Never cheat in a close-knit community. It can end in more ways than one.
The road in front of me shimmered in the heat. That’s what brought me out of my fog—that crazy shimmer. Up ahead, on the right, was the school. My daughter was waiting for me there. I pressed my foot against the gas pedal and sat up straight, wishing I’d brought my sunglasses with me. The glare of the sun was giving me a headache.
“Mom, why are you so late?” Emma asked as soon as I pulled up in front of the school.
I glanced at my watch; I was a half hour late. That was unusual for me. Where had the time gone? Emma and her friend, Rain, climbed into the backseat and buckled up. All the while my daughter complained about having to wait.
“All right, all right,” I murmured as I pulled away, heading back to our house. “So I’m a little late. The earth didn’t stop spinning, did it?”
Rain Ames giggled. She covered her mouth with her fingers in the same gesture her mother used. My head began to ache even more. Reaching up, I pressed where it hurt, right behind my left ear. Is there a bump there? I asked myself. How come I have a bump on my head?
“Mrs. Barnes, did you remember my suit?” Rain asked.
“Suit?” I repeated. That’s right: I was supposed to pick up Rain’s bathing suit from her house. Quickly, I glanced at the seat next to me. My purse was there, but no bathing suit.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I said, glancing at her in the mirror. “I forgot.” There was very little traffic, nothing to disturb me, yet I felt like I was fighting tension.
“That’s okay,” Emma said. “You can wear my blue one, Rain.”
I watched as Rain considered this notion. “Okay,” she finally said.
I tried to relax a little then. “Must be this headache,” I muttered as I pulled into our driveway.
Rain and Emma dashed into the house while I waited in the car for them. They had swimming lessons in less than twenty minutes, which meant I’d have to hurry if I wanted to get them there in time. Rummaging around my purse, I found the small bottle of aspirin I always carried with me. Without water, I popped two into my mouth and swallowed. I just had to get rid of that headache.
Both girls came tumbling out of the house a couple of minutes later, each dressed in a bathing suit. Emma held a pink tote bag, identical to Rain’s, which sat in the backseat.
“Come on, buckle up,” I urged them. “We’re close to being late.”
“That’s your fault, Mom,” Emma reminded me.
I glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She looked exactly like her father at that moment, prim and proper.
Since the swim lesson took an hour and it was on the other side of town, it made sense for me to wait for the girls. Needing to while away some time, I did some grocery shopping at a nearby strip mall. Strolling the aisles, I picked up your favorite cereals, roasted peanuts, bread. My headache had begun to ease. I was feeling more like my normal, energetic self.
A baby began to cry somewhere in the store. Frantically, I looked around. Why can’t these women keep their kids quiet? I wondered. I’d never let Emma cry in a store when she was a baby. I’d always taken her outside so as not to disturb other shoppers.
Steering my cart toward the racket, determined to let the baby’s mother know that her child was bothering me, I was stopped short when the wheels of my cart jammed. I looked down and saw a dark stain covering the toe of my left sneaker. I bent down to examine it; it looked like tar.
The baby started screaming again. Again I started toward the noise. Someone simply had to shut that baby up; her crying was tearing off the top of my head. Rounding the freezer aisle, preparing to glare at the screaming baby and her careless mother, I was suddenly face-to-face with Marge Whitney, a neighbor.
“Clarissa!” she exclaimed. “Who are you after? You look ready to let someone have it.”
Taken off guard, I tried to smile. “I’m just in a rush. Emma and Rain Ames are at swimming lessons. I’m trying to get some shopping done without them.”
“Well, the way you came around that corner, I expected you to start yelling at me.”
I forced a little laugh. “That screaming baby was driving me crazy. I thought maybe if I saw the mother, I’d let her know how I felt.”
“Typical Clarissa,” Marge said. “You don’t put up with a lot of crap, do you?”
“Put up with one spoonful today, and tomorrow they’ll try to give you a whole cup.”
“Amen!” She laughed.
I relaxed a bit; I’d always had the ability to make people laugh. Thank God my frazzled nerves hadn’t ruined that talent.
“I didn’t hear a baby, though,” Marge said then. “In fact, it’s so quiet in here I found myself listening to the elevator music.”
My first reaction was to argue with her. There had been a baby crying. But then, glancing down at my watch, I realized it was nearly time to pick up the girls. “Gotta run,” I said. “ ’Bye, Marge.”
