When I Was You by Amber Garza: New Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 14, 2020
It was a Monday morning in early October when I first heard about you. I was getting out of the shower when my phone rang. After throwing on a robe and cinching it, I ran into my bedroom, snatching my cell off the nightstand.
Normally, I let those go. But I’d already run all the way in here, and I thought maybe it was a call from Dr. Hillerman’s office.
“Hello?” I answered, breathless. Goose bumps rose on my pale flesh, so I pulled the robe tighter around me. My sopping wet hair dripped down my back.
“Is this Kelly Medina?”
Great. A salesperson. “Yes,” I answered, wishing I hadn’t picked up.
“Hi, Kelly, this is Nancy from Dr. Cramer’s office.
I’m calling to remind you of your well-baby appointment this Friday at ten a.m.”
“Well-baby?” I let out a surprised laugh. “You’re about nineteen years too late.”
“Excuse me?” Nancy asked, clearly confused.
“My son isn’t a baby,” I explained. “He’s nineteen.” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Nancy immediately replied. I could hear the clicking of a keyboard. “I apologize. I called the wrong Kelly Medina.”
“There’s another Kelly Medina in Folsom?” My maiden name had been Smith. There are a million other Kelly Smiths in the world. In California, even. But since I’d married Rafael, I’d never met another Kelly Medina. Until now.
“Yes. Her child is a new patient.”
It felt like yesterday when my child was a new patient. I remembered sitting in the waiting room of Dr. Cramer’s office, holding my tiny newborn, waiting for the nurse to call my name.
“I have no idea how this happened. It’s like your numbers got switched in the system or something,” Nancy muttered, and I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or herself. “Again, I’m so sorry.”
I assured her it was fine, and hung up. My hair was still wet from the shower, but instead of blow-drying it I headed downstairs to make some tea first. On my way, I passed Aaron’s room. The door was closed, so I pressed it open with my palm. The wood was cold against my skin. Shivering, I took in his neatly made bed, the movie posters tacked to the wall, the darkened desktop computer in the corner.
Leaning against the door frame of Aaron’s room, my mind flew back to the day he left for college. I remembered his broad smile, his sparkling eyes. He’d been so anxious to leave here. To leave me. I should’ve been happy for him. He was doing what I’d raised him to do.
Boys were supposed to grow up and leave.
In my head I knew that. But in my heart it was hard to let him go.
After closing Aaron’s door, I headed down to the kitchen.
The house was silent. It used to be filled with noise—Aaron’s little feet stomping down the hallway, his sound effects as he played with toys, his chattering as he got older. Now it was always quiet. Especially during the week when Rafael stayed in the Bay Area for work. Aaron had been gone over a year. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. But, actually, it seemed to get worse over time. The constant silence.
The phone call had thrown me. For a second it felt like I’d gone back in time, something I longed for most days. When Aaron was born everyone told me to savor all the moments because it went by too quickly. It was hard for me to imagine. I hadn’t had the easiest life growing up, and it certainly hadn’t flown by. And the nine months I was pregnant with Aaron had gone on forever, every day longer than the one before.
But they were right.
Aaron’s childhood was fleeting. The moments were elusive, like a butterfly, practically impossible to catch. And now it was gone. He was a man. And I was alone.
Rafael kept encouraging me to find a job to fill my time, but I’d already tried that. When Aaron first left, I applied for a bunch of jobs. Since I’d been out of work for so long, no one wanted to hire me. That’s when Christine suggested I volunteer somewhere. So I started helping out at a local food bank, handing out food once a week and occasionally doing a little administrative stuff. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t enough. It barely filled any of my time. Besides, I was one of many volunteers. I wasn’t needed. Not the way Aaron had needed me when he was a child.
When he left, the Kelly I’d always known ceased to exist. Vanished into thin air. I was merely a ghost now, haunting my house, the streets, the town.
As the water boiled, I thought about you. Thought about how lucky you were to have a baby and your whole life ahead of you. I wondered what you were doing right now. Not sitting alone in your big, silent house, I bet. No, you were probably chasing your cute little baby around your sunny living room, the floor littered with toys, as he crawled on all fours and laughed.
Was your child a boy? The lady on the phone didn’t say, but that’s what I pictured. A chubby, smiling little boy like my Aaron.
