It Ends Here, Page 2Willow Rose
I exhaled, then accelerated. I hated the fact that my kids would be forced to spend time with her—the woman who had wrecked our home and caused us to split up—for the next couple of days while I was gone on the job. It was well-paid, so I could hardly have said no to it just because I didn't like Sune's new girlfriend. It was for Metropolitan Magazine, which wanted a feature on an author who lived inland and who had just published a book that had gone on to hit the New York Times bestselling list on the very first day. There were talks about a movie deal too. She was a very private person, and the magazine wanted me to do a story on her, trying to figure out who she really was. She had agreed to do an interview with me, but from talking to her on the phone, I got the feeling that she wasn't exactly excited about the idea.
"Just promise me you'll take good care of my children, will you?" I said, then hung up without waiting for his response. I felt tears in my eyes and a knot in my throat but swallowed it down along with my pride.
I hated what had happened to us.
Webster, Florida 1979
Carol watched the two girls sitting on the lawn and smiled while wiping her fingers on a dishtowel, removing flour and butter left on her hands from the peach pie she was baking for Anna Mae and her friend.
She liked to make things nice for Anna Mae when she came to visit her aunt. She wanted Anna Mae to like it at her house and hoped to be able to make up for all the bad stuff she had to witness at home.
It was no secret that Carol wasn't very fond of her sister, Joanna, or her choices in life, but she had the one thing that Carol couldn't get and that she desired more than anything in this world. A child. A beautiful angelic baby girl named Anna Mae.
Ever since she was born, Anna Mae had been the apple of Carol's eye. Her visits filled her with such profound joy that she always wished Anna Mae could stay a little longer. At one point, when her mother had been on yet another drinking bender, Anna Mae had stayed at Carol's house for five whole days, and that had felt like heaven for Carol. She had cherished the wondrous blessing of hearing a child's laughter in her home and often looked back on it as the best time of her adult life.
When Anna Mae wasn't there, the house felt so empty, so quiet. Then it was just her and John. Carol loved her husband, of course she did, but the fact that she hadn't been able to provide him with a child had come between them, and these days they barely touched or even spoke. Every time she looked into his eyes, she was reminded of her own failure, the failure of not being woman enough for him.
Anna Mae looked back at the house with her sparkling blue eyes, and Carol waved with a sigh. If only Anna Mae could have been hers.
Joanna doesn't deserve her.
It was the truth; she didn't. She didn't know how lucky she was and never knew how to appreciate her daughter. Not like Carol would. She would have spoiled that girl rotten had she only been hers. Instead, she was just her niece, and she'd have to be satisfied with only seeing her once in a while when her sister got tired of her or didn't want her around for some reason. More often than not, it was because she had men in the house or was drinking.
The oven dinged to let her know the pie was done and Carol pulled it out, closing her eyes briefly when the heavenly smell hit her nostrils. She put the warm peach pie on the patio outside to cool, then went over to Anna Mae and her friend, Bella, at the bottom of the yard.
As she approached the two girls, she took in a deep breath of the warm, moist air. Spring in Florida was always so wonderful, she believed. Summers were too hot and muggy for Carol, but spring was just perfect. Up above her, the sun shone from a clear blue sky, and there wasn't a sign of thunderstorms anywhere nearby. It was going to be a wonderful afternoon, well spent with her precious niece.
"Girls, the pie is ready," she chirped as she approached them. "Let's eat it while it’s warm."
But the girls didn't react. They sat in the grass, heads bent down like they were doing something very important.
"Did you hear me, girls? Anna Mae? I said the pie is done. And I have vanilla ice cream to top it off with, just the way you like it."
Carol took a few steps closer to better see what they were up to, then gasped and clasped her mouth.
"Anna Mae! W-what…what are you…what are you doing to that poor bird?"
The girls both gazed up at her, their eyes beaming with wonder and amazement, while Carol stared at the bird in Anna Mae's hands. Anna Mae was holding it between her fingers while pressing down on its throat with her thumbs. The bird was flapping with one crooked wing and trying to get loose. It was obviously fighting for its life, while both of its legs had been snapped like twigs.
