Authors: Katia Lief
Next Time You See Me
opened my eyes moments before Ben cried. It was the same every morning, as if our bodies were aligned with the sun. I would wake up just in time to see the first trickle of light seep around the edges of the blackout shades on our bedroom windows, banishing the gray from the white walls, revealing the gold bicycle and silver moon in the framed poster across from our bed, and I would hear it: a hum, at first, and then a moan that transformed into my name. Not my name, exactly—not Karin—but
. The first time he’d called me that, about six months ago, I burst into tears. Deluded by half sleep, I had thought for a split second that Cece was calling for me; and then I remembered that she had been gone for over five years. The memory of her small, murdered body, her bloody room, flashed at me. I had to shake my head to disperse the image.
As I moved to get up and go to Ben, Mac’s fingertips ran lightly down my back. His touch startled me; I hadn’t realized he was awake.
“I’ll go,” he said.
“I don’t mind.”
I lay back in bed and closed my eyes, listening as my husband’s footsteps crossed our room into the hall, as the toilet flushed, as he walked into Ben’s room across from ours, as a mournful “Mommy?” became a gleeful “Daddy!” Silence as the diaper was changed. And then Mac carried Ben to our bed, saying, “I have a present for you.” Ben snuggled beside me, and I breathed in his sweet first-morning smell, and ran my fingers through his hair, dark brown like Mac’s before it went half gray. We cuddled until Mac returned a few minutes later with two cups of coffee and the morning paper. Before heading into the bathroom to shower and shave, he turned on the TV and Ben crawled to the foot of our bed where he sat bolt upright watching
“It’s already hot out,” Mac told me, having opened the door to retrieve the newspaper from the front stoop. “Want me to put on the AC?”
“Not yet.” I hated the grind of the air conditioners as much as I liked how they dried up the spongy end-of-August heat. Soon it would be autumn and we’d have the respite of cool breezes. I sat up, sipped my coffee, opened the newspaper against bent knees. After fifteen minutes of browsing the front section I picked up the business section and was greeted by Mac’s face. He had recently been interviewed by a reporter about his new job.
“They ran the article today.”
I got out of bed with the newspaper and tapped on the locked bathroom door. “It’s me. Open up.” We still weren’t ready to let Ben see the constellation of scars covering Mac’s body, the vivid reminder of our former lives as detectives. Someday we would have to tell our son the story of what happened to us in our encounters with JPP—Just Plain Psycho, the simplest way to think of the team of serial killers who brutally murdered my first husband and child, and nearly stole Mac’s life as well. Someday, but not yet. Right now, Ben was an innocent toddler in what could possibly be the sweetest year of his life; at least that’s how I remembered the year between one and two with my daughter, Cece, before the terrible twos struck with a vengeance. She barely made it to three. Eventually, gradually, the world would rob Ben of his innocence. And someday, when the time was right, we would fill in the details.
The bathroom door swung open and there was Mac, naked but for a towel wrapped around his lower half, his chest and back speckled with the tough little whitish scars. Just below his left collarbone was the nickel-sized tattoo of a lavender dahlia he’d gotten in a bout of adolescent rebellion when his father was pressuring him to go to college so he wouldn’t end up in the family business, running the hardware store; in the end, he decided his father was right and gave up his resistance, but the tattoo remained. He’d once joked that he didn’t need to explain his life to anyone, he could just lift his shirt and his history would be revealed in the ruinous alterations of his skin.
Half his face was slathered in foam (erasing the cleft in his chin) and the other half was cleanly shaven. I held up the newspaper for him to see the photograph of himself sitting behind his desk at the corporate headquarters of Quest Security, above a caption reading:
Seamus “Mac” MacLeary was recently promoted to senior vice president of Forensic Security,
and below the headline “MacLeary Replaces Stein in Sudden Shift at Quest.”
“He said it would run sometime early this week and that he’d give me a heads-up.”
“Which he didn’t do.”
“Who knows? I haven’t checked my e-mail all weekend.” He peered at himself in the newspaper. “I’m still not sure it was such a good idea.”
“You’re in the private sector now,” I reminded him. “Fair game. And that kind of promotion always comes with scrutiny, especially since Deidre was well liked.”
“True.” He shook his head. “Did you read it? What does it say about her?”
I skimmed the article, looking for Deidre’s name. “It says ‘. . . who was let go abruptly last week in an alleged pay-for-play corruption scandal involving an exchange of money for altered forensic testimony in a high-profile legal case.’ That’s all it says.”
“Alleged,” Mac said. “That’s good. They’ll have to
she cheated. It makes me sick to get her job this way.” It had been his mantra the entire week since Deidre had been forced out. His other mantra had been: “I hope she countersues for race discrimination or sex discrimination, take your pick.”
I had met Deidre a few times, briefly. She was a light-skinned black woman in her middle thirties, with an impeccable educational pedigree and a reputation as an effective manager and a tough cookie. Mac had worked with her for over a year and had always thought highly of her. Watching her get the axe, seeing himself moved abruptly into her position, had pained him; but he was no wilting lily, having been a cop for two decades, and he dutifully took the job.
“Good news and bad news,” he had said upon returning home one night a week ago. “What do you want first?”
I had stared at him, unwilling to answer. He knew I didn’t want it if it was bad news.
“Okay,” he plunged in, “good news first: I got a huge raise. Bad news is they went through with it. Deidre’s out. I’m the boss now.”
