Jennifer's new neighbor, Lenise Jameson, is a liar. Lenise claims to have witnessed a disturbing incident involving Jennifer's husband, Hank, but as far as Jennifer is concerned, the forty-something single mother is a vindictive backstabber out to make trouble.
But Jennifer soon discovers this is no sick joke. Hank has a dark side she knew nothing about.
As Jennifer's life spirals out of control she has no one to turn to, apart from Lenise, who appears only too willing to help. But just who is Lenise? What does she want from Jennifer? And how far is she willing to go to get it?
A tale about secrets and obsession, and what can happen when you forget to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
The ironic thing is that tonight Jennifer is thinking about car crashes when she rounds the corner onto Pine Ridge Road. She could've sworn she was the only one on it, and that's why she's chosen the moment to reach down for the mandarin rolling loose in the foot well. The pothole she'd struck back on Tedder Street had sent the mandarins tumbling from the grocery bag and one had found its way here, to the front. She's being safety conscious because the thing might get trapped behind the brake pedal and she'd once seen a car crash and knew what a disaster it could be. That time, the car, a jeep deluxe something, had flipped right in front of her. It had hit the curb and skidded across four lanes worth of highway to land directly in her path, exposing its aging belly to the sunlight, dripping gasoline from its tank.
Worried the jeep might explode, Jennifer had tried to get the woman out, dragging her free through the smashed up windscreen, but the rescue guy later told Jennifer that the whole "car's going to explode just because it's crashed thing" was an urban myth because gas tanks didn't blow up just like that, there needed to be fire first. Not that it mattered to the woman. She was dead by the time Jennifer pulled her into the ring of dirt by the side of the road.
So Jennifer knew what could happen when you were driving alone at night and a stupid mandarin was roaming free amongst the stone chips and twigs and stray pottery barn receipts. And she should really turn the stereo down because it's not helping her concentration. Then she realizes the stereo isn't on and the music is coming from inside her own head, stuck on one of those loops that never seemed to stop, a ring worm or ear worm or worm something, the short point being she can't simply turn it off, that nondescript bassy crap that's good for cardio but not much else, and this uncooperative mandarin is really beginning to tick her off because it keeps slipping from her fingers but she's managing to still drive in a straight line. She tells herself to relax, that it's just one of those annoying but potentially dangerous things in life – a metaphor or simile or irony or whatever, for life's little mishaps – but she can handle it.
Then the mandarin disappears under her seat and now it's out of her reach entirely and it waits there, behind the lever, biding its time, like some sort of threat. An accident waiting to happen. Jennifer thinks about that as she straightens up and returns both hands to the steering wheel – an accident waiting to happen – and the meaning it implied, as if accidents weren't accidents at all but more like a sting, you know, entrapment, like a black toad sitting on a black stepping stone or a dog-eared mat missing one half of its Velcro stick or the unforgiving above-the-sink cupboard left slightly ajar. It was like the universe was setting you up all the time, with all these little accidents waiting to happen, and then Jennifer gets angry, because what was fair about that? And she thinks about her marriage and wonders whether that was an accident waiting to happen too.
And before she knows it, she's back to last night and his snipe about her hair. Oh, he made out like he was pissed because she was late, and she was, but then he said the thing about the hair. Well, screw you, she had wanted to say. You don't own me. I'm not your little doll. I can do what I want.
Maybe she was sick of the cobwebs growing out of her scalp. Maybe she was over being told forty was the new thirty or you-were-quite-a-looker-back-then or feeling like she was a favorite blouse beginning to soil at the cuffs. Maybe she wanted to feel refreshed, even if only for four to six weeks.
And what about him? Had he even looked in the mirror lately, with his whiter than white torso, that once taut college footballer's body now turning to fat? And if he thought he looked good with that beard, he was kidding himself. It was like the deal with McKenzie's food, he just didn't get it.
And last night when she got back from the hair salon, she could've screamed when she saw the state of the kitchen – the two half-stacked plates stippled with chili, the trail of nacho crumbs, the empty tub of ice cream beneath the dripping tap.
She had found him upstairs, getting ready to go out.
"You're late," he said, buttoning his shirt.
Jennifer held up the empty tub. "She's got an eating plan she needs to stick to, you know that."
"You never answered your phone."
"We've got to help McKenzie make better choices. It won't work if we're not on the same page."
He stood up and put on his jacket. "I don't like not being able to reach you. I was worried."
"Honestly, Hank, do you want her to get diabetes?"
He frowned. "Keep your voice down. She's twelve, Jen. Twelve year olds like ice cream. She can get back on her diet tomorrow."
He retrieved his keys and wallet from the side table.
"I have to go. Chip Manderson wants to talk about a potential construction job on the waterfront. We'll pick this up again tomorrow."
"Don't do that," she said.
He faced her. "Do what?"
"Treat me like I'm a child."
He looked at her wrist and paused.
"Where's your bracelet?"
She held his gaze, lifted her chin. "The clasp broke."
"It only just happened. I haven't had a chance to take it to the jewelers."
He looked at her awhile longer, studying her face. "I'm doing everything I can to keep this family afloat, Jen. What about you?"
Then he left but not before he said, "I'll never understand why women cut off their hair."
She should have said something, but she hadn't. She just let it slide. She was getting very good at letting things slide.
Outside her car window, the street lights cast a miserable gloom and Jennifer can barely make out the pines bordering the neighborhood. Why she let him talk her into moving here all those years ago, to this drab suburb of two-storey doer-uppers, away from their perfectly good low maintenance apartment in Chicago, she doesn't know.
