Jessica Strawser Excerpt: Not That I Could Tell

An innocent night of fun takes a shocking turn in Not That I Could Tell, the next page-turner from Jessica Strawser (available March 27, 2018).

When a group of neighborhood women gathers, wine in hand, around a fire pit where their backyards meet one Saturday night, most of them are just ecstatic to have discovered that their baby monitors reach that far. It’s a rare kid-free night, and they’re giddy with it. They drink too much, and the conversation turns personal.

By Monday morning, one of them is gone.

Everyone knows something about everyone else in the quirky small Ohio town of Yellow Springs, but no one can make sense of the disappearance. Kristin was a sociable twin mom, college administrator, and doctor’s wife who didn’t seem all that bothered by her impending divorce―and the investigation turns up more questions than answers, with her husband, Paul, at the center. For her closest neighbor, Clara, the incident triggers memories she thought she’d put behind her―and when she’s unable to extract herself from the widening circle of scrutiny, her own suspicions quickly grow. But the neighborhood’s newest addition, Izzy, is determined not to jump to any conclusions―especially since she’s dealing with a crisis of her own.

As the police investigation goes from a media circus to a cold case, the neighbors are forced to reexamine what’s going on behind their own closed doors―and to ask how well anyone really knows anyone else.

1

Ever wonder what your friends really think of you?

I take a lot of care in my appearance, for instance. I’m a small-town doctor’s wife, so I need to look the part—even if I don’t feel the part. And I have twins enrolled in pre-K at a charter school so obsessed with freethinking it will shove free thoughts down your throat. So I make sure it’s obvious to everyone there what happy, healthy, cherished little people my kids are. I never forget to dress them in their pajamas for pajama day. I always sign up to bring the most elaborate snacks to the class parties. I help other moms in the parking lot when their pumpkin seats jam or their strollers collapse. I make a point of knowing all their names.

You probably think I care a lot about what my friends think.

I don’t.

None of this charade is for them.

It’s no great accomplishment to get someone to believe a lie. It’s not that hard, really. Look at me: doctor’s wife, working mom, good neighbor. You’ve already summed me up, haven’t you? You’re already filling in the blanks.

But whatever you’re writing there, it’s not the truth. And that’s fine by me. It’s easier, knowing you don’t know me at all. Because as long as you believe that what you see is what you get, I get to stay this way. Poised. Devoted. Alive.
 

2

Everyone’s Favorite Place!

—Tagline of the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce

Izzy awoke to a deafening downpour beating on the roof of her little Cape Cod. It reached through the dense fog of heavy sleep, through the punishing pain of the previous night’s overindulgence, and tugged at the corner of her conscious mind just enough to pull it aside and reveal the too-familiar memory of Josh hovering there. In an instant, she regretted it all—the last glasses of wine that had brought on this ache and this haze, the humiliation of having told her new neighbors all they never needed to know about Josh, even the purchase of this house that placed the pounding rain just on the other side of the ceiling that sloped down to meet her bed.

How bad had it been? She squinted into the gray morning light, trying to remember exactly what she’d told them. The details of the later hours of the night were murky. She wasn’t sure she even recalled the short walk home, come to think of it—alarming, though it was just across the street, and Yellow Springs was about as safe as small Ohio towns came. Funny how the brain could hold on to emotions—the warmth of shared laughter and the happy reckless sense of oh, what the hell, why not were still clear to her now—so much more tightly than the precise words or actions behind them. She usually wasn’t one to overdo it on alcohol. But the other women, all moms with young kids, had been so ecstatic to have a night free, even though it was just a gathering around a backyard fire pit, baby monitors in hand—their enthusiasm had been contagious. She remembered Clara, the gracious hostess, leaning forward to refill her glass every time it fell below the halfway point. She must have lost track of how much she was having.

Coffee. She needed coffee. If only there were someone to bring her some.

She pulled a pillow over her head, trying to muffle the rain. It might as well have been pounding directly on her skull.

Normally, she would have chastised herself for wasting a day with a hangover of this caliber, but the downpour ruined her plans anyway. In a phase of her life that had somehow become defined by putting on a good face, Sunday mornings were reserved for slipping away. Her weekly hike was no ordinary trek. She’d discovered the most miraculous convergence of nature and faith in a nearby ravine, and it drew her like a magnet—the need to find peace. But in rain like this, the steep inclines of the trail would be too muddy, too hazardous. One wrong step, and she could be in the river. And no one would know she’d been swept away.

She could think of absolutely no reason to get out of bed.

Residual sadness—that’s all this was. Up until last night’s unfortunate slip, she’d been doing much better about not thinking of Josh. Really. She had. She was here, wasn’t she? Starting over, on her own.

She would allow herself a day—one day only—to recover, in the physical sense and the emotional. Given the ruined-before-they-started plans and the should-have-known-better remnants of last night churning in her stomach, she would consider the rain lucky.

She would make some coffee and climb back under the covers and nurse the throbbing in her head and revel in the luxury of doing it alone. No—undisturbed. That sounded more appealing.

