Authors: Eva Lesko Natiello
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Thriller
THE MEMORY BOX
Eva Lesko Natiello
© 2014 Eva Lesko Natiello
This is a work of fiction. Characters, events, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events or actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For Joe, Margaux & Mark
my inner circle
Saturday, April 21, 2007, 9:07 a.m.
he oddest sensation seized me that morning. At first it was subtle, nearly imperceptible, like the onset of a rolling fog. It crept over me with quiet, unsettling determination. I tried to shake it. But the feeling only grew stronger. It permeated my joyful veneer until it snuffed the thrill from my core. I never felt anything like it.
Things weren’t going as planned. I didn’t expect to feel doubt the day I handed him my manuscript. I anticipated pride and celebration. It was a triumph, for God’s sake.
No. On second thought, it wasn’t doubt that wormed its way into my giddy fever. It was something else entirely.
As a warm breeze leaked through the screened window over the sink, I shivered. And grappled with this feeling. It was foreign.
It was fear.
Friday, September 22, 2006, 2:38 p.m.
t’s impossible to un-know a secret. Once you know it, you own it. It can’t be returned like a borrowed book. Or burned like a love letter. The click of a mouse won’t delete it from the conscious mind. It’ll stick to the walls of your memory like dried oatmeal to a dish. The secrets you wish you never knew become a burden to lug. A bowling ball without holes.
Some people are great collectors of secrets. They’re smitten to roll around, like swine, in the muck of them. They are shameless purveyors, gloating with pride to be the bearer of indelicate news.
I am not one of those people. I don’t want to pry into the backstories of others with a crowbar and a meat hook. What’s happened to privacy anymore? Nothing is private. Everything is knowable.
The thing about secrets is they’re mostly regrets, aren’t they? I mean, “good news” secrets aren’t really meant to be kept. Just the embarrassing, shameful kind. Everyone’s said or done something they wish they hadn’t. Maybe they were young and immature, or drunk and displayed temporary poor judgment. Do these things need to be broadcast? Should mistakes be tattooed on forearms?
The latest gossip around town is about a man whose daughter is in Lilly’s third-grade class at Lincoln Elementary School. When he was young
drunk, he took a dare from a frat brother and streaked through the dean’s backyard. Unfortunately for him, he was unaware of a ditch being dug and fell into it, breaking his fibula in the process, which left him stranded to sober up in a dark hole, waiting to be rescued in his birthday suit. One of our neighborhood snoops discovered this by Googling his name. Now this mature adult is living the shame all over again, as the gossipmonger moms of Lincoln Elementary pass their babble baton down a line of eager recipients. I’m surprised by how prevalent this rumor-wielding type is. Even in a place like Farhaven.
Practically everyone in town has been Googled by these women, who in turn cast out their questionable findings like a fistful of feed at the zoo. I make sure to smile warmly whenever I see this dad or any of the other gossip victims at school. It could be any of us. I wouldn’t want to be someone with something to hide in this town.
When they Googled my name—Caroline Thompson—a weeklong joke ensued at my expense. The search elicited only three hits. The skipper of the gossipistas, Gabrielle Callis, gave me the heads-up. “Caroline,” she said, locking her gaze on mine. Unblinking. (She never blinks. Sometimes I want to blow in her eyes to see if that’s physically possible. You’d think the weight of six coats of mascara and the law of gravity would collapse those lashes.) She placed a concerned hand to my forearm. “I wanted to be the first to tell you so you won’t be embarrassed when you hear others talking about it.” I swear she sips from a coffee mug with “Bomb-Dropper” written across it. What’s more, she pays only occasional deference to the facts.
A shrill, nerve-splitting siren comes from the corner of my desk, nearly knocking me out of my chair. Everything on the desk vibrates; even the pencils poking out of their cup knock against each other. I grab the egg timer and silence it while I simultaneously contemplate throwing it out the window. Instead, I return it to its spot. I’m the one who sets the damn thing, and then I’m always shocked when it goes off. Smarty Pants, who a moment ago was sleeping under the desk, sprawled across my foot on his back with his paws sticking into the air like an upside-down coffee table, flips over and rights himself on all fours. He barks and shoots me a look of annoyance. “I’m sorry, sweetie.” I scoop him up and spill him into my lap. “I hate that thing, too.” I kiss the top of his head and rake my fingers through his white, corn silk hair. I lift one of his ears and whisper, “Who’s my best friend?” He follows, as always, with one certain bark. Sometimes I actually think he barks “Me!” which wouldn’t be correct English, but I’d let it slide because he’s so cute.
