Just Between Us by Rebecca Drake is a thrilling glimpse into the underbelly of suburbia, where not all neighbors can be trusted, and even the closest friends keep dangerous secrets (available January 9, 2018).
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Alison, Julie, Sarah, Heather. Four friends living the suburban ideal. Their jobs are steady, their kids are healthy. They’re as beautiful as their houses. But each of them has a dirty little secret, and hidden behind the veneer of their perfect lives is a crime and a mystery that will consume them all.
Everything starts to unravel when Alison spots a nasty bruise on Heather’s wrist. She shares her suspicions with Julie and Sarah, compelling all three to investigate what looks like an increasingly violent marriage. As mysterious injuries and erratic behavior mount, Heather can no longer deny the abuse, but she refuses to leave her husband. Desperate to save her, Alison and the others dread the phone call telling them that she’s been killed. But when that call finally comes, it’s not Heather who’s dead. In a moment they’ll come to regret, the women must decide what lengths they’ll go to in order to help a friend.
Sometimes I play the what-if game and wonder, what if we hadn’t moved to Sewickley when I got pregnant, and what if I hadn’t gone into labor in early August, and what if Lucy hadn’t slipped, wet and wailing, into this world a full three weeks early? If my oldest child had been born on her due date or after, then she wouldn’t have been eligible for school a full year earlier than expected, and I wouldn’t have met the women who became my closest friends, and what happened to us might never have happened at all.
So much in life hinges on chance—this date or that time, the myriad small, statistical variations which social scientists like to measure.
What if I hadn’t been the one handing Heather her cup of coffee that crisp fall morning at Crazy Mocha? And what if the sleeve of her knit shirt hadn’t slid back just a little as she reached to take it, and what if I hadn’t happened to look down and see what the sleeves had been meant to hide, and what if I hadn’t asked, “How did you get such a nasty bruise?”
A throwaway question at first.
I distributed the other cups to Julie and Sarah, barely paying attention but turning in time to see Heather startle, a tiny movement, before jerking down her sleeve to cover that large purple-yellow mark. “It’s nothing,” she said. “I must have bumped it on something.”
It’s only when I look back that I see this moment as the beginning, how everything started, though of course I didn’t understand the significance then.
We were in our favorite spot in the coffee shop on a Friday morning, a tradition started by Julie long before I moved to Sewickley, tucked in the back corner of a shop that itself was tucked in a back corner on Walnut Street. Our kids had been seen safely off to school, and the only child with us that morning was Sarah’s three-year-old, Josh, who dozed in a stroller by his mother’s side.
If I close my eyes, I can still see the four of us in our respective armchairs. Julie, red-haired and energetic, couldn’t sit still, her leg jiggling or toe tapping, always moving. Sarah, her counterpoint, small and still, dark head bent over her coffee, reminding me of a woodland creature in the way she pulled her legs under her, fitting her whole body in the seat. Too tall to do that, I slouched in mine, legs stretched out in front of me, hiding behind my mousy-blond hair. And then there was Heather, with her fine long legs hanging over the side of her chair, head back and golden mane hanging down, her thin neck exposed, looking both effortlessly graceful and vulnerable.
Sometimes I’d notice the glances we got from other mothers, desperate for adult conversation as they pushed strollers with one hand while clutching coffee cups with the other. I’d been one of those women once, coming here with Lucy and Matthew in a double stroller, envying the conversations going on around me. That was more than five years ago, when we’d first moved to town, before I met Julie and became part of the shop’s regular clientele.
What if Michael and I hadn’t been expecting a child? Our Realtor might have suggested a different, less family-friendly neighborhood. Or what if the male half of the elderly couple who owned the house we visited that day in Sewickley hadn’t had a stroke and his wife hadn’t decided that they should move to an assisted-living facility? If his stroke had been in December, rather than March, their home might have sold to someone else, and we might easily have bought a house in another neighborhood. This is the way of fate—all of these pieces that must slot into place, one leading to the other, a progression toward a conclusion that seems inevitable only after the fact.
