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Authors: D.J. Palmer

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“Oh sweetie, I know it's not the
best
magazine, but it's not
that
bad.”

Nina managed a weak laugh before she relayed what that magazine actually signified—that day, when she first got the news.

“Have you talked to somebody?” Susanna asked with concern.

“I talk to you girls,” Nina said defensively.

“No, I mean somebody professional,” Susanna said.

“A therapist,” Ginny added, not that the clarification was needed.

Maggie and Connor were both seeing a therapist, but for some reason, Nina hadn't found one for herself. Everything was still so raw that talking about it felt like poking an open wound. And then, when Simon came along, her life seemed to stabilize. The welcome distraction from her troubles had made it possible to suppress her feelings, but maybe no more. Maybe her friends were right. The move was a trigger, and perhaps the time had come to get real help. She should have done it ages ago. She was a social worker and honestly knew better.
But then again, the cobbler's kid not having proper shoes was a trope for good reason.

“Anybody have a recommendation?” asked Nina.

“Mine's great,” Susanna and Ginny said simultaneously.

The three laughed and hugged, and Nina's fresh tears felt like a cry of relief.

 

CHAPTER 4

Dr. Sydney Wilcox worked on the second floor of a redbrick office building, in a neighborhood dotted with small businesses. The office itself was cozy and intimate with muted walls and a beige rug. The bland aesthetic was clearly intended to encourage patients to contribute their own color and energy to the environment. The soothing gurgle of a miniature fountain blended with the nearly inaudible hum of a white noise machine put there to ensure privacy. It was all carefully orchestrated to convey one critical message: this was a safe place to share.

Nina sat in an oversize armchair facing a stout woman in her early sixties who had a pageboy haircut that was more salt than pepper. Plastic-frame glasses gave Dr. Wilcox a professorial air, but there was nothing intimidating about her. She had her notebook open, her expression relaxed and nonjudgmental.

“How do we start?” Nina asked.

Nina kept her hands clasped on her lap, allowing her interlaced fingers to nervously caress her knuckles.
Why so anxious?
she asked herself. She'd been in the business of untangling human messes, and it wasn't like this was her first time in therapy. There had been some bumpy days early in her marriage, typical intimacy problems and communication snares that snagged lots of young couples shocked by the cold-water plunge of child-rearing.

“Where do you want to start?” Dr. Wilcox asked.

Nina should have expected her response—therapy was the fine art of asking questions. “Where do you want to start?” might as well have been “What brings you here today?”

Nina spoke of Glen, Maggie, and Connor, providing Dr. Wilcox with the necessary background information. She recalled the day the police came to inform her that Glen was a missing person, then told her that he was still missing, and that many months later, with the help of a successful quiet-title lawsuit that transferred the property title to her name exclusively, she'd sold her home in Seabury, bought a new one in the same town, and moved in with a new man, all in the span of little more than a year and a half.

Nina waited for a flicker of recognition to come to Dr. Wilcox's eyes—
Oh, you're
that
woman!
—but saw nothing of the sort. Maybe she didn't watch the news, or maybe, like anyone outside her immediate friends and family, Dr. Wilcox had forgotten all about the Glen Garrity story. After all, tragedy was personal, and like a wound, it mattered most to those people left with the scars.

“How has the move gone?” asked Dr. Wilcox.

“Good, good,” Nina said, worried she sounded like she was trying to reassure herself. “I mean, Maggie is taking it the hardest.”

Nina explained how Maggie had grown hostile when Simon became more than a friend.

“What about Connor? Does he get along with Simon?”

“Well, yes. Maybe because he's older. But Connor had some difficulties with his father.”

“Difficulties?”

“Glen was something of a workaholic. My nickname for him was Glengarrity Glen Ross.”

“From the play,” Dr. Wilcox correctly noted.

“And movie about those crazed salespeople trying to save their jobs.”

“He was a salesman?”

