The New Husband by D. J. Palmer: New Excerpt

From D. J. Palmer, the author of Saving Meghan, The New Husband is a riveting thriller about the lies we tell ourselves... Read on for a new excerpt!

Chapter 1

It was a chilly predawn morning when Anthony Strauss eased Sweet Caroline, his seventeen-foot Boston Whaler, from the trailer into water so dark it was indistinguishable from the sky. To the east, the rising sun raced along the riverbank, igniting the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee in a buttery glow. Anthony cast his lure about twenty feet out and was beginning to slowly reel in his line when he noticed a fellow boater some forty yards off his starboard.

In the early-morning darkness, the boat had been nothing but a black shape on dark water. The sunrise revealed a Starcraft Starfish, a great lake-fishing boat. The discovery was mildly disappointing. Anthony had thought he was alone out here and enjoyed feeling like he was the most dedicated fisherman. Still, it was polite to wave, and Anthony’s hand went up almost reflexively. Nobody waved back. On second inspection, Anthony discovered that the figure he believed to be the boat’s captain was, in fact, a dog.

Guiding his vessel closer to the Starcraft, Anthony watched while the dog—a golden retriever, he could now see—gazed forlornly toward land as though its owner might emerge at any moment from the dense forest abutting the rocky shoreline. The Starcraft, to Anthony’s recollection, did not have a below-deck cabin, so he was surprised when he couldn’t see anyone else in the boat with the dog.

The engine was off, but gusty winds pushed the unmanned vessel across the choppy gray water. The dog kept perfectly still while Anthony glided by, its black eyes locked on the same spot on the shoreline, golden fur rippling in the steady breeze. Where is the captain? What if he’s suffered a heart attack? What if he’s fallen overboard and drowned?

Anthony turned the wheel on his Whaler, steering the boat in a tight circle to make a second pass. As he neared, he called out: “Hello? Is anybody there?”

His barrel chest and solid build gave him a booming voice that should have attracted anyone’s attention, but still only the dog looked his way. Slowly, the animal’s gaze drifted back to the shoreline, as if it had assessed Anthony and determined he could be of no real help.

Steering the boat for a closer approach, Anthony hooked a set of bumpers onto his port side. As he neared, the dog moved, greeting Anthony with a wagging tail and lolling tongue. Gripping the gunwale with one hand, rope in the other, Anthony fastened the two boats together, using the bumpers to protect their respective hulls.

The dog barked three times in quick succession, as if trying to say something of great importance. Anthony appraised the animal thoughtfully before turning his attention to the Starcraft’s interior. The deck was covered in deep red. How odd, Anthony thought, until his mind clicked over. A gasp rose in his throat as a sickening realization set in.

Anthony had gutted plenty of fish in his day, but none had ever bled like that.

 

Chapter 2

Seventeen months later . . .

Nina told herself everything would work out fine. A cloudless August day gave the sun free rein to scorch the earth dry and bake her olive-toned skin a shade darker. She stood on the brown grass of her new lawn, facing the thirty-foot Ryder truck that held the majority of her life’s possessions, all carefully packed inside corrugated boxes which were stacked neatly between the small pieces of furniture moved without the help of professionals. The bigger items were coming later.

“Anybody see the box cutter?”

Using her hand as a visor against the sun, Nina glanced at her feet and around her general vicinity, but did not see a box cutter. She did, however, catch the harsh look her thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie, sent Simon, the new man in their lives, who was fumbling about the truck in search of the missing tool. That single glance reconfirmed Nina’s greatest fear, that this move wasn’t going to go as smoothly as she dared to dream. It was not a look of pure contempt, not the scathing, narrowed-eyed death stare any middle-school-aged girl could serve with the speed and accuracy of a pro tennis player, but still it smoldered with an unmistakable hostility.

Poor Maggie had so much on her plate, so many reasons to be angry, and for sure Nina was partly to blame, because she had opened her heart and soul to another man—a man who was not her daughter’s father.

“Found it!” Simon yelled, holding up the box cutter like he was wielding a broadsword. As it turned out, the missing tool had been hidden in the tall grass of the sloping front yard, which needed mowing as much as it did water. Somewhere, buried deep inside that truck, was the mower.

Nina was familiar with her new neighborhood because it was still in Seabury, New Hampshire, a few miles from where she had lived only this morning. Even so, she had no friends nearby, and maybe for that reason it felt foreign here, as though she’d moved clear across the country. She was used to living near her very dear friends Susanna Garston and Ginny Cowling, but pop-in visits would be less frequent now that they lived fifteen minutes across town. For whatever reason, it felt much farther than that. Of course she’d adjust, and eventually she’d be as comfortable here as she’d been in the place where she’d spent the last fifteen years raising her children. She understood it would take time and effort for things to feel normal for everyone, and that applied to her new relationship as much as to her new home.

But today it all felt eerily unsettling.

At the far edge of her lawn a splendid oak tree growing near her property line spread its thick branches from the neighbor’s yard into hers, providing pockets of shade where a bold chipmunk escaped the August heat and observed the move with curious dark eyes.

Turning her head to the sound of scuffing footsteps, Nina watched nervously as her son, Connor, backed down the truck ramp clutching an oversized box in his outstretched arms.

“Careful, buddy. That looks pretty heavy,” Simon said as Connor made a tricky pivot move at the bottom of the ramp that had heated to a steak-sizzling temperature under the unrelenting summer sun.