Years before, I’d spent those first lonely visits to the coffee shop trying to entertain my children and wondering about the lives of the baristas and their patrons. Later I barely noticed them; my friends and I always had things to talk about—children, jobs, the school and other parents we knew, husbands, homes. That nasty bruise.
If I’d seen that injury on another mother from the elementary school, we would have all been talking about it, but Heather was one of us and she was sitting right there, blowing nonchalantly on her latte. I glanced at Julie and Sarah, but they were busy discussing whether it was okay to let their boys play football, even though the sons in question were barely nine and heavily involved in soccer.
I felt a familiar twinge—just a tiny twist—of jealousy. Not because I envied their conversation, but because before I moved to Sewickley it was Julie and Sarah, Sarah and Julie. They were friends first and that always irritated me, just a little.
Of course, it was stupid, because I shared that bond, too, soon enough. It’s just that I sometimes wished that I’d been Julie’s friend first. She was effervescent, one of those people who seem to be friends with everybody and everybody wants to know. Very social, gabby, an extrovert and a great organizer. It was no wonder that she became a real-estate agent—she was such a natural salesperson. Of course, I liked Sarah, too, but she was a little harder, a bit prickly at times, and mostly it was just that I envied the history they had that predated me. It was childish, this feeling, like being back in school and feeling upset because your prospective BFF has already been taken.
Julie and I first met at the preschool drop-off, hovering nervously around the entrance with the other parents as our little four-year-olds trooped inside with their teachers.
The rule at Awaken Academy was that no parents should enter the building in the mornings, in order to minimize long, weepy separations. Of course, those still happened, but I guess they thought it was better if the children associated the tears with what happened outside, rather than what happened in the classroom. These good-byes at the door were so hard; sometimes the parents wept along with their children. Lucy was one of those kids who didn’t want to let go, clutching my hand long after the teachers had called for the students to line up.
She’d invariably whine “No, Mommy! No go!” while clinging to me like a tree monkey. I’d have to slowly peel away her tiny grip, all the while feeling like a monster for sending her on into the unknown. Of course I’d toured the school and knew exactly what was inside—miniature tables and chairs, play kitchens and carpenter benches, pots of finger paint and child-safe easels, and shelves filled with brightly colored toys and picture books. A wonderful place, very clean and bright, but the daily lineup seemed so rigid and regimented that I had to remind myself every morning that once Lucy got inside the classroom she was fine.
As I stood there one morning, watching my daughter throw me the big-eyed, pitiful looks of an abandoned animal, a smartly dressed, redheaded woman said, “For all we know they’ve got a sweatshop going on in there.” She smiled at me and at the father of another child standing near us. “Little kids tethered to sewing machines and assembly lines.”
The man looked confused and slightly nervous, but I burst out laughing, surprised. The woman’s smile widened and she laughed, too, adding, “Do you think they’re making clothes for Baby Gap or the Neiman Marcus kids’ collection?”
“Oh, don’t be elitist,” a short woman to her right said. “It’s probably Walmart or Toys ‘R’ Us and our kids are the ones adding the enormous boobs to Beach Blanket Barbie even as we speak.”
The first woman winked at me and stuck out her hand. “I’m Julie Phelps, a.k.a. the mom of the little boy who refuses to share with anybody.”
“Sarah Walker.” The shorter woman thrust her hand past Julie to give mine a vigorous shake, her dark curls bouncing. “She means Owen, who is not nearly as bad as my son, Sam, who enjoys crashing trucks into everybody—warn your daughter.”
And that’s how we met. I sometimes wondered why Julie chose to ask me to join them. I thought maybe it was because the preschool was small, and the other available mothers all seemed nearly identical, with their flat-ironed hair and preppy suburban clothes, chatting about tennis or golf games. There were only a few mothers who stood out among this set—one, a glamorous banker who wore silk shirts with dark, pinstriped suits and liked to make snarky remarks, which she’d invariably follow with a braying laugh and “Of course, I’m just joking!” Another was a tiny, miserable-looking woman whose name I never did get, but who had an equally tiny, miserable-looking little boy with a perpetually runny nose named Jonathan. I only know this because his name accompanied every high-pitched shriek she leveled at him: “Jonathan, be careful!” “Jonathan, say thank you!” “Jonathan, don’t run!” I have to say that her nasal voice turned me off that name for life.
