Marleen extends a round porcelain bowl with pills. I scoop them up, put them in my mouth, and take a sip of water from a glass on the nightstand. She leaves the room and I lean back and listen to the sounds of the house. Marleen karate-chops the throw pillows on the couch (I don’t care for that look but I won’t correct her) and wipes the kitchen counters (there is the tearing of a disinfectant wipe from the container, followed by the sound of the garbage can lid clinking shut shortly thereafter). Her heels clack, make their way down the hallway and into the powder room, followed by a silence during which she undoubtedly straightens towels on the shelf.
The house phone rings. Marleen’s explanation about someone punching in the wrong numbers at the gate sounds contrived. I want to get up, hurry from my bedroom down the hallway and into the kitchen, want to get to the bottom of this–want to grab the receiver and demand to know who is on the other end of the line–but the phone stops ringing. I don’t want to be in this state of mistrust but–
That book on the nightstand. I hadn’t noticed it before. Its pages are tightly bound, I can barely see the beginning of the lines. As the spine cracks open, the glue dissolves and pages are loosening before my eyes. A piece of paper falls out. One of those lists I make to remind me of all the things I have to do? I unfold it. It’s a drawing. A child’s drawing. Penelope’s drawing. Large heads on small bodies, fingers like tentacles pointing upward, then turning into scribbles all over the page as if she were trying to erase it all. Dozens of colored markers, yet she drew exclusively in black and red. Never a rainbow, never a field of flowers. When I carefully probed about the intended meaning, she just shrugged. Or said it’s what’s in her head. Or something like that. So many years have passed, I can’t read into it now.
Ch’trik. The front door locks.
There’s a pull behind my eyes. My limbs are heavy, something lures me to sleep.
It seems as if–no, I’m pretty sure of it–there’s a sleeping pill among the statins and the anti-inflammatories. A sleeping pill so potent that I don’t recall ever having woken up in the middle of the night since I’ve moved here.
My last thought is of Penelope. And like so often, the last image is of her face, evanescent, as if behind a bridal veil–always a bridal veil–and it’s hard to interpret. I want to think it’s a clue that she’s happy somewhere. But I also see a slick wet pool of red. As if on cue, my heartbeat slows to a peaceful rhythm, and like counting backward before surgery, the curtains come down all at once. First the world as I know it is there, then it isn’t.
It’s not until morning, until I get out of bed and step on the book, that I remember the drawing. For a few minutes it all feels like a dream. I protest but Marleen gathers everything and stuffs it all into a garbage bag and the garbage bag into a bin.
Between keeping the house neat and tossing the drawing, I wonder if Marleen was out of line on that one. I’ll mention it to Vera later, she is good at putting things into perspective. I do confide in her a lot, maybe more than I should. Edward wouldn’t approve if he knew how much I tell her about my former life. He’d turned into a strangely private person and I can admit that now, he went from clearheaded to paranoid. Edward being paranoid—that goes against all reason, or does it?
Occasionally Vera reads from one of her novels in the space off the lobby with fireplaces and immaculately polished hardwood floors. It’s a special occasion and that afternoon, I get my nails done in a salon in the main building. I take my time picking out a color, nothing fancy, a nude shade will do, yet I’m forever undecided–Flesh, Ballerina, Anonymous, Jade Rose, Incognito–and later, we take our seats in rows of chairs.
It has taken me quite some time to warm up to Vera. For the longest I couldn’t remember her name, Valerie or Vivian or Viola, but once we got talking, we felt comfortable around each other. Vera and I, we both had a moment in the limelight. Vera was catapulted into fame almost overnight with a book, and I, I was Miss Texas 1985. My winning gown and sash are now memorialized in a shadow box. I just had the gown dry-cleaned and reframed and Penelope has yet to see it in my bedroom above the fireplace.
I’m always looking forward to Vera’s readings, her novels have garnered critical acclaim in Europe, there’s a lot of loathing and suffering and I feel an instant kinship with her characters as they seem to be in a constant state of existential threat.