After deftly avoiding the family’s five-year-old golden retriever, Daisy, who had splayed herself out at the foot of the ramp, Connor sent Simon a confident look that carried no resentment, but then again, he didn’t share Maggie’s unrealistic fantasies about their dad. He knew as well as Nina that Glen was gone, and gone for good.

Connor trotted the box up the wide front stairs with ease. Nina still could not get comfortable with how much he’d grown in the past few years. He towered over her and his younger sister. Not only was he tall for his age—sixteen going on twenty-six, judging by his attitude these days—but he was also well muscled, thanks to his dedication to the football team. He was as handsome as a Disney prince, too, with a wavy head of jet-black hair and an irresistible dimpled smile. He’d gotten Nina’s darker Italian coloring, and Glen, who was Irish through and through, had made plenty of milkman jokes over the years.

Inside, Nina caught Maggie, blue eyes brimming, surveying the empty rooms from the unfurnished foyer. The modest home was a good deal smaller than the one her daughter had lived in all her life, but square footage was not the reason for Maggie’s distress. It was all about whom she’d be living with, not where.

It was all about Simon.

If somebody had told Nina a few years ago that she would end up living with the social studies teacher from her daughter’s middle school, in a new house they had bought together, she would have broken into a fit of laughter.

In another eight months or so, the court most likely would grant Nina her divorce from Glen, after which Nina might feel ready to say yes to Simon’s marriage proposal so he could officially become her new husband. New Hampshire law was quite specific: spousal abandonment had to last two years or longer and required a demonstrated, willful desire to desert and terminate the marital relationship. Clearly, Glen’s actions met those criteria. Or maybe he really was dead. Without a body, Nina had no way of knowing, while Maggie continued to hold out hope that her dad would soon return to them.

Nina directed Connor, still lugging the box, down the hallway to the kitchen. At some point, she’d hang her framed family photographs on the bare white walls, just as she had decorated her last home—only this time Glen would not grace any of the images.

With the windows closed, the empty house had turned into a sauna. Sweat beaded up on Nina’s arms, and the cotton of her loose-fitting gray T-shirt stuck to the small of her back. But a tickle of excitement at the prospect of nesting helped her ignore the discomfort. Without the previous owners’ furniture, the rooms appeared smaller than Nina remembered, though it was easy to visualize where she would put her things. The living room curtains would have to be shortened, but first she’d have to find her sewing machine, hidden inside one of those moving boxes.

Returning to the front hall, Nina found Maggie, looking serious, standing in the middle of what would eventually be a small first-floor office. Perhaps she, too, was imagining what the room would look like with furniture in it, though she would have to picture it with Simon’s furnishings in the mix—if she could remember what he owned. Maggie had only been to Simon’s house a few times, even though he lived just on the other side of town.

Before cohabitating, Nina had enjoyed plenty of afternoon delights at Simon’s modest lake home, but she’d never spent the night. There was simply too much heartache, too much sadness, for her to leave the kids alone while pursuing personal pleasures. Still, she was no stranger to Simon’s place, having gone there enough to commit his alarm code to memory.

When the movers came, Maggie would see that Simon had perfectly fine furniture, nothing too fancy, that would mix well with what they already owned. Then again, as Nina was learning, it was much easier to blend furnishings than the people using them.

“I hate it here,” Maggie said, eyes watering, before Nina could utter a single word of comfort. She looked so much like Glen it was sometimes hard for Nina to hold her daughter’s gaze. Maggie had fair skin like her father and the same straw-colored hair, hers descending to the middle of her back. She shared Glen’s snub nose and big round eyes, and her sweet smile could melt the coldest of hearts. She was a slender girl with narrow shoulders and delicate arms. Her long legs were strong from skiing and lacrosse, but like a foal’s, they did not yet fit her body.

Deep breaths, Nina, deep breaths.

“It’s going to be all right, just give it some time.”

“I wish we’d moved in with Nonni and Papa like we’d planned. I’d rather live in Nebraska.”

Before Nina could respond, Simon sauntered into the room carrying a box labeled OFFICE, a smile on his face and sweat dripping into his eyes. Daisy followed him, panting from heat and thirst.

“We’re making great progress—though gotta hand it to Connor,” Simon said, breathing hard, “he’s crazy strong. Football team’s lucky to have him.”

Nina forced out a smile while Maggie tried to discreetly wipe her eyes.

Practiced at checking in with his students, Simon took notice of Maggie’s distress as he set down his box. He dropped to one knee, giving the youngest Garrity a temporary height advantage, and tried to make eye contact, though Maggie would not meet his gaze. Nina looked at him lovingly, appreciating his gentleness and compassion.

“I know you don’t believe me,” Simon said sweetly, “but it’s going to work out fine. At school I might be Mr. Fitch, but here I’m just Simon. And I know we can all live together and be friends.”

Channeling her social worker skills, Nina shared a few words of comfort and encouragement as well, though her daughter did not seem convinced. Worry turned her sweet face hard, older.

“I’m going to help Connor,” Maggie said, sending a look back at Daisy to encourage her beloved dog to follow.

Simon stood and sighed as he pulled Nina into an embrace. Putting her ear to his chest, not minding the dampness of his shirt, she listened to the steady patter of his heart.

“It’s too much,” she said in a whispered voice, like an admission to herself. “It’s too much, too fast.”

Simon kissed the top of her head. “We knew what we were getting into, but what choice was there?” he said. “It was either this or you’d have had to move away, and neither of us wanted that.”