“No, he worked at a bank. Not in a branch, in the main office. He was a senior financial advisor. Always busy with something. The first
night after his dad went missing, Connor confided how he was sad they didn't spend much time together.”

Dr. Wilcox took notes with her pencil.

“I tried to convince him that his father loved him very much and that they
did
do things together. Glen always went to Connor's games, and they watched sports together on TV. But that wasn't the same—it wasn't what Connor wanted or needed, and Maggie had her own frustrations with her dad, mostly to do with his availability or lack thereof.

“When I tried to talk to Glen about his work habits, his obsession with his phone or email, he'd remind me that
all
the financial pressure was on him, and guiltily I'd let the behavior slide. I don't think I realized the effect it had on Connor, but that night he told me he didn't feel like he really knew his dad, which turned out to be true for all of us.”

Dr. Wilcox's eyebrows rose slightly. “How so?”

“Maybe next session,” Nina said. She knew it would be too much information, and therapy was a process, after all.

“Fair enough.”

“Anyway, Connor wanted more from his father—more of a connection.”

“And you didn't?”

Nina gazed up at the ceiling, trying to piece together her feelings.

“It wasn't a perfect marriage by any stretch,” she explained, “but I guess it was enough for me. I had the kids, my friends, my life; in some ways it was easier not having Glen involved in everything. I could make decisions and not be second-guessed all the time. I got what I needed, Glen got what he wanted, but poor Connor felt like his father was uninterested in him, and that was hard to hear.”

“Connor never talked about it with you before?”

“No, he could be stoic and stubborn, like his dad, so I only learned all this after Glen was gone.”

Dr. Wilcox nodded in understanding. “Does Connor feel comfortable with Simon? Do they do things together?”

“Yes,” Nina said as a pang of bitterness toward Glen and his failings
came over her. “It's been sweet, actually. Simon is good with tools, more so than Glen, so he shows Connor how to do minor home repairs, that sort of thing. He's also studied YouTube videos to learn how to throw a football, and now he helps Connor practice all the time. And, miracle of miracles, he's gotten Connor interested in history. Simon's a social studies teacher as well as the middle school's robotics coach. He and Connor are building something robotic in the basement together. I'm just hoping it doesn't have arms.”

“I see,” Dr. Wilcox said. “And how does Maggie feel about their closeness?”

“I don't really know. She doesn't talk about it with me. She's angry, and I understand why. She thinks her father is coming back.”

“But you don't.”

“No, I don't,” Nina said. “I think he's dead. I think he's down in that lake somewhere.”

“Did the police explain why they couldn't find his body?”

“They did,” said Nina. “Sometimes, depending on how a body settles—on its side, in a particular kind of growth, covered in some debris, or even trapped under a ledge—the sonar doesn't work. I'm a bit of an expert on drowning now, as you can imagine.”

Dr. Wilcox's mouth stretched into a slight grimace, indicating she could imagine quite well.

“Normally a body will sink to the bottom,” Nina continued. “But eventually it will surface as gas from decay forms in the tissues. Then wind drag, water density, even the topography can create movement underwater, so there was never any guarantee that Glen's body would be found near his boat.”

“That must be hard for you—the uncertainty, I mean.”

“It's hard for us all.”

“What does Simon say about it?”

“Simon's fond of saying that if you're depressed, you're living in the past; if you're anxious, you're living in the future. He's all about being in the moment.”

“Nice sentiment, if you can abide by it, but not easy to do. Speaking of pasts, how did you and Simon meet?”

Nina recalled that time last May when her life had pivoted away from Glen and toward Simon.

SHE AND
the children were still in the family home, the home they had shared with Glen. As she walked through her front door that day Nina felt a cold emptiness sweep through her body. Daisy always came running with a toy from her toy box clenched in her jaw. Now she was nowhere to be seen.