The kettle squealed, and I flinched. I poured the boiling water in a mug and steam rose from it, circling the air in front of my face. Tossing in the tea bag, I breathed it in, leaning my back against the cool tile counter. The picture window in front of me revealed our perfectly manicured front yard—bright green grass lined with rose bushes. I’d always been particular about the roses. When Aaron was a kid he always wanted to help with the pruning, but I never let him. Afraid he’d mess them up, I guess. Seemed silly now.
Heart pinching, I blew out a breath.
I wondered about your yard. What did it look like? Did you have roses? I wondered if you’d let your son help you prune them. I wondered if you’d make the same mistakes I had.
Bringing the mug to my lips, I took a tiny sip of the hot tea. It was mint, my favorite. I allowed the flavors to sit on my tongue a minute before swallowing it down. The refrigerator hummed. The ice shifted in the ice maker. My shoulders tensed slightly. I rolled them out, taking another sip.
Shoving off the counter, I was headed toward the stairs when my cell buzzed inside my pocket. My pulse spiked. It couldn’t be Rafael. He was a professor and his first class had already started.
Nope. It was a text from Christine.
Going to yoga this morning?
I’d already showered. I was about to tackle my lat-est organization project. Today was the kitchen pantry. Last week I’d bought a bunch of new containers and bins. Friday I’d spent the day labeling all of them. After taking the weekend off since Rafael was home, I was anxious to continue with it. I’d already organized several closets downstairs, but my plan was to work my way through all the closets and cabinets in the house.
Usually I loved yoga, but I had way too much to do today.
No, I typed. Then bit my lip. Backspaced. Stared at the phone. My own reflection emerged on the slick screen—disheveled hair, pale face, dark circles under the eyes.
You need to get out more. Exercise. It’s not healthy to sit in the house all day. Rafael’s voice echoed in my head.
The organizing would still be here tomorrow. Besides, who was I kidding? I’d probably only spend a couple of hours organizing before abandoning my project to read online blogs and articles, or dive into the latest murder mystery I was reading.
I typed yes, then sent it and hurried to my room to get ready.
Thirty minutes later, I was parking in front of the gym. When I stepped out, a cool breeze whisked over my arms. After three scorching hot summer months, I welcomed it. Fall had always been my favorite season. I relished the festiveness of it. Pumpkins, apples, rustic colors. But mostly it was the leaves falling and being raked away. The bareness of the trees. The shedding of the old to make room for the new. An end, but also a beginning.
Although, we weren’t quite there yet. The leaves were still green, and by afternoon the air would be warm. But in the mornings and evenings we got a tiny sip of fall, enough to make me thirsty for more.
Securing the gym bag on my shoulder, I walked briskly through the lot. Once inside, it was even colder. The AC blasted as if it was a hundred-degree day. That’s okay. It gave me more of an incentive to break a sweat. Smiling at the receptionist, I pulled out my keys for her to scan my card. Only my card wasn’t hanging from my key ring.
I fished around in my bag, but it wasn’t there either. Flushing, I offered the bored receptionist an apologetic smile. “I seem to have misplaced my tag. Can you look me up? Kelly Medina?”
Her eyes widened. “Funny. There was another lady in here earlier today with the same name.”
My heart pounded. I’d been attending this gym for years and never had anyone mentioned you before. I wondered how long you’d worked out here. “Is she still here?” My gaze scoured the lobby as if I might recognize you.
“No. She was here super early.”
Of course you were. I used to be too, when Aaron was an infant.
“Okay. You’re all checked in, Kelly,” the reception-ist said, buzzing me in.
Clutching my gym bag, I made my way up the stairs toward the yoga room, thoughts of you flooding my mind. A few young women walked next to me, wear-ing tight tank tops and pants, gym bags hanging off their shoulders. They were laughing and chatting loudly, their long ponytails bouncing behind their heads. I tried to say excuse me, to move past them, but they couldn’t hear me. Impatient, I bit my lip and walked slowly behind them. Finally, I made it to the top. They headed toward the cardio machines, and I pressed open the door to the yoga room.
I spotted Christine already sitting on her mat. Her blond hair was pulled back into a perfectly coiffed pony-tail. Her eyes were bright and her lips were shiny. I smoothed down my unruly brown hair and licked my dry lips.
She waved me over with a large smile. “You made it.”
“Yep.” I dropped my mat and bag next to hers.
“I wasn’t sure. It’s been a while.”
