confirm that nothing looked out of place, although I wouldn’t have even begun to know how to tell if something did. I’d only been to this part of the neighborhood a few times. Hayden had a cell phone with him and I’d considered calling it even as I fled the scene at the grocery store, but I hated to wake everyone up if no one was in any actual danger. And although Charles Pritchett might have a bone to pick with me, surely he wouldn’t do something to my child. Surely that hadn’t been as overt a threat as I’d taken it to be. Surely he wouldn’t, not after what had been done to his own flesh and blood . . .
Where is Hayden tonight, Nina? You should keep a closer eye on him.
I looked up and down the street again. A few cars parked in driveways or along the street, but no silhouettes slouched behind the windshields, no one watched from darkened windows of the houses. The homes were crowded so close together they seemed like sentinels, or the walls of a labyrinth. I used to value such sensibilities, the idea that I’d found a fortress, but I’d always understood on some level that it could turn on me.
I simply was not ready for that to happen.
At the last moment, I decided against ringing the bell. The McPhersons already had their doubts about me, surely, but hopefully they were limited to wondering why I was single at my age and She’s so painfully reserved and Where’s the boy’s father? and the sorts of things I overheard and dismissed from any number of acquaintances on a fairly regular basis. I could handle the isolation from my peers; in fact, I’d grown to value it, but my son needed friends and I didn’t want to blow this for him. He was at the age where loneliness could become a preferred mode of coping, with alienation the next stop, and then by the time he was a teenager I’d have to search his closet to make sure he wasn’t stowing an assault rifle in there.
I wasn’t always prone to imagining the worst. It was a learned skill, a smart piece of involuntary conditioning.
Gabby McPherson gave me the short, house-proud tour the first time I brought Hayden over to play, but I was already familiar with the layout; I’d researched the floor plans to all the models when I was first looking into buying a place here. She didn’t do anything original with the interior; the furnishings and arrangement were straight out of Martha Stewart . . . five years ago. The living room where the boys were supposed to be setting up camp was around the side, and I stepped lightly through the yard until I could peek in the windows. God only knew what the next-door neighbors would make of me if they glanced out, but I could give a shit, really. I wouldn’t have objected if a police car came cruising up the street—I had thought of calling them right off, but was already hoping that maybe Pritchett got whatever satisfaction he needed from confronting me at the store and that now he would leave us alone. Not that I believed it. My heart was pumping too fast; I could feel my pulse in my neck and it was difficult to swallow.
I would admit a grudging admiration for Gabby’s taste in window dressing. She’d bought some fine, sheer drapes somewhere, but of course the boys forgot to close the blinds, so I could see right in. The living-room floor had been turned into a classic crash pad, sleeping bags unrolled on the carpet in front of the leather couch. Half-empty bowls of popcorn and soda cans crowded the coffee table. The plasma TV was on but no sound disturbed the windowpane, so I was guessing that either the volume was muted or else turned down low enough that it wouldn’t wake the adults upstairs. Caleb McPherson was lying off to the right, curled into a cashew, half-in and half-out of his sleeping bag, eyes closed. And there, sitting too close to the screen, propped up on his elbows: my baby boy. Hayden was being bad, watching some music video with twirling teens in skimpy clothes doing dance routines whose moves consisted of grinds and thrusts. I wouldn’t let him watch this sort of thing at home—he was only seven, for God’s sake—but I felt a wash of relief that he was all right, a physical sensation just like cold refreshing water poured over my head. A sob caught in my throat when I thought about how he’d stayed awake so he could view this trite, forbidden spectacle on MTV. He was only a boy, a regular, healthy boy.
He turned his head toward the window and I ducked down quickly. I made my way in a crouch back to the car, feeling ashamed and spotlighted, even though I know he hadn’t seen me and there was seemingly no one else awake all down the silent street.
I locked my car doors and stayed right where I was. In the rearview, I caught sight of myself and made a severe assessment: I looked crazed. My light brown hair, usually tidy and shoulder-length, curled slightly at the ends in the more-or-less current style for a suburban mom nearing middle age, was mussed and frazzled. My smooth skin, which I considered my best feature, looked pale and drawn in the streetlight’s harsh glow. And the eyes, the subdued emerald eyes that my girlfriends had always openly admired but which to me seemed too wounded, too vulnerable, an invitation to men telling them I was pliant, willing; now they seemed stark lifeless marbles wide with anxiety. It struck me that, for all the self-examination I did every morning in the bathroom mirror, brushing my teeth and drying my hair and applying my makeup, I rarely looked myself in those eyes. Even though I should have earned it by now, should have forgiven myself long ago. Then again, Pritchett obviously hadn’t. I wondered if there were others who were still roiling inside, who’d never made peace in all the days since Randy had interrupted what should have been the normal, decent courses of their lives.
