From the author of Blind Dates: Weird Stories comes a haunting and captivating tale of a woman who feels like she’s been uninvited to her own life.
A mess of relationships has left Meredith feeling like a stranger in her own skin. Her husband doesn’t want her, her son takes after his father, and her secret lover is a mystery she can’t unravel. Seeking a way out, she resolves to end her entanglements and regain her sense of self. But an attempt to sever ties only deepens into a nightmare when she realizes someone or something is not willing to let her go.
This unforgettable novella is a must-read for fans of psychological horror and lovers of suspense.
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My friend Justine had warned me: it happens to every married woman. One day she’ll wake up and think she’s married the wrong man. Another day, sooner or later following the first, she’ll know it. Both such days usually happen after a night of arguing or after a series of such night fights. Donald and I had never argued—at least not in any deeply serious way. But I’d known the truth for some time; it had come and gone in occasional flashes throughout the entire twenty-odd years. But such epiphanies had become steadier during the past nine months.
My gaze into a kaleidoscopic nothing slowly tightened to focus on the white-gold diamond ring on my finger, resting next to the teacup on my table. The diamonds twinkled, hinting What right have you to wear this? To my left, a young couple—probably in their twenties—ambled up to the counter to purchase a bag of tea. They held hands even as they sampled the pastries next to the register. I lowered my eyes, letting my focus fade back to yellows, pinks, and blues.
I never should have cheated.
No—that’s not true.
I should have cheated differently.
The second problem was that the guy I met on the Amorous Anonymous site fit my needs perfectly. The first problem was that I’d gotten on the site in the first place. Yeah, that’s a little backward, but that’s how I felt these days. That’s how my thoughts and second guesses ran. I’d like to think it was the site that had gotten me twisted.
The site had always had a creepy vibe to it. It had asked for a lot of weird personal info, all of which I’d answered with fabrications. I’d described my brunette hair with its seven strands of gray as “sunset red.” My eyes changed from a settled acorn brown to a piercing sapphire blue. Five foot five became five foot eight—still shorter than the average man but promising longer legs for a would-be suitor. I hadn’t fibbed about being in shape. Between the gardening and the housecleaning and the periodic garage workouts, I was fit for some passionate tussling in the bedroom. I culminated the profile with the tart and only covertly apologetic pseudonym of Sarah. A perverted abbreviation of siracha: a name with bite and spice, or so the gin I’d been sipping at the time had told me. It was also a name my alcohol-fueled mind had mumble-read as “Sorry.”
“Lie, lie, lie till you die” was a common taunt thirty years ago, back when I was in prepubescence. But it had served me well on Amorous Anonymous. And even though it allowed me to meet the perfect paramour and carry on a flawless affair for eight or so months, just the fact that I had a presence on the site began to pick at my conscience after a while. That picking eventually peeled off a scab that let something loose to ooze under my skin, effecting a perpetual sensation no shower or lotion or scratching could ease. I considered a skin peel. Injections. Making odd mutilations to my body. Before I had a nervous breakdown or did something truly crazy, I’d decided to just end the damned lie.
Ending a relationship—even one garbed in falsehoods—could be just like ending a life. Maybe even more traumatic. Though I’d never killed anyone, both my parents had died suddenly, so I felt I knew well enough. My bearers had perished in a meeting of train and car, reckless driving resulting in a wreck. It had almost been a laughable cliché. After an anniversary date, they for whatever reason had taken a wrong turn, didn’t realize their Plymouth was low on gas, and wound up stalled on train tracks. Or perhaps my father thought his 1959 red Fury was badass enough to beat the train. If so, he misjudged. The secondhand vehicle was likely unable to handle the thrust. I didn’t know the exact story; I just remembered how I felt when the authorities had deigned to tell the news to me, their only child. The feeling wasn’t giddiness, but something related. Not like mirth. More like the reverse of giving birth to an otherworldly creature, as if something fresh, like a garden salad, had been rapidly consumed, then just sat in my stomach to rot while my body refused to process it and something oleaginous eased back up my throat, its noxious scent outpacing it to waft out of my mouth and back into my nostrils.
It was a feeling I never wanted to repeat—so I’d planned to meet Isaac one last time, face-to-face. Neither a text nor a phone call would do justice to either of us. I didn’t want to just break it off. I wanted to resolve the relationship, such as it was. And I wanted to absolve myself. We’d agreed yesterday via text to meet at the teahouse where we’d had our first face-to-face. I was already on my second cup of tea. He was forty minutes late. I hadn’t heard a word from him all day. I chuckled inwardly at the thought that, after nine months of a relationship, he would suddenly choose to ghost me.