Shrugging, I sat down on my mat. “Been busy.” “Oh, I totally get that.” She waved away my words with a flick of her slender wrist. “Maddie and Mason have had a bazillion activities lately. I can barely keep up.”
“Sounds rough,” I muttered, slipping off my flip-flops. This was the problem with getting married and having a kid so young. Most of my friends were still raising families.
“I know, right? I can’t wait until they’re adults and I can do whatever I want.”
“Yeah, it’s the best,” I said sarcastically.
Her mouth dropped. “Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t talking about you…” Her pale cheeks turned pink. “I know how much you miss Aaron. It’s just…”
I shook my head and offered her a smile “Relax. I get it.”
Christine and I met years ago in a yoga class. She’s one of those women with almost no self-awareness. It’s what first drew me to her. I loved how raw and real she was. Other people shied away from her, unable to handle her filterless statements. But I found her refreshing and, honestly, pretty entertaining.
“I remember how busy it was when Aaron was younger,” I said. “One year he signed up for baseball and basketball. They overlapped for a bit, and I swear I was taking him to a game or practice like every day.”
“Yes!” Christine said excitedly, relief evident in her expression. “Sometimes it’s all just too much.”
“Yeah, sometimes it is,” I agreed.
The class was about to start and the room was filling up. It was mainly women, but there were some men. Most of them were with their wives or girlfriends. I’d tried getting Rafael to come with me before, but he laughed as if the idea was preposterous.
“Remember when there were only a few of us in this class?” Christine asked, her gaze sweeping the room.
I nodded, glancing around. There were so many new people I didn’t know. Not that I was surprised. Folsom had grown a lot in the ten years I’d lived here. New people moved here every day.
Staring at all the strangers crowding around us, I shivered, my thoughts drifting back to you. We hadn’t even met, and yet I felt like I knew you. We had the same name, the same gym, the same pediatrician for our child.
It felt like kismet. Fate had brought you here to me. I was certain of it.
The wine was dark red as it swirled in the glass, leaving stains like spiderwebs up the sides. Chris-tine lifted it to her lips and took a long sip.
“You’re not gonna order a drink?” She raised her eyebrows as if it was bizarre that I wasn’t drinking at noon on a Monday.
I wasn’t even sure why I let her talk me into going out to lunch after yoga. I still had errands to run today, and I was desperate to get out of my sweaty workout clothes.
“No, I actually can’t stay long. I have to hit the grocery store after this,” I said.
“Go tomorrow,” she said, a hint of impatience in her tone. “C’mon, have a drink with me.”
“I can’t go tomorrow. I have to get stuff for dinner tonight.” I glanced at the menu in front of me, scanning the lunch items. A burger and fries sounded good. I was starving. Glancing down at my stomach lapping over the band of my pants, I frowned. I probably shouldn’t, though.
When Rafael and I met, I was thin. It wasn’t until after I had Aaron that my body changed, got softer, rounder. It didn’t bother me, though. I looked motherly. The added weight only confirmed the miracle that had happened in my body. Besides, it happened to all women, right? Shortly after Aaron’s birth, Raf started making snide comments and remarks. He began scrutinizing what I ate and urging me to work out more. I listened to him, slimmed back down and kept the weight off. But recently I’d put a little back on.
I decided on the Santa Fe chicken salad. Dressing on the side.
“Oh, please,” Christine said. “No one’s gonna be home tonight. Just pop some popcorn and pour some wine. That’s what I’d do if I had the house to myself.”
Christine acted like I lived some glamorous life. Like being alone was something to covet. It wasn’t. I’d give anything to go back in time. To have a full house and busy schedule like she did. But instead of saying any of this, I simply smiled. “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.” Honestly, it didn’t sound like the worst plan.
We were sitting at a table outside, and I glanced over as a young woman jogged past pushing a stroller. It was covered, so I couldn’t see the child inside. I glanced back up at the woman’s face. She was dark-haired, pale skin, probably in her twenties.
For a moment, I wondered if she was you.
I had no idea what you looked like or how old you were. Since I knew you had a baby, I’d been picturing you as a young woman, but I supposed lots of women had babies later in life. Also, I had no reason to believe this baby was an only child.
Did you have a whole brood or just one?
Were you married?
Did you live near here?
Questions swirled in my mind.
One thing I was pretty sure of was that you weren’t contemplating having popcorn and wine for dinner.
