novels
Who is Kate Pepper

Here She Lies

Chapter One

Here She Lies

Sunlight poured through our front door's stained-glass window, splashing the floor with an impressionistic rainbow. My two large suitcases sat at the ready; everything I needed for the next few months was in them, plus various sizes of clothes for Lexy to grow into. I stood there, stunned by the reality of what was happening; I was really doing it: I was leaving my husband. Stood there, in this moment that felt too heavy and too long, torn between letting my baby daughter finish her morning nap, and waking her up and leaving.

I decided I should wake her or we could miss our plane. And, truthfully, I was afraid of another fight with Bobby. Our arguments at this point were just filler; we had been through this for months already and nothing had changed. But before I reached the bottom of the staircase I heard his footsteps, steady echoes from the direction of the kitchen, and I turned to face him.

"What's this?" he asked.

"I can't anymore."

There he was, my handsome husband—sandy-brown hair still unbrushed from bed, plaid pajama bottoms and an old T-shirt advertising a dentist in Oregon, ocean-blue eyes searching my face—stricken that I was making good on my threat to leave him. There was a smudge of newsprint ink on his cheek; he had been reading in the kitchen. I wanted to cry, but didn't. Bobby was the love of my life and even now, in the middle of this stalemate, I wanted to move in his direction. I wanted his hands on my skin and my nose in his neck and his breath in my ear. But he was having an affair with some woman who was just delirious over him; he was wining her and dining her and gifting her in a romantic torrent he had not afforded me during our brief courtship. All on our joint credit card, making it so obvious he might as well have brought her home to dinner. He'd denied the affair; disavowed all the unimaginative charges (books of poetry, flowers, candy; not an original gesture on the list, but even so...). I had wanted to believe him—I tried—but if it wasn't true then why had the charges started up again on our new cards even after we'd cancelled the old ones? And why had she written to him again, just today?

"Annie, please." He stepped toward me; but I shook my head.

"I want you to read something." I opened my purse, balanced atop one of the suitcases, withdrew the e-mail I'd printed out that morning and handed it to him. He disliked computers and rarely checked his e-mail himself; lately, since all this had started, I had taken to checking it for him.

I watched him, now standing in the colorful puddle of light, as he read the letter. It was without a doubt the most painful one yet, describing his body in accurate detail: the way his collarbones seemed to spread like wings when he was above you, making love. The first time I'd read it, seeing him over her brought such crisp pain I'd had to lift my eyes off the page. By the third and fourth readings, I was stoic; and by the fifth, in my imagination, I saw him fly away. She began the e-mail using his childhood nickname, Bobbybob, and ended it with a flourish of intimacy that nonetheless concealed her name: Lovyluv.

His hand, and the letter, fell to his side. "I've told you so many times: I don't know who's sending these."

"I never thought you'd lie to me."

"I'm not."

"So all those love letters are fictitious?"

"Annie, please—"

"And all those credit card charges?"

"Why won't you believe me?"

"I've been wanting to ask you," I said, "and please tell the truth: Would you have even married me if I hadn't gotten pregnant?"

"This is exhausting, Annie."

"It would help me to know."

"I didn't marry you because you were pregnant, I married you because I love you; the pregnancy just sped things up." He stepped toward me and reached for my arm, saying, "Don't go."

Reflexively, I moved away; and tripping over the nearest suitcase I fell against the door. My sweater-clad elbow pressed into the bottom edge of the stained glass and the first thing I thought was how soft it was as the lead seams bowed under pressure. The next thought: Who would know how to fix such a window? I regained my balance and stepped away from the door. Fixing it wasn't my problem anymore. I was leaving.

"What about Kent?" he asked. "When are you going to tell him?"

Outside, a bird sang a sudden, tremulous spring song. I kept my voice low and steady because I knew this information would convince him I was serious: "Bobby, I already quit; I called Kent this morning at home. I've been thinking about this for a while. I have another job lined up in New York."

His face, already pale from last winter, went ashen. Bobby was nineteen years into his career as a physical therapist in the U.S. Public Health Service; in one year, he could retire with bounteous lifelong benefits. Me, I was just two years in and I didn't care anymore. After Lexy was born I'd had only six weeks off before jumping back on track, and our workday at the prison began at seven a.m. I didn't want to drop my baby off at daycare in the pitch dark morning ever again.

"Annie, don't leave me." The strain in his voice, the regret, the yearning, was painful to hear. "I'll find a way to show you you're wrong."