A podium has been set up, staff in black pants and white shirts pass trays around. The hors d’oeuvres leave a lot to be desired, avocado and crab toast and some shrimp on a stick. I must mention this to Vera, she relies on me to tell her such things, her head is always in the clouds and I’m her voice of reason in these matters as she is mine when it comes to my emotions.
Vera takes the podium. She commands it, her oval tortoiseshell glasses high on the bridge of her nose, pausing intermittently for maximum impact, the breaks arranged so perfectly that her words connect instantly with the audience.
Vera reads an excerpt of one of her novels. Ludvig, a boy from a remote farm in Sweden, is expected to slaughter a pig but he dreads the blood, the taking of a life. To teach him a lesson, his family abandons him in a vast and surreal landscape. He sets out on a path, past rolling hills, a setting as dramatic as his feelings about nature, and ends up in the mountains, where he encounters a sounder of starving boars and witnesses a wolf devour them. He could intervene but he doesn’t and so the boars meet their fate.
I watch the people seated in front of me, the way their heads snap sideways, making eye contact during the gory parts. Throats are clearing, there’s twitching and sneezing, not everyone enjoys this violent and dark tale. In front of me a couple exchanges glances during the grisly tearing apart of the boars, behind me I hear nervous tappings of feet, and a couple of people get up and leave the room. Two women talk too loudly–their voices travel in the large space–and are asked to leave. There’s a loud huff from a woman behind me. “Why is she doing this?” she asks, and the person next to her whispers in her ear. I throw a dismissive look at them, then focus my attention on Vera.
I’m captivated by the story, and the abandonment of a child, though clearly fictional, stirs up something inside of me. I imagine Penelope being lost in the dark of night, endlessly wandering in unfamiliar surroundings. But I see myself in Ludvig’s resolve and like a needle scratching off a record, my instincts are roused: the drawing in that book, who put it there, what was it meant to convey? I’m unwavering and being unwavering is one of my strong suits. Edward will tell you that. Something is afoot. A blind woman could see that.
The alarm clock LED display is the only light in the room. Marleen’s nightly preparation of the house plays out: doors close, cabinets bang, the venetian blinds go krrr-krrr-krrr-krrr. Footsteps approach.
Marleen presents the small porcelain dish with my medication. I scoop up the four pills but instead of dropping them into my mouth, I tuck them underneath my thumb, pressing them into the soft part of my palm. I tilt my head back and take a sip of water. As Marleen pulls the duvet taut at the end of the bed, I stow the pills underneath my pillow.
Marleen’s heels click on the hardwood floors. In the parlor, she closes the drapes and slides the metal hook of the tassels back on the tieback. Her heels make their way through the apartment with long strides and intermittent pauses. The hinges of the linen closet shriek.
The toilet in the powder room flushes and the lid clanks shut. From the kitchen familiar sounds of putting away dishes fill the house. Marleen’s shadow passes by my bedroom twice–she has turned off the lights in the hallway by then–her keys clink, a sign she’s about to leave.
I do something I’ve never done before. I stand by the bedroom door and watch her.
Marleen places something on the fireplace mantel, slides it toward the back, where her hands pause, fiddle around as if she’s making sure it sits in a very specific spot. Keys jingle again and weather stripping sweeps across the marble floor. The front door lock snaps in place. A gate slams in the distance and for a long time there are no sounds.
Sliding my fingers underneath the pillow, I dig until I hold the four pills in my hand. There’s a tiny orange pill, a statin. The white oval is an anti-inflammatory for my hip. The round pale yellow one is an allergy pill I was prescribed after I complained about itchy eyes. The pastel green round pill, I have no idea what it is.
My bare feet don’t cause so much as a creak on the hardwood floors. The bedroom door swings open without a sound. In the parlor, I push up the dimmer and the light fixture spreads a soft shimmer across the room. The drapes are closed.