You were probably planning to make a nice meal for your family. Something simple like pasta since you had an infant. You’d have to bide your time, sticking him in his swing or, better yet, cooking while he napped. Then you and your husband would take turns eating, passing your baby between the two of you.
Smiling to myself, I remembered doing that nightly while Aaron was a newborn. I don’t think I ate a hot meal for two years. It was actually annoying at the time.
Not sure why the memory made me feel all warm and fuzzy now.
After ordering, Christine finished off her glass of wine and eyed me suspiciously. “What’s going on with you? You’re so quiet today.”
I hadn’t planned to tell her about you. It just came out. “There’s another Kelly Medina in Folsom.”
Her face scrunched up. “What do you mean? Like a doppelgänger or something? You know they do say that everyone has a twin.”
I didn’t know if that was true. I didn’t even know who “they” were. “No, not someone who looks like me. I mean, there’s another lady with my exact same name.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “Well, I mean, Kelly’s a pretty common name. I meet other Christines all the time.”
“But have you ever met someone with your same last name too?”
She shook her head. “I guess not, but I’m sure they’re out there.”
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “But they’re not in your same town, working out at your same gym and taking their kid to your same pediatrician.”
“Huh?” Her forehead bunched together and she pursed her lips.
“Yeah.” I nodded. Finally, a reaction from her. “I got a call this morning from the doctor’s office reminding me of my well-baby appointment. Then they said they called the wrong Kelly.”
“Or maybe there was a glitch in the system,” she surmised. “When I used to work at that dental office, one time we sent out appointment reminders from like years earlier.”
I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t what this was. They said she was a new patient.”
“Oh, so Kelly Medina’s the baby?”
I paused. For a second I wondered if that was true. I’d been picturing you as an adult, but had I gotten it all wrong? Was it possible that you were the child, not the mom? My vision blurred slightly, a headache pricking behind my eyes.
No. That’s not right. The nurse, Nancy or whatever, said that your child was the patient. And the girl at the gym said you were a woman. Hadn’t she?
Blinking, I cleared my head. Yeah, I was sure she had.
“Kelly? You okay?” Christine frowned. “The phone call upset you, huh?” She waved over the waitress. “Let me order you a drink. Just one. It’ll help you relax.”
I meant to say no, but found myself nodding. I’d been trying to cut back. It was empty calories I didn’t need. But one glass wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Besides, I had ordered a salad. I just wouldn’t have any more wine tonight.
When the waiter set the wine in front of me, I had planned to sip it slowly. But instead, I ended up drink-ing greedily like a dog lapping up his bowl of water after running around in the heat. My body warmed almost instantly, my mind blurring at the edges. I shouldn’t have drank so fast. I hadn’t eaten anything today. When my salad arrived, I picked up my fork with a shaky hand and shoveled in a few bites, hoping to steady myself a little.
It tasted like paper.
I eyed the dressing.
Oh, screw it. After generously pouring it on, I continued eating. Way better.
“So, wait until you hear about the fight Joel and I got into the other night,” Christine said, picking at her own salad. I noticed she hadn’t put any dressing on hers.
“He was all over me about how much money I spend on food,” she said before taking a tiny nibble out of a piece of lettuce. “Food,” she repeated, louder this time. “Can you believe that? It’s not like I’m out buying a bunch of shoes or something.”
I looked up at her, cocking my head to the side.
She offered me a knowing smile. “Well, okay, I mean, maybe I am. But that wasn’t what he was mad about. He was mad about food. And I was like, ‘Look, I buy food for our entire family.’ And he was like, ‘You don’t have to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. Other families shop at Costco or WinCo.’ And I was like, ‘So, you’re upset that I’m feeding our family healthy food? Is that what I’m hearing? You’d rather me feed them soda and chips, or what?’”
I nodded like I understood, but I kind of didn’t. On Rafael’s teaching salary, we’d never been able to afford to shop at Whole Foods.
I reached for my wineglass, but it was empty. Huh. That went fast.
“Oh, hang on.” Christine bent down, fishing through the purse by her feet. “I just missed a call.” Sitting up, her eyes widened as she stared at the screen. “It’s Maddie’s school. They left a message.” She threw me an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. Give me a minute.”
“No problem.” My mouth was dry. I reached for my water. Squinting, I wished I’d remembered my sunglasses. The sun was getting brighter by the minute. It was warming up too.
“Oh, no. Maddie got hurt in PE.” Christine pushed back her chair. “I’m really sorry, but I gotta take off.”