Nina rushed to the kitchen, the living room, all through the house, calling Daisy's name. Her stomach roiled with anxiety. The front door sometimes appeared to be closed, but needed an extra tug or two to pull it completely shut. With so much on her mind, it was entirely possible she'd forgotten to double-check. Daisy may have nosed open the door and then pawed at the screen, causing the latch to release. She wasn't boundary trained, and there was no electric fence to keep her contained, meaning she could be anywhere.

Nina got in her car and drove around the block, shouting for Daisy through the open window. Nauseous, her stomach in knots, she phoned Granite State Dog Recovery as well as the Seabury Police. Notices were put out on Seabury's Facebook page alerting the broader community to be on the lookout for a lost dog. Ginny and Susanna joined the search, while tips came in about animals spotted on streets as far as ten miles away, but none were Daisy.

As dusk was settling, Nina grew increasingly despondent. Memories pierced her heart. She thought of running her fingers through Daisy's thick coat, or how she rested her head on Nina's lap when they watched TV. As she consoled her shattered children, Nina bristled at how unfair life could be—how cold, cruel, and brutally unfair.

Then she saw a truck coming down her driveway and for a second did a double take, because it was the same make and model as the one
Glen drove. A moment later, she noticed Daisy's glorious head sticking out the passenger's side window, tongue flapping in the breeze. The car came to a stop and out stepped Simon Fitch.

It was not the first time Nina had met Simon. That encounter had taken place five school grades ago, when Simon was one of three teacher representatives assigned to help Nina get a local D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program off the ground. They'd had a few pleasant conversations during that time, worked well together as she remembered, but she hadn't seen him in years. Connor didn't have Mr. Fitch for social studies when he attended Seabury Middle School, and Maggie, being in seventh grade, wouldn't have him for a teacher until next year.

Nina didn't even remember what he looked like until he exited the car, letting Daisy out his door and into the arms of her deeply relieved family. Simon had brown hair cut short, kind eyes, and a little dimpled chin that made his boyish face ruggedly handsome.

“Found her wandering along the side of the road on Whipple Street,” Simon said. “My guess is she'd been in the woods.”

There were licks galore, kisses, and laughs, and Nina felt a nest of burrs and twigs tangled in Daisy's thick fur.

“Lucky she came out when she did or I might have missed her as I was driving by. Glad you had her tagged.”

“AND THAT
was how our relationship started,” Nina said after she finished recounting for Dr. Wilcox the day that Daisy had inadvertently brought them together.

“What was your first date like?”

Nina smiled at the memory. “Well, it wasn't a date, but our first chance to spend time together was at my place. Simon remembered me, not only from the school program we worked on together, but because of Glen, because we'd been in the news. Anyway, I offered to have him join us for dinner, trying to think of something I could do as a thank-you for finding Daisy. I knew he wouldn't accept money. He
declined my invitation, but sweetly said given what I'd been through I could probably use someone to cook for me. He told me he'd bring something by the next day because he was making his best dish for some school potluck thing and he'd make extra for us.

“I didn't really think I'd see him, but the next night he showed up with a baking dish of eggplant rollatine, which just so happens to be
my
favorite meal. It's my comfort food. My nonni—that's my grandmother—used to make it for me whenever I went to visit, and now I make it for my kids. They love it as much as I do. He showed up at dinnertime so I asked if he wanted to eat with us, and invited him in. That time he said yes.”

“Did you think Simon was interested in you romantically?” Dr. Wilcox asked.

“Maybe. I wasn't really paying attention. I remember it felt strangely intimate to have him there, a bit unsettling, but I didn't think of it as a date. Honestly, I didn't think I'd ever date again after what Glen did to me—to us.”

Dr. Wilcox glanced at her watch as though she were instinctively aware of how much time had passed.

“I'm afraid that part of the story will have to wait until next time,” she said. “Our hour's up.”

 

CHAPTER 5

I hate him. I absolutely, positively hate him.

