Authors: August McLaughlin
In Her Shadow
Copyright © 2012 August McLaughlin
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
For my mom and dad, for giving me wings and encouraging me to use them.
Every sin leaves a shadow.” ~ Assamese saying
She gulps the swig of poison like an eight year old inhaling cough syrup—nose plugged, eyes squeezed shut, her face pulled into a tight round ball. Toxic, metallic tasting vapors trail the liquid down her throat, filling her with venomous stench and nausea.
There, that’s it. She did it.
She trembles on the floor, her sweaty back pressed against the bedside, awaiting action. The wrapper from the candy bar he forced into her mouth lies on the floor beside her, crumpled like an odd bit of wrapping paper on Christmas morning. No celebrations today, though. Well, maybe after. She withholds her tears, clinging as though to a ledge of which she can’t let go. If she cries, the poison might come out and that would ruin everything. Come on, she thinks, work. Damn it, work! If it doesn’t start soon, she’ll have to sip some more.
A moment later she feels it. The gurgling in her stomach, the slight lift in her gut, the poisoned-food-particle-stuff moving raucously around inside of her, ready to be regurgitated. Yes, she thinks, it’s working!
Vomit shoots violently from her, a volcano erupting. It slashes her esophagus, wounds that will sting like paper cuts. She doesn’t mind the pain. In a way, she likes it. Proof of her efforts, her un-doing of the food forced in.
She stands, dizzy, and grasps the countertop for balance. She takes a moment to collect herself. Easy does it. Bumping around or toppling over would make noise, and any noise is too much. She tucks the bottle away with caution, conceals the evidence before flushing. The gushing water obscures the swishing sound in her mouth. She puffs warm breath onto her cupped palm and sniffs it. Well done. No scent, no flavor, no cause for HIM to suspect.
She teeters back to her bed, heaviness pulling like a vacuum on her body. Dizziness makes her head ache, her insides woozy. She tucks herself in, the sheets now cool from her absence. She rests her head on her pillow. Sleep finds her quickly, a far cry from the insomnia to which she’s accustomed. A dream captures her before she can detect the blood trickling from her nose.
“Happy birthday to you. You’re stuck at the zoo. You smell like a monkey and you look like one, too.”
Elle Taylor giggles on Claire Fiksen’s voicemail. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You’re nothing like a monkey—except for the cute part, of course. Man, I wish I was there to celebrate with you. Cookie dough ice cream and champagne, remember? Call me soon. Love you.”
Claire wipes the sleep from her eyes, grateful that Elle’s voice marks the start of her birthday. Their friendship carried her through push-up bras, senior prom and college applications, and though their adult lives aren’t as intertwined as Claire would like, Elle takes time from her career as a New York fashion photographer to stay in touch and commemorate significant days.
For once, Claire appreciates Elle’s absence; she isn’t sure she can get out of bed, much less celebrate. Her brain feels fuzzy, her body heavy. Any other day she might attribute her unease to a forgotten dream, the kind that leaves feelings, a mood, but no imagery. Glancing at her parents’ photo, she knows the reason.
Her birthday equals her parents’ death-day.
Claire has run herself through the psychologists’ ringer on it. She shouldn’t blame herself for their death, and mourning on her birthday is counterproductive. But as with her patients, the decision is hers—does she
to feel happy today?
She stumbles to the kitchen and heaps ground coffee into her Krups. Her phone rings again—her grandparents.
“Hi guys.” She fights tears as she absorbs an encore serenade, this time with Grandpa Gil’s husky voice carrying the tune, Grandma CC’s singsong voice in the background. “Thanks, you two. You didn’t have to.”
Yes they did
. An annual reminder that life goes on.
“Don’t forget to come see us tomorrow night,” Grandpa says. “Grandma’s already started cookin’.”
“Pot roast, your favorite,” Grandma adds.
“I wouldn’t miss it. Six-thirty, okay?”
“Six-thirty’s fine, but not a minute later,” Grandpa teases. “She might even let me eat cake, so you better get here before it’s gone.”
After she hangs up, Claire walks to the bathroom and observes her face in the mirror: puffy, pale, bleak. Though the inevitable aging of her face and body seldom concerns her as it does many of her peers and patients, today the difference is disturbing. Sadness permeates her eyes, pushing her farther ahead by years.
She splashes water on her face then stares at her reflection. Tears she’s been resisting spill out. She’d predicted additional distress over this birthday, the ten-year anniversary of the accident. Her parents’ car careened of the road and into a tree mere miles from their home, killing both of them instantly.
Having officially lived a decade without the co-stars of her most treasured memories feels more like approaching a cliff than another stretch of road. She imagines her mom with white hair and soft crinkles around her eyes standing beside an older, but still dapper, version of Dad. “A striking beauty with a heart of gold…” a friend of her mother’s said at the funeral. “…and motherhood was her world.” Claire has forgotten a great deal—mostly due to post-traumatic stress—but never those words.
Nor had she forgotten her mother’s last words to her. She stopped into Claire’s room that evening, held her tighter than usual and said, “You know I love you, right? No matter what?” She’d never stated her love as questions before; it didn’t seem right. When her eyes filled with tears, Claire attributed her behavior to sentimentality.
Then her father entered and kissed Claire’s forehead, leaving the smell of aftershave. “Come on, Dawn. We should go.” Something about him seemed...anxious, tense.
And she never saw either of them alive again.
