The soft cotton bedcover brushed against Rachel’s legs and her shoes clacked against the wooden bed as she slid as far back as possible to fit her reflection in the dressing table mirror situated in the corner of the cramped room. Although her figure was nowhere perfect or how it used to be in her twenties, Rachel could still fit into some of her mother’s flower print summer dresses and by applying the MAC concealer she pinched from her neighbour — the big-bosomed, bird-brained bimbo’s house — she looked much younger than her forty-one years.
Ordinarily, Rachel contended herself with the small bathroom mirror in her ground-floor bedroom, but today she needed everything including her appearance to be perfect, which was why she climbed to the first floor to view herself in the largest mirror in the house. After adjusting her scarf around her neck, Rachel tried various expressions in the mirror until she found the one that conveyed appropriate sorrow at the untimely death of her elderly neighbour, Mrs. Jones, whom she had known all her life and whose children had been her friends and playmates while growing up. With her heart beating faster than usual, Rachel mentally rehearsed the lines that would steer the conversation in the right direction without arousing anyone’s suspicion. Susan and Tommy she’d manage, she told herself. It was the smart one, the youngest of the three siblings, Hannah, she must be careful about.
The stairs creaked noisily as she climbed down to the ground floor. In her bedroom lay her faded grey suitcase packed with summer dresses and hats and sunscreen and flip-flops — all the things she’d need during her five-day, six-night vacation to Santa Monica in California, where a two-storied modern beach bungalow was booked in her name.
Ms. Rachel Adams. The booking agent had only momentarily hesitated before confirming her booking over the phone when Rachel had explained that she’d be travelling alone even though the winning prize was a holiday for two people.
Of course, whether Rachel would actually be able to go on the holiday depended on how she conducted herself in the next hour or so.
As she grabbed the casserole she’d prepared for the Jones family, locked her front door and strode across her withered garden, Rachel drew her coat closer. The winter had been particularly harsh this year and she couldn’t think of a better time to visit the beach. As she paused before crossing the road, she closed her eyes momentarily and thought of the only time in her life she’d visited a beach. She remembered her blue dolphin-printed swimsuit, her mother’s silver bird-shaped pendant that she fingered as she laughed heartily, the wondrous feeling of the sun’s warmth on her back, her father perching her over his shoulders and carrying her into the sea until the waves lapped at her ankles and she begged him to turn back. But most of all, she remembered the curse that had befallen her that day, the curse that killed her parents three months later in a car crash.
As Rachel approached the Jones family’s front yard, she noticed the open door of the black Ford Explorer with the New York number plates. Tommy and Lily Jones, both investment bankers, lived in New York and had driven here a week ago upon hearing the news of Carla’s demise. As she passed by, Rachel glanced curiously at the polished interior of the car and nearly collided with Tommy, who just then emerged from the house carrying a carton that was blocking his vision.
“Oh, hi!” he piped on seeing her. “Let me just...”
Towering at six feet two inches and carrying a weight of only 160 pounds since the day he graduated, Thomas Jones moved clumsily. He placed the carton on the back seat of his car and closed the door, dusting his hands off.
“Last of the lot,” he said to Rachel. “My toys that Mum and Dad kept all these years.”
Rachel wondered what he’d do with the toys as Tommy and Lily were child-free by choice as they often liked to declare.
“Lily wants to leave early morning tomorrow, so we’re packing whatever we can today.”
“It must be such an emotional time for the family. Selling the family house and all,” Rachel said, bringing her arms together and squishing her boobs against each other. Tommy couldn’t help staring at her boobs through middle school.
“Yeah,” said Tommy, staring dreamily at the double-storey house Rachel thought was just short of ugly. “But it’s the right thing to do with all of us living elsewhere, you know?”
His blue eyes flickered over her chest and then stopped at the casserole in her hands.
“Please come in, Rachel. How thoughtful of you!”
As Rachel followed Tommy into the house, she noticed the bald spot on the back of his head and visualized smacking it with a baseball bat and closing her eyes to the warm spray of blood.
Leaving Rachel to wait in the living room, Tommy called out to his sisters from the hallway and disappeared into the kitchen. Rachel sat on the beige sofa she had occupied several times in the past week during her condolence visits. There was a new scent in the air. Sandalwood, she realized with a jolt.
Suddenly, Rachel was thirteen again, dressed in a white T-shirt and faded blue jeans, her hair pulled back into a high ponytail, sitting nervously in the smoke-filled, dimly-lit room of the Indian palm reader. A wrinkled old woman of seventy, Sheela had studied Rachel’s palm from every angle her fragile neck allowed, wagged a bony finger in Rachel’s face and said the words that still crushed Rachel under their weight.
“You are cursed, my child. Cursed,” she’d said in a thick Indian accent. “It’s the curse that killed your parents.”
Rachel had glanced at her friend Stephanie, who’d simply shrugged at the palm reader’s words.
“Wh... what curse?” Rachel had mumbled.
“It will bring you ill-luck all your life. If only...”
