Authors: D.J. Palmer
A young female ER doctor took forever to complete a battery of tests that confirmed what Nina could tell merely by observation: Maggie was healthy enough to go home. It was a relief for everyone, especially Maggie, who was dreading the thought of spending the night in the hospitalâthe same hospital where Dr. Wilcox was still a patient.
There'd be no visiting her therapist this time. Nina's focus was on her daughterâand besides, she felt too guilty to pay a visit. After all, it was her husband who had administered the savage beating. Glen was out there somewhereâprofoundly, violently angry with her, and anytime, day or night, he could show up.
Nina had been at work when she got Simon's panicked phone call about Maggie and had driven to the hospital at a reckless speed. She kept Simon on the phone with her as he followed the ambulance with Maggie inside. He knew Nina was coming from The Davis Center. As a concession to ease his worry for her safety, Nina had agreed not to leave the office for client visits and was now getting home before sunset.
The police continued to conduct random patrols during the day and kept a single unmarked car parked outside their home at night, but that hardly seemed a long-term solution. The only answer was to find Glen, to catch him, but how? They were no closer to knowing his whereabouts even with the information extracted from Maggie's phone.
According to Detective Wheeler, Glen had expertly hidden himself using technology that turned him into a digital phantom. Nina didn't know Glen to be particularly tech-savvy, but he certainly was smart enough to have picked up the skills. He could be anywhere, Nina was told, which she had interpreted to mean he could have followed her to the hospital right now.
“You really need to make sure you have your EpiPens on you at all times,” Maggie's doctor had instructed, taking a sterner tone than Nina thought necessary.
“The pen case was actually in the backpack, in a zippered pouch Ben didn't check,” Simon said. “There was a lot of confusion, so it's completely understandable he missed it. Lucky for us, the nurse keeps a supply on hand.”
Nina could picture the scene in her mind, the utter pandemonium in the cafeteria as Maggie's breathing slowed while her scarlet rashes deepened.
“Ben feels terrible about it,” Nina told her daughter. “He's really upset and blames himself.”
“I called the Odells to let them know you were going to be fine,” Simon added.
“Do you know what caused the reaction?” Nina asked the doctor, who returned a somewhat indifferent shrug. Her job was to stave off death, and so as far as she was concerned, this was mission accomplished.
“It's hard to say. Could have been cross-contamination from a food-processing plant,” the doctor offered. “It's rare, but I've seen it before.”
Nobody was going to analyze what Maggie had for lunch that day. In the rush to get to the hospital, it had been left behind and then discarded by custodial staff. Even so, Nina would carefully revisit every scrap of food she'd prepared and contact any company she suspected of cross-contamination in case a recall was in order.
She phoned Ginny and Susanna to update them on all that had happened. Both friends offered to come to the hospital for moral support, but Nina assured them she was fine on her own.
There was another matter weighing on her, one Nina could not discuss with Simon, or her friends: Hugh Dolan had reached out to her again. In his message, which had come to her via text earlier in the day, he had offered more information on Simon, including files containing his personal research into Emma's death, along with a promise that there'd be no fee attached. Hugh claimed to like Nina, said that he'd appreciated her kindness, and wanted to clear his conscience that he'd done everything in his power to keep her safe.
Hugh's sudden altruism was not entirely convincing. Of course, Nina wanted to see those files of his, scour them for something the police might have missed, but she doubted he had anything for her apart from plans for another shakedown. Besides, Simon had once again shown himself to be a loving, supportive, and concerned partner, everything she could have hoped for in a moment of crisis.
The next call Nina made was to her parents, who were understandably distraught to hear the news. Nina assured them as best she could that Maggie was going to be okay, and described Simon's heroics in detail.
“It's good to know there are still good men out there.” Her father's jab was obviously directed at Glen, and it was the first indication he was warming to Simon. Nina took it as a good sign, but doubted it would be enough to convince Simon to put aside his issues with Maggie and come to Nebraska with them for Thanksgiving. Perhaps Maggie would be grateful to Simon, though, and would come around all on her own.
