He saw me.
Flashing red-and-blue lights appear in my rearview mirror, and my heart sinks. Oh no, not now. Please don’t pull me over. Please. I need to get home. Why didn’t I stop? I should have stopped. Exasperated with myself and now fully alert, I look ahead for a place to park. The tree-lined street in the small business district is jam-packed with vehicles. I spot a public parking lot and slowly pull in, with the cop riding my bumper. I park in the first available space and he blocks me in.
I pull the visor down to shield myself from the June sun beating down on me through the windshield of my Mercedes, wondering what he’s doing. Sweat dripping down my chest and back, I tug on my blouse that’s glued to me like a second skin, then place my wet hands on the steering wheel, my gaze shifting to the dashboard clock, its numbers screaming at me. I have to meet the movers in thirty minutes. If I miss them, I’ll have no one to blame but myself. My stomach flips when the officer heads my way.
Brawny with a mop of dark hair, he peers down at me and says, “Ma’am, have you been drinking?”
Momentarily stumped, I pause, thinking to myself that it’s barely 10:00 a.m.—too early to drink. “No, I haven’t had anything to drink, I promise.”
“I’ve been following you since you left that nursing home. You were weaving in and out of lanes, and you just blew through a stop sign.”
“I am so sorry, officer. I’ve been up all night with my mother at the nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s. Please forgive me.” I offer him an apologetic smile.
But his eyes are void of sympathy. “I’m going to need your license, registration, and proof of insurance.”
Crestfallen, I gather the documents and hand them to him. He rifles through the paperwork, then pauses. His eyes dart from my face to the license and back again, as if I’m wanted in four states. I swallow hard. What’s wrong? Then he gives me an unexpected smile. “Julia Pritchard … Ah … You played the mother of those triplets on that sitcom. My kids were addicted to that show. You still acting?”
I hold back tears of anxiety. “No, but I’m trying to make a comeback.” The show was canceled a decade ago, but it’s still in syndication. I’m rarely recognized. With an ailing mother, a stalled career, and a life-changing move, the last thing I need is a traffic citation. I pray he feels the same.
A moment later he hands me my papers. “I hope that works out for you. Anyway, get some rest and be careful,” he says, eyeing the bruise on my forehead. “And good luck with your mother.”
A wave of relief washes over me, and I smile wildly. “Thanks so much for understanding, officer. I really, really appreciate this.”
He nods, hops on his motorcycle, and moves from behind my car. I take off—not too fast—full of gratitude, hoping the movers haven’t left. When I visit my mother Sophie at the nursing home, it’s hard to say goodbye. I hate leaving her there because they’re always short-staffed, and they don’t know how to handle her when she has her periodic fits. Now that I’m leaving my soon-to-be ex-husband, Keith, she’ll be able to live with me and my stepdaughter Blythe in our new apartment. The thought alone gives me an adrenaline rush.
For the past eleven years, my home has been a Tudor-style mansion in Dancing Hills, an elite Los Angeles suburb. Turning up Retford Drive, my soon-to-be former street, I crane my neck in search of a moving truck, but see nothing but mega-mansions behind imposing gates, surrounded by palm trees and flowering vegetation. Wow, I think I may have missed the movers.
When Blythe and I finally worked up the courage to tell Keith we were leaving, he was dismissive, as if he couldn’t care less. It wasn’t the reaction we’d expected, and neither of us really thought he’d stay that way—but he hasn’t tried to stop us. Instead, he’s been fully engaged with work and taking his company public. The sound of a jet passing overhead reminds me that Keith is on his way to New York, and couldn’t keep wife and only child from leaving if he wanted to. Which, apparently, he didn’t. Thank goodness.
I park in the driveway and step from the car. Still no movers in sight. I start to turn toward the house, when in the distance I hear a truck rumbling up the street. Hope blooms in my chest when the truck halts in front of our wrought-iron gate. I motion for the driver to pull into the driveway.
The two movers—recommended by Martha, our housekeeper—exit their truck. Both men look worn out, disheveled, and sport huge armpit stains, but their smiles are friendly enough. “Sorry we’re late,” the larger man announces, “but our other job went longer than we expected, and we got turned around. I’m Juan, and this is Michael. We’re Martha’s cousins.”
“I’m Julia and no worries. I’m running late too. And it shouldn’t take you too long. We moved some things yesterday.”
“Good meeting you,” Juan says. “We’ll put a rush on it.”
They grab a couple of dollies, and I lead them to the front door. I open it with the movers close behind. They wait in the foyer while I disengage the alarm. The men swivel their heads, taking in evidence of Keith’s insatiable appetite for extravagance. Their wide eyes lock on a Picasso and matching Warhols.
I motion for them to follow me. We hurry down the hall, coming to the library filled with Keith’s favorite captain-of-industry bios and countless investment banking trophies. I slow down a bit, fearful of another fall. While wrestling my mother to bed last night, I tripped and hit my head on the edge of her overbed table. It looks worse than it is. I continue to the kitchen, movers in tow.
Keith’s kitchen features terrazzo floors and long swaths of gleaming granite countertop. Ignoring these, I grab a couple bottles of water off the table in the breakfast nook and give them to the movers, who look like they’re about to pass out. They thank me, guzzle the water, then begin loading the boxes onto the dollies.