It was true. Nina did not have the money to keep their family home and could not afford a new home without Simon. Before he had entered the picture her best, really her only option, was Maggie’s current wish—to move to Nebraska. While Nina was close to her parents, her life was in Seabury, and there she wished to stay.

“People are talking about us, you know that?” Nina said. “We’re the talk of the town.”

Simon didn’t look surprised, and for good reason. Both she and Simon had been touched by tragedy, and together they had raised eyebrows for the choices they had made in the aftermath. Nina had done what many had advised and moved on with her life, but apparently it was too quick for some.

“I don’t care what people think,” answered Simon. “I love you and that’s all that matters. I know it’s tough on Maggie right now, but she’s going to get over it. I promise you, I promise, it’s going to work out. You’ll see.”

“I hope you’re right,” Nina said with audible desperation.

And I hope you know what you’re doing, she told herself.

In Simon, she had found a loving and genuinely caring companion who adored her and had guided her through the darkest days of her life. Still, she worried. How difficult would Maggie make this move for her, and even more so, for Simon?

 

Chapter 3

A week after move-in day, the house was still in complete disarray.

Moving boxes were strewn about in every room, and packing peanuts littered the floor like engorged confetti. Balls of crinkled packing paper roosted in corners of cluttered rooms with the grace of avant-garde sculptures. The television was still in the box, much to Connor and Maggie’s chagrin, while the basement—which Nina hoped to convert into a kids’ cave of sorts—needed a dehumidifier running twenty-four-seven before she could even consider laying down the carpet the movers had left rolled up down there. Simon, who was more obsessed than anyone in the Garrity clan with neatness and order, had assured Nina he was fine with the mess. But she knew that if she was feeling frazzled, he must have been in a total tizzy.

As the school’s robotics instructor, Simon was good with technology, and had already gotten the wireless Internet up and running. The Bluetooth Sonos speakers he had configured continuously pumped out high-energy classic rock music, but the boxes full of stuff were Nina’s main job, and she desperately wanted to feel settled. Most nights she worked until the early-morning hours with Simon at her side, unpacking essentials, cleaning and scrubbing bathrooms, replacing the batteries in all the smoke detectors.

Despite these efforts, the place still felt like someone else’s home, with Nina as a temporary guest. Maybe when she added plants, or had pictures hanging in the hallway, maybe when all her things were in place, it would feel like home. Or maybe she should buy new furniture, new everything, because the old stuff might serve only as a reminder of all she had lost.

With so much to do, Nina focused on tackling the laundry, because at least it was a task she could manage to completion. She was folding a basket of clothes while her endless to-do list tumbled disjointedly through her mind, just like the dryer itself.

Dog food . . . shopping . . . Maggie’s dentist appointment . . . mend the hole in Connor’s jersey . . . forms for fall lacrosse . . . order team sweatshirts . . . pick up prescriptions at CVS . . . enroll Maggie in CCD classes at St. Francis . . . the kids’ physicals . . . nut-free ingredients for the football team bake sale (Maggie was deathly allergic) . . . and on . . . and on.

Moving didn’t erase Nina’s responsibilities, but rather added to them.

From down the hall, Nina heard an echoing “Hello?” and rose on achy knees to greet Ginny and Susanna, who had let themselves in. They were carrying two bottles of red wine, a foil-covered baking dish, and a cake box with WHOLE FOODS printed on the side.

“Happy birthday!” they shouted in unison, beaming at Nina as she approached.

“It’s not my birthday,” Nina said with a crooked smile.

“Well, the cake was on sale, so it’s somebody’s birthday—and it might as well be yours,” said Ginny as she sauntered inside, delicately balancing the bottles as she stooped to give Daisy a scratch hello. Ginny dressed like a J. Crew model, but despite the coastal palette of her cardigans and pleated pants, she still looked like a tired mom of three who lived in woodsy New Hampshire. She had a tousled nest of blond hair cut well above her shoulders, and a round, friendly face that was always quick with a smile.

“Where are the kids?” Susanna asked.

“Out,” said Nina. “With friends. They can’t take the chaos. Neither can I.”

“And Simon?” Nina caught the slight hesitation in Ginny’s voice, though she wasn’t surprised. Not long ago both her friends had been trying to talk Nina out of making this move. They didn’t have anything against Simon per se, but each had reservations about the speed at which the relationship had evolved. They weren’t the only ones.

Nina’s parents hadn’t embraced her choice to move in with Simon either. Her mother liked Simon well enough, but thought Nina was setting a bad example for the children to be living with him before they were married. It was an argument that didn’t quite adhere to her mother’s views on personal choice, but Nina saw it for what it was—a poorly disguised way of masking her hope that her only daughter would move back home to live with them. Her father, who had loved Glen like the son he never had, worried Simon was taking advantage of a vulnerable woman in a very tricky situation, concerns that Nina herself understood.

Before her life had taken a U-turn, Nina had scoffed at those dolled-up reality show contestants who professed their undying love for each other after a few staged dates. Now she knew there were more than a few kernels of truth to their mawkish sentiments—and that a TV show wasn’t the only way to accelerate romance. Trauma, true bone-jarring trauma, did the job just as well, if not better.

“Love what you’ve done with the place . . .” Ginny said, spinning around in a circle as she surveyed the disordered kitchen. Susanna sent Nina a sympathetic look. This was the third time they’d showed up to help unpack since move-in day, and the place still looked like it had been ransacked by raccoons. Nina had wondered if her lack of progress was a subconscious reaction from a part of her that wasn’t wholly embracing the move. It wasn’t only her daughter she worried about. As much as she loved Simon, Nina harbored a mostly unspoken fear of opening herself up to being hurt again.

