Home > I'm Fine and Neither Are You(5)

I'm Fine and Neither Are You(5)
Author: Camille Pagán

“You sure you don’t want me to wait?” Russ asked as I helped the kids out of his car.

“No, you’ve done enough,” I said, even though I was ever so slightly tempted to finally introduce Jenny to the coworker I had been complaining about. “Thank you.”

“Awfully swank place,” he said as he took in Jenny’s midcentury ranch. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and sloping, manicured lawn, it looked like the kind of house you’d expect to see in Architectural Digest . Jenny and Matt had bought it for a song at the bottom of the market, and from what I had gathered spent hundreds of thousands transforming it into their “forever home” (as opposed to the FEMA trailer they must have thought our bungalow was, I sometimes thought when they said this).

“Yes, it is.”

“Even Yolanda’s house isn’t this nice.” He kept staring straight ahead. “Don’t you wonder sometimes?”

“About working in development?”

He shrugged, and I understood that he meant that, but also everything.

“Yes,” I admitted. “All the time.”

No one had answered the door, and the kids, who had run up the stairs, were banging on the windows on either side of the door. “That’s my cue,” I told him. “Thanks again for saving the day.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Stop pounding on the glass, you guys,” I told the kids as I joined them at the front door. I pressed the doorbell once, and then a second time. I was still jittery, but my mind was already leaping ahead. If Sanjay didn’t call me back sometime soon, hopefully Matt or Jenny could drive us home; otherwise I would end up dragging the kids on the mile-long walk. Of course, I still had to find out where my car had been towed and pay what was sure to be an exorbitant fine in order to retake possession of it. But that would have to wait until the following afternoon, because I needed to spend the entire rest of the evening working on the Blatner proposal, then wake at dawn, at which point I would spackle over my exhaustion with concealer and caffeinate myself into—well, if not a charismatic state, then a competent one—

The whir of a car engine cut through my thoughts. I turned to see Matt pulling up in the driveway.

“Penny?” he said as he came striding toward me. Jenny’s husband was movie-star handsome, with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, hazel eyes, and a zero-to-sixty smile that seemed more like a flash of generosity than a facial expression.

“Am I ever glad to see you,” I said. “Have you talked to Jenny? I’ve been trying to reach her for hours now.”

“No . . .” He looked at me curiously, then over at his daughter, who was attempting to work Miles’ curls into a tiny ponytail. “So, you weren’t supposed to pick Cess up?”

Cecily lifted her head at the sound of her name. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Hey, Pumpkin,” he said.

I shook my head. “Jenny didn’t show. The school called you, and so did I. I thought maybe you had surprised her with a trip to Paris.”

Rather than the reassuring laugh I had been aiming for, his eyes glinted with concern. Then he opened the front door and waved us in.

The kids trailed behind me like ducklings, then decamped to the kitchen. As I watched Cecily retrieve snacks from the cupboard, I had a momentary flashback to childhood—scraping the remains of a tub of margarine onto stale, crumbled crackers and placing them in my brother Nick’s hands because there were no clean plates or napkins to use. Cecily had probably never tasted margarine. She certainly knew nothing of the insatiable hunger of being motherless. And yet she was so careful—opening each pack of gummies and handing it to my children before doing the same for herself—that I had the uncanny sense of having rewound and watched some secret footage of my past.

I sat on one of the stools at the marble island separating the kitchen from the rest of the first floor as the kids wandered into the living room.

Miles and Cecily were on the rug, where he was pretending to be some sort of animal to her sadistic zookeeper. Stevie retrieved a book from a bookshelf and sprawled on one of the Sweets’ sofas, which almost made up for everything else that had happened that day. I had been reading to her since she was a baby, waiting anxiously for a sign that she understood the magic that happened when you could interpret the scribbles on a page. But it wasn’t until she started seeing a reading specialist the year before that she began picking up books without me pushing her to do so.

“Jen?” Matt called out in the distance just as Sanjay’s name lit up my phone.

“Aww, you thought of little old me?” I said to my husband when I picked up.

“Want to tell me why I have thirty-two missed calls from you?”

Cecily had mounted Miles’ back, and with a vaguely Russian accent was commanding him to buck like a bronco. “Want to tell me why you didn’t check your voicemail?” I asked Sanjay.