Then show me! But I didn't say it because that plea had been my mantra and yet—nothing. I was finished waiting; this latest e-mail was the last straw. Lately I'd wondered if he had met her while I was still pregnant with Lexy, toward the end when we weren't having sex anymore. Julie, my twin sister, had told me that's just what happened to a friend of hers: a loving marriage, a wanted baby, and then the husband couldn't tolerate a couple months of abstinence and he "roamed." Like he was a cow who'd wandered through a broken fence. I'd never thought Bobby could do such a thing. Never. Julie's friend hadn't, either; but then you never do.

"I'm going to wake her," I said, "or we'll miss our flight."

"Where are you going?"

"To Julie's."

His face seemed to clamp at the mention of her name; no surprise to me: I'd always figured that, deep down, he was jealous of the closeness I shared with my twin.

As I walked toward the stairs, he followed me. "Annie, please—please don't take Lexy away from me."

"I'm sorry," I said. And I was. Sorry. Sad. Out of rationalizations. Finished with begging for what he couldn't seem to give me: the simple truth, and an end to the affair.

I went upstairs to get Lexy. Quiet footsteps on the pale carpet Bobby and I had chosen together, an impractical but beautiful shade of champagne. He would be lonely by himself in this house. (Would he bring her here?) I could feel its emptiness and I wasn't even gone yet; I was still here, Lexy was still asleep in her very own crib, I could still change my mind, we could stay, we could stay....

Lexy's bedroom doorknob was cool in my hand. It clicked when I turned it.

Morning light edged the pulled-down window shades, creating a silvery half-darkness. Lexy's breaths were long and deep and her room smelled baby-sweet. It was a good sized room, with butter-yellow walls trimmed in white. Two built-in corner bookcases held whatever things she had collected in the five months of her life. Dolls, books, colorful objects that made all kinds of sounds when you moved them.

On a high shelf of one bookcase was the collection of tiny hand-blown glass cats and kittens from the summer my parents took us to Italy, when Julie and I were seven. It was the July before they got divorced, a final and typically dramatic try at making their marriage work. It was a fun summer, though; Julie and I played happily beneath marital thunder clouds inside the ancient stone walls surrounding the Florentine rental castle where we stayed for four whole weeks. We were the kind of kids who didn't worry about things unless we had to, believing that our twin-bond protected us from hazard (we may have actually still believed this, now, at the age of thirty-three). Being together always felt like safety in a storm.

The way our parents finally broke the news was this: Dad left the house, and Mom sat us down in the living room (we were still in our matching pink nightgowns; the new school year hadn't yet started) and said in her cheerful way, "Daddy and I have decided that enough is enough. There won't be any more fighting." Their divorce was final before Christmas. Under the tree that year my mother wrapped my glass cats in purple tissue paper with a green ribbon. Julie's cats were wrapped in green paper with purple ribbon. We had watched the glass blower make the tiny cats and even tinier kittens but never knew our parents had gone back to buy them for us.

Now I wrapped my glass cats in tissues and eased the soft square into my sweater's pocket. Well, Julie's sweater; she had forgotten it here on her last visit in March and I was wearing it to return to her tonight. (It was a wonderful sweater, an expensive Oilily with pink and orange flowers shifting dominance depending on the angle of the light, creating a hallucinogenic effect. It reminded me of the old Cheerios boxes Julie and I would stare at during childhood breakfasts, shifting our gazes to catch another invisible, floating O.) I noticed that one of the sweater's six large, distinctive flower-shaped buttons had fallen off—and for a moment I panicked. But I had no time to search for a button now.

Lexy was asleep on her stomach even though I'd left her on her back; she had only recently started turning over. I ran my hand lightly down her back to let her body know Mommy was there, then carefully picked her up and positioned her over my shoulder so she could keep sleeping. Her eyes fluttered open then fell shut again. I detoured to my bedroom for one more glance to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything and discovered that I had: the novel I was in the middle of reading. The Talented Mr. Ripley had been keeping me up nights, distracting me from my troubles, and I needed to finish it. Steadying Lexy, I dipped at the knee and took the slender paperback in my free hand.

Downstairs, I transferred Lexy to Bobby's shoulder so he could hold her while I put the suitcases into the trunk of the car. I figured I owed him that. At first he wouldn't follow me outside into the bright morning, instead staying in the front hall with our baby sleeping floppily over his shoulder. It was the week our cherry tree was in full bloom, with a few pink petals on the dappled shadows of our front lawn, and I got the feeling the perfect beauty of the tree and the clear sunlight would pain him more than he could handle at the moment. I did feel sorry for him. But I had to go.