Since they'd arrived at the hospital separately, Nina and Simon had to get home separately. Simon drove his truck while Nina followed in her car. Maggie, her voice a bit weaker, complexion paler than normal, talked about Laura Abel, specifically the kindness she'd shown.
“Nothing like a near-death experience to make you realize that stupid things are stupid, I guess,” her daughter said.
Maggie's observation brought Hugh to mind again. Maybe she should reach out to him, check out those files he'd offered. Maybe it wasn't
another attempt at extortion. Maybe there was good in him, too, because there really was some good in most everyone, including Laura Abel.
Nina thought grimly of Hugh's words of warning, concluding that really nothing was safe. Marriages, new relationships, life itself, it was all incredibly fragile, it could all come undone with a single bite of food, one picture of a waitress, one warning from an ex-brother-in-law. The best Nina could do was to listen to her heart, trust her instincts, and those told her that Simon
good. More than goodâthroughout today's horrifying ordeal, he had been a godsend. He had helped save her daughter's precious life, and for that, she would be forever grateful.
Simon unloaded the car while Nina got the kids settled. Connor had stayed at home with Daisy, but the stress of the day worked as a sleeping potion. Both children were out as soon as their heads touched the pillow.
Nina returned to the kitchen, where she scoured the ingredients she had used for Maggie's lunch, including the ones in those brownies.
“I've used that brownie mix before,” she said, sounding perplexed, looking through the trash for the box the mix had come in. “I don't get it.”
“It's probably some cross-contamination, like the doctor said,” Simon suggested. “Let me check the recycling bin.”
Simon went to the garage, and moments later he returned with a flattened box of brownie mix that made Nina do a double take.
“That's not the brand I buy,” she said, taking the box from Simon. She went to the pantry where she kept other boxed mixes. “Here,” she said, showing Simon the mix she always bought. The packaging looked similar, but the box in Simon's hand was a brand Nina had never purchased before. Using her phone, Nina checked an allergy website she turned to whenever a food item gave her any questions. Their mottoâ
If You Can't Read It, Don't Eat It!
âwere words Nina lived by.
“This product isn't safe,” Nina said, as she scanned the clear warn
ing on the website indicating that this particular brownie mix was manufactured on equipment that also processed tree nuts and peanuts. “I wouldn't have bought this.” Nina's voice shook with anger and disbelief. “I'd
Simon took the box from her and eyed it curiously.
“You went shopping a couple days ago, right? You must have been distracted,” he said. “You've got a lot on your plate. With Glen, your jobâlook, it's too much for anyone. The mistake is completely understandable, but I've been warning you something bad might happen if you didn't quit.”
How could I do that?
Nina asked herself. It was so out of character. If anything, she was the
thoughtful and conscientious about ingredients in their food. It simply didn't register.
A thought struck her. She could check. Nina went to the mudroom where she kept her purse. From inside she fished out her wallet. She always stuffed a stack of receipts in there, and soon enough found the one from her last shopping trip.
She scanned the items.
Fruits. Vegetables. Milk. Eggs. And toward the bottom were the packaged goodsâpastas, canned soup, and there, near the very end, was a $3.99 purchase for her brand of brownie mix, the one she'd bought for years, the same mix she was sure she'd used to bake those brownies. The box Simon had shown was similar in appearance to her brandâboth had large red logosâbut the receipt was proof she hadn't made a mistake.
Simon's words struck her like a punch.
I've been warning you something bad might happen.
One warning too many. This one was like a flash of light exploding in her mind, blinding her momentarily. And then she could see it clearly, so it had to be possible.
She went from the mudroom to the bathroom directly off the kitchen, hoping she'd gone there unnoticed.
