Legs wrapped around the tote bag, Amanda succumbed to the numbing cold that had besieged her on and off all night. In the bathroom mirror, her breath appeared like clouds, lulling her toward a dangerous winter slumber. Until an icy draft slapped her awake.
What an idiot she’d been about painting the house!
After swinging from one extreme to the other (poor to rich), she was determined now to find her level. Adept at putting off Cheryl’s creditors, she’d married her first real boyfriend during her freshman year at the U. of C. Mike was seven years older and finishing his MBA. He came from an influential Chicago family with genteel but obvious wealth, and when she graduated, they had moved into a comfortable house in Evanston.
But since then, he’d changed and she’d changed. Amanda was eager to go her own way. Mike and his surprisingly warm parents loved Evie and Vanessa—that made it possible. They would give the girls culture and refinement, travel and adventure. Amanda would give them common sense.
Except, apparently, Amanda’s “common sense” was a joke. She may have gotten a full scholarship to the U. of C., taken little for granted, and amused her in-laws by earning “her own money,” without missing a step as she also became a mother and excelled academically. But she wasn’t displaying precision, steadiness, or innate common sense—rather, survival tactics she’d developed as a child.
After all, what kind of sensible person supposed she could paint an entire house in late December without heat or electricity—unfazed that she’d never painted so much as a doorframe?
Out of the icy rags and into the clothes she’d worn when she arrived, Amanda drove to her ex-home in Evanston, which Mike wasn’t selling anytime soon. Discarding her coat, keys, and boots, she then shed her very nice clothes, piece by elegant piece, climbing the stairs to their, make that– the–deliciously warm master bedroom.
Her extremes between scrimping and excess paled compared to the one perfect season of Walter Underwood’s kind devotion to her. Always, but now more than ever, she ached to know where he was. Why had she never heard from him?
Thirteen years ago, Amanda’s angry mother had shown up at the middle school and they’d fled to Wisconsin. For five years, she and Cheryl had lived grimly in a ground-floor condominium. The resort village was comprised of so-called amusement parks, curiosity shops, and ersatz lodges laden with Germanic gimcrack. Cheryl’s boss (afraid he’d be implicated?) had gotten her employed as golf pro at the big (chintzy) golf course.
Before she married Mike, Amanda had searched for Walter until she found what she believed was his phone number. When a woman answered, she’d hung up, panic-stricken, almost relieved at dodging the anxious rapture of hearing his voice.
Olivia, now known as “O,” had reached out, sort of, while attending college in Australia. Amanda had received flurries of texts from nightclubs in Melbourne whenever O was in love, and/or “ripping through bashes.” Communication was too spotty, distant, and expensive for Amanda to ask about Walter.
About the time Vanessa was born, O had returned to the U.S, and stayed with Sterling and her stepfather in Virginia. Twice Sterling had aborted a barely started phone conversation by screaming at Amanda to stay away from them.
Now, lifting the phone from the bedside table, she slid beneath the bedspread, stretched out and scrolled O’s number.
Amanda hung up immediately but then the phone sounded in her hand.
“Co-ink-a-dink,” O said. “I was ringing you as you were ringing me! Wanna be my bridesmaid when I get married in February?”
“Congratulations, O! I’d love that. But—are you sure you want me there?”
“Absolutely! I want you there. Sterling will go ballistic but she’s already pissed about me not doing it in June on Charles’s revolting old plantation.”
“So who are you marrying in February?”
“Keith O’Donnell, who’s a blast. He runs his family’s tree nursery. The big ceremony’s been planned at some hyped-up extension of Monticello. But it’s nice, and Daddy’s Fruit Loop wife will be in L.A.”
“Walter’s wife, of course, right. But, will—will he…?”
“Amanda, he’s walking me down the aisle.” O giggled, “He’s giving me away. At first Daddy objected to Sterling using her slimy husband’s money to get him out of jail. But he survived. So it’s history.”
“History? Walter? Of all the men on earth, why was Walter in prison?”
“Amanda, you know why! Same as he knew that taking you to Disney World was totally federal. And he confessed—on the spot, no provocation, which infuriated Sterling at first. But then later she thought maybe it was best. ’Cause in some scenarios, if this shit had turned up later? Helluva a lot harder to get the sex offender stuff dropped.”
Amanda suppressed a scream, bolted into the bathroom, and vomited. When she’d rinsed her mouth and splashed her face, she heard O’s voice coming from the phone she’d thrown on the floor.
“…an’ the coolest part was that Daddy prepped this hard-core drug lord into acing the CPA test, ’cause the man had decided—no more Sing Sing.”
“Originally for twenty years—standard for kidnapping.”
“Well, fuck them dead. He didn’t kidnap me. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“I’m telling you! Daddy flat-out refused to defend himself! But to her credit, Sterling fought like a tiger—they were halfway divorced but Sterling knew damn well Daddy’s incapable of hurting a kid—especially you! She actually found this phone in his windbreaker, full of voicemails to Cheryl MIA. And she got the principal and your middle school teachers to testify. They knew about abused kids. And they all swore you were the opposite of that.”
Amanda hated it when she cried like this.
O said, “The principal and your teachers basically said that you went from this bedraggled, C-minus, borderline kid to A-plus. Like from crouching in corners to the prettiest, smartest girl in town. And under questioning, Daddy had to tell the truth: no, he had never hurt you; no, he had never touched you ‘inappropriately.’
“Later, Sterling used her connections to get an appeal. Reduced his sentence to five years. And half of that, he’d already done.”
Amanda gagged in disbelief.
“Are you gonna puke again?”
“Walter saved my life! What didn’t anyone ask me about it?”
“Daddy was protecting you, stupid. He’d have done 99 before he’d let you take the stand.”
“How do you know?”
“Sterling told me. I wouldn’t know any of this shit—’cause they were protecting me, too. But since I got home, I pestered her. So it was—seeing that I’m an adult, all right. But I had to swear: never say a word to Daddy. Asking an ex-con about prison is like asking a war vet if he bombed whole cities or just villages.”
Amanda said, “I’m a monster. He must hate me.”
“Amanda, he loves you! I want you to be my bridesmaid. If I can tell Daddy that you’ll be leading the procession? For him, it’ll be heaven on earth.”
by Kathleen Maher