By the time the girls and I got home that afternoon, my phone was ringing and my headache was back. Quickly, I ushered the girls upstairs and picked it up.
“Clarissa, it’s Lee.”
I sighed. “Why are you calling me? What if Charles came home early and picked up the phone? What would you say to him?”
“I’d ask him if he’d seen my wife today,” Lee said in a steely voice. I didn’t know how to answer, so I kept quiet. “Have you seen Tracy today, Clarissa? Weren’t you supposed to go out there and get Rain’s bathing suit or something? I thought that’s what Tracy said last night.”
“No. Rain used one of Emma’s suits.”
“Why the change of plans?”
“No change of plans. . . . ” I glanced at the stairs to make sure the girls weren’t listening. “I’ll take Rain back home after school tomorrow.” I paused, then asked, “Where are you, Lee?”
“In St. Louis on business. I’ve been trying to reach Tracy all day, but there’s no answer. Do you have any idea where she might be?”
The mysterious crying baby in the grocery store popped into my head for some reason. “Rain said her mommy was sick,” I replied.
“She’s just depressed. She thinks she might be pregnant again. She doesn’t think she can handle another baby, along with Hilary.”
“Well, maybe she decided just to rest today. Maybe she took the phone off the hook.” I looked down at my sneaker again. That dark stain bothered me. What in the world was it?
“The phone rings,” Lee said. “It just doesn’t get picked up.”
“Well, I’d drive out there—”
“No, that’s all right. I’ll call Bob Michaels. He’s usually home from work by now. He lives real close by.”
“No one lives real close to your house, Lee. It’s so isolated out there.”
“Bob’s a jogger. He usually runs out our way after work each afternoon. I’ll just ask him to stop by and check on Tracy.”
“Okay. Call me if there’s anything wrong.”
My front door opened and Charles came in as I hung up. “Problem?” he asked.
I pulled off my sneakers and started for the laundry room. Charles was right behind me. “That was Lee,” I said, tossing the sneakers into the washer.
“I guess I don’t have to worry. If there was anything still going on between you, you would have lied about who it was.”
Gritting my teeth, I added soap, then turned on the machine. “It’s been over for more than a year now, Charles. Are you ever going to forgive me? Or are you going to hold one indiscretion over my head forever?”
“One indiscretion that lasted six months,” he muttered. “What did he want? Is Rain here?”
“Yes, she is. Lee can’t seem to reach Tracy. He’s worried because she’s been depressed lately.”
Charles turned to look at me. “Maybe we should drive out there.”
“A neighbor is going to check on her. We’ll just stay here and keep Rain for however long we need to.”
By the time we sat down to dinner it was nearly six—more than two hours since Lee had called. I began to relax. Whatever the problem was with his high-strung wife, it had nothing at all to do with me.
“Mommy, can Rain stay with us until the weekend?” Emma asked.
“Sure.” I looked at the child, who was the picture of her mother. I imagined Tracy must have looked exactly like her at eight. “Why do you want to stay, Rain?”
“Because Hilary never stops crying,” she said. “She screams all day and all night.”
There it was again—that crying baby. But I’d never found it, had I?
“Want me to get that?” Charles asked.
I almost hadn’t noticed that the phone was ringing. “I’ll get it.”
Lee was on the other line. “Clarissa, is Rain right there in the room with you?”
“Practically. What is it?”
“Tracy’s been murdered. She’s dead, Clarissa. Some drifter broke in and killed her.”
“Oh, my God. . . . ”
“Can you keep Rain?” Lee asked in a strangled voice.
“Yes, of course. What about Hilary? Where is she?”
“Bob has her. I should be home in a couple of hours. I’ll talk to you then.”
I hung up the phone and gave Charles a look that made him hurry to side. I told him what I knew.
He paled. “A drifter?”
“Their house is so isolated, too. Lee was stupid to build out there. He’s out of town all the time, leaving Tracy and those girls all alone—”
“Thank God, Rain was here. Who knows what might have happened to her?” Absently, I touched that tender spot behind my left ear. It was still a mystery how it had gotten there.
“Should we go out and get the baby?” Charles asked.
“No, Lee said he’s on his way home. A neighbor has Hilary.”
“I guess we should just try to act like everything’s all right, for Rain’s sake.”