Sarah stood out, too, but in a good way, beautiful and biracial in a sea of pasty white women, and with a penchant for wearing brightly colored scarves and jewelry that another mother had dubbed “ethnic,” even though Sarah bought them at T.J.Maxx.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that I also stood out among this crowd. Tall and introverted, I didn’t chat with the other mothers, had zero interest in or aptitude for country-club life or team sports, and brought books to read to avoid appearing to be all alone in that sea of conversation. I’d stand off to one side holding my book aloft, my free arm folded protectively across my middle.
My nervousness must have seemed like aloofness, perhaps even disdain, at any rate interesting enough to merit Julie’s attention. If she’d known how desperate and lonely I felt, would she have been so welcoming? If she’d known my real history, not the abbreviated version I shared? That we’d moved to Pittsburgh because of Michael’s job transfer. As far as Julie knew, I was from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, like Michael, who grew up in comfortable Bucks County. What if I’d told her that I’d spent my childhood in hardscrabble Braddock, no more than thirty miles, but an entire lifestyle, away? What if she’d known we depended on food stamps after the mills had closed, and lived in an aluminum-siding house whose Easter-egg pastel yellow exterior had faded to dingy gray, the walls so thin that in the winter my mother filled cracks with tin foil and old newspapers to try to keep out the cold? Perhaps I’m underestimating Julie; if she’d found out about my past she might have considered it exotic.
While she was friendly with everyone, I’d learn that Julie hand-selected friends who were different. Before I moved to Sewickley, there’d been Brenda, a computer-science professor who was also tall and bookish, her similarities to me something that both Julie and Sarah liked to exclaim about. As in, “That’s just what Brenda would have said!”
After our first meeting, I saw Julie and Sarah again at pick-up and again the next morning at drop-off and at every drop-off thereafter, but it was always Julie who came to stand near me and started each conversation. I was hesitant to impose, and Sarah, while friendly, seemed perfectly content to hang out only with Julie. Until one Friday morning when it started to rain while we chatted in the parking lot, and Julie said, “Shall we get coffee?”
I thought at first that she was only talking to Sarah, but then she looked at me and I realized she meant both of us. I’m embarrassed by how thrilled I was to be included—like I was back in high school and being accepted by the cool girls.
As we walked through the door of Crazy Mocha that first time, I was aware of people turning to look at the three of us laughing and chatting. It was exciting, all of that attention. I wasn’t used to it. I worked from home as an IT consultant, so I didn’t have to dress up, wearing jeans and casual shirts, comfortable albeit boring clothing that would hide the “curves” I needed to lose. Michael always wanted me to show off my body, which he loves in a frankly admiring way that makes me love him. Julie always claimed to admire my curves, too. Like Michael, she was good at focusing on the positive. Sarah would have called my self-assessment “self-pity.”
Sarah didn’t have patience for whining—she was very can-do. “If you don’t feel good about your body, change it,” she said once in an effort to convince Julie and me to join the Mommy Yoga class at the YMCA for which she’d impulsively registered. “Too much Halloween candy,” she’d said, patting her stomach, which I thought looked better than mine. “I told myself, stop complaining and do something about it—that’s my pre–New Year’s resolution!”
Julie was obsessive about fitness, a runner and healthy-diet devotee, so she certainly didn’t need to add any more exercise, but she enthusiastically signed up for yoga, because it would be “so fun” for the three of us to take a class together. Of course I signed up as well—peer pressure, sure, but it was also another excuse to hang out.
I regretted it almost immediately. Downward-Facing Dog, the Crane, the Big Toe—all of these wacky names for poses that reminded me of that old game, Twister. It turned out that I was terrible at yoga, because I was very inflexible. So inflexible that the instructor—a skinny twentysomething who looked glamorous in Lycra and called herself Shanti even though she was clearly not from the Indian subcontinent—kept commenting on it. “You’re very tight, Alison, very tense—we need to do more Shavasanas with you.”