Countless times she’s wished for the ability to relive that evening. If given another chance, she would have dug deeper. Or begged her parents to climb into bed with her and stay until the date and time stamped on their death certificates had passed.
But there’s no going back now—only forward.
They would want that.
Zola, her deaf spaniel, exhales heavily, reminding Claire that she has responsibilities. One step at a time, she will get through the day.
During breakfast, she reads a text message from Hank:
Can’t wait to see you.
... She smiles, grateful. Last year she felt guilty for not telling Hank about her birthday—the date or its significance. They’d just begun dating and she hadn’t felt ready. Once she explained, he respected her wish to treat it like any other day. “Just promise you’ll let me spoil you at Christmas,” he’d said. He didn’t get it. He spoils her by being
—a gentleman all around. Today calls for a quiet day of work and dinner with Hank. It may not be a conventional birthday wish, but it’s hers to make.
When she arrives at the Peterson Clinic, she walks through the door into something unexpected.
“Surprise!” The entire staff faces her, wearing paper hats and tooting horns. A large sheet cake is on display.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CLAIRE
it reads, in bold red frosting.
“Wow. I…don’t know what to say. How did you know?” She tries to swallow the lump in her throat.
Farrah Chaundary, Peterson’s primary psychiatrist, steps forward, beaming. “Someone called yesterday from a bakery to confirm the address, so I did a little research.”
“But who sent it?”
Claire’s question dissipates like snowflakes on a windshield as her coworkers mingle in post-surprise glee; a few hug her. Stunned, she can scarcely comprehend their well wishes or return their embraces. It seems surreal, the group surrounding her, most holding cake and coffee, while she stands frozen.
“Happy birthday, Claire. Great cake,” says Bonnie Smith, the grad student who mans the front desk. “But I guess you already know that.”
Claire studies the plate in her hand; she’s been mindlessly eating the decadent piece, most of it now gone. Just what my body needs, she thinks, glancing down at her belly. She licks chocolate frosting from the corner of her mouth and tries to pull herself back to reality.
Claire looks up. A camera flashes and Farrah approaches Claire. “Hey, don’t look so glum! I know thirty sounds horrific, but it’s not so bad. I mean, look at me. A little Pilates, a little Botox... If you’re worried, I’ll give you my dermatologist’s number.”
Claire nearly spews coffee at her. “I’m not thirty, I’m twenty-six.”
“Oh…” Farrah draws back, embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s just that the person from the bakery mentioned it was some sort of…milestone.”
Claire’s heart races.
They said what?
“I just figured… God, I’m sorry,” Farrah continues. “Um, are you enjoying your cake?”
Claire nods, teeth clenched.
The word echoes in her head. Thirty, forty and fifty are milestones by most people’s standards. No one she knows of, aside from her, fixates on twenty-six. Or the ten-year anniversary it reflects.
“Do you know who sent it?” she asks, attempting nonchalance.
Farrah shrugs. “No, there was no card or receipt or anything. I forget the name of the bakery that called.”
Claire decides not to push it. “Well if you think of it, could you let me know? I’d like to thank whoever sent it.”
“Sure thing. Enjoy your birthday.” Farrah heads for her office.
Claire jumps when Rutherford Sykes, Peterson’s clinical director, grasps her shoulder. “Enjoy your birthday,” he says.
“Thanks.” She quickly moves to her office, sits at her desk and drops her face in her cold, clammy hands.
Farrah inserts the camera card into her computer and hits
She watches the images appear—Claire with the cake, talking to coworkers, looking stunned amidst the crowd. She zooms in on her face then crops the image, creating a tight close-up.
Farrah thought he was playing some sort of joke when he called the previous week, asking if she was interested in conducting research on his behalf. Research regarding Claire. He wouldn’t tell her his name. His calls came from an unknown number. But when her down payment of five hundred dollars arrived in five crisp bills via messenger, hours after she’d signed on, she trusted he’d hold up his full end of the bargain.
“Is she in some kind of trouble?” Farrah had asked him, more out of curiosity than concern.
“If you ask more questions or speak a word to anyone, you won’t be paid,” he’d said. “Every detail of the project is strictly confidential. There will be no
, unless you fail to comply. Can I count on you?”
For all of his elusiveness, the man was clear as Evian about some things. And taking photos, observing Claire’s whereabouts and listening in on a few phone conversations seemed easy enough. The man is probably a headhunter seeking therapists for the FBI or some other highfalutin’ company, she figures. Sounds like something that would land in Claire’s lap. If that’s the case, he can take her. It would leave more opportunities for her there.
Until Claire arrived at Peterson, handpicked from Harvard by Sykes, Farrah deemed herself a shoe-in for the next promotion. The pay increase would help pay off her college and credit card debt and maybe show her traditional Indian parents that she was worth something. If that was possible without a hefty dowry and a litter of kids. But Claire was Peterson’s up-and-coming star from the get-go.
She glares at Claire’s emerald eyes in the photos then snaps them closed, attaches them to an email. Maybe if she had bad skin or thunder thighs, Farrah could embrace her intellect and credentials with some amount of ease. But no, on top of everything else, the woman is drop dead gorgeous—sandy blonde hair, porcelain skin, a slender yet curvy figure. It makes Farrah sick.
The phone rings, drawing a smile to her lips.
Right on time
... She picks up and listens. “Yes sir, mission accomplished... She certainly did—every bite. No, she hasn’t a clue. Yes, several. I’m emailing them to you now. No, really…thank