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Liza could tell right away that Molly’s smile was fake—and not fake in that courageous way that tired moms of young children sometimes muster a grin, either. That, Liza would have understood, even empathized with. This was that ultra-polite, too-bright sort of smile-on-cue reserved for less than welcome social situations—the corners of her mouth pulled up too stiffly and the rest of her face forgot to match the purported emotion behind it. Liza squinted into the flat-screen of her laptop, hoping maybe it was just the awkward angle of the webcam or the dim light in Molly’s living room, where her friend sat in a halo of yellow lamplight on a ridiculously suburban-looking plaid sectional a few hundred miles away. But no. Liza could read Molly’s face with the indisputable clarity that came with years—most of a lifetime, really—of familiarity, even as she numbly lifted her own hand in a halfhearted wave.
“We finally did it!” Molly said in a tone that matched her cringe-worthy smile. “Girls’ night.”
After a long stretch of “We should really…” and “Maybe after the kids are in bed?” and other overtures they both tried to pretend were not empty, one of them had at last called the other’s bluff, and here they were: set to catch up with more than an offhand text—their first real chat in who knows how long.
Well, Liza knew how long. But she wouldn’t admit to keeping score.
“Girls’ night,” Liza agreed. She was already wondering, and simultaneously chastising herself for wondering, why they’d bothered—and not just because girls’ night was no rarity for her, though she was usually the only one taking part. She missed Molly. Really. She did.
It was just that the woman currently lifting her glass of red wine in a virtual “cheers” was not the Molly she missed. The image on Liza’s monitor was Molly 2.0—the version you eventually have no choice but to upgrade to but then can’t figure out how to navigate.
“Tell me everything,” Molly said with a mischievous shimmy of her shoulders. There. There she was. The old version, just for an instant. “Start with the Canadian.”
Liza took a long sip of her own wine, then tipped her glass toward her friend’s in the air. “No can do on the Canadian. He was deported.”
“Long story. But,” she said gently, “not one worth telling. That was like three guys ago.”
“Girl, you work fast!” Molly’s eyes lit up. Liza knew the drill—that her married friends liked to live vicariously through her dating escapades. It wasn’t their fault; she’d painted them into the role by having so many story-worthy nights in the first place, and by embellishing her retellings with such gusto. Being the lone scout out on the hunt, sending missives to her fellow soldiers at the base camp, had been fun for a while—a long while. But she’d grown tired of giving the play by play.
Which was when she’d realized she was tired of living the play by play.
“Not that fast. It’s been months.” Molly’s face fell. Liza had broken the unspoken rule of not acknowledging how disconnected they’d become, how little they’d come to know about each other’s daily lives. In junior high, they’d collaborated on a whole playlist’s worth of alternate lyrics to their favorite pop songs, serenading their lunch table with “Give Me Just One Bite (Uno Nacho)” and their still-loved stuffed animals with “GUND Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” In college, they’d held back hair over porcelain basins, mopped up tears with cheap liquor and late-night pizza, giggled their way through General Hospital sprawled on the shabby carpet of their living room. They’d gone on to help each other learn to, well, adult, even sharing a family data plan to make their cell phone bills manageable. That they would ever have to fill each other in on months of life at once, let alone reach for something to talk about, was unthinkable then. Laughable.
Liza never should have moved to take the job here. Chicago still seemed out of reach, even though she was right in the middle of it.
“Oh, God,” Molly moaned. “It’s really been that long. I’m officially the worst friend ever. Too busy competing for my Mother of the Year award in the Frozen Waffles for Dinner category.”
“That’s the best category. Kids love that category.”
“Being Mother of the Year isn’t about doing things kids like. It’s more of a competition in legal forms of torture, like those vegetable medleys that are all broccoli stalks and no florets.” They both laughed, but Molly’s didn’t last long. She pulled a face. “Liza, I really am sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s better to stick with the highlight reel anyway. Of which—brace yourself—there is currently none. I’m taking a break.”
“A break?” She looked so confused, Liza’s fears were confirmed: This hiatus, by its very nature of being unthinkable, was long overdue. “From sex, you mean? Not from dating.”
“From everything.” She held up her empty hands as if to display proof. I’ve got nothing. And by choice!