The next day Lee came to see his daughter. He told her gently what had happened. I was relieved that he didn’t bring the baby with him. I’d never been overly fond of babies, which was why Charles and I had only had one child.
Understandably, Rain took the news very hard. She was only eight. But at least she had Emma, Charles, and me. I think we made her feel safe. I told Lee she could stay with us as long as necessary.
“Thanks, Clarissa. I know this is hard, considering the circumstances.” He glanced at Charles, but my husband, ever the tactful host, merely nodded slightly. It was obvious that he didn’t like Lee, but he felt for him. I was proud of Charles.
“I have to stop at the police station,” Lee said as he got ready to leave. “Would you believe they want to talk to me about this?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I guess they’re looking for suspects.”
My chest tightened. “I thought you said a drifter did it.”
“That’s what they thought at first . . . looks like they’ve changed their minds.”
“Because there was nothing stolen and Tracy was not . . . abused.”
“How did she die?” My mouth suddenly felt dry.
“A blow to the head.” Lee looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “Whoever did this hit her over the head, then left her there to die. The baby saw the whole thing. The murderer just left Hilary crying for her mother.”
I let myself imagine that scene for just a moment, then I shivered. “I’m sure they’ll find out it was a stranger.”
Because the event had changed everything, I let the girls stay home from school that day and spent most of my time with them. It seemed the least I could do for Rain. She cried a lot, but Emma and I did all we could to comfort her. Charles came home early and took all of us out for pizza. That seemed to cheer Rain up a little.
By the time we got home, we put the girls to bed. We sat together in the living room. “There was a message on the machine for you,” Charles said. “It was the cops. They want you to come down there tomorrow morning.”
He shrugged. “I guess they’re checking everyone who knew Tracy. Pretty soon, everyone will know.”
“About your affair with her husband.” His voice took on a harsh quality. “No wonder the cops want to talk to you. You had a motive.”
I glared at my husband. “How can you say that? I had no reason to want Tracy dead. What Lee and I had has been over for a year.”
“What you and Lee had was an affair. How do I know it’s really over?”
“Because I said it was,” I said through gritted teeth.
I could tell Charles had more to say, but he decided to keep quiet. I was glad.
I wasn’t nervous at all about going to talk to the police the next day. I’d heard that they were speaking to virtually everyone who’d ever known Tracy. And, because she’d been a schoolteacher, there were plenty of people. I was just one of many.
The room I was brought to looked nothing like the interrogation rooms on television. It was brightly lit and there were windows that looked out onto Main Street. The table that dominated the room wasn’t the gun metal gray that I thought it would be; instead, it was a sturdy, butcher block type of table. I had the feeling the whole set had come from a restaurant that had gone out of business.
Detectives Croton and Hastings were in their early thirties, about my age; neither wore a uniform. I moved my chair away from the table so I could cross my legs. Being married for ten years hadn’t changed my body too much, and I wanted them to see that. Men generally liked looking at me, and I generally enjoyed the attention.
“Mrs. Barnes,” one of them began.
“Call me Clarissa. ‘Mrs. Barnes’ makes me sound so old.”
Detective Croton cleared his throat. “Clarissa, we understand you were supposed to have gone out to the Ames’ house on Thursday morning. You were picking up the little girl’s bathing suit. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. Rain stayed overnight Wednesday night, but she forgot her suit. She and Emma had swimming lessons the next day.”
“Why didn’t you get the suit?”
“She wore one of Emma’s. They share their clothes all the time.”
“But you’d planned to go out there,” Croton pointed out. “In fact, the bathing suit was found on top of the patio table. Mrs. Ames had been expecting you. You never picked it up. Why is that?”
I had no answer. I stared at Croton, trying to recall.
“Clarissa, did you see something that morning?” Detective Hastings asked, using a much kinder tone of voice than Croton had.
I shook my head.
“Is it possible that you went out there and found Mrs. Ames dead on the patio?” He paused; I said nothing. “That sight might have forced you into a state of shock. You would have forgotten the bathing suit.”
“No.” I tried to remember, despite the headache that was coming back. I just couldn’t seem to get rid of it. “Is that where she was found—on the patio? Lee said she was struck over the head.”
“Lee,” Detective Croton repeated the name, stretching out the word as though savoring the sound of it.
