Wherever She Goes: New Excerpt
From New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong comes a brand new psychological thriller about the lengths one woman will go to in order to save a child.
I have made mistakes in my life. Mistakes that should loom over this one like skyscrapers. But this one feels the biggest.
This one hurts the most.
I lie in bed, massaging the old bullet wound in my shoulder as I try not to think of what used to happen when I woke in pain. One of those tiny things that seemed such an ordinary part of an ordinary life, and now I realize that it hadn’t been ordinary at all.
I used to wake like this, my shoulder aching, heart racing from nightmare, huddled in bed, trying to be quiet so I didn’t wake Paul. He’d still stir, as if he sensed me waking. He’d reach for me with one hand, his glasses with the other, and I’d hear the clatter of them on the nightstand, never quite where he expected them to be.
“Aubrey? You okay?”
“Just a nightmare.”
“The car accident?”
I’d murmur something as guilt stabbed through me. The car accident. Yet another lie I’d told.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No, I’m fine.”
The memory flutters off in his sigh, and I want to chase it. Go back there.
No, I want to go back to the beginning, before “Will you take this man,” before Charlotte. Back to the first time a nightmare woke me beside Paul, and he asked if I wanted to talk about it, and this time I will say, “Yes. I need to tell you the truth.”
It’s too late for that.
It’d been too late from the first moment I dodged a question, hinted at a falsehood; I placed my foot on a path from which I could not turn back. Those lies, though, hadn’t ended our marriage. I almost wished they had—that I had confessed my past and our marriage had imploded in spectacular fashion.
The truth was much simpler: water wearing down rock, the insidious erosion of secrets untold. All the things I should have said from the start, but the longer it went on, the more I couldn’t say them. A vicious cycle that pushed us further apart with each revolution.
Pushed us apart? No, that implies action and forethought. In the end, I’d felt like we were on rafts in a lazy river, Paul drifting away, me madly paddling to stay close, telling myself he just didn’t realize he was floating away from me and then…
Well, there comes a moment when you can’t keep pretending that your partner doesn’t notice the drift. It had gone on too long, my floundering too obvious, his unhappiness too obvious.
I’m going to take Charlie to the company ball game. Give us some daddy-daughter time while you enjoy an afternoon alone.
I can’t go away this weekend after all. I’m in court Monday, and I need to prep. We’ll do it another time. Maybe in the fall.
I think we should stop trying to have another baby, Bree.
Even the ending had been so . . . empty. I told Paul that I could tell he wasn’t happy, and it was better for Charlotte if we realized our mistake now. I said the words, and I waited for him to wake up. To snap out of it and say, “What are you talking about? I am happy.”
He did not say that. He just nodded. He just agreed.
So I set Paul free. I took nothing from him. It was all his, and I left it behind. He asked only one thing of me—that I leave Charlotte, too. Temporarily. Leave her in her home, in the life she knew. We would co-parent, but she would live with him until I was settled and we could agree on a long-term arrangement.
The mature and responsible decision.
The naive and unbelievably stupid decision.
As I hang from the exercise rings, two women turn to stare. I could tell myself they’re wowed by my enviable upper-body strength, but their expressions are far less complimentary. That may have something to do with the fact that the rings are in a playground, and I’m dangling from them, knees pulled up so I don’t scrape the ground.
It’s Sunday. The end of my weekend with Charlotte. It’s been six months since Paul and I split, and he’s still not ready to discuss joint custody. I’ve begun to realize he never will be ready. I’m going to have to push him—with divorce proceedings and a custody battle. I’m not ready for that fight yet. But I’m getting there.
As I dangle from the rings, Charlotte hangs in front of me. “Ten, eight, nine, seven . . .”
“You keep going,” I say.
“No! Mommy stay! Three, two—”
I drop onto my butt, and Charlotte lets out a squeal of laughter, her chubby legs kicking so hard one sneaker flies off.