Well. It was by choice if you didn’t count the years of failed efforts preceding this period.
“Don’t you know my husband is away on business? This call is meant to take the place of the rom-coms I binge when he’s gone. What now?”
“Tough one.” Liza leaned forward on the futon and drummed her fingers dramatically on the coffee table where her laptop sat in front of her. Thanks to her mother’s overzealous gift of a whole box of flameless candles—with a note gushing about how magical they were, and how safe, and “what will they think of next?”—the open space of her loft glowed all around her. She loved how the simulated candlelight gave the exposed brick of the converted warehouse a nostalgic café type of feel, in place of the dingy disrepair that the renovation had never quite hidden from the daylight.
She was about to suggest that the husband himself might be a suitable topic when Molly perked up. “I know. How’s Max?”
Liza couldn’t help but smile. “Maximizing his Maxiness, as usual.”
How telling, in retrospect, that she’d met her closest friend here through indiscriminate dating—the very thing she’d pledged to do less of in order to seek more friends. If Liza were to leave Chicago, Max would be the only person to truly miss her. She supposed that this, too, was why she clung to what was left of her friendship with Molly. Because she might barely have it anymore, but she didn’t have anything else close. At this rate, she might never again.
“I still think he’d be a perfect match for you, if only…” Molly sighed.
“Kind of a big if only.” Liza wasn’t about to beguile Molly with colorful new Max tales, though she had a whole rainbow of them. She liked to keep him to herself—in part because she knew how well Molly remembered both the promise and disappointment of their sole date.
They’d met over a slow, talkative dinner at the kind of middle-of-the-road restaurant that could be surprisingly satisfying under the right circumstances and Liza had already been thinking ahead to what might come next when she excused herself to freshen up while waiting for the check. If the ladies’ room line hadn’t been so long she decided to skip it, she might not have returned to find Max in intimate conversation with their waiter. Their red-faced, furious, male waiter, who was demanding to know why her date had not returned his calls.
Knowing any second Max would turn and see her, Liza had stood, stricken, as the server stormed off. Part of her wanted to slink away, but she couldn’t summon the politeness not to confront what she’d witnessed. All she could think was, Damn. I liked you. The date wasn’t just going well; she hadn’t had this much fun talking to anyone since she moved here.
Max did turn then, and he looked just as caught as she’d feared he would. For a glimmer of a second she’d almost dared hope that it wasn’t what it looked like.
“So you date guys, too?” she’d asked quietly.
“No!” His expression turned funereal. “I mean, not anymore.”
“I’ve seen my share of scorned exes”—it was true, though they didn’t usually belong to her but to the otherwise affable men she was attempting to date—“and that one seemed fresh. Recent, I mean.”
Max averted his eyes. It had been just a phase, he said. He was straight—definitely straight, he said. But he looked cornered, trapped. And her instinct, her own feelings aside, was to reach in and free him.
“Look,” she’d said, thinking fast. She was usually honest to a fault, but she really did want to see him again. “I was working out how to tell you. I’ve had a lot of fun tonight, but I’m not feeling the chemistry beyond a friendship level.” Did it show that minutes ago she’d been angling for a look in the bathroom mirror, wondering if he might invite her to his place? Being openly bisexual would have been one thing. But she wouldn’t risk this: dating someone who was either confused or in denial, marrying him, having three kids, and then finding out that she was a beard and he had some waiter on the side.
“Friends then,” he said.
And just like that, they were. A couple years in, she still couldn’t say whether he was gay, straight, or something in between. But they’d never had trouble keeping things platonic, and she figured that alone said something.
Something Liza didn’t want to spell out for Molly all over again.
“Speaking of perfect matches,” she said instead. “How’s Daniel?”
“Oh, you know.” Molly sipped her wine, then squinted and massaged her temple with her free hand. “Actually, it was kind of awful when he left this morning.”
“Grant.” Liza smiled at the mention of Molly’s five-year-old. When he was born on her own birthday, Liza had proclaimed him a kindred spirit—and so far, he didn’t disappoint: surprisingly kind for his age, in spite of having zero inhibitions and a wicked sense of humor. “Daniel woke him up to say good-bye—it was almost time for him to get up for school anyway—and he flipped. I mean, really flipped. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ Daniel said, and Grant sobbed, ‘No you won’t!’ He was hysterical. He kept yelling, ‘You’re never coming back, never!’ Over and over.” She shivered at the memory.