After uncorking the wine, Nina cut three big pieces of vanilla buttercream cake. The lasagna, still hidden inside the baking dish, could wait. Susanna went to the fridge after announcing her intention to whip up a quick salad, took one look inside, and had to think again.

“Someone’s vying for the Mother Hubbard of the Year Award,” she said.

Nina laughed. She might have lost her mind in the mess, but not her sense of humor.

“The children aren’t starving, I swear. I just haven’t made it to the supermarket.”

“Like, since you moved in?” said Ginny, after checking the pantry.

“It’s been hard,” Nina said, slumping down on a metal stool at the kitchen island.

“A toast then,” Susanna proposed, raising her glass. “To a happy, healthy home.”

“Cheers to that,” Nina said as all three clinked glasses.

Susanna took a sip of wine and then went to work emptying the box closest to her, aptly labeled KITCHEN. Nina felt supremely grateful to have such good friends in her life, and couldn’t imagine where she’d be without them. Back when everything had first exploded, when her ordered world had become unmanageably disordered, Susanna had functioned as the family spokesperson. She was the perfect choice, already experienced with handling the media from her years as a reporter. An attractive woman with long chestnut hair and kind brown eyes, Susanna was a natural on TV. But now the cameras were long gone, and Nina’s great ordeal was nothing but a tabloid footnote.

When Ginny went to help Susanna unpack the box, the first thing she pulled out was an old issue of Real Simple magazine. “Thank goodness you brought this,” she said with a laugh.

But Nina wasn’t laughing. She hadn’t even realized she’d put that magazine in the box, but of course she had. She couldn’t have thrown it away. It was a reminder, a memento from the day that everything changed.

Nina had been in her living room—her old living room—ready to decompress during a rare moment of downtime. A cup of chamomile tea waited on the coffee table, and that Real Simple magazine sat on her lap. She was interested in the cover story about—of all things—making life simpler. The issue also featured an article on four summer recipes to make outdoor entertaining easier than ever, which she found annoying because it was only the first week of spring.

She got cozy beneath a soft fleece blanket, sinking deeply into the faded beige cushions of her couch. She flipped to the desired article and read a page until her eyes glazed over. She remembered thinking she should have been working on the PTA newsletter, or even getting an early jump on the live auction, but no—she had been cocooned, supposedly guilt-free, beneath a fuzzy blanket, preparing to relax.

Even when she worked at it, Nina could not quite get a handle on how to unwind. It simply wasn’t in her DNA to turn off and do nothing. There was a time, years ago, when her entire life had been her career as a social worker. Then came Glen, who was work-obsessed even during their honeymoon phase, and admittedly Nina was too, at least until the kids were born. Then they became her whole world, until they didn’t need her like they once had. To fill the void, Nina found herself unable to say no to whatever favor, obligation, committee, or volunteer effort came her way. In this respect, she didn’t stop working—she just stopped getting a paycheck.

Surrendering her downtime, Nina tossed the blanket aside. Today there would be no relaxing: she really had to work on that newsletter. Moments later, the issue of Real Simple lay atop a pile of other magazines on the floor by her cluttered desk.

It wasn’t until Nina had returned to the living room to get her cup of tea that she saw a police car parked in her driveway. The car’s roof-mounted light bar was off, and that gave her a moment’s comfort: not an emergency. Still, her first thought had been of the children, always the children.

Maggie was with her best friend, Laura Abel, and Connor was at a weekend football practice, punishment for the team’s lackluster performance during the previous night’s game. She wondered if he had been hurt—but surely one of the team moms would have called if something awful had happened.

Nina watched through the window as two police officers, female and male, exited the car. They were dressed identically in khaki pants and blue polo shirts with official-looking embroidery stitched over the right breast pocket, guns strapped to their waists, their expressions grave.

Under normal circumstances, Nina would have felt a stab of embarrassment at the weeds growing between the paving stones of her old house. The yard didn’t look all that great, either. Glen’s busy work schedule left little time for the honey-do list. Nina could have used vinegar to get rid of those pesky weeds herself, but somehow—hello volunteering, organizing, chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning—she never seemed to have the time. Those quick thoughts fled as she opened the door to watch the two police officers make their way up the brick front steps.

“Can I help you?” Nina asked, a slight quaver in her voice.

“Are you Nina Garrity?” asked the man. He removed his sunglasses the way cops sometimes did on TV shows, slowly and full of intent, revealing eyes that were a striking, steely light gray.

He tilted his head slightly, his edginess giving way to something more congenial. Or was it sympathy? Nina couldn’t tell.

“Yes. Can I help you? Is everything all right?” Her voice was tinged with dread.

“Is your husband at home?” the female cop asked.

“I’m sorry,” Nina said. “Who are you? What’s this about?”

“I’m Detective Yvonne Murphy, and this is my partner, Detective Eric Wheeler,” the woman said. “We’re with the Seabury Police.”

They showed her their badges.

“Are you home alone?” said Murphy.

“Yes,” Nina said. “I’m alone. Is this about Glen?”

“Glen is your husband?” Wheeler asked.

“Yes,” Nina said.

“Do you know where he is?”

Nina answered Wheeler with a single word: “Fishing.”