I was ready for this. “He and I had an affair more than a year ago. It lasted six months. It meant nothing.”
“It meant nothing? Gosh, that’s a real compliment to Mr. Ames.” He glanced at Hastings with a little sneer on his lips.
“I mean it was something we did without feeling. We acted on impulse.”
“Are there other things you’ve done without feeling?” Hastings asked, his voice laced with concern.
“So, you and Lee,” Croton said, making Lee’s name sound obscene, “had a little fling. Then he cut it off and went back to his wife. This brought out a lot of ‘feeling’ in you. That about right?” He studied me hard.
“I ended the affair a year ago. Tracy never knew about it.”
“Did Charles?” Hastings asked.
“Yes. He’s forgiven me.”
“If Charles knew, then why didn’t Tracy?” Croton asked. “Oh, well, maybe she did know. And maybe she confronted you about it that day when you went out there. Maybe she wanted her husband back. Is that it, Clarissa?”
“She didn’t know,” I said, blinking hard. Something, some noise, was interrupting my thoughts. Was there a baby crying somewhere? I looked at the officers, wondering if I should ask.
“I think you might be wrong about that,” Croton said.
“It was over. I don’t want Lee.” I stood, pulling my purse strap over my shoulder. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” Croton replied, almost sweetly. “We’ll need you to bring in every stitch of clothing you wore on Thursday.”
I glared at him. If they were playing good cop, bad cop, they’d certainly cast Croton well in the role of the bad cop. Turning to the more humane Hastings I said, “I don’t know what I had on. Jeans and a T-shirt, I guess.”
“Well, do your best to remember,” Croton said. “If you don’t have those clothes here by this evening at six, we’ll get a search warrant.”
“My partner is tired and hungry,” Hastings explained. “Just bring him what he wants, Clarissa.”
“Okay.” I turned to leave.
“Shoes, too, Clarissa,” Croton added.
I didn’t even respond. With my head held high, I strode out the door.
As soon as I got home, I collected the necessary clothing—jeans, a T-shirt, and my sneakers, which were still damp. I’d never removed them from the washing machine. The dark stain on the toe of my left sneaker was still there, but it had faded quite a bit. I still hadn’t figured out what it was.
Charles agreed to bring the clothing to the station, then stop on the way home for a fast-food dinner. I just wasn’t up to cooking. Emma and Rain were in Emma’s bedroom watching videos. I couldn’t recall ever seeing the girls so quiet.
When Charles got home I knew right away that the cops had talked to him, too. He’d been gone too long. Thankfully, because of Rain’s presence, he couldn’t really share with me what had transpired at the police station. That gave me some peace.
We ate our dinner in virtual silence that evening. Rain seemed out of sorts, restless. She wasn’t sleeping well at all. I vowed then to tell Lee it was time to bring her home. She needed to be with him.
By the time the girls were asleep, I was exhausted. I intended to go straight to bed, but that’s not what Charles had planned.
“We have to talk,” he said, catching me alone in the kitchen.
We headed into the living room. Charles remained standing, though I sat on the couch. This is not good, I thought. Nothing good is going to happen here tonight.
“Clarissa, Lee’s been arrested for the murder of his wife.”
My heart almost stopped. “But he was in St. Louis,” I said.
“They think he checked into his hotel, then hopped a flight back here, killed her, then flew back.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “I think you probably know the answer to that question.”
“Come on, Clarissa. It’s easy to see you and Lee are still in love. He wanted you so much he killed his wife—”
“That’s not true!” I cried, standing.
“There’s no other reason for Tracy’s death.” Clearly, Croton had gotten Charles’ ear.
“Someone broke in—a drifter—and killed her,” I protested.
“A drifter would have taken something.”
I stared at him. This was impossible to believe. “Have you been speaking to Detective Croton? Is that it? He hates me.”
“Yes, Croton told me you’re the reason Tracy is dead.”
I sat again, too weak to stand. “Charles, if you believe Lee did this, then you also have to believe he left his baby daughter there, screaming.” Nausea was creeping up on me. I swallowed hard and looked away. “They didn’t find Tracy until evening. That means that little Hilary spent the entire day alone with her mother’s corpse. Do you really think Lee would do that?”
“How do I know?” Charles threw up his hands in frustration. “Love makes people do crazy things.”
“For the last time, Charles, Lee and I are not in love! We’ve never been in love.”