I checked once more over my shoulder, toward the door. I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting; I could only make out part of the area where I’d left my shoes. Two young women, having finished their late lunch, were putting theirs on, one while standing, the other while sitting on a wooden bench. To each her own, I supposed, when it came to comfort.
A little to the right was the area for those who preferred to take their tea and edibles while practically sitting on the floor. Some did, forgoing the thick burgundy cushions arranged around the low-lying square tables. I preferred a table with the rosewood chairs that provided much thinner cushioning but were better for my legs. I’d stretched them plenty today, walking here from several blocks away and then taking in my surroundings before finally giving in and placing an order.
It was a place I’d made a note to visit more often. As it was, I’d only been here three times, each one with Isaac. And each time, I’d paid far more attention to him than my surroundings. Today I’d had a chance to browse the shelves of teapots and bowls, many of them highly ornamental, all of them for sale, much like the books on art, dress, and other aspects of Chinese culture that were also on display. Tea, of course, was available for take-home purchase—large, translucent bags filled with loose-leaf varieties one couldn’t hope to purchase in any nearby grocery store. Much of the leaves, dried fruits, and other substances were of a sort no one around here would chance to grow in their backyard. Some were more common, if no less exotic on the nose: Jasmine, raspberry, lavender, and a host of other enticements I couldn’t begin to name without stopping to read labels. Arranged and propped up in wicker baskets near the front door, the bags’ colors and fragrances tempted customers when they entered and again before exiting.
Such a tranquil place had no need for incense or soft music, not with so many aromatics about. But peaceful atmosphere or not, I’d purposely chosen a relatively private table half-hidden from the entrance by a wooden support column. For added privacy, I sat with my back toward the front door, facing the passageway leading toward the kitchen.
If Isaac were here, he would no doubt be sipping on the green tea he’d ordered the first time we came, cherry zen. Green tea mixed with dried cherry bits and rose petals—a concoction releasing aromas highly appropriate for the season, if not appropriate for us together.
I pondered the remnants of genmaicha tea in my cup. Some of the contents had slipped through the filter. Mine was a grassy green tea, a blend of Sencha and roasted brown rice, which in turn gave it a slightly sweet, nutty flavor. While steeping, it gave off an aroma of roasted rice, which evoked an autumnal mood. But gazing at the leavings now, I just thought of cut weeds and tossed rice, perhaps much of a lawnmower sack’s contents after the landscapers went over church grounds too soon after a traditional wedding.
May was a near-perfect time for weddings and a much less perfect time to call in a sick day at the middle school. Being so near to the end of the school year, everyone was overloaded trying to get everything in order before summer break. All well and good—but today someone else could see to the kids’ attendance. I’d expected Isaac to do the same with his office. Surely bankers got sick every once in a while? And what better place for two sick people to meet than a place like this?
To my right, just out of sight, I sensed a figure, hovering. I turned slightly more toward the kitchen, bringing her into three dimensions, the vivid hues of familiarity: the friendly middle-aged Chinese woman who’d been serving me. She was watching me, visibly eager yet seemingly hesitant to approach my table. I figured she probably had ten years on me, in her mid- to late fifties. Perhaps she was turning me over in her mind as I involuntarily began to do with her. Was she happily married? When she was pouring my tea and, almost under her breath, recommending the steamed lamb dumplings, I hadn’t bothered to look at her fingers. In anticipation of heartbreak, I honestly hadn’t paid her much attention at all. My stomach was already in knots; it didn’t need food. And I didn’t—yet—need kindness or sympathy. I needed to turn the final screw on a bad deed and let time begin the process of burying it. But now, wandering . . . wondering . . . Did this kindly woman smile at home as often as she did at work, or was it forced? Did she smile only to ease her way through life, toward the inevitable—?
I sensed rapid movement to my left. Shifting my gaze without sparing a turn of my head, I felt a familiar presence. Love. A nervous brand of it—jittery—making the nerves in my neck and hands twitch. Still, I didn’t turn in its direction; I just scooted a little closer to the edge of my seat, waiting for my lover to step into my view, reenter my world for the last time. I stared at the seat opposite me, expecting at any moment to see his strong hands grasp the sides—the thick fingers, the veined and tanned backsides, the diamond-studded wedding band that glittered like fresh snow kissed by noontime sunlight.