Hank had shown her the house online not long after the incident. We can grow vegetables in the backyard, he'd told her, go for hikes in the forest on the weekends. McKenzie will be able to play in the street with the local kids, and we can renovate the house exactly how we want. It's even got a fire place, Jen. Just think of those toasty winter nights, he'd said, and there's enough contract work out there to keep me going for years. Best of all, you can finally set up your practice.
He put in an offer without telling her so in the end she had no choice. But that was how Hank rolled – he knew best and she just went along for the ride.
She'd wanted to believe him, about their peaceful non-materialistic life in the upper Midwest, that they would live happily ever after, put that dark chapter in their lives behind them. What she got instead was a house that creaked in the night and damp that never left. Which was fitting because sometimes her life seemed like one big damp patch. But maybe it wasn't so bad. Maybe she was the one with the problem.
Damp patches make her think of Ivan and now she's worried because she should have been home more than two hours ago but at least she'd sent Hank a text and she couldn't have said no when Rosemary her receptionist stuck her head in the door after the last client left and asked Jennifer if she wanted to join in and celebrate the "Big Two Two", as Rosemary had put it, doing the victory fingers.
They went to the Green Parrot, which smelt like hot sauce and feet and too much CK. There were introductions all round, "Mandy, Liz, Kate, Sarah, Josephine, Samantha, Samantha's brother Chris, and Ivan. Everyone, my boss Jennifer."
Jennifer took a seat next to Ivan who was too young and too good looking and dressed in blue jeans and a Che Guevara t-shirt.
"Hey," he said, doing the chin tilt thing.
Then he picked up the pitcher of margaritas and poured her one and she sipped and licked salt from her teeth and pretended to look at the group of college kids on the dance floor. Ivan was watching her, she could tell. She shifted under the weight of his stare. Felt the backs of her thighs sweat in the vinyl seat. Stupid. He was just a kid. She stole a look. Nice eyelashes. Just the right amount of stubble. Lips that curled up in one corner. She imagined she could see the concave of flesh just beneath the hip bone – smooth, pale, porcelain soft.
"We're going for a boogie, wanna come?" shouted Rosemary.
Jennifer looked at her watch and shook her head. "I have to go."
"No, you don't," said Ivan, pulling her up.
"Steady there big boy," she laughed.
And she let Ivan lead her to the dance floor, which was shoulder-to-shoulder full, and Liz held out the pitcher and filled up everyone's glasses and laughed as it sloshed over the sides and the music donkey-kicked Jennifer's breastbone and Ivan was dancing with his eyes closed and she imagined him shirtless and smelling of cigarettes and tasting of lime. And he kissed her. Or she kissed him. It was an accident waiting to happen. Rosemary pretended not to see. And Jennifer pulled away from Ivan's grasp and his "don't go" whisper and the image of them together in the back seat of his car or one bedroom apartment above his parent's garage or a shop entrance stoop.
Jennifer turns the corner and sees her house up ahead and here comes the mandarin again, nudging her heel. And why couldn't Hank have just said "Honey, your hair looks nice" and none of this would have happened. Now she had kissed another man. Now she was in that category of spouses who occupied that moral grey area of the "almost affair".
She feels a spike of guilt. Jennifer can almost guarantee that right now he'll be at home, pacing the length of the living room, pausing to check his phone, wondering where the hell she was. What exactly was she hoping to achieve with her little act of rebellion? She knew it was hard for him not being able to provide like he used to. She saw the way his eyes clouded over when he told her "the market's gonna turn any day now" or "it's just a matter of time." And here she was, the disloyal, self-absorbed wife, kicking a man while he was down, a man who had supported her throughout her darkest hour.
Jennifer reaches for the elusive mandarin and it grazes her fingertips then slips away to circle her left foot beyond her reach, and she thinks of their first date when he told her he was in construction and how when he kissed her goodnight, she could smell sawdust on his skin. She thinks of later, before they were married and after, and how he never stopped looking at her like she was the centre of his universe and how in the afterglow of making love, he'd look at her and say "I can't believe you chose me, I must be the luckiest man alive". She thinks of him now shoving fistfuls of fruit loops in his mouth and the way he laughed like a four year old whenever he watched the jujitsu on TV and how he was a walking cliché with his Carl Juniors addiction and beer and obsession with power tools.
He was a good person. Oh sure he could be an overprotective, domineering hothead, but that was just his way. He took care of her. He had a good heart.
And he loved her and McKenzie more than anything else.
And she was a lousy wife.
And he was right. She hated her hair too. Chocolate brown? What was she thinking? And why hadn't she asked for a shoulder length bob instead of a pixie cut? She needed to get things back on track, change her errant ways.
Nothing was more important than her mildly dysfunctional but perfectly formed three-person family.
Aha! She finally gets hold of that mandarin. Her fingernails sink into the skin and there's a burst of citrus and she feels like she's come through some sort of challenge. Pressing it to her lips she gives it a triumphant kiss. She doesn't realize there's something on the road before it's too late. She looks at the clock and sees it's just gone a quarter past eleven. It's funny, the things you notice.
About the Author
Deborah Rogers is a New Zealand based writer of American crime fiction. Over the years, she has written poetry, literary fiction and screenplays but her true love is writing novels. She has a strange fascination for the darker side of life, and this tends to make its way into her stories in various guises. When Deborah's not writing American psychological thrillers, she likes to take her chocolate Labrador for walks on the beach and make decadent desserts.