I waved off her apology. “No worries. I totally get it. Remember, you were with me when Aaron dis-located his finger.”
“That’s right. Let’s hope she didn’t do that.” Fling-ing her purse over her shoulder, she looked down at the table. “Crap. We haven’t even paid yet. Let me see if I have any cash on me.”
“No, it’s fine. I got it.”
She hesitated. “You sure?”
I nodded. “Yep.”
“Okay. Thanks. I’ll text you later. Okay?” She still wore that concerned look, but I had no idea why. I felt fine. Maybe it was about Maddie this time, not me. Yeah, that made sense.
As I watched her leave, my mind flew back to the day Aaron dislocated his finger. I was out with Chris-tine and some of the other moms having a mimosa brunch. It was Christine’s birthday month (yes, she celebrates the entire month), so she insisted I have a drink with her. I was on my second mimosa when the school called. All they told me was that Aaron hurt his finger playing basketball during lunchtime. I was irritated until I saw Aaron. His face was ashen, his teeth chattering, his body trembling. His pinky finger was bent at a grotesque angle, and it was way longer than it was supposed to be.
The wait at the doctor went by so slow, I could barely breathe. It was heartbreaking to see him in all that pain. I tried everything to make him laugh or smile, to take his mind off of it. But the pain was too great. Still, he was brave.
A trouper, the doctor said.
“Can I get you anything else?” The waitress appeared by my side, cutting into my memory.
I opened my mouth to ask for the check. Then the vision of my empty house filled my mind. Sitting back in my chair, I said, “Another glass of wine, please.”
I didn’t think about you again until that night. The afternoon was a blur. I’d drunk more wine than I intended, and eventually made my way home. Then I’d fallen asleep for a few hours and missed Rafael’s call when he got off work.
He sent me a text saying he was going out with some of his coworkers and he’d try again later.
Christine texted also. Maddie was fine. Just a sprained wrist.
As the sun disappeared and darkness blanketed the sky, I headed into the kitchen to eat something. My head pounded. My throat was scratchy, my tongue cot-tony. After guzzling some water, I pulled out a box of crackers and bit down on one.
The faint sound of children’s voices reached my ears, and I turned toward the window. A woman was chasing her two little kids around the neighbor’s front yard across the street. The woman who lived there was in her seventies. This had to be her daughter and grandchildren.
And that’s when my thoughts drifted to you.
I wondered if you had family in town. I figured you must’ve moved here recently, since our paths had never crossed until today. Maybe it was to be closer to family.
We’d initially moved here to be near my parents, but they were gone now.
My gaze landed on my laptop sitting on the table in the breakfast nook. The little flashing light told me it was charged. My heart rate picked up speed.
I was certain you were on social media. Everyone seemed to be. Even I had a Facebook and Instagram account. I’d started them to stalk Aaron, but then ended up getting sucked in. Now I probably posted more than I should.
Water in hand, I made my way over to the table. I opened my laptop. It zoomed to life, heat emitting from it. After logging on to Facebook, I searched for Kelly
Medina. Dozens of accounts came up.
Who knew this many people in the world had my name?
Man, this could take a while.
I scrolled through all of them, but didn’t think any of them were you. For starters, none were in this area, and only a couple of them had young families.
Next, I tried Instagram, but that was even harder to navigate.
Frustrated, I sat back. Surely, you were on here some-where. Why couldn’t I find you?
Copyright © 2020 Amber Garza.
About When I Was You by Amber Garza:
It all begins on an ordinary fall morning, when Kelly Medina gets a call from her son’s pediatrician to confirm her upcoming “well-baby” appointment. It’s a cruel mistake; her son left for college a year ago, and Kelly’s never felt so alone. The receptionist quickly apologizes: there’s another mother in town named Kelly Medina, and she must have gotten their numbers switched.
For days, Kelly can’t stop thinking about the woman who shares her name. Lives in her same town. Has a son she can still hold, and her whole life ahead of her. She can’t help looking for her: at the grocery store, at the gym, on social media. When Kelly just happens to bump into the single mother outside that pediatrician’s office, it’s simple curiosity getting the better of her.
Their unlikely friendship brings Kelly a renewed sense of purpose—taking care of this young woman and her adorable baby boy. But that friendship quickly turns to obsession, and when one Kelly disappears, well, the other one may know why.