Instead, slender pale fingers grasped the chair’s top back edge. There were no diamonds. Just a green sapphire nested like an egg inside an oval, jutting out at a right angle to the yellow-gold ring and lying parallel to the young person’s left ring finger. The gem shimmered, passing off different shades of green, from lime to avocado.
I lifted my chin. The tall, freckled girl in a forest-green tank top and salmon-pink capris glared at me as she pulled back the seat, sat, then scooted forward, her deep blue eyes not leaving mine for even a flicker. She’d an oblong face, shoulder-length red hair with bangs, and was young enough to be my daughter. A thin layer of sweat coated her skin, though she wasn’t breathing hard, as if she’d been running. Her breath did, however, seem tightly controlled.
Mine wasn’t. My mouth had gone slack. I shook my head to get it working again. “Who are you?”
“Clarissa,” she said in a low pitch. “Guillen.”
Guillen? I squinted at her. “That sounds familiar . . .”
“It should.” The way she glared, I half expected her irises to assume the hues of fire. “You and me, we’re practically family.”
I cocked my head, not sure whether I had any distant relatives by that name. I wasn’t one to frequent family reunions. “Are we related somehow?”
“Yeah. Somehow.” Her ring’s gem deepened to forest green as she leaned forward. “You’ve been sleeping with my dad.”
I leaned back, hoping the chair would take the hint and allow me to slide under the table. But the cushion, thin as it was, kept me in place as my stomach hardened.
“That familiar enough for you?”
I couldn’t look her in the eyes. Mine fell to that ring of hers, the gem trading hues at the same rate as my heart’s increasing rhythm.
Isaac and I had never rendezvoused at his house, nor mine for that matter. Nowhere even near them—at least, as far as I knew. Residences were explicitly off limits; personal details were implicitly so. I’d never told him any details about my personal life, including my last name, and he mostly followed the same rulebook. Mostly. He had referenced a daughter a few times. And now that it was thrown in my face, I recalled he’d even mentioned his last name—but not to me. It was on one of the rare occasions when both our spouses were out of town, and we’d gone out to dinner; he’d spoken his surname when confirming his reservation with the maître d’. He’d volunteered little else about himself. But the daughter—this girl—she looked absolutely nothing like Isaac. And yet there was something about her. Something I felt I should have been able to identify.
I lifted my gaze. Her eyes fixed on mine as if she were trying to establish a beyond-surface connection. She kept her lips pressed tightly together as she took deep breaths through her nose, her chest heaving. She was attempting something. Intimidation? I searched her face, her shoulders, the parts of her body I could see to massage my memory, to sprinkle water on anything Isaac had left there. But I came up blank. I couldn’t focus. Her tactic was working. I straightened in my chair, cleared my throat. “Just how old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just you shut up and listen.”
I gasped. “Excuse me?”
She leaned in farther, hunching her shoulders as a snarl played under her nose. “You stay away from my dad. Period. You never see him again.”
We were on the same page. But, thinking the young should have a bit more respect for their elders, I leaned forward a little, joining her in the conspiratorial tone. “Or?”
“And I don’t go to your family with what I have.”
I sucked in my gut. “Which is?”
“Just know it will be the end of your tolerable life.”
The little brat was pushing it. I didn’t like being blackmailed. To show her I wasn’t some easily frightened old lady, I decided to push back, just a little.
“And if I do see your dad again? Just one more time? Then what?”
She almost seemed to smirk as she shook her head slightly. “You’re not going to want to feel the hell I’ll unleash on you.”
“Listen, you little monster—”
“I’m not done, tramp.”
My body tensed as my eyes widened. “How dare you—?”
“I’m. Not. Done.” She spoke through clenched teeth while giving me a harsh squint. “I know where you live. I know where you work. I know all about you. You’ve done your best to mess up our lives. My dad’s and mine. I’ll destroy yours.”
Speechless, I could only shake my head, not only at the audacity of it all, but at the ferociousness of this pale, reedy girl. Did she have a criminal record? Was she armed right now? What the hell had Isaac said about her? My eyes left her face and traveled, not too quickly, across her body, this time trying to read her unspoken language, getting an honest feel—I hoped—on her intent. Did she have it in her to harm me? Could she really get to my family? My eyes rested on that shimmering green ring as I tried to think harder about Isaac’s brief mentions of her. Had she been a bad kid? Rebellious?