I had to remind him to focus on the positive: A promotion of that caliber was an honor, not to mention that his pay raise would be a boon to us as I was bringing in nothing at the moment besides my disability income (those checks were another sad reminder of how my life and work had fatefully collided). Motherhood had slowed my progress toward a college degree but I was still plugging along, taking courses in forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in slow preparation for my second career. After a couple of margaritas at the local Mexican restaurant over the weekend, Mac had joked that we should both ditch our last names and call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Forensic. I laughed, but couldn’t help wondering if the comment betrayed disappointment that I had stayed Karin Schaeffer, holding on to my first husband’s last name, especially since Mac’s first wife, Val, gave up MacLeary to become Ng when she remarried.
He patted dry his face and kissed me. His skin carried the spicy scent of the aftershave I’d given him for Father’s Day as a kind of joke. Next year maybe he’d get a tie. The year after, a golf ball paperweight. For Mother’s Day, so far, he hadn’t risked a silly gift but had taken the challenge to please me seriously: beautiful earrings, a lush silk scarf.
“Have time for breakfast?” I asked him.
The phone rang and on his way back into the bedroom to get dressed, he answered it, repeating “Hello?” twice before hanging up.
“Who was that?”
“I hate that guy.”
A minute later the phone rang again, caller ID announcing NYPD—New York Police Department. I answered.
“Karin, it’s Billy. So Mac’s famous now!” Detective Billy Staples, from Brooklyn’s Eighty-fourth Precinct—our very own—had become Mac’s closest friend since he’d quit the Maplewood Police, moved here, married me, and started a new life. “How’s it feel to be hitched to a big shot?”
“You’ll have to convince him he’s a big shot yourself.” I passed the phone to Mac, who took it between shoulder and ear as he finished buckling his belt.
went into a sketch change and I used the opportunity to switch off the TV and transition Ben to breakfast time.
“Can’t tonight,” I heard Mac say. “Karin’s got a class.” He listened, then looked at me and asked, “Friday? He’s busy every other night.”
“Friday we have our dinner at the Union Square Café!” My tone reminded him how important it was: Our second wedding anniversary was less than a week away. Accustomed to doing things out of sync (I was five months’ pregnant when we got married), we had settled for a Friday night reservation when we couldn’t get one for our actual anniversary on Saturday. We’d had the reservation for over a month.
Mac cringed, embarrassed he’d forgotten, and whispered to me, “Wants to take me out for a drink to celebrate.”
“Go tonight,” I said. “I’ll ask Mom to babysit.”
They arranged to meet after work at a bar on Smith Street called Boat.
I handed Ben to Mac—handsome in his crisp gray suit, white shirt, and blue paisley tie—and he carried our little boy upstairs while I scrolled open both window shades, flooding the bedroom with light.
I had served in the army. Been a cop and a detective. Had my life, heart, soul, and mind eviscerated by a madman and his muse. And yet here I was, alive and well, on a bright summer morning. If happiness was possible for a person like me, this was it.
t was past eleven that night when I got off the subway after my first class of the new semester, The Psychopath in Criminology and Drama. It was what they called a psychology ISP course, meaning interdisciplinary studies, and though I found it odd to be studying psychopathology in the context of, basically, TV and movies—because they usually got it so badly wrong, aggrandizing and blundering through situations that in real life were always awful and never had an ounce of redemption of any kind; for real cops and real victims, the idea of poetic justice was a really bad joke—the professor had made it interesting, and anyway, it was a required course.
I turned down my block, yawning, and hoped Mom had set herself up in the spare room and called it a night. Ben would have been asleep for hours by now, and I hadn’t realized how late eleven would feel when I’d asked her to sit. Our block was dark and quiet but there were a few people out, which made me feel safe; having lived in the city for a few years now, I’d grown more fearful of the isolation and stillness of suburbia, exurbia, and countryside than the urban reality of living with every variety of stranger. The way I saw it, most strangers would help you in a pinch.
When I got to my house, I paused to retrieve my keys from my purse, and noticed that I had left my phone on silent mode. I turned on the sound and it immediately beeped seven times. My mother, it seemed, had repeatedly tried to reach me. My pulse accelerated at the thought of all the things that might have happened to Ben: falling down a flight of stairs, choking on his dinner, drowning in his bath.
I hurried up the stoop and opened the front door into the parlor level where our living room, dining room, and kitchen shared a large, high-ceilinged space replete with ornate architectural details that had survived innumerable paint jobs since the nineteenth century. All the lights were on and it was way too quiet.
She came running up the stairs when she heard my voice. I could tell she had been lying down because her short rust-red hair was squished on one side. But she hadn’t been sleeping; her eyes looked weirdly awake for this time of night.
“Is Ben okay?”
“He’s fine. Sleeping.” She burst into tears and pulled me into a tight hug.
“What’s wrong? Why did you call me so many times?”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“I turned off the sound so it wouldn’t disturb the class. What’s going on?”
“And Mac, I’ve been calling him, too, but he left his cell phone here when he stopped in earlier to change. I called him and I heard it ringing. How can both of you be unavailable when you leave your child with someone else?”
“Didn’t you do that before cell phones?”
“We always left an itinerary with phone numbers of the restaurant, the movie theater, a friend’s house, wherever we were.”
“You could have called the school.”
. The switchboard answered with voice mail. You had to have an extension to dial in, and I didn’t.” Her tone had turned almost angry.
I pulled away and looked at her, half a foot from me, crying. She had grown lonelier and more sensitive since my father passed away and Jon, my only sibling, moved his family across the country to Los Angeles. I wouldn’t have called her neurotic and yet she was behaving strangely.
“What happened, Mom?”
“The Bronxville Police called here tonight . . .”
Bronxville was the Westchester town, just outside the city, where Mac had grown up.