“Yikes. Those exact words?”
“Those exact words.”
“What did you do?”
She rolled her eyes. “Daniel was staring me down, I mean boring into my eyes with this look that said, Whatever you do, don’t acknowledge this: Just pretend it isn’t happening. Like I don’t know better.” Molly did have a way of freaking the kids out with her own reactions—Liza had seen it—but now didn’t seem the time to side with Daniel, which had gotten her into trouble before. Excuse her for liking the guy her friend had married. She was guiltier, she supposed, of knowing full well that Molly could be … well, Molly.
“I keep hearing Grant’s tiny voice in my head, though,” Molly continued. “He sounded so sure.”
“Do you usually worry about Daniel when he travels?” Liza tucked her legs under her, glad of her stretchy yoga pants, the evening uniform she almost hadn’t donned tonight. Feeling self-conscious in Molly’s presence was still new to her, but she’d had oddly embarrassing visions of her pajama-clad self dialing in to find her friend in business casual. She needn’t have worried—Molly was in lounge clothes, too, though cute ones, a heather gray jersey wrap over a lace-trimmed cami.
“A little. Not Liza-style worrying, though,” Molly teased. Liza didn’t worry about everything all day long, but when something did take hold of the worst of her imagination it would cling for dear life, keeping her up all night. Few people knew the extent of her almost anxiety, as she called it. And fortunately, it usually seemed silly even to her in the morning.
Except for when it didn’t. That’s when she knew she was in trouble. She was no longer worrying; she was intuiting. And her intuition was kind of a show-off sometimes.
Molly turned serious. “Bad as it sounds, I’ve actually come to look forward to him being gone. I am never alone.”
“Do we count as alone right now?” Liza refilled her wineglass. “I mean, are we drinking alone?”
“Oh no. Friends don’t let friends drink alone. And you’re stuck with me. Because I plan to drink the ever-loving living bejesus out of this wine.”
“The ever-loving living bejesus. Wow.”
“Sometimes the regular bejesus isn’t going to make a sufficient point.”
“The regular bejesus doesn’t even know.”
Molly shook her head sadly, and Liza hid a smile, wondering if she’d gotten a head start on the bottle before the call. She didn’t know how responsible it’d be for Tipsy Molly to be on her own with the kids, but Tipsy Molly was kind of a riot. A quaint midwestern drunk, prone to launching into expressions Liza never heard anyone under the age of sixty use in normal conversation. I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Whoopsie daisies! They’d once had an earnest 2:00 a.m. conversation about what the phrase dollars to donuts means.
“Well, count me in. What’s the occasion?”
Molly gestured dramatically around the room, her wine sloshing dangerously close to the edge of the glass. “You better be in! This. This is the occasion. Girls’ night.” There was a challenge in her eyes, one Liza suddenly had no interest in backing down from. “The thing about Daniel is—” She stopped short and squeezed her eyes shut tight.
Molly put her finger to her lips.
“Mommy!” The child’s voice calling from upstairs was faint, but still Liza jolted at the sound of it. The call came as a demand, not an unkind one, but not a question, either.
Did Liza imagine a flash of relief passing across Molly’s face before an eye roll fixed it in a look of annoyance?
“Never fails,” Molly sighed, not moving, as if the child might give up and go to sleep, an occurrence even Liza knew had happened roughly zero times in the history of cared-for children calling out for reasonable things.
“Mom. Me!” Each syllable got its own sentence this time, and Liza strained to discern which child was calling. Grant would probably just pad on down, which made his little sister the likely culprit. Is it too much to ask, Molly’s expression seemed to be saying, to get through one lousy call while I’m here with you kids on my own?
Liza might have argued Is it too much to ask? on her own behalf, too, but she was afraid of the answer. It was too much these days, it seemed, for Molly to be present—really there, and glad to be—for more than an occasional glimpse of their friendship. And it wasn’t even entirely Molly’s fault. So instead, she said, “Go ahead, go to her. I’ll wait.”
“I’m going to give her a minute and see if she gives up.”
Almost as if on cue, it came again: “Mommy?”