“What time did he leave?” asked Murphy.

“Before sunrise. Maybe four A.M. Maybe earlier—I don’t really know, I was asleep. Is everything okay?”

“Was he going with anyone else?” asked Wheeler.

Nina shook her head slightly, trying to clear her mind so she could answer correctly. Her heartbeat quickened.

“Saturday is his fishing day. With the kids so busy on the weekends he almost always goes alone,” she said.

“And do you know where he usually goes?”

Nina’s pulse ticked up another notch, her throat tightening.

“The launch near Governors Island. Tell me, what’s going on?” Her voice rose sharply.

The two detectives exchanged glances before Murphy headed back to the police car, leaving Wheeler alone on the front steps to answer Nina’s question.

“Somebody found a boat, a Starcraft, floating near that boat launch this morning,” Wheeler said.

“There was a dog aboard,” Wheeler continued, “but no operator.”

“Where’s Glen?”

“Marine Patrol and Fish and Game are searching the water right now.”

Nina’s hand went to her mouth, but not in time to stifle a gasp that became a sob. “He fell overboard?”

“We don’t know,” answered Wheeler. “We also found a Ford F-150 parked at the boat launch. We’ve towed the truck and boat to our impound lot. Registrations show this address. Checked the dog’s microchip, and believe she belongs to you.”

At that moment, Murphy opened the rear door of the patrol car and out came Daisy. She bounded up the walkway at full speed, squeezing past the detectives to get inside, eager to be home.

“I guess she’s your dog,” Wheeler said, almost with a smile.

“Yes, this is Daisy,” answered Nina as she patted her dog reassuringly. Overjoyed, Daisy reared up on her hind legs and placed her front paws on Nina’s stomach. It was a habit of hers long ago broken, but instead of saying “Down,” Nina noticed dried blood matting the fur around Daisy’s paws.

“What’s going on here?” Nina said, pointing to Daisy’s paws.

“There was some blood found.”

“Blood? Where?”

“In the boat,” said Wheeler. “Look, why don’t you take a minute to get yourself together. Make arrangements for your children if you need.”

“Why?”

“Because you should come with us to the police station,” Wheeler said. “Better if we talk there.”

As the memory of that terrible day faded, Nina’s eyes filled with tears. A cry broke from her lips, sending her shoulders quaking. Susanna and Ginny were at her side in a flash.

“Oh sweetie, I know it’s not the best magazine, but it’s not that bad.”

Nina managed a weak laugh before she relayed what that magazine actually signified—that day, when she first got the news.

“Have you talked to somebody?” Susanna asked with concern.

“I talk to you girls,” Nina said defensively.

“No, I mean somebody professional,” Susanna said.

“A therapist,” Ginny added, not that the clarification was needed.

Maggie and Connor were both seeing a therapist, but for some reason, Nina hadn’t found one for herself. Everything was still so raw that talking about it felt like poking an open wound. And then, when Simon came along, her life seemed to stabilize. The welcome distraction from her troubles had made it possible to suppress her feelings, but maybe no more. Maybe her friends were right. The move was a trigger, and perhaps the time had come to get real help. She should have done it ages ago. She was a social worker and honestly knew better. But then again, the cobbler’s kid not having proper shoes was a trope for good reason.

“Anybody have a recommendation?” asked Nina.

“Mine’s great,” Susanna and Ginny said simultaneously.

The three laughed and hugged, and Nina’s fresh tears felt like a cry of relief.

 

Chapter 4

Dr. Sydney Wilcox worked on the second floor of a redbrick office building, in a neighborhood dotted with small businesses. The office itself was cozy and intimate with muted walls and a beige rug that seemed meant to encourage the patients to contribute their own color and energy to the environment. The soothing gurgle of a miniature fountain blended with the nearly inaudible hum of a white noise machine put there to ensure privacy. It was all carefully orchestrated to convey one critical message: this was a safe place to share.

Nina sat in an oversized armchair facing a stout woman in her early sixties who had a pageboy haircut that was more salt than pepper. Plastic-frame glasses gave Dr. Wilcox a professorial air, but there was nothing intimidating about her. She had her notebook open, her expression relaxed and nonjudgmental.

“How do we start?” Nina asked.

Nina kept her hands clasped on her lap, allowing her interlaced fingers to nervously caress her knuckles. Why so anxious? she asked herself. She’d been in the business of untangling human messes, and it wasn’t like this was her first time in therapy. There had been some bumpy days early in her marriage, typical intimacy problems and communication snares that snagged lots of young couples shocked by the cold-water plunge of child rearing.

“Where do you want to start?” Dr. Wilcox asked.

Nina should have expected her response—therapy was the fine art of asking questions. 

“Where do you want to start?” might as well have been “What brings you here today?”

Nina spoke of Glen, Maggie, and Connor, providing Dr. Wilcox with the necessary background information. She recalled the day the police came to inform her that Glen was a missing person, then told her that he was still missing, and that she’d sold her home in Seabury, bought a new one in the same town, and moved in with a new man, all in the span of little more than a year and a half.

Nina waited for a flicker of recognition to come to Dr. Wilcox’s eyes—Oh, you’re that woman!—but saw nothing of the sort. Maybe she didn’t watch the news, or maybe, like anyone outside her immediate friends and family, Dr. Wilcox had forgotten all about the Glen Garrity story. After all, tragedy was personal, and like a wound, it mattered most to those people left with the scars.

“How has the move gone?” asked Dr. Wilcox.