I have a love/hate relationship with the egg timer–my version of a personal taskmaster. It’s rather adorable–a cracked egg propped up by two little chicken feet–until it goes off. I set it at sixty-minute intervals to track my writing progress. This time, in those sixty minutes I bought Speedos for the girls and searched for a new halibut recipe. Then I got stuck on a website for a yoga retreat in upstate New York.
The time on my computer says 2:43 p.m. If I don’t leave the house in the next three minutes to pick up the girls, the closest parking space I’ll find at school will be in front of my own house.
Before I leave, I reread what I typed in the Google search box.
I don’t know why I haven’t ever Googled myself. I’ve been so glued to my soapbox trashing this voyeuristic time-suck, I’ve brainwashed myself. I’ve got a right to know what people know about me. And I don’t care if it
only three mentions. That’s not embarrassing. Frankly, I’ll be relieved.
It’s a good thing I have no time to devote to this. I click “search.” If there are only three mentions, this isn’t going to take very long, anyway. I check the time. I’ve got two minutes. I quickly scan the first few pages.
The first page has a strip of photos running across it of various Caroline Thompsons. I’m none of them. Who’d guess my name was so common? Once the esteemed potter from Colorado and the college professor from Pensacola are weeded out, as well as a few others I’m thankful I’m not, like the one who’s incarcerated, I read the mentions that look like mine.
All three of them.
Well, at least Gabrielle didn’t make that up!
The first is a review I wrote on Amazon for an electric toothbrush. No wonder people have tons of Google hits if reviews count. The second is for the time I coordinated the used book collection for the Farhaven Public Library. The third—when I headed the Healthy Lunch Committee at Lincoln Elementary.
Dirt like that could land me in
Who cares? At least I don’t have any explaining to do.
I close the document, collect Smarty, and jump in the car to pick up the girls.
When I arrive at Lincoln Elementary, I head toward the third-grade door where I find Vicki on her cell phone. There are clusters of moms and babysitters overlapping like a Venn diagram. Vicki’s wearing head-to-toe moisture-wicking Lycra–her second skin–even on days she’s not teaching a spinning class at the Y. Her head is tipped down and she’s deep in conversation, unaware of my arrival. She repeatedly twirls the ends of her hair. I stand beside her, waiting for her to finish, when I feel a tug at my pant leg. Then a hand rifles through the pocket of my khakis like a crab in a paper bag. It belongs to a two-year-old. My friend Meg’s youngest. She’s looking for a dog biscuit to give Smarty, who is curled up in my cardigan.
“Hiya, Sweetie!” I say. “Don’t you look beautiful in that orange dress! Are those daisies on the pocket?” She nods with her whole body. “Where’s your mommy?” She points behind her without looking. “Do you want to give Smarty Pants a biscuit?” This time she nods with such gusto her dress rocks back and forth like a church bell.
Vicki still has the phone pressed to her ear, though she hasn’t said a word the entire time.
“You still on the phone?” I whisper.
“Not really.” The words sift out of clenched teeth.
Her head stays low while her eyes dart back and forth, then she snaps the phone shut. “I was faking a call.” She leans into me. “I’m not gonna be a sitting goose for her anymore. What, do I have some sign on my head that says ‘please,
accost me with your boring, senseless blabber?’” she hisses without taking a breath.
“That would be a large sign.” I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“No offense, but I don’t want to hear about how her daughter won first place,
, or her son the science genius, blah, blah, blah,” she continues. “She’s insufferable!”
. She ambushed me this morning.”
I look around at the thick mass of moms. “I don’t see her anywhere.”
“Well, don’t let that fool you—she can appear out of nowhere. Like the Wicked Witch of the West. I don’t want to hear any more about that stupid crafts show she’s having at her house. I’m not going.”
“I’m not going, either.” I shrug.
“Well, neither am I. I don’t care that the wife of the pitcher of the Yankees is gonna be there. Or the Mets—” Vicki looks up at the sky for help, “who the hell knows. That’s the only way she can get anybody there anyway. She claims she’s raising money for the ‘have-nots.’ Do you believe she said that?!”
“Sheesh. Altoid?” I flip the top open, trying to distract her.
She straightens up and ignores my offer. “And, I didn’t want to tell you this, ’cause it’s so ridiculous, but when I was volunteering at Field Day last week I heard her tell someone she saw you coming out of Weight Watchers.” She yanks at her jogging top and scratches the skin on her forearm. “Not that anyone would believe it.” Vicki’s attention shifts for a moment to flake a gauzy piece of skin off her arm, post-sunburn. “You’re thinner than your eight-year-olds,” she adds before throwing her phone into her fringed handbag.
” I balk.
The school doors sigh open, and 416 students scurry out like freed lab mice. I spot my girls racing over toward Meg, who’s about twenty feet away clutching the hands of her toddlers as if they’d blow away in the wind.