On top of the fireplace sits an array of items that don’t quite go together. A vase, candlesticks, a statue–I’ve developed a fondness for the depiction of the woman cradling a child in her arms–and as I run my finger down it, I am surprised it is cold to the touch. It’s not resin after all, is it? Off the cuff, I push it aside a few inches. It’s heavy but it budges though it bumps the bottom of the vase which I barely keep from tumbling to the ground. A key is tucked behind it, a gold key with long teeth and I am not sure if this is the item Marleen was placing so perfectly. Is it one of the spare keys she leaves in the house in case she misplaces hers? I have told her a copy in a kitchen drawer would suffice.
Marleen misplaced her set of keys before and once locked herself out of the house. There were meltdowns during which she was almost in tears, once pounding on the front door. Another time she rapped on the window. I didn’t question her theatrical behavior nor did I try to understand it though I thought it to be overly dramatic. She does get worked up about things a lot, I wish she didn’t but that’s part of her constitution.
I attempt to insert the key into the front door but it doesn’t fit. The only other door with a lock is the one leading out of the storage room.
There, boxes are stacked on top of one another. Though the room is a mess, it seems methodical somehow as if the boxes are supposed to create a path. The light entering from the hallway is enough for me to look around, and though I’ve been in here many times–usually poring over a box Marleen has picked out–this time the shadows are different, the chaos seems to be held at bay by the limited light. There’s the door behind a tower of boxes, but it is not an interior door, it looks sturdy, and once I make my way down what feels like an aisle in a grocery store, I put my hand on it. It’s made of metal, like an exterior door. I slide the key into the keyhole without resistance. It grips and unlocks.
The opening leads outside, into the breezeway where the dead birds were. As I peer around the doorframe, moths as large as humming birds whir around electric lanterns emitting a faint glow. Oscillating carbon filament bulbs swing rapidly from side to side, mimicking a flame. Lampposts cast shadows, elongated, dark, and menacing. There’s a flashlight in the kitchen drawer but using it would only draw attention to myself.
I step into the night and look up into the starry sky.
Edward and I own a cabin in Angel Fire, New Mexico. We spent a week there now and then, whenever he could make the time. I called it a dip into the mountains and at night it was so dark we once observed the zodiacal light. One must understand how uncommon such an occasion is during which millions of light particles combine to create a cone so long it touches the horizon like a worldly connection to the stars above.
Just look, Edward said, one arm wrapped tightly around me as he pointed at the band of light in the night sky. Do you know how rare this is? he added.
Almost as if we’re chosen, isn’t it? I asked and meant it.
The sky is for everyone, Donna, he said.
We are chosen, I insisted and Edward didn’t object.
My thoughts are caught up in the memories of the cabin when on the other side of the courtyard, beyond the lawn, I hear a clacking sound. I step behind a large myrtle. A woman is coming down the walkway across the lawn, dragging a bag behind her. A clacking of bottles on the lawn, all the louder for the absence of daylight and people. I recognize her. I don’t want to embarrass her and remain in the shadows.
Vera has mentioned her peculiar fascination with people’s garbage–but don’t go around gossiping about it, I don’t need people talking; she uses it for inspiration for her writing, her exact words were, I can tell a lot from people’s garbage–but I imagined her retrieving papers or discarded mail. I never so much as thought that she’d go through garbage like a raccoon in the middle of the night. Vera tows the bag to her front door, then slogs it over the threshold, a key scrapes in the lock, and her front porch goes dark.
That’s what you get for snooping, I think. You see things you can’t unsee.
A light comes on in what seems like my foyer. I rush across the lawn. My blinds are shut only halfway. Are people talking inside? I step closer but there’s a concrete stoop below the window and I misjudge its height. My right foot, muddy and wet and smeared with filth, taps against it. I stumble, hit the ground, and break the fall with my left knee. I manage to get up. With my heart pounding, I shoot around the corner but before I can slip back into the breezeway and the storage room, I hear footsteps. They sound out of nowhere, there isn’t a buildup in volume or a quickening of pace, they are just suddenly there.