“Good, good,” Nina said, worried she sounded like she was trying to reassure herself. “I mean, Maggie is taking it the hardest.”

Nina explained how Maggie had grown hostile when Simon became more than a friend.

“What about Connor? Does he get along with Simon?”

“Well, yes. Maybe because he’s older. But Connor had some difficulties with his father.”

“Difficulties?”

“Glen was something of a workaholic. My nickname for him was Glengarrity Glen Ross.”

“From the play,” Dr. Wilcox correctly noted.

“And movie about those crazed salespeople trying to save their jobs.”

“He was a salesman?”

“No, he worked at bank. Not in a branch, in the main office. He was a senior financial advisor. Always busy with something. The first night after his dad went missing, Connor confided how he was sad they didn’t spend much time together.”

Dr. Wilcox took notes with her pencil.

“I tried to convince him that his father loved him very much and that they did do things together. Glen always went to Connor’s games, and they watched sports together on TV. But that wasn’t the same—it wasn’t what Connor wanted or needed, and Maggie had her own frustrations with her dad, mostly to do with his availability or lack thereof.

“When I tried to talk to Glen about his work habits, his obsession with his phone or e-mail, he’d remind me how all the financial pressure was on him, and guiltily I’d let the behavior slide. I don’t think I realized the effect it had on Connor, but that night he told me he didn’t feel like he really knew his dad, which turned out to be true for all of us.”

Dr. Wilcox’s eyebrows rose slightly. “How so?”

“Maybe next session,” Nina said. She knew it would be too much information, and therapy 

was a process, after all.

“Fair enough.”

“Anyway, Connor wanted more from his father—more of a connection.”

“And you didn’t?”

Nina gazed up at the ceiling, trying to piece together her feelings.

“It wasn’t a perfect marriage by any stretch,” she explained, “but I guess it was enough for me. I had the kids, my friends, my life; in some ways it was easier not having Glen involved in everything. I could make decisions and not be second-guessed all the time. I got what I needed, Glen got what he wanted, but poor Connor felt like his father was disinterested in him, and that was hard to hear.”

“Connor never talked about it with you before?”

“No, he could be stoic and stubborn, like his dad, so I only learned all this after Glen was gone.”

Dr. Wilcox nodded in understanding. “Does Connor feel comfortable with Simon? Do they do things together?”

“Yes,” Nina said as a pang of bitterness toward Glen and his failings came over her. “It’s been sweet actually. Simon is good with tools, more so than Glen, so he shows Connor how to do minor home repairs, that sort of thing. He’s also studied YouTube videos to learn how to throw a football, and now he helps Connor practice all the time. And, miracle of miracles, he’s gotten Connor interested in history. Simon’s a social studies teacher as well as the middle school’s robotics coach. He and Connor are building something robotic in the basement together. I’m just hoping it doesn’t have arms.”

“I see,” Dr. Wilcox said. “And how does Maggie feel about their closeness?”

“I don’t really know. She doesn’t talk about it with me. She’s angry, and I understand why. 

She thinks her father is coming back.”

“But you don’t.”

“No, I don’t,” Nina said. “I think he’s dead. I think he’s down in that lake somewhere.”

“Did the police explain why they couldn’t find his body?”

“They did,” said Nina. “Sometimes, depending on how a body settles—on its side, in a particular kind of growth, covered in some debris, or even trapped under a ledge—the sonar doesn’t work. I’m a bit of an expert on drowning now, as you can imagine.”

Dr. Wilcox’s mouth stretched into a slight grimace, indicating she could imagine quite well.

“Normally a body will sink to the bottom,” Nina continued. “But eventually it will surface as gas from decay forms in the tissues. Then wind drag, water density, even the topography can create movement underwater, so there was never any guarantee that Glen’s body would be found near his boat.”

“That must be hard for you—the uncertainty, I mean.”

“It’s hard for us all.”

“What does Simon say about it?”

“Simon’s fond of saying that if you’re depressed, you’re living in the past; if you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. He’s all about being in the moment.”

“Nice sentiment, if you can abide by it, but not easy to do. Speaking of pasts, how did you and Simon meet?”

Nina recalled that time last May when her life had pivoted away from Glen and toward Simon.

She and the children were still in the family home, the home they had shared with Glen. As she walked through her front door that day Nina felt a cold emptiness sweep through her body. Daisy always came running with a toy from her toy box clenched in her jaw. Now she was nowhere to be seen.

Nina rushed to the kitchen, the living room, all through the house, calling Daisy’s name. Her stomach roiled with anxiety. The front door sometimes appeared to be closed, but needed an extra tug or two to pull it completely shut. With so much on her mind, it was entirely possibly she’d forgotten to double-check. Daisy may have nosed open the door and then pawed at the screen, causing the latch to release. She wasn’t boundary trained, and there was no electric fence to keep her contained, meaning she could be anywhere.

Nina got in her car and drove around the block, shouting for Daisy through the open window. Nauseous, her stomach in knots, she phoned Granite State Dog Recovery as well as the Seabury Police. Notices were put out on Seabury’s Facebook page alerting the broader community to be on the lookout for a lost dog. Ginny and Susanna joined the search, while tips came in about animals spotted on streets as far as ten miles away, but none were Daisy.

As dusk was settling, Nina grew increasingly despondent. Memories pierced her heart. She thought of running her fingers through Daisy’s thick coat, or how she rested her head on Nina’s lap when they watched TV. As she consoled her shattered children, Nina bristled at how unfair life could be—how cold, cruel, and brutally unfair.