Maybe, if after a year or something, Mom had wanted to go out on a date, sure, fine, go do it. But this was a
real
relationship. So yeah, my dislike of Simon was pretty much instant, and also justified. I told this to Mom a bunch of times of course, but she'd say everything was going to work out fine, and that eventually we'd become one big happy family doing all these Instagram-worthy things, like hiking and biking and whatever.

Screw that. I don't drink or vape, I get good grades—I do everything I am supposed to do, but still my life stinks and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.

And it's all
his
fault—Mr. Fitch, aka Simon, aka Mr. I-Just-Want-To-Be-Your-Friend. God! He makes me want to puke. In five years, I'll be gone. Outta here. Off to college and that will be that. I won't ever, ever, come back, and my mom can cry all she wants, say how much she misses me all she wants, but I won't care. And that will be my revenge. And when she gets old and needs someone to look after her, I'll say, “Did you look after me? Nope! You moved me in with
him,
and for that you'll have to die alone and lonely. Sorry, I'm not sorry!”

Okay, that's not true. That's my secret revenge wish, but I'd never, ever, ever do that to my mom. I love my mom. Love her with a cap “L”
and all that mushy stuff. But that doesn't mean I can't be pissed at her for what she's done. I still have feelings, you know. I still hurt.

One week into eighth grade and things are just as bad at school as they were at the end of seventh grade. I still eat lunch alone, thanks to Laura Abel's campaign against me (not worth getting into now), and then last week I twisted my ankle playing lacrosse (thought for sure it was broken). So I've got a stupid boot around my foot and too much time on my hands, and worse, I'm home when
he's
home. Students in my school are divided into different teams, each with different teachers, so thank God Almighty I don't have Mr. Fitch for social studies. But now that I'm not playing lacrosse, we essentially have the same schedule, at least on days he doesn't coach robotics, and I can't stand to be alone with him.

Since Mom's unpacked the house (well, mostly unpacked it), she's been talking seriously about getting a job. Worst-case scenario alert! That would mean I could conceivably have hours alone with Simon after school. Can you say:
Nightmare!

At least the new house is comfortable enough, but it's not like I have any friends in the neighborhood. I don't really have any friends at all anymore (again, not worth getting into). My room—aka my sanctuary—is like my room in the old house, but it doesn't
feel
the same. Simon's energy makes it different. Somehow it gets everywhere, floating like an airborne virus.

Anyway, I knew my mom was worried about money. The move was super expensive, and we've had nonstop contractors since we got here—electricians, plumbers, painters, landscapers. Awesome, right? But Simon didn't think my mom needed to work at all. No, no, no. Mr. Fitch was set and ready to take care of us on his big teacher's salary. I don't know how much he actually makes, but it can't be enough to support a family of four.

Even though they are not officially engaged yet, it is going to happen, so Simon is essentially my stepfather, which is nothing but a stupid label. I looked it up online, and, married or unmarried, he has no
legal right to make decisions on my behalf unless he adopts me. News flash—that is not going to happen, not ever ever ever. If Mom gets hurt, or God forbid worse, it would be up to Nonni and Papa to look after me, not him.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when bad went to worse. Daisy and I were on the couch watching TV. Some dumb Netflix thing, doesn't matter, and I was doing what I do best these days—feeling sorry for myself and being mad at the world. Lame, I know. I wasn't an orphan in a war-torn country. I had a roof over my head. I had my dog (I love my dog so, so much—and she makes a great couch cushion). I had everything except friends, my dad, and a Simon-free home.

Simon was in the kitchen. I could hear him messing about, putting together some kind of dinner for the evening. He's a good cook (a really good cook actually, I'll give him that), but I'd eat rice and beans for every meal from now until forever if I could have my dad back. It wasn't like my dad and I were the closest. I hate to admit it, but it was true. Even at home he was always busy with work, or on his phone doing something. He never seemed to have time for me unless we were on vacation or something. I know Connor kind of felt the same way about him, but he was still my dad. He loved me, and I loved him.

