It was a gruesome sight. One none of the people present would forget. A woman, lying in the street, neck twisted, eyes veiny and bulged in terror, arms bent backward at an unnatural angle. The smell of burnt rubber and smoke. The distant sound of sirens. It was a night they would all come back to, years and years later, trying to remember why things happened the way they did, while the true culprit still walked among them, in plain sight, as she always had.
One Hour Ago…
She pushed open the heavy double doors with a sigh and rushed down the corridor. Late, as usual. Maybe if she hadn’t sat for so long in the car, composing and the deleting a text to a man she very much wanted to hear from again, she wouldn’t have to rush. It had been three days since their perfect first meeting and she still hadn’t heard from him. Was it too soon to text him? Was it too late? She didn’t understand the rules any longer.
She tripped over her ballet flat-wearing feet as she rushed into the crowded classroom. It was Parent Night. Normally she avoided this place like it was Chernobyl, all of the petty mommy politics and dumb competition made her crazy. She’d volunteered for a grand total of one school event since she’d enrolled Simone here a year ago. If these women wanted to squabble over whose child was in what percentile or scored higher on which test, have at it. It wasn’t for her. But, Parent Night was important. She wanted to know how her darling daughter was doing. She wanted to show her face to her teacher and the principal.
She gathered her long locs and piled them on top of her head, pulling a bobby pin from her purse and pinning them in what she hoped was a somewhat neat bun. She slid into a seat at the end of the last row, just before the teacher began to address the room. She congratulated herself for arriving in the nick of time, not noticing the pair of dagger-shaped eyes pointed in her direction.
“Look who decided to show up,” Sophia whispered to her seatmate, Fern. Fern’s brow furrowed. Sophia knew she wanted to keep her attention on the teacher at the front of the room, but Sophia wasn’t one to keep quiet when there was juicy gossip to dish out. “It’s her. Amie.” Sophia spit the name out as though it were a disease.
“Oh, don’t worry about her,” shushed Fern. “Tonight is about our children. Their education.”
“It just bothers me, that’s all,” Sophia continued as though Fern hadn’t spoken at all. “These young women. Single. Flitting around going on dates and whatnot. Ignoring their responsibilities…”
“She’s here now. Isn’t that what counts?” Fern insisted as she tried to jot down a note about the next school field trip.
“The first event she’s been to all year, if you don’t count the class outing to the farm last fall. Which I don’t.”
Fern sighed. Sophia knew what she would say. It was time to let it go. She couldn’t. She had only trying to be friendly. Hospitable, even. She’d volunteered at the farm outing too. She’d seen Amie passing out snacks to the kids, in her ridiculous boho-chic outfit, waist-length dreadlocks and a hoop stuck through the cartilage of her nose, and her heart had gone out to her. She was clueless. She’d offered to take her under her experienced wings, since she had two older children who’d already graduated from the same elementary school and gone on to middle. She could help her get on the PTA, into the best playgroups so her daughter could improve her social skills and make friends with the right children. Amie smiled politely and told her that her schedule was too full to make time for the PTA. She was raising her daughter alone. Sophia didn’t give up, insisted that she make time in her schedule, her daughter’s very future was at stake. Amie smiled again and thanked her, but said she thought Simone would be fine making friends on her own. On the bus ride home, she overheard Amie whisper to Laurie that all the “mommy politics” at the school were insane. Then they’d giggled like schoolgirls. Laughing at her.
Then, to add insult to injury, that little anti-social Simone had the audacity to be selected for the gifted group, over her little Imogene. She’d done all the right things. The right playgroups and classes and nursery schools starting from when Imogene was three months old. And that lazy, no-good Amie’s daughter ends up in gifted. The injustice!
Fern’s attention was solely on the teacher now. She was losing her. Time to pull out the heavy artillery.
“And you know why most of these single mothers come to these school events, anyway?” Sophia whispered, leaning closer to Fern. “To flirt with our husbands. This is their breeding ground. They leave us and go on with them and have more children. We’re just forgotten.”
Fern didn’t respond verbally, but her body stiffened. Sophia had seen the text from Fern’s husband Kevin, though she’d tried to shield the screen. He was running late again. He might not make Parent Night. He’d been working late quite a bit lately. She’d seen the profound glare of disappointment in Fern’s eyes as she put the phone back in her purse.
“Could you please be quiet, Sophia?!” Laurie, who was seated in the row in front of them, scolded.
“I’m so sorry, Laurie,” Sophia said insincerely. “I know you want to hear every single word.” It was a jab. A cruel one. Laurie’s son, Connor, was repeating the first grade. He was struggling with his reading comprehension and attention span. There were whispers of learning disabilities, ADHD. All of the mothers were outwardly sympathetic as good manners dictated, but inwardly, they were all thinking, thank goodness it’s her and not me. She and that Amie had made fast friends of course.
Laurie stood up from her seat abruptly, causing the rusty metal legs to scrape against the linoleum. The teacher stumbled over her words as Laurie stomped out of the classroom, her eyes tight, drawn, and angry.