And under no circumstances would she allow herself to imagine how her sister might be spending her own rainy Sunday back home, a twenty-minute drive away in Springfield. How Penny and Josh would awaken lazily in their bed, with the quiet confidence of newlyweds, in the master bedroom of the house where Izzy and Penny had spent their childhoods. How the heavy rain would pool on the back porch, beneath the gutter that was always clogged, and leak in through the cracked weather stripping of the kitchen door. Whether Josh would think of Izzy even once as he tiptoed past her old room, down the worn carpet of the stairs, over the puddle on the linoleum, and to the stove to make breakfast. Whether he was the sort of husband who’d call Penny down to eat, or whether, on second thought, he’d take a tray up to her—and keep her occupied in bed for as much of the day as she’d let him.

She would think of anything but that.

*   *   *

“How ’bout that rain yesterday?” Sonny called through Izzy’s open office door by way of greeting. “I almost built an ark, but then I realized I’d be trapped in an even smaller space with my kids climbing the walls. Then I’d really need God on my side to survive the flood!” He laughed at his own joke, and she heard Day join in with one of her signature giggles. They must have walked in together.

“But you only need two of everything for the ark, right?” Day said. “Maybe you could have left one behind!” They laughed again.

Izzy adjusted her face to hide her distaste. As the producer of the station’s morning radio show, she was always in the office a solid hour before the rest of the crew. Usually she relished the quiet prep time, even if she did have to wake at 4 A.M. to get it. But today being Monday, she’d found her in-box buried in an avalanche of email—mostly wire service alerts about yet another shooting on a college campus, this one at Saturday night’s football game between division rivals in Indiana. She and her neighbors had been chatting under the stars on Clara’s new stone patio blissfully unaware of the tragedy befalling dozens of perfect strangers just across the state line. Worse, she’d spent yesterday moping around like the personification of a first-world-problems hashtag, as if her own tragedy even counted as one.

That her job was to sift through all that misery in search of less real news that might be more suitable for group discussion led by chipper pop radio DJs had filled her cup of self-loathing to overflowing. And now here was the on-air talent, complaining about the rain.

“Good thing today’s a Sonny Day!” she called out, forcing cheer into her voice. She gathered her laptop, notes, and printouts of today’s agenda and motioned for them to follow her to the conference room for their briefing. She hoped she’d found enough clickbait to fill time—another boy band star posting ill-advised selfies, a survey about what men really think of their wives’ bodies postbaby, a reason working out less might actually be good for you.

“Oh boo!” Day replied. Sonny Keller’s name really was Sonny. And Amy Day’s surname really was Day. Coming up with their on-air monikers had been too easy—though tolerating them in the flesh was another matter. The listeners seemed to find Sonny and Day to be great company, but Izzy felt their particular brand of energy was a bit much. The fact that this made her perhaps not the best fit for this job was one she chose to ignore. Freshly Squeezed had been Dayton’s top morning show for five years running. It was an easy twenty-minute commute from Yellow Springs—better than the drive from Springfield had been—paid well, and looked great on her résumé. Not that she had any immediate plans to use her résumé for anything, but you never knew.

Sonny plopped heavily into a swivel chair and rubbed his hands together. “Tell me we’ve got something juicy for Second Date Update.”

Izzy settled at the table and glanced at the clock: 5:45. In fifteen minutes, she’d join the pair in the studio and feed them buzz from their social media accounts throughout the show, but she never spoke on air. Josh used to call her “The Wizard of Iz,” the woman behind the curtain—back when they’d been best friends who could tease each other about anything. And talk to each other about everything. Except the one thing she should have said but never did. And then, like a girl in a predictable rom-com, she’d missed her chance. In the movies, the guy always realized, just in time, what had been right in front of him all along: the perfect match of his gal pal, who looked beautiful with her hair down and her glasses off. In the movies, he did not actually go through with marrying her little sister. And if he did, what would happen next? How would the film end? It would have helped Izzy to have some model for how to shut off her feelings, though she was desperately trying. If Sonny and Day only knew about the silent drama playing out before them, they’d have a field day. She suspected they found her quite dull.

“We’ve got something juicy, all right, but we can’t air it.”

“Oh?”

“Our very first preemptive email requesting that just in case a certain woman were to write in about … what were his words?” Izzy riffled through her printouts. “Ah, yes. If she were to write in about what might have been misconstrued as a date, he does not want a call.”

“Yikes. She’s that bad?”

“No, he’s that married. With four kids.”

“That is good. Damn. They’re beating us to the punch now? Just when I thought this segment was getting easiernow that it’s so popular.”

When they’d first launched Second Date Update, “adapted” (an industry term for thievery) from similar segments popular on other networks, the DJs had fallen all over themselves telling the people they called on-air that they didn’t mean to put them on the spot. It was just that so-and-so wanted to know why they hadn’t returned their texts or calls after their first date had seemingly gone so well. A reasonable enough request, can’t we agree? But they’d found that those on the receiving end were often more than willing to talk—because no matter what had gone wrong, the idea that someone found them appealing enough to publicly humiliate themselves over was evidently flattering in some backward way.

Izzy felt differently, but she supposed her lack of any first dates whatsoever disqualified her from having an opinion.