I step behind a tree but the thin trunk leaves me exposed. I crawl into the mulch behind the shrubs but this isn’t a sufficient place to hide either. I listen into the dark night but hear nothing, not a footstep, not the opening or the closing of a door. Nothing but a hum in the air, an anticipation of something I can’t put my finger on. The hum intensifies. A whisk and a tick. With a sssssssh-chk-chk-chk sssssssh-chk-chk-chk, sprinkler heads emerge from the ground. In an instant my clothes cleave to my body like a second layer of skin.
Voices. They linger, nameless at first, then my mind shifts into reality. I recognize the silhouette. I think I recognize the silhouette. The way he walks, moves. It’s Edward. As peculiar as this is, on the borders of my consciousness, there’s another voice. Marleen’s. Then they’re gone.
I root the lawn, scan the courtyard, then the breezeway. I part the bushes and shrubs. I turn around quickly as if I’m attempting to catch someone standing behind me. There’s no one, not in the breezeway where the man swept up the dead birds, not down the path. I turn again, just to make sure, but the walkways remain deserted and not a soul is about this time of night. Farther down, the silvery sidewalk fades between the buildings, disappearing into complete and utter darkness. I make a run for the breezeway and go back inside. I lock the door behind me.
I should have followed the voice. Should have confronted Edward right then and there. Should have. Could have. Would have. Was it Edward after all? I’m reminded of the night I woke and thought I was still living with Edward at Hawthorne Court. It was a bewildering feeling, like memories competing for priority. Getting out of bed there was a straight shot, but here the bathroom door is off to the side and so I stood with my hands pressed against the wall and felt my way around. A moment of confusion, like feeling disorientated by accidentally getting out of a hotel elevator on the wrong floor.
I must admit at times I jostle with recollections of Hawthorne Court and Shadow Garden. They overlap. My brain plays with both before settling on the correct one. Losing my former life is a difficult thing to come to terms with and sometimes I struggle to find the right memory but in the end my brain resolves the conflict.
Marleen’s voice? While I’ve been busy organizing and moving in, getting my life down to a schedule that resembles some sort of existence, the voices I heard have confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a while: I no longer trust her.
When I allow myself to state it so matter-of-factly, it sounds menacing. I wonder what’s easier: to be confronted with the facts or to forever imagine the worst.
The next morning, to occupy my mind, I look around the living room as if I’m seeing it for the first time. My apartment at Shadow Garden is a beautiful place, I have to admit as much; the fireplace to my right, carved marble with soft beige undertones and veins swirling together, is slightly too small for the room but that’s not what bothers me: the mantel appears disjointed, off balance. A vase. The one I nearly dropped last night. It’s a tacky thing I don’t recall purchasing or having received as a gift. It sits on the left side, shoved to the back, throwing off the symmetry of the pillar candles on the right. It’s ugly and maybe I ought to get rid of it altogether.
A leather-bound book on the coffee table strikes me as foreign, an intruder in my familiar surroundings like a visitor’s forgotten umbrella leaning in a corner, but then I recognize it, the cover embossed with a golden globe. I open it and a sudden rush of excitement surges through me as the veillike glassine sheet crumbles, then comes to rest.
The pictures are decades old: in one my hair is long and parted in the middle, before Penelope was born, on our honeymoon; the cabin in New Mexico; sitting on a rock at the edge of a lake, snowcapped mountains in the back, Colorado maybe? Some photographs have a bluish tint to them, taken before there was digital photography, when pictures came out the way they came out and you got what you got and you didn’t complain. We had a camera with so many functions it boggled my mind and I eventually bought a point-and-shoot camera.
A series of images on a beach. I can almost smell the salty air, feel the wind in my hair, my skin dry, my lips cracked. Penelope, about four, building a sand castle with her legs folded up under her. Edward is scooping sand in a bucket. They both look into the camera, happy, carefree. I don’t recall the moment but I probably said smile, or maybe I just caught them in a moment of happiness. Penelope’s mouth is open as if she is saying something to me.
