Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
Elongating my short torso in the leather chair, I crossed my legs and adjusted my skirt to hide my Mediterranean assets. With a pound of makeup caking her feminine features, the woman looked ready for the runway, not tennis at the country club. Seconds seemed like minutes before she turned and scorched me with her stare.
A thousand ice splinters pricked my fingers, the numbness scaling my arms, then slowly, like an ice sculpture in July, I started to melt.
“This is Mrs. Lewandowski, the mother of the boy Matt assaulted.”
I shifted to find a comfortable position. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Lewandowski.” The poster mom for lifestyles of the rich and snobbish glared down her perfectly sculpted nose toward me. “I … I don’t know what got into him.”
Matt slumped in a chair in the corner of the room. His arms crossed over his blue blazer, face contorted. When had the light gone from his steel blue eyes?
“How in the world can Todd sing in the Christmas musical with a broken nose?” Mrs. Lewandowski gracefully flailed her tanned hands with perfect French-manicured nails. A large diamond ring adorned her slender finger.
Hiding my pinky nail under my Coach bag, I uncrossed and crossed my legs. My lip quivered, then trembled as I pushed out another apology. “I’m so sorry.”
“His father is going to be furious. Talent scouts will be in the audience. Do you know how hard it is to get noticed in a small town like ours?”
Ironically, I understood all too well. “I know it won’t make up for what Matt did, but I’d be happy to pay for the medical bills.” I peeked at Matt, gnawing on a hangnail, oblivious to our conversation.
“Oh, you’re right about that. You will pay. A lot more than medical bills. Expect a call from my lawyer.” She glared at Matt, then at me. “How you ever got accepted in to this fine institution, I’ll never understand, but you can be sure I will see to it that there are stricter acceptance requirements from now on.”
My facial muscles tensed as I suppressed tears, fighting the stereotype, pushing away the judgment I had lived with most of my life. A cacophony of emotion threatened to destroy the person I toiled so hard to create. I wouldn’t let her see me fall apart.
Mrs. Lewandowski stood. “Now if there’s nothing more to discuss here, I need to check on my son.” She turned on her heels and stalked out of the office.
I looked at Mr. Fielding, leveling my voice. “What happens now?”
“The officer should return soon. He’s with Todd Lewandowski and his father taking a statement in the nurse’s office.”
Five minutes of agonizing silence later, a policeman stepped into the room, his truck-driver paunch hanging over his utility belt. It wasn’t hard to tell he was a coffee and donut man. The wet spot on his dark blue shirt and crumbs in his mustache took the mystery out of his diet.
“Mrs. Duggins, I’m Officer Taylor.” He extended his hairy paw. The black dirt under his fingernails threatened to soil my hands. I reluctantly shook it. “Seems like we got ourselves a little situation here. The Lewandowski boy says Matt attacked him without provocation.”
Matt shot from his seat. “That’s a lie. He started it.”
I glared at my brother, but he stood, eyes challenging.
“Why don’t you tell us what happened?” Officer Taylor opened his notepad. With the cap of his pen, he dug in his ear. My stomach lurched. Thankfully, it was empty or there’d be another stain on Officer Taylor’s uniform.
Matt shoved his hands in his wrinkled khaki pants, the ones I picked up from the dry cleaners yesterday. “I was standing in the lunch line, minding my own business, when he shoves past me and cuts me in line. He grabbed the last brownie and whispered something to his friend. I told him to say it to my face, then he called me a white-trash low-life orphan.”
Officer Taylor scribbled in his notepad. “Then what happened?”
“Someone bumped him, and his tray fell. He shoved me, and my tray fell. That’s when I hit him. It was self defense.”
“Seems Todd Lewandowski has a similar story to tell.”
Breath whooshed from my lungs. I knew this was all a misunderstanding.
Officer Taylor stared at Matt. “Problem is, he says
cut him in line, called him a spoiled wuss, grabbed the last brownie, and hit him in the nose when he called you a white-trash low-life orphan.”
“That’s a lie!”
Officer Taylor’s unibrow rose high on his thick forehead. “He didn’t call you a white-trash low—”
“No, that’s the truth. But I didn’t call him a spoiled wuss. I’d think of a more creative insult.” Matt smirked. “And
grabbed the last brownie.”