Julie was tight like me, too, but this was temporary hamstring tightening from her running, and Sarah, mommy belly notwithstanding, turned out to be a rubber band. “Beautiful!” Shanti would exclaim, clapping her hennaed hands together. “Class, pay attention to Sarah’s form!”
“The only asana I can really relate to is the Cow,” I said after the third class, when we were walking out to the parking lot. “I certainly feel like a cow when I’m doing it.” I saw Sarah exchange a look with Julie; it was just a slight glance, but I knew they’d been talking with each other about me. I flushed, suddenly more self-conscious than I’d been in the class, and I remembered my grandmother’s advice: “Never have an odd number of children, because someone will always be left out.” My mother had obviously listened; it had been just Sean and me growing up, and I’d taken it to heart, too, giving Lucy a younger brother before I stopped. Watching Julie and Sarah’s secret communication in the parking lot that day, I realized that Nana’s advice could also apply to friends.
I think after that I was subconsciously on the lookout for a fourth to join our group. If you believe in the law of attraction you might say that I made Heather part of our circle every time I wished that I wasn’t the third wheel, though of course Julie was the one to actually find her.
The first Friday that Heather showed up at the coffee shop with Julie, I felt that little twinge again, insecurity rearing its Hydra head. Here was this tall, gazelle-like woman who was drop-dead gorgeous and clearly as comfortable in her own, flawless skin as I was uncomfortable in mine. But there was something vulnerable about her, too—I could see it in the way she looked at us with shy, yet eager, eyes. It turned out that her little boy was in preschool with Sarah’s middle child, Olivia, but none of us had ever seen her at the preschool drop-off.
“I like to sleep in,” Heather said. “So I let the nanny take Daniel.” The nanny. The first time she said that it was Sarah and me exchanging surreptitious glances, because we used babysitters, not nannies. There were plenty of families in Sewickley who had “help,” and we knew we were in a different income bracket than Julie, a million-dollar producer in real estate married to Brian, a VP of business development for a big medical-device firm. It turned out that Heather was a SAHM (stay-at-home mom), just like Sarah, but with a much bigger household income—she was married to a surgeon.
“Viktor Lysenko?” Julie asked that first morning. “As in Dr. Viktor Lysenko?” She sounded surprised and more bubbly than usual, although Julie’s excitement meter always ran at a higher level than the rest of ours.
“That’s him,” Heather said, her casualness in sharp contrast to Julie’s enthusiasm. Seeing my and Sarah’s blank faces, Julie said, “Viktor Lysenko is a preeminent plastic surgeon, he specializes in craniofacial and reconstructive surgery. There was an article about him in the Post-Gazette last month; didn’t you see it? He volunteers worldwide, too, performing operations free for people in poor countries.”
“Wow,” Sarah said, “he sounds like a saint.”
There was only the faintest hint of snideness, but I remember that Heather flushed at Sarah’s comment. “He’s just Viktor to me,” she said in a light tone, before deftly changing the subject.
Was he the one who’d left that large mark above her wrist? That had been my first thought when she’d jerked her sleeve down to hide it, my pulse uncomfortably quickening. I’d known her for almost two years and I’d never seen anything, never suspected, but after I tried to remember the shape of that large, purple splotch—hadn’t those been finger marks on her skin?
What if I hadn’t noticed that bruise? And what if another one of those familiar white envelopes hadn’t been waiting for me just the day before, giving me that same awful jolt I always felt when one showed up in my mailbox? I tried not to read them, but sometimes I’d tear one open, rapidly skimming the crabbed handwriting. They always ended the same way: “I never meant to hurt you. Please forgive me.”
If that hadn’t been fresh in my mind, would I have been so concerned when I saw that bruise on Heather? Would I have been so quick to call Julie after?
Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Drake.
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Rebecca Drake is the author of the novels Don’t Be Afraid, The Next Killing, The Dead Place, which was an IMBA bestseller, and Only Ever You, as well as the short story “Loaded,” which was featured in Pittsburgh Noir. A graduate of Penn State University and former journalist, she is currently an instructor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction M.F.A. program. Rebecca lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with her husband and two children.