"Let go of that bird, Anna Mae," Carol said. "You can't hurt a poor bird like that. Can't you see that you're torturing it? Let it go, now."
The girl looked up at her, then pressed down her thumbs hard and choked the bird, holding it tight till it stopped moving. Then she smiled and sighed… almost like she was satisfied.
"Anna Mae," Carol said, shocked. She felt the hair rise on her neck despite the almost eighty degrees out. "What did you do? You killed it! Why would you do that to the poor birdie?"
Anna Mae finally let the bird drop from her hands, and her eyes followed it as it fell to the grass below.
"It's just a birdie," Bella said, lisping slightly.
Bella was a little slow, as they put it, so it didn't really shock Carol as much to see her engage in something like this, but Anna Mae should know better. She was the smart one of the two.
"It had a broken wing," Anna Mae said. "It couldn't fly anymore. So, it had to die."
"Did you break the wing?" Carol asked. "Did you, Anna Mae? Did you break its wing first?"
The girl didn't answer. She stared at the bird on the grass, and Carol wondered what to say to her next, how to talk some sense into her. It seemed almost like she didn't feel any type of remorse at all for killing that bird. It was obvious to Carol that Anna Mae had broken the wing first. How could such a young girl act so cruel?
Carol sighed, realizing she couldn't really scold Anna Mae since she wasn't her child. She didn't want to, either, since she didn't dare risk that the girl would never come back to visit again because she didn't like it at her aunt's place. Life without Anna Mae would be unbearable.
Carol sighed and straightened her apron.
"Now, get rid of that bird before we get rats or vultures crowding the place. You can bury it in the dirt over there and then come wash up. Like I said, it's time for pie."
Margot threw her head backward in light, elegant laughter. A chilled glass of champagne lingered between her fingers, while subdued voices buzzed around her. People around her were making small talk, laughing in the same superior manner that Margot just had. For years, she had studied them, scrutinized their faces, and learned their every move. She knew in her sleep how the women held their glasses, how they carried themselves while sliding gracefully across the mahogany floors, how they let their heads fall backward in delight when the men said something amusing.
And she felt like one of them now. After years of trying to fit in, she finally felt at home among these people in their ten-thousand-dollar tulle gowns from Saks Fifth Avenue, their Mikimoto pearl necklaces, and Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik high heels.
Theodore stood next to her, a cigar between his lips, a hand placed lightly on her back, like he needed to show the world that she belonged to him, and no one else.
Margot liked that feeling, and she liked being his. Never had she thought she'd experience love like this.
"How are you holding up?" he whispered as he leaned closer to her ear. "Are you surviving?"
"I think so," she said as their eyes met for a brief moment. "I’m doing a lot better."
Her stomach had been hurting before they left, but they both knew it was just nerves. Margot was never good at these charity events, but she went to them because it was expected of her. When married to the top neurosurgeon of on
e of the biggest hospitals in Florida, she knew she had to put on a brave face every now and then and make an appearance. So, she did it for his sake. She would do anything for Theodore. She loved him deeply and felt eternally grateful for how he had pulled her out of the poverty and misery she had once lived in. All that was gone, and she preferred it to stay that way.
"So, someone told me that you just published a new book?" a woman in a sparkling dress and very straight back asked her, smiling. "Isn't that exciting?"
Margot smiled and nodded shyly. She hadn't come to discuss her career. She was here for her husband and didn't want their attention.
She gave Theodore a brief look as if she was asking for his permission to talk about herself, and he nodded, his eyes beaming. He was proud of her accomplishments too, a fact that often filled her with reverential fear because where would she be without him? What if she lost him one day?
"Yes, you heard right. I did publish a new book recently," Margot said. "Only two days ago to be exact."
"And I hear it is doing very well," the woman continued. "Someone told me it was number one on the New York Times bestselling list? Isn't that marvelous?"
