Authors: Julie Clark
His gaze is cold. “You must think I'm stupid.”
I'm unable to speak, or even blink. I've lost before I've even begun. My thoughts race, trying to find a foothold, trying to compose myself, to explain away whatever he's discoveredâthe clothes, the money I've been siphoning off, my meetings with Petra. I fight the urge to throw open the door and run, giving up whatever I've gained. I look toward the darkened windows, reflecting the room back to us, and manage to say, “What are you talking about?”
“I heard you were late again today. May I ask why?”
I let out a slow breath, all my nerves loosening. “I was at the gym.”
“The gym is less than half a mile from the Center Street offices.” Rory pulls his glasses off and leans back in his desk chair. His face slips out of the puddle of light cast from his desk lamp and into darkness. “What are you not telling me?”
I suffuse my voice with a warmth I don't feel, desperate to allay his fears before they take over. “Nothing,” I insist. “I decided to stay for a spin class that started at two thirty.”
“What do you mean, like who was the instructor?”
“Don't be obtuse,” he snaps. “You're constantly either heading off to the gym, or coming back from it. It's every day now. Is it your trainer? That would be a pathetic clichÃ©.”
“I don't have a trainer,” I tell him, my mouth suddenly dry and sticky. “I lift weights. Run on the treadmill, or take spin classes. I was sore after my workout, so I spent some time in the sauna and lost track of time. That's all.” I fight to keep my face blank, but my hands betray me, gripping the arms of the chair as if bracing for a blow. Rory's gaze catches on them, and I force myself to relax. He stands and walks around his desk and sits in the chair next to mine.
“We have a lot of hard work ahead, Claire,” he says, taking another sip of whiskey. “Starting next week, all eyes will be on us. There cannot be a trace of scandal.”
I have to dig deep to deliver my line convincingly, one last time. “You don't need to worry.”
Rory leans over and brushes a soft kiss across my lips and whispers, “I'm glad to hear it.”
* * *
When Rory finally climbs into bed around eleven, I pretend to be asleep, listening to the sound of his breathing settle and slow, waiting. When the clock reads one, I ease out of bed, eager to get the final piece I need before I leave, swiping Rory's cell phone from the charger on his nightstand before I slip into the darkened hall. I can't risk his phone buzzing with a call or text, waking him up.
Our townhouse reeks of old money. Dark wood, thick rugs plush beneath my bare feet. I'm no stranger to middle-of-the-night wandering. It's the only time our home feels like mine. I move through the rooms unobserved, and as I take my final late-night stroll, I feel a sense of sadness. Not for the townhouse, which has been nothing more than a luxurious prison, but for myself.
It's a complicated grief, not just the loss of my name and identity, but also the life I once hoped I'd have. The death of any dream deserves to be mourned, all its intricate facets touched one last time.
I pass through the living room with its large windows that look down onto Fifth Avenue, glancing at the door that leads to Danielle's office, and wonder what she'll think when I go. If she'll be blamed somehow, for failing to keep track of me. Or if she'll feel bad that she didn't do more to help me when she had the chance.
I head down the narrow hall that leads to my office, a small room dominated by a heavy mahogany desk and a Turkish rug that probably costs more than what my mother's Pennsylvania house was worth. I look forward to creating a home with furniture that isn't worth six figures. I want color on the walls and plants I have to remember to water. I want mismatched plates, and glasses that don't require a complicated reordering process to replace if they break.
I glance over my shoulder, as if I expect someone to catch me in my own office in the middle of the night, reading my thoughts, knowing what I'm about to do. I listen hard, the silence a loud rush in my ears, straining to hear the hint of footsteps two floors above me. But the doorway remains empty, and the only sound is the pounding of my heart.
From my top desk drawer, I pull out the small thumb drive I used before Rory insisted everyone work in shared docs. My gaze catches on a photograph of my mother and my sister, Violet, hanging on the wall. It was taken before I left for college, before I met Rory and changed the trajectory of my life.