Does Sophia know? Fern had told no one about Kevin’s affair. If you could call it an affair. It was a dalliance really. Some woman in an airport bar when he was on a layover somewhere in the Midwest. A layover. She’d laughed hysterically at the absurdity of that term after Kevin had confessed his indiscretion. Kevin had stared at her as though she were insane. It was a year ago and they’d put it behind them, for their boys, Sam and Matt. At least Fern had said she’d put it behind her. But she wondered if there were others. She wondered why he’d strayed. Why she wasn’t enough? Of course Kevin had given all of the right answers. But she knew he was lying. She knew it. Too many late nights at work and extended business trips ever since the beginning of their marriage. He was a liar. Too smooth, too charming, too rebellious. The kind of guy that was never interested in a woman like her, a lifelong good girl. From the first day they’d met, she’d been hopelessly and pathetically addicted.
The teacher concluded her remarks and now the parents were invited to mingle and partake of the display of coffee and pastries on the front table. Fern needed to speak to the teacher about her youngest son, Matt, but first, she needed some fresh air. And to get away from Sophia. Bitter, meddling, Sophia.
She leaned against a window in the front corridor, rapidly sending a text to Kevin.
Where r u? We need to talk to the teacher about Matt.
She saw a flash of movement from the corner of her eye, and glanced out the window. There was her husband on the front steps, talking to young, single, beautiful Amie. And something inside her exploded.
That Sophia! Laurie cursed her name as she sobbed into her hands. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of her tiny blue Toyota weeping for her son. Her gorgeous boy, with his dark curls and huge brown eyes, so dark they were almost black. He was struggling. It broke her heart to see him work so hard, to try to make the words and letters on the paper make sense to no avail. She’d taken him to so many specialists, with no luck. But, she was hopeful. One day, someone would tell her how to help her son.
To add insult to injury, Connor was being bullied on the playground. Stupid, idiot, retard. The names he repeated to her through tears at the end of the schoolday. She didn’t blame the children. It was the parents. The kids had heard their whispers about the boy who’d been held back. According to Connor, Imogene, Sophia’s Imogene, was the ringleader. The head bully. She would likely grow up to be a woman every bit as nasty and horrible as her mother. Laurie was tired of cowering in the corner while the Sophias of the world ran everyone over. How could she teach her son to fight back when she was in the car, crying like a little girl?
She turned the ignition and put the car in drive. The tires squealed as she pulled out of her parking space, headed for the roundabout in front of the school. She could see Sophia standing in front of the doors. She was going to finally give her a piece of her mind. She’d zip up to the curb, jump out of the car like a madwoman and stalk right up to Sophia, stand nose to nose with her and scream.
Amie had left the room discreetly after Laurie stormed out, in search of her friend. But Laurie was too fast. By the time she’d reached the front corridor, she’d vanished. Amie had gone out the double doors, searching the front steps for Laurie, but instead, she’d laid eyes on the man she called The Elusive Stranger. The handsome man she’d met at the bar days ago. The one who’d kissed her breath away in the alley behind said bar. It sounded seedy but in reality it had actually been quite sexy and romantic. He’d handed her a business card with his work and mobile numbers quietly before telling her goodbye.
His name was Kevin, she saw it on his business card once she got in her car at the end of the night, her knees still trembling. And now he was here, at Simone’s school. It was incredibly surreal.
“What are you doing here?”
Kevin looked up, staring at her as though she were an alien beamed down from some foreign galaxy.
“Uhhh…my um…” he sputtered, not nearly as smooth as he was the night of their meeting.
“Do you have kids that go here?”
He nodded, his eyes nervously on the door.
“Wow, me too! I have a daughter in first grade. Small world! How old are your kids?”
That’s when she heard it. A scream. Then the claws on the back of her neck. She was shoved. She lost her balance and stumbled to the ground, her chin hitting the cement sidewalk.
“Why are you talking to my husband?!!!”
Amie stood, dusting herself off, looking into the eyes of Fern, that withdrawn, mousy woman who always went around with Sophia.
“Husband?” Amie turned to Kevin incredulously. “You’re married!”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know you little slut!” Fern shouted. “And you!” Fern turned her attention to Kevin. “You’re a liar! You do this here! Where our children go to school?! You disgust me!” She leaped at him, clawing at his eyeballs. Kevin cried out in pain. Amie, who couldn’t abide the sight of any kind of violence, tried to pull Fern off him, which only infuriated Fern further. She shrugged Amie off, sending her into the bushes next to the front steps. The sharp motion caused Fern to lose her balance, sending her toppling into the street, just as Laurie zoomed into the roundabout at full speed, well over the 5 mph speed limit for the school parking lot. The sound of the impact was sickening. Bones cracking, Fern’s screaming, the crunch of her skull as it hit the pavement. Laurie leaped out of the car and fell to her knees next to Fern’s crumpled form, screaming noiselessly as Kevin and Amie watched, frozen in silence.
She’d been standing in the doorway. She followed Fern. She was going to try and get her to come back. But then she’d seen it. Fern enraged. Leaping at Amie, then at Kevin. Teeth bared, claws out, like an animal. She’d seen it. She stood in the shadows and watched, recording every moment. She could repeat it to everyone who asked her to re-tell it. Which they would, many times, for years and years to come.
She stayed there as people rushed past her after hearing the commotion. As they stood in the roundabout over poor Fern’s lifeless body, cell phones out, screaming at the 911 operator to hurry. She didn’t come out until the police cars and ambulances roared into the parking lot. She walked down the front steps slowly, carefully, then approached a self-important-looking detective. He must be the one in charge.
“Officer,” she said, trying to suppress her smile of satisfaction, the warm churning of pleasure in her middle. “I saw it all. I’ll tell you everything.”