He stared at me for a long moment. I couldn’t quite make out his expression. Then he turned and left the room. Our talk was over.
I sat there for a long while, wondering what I should do. Lee had been arrested. Could he have done this? Did he love me? I doubted it, because Lee and I had turned to each other out of boredom, nothing more. We’d had a short affair that hadn’t even been very exciting, and we’d ended it with no rancor.
I had the feeling Charles didn’t want me in his bed that night, so I curled up just where I was, on the couch, with the quilt pulled around me. I didn’t sleep very well, though. The events of the past two days were taking a toll on me. Rain woke once during the long night with a bad dream. I stayed with her until she fell back to sleep, then I went back to the couch.
There I had my own nightmare. In it, I was running through the aisles of a store, searching for the crying baby. Each time I got close, the crying would begin from a different direction.
Breakfast was another solemn affair. As I gazed at my daughter, I marveled at her composure. She knew nothing of the murder, but she was aware of the fact that her best friend had lost her mother and she shared Rain’s mood. I was proud of her.
“Do you have someone we can leave the girls with this morning?” Charles asked, his first words to me that morning.
“Mrs. Stevens across the street has baby-sat for Emma before,” I said. “I could ask her, but why?”
“Where are you going, Daddy?” Emma asked.
“Mommy and I have to go out for a little while,” Charles said kindly. “When we come home, I’ll take you girls to the park. How does that sound?”
“Good,” Rain answered.
I left the table and went into the bedroom. I needed a shower. Charles followed me.
“We’re going to pick up the baby from Lee’s neighbor,” he announced as I began to take off my clothes.
“Because there’s no one else to take care of her, Clarissa.” Impatience laced his voice.
I swallowed hard and turned on the shower.
“Clarissa, there was a big stain on one of your sneakers. Did you know that?”
“What is it? And why were your sneakers damp? Had you washed them?”
“I don’t know what the stain is. I washed them because they had a big stain on them,” I said through clenched teeth. I closed the door then.
Needless to say, the drive out to Tracy’s was tense. Charles obviously believed what the cops had told him, which had allowed him to come to the conclusion that Lee and I were in love. I knew that trying to explain it away would have been useless, so I kept my mind busy by thinking about how I was going to take care of baby Hilary. It had been a long time since Emma had been a baby.
Luckily for me, Hilary was asleep when we got there. All I had to do was pick her up in her carrier and take her to the car. Charles stopped on the way home to pick up diapers and everything else we’d need, since Tracy’s house was now a crime scene and no one could take anything from there.
Rain seemed relieved to see her baby sister, but she was more than willing to let the child sleep. It was then, as I walked to our bedroom with the baby, that a snatch of conversation from Tracy ran through my head. Rain is not happy about having to share me with her little sister, she’d said. I don’t know what will happen if there’s another baby.
I looked at myself in the mirror after I placed the baby on the bed and surrounded her with pillows. When had Tracy said that to me? I wondered. When had she said that about having another baby?
“Clarissa, Detective Hastings is here to see you,” Charles said, peeking into the room with a scowl on his face.
Closing the door behind me, I followed Charles to the living room. Hastings was sitting on the couch. I took a chair opposite him. Charles discretely left the room.
“How are you doing, Clarissa?” Hastings asked.
I sighed. My brain felt scrambled; I wasn’t sleeping well and my husband was angry with me. “Okay,” I finally said, lying, willing to do anything to get this over with..
“Your husband told you we’ve arrested Lee Ames in connection with his wife’s murder?”
“Yes, but, you’re wasting your time. Lee didn’t kill his wife. Lee couldn’t kill anyone.”
Hastings sat back against the cushion as he studied me. “Don’t you think we’re all capable of murder under the right set of circumstances?”
My head ached again. “I guess if someone hurt my daughter, I might be able to kill, yes. Is that what you mean?”
“Well, I don’t think Lee could kill under any circumstances. He’s a very calm, serious person. He doesn’t have the spirit.”
“You describe Lee as being almost boring and yet you had an affair with him. He must have some passion inside him.”
“He doesn’t. I was the pursuer in that situation. I was bored, I wanted a little fun, that’s all.”
“Was Lee fun?”
“Not really. I had to do all the work. I rented the hotel room, I supplied the oils and the scented candles, I brought the champagne.”