Most of the photographs are overexposed, the sun like a floodlight streaming in from the back, beaming rays not meant to be a special effect but a failure on my part. But still, the images are beautiful, anything but perfect, but beautiful. Look at those boats bobbing on the waves! The colors are striking, the pale sand and the waves whitecapped in the breeze, like brushstrokes placed by a painter. I’m not ready to abandon this scene to memory just yet, but a vibrant color catches my attention: the trip to a strawberry farm. Penelope clutches a basket full of berries, puny little things, barely a third the size of the ones in supermarkets. Red smudges around her mouth, smeared across her cheek with the back of her hand. Penelope’s outfit was ruined that day, but the fun we had.
Like a gift from an unknown benefactor these photographs are conduits to the past, stuck to cardboard pages with glue, separated by flimsy paper to keep them from becoming worn and damaged.
I’m not naïve. Photographs are a world of make-believe. You have to look beyond the colors and the setting, the smiles, to recognize what they’re really about. I turn the page and there it is. A portrait of Penelope. I stare at her face caught in a moment of perfection. Focusing on her eyes, I’m taken aback by how they glisten with the twinkle of laughter. The happiest memories hurt the most, cut the deepest. I clutch the album tight against my body.
The photographs remind me of what I’ve lost and that’s all it takes for me to burst into tears. This is all that remains of those days, of our happiness. Marleen pries the album from my hands. Her eyes are wide and glaring, her eyebrows raised.
If I didn’t know any better I’d say she’s mad at me.
Later that afternoon, at my physical therapy appointment, I follow the instructions given to me. I stretch and extend, adduct, abduct. I complain about a lack of range of motion in my hip.
“You’ve been making super progress compared to where you started,” the physical therapist, a stout blond man with a red beard, says and furrows his brows. His name is Jed and he wears L.L.Bean jackets. I feel compelled to roll my eyes every time he uses the word super.
“I’m still not where I want to be,” I say as I turn on my side, knees bent to provide support. I straighten my top leg and slowly raise it. I hold for five, lower it, relax, and repeat. He doesn’t know how well I am. Keeping my recovery a secret, I wonder what the point of it is.
My super recovery. The only thing I can imagine is I don’t want Edward to find out yet. Maintaining this secret gives me some sort of power I can’t quite put my finger on. My ace in a hole or up a sleeve, I forget how the saying goes.
I think of the wristwatch I bought Edward for our anniversary a couple of years ago, the way the jeweler had explained the apparatus, how springs were regulated by more springs, unwinding into a controlled and periodic release of time. Gears oscillating back and forth, and with each swing of the balance wheel the hands move forward at a constant rate. He’d wanted the watch for a while, was giddy with anticipation, and that’s how it feels, my hidden recovery. Groundwork, I don’t know for what, but I hear a constant tick tick tick in the background.
(C) Alexandra Burt, Berkley, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
A wealthy woman suspects something is off about the luxurious complex she lives in . . . and she is right, in this riveting domestic-suspense novel from international bestselling author Alexandra Burt.
Donna Pryor lives in the lap of luxury. She spends her days in a beautifully appointed condo. Her every whim is catered to by a dedicated staff, and she does not want for anything.
Except for news of her adult daughter.
Or an ex-husband who takes her calls.
Donna knows something is wrong, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. As her life of privilege starts to feel more and more like a prison, the facade she has depended on begins to crumble. Somewhere in the ruins is the truth, and the closer Donna Pryor gets to it, the more likely it is to destroy her.
About Alexandra Burt
Alexandra Burt is a freelance translator. Born in Europe, she moved to Texas twenty years ago. While pursuing literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. After years of writing classes and gluttonous reading, her short fiction appeared in fiction journals and literary reviews. She lives in Texas with her husband and daughter.