“The Lewandowskis are still pressing charges. I’ll be talking to eyewitnesses. There were a lot of people in the cafeteria. It shouldn’t take long to get to the truth.”
“What about Matt’s suspension? If the boy provoked him, why suspend Matt?”
Mr. Fielding stood and walked to the front of his desk. “Mrs. Duggins, no matter who started it, Matt still broke Todd’s nose. How long he is suspended will be determined by Officer Taylor’s report. When he finishes his investigation I’ll take this to the review board. If the other boy provoked your son as Matt says, then he will be dealt with accordingly.”
I turned to the officer. “Can I take him home now?”
Officer Taylor handed Matt a sheet of paper. “If it’s okay with your legal guardian, I’ll need you to put everything you said in writing.”
After Matt filled out the police report and signed his suspension papers, we headed to the parking lot in silence. I surveyed the area, making sure the lot was empty.
“Matt, how could you hit that boy? You know better than to fight violence with violence. Why can’t you live up to your namesake?”
“You’ve got to be kidding? I was named after an Egyptian goddess. Thanks for suggesting it, sis.”
I sighed. “We’ve been through this a hundred times. Matt’s a perfectly good name. I was young, studying Egypt in high school—” And Fletcher in college. “I thought it’d be cool to name you Ma’at. Not after the goddess, but the principle. Ma’at represents the laws and concept of right and wrong, which are characterized by truth and a respect for life and relationships. It’s a noble name. Lucky for you mom went with the traditional spelling.”
“Yeah, lucky for me. No thanks to you.”
“We’re getting off the subject.”
“And what’s that?”
“What you did today goes against everything this family believes in and stands for.”
“Right … like trying to have the nicest clothes and car. The biggest house and most prestigious job to make up for you not being able to hold on to Jack?”
His words cut deep, but I held my expression, not giving him the satisfaction seeing how much it stung .
“I never wanted to go to that stupid school in the first place. You live your life. I’ll live mine. At least I’m not a hypocrite. I’ll meet you at home.” He shoved past me, hands in his pockets. “I wish Mom and Dad were alive.”
I choked down the jabs, not sure how much more I could take. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To my Jeep.”
“I don’t think so. I’m revoking your license.”
He whirled around. “You can’t do that.”
“Watch me. I’m still your guardian while you live in my house. Hand over your keys.”
He pulled his keys from his pocket and slapped them in my palm. “How will I get my Jeep?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll have Danny pick it up.”
“Sure, Danny. The one you gave my room to.”
“We agreed it’d be a good idea to rent the game room above the garage, especially with college in your future.” And Jack leaving.
“We didn’t agree, you decided.”
“That’s not what I remember.”
“You and Jack promised it to me on my thirteenth birthday. You said when I was sixteen I could move in. But then you gave it to some stranger.”
I couldn’t blame Matt for feeling slighted. We did promise to give him that room when he turned sixteen. But that was when Jack was still around and before I tried to placate my hurt and maxed all but one of my credit cards adjusting to life as a single mom. Renting the room helped, but I was counting on Matt receiving an academic scholarship to college.
Fat chance now. Jack made it clear before he left he wouldn’t be responsible for Matt since he wasn’t his kid, though he’d loved him like a son for eight years. Now it fell on me to provide for Matt’s future. I needed that job at KTXL more than ever.
I clicked open the door to my BMW. Matt slid in the front. I hesitated at the driver side. I didn’t want to fight any more. Not today. Closing my eyes, I drew in a breath, imaging a white sandy beach with ocean waves crashing against the shore. I exhaled, opened my eyes, and climbed inside. Time on the dash slapped me back to reality. 12:57. If I made all the green lights I might be on time for my 1:15 nail appointment. Matt would have to deal with sitting in the salon for a while. I hit the gas and peeled out of the parking lot.
Glancing at my disheveled brother, I wondered where last year’s honor student had gone. There was no excuse for his deteriorating behavior. I wasn’t the perfect mom, but Matt didn’t know how lucky he was he didn’t have to live under our father’s roof for the last ten years.
Matt slipped on his earbuds. “I’m hungry,” he mumbled above the rock music seeping from his iPhone.
Hunger didn’t begin to describe the gnawing in my stomach. “So am I, but we’ll have to wait. I can’t miss my nail appointment.” I held up the jagged, chewed-off nail. He ignored me, bopping his head and drumming his imaginary drum sticks to the beat. “Are you listening to me?”