Margot blushed. She wasn't very fond of talking about herself. She preferred the blessing of living a quiet existence.
"Yes, it is, thank you. It has been truly amazing. I am very grateful for how well it has been received."
"I'll have to read it one day," the woman chirped. "I can't wait to tell people I know a real author, a New York Times bestselling one on top of it. Theodore must be so proud of you. You two make such a perfect and successful couple."
She smiled and winked at Margot, who once again felt the blood rush to her face. To think that anyone would brag about knowing her seemed incomprehensible.
"Thank you; you're being too kind. All I really did was to sit down and write a bunch of lies," she said.
That made the woman in front of her laugh. "Oh, that’s a good one," she sang. "I just sat down and wrote a bunch of lies. Now, that one I'll have to remember when I tell all my friends that I know Margot Addington, the author."
Margot sent her an uncomfortable smile, then lifted her glass and poured the clear bubbles into her mouth, hoping they would calm her down. Margot had never felt pride over being who she was before this day, but right now at this moment, she did. For just a short, treacherous second, she glanced into one of the window-sized mirrors covering the walls of the ballroom and allowed herself to like what she saw.
"I put you in number fourteen. It's the first building to your right. You can't miss it once you get out there."
The small woman behind the counter looked at me over her glasses. Her nametag said, Adeline. Adeline smiled kindly and handed me the keycard.
"I'll find it. Thank you so much," I said, then rolled my suitcase back outside and turned right.
I had booked a room in a motel in downtown Webster, a small town that bragged to have exactly one thousand and ninety inhabitants on its sign just outside the city limits. It was a town that was known for its huge market, which they proudly called the world’s largest, and for growing cucumbers. The motel was the closest—and cheapest—I could find close to where the author lived. It was only about a ten-minute drive away.
I slid the card into the lock and entered the small room, then threw myself on the bed, the springs creaking, almost screaming, underneath me.
I looked at my phone and saw that I had received a text from my daughter, Julie. She had recently started middle school, and that hadn't been without challenges. I had thought it would mean her growing more independent, but lately, it was like she needed me more than ever, like she was almost clinging onto me. I guessed it also had to do with what was going on between Sune and me, and I felt terrible for bringing her into the situation. Especially with everything else that had been going on in her life. She had been through a horrifying kidnapping ten months ago, where she and nine other girls were abducted in a school bus and buried underground in a moving van. Even though it had ended well for her, it still gave her nightmares, and it made it hard for her to be out in public. It took forever for me to get her to go back to school, and she refused ever to ride the bus again.
I MISS YOU, she wrote.
I glanced at the time. She was still at school but had to be on her lunch break. It was the only time they were allowed to use their phones during the school day, and she always texted me then. It broke my heart because it made me realize she probably didn't have anyone else to talk to. Julie hadn't wanted to hang with her friends much since the kidnapping. She had been clinging onto me instead, going wherever I went and never letting me out of her sight as soon as she was home from school. She often texted me several times a day, between classes, to make sure I was still close. I knew it was just a phase, and I was doing my best to embrace it, but it was wearing on me, especially since I felt terrible for her. I knew she was scared, and I couldn't make that go away.
I had signed her up for counseling right after she came back to me, and she had gone a few times but had finally ended up crying, telling me she didn't like talking to this counselor, that she didn't want to go back there. I had made her go a couple more times, then gave in and let her stop. I couldn't bear the crying when I took her there. Instead, I tried to talk to her about the event and how it had changed things for her. The counselor had given me some tools to help her along the way, and he believed she was going to be fine eventually. I felt like it made a big difference to her when I spent time with her, if I showed her that I cared about even the small things in her life and showed genuine interest in her and remembered to ask how she was feeling.
But it was tough. Boy, it was rough.
I MISS YOU TOO, I replied. HOW'S YOUR DAY GOING?
NOT GOOD, she wrote back. SOMEONE SPLASHED KETCHUP ON MY FACE AND SHIRT, AND NOW I SMELL.