“All Lee had to do was show up.”
“Right. So can you see why it didn’t last long?”
“Lee is a quiet person,” Hastings said. “But you’re not, Clarissa. You’re a woman of passion.”
I glanced at him. Was he mocking me?
“Passionate people can snap under the right set of circumstances,” he added. “You must know that.”
“I already told you I didn’t hate Tracy. I didn’t want her out of the way. I didn’t care about her at all.”
“Obviously, or you wouldn’t have slept with her husband.”
I glared at him. “What do you want from me, Detective?”
“The truth. I think it’s inside you somewhere.”
“Well, then it’s well hidden!”
A noise began from far off, a familiar, unpleasant noise. That’s the baby crying, I thought. Hilary is crying. I stood suddenly.
“What is it?” Hastings asked, looking genuinely alarmed.
“That noise. Why doesn’t somebody stop it?”
“What noise? You mean the baby crying?”
I nodded and turned from him. The cries had become screams. I had to get out of there, and fast. I looked down at my feet, amazed that they weren’t moving. Slowly, as I stared down, the floor came up to meet me. I gratefully gave myself into the darkness.
When I woke, stretched out on the couch, Charles’ concerned face was the first one I saw. He hadn’t looked at me like that in a long time. I wanted to reach up, to take his hand and run us both out of there. But I knew I couldn’t.
“Are you all right, Clarissa?” Detective Hastings asked. He stood behind Charles. Charles had love in his eyes for me. I blinked hard, trying to memorize that look.
“Charles, I have to talk to Detective Hastings now,” I said quietly.
“Are you sure you’re up to it?” my husband asked.
I wasn’t sure, not at all. But there was no turning back now. A door had been opened. If my life was going to mean anything at all from this day forward, I would have to walk through that door.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
The baby began to cry again, but the sound no longer frightened me. Charles got up to see to Hilary.
“I know what happened to Tracy,” I told Hastings when we were alone.
“I was sure you did. Her blood was found on your sneaker.”
My head was aching again, but I ignored it. “I killed her. I killed Tracy.”
Hastings moved closer to me. “Tell me about it, Clarissa. Take your time.”
My mouth felt dry and my head ached but I knew I had to get on with it. I’d placed several lives in suspended animation without really knowing why. I had to confess so life could move on for all of us.
“I want you to know that I didn’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you until just a moment ago.”
Hastings nodded, looking directly at me. He had taken out his note pad. “You remembered when the baby started crying. Is that what happened out at the Ames house? Was the baby there? Did she see it all?”
I covered my mouth with my palm as a sob tried to escape. “Yes. I went out to get the bathing suit. When I got there Tracy was on the patio and Hilary was with her, in the playpen.”
“Were you and Tracy friends?”
I shook my head. “We knew each other only because our daughters are best friends. That’s also how I met Lee.”
Hastings nodded. “The bathing suit was found on the patio table, untouched. Whatever happened between you happened very fast, didn’t it?”
“Yes.” Now that my mind had allowed me to remember, the memories were crystal clear. I related them exactly as they’d happened:
“Did you think you could fool me forever?” Tracy had asked. She stood with her palms flat on the patio table. I wanted to ignore her, grab the suit, and run out of there.
“I’m sorry it happened,” I’d said, standing in front of her like a schoolgirl caught chewing gum in class. “I don’t know why Lee had to tell you. It’s been over for a long time—”
“He told me because he wants me to stay married to him and have this baby.” She’d looked down at her flat stomach, her lips curled in distaste. “Rain isn’t happy about having to share me with her little sister. I don’t know what will happen if there is another baby.”
“It will all work out.” I edged toward the table, getting closer to her.
“Lee lied to me while your little affair was going on, you know. I knew he was seeing someone, but he denied it. He made up stories. . . . ”
We were standing too close by then. I wanted to move back, but I didn’t want her to misinterpret my action. All I wanted was the bathing suit so I could get out of there.
“I told him last night that if he didn’t tell me the truth I’d have an abortion while he was out of town.”
I groaned and shook my head. “Tracy, it meant nothing, really.”
Immediately I realized I’d said the wrong thing. Trying to rectify the error I’d made, I said, “Lee is your husband, Tracy. I don’t want him. He’s yours.”
Then she pushed me with all her strength. I fell backward and hit my head on one of the chairs. I might have blacked out for a moment, because the next thing I knew, the baby was crying and Tracy was looming over me, murder in her eyes.