Liza raised an eyebrow.
“I just wanted one night of peace.” Molly looked directly at her then, and to Liza’s surprise, there were tears in her eyes. “She’s relentless. It’s like she knows when I’m weak—not feeling well, or Daniel isn’t home—and that’s when she strikes.”
“Maybe she’s just thirsty?”
Molly shot her a look that conveyed in no uncertain terms what an amateur Liza was.
“I really don’t mind,” Liza said. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere. I can even watch TV until you get back if I want.”
“God help me if it takes that long,” Molly said, getting to her feet and bending down to give her a sad smile. “Sorry. Back in a jiff.”
Liza looked around at her own quiet living room, debating whether to break the silence after all. She liked it this way, candlelit and serene. It was Molly who’d never liked being alone, who’d been the sort to turn on every light in their old shared apartment when Liza had a date or a late class. She’d play a radio in one room and a TV in the other and pay no mind to the clashing of sounds, which drove Liza mad. For the new Molly to relish solitude was telling, and Liza found herself mustering unexpected sympathy for her friend, who she more often wondered if she should envy. Molly’s life seemed so crowded that Liza never wanted to intrude from afar, but now she wondered if she’d taken the wrong tact, as these years away had flown past them both.
She should invite her up for a weekend; that’s what she should do. Was it fair, anyway, to resent Molly for not visiting when she didn’t go out of her way to encourage her to? Maybe she could work it out with Daniel for them to surprise Molly together—he could pack her up and put her on the Megabus one day, promise to handle the kids, and she would arrive unburdened to do all the things Liza had once anticipated she herself would do on the regular here but rarely did. They’d walk Navy Pier. Window-shop the Magnificent Mile. Hit the Art Institute, score Second City tickets. Take selfies at The Bean.
If she had turned on the TV, or stood to get a glass of water, or even flipped through the notifications on her phone, she might have missed it. It was dumb luck that she was staring blankly into the portal of Molly’s waiting living room, feeling something akin to relief to discover she was warming after all toward her friend—long distanced but not long lost, after all—when the back door swung soundlessly open into Molly’s kitchen.
Liza jumped, so sudden and startling was the motion. There in the background, across the stretch of white ceramic tile sprawling behind the couch, gaped an ominous rectangle of darkness. Had a gust of wind blown open the unlatched door? Perhaps one of those feral cats Molly was prone to feeding had come begging and jarred it open? Her mind was busying itself to put the pieces of the picture back into place when a tall, broad-shouldered figure stepped through.
He was dressed head to toe in black, a ski mask tight over his face.
Liza’s tongue recoiled into her throat with a gasp. Her lungs shuddered mid-breath, terror shooting lightning-quick warning signals from one muscle to the next until she was under its siege, unable to move.
He shut the door behind him.
Without a glance in her direction, he began to make his way slowly around the kitchenette, his eyes on the hallway through which her friend had just disappeared to go check on the kids.
Oh, God. The kids.
She understood all at once what people meant when they said they were too scared to scream, as everything within her constricted—her veins, her windpipe, her courage. The black-clad figure did not hesitate, did not take stock of his surroundings or stop to get his bearings. He merely headed for that hallway, and Liza realized then that she could not afford to stay frozen. She had to act now. She had to act as if she were there, in the room.
Because in a way, she was.
“Hey!” she yelled.
His head whipped around as he halted, mid-step. The just-visible circles of his eyes fixed themselves on the computer.
“Leave,” she commanded, her voice cracking, shaking, forsaking her. He moved brusquely toward the screen, and Liza’s eyes flicked down to her lap, where she’d rested her phone. She clutched the smooth rectangle in her fist and thrust it toward the webcam.
“I’m calling the police!” She was already crying, willing him to change course, to back out, to slink away. As he stepped closer to the camera, his head disappeared from the frame, then his torso, and in an instant she was staring at a black pant leg that came to a stop right before her. She dove forward and seized her laptop in both of her trembling hands, lifting it to her face, skimming the hardware for the dots marking the location of the microphone.
“Molly!” she screamed into the machine. “Molly! There’s a man! He’s—”
A swift diagonal of darkness sliced down the screen as an unseen hand slapped Molly’s laptop closed.
The connection went dead.
Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Strawser