Sometimes I'd forget he was even gone. I kept thinking he was going to come walking through the front door, his suit a bit wrinkled from his commute home, a big smile on his face. But that door never opened.

Instead, Mr. Fitch came into the living room with this pleased-with-himself look on his face. He was trying so hard to be “Simon” here, not his school persona, that it was kind of sickening.

“Maggie, it's almost six,” he said. “Your mom asked me to make sure you shut the TV off and get your homework done.”

Your mom,
he said, like he was my babysitter or something, like he doesn't share a bathroom with her. (Gross! Gross! Gross!) I responded by stretching out my legs on the sofa (
my
sofa, from
my
home), and did what I did best: ignored him. Daisy squirmed out from underneath me to roost on the bogus leather love seat that had come from Simon's
place. So far, I had successfully avoided sitting (or leaning, or touching really) any piece of furniture that Simon had brought here. I even went around the area rugs that came from his house, just so I wouldn't set foot on even a thread he might have touched. Nobody but me knew about this silent protest of mine, not even Connor, who seemed to really like Simon. He was always tossing the football in the backyard with him or building some dumb robot, as if he forgot that he ever had a real dad.

“Hey, Maggie, I'm talking to you, could you listen, please?”

There it was, the teacher tone, his weapon of choice.

“What?” I answered snippily, as if I hadn't heard him the first time.

He sighed because teachers hate to repeat themselves. “Your mom asked me to make sure the TV was turned off at six so you could get your homework done.”

“I don't have any homework,” I said, finding that the lie came easily.

“Well, she still wants it off, please. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Your mom is picking up Connor from practice on her way back from the gym.”

As if I care …

Instead of off, I turned the volume up a bit louder.

“Hey,” Simon said, sounding genuinely miffed. “Off.”

Simon stood in front of the TV, his apron making him look like a contestant on one of those baking shows I liked to watch with my father—one of the few things we did together.

“Now, please, Maggie.”

Up went the television volume. He was not telling me what to do. He had no legal right over me. This wasn't school. We were on my turf here, not his.

“Come on, Maggie. Please don't make this difficult for me.”

Volume went up louder, as I stretched my legs out longer, and it felt good, oh so incredibly good, to defy him.

“You're being really unfair,” he groaned.

“I don't have any homework,” I said, knowing that the homework wasn't really the issue, and I did have a crap-ton of it to do.

Simon's face got red. He was powerless, and I was enjoying every second of it. He was nothing—a nonentity, a ghost person. He could talk and I didn't have to listen, because he didn't make the rules here.

“Look, Maggie, I'm not trying to replace your dad, but I am trying to do what your mom asked. Please, now. Cooperate.”

I pointed the remote at the TV like a gun and turned the volume up louder.

And that's when I saw it. It was brief, just the flicker of a super-disturbing, dark look on Simon's face that came and went. I'd gotten in trouble plenty of times for being mouthy, or disobedient, or whatever, but I'd never, ever, seen a look like that before. It was full of hate, but somehow also empty, as cold as an ice storm—the only word I could think of was “soulless.” I could imagine him smashing my skull in with a hammer with that same look on his face.

For sure, if he'd looked at his students like that, they would have snapped to attention and thought twice about making him angry again. There would probably have been calls to the school from worried parents. It was that kind of look.

Then the strange darkness gave way to a more familiar anger. Simon took two giant steps forward and snatched the clicker from my hand, quick as a frog's tongue grabbing a fly. I let out a cry of surprise, causing Daisy to bark with alarm.

“Give it back!” I shouted, springing from the couch like I hadn't quit gymnastics years ago.

Simon jerked the remote up and out of my reach, and with a push of a button, off went the TV.

“Go away! Leave me alone!” I screamed at him, feeling my face grow hot. I went storming up the stairs, stomping on each step as I went, and Daisy, dear, faithful Daisy, followed me into my bedroom, where I slammed the door and waited for my mom to come home.

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