“No one checks voicemail, Pen.” Duh, I heard him add mentally. “So?”

“So, my car got towed.”

He cursed. “That’s going to cost a fortune, you know.”

It took everything in me not to point out that I would be the one paying for it, and that in fact I had already spent the past hour paying for it. “Can you please come get us? We’re at the Sweets’.”

He sighed just loud enough for me to hear. “Okay.”

Behind me, Miles was whinnying. “We’re excited to see you, too,” I said.

“Please don’t give me a hard time. I’m doing what you want without complaining.”

Technically this was true, and it was the exact thing I was always asking him to do. What I had not said—and felt he should have understood—was that I did not just want compliance; I also wanted a hint of enthusiasm. Though by that point, even his not sighing would have been something to celebrate. This was on the tip of my tongue when Matt appeared in my peripheral vision.

“I need to go,” I told Sanjay.

“Traffic is probably nuts right now. It’ll take me at least ten minutes to get there.”

“No problem. Thanks.”

The Sweets’ stairs were large, gleaming slats of hardwood hung on a stainless-steel frame. The gap between each step was wide enough that a small child could easily slip through them; they were “lovely and lethal,” Jenny had said apologetically one of the first times I had come over. She and Matt planned to fix it before they had a second child, she told me, but years had passed since then.

Matt was at the foot of the stairs. The expression on his face instantly reminded me of the blank stare Miles wore when he was sleepwalking and was seconds from mistaking a corner in my bedroom for a urinal.

“Are you okay?” I asked. Stupidly—it was clear he was not.

“No.” He was holding his phone out toward me. I could hear that someone on the other end was speaking, though I could not decipher what they were saying.

The fine hairs on the nape of my neck were still standing at attention. “What is it?”

“It’s . . . Jenny.”

Stop there, I thought. Don’t let your beautiful mouth utter another word. Let’s have one more minute where life is what I believe it to be and everything is fine. And yet I said, “What about her?”

Matt’s eyes were on me, but he was still looking right through me. “I think she’s dead.”

FOUR

But I didn’t have time for Jenny to die.

It was a terrible thought—the selfish, overly rational sort that surfaces before you’ve allowed yourself to admit everything has changed and trivial matters like space and time no longer matter. It was still what first popped into my head as I ran toward Matt.

He stood there, frozen, then handed me the phone and sat down on the last step. I glanced at him before stepping around him.

Upstairs, the hallway looked the same as it ever did: crisp gray walls decorated with a variety of framed candids and professionally shot photos; the wide, gleaming mahogany floor and its Persian runner, which probably cost twice as much as our monthly mortgage payment. No blood anywhere, let alone signs of chaos, I noted, though my heart was still galloping in my chest: dead-dead, dead-dead, dead-dead .

I lifted the phone to my head and heard a voice say, “Sir? Sir, are you there?”

To my left, the spare bedroom was empty. Just beyond it, Cecily’s room was empty, too. “This is Penelope Ruiz-Kar,” I said quietly into the receiver. “I’m . . .”

I’m looking for my friend, who may or may not be alive.

“Can you confirm your location?” asked the woman who had answered what I assumed must have been Matt’s 911 call.

I rattled off the Sweets’ address.

“Ma’am, are you in a safe place?” asked the woman.

Was I? “I think so.”

“Does there appear to be an intruder in the house?”

This possibility had not occurred to me. If there were, Matt would have been behaving differently . . . wouldn’t he? “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure there isn’t.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to advise that you take yourself and anyone else in the home outside while you wait for the police and emergency personnel to arrive.”

“Okay,” I said as I walked into Jenny’s bedroom.

The room was supposed to feel like a sanctuary, at least in its current iteration—Jenny had redecorated it twice since she and Matt had moved in, each time for a feature for her website. In this latest round, she had the walls painted a delicate gray, and the heavy velvet drapes had been replaced with pale cotton curtains and Roman blinds. Her king-size bed was a sea of white linens, and there were plants everywhere—tall fiddle-leaf figs in ceramic pots on the floor, air plants in delicate glass bubbles hanging in front of the windows, orchids in matte-glazed planters on the dressers. Jenny said Matt told her he felt like he fell asleep in the rainforest every night. I had never been clear whether this was a good thing.

   
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