“We're going on a picnic,” my mother had announced from the doorway of the kitchen one Saturday afternoon. Violet and I had been on the couch, watching TV. Neither of us wanted to go. We were in the middle of a
marathon. But my mother had insisted. “We don't have too many weekends left before Claire leaves,” she'd said. Violet had glared at me, still angry that I'd chosen to go to Vassar instead of the local state school. “I want to spend the day outside with my girls.”
Three years later, they were gone.
I'd been on the phone with my mother less than an hour before it had happened. We'd only chatted briefly, but I can still hear her voice across the line, telling me she couldn't talk, that she and Violet were headed out the door for pizza and she'd call me when they got home. In the years since it happened, I've often wondered if they'd still be alive if I had kept her on the phone longer. Or perhaps, if I hadn't called at all, they might have been through the intersection and gone by the time that drunk driver flew through it.
In my dreams, I find myself there with them, the
of the windshield wipers, the two of them laughing together in the car, my mother singing along with the radio and Violet begging her to stop. And then a sudden screech of tires, the sound of breaking glass, the crush of metal on metal, the hiss of steam. Then silence.
* * *
My eyes linger now on the image of Violet, caught mid-laugh, my mother just a blurred figure in the background, and I ache to take it off the wall, to slip it between the layers of clothes in my suitcase and bring it with me, like a talisman. But I can't. And it nearly destroys my resolve to have to leave it behind.
I tear my gaze from my sister's smiling face, forever frozen at age eight, with only a few more years ahead of her, and make my way to Rory's spacious office. Lined with wood paneling topped with bookshelves, his enormous desk dominates the room. His computer sits on top of it, dark and silent, and I walk past it to a section of the bookshelves behind. I pull the red book from its spot and set it down, reaching my hand into the empty space, feeling around for the small button hidden there and pressing it. The paneling that lines the wall below the shelves pops open with a tiny click.
Danielle isn't the only one who's been taking notes.
I pull it open and slip Rory's second laptop from its hiding place. Rory doesn't keep hard copies of anything. Not receipts. Not personal notes. Not even photographs.
Hard copies are too easy to lose track of. Too hard to control
, he'd once explained to me. This machine is where everything hides. I don't know exactly what's on it, but I don't need to. No one keeps a secret laptop unless he's hiding something big. Perhaps there are financial records that outline undoctored foundation accounts or money he's siphoned off and redirected offshore. If I can get a copy of the hard drive, I'll be able to leverage it if Rory ever gets too close.
Because despite what I've directed him to do in my letter, I have no doubt Rory will go to great lengths to find me. Petra and I discussed the possibility of faking my death. An accident where the body couldn't be recovered. But Nico had warned us off that plan. “It would be all over the national news, which would make your job harder. Better to make it look like you've left him. You'll get a little bit of attention in the tabloids, but it'll fade fast.”
As expected, when I open the laptop, I'm asked for a password. And while Rory has all of mine, I don't know any of his. What I do know, however, is that Rory cannot be troubled by details such as maintaining passwords. That's a job for Bruce, who keeps them in a small notebook in his desk.
I've been watching Bruce for weeks now, my eyes tracking the green notebook as he'd riffle through it, punching in passwords whenever Rory needed them. I arranged flowers on the table just outside Rory's office or searched through my purse in the doorway, tracking where Bruce kept the notebook during the workday and where it went at night.
I cross the room to Bruce's desk and run my hand along the far side, engaging the lever that releases a small drawer, the notebook nestled inside. I flip through it quickly, past account numbers and passwords to various servicesâNetflix, HBO, Amazonâmy fingers shaking, knowing every minute, every second counts.
Finally, I find what I'm looking for near the back.
I type the series of numbers and letters into the computer, and I'm in. The time at the top of the screen reads one thirty as I slip the thumb drive into the USB port and start dragging files onto it, the icon showing a number in the thousands, slowly counting down. I glance at the door again, imagining all my plans coming to a halt in Rory's office, copying his secret hard drive in my pajamas, and try not to picture what he would do if he caught me. The rage I'd see in his eyes, the four quick strides he'd take until he could grab me, shoving me or dragging me out of his office, up the stairs to the privacy of our bedroom. I swallow hard.