"Okay," I whispered. "I'll take her now."

He didn't move. I could see him drinking her in, smelling her, feeling her. I gave him another moment before slipping my hands under her arms and shifting her back to my shoulder. This time she woke up. She took a deep yawn and settled her weight into me.

"I'll park in Long Term and leave the ticket under the mat so you can get the car," I said.

"How will I get to the airport to get the car and then drive it back? I'm just one person." His eyes teared up and for the first time I saw a fleck of gray in his left eyebrow, just one lone hair. In the past months he had sprouted silver at his temples and his face had become a fretful map. He had twelve years on me and he would grow old first. I'd always known that and it had never bothered me. I wondered now if his affair was some kind of mid-life crisis. Was that what this was?

"Oh, Bobby. You'll figure it out. Ask someone to go with you."

He knew who I meant. Her. The mystery woman. Lovyluv.

"You're making a real mistake," he said. "This is a marriage. We have a child."

But I still believed that if he really wasn't having an affair, if the love letters and credit card charges were really part of some hoax, he would have found a way to prove it. I kept hoping he would. Even up to the last minute, after I'd strapped Lexy into her car seat, my heart was primed...but all he could do as I got into the car was turn around and walk back into the house. He kept his eyes down, on the flagstone path, refusing to even glance at the cherry tree. I drove away. In the rear view mirror I could see his chest rising and falling.

He was weeping, I was weeping.

He shut the door.

I turned the corner off our street and began the long day's journey from our home in Lexington, Kentucky to my sister's house in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.

It was five o'clock when I carried my restless baby off the plane at Albany International Airport. I changed her diaper in the ladies room, brushed my hair and refreshed my pale pink lipstick (usually the only makeup I wore, an irrational yet effective source of confidence; the putting-on-of-lipstick in a mirror was something we had often watched our mother do: the stretched lips, the steady eye, the smooth stroke of color). Then I gathered our bags and sat for twenty minutes to nurse her. My cell phone service had no network this far east so I had to find a working pay phone to let Julie know we'd landed on time.

"Expect us by seven. And Julie, don't hold dinner."

"I never eat before seven, anyway."

Having grown accustomed to late-afternoon dinners (Bobby and I were in bed by eight-thirty to be up at five, daycare at six-thirty, work by seven) I had forgotten how skewed my hours had become. Before Kentucky and Bobby and Lexy and the good 'ol Public Health Service, I too used to eat dinner at seven, eight, even nine o'clock.

"I'll have to nurse Lexy as soon as I get there and throw her into bed, so just eat when you're hungry. Did you get the—"

"Crib's all set up. I got the cutest sheets. You'll see."

I had asked her to rent a crib for the summer but Julie being Julie (she was a successful independent marketing consultant, apparently some kind of sought-after guru), she had gone out and bought one.

"Did you—"

"Yes, Annie, I washed the sheets first. Just get in the car and be here, okay?"

By the time we picked up the rental car, Lexy had had enough of traveling and she didn't want to get into the car seat; she wanted to roll around the floor and practice grabbing for toys.

"Just a little longer, sweet baby. Promise."

I ran my hand over her peachy wisps of hair; kissed her forehead, both cheeks, her dimpled chin, her button nose. She laughed, then immediately cried. Her little face screwing up so suddenly brought me to tears. I had felt like crying for hours but hadn't wanted to attract attention to myself on the plane. All day I had felt that everyone could see me for what I really was: a wife who had left her husband; a mother who had taken a child from a father; a woman who had lost hope in a man. Did it show? I knew that from now on, when people mentioned the Goodmans, it would be with the tag line "that broken family." I was Anais (Annie) Milliken-Goodman. (Anna-ees: the French pronunciation. Naming us Anais and Juliet had been a flight of fancy in the romantic early years of our parents' marriage.) Would I drop Goodman from my name? Slice off the dangling hyphen? Go back to square one? If I did, then Lexy and I would officially be Alexis Goodman and Anais Milliken. But I had always wanted to share a last name with my child. Maybe we could drop our last names all together; she could be just Lexy and I could be just Annie. We could start a band. A sob ratcheted up my throat and escaped as a shout. I felt like such a fool. What had I done?

A headache blossomed as the little blue car's engine leapt into gear. The jolt quieted Lexy and I felt guiltily indebted to the sudden, unnerving grind of noise. Poor baby. What did she make of all this? Did she know something momentous was happening today? That the day was a knife carving a groove in our lives between before and after? Maybe I was wrong but I sensed she felt the cut, the separation, as deeply as I did.