Then she saw a truck coming down her driveway and for a second did a double take, because it was the same make and model as the one Glen drove. A moment later, she noticed Daisy’s glorious head sticking out the passenger’s side window, tongue flapping in the breeze. The car came to a stop and out stepped Simon Fitch.

It was not the first time Nina had met Simon. That encounter had taken place five school grades ago, when Simon was one of three teacher representatives assigned to help Nina get a local D.A.R.E. program off the ground. They’d had a few pleasant conversations during that time, worked well together as she remembered, but she hadn’t seen him in years. Connor didn’t have Mr. Fitch for social studies when he attended Seabury Middle School, and Maggie, being in seventh grade, wouldn’t have him for a teacher until next year.

Nina didn’t even remember what he looked like until he exited the car, letting Daisy out his door and into the arms of her deeply relieved family. Simon had brown hair cut short, kind eyes, and a little dimpled chin that made his boyish face ruggedly handsome.

“Found her wandering along the side of the road on Whipple Street,” Simon said. “My guess is she’d been in the woods.”

There were licks galore, kisses, and laughs, and Nina felt a nest of burrs and twigs tangled in Daisy’s thick fur.

“Lucky she came out when she did or I might have missed her as I was driving by. Glad you had her tagged.”

“And that was how our relationship started,” Nina said after she finished recounting for Dr. Wilcox the day that Daisy had inadvertently brought them together.

“What was your first date like?”

Nina smiled at the memory. “Well, it wasn’t a date, but our first chance to spend time together was at my place. Simon remembered me, not only from the school program we worked on together, but because of Glen, because we’d been in the news. Anyway, I offered to have him join us for dinner, trying to think of something I could do as a thank-you for finding Daisy. I knew he wouldn’t accept money. He declined my invitation, but sweetly said given what I’d been through I could probably use someone to cook for me. He told me he’d bring something by the next day because he was making his best dish for some school potluck thing and he’d make extra for us.

“I didn’t really think I’d see him, but the next night he showed up with a baking dish of eggplant rollatine, which just so happens to be my favorite meal. It’s my comfort food. My nonni—that’s my grandma—used to make it for me whenever I came to visit, and now I make it for my kids. They love it as much as I do. He showed up at dinnertime so I asked if he wanted to eat with us, and invited him in. That time he said yes.”

“Did you think Simon was interested in you romantically?” Dr. Wilcox asked.

“Maybe. I wasn’t really paying attention. I remember it felt strangely intimate to have him there, a bit unsettling, but I didn’t think of it as a date. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever date again after what Glen did to me—to us.”

Dr. Wilcox glanced at her watch as though she were instinctively aware how much time had passed.

“I’m afraid that part of the story will have to wait until next time,” she said. “Our hour’s up.”

 

Chapter 5

I hate him. I absolutely, positively hate him.

Maybe, if after a year or something, Mom had wanted to go out on a date, sure, fine, go do it. But this was a real relationship. So yeah, my dislike of Simon was pretty much instant, and also justified. I told this to Mom a bunch of times of course, but she’d say everything was going to work out fine, and that eventually we’d become one big happy family doing all these Instagram-worthy things, like hiking and biking and whatever.

Screw that. I don’t drink or vape, I get good grades—I do everything I am supposed to do, but still my life stinks and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.

And it’s all his fault—Mr. Fitch, aka Simon, aka Mr. I-Just-Want-To-Be-Your-Friend. God! He makes me want to puke. In five years, I’ll be gone. Outta here. Off to college and that will be that. I won’t ever, ever, come back, and my mom can cry all she wants, say how much she misses me all she wants, but I won’t care. And that will be my revenge. And when she gets old and needs someone to look after her, I’ll say, “Did you look after me? Nope! You moved me in with him, and for that you’ll have to die alone and lonely. Sorry, I’m not sorry!”

Okay, that’s not true. That’s my secret revenge wish, but I’d never, ever, ever do that to my mom. I love my mom. Love her with a cap “L” and all that mushy stuff. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be pissed at her for what she’s done. I still have feelings, you know. I still hurt.

One week into eighth grade and things are just as bad at school as they were at the end of seventh grade. I still eat lunch alone, thanks to Laura Abel’s campaign against me (not worth getting into now), and then last week I twisted my ankle playing lacrosse (thought for sure it was broken). So I’ve got a stupid boot around my foot and too much time on my hands, and worse, I’m home when he’s home. Students in my school are divided into different teams, each with different teachers, so thank God almighty I don’t have Mr. Fitch for social studies. But now that I’m not playing lacrosse, we essentially have the same schedule, at least on days he doesn’t coach robotics, and I can’t stand to be alone with him.

Since Mom’s unpacked the house (well, mostly unpacked it), she’s been talking seriously about getting a job. Worst-case scenario alert! That would mean I could conceivably have hours alone with Simon after school. Can you say: “Nightmare!”

At least the new house is comfortable enough, but it’s not like I have any friends in the neighborhood. I don’t really have any friends at all anymore (again, not worth getting into). My room—aka my sanctuary—is like my room in the old house, but it doesn’t feel the same. Simon’s energy makes it different. Somehow it gets everywhere, floating like an airborne virus.