A creak from somewhere above meâa footstep or floorboard settlingâsends my heart pounding against my chest and a thin sheen of sweat to break out on my forehead. I creep into the hall and listen, holding my breath, trying to hear past the rush of panic flooding through me. But all is silent. After a few minutes I return to the computer, staring at the screen, urging it to go faster.
But then my eyes fall on Bruce's notebook again, filled with passwords that would allow me to look into every corner of Rory's life. His calendars. His email.
If I had access to that, I'd be able to keep an eye on them. To know what they're saying about my disappearance, to know if they're looking for me, and where. I'd be able to stay one step ahead of them.
With another glance at the empty hallway, I flip through the notebook, back several pages, until I find Rory's email password, and grab a yellow Post-it Note off Bruce's desk, copying it just as the computer finishes with the files. The clock in the downstairs entry chimes two, and I pull the thumb drive from the port and slide his computer back into its hiding place. I close the drawer with a small click and replace the red book on the shelf, return Bruce's notebook to its hiding place, and check the room for any signs that I've been there.
When I'm satisfied, I make my way back to my office. There's only one thing left to do.
I slide onto my chair, the leather cold against the backs of my legs, and open my laptop, my Detroit speech still on the screen. I close the window, knowing my icon will disappear from the top of everyone else's version, and log out of my email. When I'm back to the Gmail homepage, I sit for a minute, letting the silence of the house and the faint ticking of the hall clock wash over me. I take a deep breath and let it out, and then another, trying to steady my nerves. Trying to think through every contingency, every little thing that might go wrong. I glance at the clock again, reminding myself that at two in the morning, no one will be awake. Not Bruce. Not Danielle. Definitely not Rory. For the millionth time, I wish for a smaller house. One where the walls weren't so solid. Where the carpets didn't absorb people's footsteps so well, where I could reassure myself with the sound of Rory's soft snoring. But he's two floors above me, and I need to get this done.
I enter his email address and squint at the Post-it, carefully entering the password. Then I press return. Immediately, Rory's phone buzzes on the desk next to me, an alert lighting up the screen.
Your account has been accessed by a new device.
I swipe left to clear it, then turn to my computer, Rory's inbox in front of me. At the top of a long string of unread messages is the alert. I delete it, quickly toggling over to his trash, and delete it from there too.
My eyes scan his homepage, looking at the various folders, before clicking over to the Doc. They've labeled it
. I open it, holding my breath, wondering what I might find, but it's empty. Waiting for tomorrow. I imagine myself holed up late at night somewhere in Canada, a silent observer as Rory and Bruce deconstruct my disappearance, trying to figure out what happened. But more than that, I'll be privy to everything Rory and Bruce say to each other, every conversation they think is private.
At the top, it reads
Last edit made by Bruce Corcoran five hours ago
. I click on it, wondering what the edit history might show, and a long list pops up on the right-hand side of the screen.
3:53 Rory Cook added a comment
3:55 Bruce Corcoran added a comment
. But no specifics. My eyes travel down the long list to the bottom of the window, where a box that says
is unchecked. I hover my cursor over it, tempted, but I leave it unchecked. I'm logged in, and that's all that matters.
I click over to my computer settings, where I change my own password, making sure I'm the only one who can access it.
When I'm done, I close it and head up the stairs and back into our bedroom, where Rory still sleeps. After returning his phone to the charger, I take the thumb drive and the Post-it with his password into the master bathroom. I pull the long plastic tube of my travel toothbrush from my packed toiletry bag and twist it open, tossing the cheap toothbrush into the trash and wrapping the Post-it around the thumb drive. Then I drop them both into the tube and twist it closed again, burying it underneath my face lotion and cosmetics. With the bag zipped, I look at myself in the mirror, surrounded by the luxury Rory's money has given me. The marble counters, the deep soaking tub and shower the size of a compact car. So different from the tiny bathroom I grew up using. Violet and I used to argue about who got to use it first in the mornings, until my mother disabled the lock. “We don't have time for privacy,” she'd say. I used to dream about the day when I could lock the bathroom door and spend as much time in there as I wanted. I'd give anything to go back to how it used to be, the three of us in and out, squeezing past each other in the tight space, brushing teeth, putting on makeup, drying our hair.