Then she lets go. I catch her, and she giggles, wrenches out of my arms and tears off.
As I race after her, scooping up her abandoned shoe, I hear the women behind me.
“Recapturing her lost childhood?”
“I’m not sure she ever left it. Look at her.”
I let Charlotte braid my hair this morning, the result being exactly what you expect from a three-year-old, complete with crooked plastic barrettes. She also picked out my shirt, a ragged Minnie Mouse tee I only keep because she loves it. I brought a jacket for camouflage, but I’d discarded that when the blazing sun heated up a cool May day, with only a hint of Chicago’s legendary winds blowing into our suburban city.
As I’m trying to remember where I left my jacket, Charlotte runs for the slide. I take off after her, and I help her onto the rungs. Then I climb behind her, mostly because it’s the only way I can ensure she doesn’t fall off the top or slide down backward. I sense eyes on me, I see bemused head shakes, and I feel the prickle of embarrassment.
I don’t know how other parents do it. I honestly do not. They sit. They chat. They answer emails. They read books. And somehow, their children survive.
Motherhood does not come naturally to me. My own mother died when I was very young, and my father never remarried. I grew up on a string of army bases, cared for by whoever happened to be available. So when Paul and I decided to have a baby, I knew I needed to prepare. I did—with endless classes and books. Then Charlotte came along, and I felt as if I’d walked into a math exam after cramming for history.
When I used to confess my fears to Paul, he’d hug me and say, “You’re doing awesome, Bree. Your daughter is bright and happy and healthy. What more could you want?”
What more could I want? To feel like I’d achieved that. Not like Charlotte managed to be all that in spite of me. Because of Paul.
Now I’m damned sure that when it comes time for a court to decide custody, Paul is not going to tell the judge that I’m “doing awesome.”
So no more floundering. No more muddling through. No more being the “quirky” parent. I must be the most normal mom possible. That means I need to learn how.
Observe and assimilate.
When we head to the swings, I try to just stand behind Charlotte and push her, like other parents. That isn’t what she wants, though. She wants me to swing beside her and see who can go highest.
Paul doesn’t swing with Charlotte or climb the slide or hang from the rings. The very image makes me smile. Nor, however, would he be on a bench reading the paper or checking his phone. He stands close, keeping a watchful eye, ready to jump in if she needs him. And that’s fine with Charlotte, who never asks or expects him to join in. Joining in is for Mommy.
I remember when I’d bring her back from the park with grass-stained knees and dirt-streaked face and hair that looked as if she stepped out of a wind tunnel.
“Someone had fun today,” Paul would say.
“She skinned her knee again. I’m sorry. I don’t know how that happens.”
He laughs. “Because she’s a little cyclone when she’s with you. She knows Daddy can’t keep up.” He swings her into his arms. “Did you have fun, sweetheart?” he asks, as they walk away, Charlotte babbling a mile a minute.
If I fretted later, he’d say, “She had fun. That’s what matters, Bree. Skinned knees heal. It’s good to see her active.”
Does he still think that? Or does he remember those skinned knees and see them as a sign that I hadn’t watched our daughter closely enough?
I react without thinking, swinging high and then jumping. I hit the ground in a crouch, and as I bounce to my feet, her gales of laughter ring out.
Again, I turn on autopilot, my arms fly up as Charlotte launches herself from the swing.
I do catch her.
I always do.
Always, always, always.
This is what I want to be for you, baby. The mother who will always catch you. The mother who knows what dangers you face, and will be there to stop them. To fix the problems, even when I cause them myself.
“Is it time for tea?” I ask as I set her on the ground.
As we drink our apple juice and munch cookies, I watch the parents in the playground, analyzing how far they let their kids run without giving chase, what they allow their children to do without interfering.
I gaze longingly at the groups of chatting parents. As much as I love playing with my child, I feel like I should be there, getting the support and answers I need. I’ve done all the things that parenting blogs recommend for meeting others—join mom-tot groups, hang around at the playground, just put yourself out there!—but I always feel like I used to when I switched schools midterm. The cliques had already formed, those doors slammed shut.