“Hey, Meg, ready for tonight?” I shout over the heads of others. Expressionless, Meg nods. But not at me. Gabrielle is firing
at her. I think about retracting, but it’s too late. A hand grasps my forearm.
, Gabrielle. Did you hear that, Caroline?” Meg attempts to sound engaged as she now holds my arm for dear life, letting go of her daughter to do so. The little darling blasts off as fast as her tiny legs will take her until she trips on the bulging root of an old maple tree, then begins to wail. Meg’s cue to bolt. Leaving me with the Wicked Witch of the West—who doesn’t miss a beat. Gabrielle simply pivots on the heels of her powder-blue suede loafers to direct the news at me. I subconsciously cross my arms in front of my chest.
“Oh, Caroline, I may as well tell you, too, before you hear it from someone else, no doubt laced with falsehoods.” She tightens the belt on her Burberry trench and takes a deep breath. The veins in her scrawny neck wiggle with excitement. Her head hinges first to the right, then to the left, and says, “It’s confirmed. You-know-whose husband took off with the au pair—back to England. They left yesterday.”
My mouth drops open, and I quickly shut it. No need to give Gabrielle free advertising. “Oh, God—that’s terrible.” I’m sick to my stomach. I was the last holdout to think that it was idle talk, that people were just jealous of the Norwegian au pair who has legs, like chopsticks, up to her ears.
“Well, yes, of course it’s
, but if you ask me, it wouldn’t hurt to pick yourself up a little. Having five children is no excuse for not keeping up on personal maintenance.” She sweeps the flip of hair resting on her right shoulder, and her eyes pluck the crowd to see who she can apprehend next. This is her segue sign—she’s about ready to move on. “Not that getting rid of the gray would have held onto him, but it was time to lose the baby fat at the very least. I’m sure you’d agree.” She fixes back on me. “I hear Weight Watchers is quite successful.”
Gabrielle’s eyes throw a net over her next victim, thank God. She heaves her hand up over her head. “Oh,
Bern—who wears a perpetual look of surprise—is Gabrielle’s chief disciple. In a twitch she’s at Gabrielle’s side, her springing curls still bouncing though her feet have come to a halt. She blows her nose and sticks the tissue up the cuff of her sweater, then gives Gabrielle her rapt attention.
“I’ve got the greatest news …” Gabrielle reports. I’m long gone by the time she spews her next package of poison.
The crowd around school is dwindling. I wave at Vicki who, with her daughter, climbs into her car across the street. It takes Meg a little longer to herd her four urchins from their far-reaching escapes. Lilly and Tessa, in a tight braid of friends, turn their heads toward me and call out in unison, “Hi Mom!”
“Hey, Caroline, I’ll see you later,” Meg calls out as she walks in my direction, the kids dribbling behind. I wait for her to catch up. “Sure you can’t stay for a drink tonight? Andy’s still out of town, isn’t he? Stay for a while,” she says, and we resume walking toward our cars.
“Yeah, he doesn’t come back till Sunday. But I’ve got class tonight. Let’s do something next week. It’ll be easier for me with Andy back. Hey, I heard you ordered a fancy cake for Delia, you want me to pick it up? I’m going into town.”
“Mommy!” Tessa shouts from behind. “Smarty wants to go to the woods!” I didn’t even notice Smarty pulling the leash toward the wooded area behind the school. Tessa runs up and grabs my arm. “Can we let Smarty catch something so Delia can see,
“No, we cannot let him catch something. He’s already been a bad boy once today,” I whisper, “I’ll tell you about that later.”
Tessa turns to Delia and says, “Smarty Pants hunts mice! My mom says he has an identity crisis cause he thinks he’s a bloodhound.”
We silently pass Gabrielle and Bern, who are standing next to Gabrielle’s gold Mercedes, still tangled up in a sticky glob of gossip. Two zoo lions at feeding time gnawing the same piece of slaughtered meat.
“Are you serious?” Bern exclaims. Her tiny stature forces her to look up at Gabrielle like she’s gazing at the Statue of Liberty. Occasionally she pops up on tippy toes with excitement. “Gabrielle—you can’t be
eighty-seven Google hits!” Gabrielle reports this in a volume that benefits the far and wide, while her hands dance all over—shrieking-pink nail polish punctuating every word. “When she Googled herself, she didn’t realize that there was another Allison Scotte—also with an ‘e,’ who’s dead now but apparently led quite an interesting life back in the sixties. So when she counted her hits, she included the other
, really, don’t you think? Like she’s the
with that name! Anyway, she’s down to
forty-three hits, which is only six more than I have. And I’m not the one that ran for councilwoman!”