Why had Bobby done it? Why hadn't I been enough for him? There was a time I would have bet my soul that he and I were made for each other. With him, I had felt almost as right as I did with my identical twin: one person, joined in separate bodies.

I switched on the radio and we listened to classical music as we drove out of Albany toward the New York-Massachusetts border. When Lexy sighed, deep and long, I felt myself relax a notch. In the rear view mirror I saw she had fallen asleep and I whispered "thank you" to the windshield. Humming along the highway, we consumed the miles to Great Barrington. To Julie's. I had never been to her new house but I felt I was going home. I was as eager to arrive as I had ever been to get anywhere. Home after work. Bed after a tiring day. Birth after labor. Love after loneliness. Resolution after doubt.

After weeks of agony, I had a made a decision. I couldn't just stay there, living with Bobby, sleeping with him, working side by side, wondering who she was. I couldn't agree that black was white or white was black when all I saw were shades of gray. I would not repeat my mother's mistake, accepting my father's lies for years until finally it turned out her suspicions had been correct: he was cheating. It was terrible watching her struggle to recover from her own self-deceptions, her willingness to believe his lies; though in the end she never did recover—cancer got her first. We were only ten when our mother died, leaving me with the conviction that a woman should never compromise on the truth. At twelve, when our father died suddenly in a car accident, I learned that nothing was permanent or real except what you felt in your heart. You had to create your own reality, believe in it and it would make you strong. The old maxim that time is too precious to waste became a vivid reminder to always take action when I was sure of something.

Until Bobby could tell me the truth, there was no going back.

Driving, I thought of something Julie had once said to me, about how she and I were as close as any two people could possibly be. Closer. How even marriage could not compare. It was my wedding day, a cool May afternoon in Kentucky and I was two months pregnant. (Almost exactly one year ago; Bobby and I had not even made our first anniversary.) The night before, she had tried on my wedding dress and it was loose on her. I was already plumping up but not showing yet; for the first time ever, we were not exactly the same size. Standing there in my dress, waiting for my music cue to walk the aisle, she put her hand on my belly and repeated, "Closer."

My wedding day. Our first. Julie's engagement had broken up two years ago, dropping her back into a dating scene that felt more ruthlessly competitive the older you got. When I became pregnant and Bobby and I decided to marry, Julie shared our happiness. She knew, in the deep unspoken way of twins, how in love with Bobby I was. (Though now, looking back, I wondered if he was already seeing her.) In the end only motherhood could compare to the absolute connection Julie and I shared. Romantic love was intoxicating. Toxic. I felt sorry for people who didn't have a twin with whom to entwine when life weakened you; on whose fibers of love and shared memory you could always strengthen yourself. I decided I was not eligible for self-pity, even today, because I had a daughter and a twin sister. Julie and I had clung together through every twist and turn of our lives, ultimately raising each other—at the shoddy Long Island boarding school where our misguided guardian Aunt Pru had placed us immediately after our father's funeral, in the sleepaway camps where she had sent us for two months every summer, and during the single dull week we spent with her annually in California. We had survived all that. I would survive this.

When we finally crossed the border between New York and Massachusetts, we had been on the road for over two hours, not the fifty-seven minutes predicted by the global positioning system suction-cupped to the windshield. Somehow, despite the GPS, I had managed to get lost twice. And a detour to nurse Lexy and change her diaper had inflated into a dinner stop when I realized how hungry I was. By the time we turned the car onto Division Street, Julie's street, a gentle country twilight had eased into that deep purple just before the sky went black. It was almost eight p.m. My body was screaming for sleep and Lexy was just...screaming.

Julie had explained to me that the barn she had bought last year and renovated through the winter was at the crossroads of Division Street and Alford Road. She said it was painted red and would be impossible to miss. Division Street was long and winding and dark, just what you would expect of a country road at night. But then gradually the darkness began to fade. It was like someone had spilled light all over the street, light that spread toward me. Washed over me like a wave, even filled the car. Like the car's starting jolt back at the airport, the brightness of this light quieted Lexy. Her wailing voice simply stopped as we pulled into the flashing arcs of white and blue and red lights.

Police lights.

I felt a sinking inside me, a terrible dread, as I pulled up behind the last of three squad cars parked in front of a big red barn. There was an ambulance. A series of disembodied camera flashes. A stout man wearing a Red Sox baseball cap wrapping yellow police tape around the trunk of a tree, trailing it in search of another anchor. This close, the rotating police lights blinded us each time they swept over our car.

© Katia Lief