“Tracy, calm down!” I scrambled to my feet, the pain in my head blurring my vision. “I told you, I don’t want Lee.”
“So I should just take your castoffs. Is that it, Clarissa?” Tracy took another step toward me. Hilary was screaming by then.
I had to get out of there, that’s all I could think. I decided to make a lunge for the bathing suit before Tracy could get to me again, but I stumbled. She grabbed me by the shoulders.
“I could kill you for what you did!” She shook me hard. “You tried to ruin my life!”
I shrugged free from her grasp, but she grabbed me again as I tried to pass her. That was when something in me snapped.
I whirled around and faced her. “Your life is intact, Tracy! Your husband is still your husband. Let me go!”
She dropped her hands. Our faces were inches apart. We were both gasping for air and the baby was screaming. After a moment she said, “Lee chose me over you, Clarissa. That must drive you crazy.”
For a minute, all I could do was stare at her in disbelief. Did she think we were really fighting over Lee Ames, one of the most boring men on earth? A chuckle began deep in my throat. Before I knew it, I was laughing.
Tracy lunged at me, her hands like claws. I pushed her away as hard as I could. For a second she maintained her balance, then her gaze locked on mine, her face a mask of terror. She fell backwards on the cement stairs. Her head hit the bottom stair with a dull thud. Blood quickly spread onto the patio. I watched it drift slowly to my sneaker and knew I had to get out of there. Ignoring the screaming child and Tracy’s wide open, dead eyes, I ran from that yard as fast as I could.
The next thing I knew I was on Highway 5, stopped for a light, staring at the heat shimmering off the pavement. I remembered nothing of the hour before. But the crying haunted me; Hilary’s screams never really left my consciousness.
“She wasn’t pregnant,” Detective Hastings said after I finished my story. “She thought she was, but she was wrong.”
“Thank God,” I whispered.
He left me alone for a few minutes to talk to Charles. What I’d told him had taken its toll on me. I couldn’t stop crying as I sat there alone. I had killed a woman. Hilary had seen it all.
I was arrested that afternoon. Detective Hastings was by my side throughout the ordeal. I was lucky: He believed my story.
Charles had a hard time understanding what had happened. At first he thought I was lying to excuse myself. But later, after I was examined by a psychiatrist, he believed me. The psychiatrist explained that after I pushed Tracy that day, I entered what is called a “fugue state.” I was able to drive my car away from the house, pick up the girls at school and continue on with my day, but I wasn’t really aware of my surroundings. It was as if I was on some sort of auto pilot.
But the mother in me couldn’t forget that I’d left a baby alone to cry for her mother, who was dead right in front of her. That part of me had hallucinated about the baby crying in the grocery store. Then, when we brought Hilary home and I heard her cry, it had all come back to me.
Because of the psychiatrist’s report and Detective Hastings’s firsthand observance of my breaking down after hearing Hilary’s cries that day, I was allowed to enter a plea of involuntary manslaughter. I received no jail time; instead, I will report to a probation officer every month for the next five years.
I know the sentence sounds too light for a woman who committed a murder, but I truly believe I would never have touched Tracy that morning had she not been so aggressive with me. I did not intend to murder Tracy Ames. I’m certain of that.
Lee Ames was upset when he heard about my sentence. Of course, he stopped allowing Rain to visit with us. He’s also filled his daughter’s head with the most terrible lies about me.
Charles and I have decided to sell our house and leave town. He was able to get a transfer to a city more than five hundred miles away. We can start a new life there without having to endure the whispers of neighbors.
Emma, because she’s so young, will probably one day forget what happened. At least that’s my hope. Charles is getting excited about the move. That’s just the way he is. Now that he’s come to terms with the truth about what I did, he has pretty much put it behind him. He’s talking about having another child, but I’m not sure I’m ready to do that. Crying babies still upset me. I can’t even listen to them on television.
I know in my heart I meant Tracy Ames no harm. Her death was a tragedy, but she was the aggressor. That doesn’t make me innocent, but it does make what I did something I can live with. What I can’t live with is what I have probably done to that baby. I left Hilary there to cry for hours and hours, all the while staring at her mother’s corpse. Will she ever get over that? Or will it be a memory that plays itself over and over throughout her life?