I grumbled. Why did middle school have to be such a terrible place? Last week, someone had taken her lunchbox and thrown it across the lunchroom, so her food was completely squashed when she finally got it back, and she had no time to eat. It wasn't that she was being bullied; it was just people goofing around and making it harder for her to settle in. The kids there found it hard to respect her personal space, and there was always someone bothering her, taking her stuff, or just being annoying. It was usually the boys who did the stupid stuff, and I remembered from that age how awkward they were and how the girls were so mature that it made the boys even more insecure and goofy when around them. Plus, there were all the groups of popular girls looking down on everyone else while they fought for their positions among themselves. It was a terrible time for all involved, and Julie had never really found her position. At least not yet. On top of it all, she had gotten her period recently, and the hormones were running amok in her body, wreaking havoc, making her act out and become this creature I didn't know how to handle.
GO TO THE RESTROOM AND WASH IT OUT.
I'LL HAVE WET HAIR THEN. IT'LL LOOK GREASY. PEOPLE WILL THINK I DIDN'T SHOWER.
BETTER THAN SMELLING LIKE KETCHUP.
I grabbed my laptop and opened it, then found all the research I had done to prepare for the interview tomorrow. It wasn't exactly a complicated story, but I still liked to come prepared.
I MISS YOU, MOM, Julie wrote again. I'M IN THE BATHROOM CRYING.
I exhaled, feeling terrible. I was too far away to help her. There really wasn't anything I could do. It broke my heart, but she had to learn how to deal with these things herself. The girl was thirteen; she should be able to be away from her mother for three days, right?
Maybe if she hadn't been kidnapped and held captive for days underground. Maybe if she hadn't thought she'd never see her mother again.
I texted Sune and let him know what was going on. He wrote back that he had just gotten an assignment for some local paper, so he was out right now, but he would try and drop by later with a clean shirt for her and drop it off at the front office. I
thanked him, then texted Julie to let her know.
IT'LL BE FINE. DON'T CRY ANYMORE, BABY.
I put the phone down and returned to my preparations, but I kept picturing Julie all alone in the restroom, not daring to leave because people would be able to tell she had been crying.
The counselor had told me I should be flattered that Julie preferred to talk to me, that she came to me with every little emotion and trouble in her life because it meant we had a very strong bond. Believe me; I certainly was thrilled to be able to be there for her, and that I was the one she came to, but it felt like I was constantly putting out fires.
OKAY, she answered. I WASHED IT OUT. I'LL GO TO CIVICS NOW.
THAT'S MY GIRL.
SEE YOU LATER.
And just like that, yet another fire had been extinguished. There would be a few hours before she would be able to text me again, so that meant I had time to prepare and read through the little I had been able to find about this mysterious author, Margot Addington.
"We don't have enough wood to finish it. We need some more."
Peter looked down at his younger sister with a sigh. He had promised her he would build her a treehouse in their old magnolia tree in the backyard. It had been her dream for years to get a real treehouse, and since their dad was always out of town and never had time to do it, Peter had stepped up and said he would help her out.
So far, he had managed to build a platform, but then he had run out of wood. Until now, he had used the scraps his dad had lying in a pile in the back, but now there were no more.
"But…what do we do?" Rita, his sister, asked, her big green eyes lingering on him with great anticipation. "How do we get more wood? We need a lot because I want it to be a big treehouse."
Peter glanced toward their house. Their mother wasn't home since she was working down at City Hall and wouldn't be back until about two hours from now. Peter usually took care of his sister after school, and they weren't supposed to leave the house. Still, Peter had promised he would finish the treehouse today, and he never was one to break a promise to his younger sister, whom he adored so greatly. She could be a pain in the butt, yes, but he loved her dearly and would do anything to make her happy. Especially now that their parents had sprung the D-word on them and told them things were going to change and that their father would soon be living somewhere else. This was no time to make Rita sad about anything. If there ever was a time Peter felt like he owed her a treehouse, it was now.