Deep breaths, I told myself. I wouldn’t rouse the McPherson household; I wouldn’t make any untoward scene. But damned if I was going to let the house out of my sight tonight. If there was one thing I’d paid so dearly to acquire, it was a sense of diligence.
Over the past six years, there had been times, I admit, when I would briefly forget who we really were. Hours, days, even as long as a week sometimes, when I just let go and believed that I really was Leigh Wren, and not Nina Leigh Mosley née Sarbaines. At times I let it slip completely from my mind that my name was ever anything but what it was now and that I’d had it legally changed after what happened with my ex-husband.
But such comfort never lasted long. Something always reminded me: a spree of atrocity on the evening news, a conversation at work, a legal nicety of some sort. And as soon as I remembered, as soon as I came back to the sharp, alert state that was now my default setting, I never felt any sense of relief that I’d been able to let go for a while, to put the past where it belonged. Instead I felt irresponsible, childish, and stupid. I felt selfish that I could have let Hayden down.
Charles Pritchett. He must have known where we lived. Must have known and must’ve waited for his chance to confront me, savoring it, my God that meant he was serious. That meant he wouldn’t have gotten nearly enough satisfaction from scaring the shit out of me at the store; he had obviously undertaken a Project. Men of his sort charted their lives as a series of Projects, and mine had likely been a long time in the planning.
That realization, along with all its implications, made my head spin. I didn’t have the luxury to get foggy, so I started jotting down notes on the little pad I kept in the glove box. Meaningless shit, I could barely even see what I was writing in the silver glow from the streetlights, but I needed something to do with my hands. I wrote random dates. I scribbled words and free associations. If I bothered to look at them later, I knew I wouldn’t be able to decipher them. I crumpled the notes and tossed them on the floorboard.
I remembered Pritchett now, vaguely. He was wealthy, the one surname on the victims’ list that the average person might have known by reputation for something other than having had a family member killed by Randy. He’d been the one to call press conferences before the trial, and there were rumors he’d even hired a PR firm to deal with the media on his behalf. I couldn’t seem to recall his actually being in the courtroom, but that didn’t mean much either; the most I’d retained from that ordeal were images: a few words other people said to me, some of the questions the prosecutors and the defense asked. I couldn’t clearly remember my responses, although I was sure they were set down somewhere in the public record. In my own mind, the recollections from that time had been locked into a sealed vault and buried beneath layer upon layer, year upon year, of careful blockade. Back then, the prosecutors, having secured my unconditional cooperation, shielded me from the worst of the pretrial publicity, and I’d moved back in with Mom before the trial got under way, so I was out of state for much of the media circus that preceded it.
My main memory wasn’t of the old man himself, but of his appearances on TV, pointing his finger at the camera and finding it difficult to control his emotion, which anyone could understand, given the circumstances. How could I have forgotten? Why didn’t I recognize him when he approached me, why didn’t his name come immediately to mind? I remembered many of the victims’ names, probably most of them. I remembered one boy who’d survived by hiding in a guest room while the rest of his family was slaughtered. After court, on the day he’d testified, I’d spoken to this sole survivor and found him broken, confused, nearly catatonic with guilt that he lived on while his loved ones had perished. Just another casualty along with all the other ones who’d lost their friends and family members to Randy’s terrible compulsions. The majority of them hadn’t attended the trial, and no one publicly criticized them for it. By the time things got that far, all their sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and spouses were long past help. By then it was Randy’s circus, the last display to which his rotting mind could fully tend, the public revelation of what he really always had been inside. My partner. My mate.
Randy’s festival of blood had lasted a decade at least, and probably much longer. I was there for most of it, and didn’t have a single clue. Poor, ignorant Nina, sleeping with the Beast and caught completely unaware, even if some called me an enabler, even if at one point early on I’d been suspected of actually participating in the show, in Randy’s foul harvest.
I swore, then and now: I didn’t know, I couldn’t have.
All these arguments, I’d never really had them aloud, never really been in the position to defend, and their logic had long rung hollow to my own ears. Of course there were clues. Of course I turned a willfully oblivious eye.
I kept watch there, in the car, all night. All was quiet, except for the dull echo of my heart.
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Floyd. All rights reserved.