When I first had Charlotte, I tried joining the suburban mommies in our neighborhood, but their life experience was a million miles from mine. They seemed to sense my “otherness,” like a bevy of swans with a goose intent on sneaking into their ranks. As invitations to playdates dried up—and my own were refused—I saw myself condemning Charlotte to the same kind of life. An outsider by association.
That changed after I left. Apparently, the mommies who didn’t have time for me had plenty of it for my poor abandoned child and her doting single daddy.
As I gaze across the playground, I notice another woman by herself. She’s with a little boy near a patch of forest, maybe twenty feet away. They’re playing a hiding game, where one of them tucks away a small object and the other finds it.
At first, I think the woman must be a sitter or older sister. I’m thirty, and she looks nearly a decade younger, the boy maybe five. But then he gives a delighted shriek, saying, “Found it, Mama! That was a good spot.”
They both seem to be enjoying the game, and I take note. Charlotte would love it, and it’s definitely a more dignified way of playing with my child.
Speaking of dignity, when we finish our tea, Charlotte wants to do cartwheels. I try to just help her, but she insists I demonstrate. I do a double, ending up by the woods, and as I thump down, the little boy says, “Whoa, did you see that, Mama?”
“Very cool,” his mother says, with a careful smile. “You must have been a cheerleader.”
I laugh. “Not exactly. But thanks.”
“Can you do that, Mama?” her son asks.
Now it’s her turn to laugh, relaxing as she squeezes his shoulder. “I could when I was your age. Not since then, though. I was definitely not a cheerleader.”
She passes me a smile, and there’s spark of connection as we both look over at a gaggle of suburban mommies, as if to say they were probably cheerleaders, but not us. Never us.
She isn’t much older than I first thought. Maybe twenty-three. Slender with a blond ponytail and no makeup except for thick black eyeliner. Is that eyeliner a remnant of another life? She wears long sleeves, but one is pushed up, showing what looks like the ghosts of old track marks. Dark circles underscore her eyes, and there’s a strained, distant look in them, as if she’s exhausted by the stresses of what might be single motherhood, given the lack of a wedding band.
“You do car-wheel,” Charlotte says to the woman. “Mommy show.”
The woman smiles. “Not me, hon. My body doesn’t do that anymore.”
“Can I try?” her son asks.
“I show!” Charlotte says.
We stand and watch Charlotte try to instruct the boy in a proper cartwheel while I give pointers. I tread a fine line here. I don’t want to seem like the new girl at school, puppy-eager for attention, even if that’s how I feel. I glance at the other woman, and then I look at the poised suburban mommies on the benches, and it doesn’t matter if I’d been one of them six months ago. I’m not anymore and, really, I never was, even when I wore the title.
I see this young woman, with her old needle scars and her worn jeans and her shabby sneakers and the way her face glows every time her gaze lights on her son, and she’s the mother I connect to.
Still I am careful. Years of new-kid-in-class life has taught me how to tread this line. Snatches of conversation mixed with quips and laughs as I show her son how to do a cartwheel.
I’m holding up his legs when her phone rings. She looks down at the screen and blanches. Then she murmurs, “Sorry, I have to get this.”
She steps away to take the call. I can’t tell what she’s saying—she isn’t speaking English—but her tone tells me enough, rising from anger to alarm.
She keeps moving away, lowering her voice while keeping her gaze on her son.
Finally I bend in front of the boy and say, “We should go, so your mom can finish her call. Tell her we said goodbye. It was very nice meeting you, and I hope to see you both again.”
When I extend a hand, his thin face lights up in a smile. He shakes my hand vigorously, with a mature “Nice meeting you, too.”
Charlotte shakes his hand as she giggles a goodbye. Then we quickly gather our things and leave.
Copyright © 2019 Kelley Armstrong.