“What poor sap do we have on the hook?” Day asked.

“Today you will be making polite inquiries on behalf of a young man who managed to sound sweetly yet awkwardly perplexed in his impassioned email about a magical night at Applebee’s, in which he emphasized that he had ‘dressed appropriately—really nice.’” She slid a printout of the email across the table.

“I already think he sounds great!” Day chirped. “If this doesn’t work out, maybe he can call me!”

Izzy rolled her eyes. The calls essentially boiled down to three types: people who really had no way of knowing what had gone wrong (the girl whose ex-boyfriend had warned off her date while she was in the restroom, for instance), people who were genuinely clueless about their own flaws (mostly egotistical gym rats), and people who were about to get a raw deal for no fair reason.

As it fell to her to select their lucky honorees from the submissions that streamed in daily, Izzy would have shown a little bias toward that last camp if she could have. But it was hard to know what you were getting up front.

*   *   *

The first thing she noticed wasn’t so much Paul—an uncommon presence on the street these days—but the tension radiating from him as he stood, hands on hips, at the end of Kristin’s driveway, a look of confusion plain on his face. She knew Kristin and Paul’s divorce wasn’t finalized yet—Kristin had mentioned it Saturday night, with a matter-of-factness Izzy admired—but still, it was early afternoon on a weekday. Kristin would be at work, the twins at school. Paul had moved out at the start of the summer, just before Izzy moved in. She thought of the house as exclusively Kristin’s, though she recognized him from his stops to pick up and drop off the kids.

She swung the car into her driveway and glanced over her shoulder. He was heading her way, white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, hands in his pockets, head down. He must be on a late lunch break. Maybe he needed something from the house, but he was going to be out of luck. Izzy didn’t know Kristin nearly well enough to have a key, even for neighborly purposes.

“Hi there,” he called out as she swung open the door. “Sorry to bother you…” He jogged the rest of the long diagonal across the street and stopped in front of her with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, we haven’t officially met—not sure if you remember me. I’m Paul, Kristin’s husband?”

He wasn’t easily forgotten. An ob-gyn, he looked every bit the doctor even without the lab coat. It was something about the way he carried himself—with the authority of someone who exuded intelligence but the ease of someone with a practiced bedside manner. And he was good-looking—a polished, wealthy sort of handsome. No way would she have chosen him for her gynecologist, let alone as an obstetrician. It would be unnerving having someone so datable poking around down there, not to mention shepherding you through the dignity-destroying process of childbirth.

“Izzy.” She stuck out a hand, feeling suddenly self-conscious of her jeans and v-neck T, as if she hadn’t come from a real job like his. He enveloped it in a firm, warm shake.

“You haven’t by chance seen Kristin today, have you?”

She shook her head. “Not since Saturday night.”

He snapped to attention. “You saw her Saturday?”

“At Clara’s. She and Benny got a new fire pit, and we had sort of a girls’ night, helping them christen it.”

“Were the kids there too?”

“No, it was after their bedtime.”

He frowned disapprovingly, even though Clara’s house shared a side yard with his own, and suddenly Izzy felt defensive on Kristin’s behalf. “Your old baby monitor reached,” she said. “They did a test run during the day to be sure.”

“Did you happen to notice if she was around yesterday?”

“It was pouring. I never even got out of my pajamas.”

“Right. Well, if you see her, could you please have her call me? Immediately?”

She nodded. “Everything okay?”

“I don’t know. I got a call at the office. Kristin didn’t show up for work, and the twins were no-shows at school. She wasn’t answering her phone, so I drove over here. And … well, they’re gone.”

“Not home, you mean.”

“No. Gone.” He ran a hand over his hair. “Kristin had the locks changed, but when no one answered, I was worried—I broke in through a back window. It looks like they’ve taken off. There are suitcases missing. Stuffed animals. Clothes. Even her mother’s china out of the dining room cabinet. And the minivan isn’t here.”

She frowned. “That’s strange. She didn’t mention going anywhere. In fact, she was talking about helping to organize some end-of-summer party Abby and Aaron had today.”

“That’s why the school was so concerned. And there are half-done crafts for that spread all over the kitchen table. Like she just walked out midway through, planning to come back and finish.”

Izzy wrinkled her forehead. This didn’t seem right at all. “Is her phone going straight to voice mail? I assume you’ve left messages?”

He removed his hand from his pocket, and in it was a cell phone she recognized instantly. The pink case was customized with a photo of the twins as onesie-clad newborns, curled into one another as if they hadn’t yet left the womb.

“Also left on the kitchen table,” he said.

A cold chill ran through Izzy.

He turned to gaze at his old house for a minute, then back toward her, looking both paler and more solemn than he had a moment ago. “I guess I’m going to have to call the police.”

Copyright © 2018 Jessica Strawser.
 

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Jessica Strawser is the editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade and became known for her in-depth cover interviews with such luminaries as David Sedaris and Alice Walker. She's the author of the novels Almost Missed You and Not That I Could Tell. She has written for The New York Times' Modern Love, Publishers Weekly and other fine venues, and lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati.

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