Â Monday morning, Maureen’s high-fiber granola arranged itself into the word Help. While waiting for the cereal to get just a little past crunchy, sheâ’d stared out the window at the downpour beating petals off her petunias. Spring had been wet, and summer promised more of the same. The grass needed mowing, but the yard squished when she walked on it. If the sun came out today, steam would make her unruly hair frizz completely out of control.
Difficult to muster even a thimbleful of concern one way or the other. For any of it.
When she looked back at her bowl, ready to dip her spoon, there it was, floating neatly atop the milk.
She blinked. Still there. Was someone drowning in her breakfast? She groped for her phone to take a picture, but her satchel of a purse fought back, and by the time she wrestled the tiny device from its cavernous depths, the letters dispersed.
She frowned at the bowl, then glanced around, listening. No one else in the house. Gordon was away on business, as usual. Their youngest, Gideon, was at college, or better be. And Gordon Jr. probably tended the twins while their mother went for her morning run.
No, no one was playing tricks on her. Except maybe her imagination. She’d heard stories from other women—women of a certain age—about weird things happening when the body began to change, when hormones once again took the female form hostage. Certainly, sleep had been elusive, and her wretched boss just kept piling on the work. With Gordon gone more often than not, Gordon Jr. a new dad, and Gideon in his third year of engineering school, sheâd welcomed the extra hours, the distraction, and had been working late.
That must be it, she decided as she brushed her teeth. Overwork, not enough rest, hormones.
She squinted at her reflection and combed more mousse into her fuzzy hair. It didn’t help. More gray strands every day also didn’t help. She sighed.
She pushed the wordy cereal out of her mind thinking there’d better be a good bonus or maybe even a raise in her near future. She’d use it to visit her grand babies. Gordon wouldn’t mind. He couldn’t muster enthusiasm for much of anything lately, either.
The interior of the car held a whiff of mustiness after sitting in a hot, stuffy garage all weekend. She cranked up the air-conditioning and punched radio buttons, settling on the oldies, catching the tail end of a Rolling Stones fave before the Beatles launched into Help!
Maureen stamped the brakes and spilled hot coffee down the front of her new blouse. Their neighbor, Mrs. Jonesâthey always shared a laugh about the Smiths and Joneses living right next to each otherâwaved from her front porch. Absently, Maureen waved, dabbed at her chest with a tissue, then continued.
Her eyes darted between the radio and the road ahead. Sweat snuck past her antiperspirant. She didn’t believe in messages from the unseen, wasn’t even sure there was an unseen, or any of the other new-age claptrap spouted by their receptionist, Jasmine. It was just a weird coincidence. She changed the station and listened to news the rest of the way to the office.
Where it quickly became clear, her day was not going to get better. The wretched boss leaned her tall, blonde self against the door jamb of Maureen’s office. Courtney Wednesday Murphy—honestly, what were her parents thinking?—tried to look casual, but an impatiently tapping foot gave her away.
Maureen squeezed past without a word, Courtney’s signature floral scent smelling as stale as the car had.
“I need your help,” Courtney said before Maureen got her purse stuffed in the bottom desk drawer.
Maureen’s head snapped up as her boss shut the door and approached, holding out a folded piece of paper. Another weird coincidence, that choice of words. That’s what her rational brain insisted… But her not-so-rational heart kicked up a notch. She stood frozen, halfway between sitting and standing, staring at the folded paper as if it contained her death sentence.
“Everything you need to know is right here.”
“Everything I need to know about—?”
“I probably won’t have cell service,” Courtney rushed on. “But if you have to, leave a message, and I’ll try to get back to you in a couple of days.”
She spun on her stiletto heel, and Maureen could only gape at the woman’s back as she put a manicured hand on the door knob. The wretched boss was never out of touch with the office. Maureen’s intestines began to weave themselves into a knot.
“Days?” she squeaked.
Courtney turned without opening the door, her posture stiff. She didn’t make eye contact. Courtney Wednesday was big on eye contact.
“I need to get away for a while. It’s all square with upper management. They know you’re the one who really handles all the daily stuff.” She rubbed her palms down her hips, glanced out the window, and huffed.
That’s when Maureen realized Courtney Wednesday Murphy—always in control, always neatly turned out, always organized down to the moment—looked…frazzled. Several bleached strands had dared to escape their careful French twist. Even though it was early, mascara smudged her lower lids. Chipped nail polish, a run in her stockings, and, as she folded herself into a side chair, the overhead lights revealed a spot on the front of her blouse that matched Maureen’s. Except Courtney’s blouse was silk instead of the cheap polyester knockoff clinging to Maureen’s muffin top.
Still, motherly instinct rose to the fore. “Are you all right? You look like you slept in your clothes.”
Courtney smoothed her hair, a tremble making her hands vibrate. Her wide mouth flattened, her lips compressed, she huffed out another breath.”I’m going out of town, and I need you to take care of Lena.” She stood again, looking a little more in command, and pushed the folded paper across the desktop. “It’s all in here. She’s at the house. You know where it is.”
Maureen knew where it was because she had been summoned to work there on the weekend a couple of times. She’d never gone beyond the richly appointed office at the front.
Courtney went to the door, paused, and without turning, said, “Youâre the only one I can trust.”
Maureen’s brain spun. Courtney and Joshua didnât have children. They were separated as far as she knew, not that the woman was forthcoming with personal information. The wretched boss didn’t chit-chat. She was all business, all the time. The news that Maureen was the only one she could trust was alarming. Who the heck was Lena? A dog? Maureen didn’t dog sit.
“I can’t,” she heard herself say.
Courtney’s brisk steps already echoed down the hall. Maureen chased after her, past the reception desk where Jasmine had just set down her trenta latte. She waved, a peculiar look on her face.
“When will you return?” Maureen hissed at Courtney’s retreating back. “I have my work, and now yours, too. And I have…” She tried to come up with another excuse, but the truth was, she didn’t have anything else to do. Besides mowing the lawn.
At the exit, the retreating woman abruptly stopped and Maureen caromed into her. Courtney grabbed her shoulders—whether to steady her or keep her at arm’s length, she couldn’t tell. Fetid air wafted over them from the parking garage. Fewer than twenty years separated the two women, but at that moment, Courtney looked like a little girl who’d lost her puppy.
She wasn’t wretched, not really. It was just that she was everything Maureen wasn’t and never had been: beautiful, ambitious, successful. Maureen’s heart squeezed.
“Lena’s all I care about,” Courtney whispered. She directed her gaze over Maureen’s shoulder and blinked back tears. “I’ll be back…” Long fingernails dug through Maureen’s thin blouse. “Just take good care of her. She’s my horse, my heart.”