I glance at the clock on the built-in oven: almost 10:50 a.m. There’s one more thing I need to get before I leave. I press open the basement door and descend to the wine cellar. Memories of Keith in a drunken rage flicker through my head. I shake them off and move to my hiding place—a forgotten storage room, tucked out of sight behind a pillar on the far side of the cellar.
I open the door and flick on the light—a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. The walls are bare, perfect for meditation. A small desk and chair take up half the room. A few cushions, TV scripts, and magazines occupy the rest.
I drop to my hands and knees, reach under the desk and peel away an envelope filled with photos. I slide one from the envelope, and a sickening feeling rises within me. It’s a photo of me: blond hair matted with blood, the whites of blue eyes flecked with red spots, face swollen almost beyond recognition. I look eighty, twice my age. Keith’s tearful mea culpas, endless promises of change, guilt gifts, money, and threats no longer work. Thank god, the spell has been broken.
I return the photo to the envelope and head upstairs, taking two steps at a time. I come to the kitchen, pleasantly surprised to see that all the boxes have been taken away.
The sound of running water in the laundry room gets my attention. I enter to find Martha, dressed in the gaudy red uniform Keith insists on. She’s sorting through a pile of dirty clothes, with several of Blythe’s and my things in the mix. “What are you doing here, Martha? I gave you the day off. When did you get here?”
“Just now. Mr. Keith wants the laundry done. After you left yesterday, he told me I had to come in.” Her brown eyes search my face. “Oh, my goodness, he hit you again.”
I touch the bruise on my forehead and chuckle at the irony. “No, he didn’t hit me. I fell. Why does it smell like bleach in here? It’s really strong.”
“I have no idea. I haven’t even used the bleach. The empty bottle is over there in the trash.”
I point at the dirty laundry. “You don’t have to wash our clothes. I’ll take them.” I grab a bag from the shelf and start to gather the clothes, but Martha stops me.
“I got it, Miss Julia,” she says.
“I wish you didn’t have to work here anymore. Blythe and I are going to figure something out. And please stop calling me Miss Julia. I’m just Julia.”
“But Mr. Keith—”
She bends over, her tall frame shaking with laughter, then hands me the dirty clothes. “Sí, screw him.”
“I’m about to leave, Martha. Don’t be a stranger. I’ll text you the address. We’d love for you to visit.”
“I will.” She embraces me, and I return the hug, my arms barely reaching around her large frame. “Take care of yourself,” she says.
“You too.” We separate, and I leave her there.
I exit through the back door and head straight to the movers, who stand beside the loaded truck. I give them the apartment address, pay them, and then seal the deal with a sizeable tip. They thank me profusely, get in their truck, and leave.
When I return to the kitchen, I spot a photo pinned to the fridge with a magnet: a snapshot of Blythe wearing a black cap and gown surrounded by the kids with disabilities she mentors. I grab it and slip it into the envelope with the pictures documenting my abuse.
I head to the foyer and nearly collide head-on with Blythe, who’d spent the night at the apartment and is supposed to be there now, waiting for the movers.
“Blythe, what are you doing here?”
“I left you a million texts and messages. I even called the nursing home. Kathleen, aka the assistant from hell, has been blowing up my cell. My father was a no-show, didn’t make his flight. She says he was nowhere to be found when the driver got here this morning.”
Fear clutches my chest. “A no-show?”
Blythe, face flushed and weary, throws her hands up in frustration. “He didn’t go to New York!” Her gaze fixes on the bruise on my forehead. “Oh my god, he’s here. He hit you. Are you okay?”
“He didn’t hit me. Not this time. I fell at Grandma Sophie’s. Dammit, I left my phone charging there. No wonder I didn’t get your messages. And Keith isn’t here.”
“Where do you think he is?”
“I don’t know.”
“I knew he was full of it when he said he didn’t care if we left. He’s up to something.”
“Well, all the boxes have been moved. We probably should leave in case he’s on his way back here. Crap. I forgot to get your LSAT prep books, and the Nancy Drew collection my mother gave you.” I head toward the library.
“My prep packet is in the living room. I’ll get it.”
“I’ll grab the books.”
I leave her and go to the library, where I gather the Nancy Drew collection. Then I join Blythe in the living room. I find her staring at an oversized picture above the mantel: Keith seated beside his father while his mother Dolores looms behind them. My eyes shift from the photo of Keith back to her. Their resemblance is uncanny—jet black hair, green eyes, and full lips.
“By the way, Martha’s here. Keith had her come into work today. I wish we could do something for her.”
“Me too,” Blythe says.
I take Blythe’s hand. “You’re shaking.”
“I’d just feel better knowing where he is,” she says, removing her hand from my grasp. “Like they say: keep your enemies close.”
“He’s going to show up.”
“I just wish we’d come to our senses sooner than we did.” She looks at me lovingly and strokes the side of my face, placing her finger on my torn earlobe. “Every time I see this, I’m reminded of the day we stopped being pussies. The day we decided it was way past time to go.”
“Blythe, speaking of leaving, I think we need to get out now. I have a feeling Keith may be on his way back here.”
Before Blythe can respond, a scream rings through the house. “What the hell was that?” she asks.
“It’s Martha.” I make a beeline to the laundry room, with Blythe hard on my heels.