Anyway, I knew my mom was worried about money. The move was super expensive, and we’ve had nonstop contractors since we got here—electricians, plumbers, painters, landscapers. Awesome, right? But Simon didn’t think my mom needed to work at all. No, no, no. Mr. Fitch was set and ready to take care of us on his big teacher’s salary. I don’t know how much he actually makes, but it can’t be enough to support a family of four.

Even though they are not officially engaged yet, it is going to happen, so Simon is essentially my stepfather, which is nothing but a stupid label. I looked it up online, and, married or unmarried, he has no legal right to make decisions on my behalf unless he adopts me. News flash—that is not going to happen, not ever ever ever. If Mom gets hurt, or God forbid worse, it would be up to Nonni and Papa to look after me, not him.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when bad went to worse. Daisy and I were on the couch watching TV. Some dumb Netflix thing, doesn’t matter, and I was doing what I do best these days—feeling sorry for myself and being mad at the world. Lame, I know. I wasn’t an orphan in a war-torn country. I had a roof over my head. I had my dog (I love my dog so, so much—and she makes a great couch cushion). I had everything except friends, my dad, and a Simon-free home.

Simon was in the kitchen. I could hear him messing about, putting together some kind of dinner for the evening. He’s a good cook (a really good cook actually, I’ll give him that), but I’d eat rice and beans for every meal from now until forever if I could have my dad back. It wasn’t like my dad and I were the closest. I hate to admit it, but it was true. Even at home he was always busy with work, or on his phone doing something. He never seemed to have time for me unless we were on vacation or something. I know Connor kind of felt the same way about him, but he was still my dad. He loved me, and I loved him.

Sometimes I’d forget he was even gone. I kept thinking he was going to come walking through the front door, his suit a bit wrinkled from his commute home, a big smile on his face. But that door never opened.

Instead, Mr. Fitch came into the living room with this pleased-with-himself look on his face. He was trying so hard to be “Simon” here, not his school persona, that it was kind of sickening.

“Maggie, it’s almost six,” he said. “Your mom asked me to make sure you shut the TV off and get your homework done.”

Your mom, he said, like he was my babysitter or something, like he doesn’t share a bathroom with her. (Gross! Gross! Gross!) I responded by stretching out my legs on the sofa (my sofa, from my home), and did what I did best: ignored him. Daisy squirmed out from underneath me to roost on the bogus leather love seat that had come from Simon’s place. So far, I had successfully avoided sitting (or leaning, or touching really) any piece of furniture that Simon had brought here. I even went around the area rugs that came from his house, just so I wouldn’t set foot on even a thread he might have touched. Nobody but me knew about this silent protest of mine, not even Connor, who seemed to really like Simon. He was always tossing the football in the backyard with him or building some dumb robot, as if he forgot that he ever had a real dad.

“Hey, Maggie, I’m talking to you, could you listen, please?”

There it was, the teacher tone, his weapon of choice.

“What?” I answered snippily, as if I hadn’t heard him the first time.

He sighed because teachers hate to repeat themselves. “Your mom asked me to make sure the TV was turned off at six so you could get your homework done.”

“I don’t have any homework,” I said, finding that the lie came easily.

“Well, she still wants it off, please. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Your mom is picking up Connor from practice on her way back from the gym.”

As if I care . . .

Instead of off, I turned the volume up a bit louder.

“Hey,” Simon said, sounding genuinely miffed. “Off.”

Simon stood in front of the TV, his apron making him look like a contestant on one of those baking shows I liked to watch with my father—one of the few things we did together.

“Now, please, Maggie.”

Up went the television volume. He was not telling me what to do. He had no legal right over me. This wasn’t school. We were on my turf here, not his.

“Come on, Maggie. Please don’t make this difficult for me.”

Volume went up louder, as I stretched my legs out longer, and it felt good, oh so incredibly good, to defy him. 

“You’re being really unfair,” he groaned.

“I don’t have any homework,” I said, knowing that the homework wasn’t really the issue, and I did have a crap-ton of it to do.

Simon’s face got red. He was powerless, and I was enjoying every second of it. He was nothing—a nonentity, a ghost person. He could talk and I didn’t have to listen, because he didn’t make the rules here.

“Look, Maggie, I’m not trying to replace your dad, but I am trying to do what your mom asked. Please now. Cooperate.”

I pointed the remote at the TV like a gun and turned the volume up louder.

And that’s when I saw it. It was brief, just the flicker of a super-disturbing, dark look on Simon’s face that came and went. I’d gotten in trouble plenty of times for being mouthy, or disobedient, or whatever, but I’d never, ever, seen a look like that before. It was full of hate, but somehow also empty, as cold as an ice storm—the only word I could think of was “soulless.” I could imagine him smashing my skull in with a hammer with that same look on his face.

For sure, if he’d looked at his students like that, they would have snapped to attention and thought twice about making him angry again. There would probably have been calls to the school from worried parents. It was that kind of look.

Then the strange darkness gave way to a more familiar anger. Simon took two giant steps forward and snatched the clicker from my hand, quick as a frog’s tongue grabbing a fly. I let out a cry of surprise, causing Daisy to bark with alarm.

“Give it back!” I shouted, springing from the couch like I hadn’t quit gymnastics years ago.

Simon jerked the remote up and out of my reach, and with a push of a button, off went the TV.

“Go away! Leave me alone!” I screamed at him, feeling my face grow hot. I went storming up the stairs, stomping on each step as I went, and Daisy, dear, faithful Daisy, followed me into my bedroom, where I slammed the door and waited for my mom to come home.

 

Copyright © 2020 D. J. Palmer.

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