Best I could remember, he’d only mentioned her in passing. Or maybe I just hadn’t been listening. No—I know I hadn’t. I’d been more interested in looking at him and feeling him and letting him play with me. And vice versa. I hadn’t needed companionship. I hadn’t been looking for a shoulder to lean on, let alone cry on. I didn’t need any more pals or conversationalists. My husband and son, my coworkers, my friends—between the three groupings, I had everything I needed in the emotions department. And I’d always carefully chosen what set of emotions to share with which group.
Isaac had only been a toy, an action figure. Both of us had agreed on our mutually intended statuses before we’d even met. Dolls meeting in playsets that would be monitored by none. And yet, when we actually met, it wasn’t quite fire and ice, but he was a warmer prince to my cooler princess. His personality wouldn’t allow him to be anything but friendly, a hugger and a hand-holder, a talker in almost any situation. And me—I’d tried my best not to listen, not because that husky voice of his wasn’t nice to listen to, but because I didn’t want to inadvertently volunteer information. And now his daughter claimed to have it all anyway, all the information I would have and could have given up.
The girl scooted her chair backward. “I’ve said what I’ve needed to.” As she rose, my eyes flicked to her waist, searching for any signs of hidden objects. “There will be no second warning.”
She seemed unarmed, didn’t even have a clutch purse with her. Still, I kept my eyes on her as she left the table, moving toward the entrance. Barefoot, she made no sound on the wooden floor—no creaking wood or sticky soles. It wasn’t due to grace. She talked like a mafia hit man but moved like a knock-kneed teen not yet comfortable with her body.
Consciously, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take her. My racing heart and fidgeting fingers seemed to have already concluded she was a threat. My legs had far less energy. Once she left my sight, I only turned and remained in my chair. The sight of the empty one across from me fuzzed into blurriness as my mind became a cyclone of thoughts, each one in such a hurry that comprehension of anything was an impossibility.
I wasn’t certain how long this lasted, but eventually my heart neared a normal pace and my sight returned as I figured I’d better get home.
I don’t know how long she’d been standing there, but when my server asked me if I’d like anything else, my tongue was almost quick enough to say, “A firm smack across that girl’s cheeks—top or bottom, pick one.” But I gathered just enough self-control to only ask for the check. I tipped for two.
I sat on the bench near the doorway to put on my sneakers. I hadn’t seen the need to wear anything classier considering the occasion—that and the fact that I’d just have to take them off anyway. Sandals were out, as I didn’t want to walk around the teahouse barefoot—like the girl had. Holding my left shoe in my hand, I paused. It was forest green and salmon pink. Just like the girl’s outfit. What the hell kind of coincidence was that?
I shuddered when stepping out onto the sidewalk. The winds had picked up. The sky was overcast, a stark change from the partly sunny sky of my morning and a dashed promise of this morning’s weather forecasters. Though I could’ve easily fit one into my shoulder bag, I hadn’t bothered to bring an umbrella. Hadn’t even put any thought into the weather after leaving the house. Now I had an impending fear of being drenched in a downpour. Still, I wasn’t about to remove the sunglasses I’d just put on.
I hadn’t driven as I didn’t want to take even the very slim chance that any of my coworkers who took their lunch breaks off campus might travel far afield from the school and spot me. The sunglasses would stay on until I was safely back home.
How had the girl gotten here? She carried no purse that I saw and likely wouldn’t have been stupid enough to leave it with her shoes near the teahouse’s entrance. Car keys and her license could have been in her pockets, but I doubted it. The capris weren’t skintight, but I saw no outline of keys or even a phone, a mainstay for most these days, especially for girls her age. Maybe she only carried a credit card, had gotten here by cab—like I had—and had left the same way.
I double-checked the contents of my own purse to ensure I still had enough to get home. I always left credit cards at home when rendezvousing with Isaac, stocking my purse with cash and gift cards instead. This erased the chance Don would see any red flags on my credit card statements, should he ever happen to look at them.
Today I had plenty of cash, but there wasn’t a single taxi among the cars zooming by on the street in front of me, all with their headlights on. I walked two blocks west and still saw not even a hint of the familiar red-and-black sedans. One last time I looked to my left and right, up and down the street, before rushing to take refuge under a nearby bus stop shelter. The rain hadn’t come, but I didn’t want to gamble.
Secure and dry, I took the prepaid out of my shoulder bag and called a taxi. As I waited, three buses came and went. I could’ve gotten on any one, but I didn’t want to be subject to anyone else’s schedule.