When was the last time he listened to me? I spoke my nail tech’s name into my phone. It went to voicemail. “Dawn, it’s Mari. I’m running a few minutes late, but I’ll be there as fast as I can.” I ended the call and glimpsed my hideous nails.
“Watch out!” Matt grabbed the dashboard.
I looked left of the intersection where a dilapidated car gunned for my BMW. My heart hit the sunroof, then floated back into my chest. Images flashed before my eyes, moving one frame at a time, not of my past, but of a future without me in it. I clutched the wheel, the vehicle coming faster and faster. Closer and closer. With no sign of braking.
EYES WIDE AND DRY, I locked on the runaway car about to run a red light, its headlights aiming for me like my hood was a giant bull’s-eye. Instead of the old Cadillac stalling, my breath did. I sucked in oxygen and gunned the gas, losing control halfway through the intersection. The car fishtailed. I slammed on the brakes. Screeching tires. Burning rubber. A loud, crunching thud.
My head jerked right, then left, bouncing off a cushion instead of the side window. Air bobbed in my throat, I spun into oncoming traffic. Horns screamed along with Matt as he gripped the seat cushion. My pulse stampeded, my life teetering on the edge of uncertainty.
Please, please, please, please, please!
Cold hands, almost numb, gripped the steering wheel, fighting, fighting, fighting for control. I gunned the engine, barely missing a minivan, escaped to the right lane, jumping the curb as I mashed the brakes. The car jerked to a stop. I swatted something in my face. The deflating air bag. Unscathed, I exhaled, energized and invincible like I had dodged death’s henchmen.
“Mari Duggins. I’m here for you.” The comforting, angelic voice sent my heart into V-fib. Maybe I hadn’t cheated fate after all. I searched for the big, fluffy wings and white, flowing gown. Nothing. Just as I expected.
“Matt?” I turned to see his face swallowed in the collapsing airbag. White, dusty powder hung in the air. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I think so,” he said, hacking up white powder.
My cheek stung. I glanced in the mirror at the red splotch on my face.
“Mari Duggins, please respond. We’ve detected an airbag deployment. Medical assistance is on the way.”
“Mari, the car’s talking to you.”
The Assist Safety plan.
“Yes, we’re okay.” I squeaked through my burning throat, thankful
was looking out for us. I pushed the door, but it wouldn’t budge. “Matt, try your door.”
He tugged at the handle but it wouldn’t open. “It’s locked.”
I unlocked the door and climbed out to inspect the damage. A crushed driver’s side wheel and front end. No way was I driving away from this accident.
The pounding in my head deepened as I wobbled toward the other driver whose car had sideswiped a telephone pole. Every part of me ached. The man in the totaled vehicle stared straight ahead. Blood dripped down his right temple from a big gash on his forehead. I cringed.
“Are you okay?” My stomach tightened when he didn’t respond. With shaky hands and voice, I knocked on the driver’s side window. “Sir, are you okay?”
He turned and scowled. Penetrating, callous eyes strangled my thoughts. I’d seen that look a hundred times before. With slow steps, I retreated, my eyes locked on his as he pushed open his door. Tremors shook my limbs while I quivered silent apologies.
“Am I okay?” His words slurred as he stepped closer.
I stared at my car, wanting to flee, but stood paralyzed.
“Does it look like I’m okay?” He touched the gash on his forehead. Wild eyebrows danced above raging, bloodshot eyes as he flailed his arms. “Who do you think you are in your fancy car, running red lights?” Foul whiskey breath turned my stomach.
I gagged on the familiar odor, then found my voice. “I’m sorry … it was an … accident.” Drinking in a long, empowering breath, I found my resolve. I wasn’t six anymore. And he wasn’t my father.
“Think you don’t have to follow the law?” He stumbled closer. “Probably talking on your fancy phone.”
I shuffled backward as he shouted obscenities like machine gun fire. Turning to take cover, I saw a police car. But before my nerves settled, anxiety spiked as the policeman stepped from the cruiser and plodded toward me. I hung my head, but no amount of cowering could hide my shame from Officer Taylor.
“Mrs. Duggins?” His gentle voice surprised me. “Are you hurt?”