Closing the door gently, Nina locked it behind her, not wanting to
say anything until her racing heart slowed enough for her thoughts to come together. Right now, those thoughts were flashes, quick answers to Hugh's questions.
Has he isolated you from your friends and family yet? Does he make you question things? Does he try to control your life?
She wanted so desperately to believe in Simon that she had bought into every rational explanation for every behavior. But now, seeing things in a new light, the answers to every one of Hugh's questions was a resounding yes. She replayed the incidents one more time to make sure, categorizing them in her mind as she did. When she studied her reflection in the bathroom mirror, her hairstyle, so dramatically new and different, made Nina think a stranger was staring back at her.
If Simon had shown her the brownie mix she normally purchased, maybe she'd have believed cross-contamination. Instead, he went for something to make her doubt herself, to convince her that her work was making her careless and distracted, nearly causing the death of her daughter. Job or no job, Nina was too experienced, too damn vigilant, to make a mistake like that.
She thought of the wedge he'd begun to put between her and her parents. She thought of all the ways Simon had kept her from seeing Ginny and Susannaâall of it and more designed to make her doubt herself.
Why all this business with Maggie then? Nina tried to puzzle it out. Maggie wasn't the source of Simon's distress. It was the job, the damn job. She thought of Emma again, of Hugh's warnings, and the answer was simple and in front of her all this time: control. If Maggie were in crisis, Nina would be forced to reexamine her priorities. Eventually, when it got bad enough, she'd
to quit. And now look what her job had doneâor so Simon was saying. Just as he had said to Emma.
And how likely was it that Maggie's EpiPens weren't easy to find? Ben Odell was the most competent boy she'd ever met. He wouldn't have missed seeing the case. It was always in Maggie's backpack, unlessÂ â¦ unless the pens really weren't there.
Could Simon have removed them? In all that chaos, how easy would
it have been for him to slip the pen case back into her backpack with nobody noticing? As easy as putting a drop of peanut oil in the brownies. And why do it? Well, there's nothing like the near-death experience of a child to make one reconsider her priorities, that's why.
Nina returned to the kitchen to find Simon pacing the room. He read the ingredients on the box in his hand, looking baffled, head down, like he was studying for an exam. She gripped the kitchen counter to steady her shaking hands. Simon looked up at her.
“I'll call the company first thing in the morning,” he said. “Tell them the packaging similarities nearly caused a deadly mistake.”
“Get out,” Nina whispered.
Simon's eyes widened as if disbelieving what he heard. “Nina, what?”
“Get out,” she repeated, hissing the words in a low voice. She swallowed her anger and fear.
Simon's surprise deepened. “WhatÂ â¦ what are you talking about? Nina, you're stressedÂ â¦ you're not thinking clearly.”
thinking clearly,” Nina said, stepping forward. “Get out of my house. Get out now.” She growled the order through gritted teeth.
house, Nina,” Simon said. “Or did you forget?”
Simon didn't sound or look furious or even surprised anymore.
“In ten seconds, if you don't start packing a bag, I will go outside to the police car currently parked in front of
house and tell them that you tried to kill my daughter.”
As it turned out, Glen had finally, albeit unwittingly, done something to help her. The police were already here.
“Are you crazy?” Simon's voice carried an edge of anger, as the darkness in his eyes deepened. “You have no proof of that.”
“No, I don't.” Nina summoned strength and conviction she hadn't known she possessed. “But it'll ruin your teaching career, and that's just the start.”
In a flash, Nina played out in her mind what would happen if she marched down the walkway, banged on the window of the police car
parked curbside, and cried for help. She knew the laws, because more often than not, the police called in social workers when they lacked legal authority. They would investigate her claims for sure, but this was not a domestic violence incident. There were no signs of struggle or violence of any kind. She was well, the children were fine, nobody was drunk or high, and Simon would of course be on his best behavior. She had no marks on her person, so she couldn't lie about being hit or choked. If she did, Simon would claim the charges against him were fabricated and she'd be the one in trouble.