Terri got up early that morning, like most mornings. Breakfasts, lunches, a quick hard run on the treadmill. An hour going over her listings, answering emails, double-checking her tours for the day. The old Kelly place had received 18 offers, with the winning bid $300,000 over asking. The world had gone mad, and for maybe the first time in her life, that seemed to be working out in her favor.
Her phone reminded her to wake the boys up at 7, but they’d already been up for 15 minutes by then, they had crashed into the kitchen, shoving and screaming and laughing, and she set aside her work and grabbed them both in a group tickle-hug.
They were so happy. She was happy, too, as long as she was wrapped up in them, it was impossible not to be. They could make happiness out of nothing, out of a garbled word, out of a break in the clouds, out of a song on a commercial. The whole world just seemed to wait in line for a turn to delight them.
Cooper had it a little less. He was intense, his blood sugar ran on a hair trigger, he needed a snack and whole milk before the sleep was even out of his eyes, or there’d be hell to pay over nothing later, a crooked line in a drawing or a bent piece of paper could send him screaming to the floor. But she knew him, she could feel his equilibrium from a mile away, and it was just one of the things she always had a handle on.
Spence was three, and usually acted like it, but he had a heart a mile wide, like Scott. She tried to set a good example, and she could have taken credit for it, but she loved the idea that it was all Scott, just that innate character of him shining through in Spence’s face. It kept him with her.
After the usual blur, the boys were dressed and off to school and preschool, and Terri hurried over to her first house. She had put it first on purpose.
She took the Front Street bridge over to Southside, then wound her way up Montrose Turnpike. She’d driven it a thousand times. She hadn’t driven it in years.
A Cape Cod, like most of the homes in the area, but big, two stories with a basement, white. Four acres of undeveloped woods sprawling out behind it. She’d buried a rabbit out there. They’d buried it, held a funeral for it, she’d sung Amazing Grace and felt stupid for it now, now that she had two children, to have been so upset over a pet. But she’d been devastated. They both had been. He probably still was. He probably had a picture of the rabbit in his wallet. It was probably the closest he’d ever felt to a real loss.
Her hands ached. She’d been squeezing her steering wheel to its death, thinking about those days, and what came after, and if she let herself she’d wander further still; to Scott, to the happiness she’d built with him, and there, in that space, the little twinges of vengeance she’d felt. This is what you could have had. This is what we could have been, and you’ll never have anything close to it.
Then it was gone. Scott was gone. And some part of her pointed and snarled: “This is what you get for gloating. This is what you get.”
She knew it wasn’t right. She knew Spence, the boys, the things that had happened, they weren’t some sort of plot device in her life, every element in the universe orbiting her, waiting for their cue to enter and exit her stage. She knew it but she didn’t feel it. This was her payback.
She would. She had a job to do, she had to go sell chunks of her home out from under her friends (stop it), she had to betray her town and everyone living in it.
You have to stop.
She couldn’t, so she got out of the car, threw herself into what had to be done. Assumed the smile, assumed the posture. She couldn’t stop it, but she could smother it under routine for a while.
She didn’t know the woman in front of the Kelly home. The woman had requested her specifically but she had no idea why. All she knew was her name, Wendy, and that she was from out of town. How she got here, how she qualified to buy, she had no idea.
She was tall, rail thin and wiry, pretty but not that pretty, and she had a frown that clearly never left her face. She looked evil, but like she thought she was good at hiding it. And she knew already that she had no interest in the house. She never even glanced at it.
The woman, Wendy, stepped forward, hand extended, like she was the one trying to sell something. Terri felt an urge to run, the way a rabbit feels the stalking creep of a fox deep in its legs, but she’d spent the morning angry at her self, loathing herself, and her anger, eager for a new nest, sensed a home in this person. Whatever she wanted, Terri was ready to fight her. So when Wendy got close enough to shake hands, Terri, who had been raised to be kind, to be charitable, to be nice, looked at the hand, looked back up, and said: “What do you want?”
It cracked the air like thunder, and Terri’s mind spun, disbelieving what had just happened. What are you doing?
“Um, ha ha, hello? That’s a strange way to greet someone. My god.”
“I’m not greeting you. I’m asking you what you want.”
Terri could feel her knees shaking, and she didn’t fight it. She was angry. She was beyond angry. She was pissed. She had no proof, no substantial reason to think this woman wasn’t just another customer, but she knew, she could smell it, and she was committed. Even if she was wrong, even if this would cost her a commission, she was committed. There was something vile about this woman. It was seeping out of her.
And then, the woman shifted. Her innocent act sloughed off of her like a snake skin. The smile was gone. She seemed to get bigger, somehow. This was the real her.
“So, I’m not sure what you’ve heard, Terri, but we don’t need to be enemies.”
Terri didn’t say anything. She stared back, up at the taller woman, no idea what to say or do. Her gut had been right, but she had no idea who this woman really was, or what she wanted. She wanted to go back, reset, grab onto that rapidly receding moment before she went on the attack. She had stumbled out of her element, hugely.
“How about, we reset?” continued Wendy. “I’ll take you to lunch. My treat. No bullshit this time. I mean, I get it now. I do. I thought this would be a good way to get to know you, but it wasn’t genuine. I’m sorry.”
Another act, an act of contrition, literally. But whatever the hell this woman was, Terri needed to know. She nodded.
“Great! And again, I’m sorry about this. My fault. Completely my fault. I’ll be in touch.”
The woman walked away, leaving Terri by herself on the front steps of the house. She waited until Wendy’s car was out of sight before she wobbled to the steps to sit down.