“Water,” she had growled, baring her broken yellow teeth. “It started with water and with water, it shall end.”
And so, had begun Rachel’s lifelong quest to end her curse. Only, she hadn’t managed to summon the courage to spend a fortune out of the meagre savings her parents left her to buy herself an air ticket. Most of her savings were tied up in fixed-term deposits, earning her a paltry income each month, and to diminish her savings significantly for a trip to a beach city seemed foolish. No, she’d figure something else out, she’d told herself. And thus had passed many years during which many of Rachel’s plans to “acquire” the means to travel to a beach city had failed. Ill-luck. The curse, of course. How could she succeed when the curse hampered her every little effort, she’d thought, frustrated.
After her parents’ death, Rachel had spent her childhood living with her maternal aunt and uncle, who lived in the same city and brought her to her home every weekend, where she played with Susan and Tommy, while Hannah watched warily from a distance.
As soon as Rachel turned sixteen, she returned permanently to her home on Pine Street. She never finished her education or got a job because what good could come of sticking your neck out when you’ve got a curse riding over your head? Beautiful though she was, Rachel never married because the marriage wouldn’t work, would it, with a curse hanging over her head like a sword? And children, she should’ve had three by now but she didn’t because what was the point when the curse would end each pregnancy with a miscarriage or worse, a retarded child whose arse she’d had to wipe all his miserable life?
Rachel had waited patiently to end her lifelong curse and today was about ensuring she got on the airplane to Santa Monica tomorrow. And then once she had ended her curse by dipping her head under the sea for a full minute while chanting the mantra scribbled on the crumpled paper the palm reader gave her years ago, which Rachel had memorized by heart, would begin her fabulous life of glittering jewellery and shimmering dresses, of foreign holidays to exotic locations, of a hard-bodied and fat-walleted husband and a lovely, large house, of perfectly well-behaved, high-IQ, tall and beautiful children, of socialite friends and Saturday brunches. Maybe she’d even start a small business selling the hand-made, sweet-smelling candles she’s been making in her attic for many years now. Yes, Rachel would have it all.
“Oh, Rachel, my dear!”
Susan Abbott waddled into the room, panting from the effort of walking over from the adjacent room, where she had spent most of the past week stretched on the upholstered sofa with the TV blaring in front of her. It was as though Susan was determined on keeping her mother’s memory alive by literally taking her place in front of the telly, stepping into her furry pink and white flip flops and attacking the remaining packets of her mother’s favourite crisps with a ferocity that was unusual in Susan.
Rachel jumped to her feet eagerly and opened herself to a bone-crushing embrace from Susan. Wishing Susan would wash her hair more often, Rachel stood smiling while Susan held her for what seemed like two full minutes in an embrace and whispered words of thanks in her ear.
Rachel took a deep breath as Susan released her and moved away to occupy the adjacent chair, dropping her heavy bottom into it with a plop.
“You are so kind, Rachel,” she crooned, gesturing at the casserole that rested on the small table between them.
“Not at all. It’s nothing,” said Rachel in her self-deprecating tone.
From the pocket of her dress, Susan retrieved a handkerchief and began blotting her eyes. “It’s been such a hard time for us. Knowing that Mum was alone when she... when she...”
“She loved you very much. She never said so, Susan, but I could tell you were her favourite,” she Rachel.
“Is that so?”
Hannah stood at the threshold of the living room holding a tray with cups of tea, the usual icy expression on her face.
“Oh, don’t be like that, Hannah,” said Susan. “Mum treated all of us the same and you know that.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Hannah, placing the tray on the table and pouring tea for everyone.
Rachel mentally cursed her ill-luck, but there was no retracting from her words, so she decided to try another tack.
“Mrs. Jones was so proud of all of you,” Rachel said, looking at Hannah, who like her brother Tommy, was a high-achiever. A highly-qualified psychologist, Hannah Jones — she’d refused to change her name after marriage, some feminist shit, thought Rachel — was often in the news for authoring ground-breaking papers or winning prestigious awards or in connection with her husband Frank Morris, a famous criminal lawyer, who was as often in the news as his wife.
“It must have been a shock to you, finding Mum like that,” said Hannah, passing a cup of tea to Rachel.
Rachel’s pulse quickened on realizing she’d never narrated the story of finding Mrs. Jones heaped at the foot of the stairs in a puddle of her own blood in front of Hannah. She wondered if Hannah was somehow trying to trip her up.
Rachel took a deep breath. “It was the worst day of my life. To say it was horrible finding Mrs. Jones like that is an understatement. I loved your Mum. She’d been so much like a mother to me, you know, after my parents...” Rachel allowed her voice to quiver and break off.
“And what brought you here that day?” asked Hannah over the brim of her cup as she took a sip of tea.
“I’d brought her some soup for her flu.”
“Mum often left the door unlocked, didn't she?” said Susan, dabbing her eyes with the hankerchief. “She was a trusting woman.”
Trusting woman, my arse, thought Rachel as she remembered Carla during their last encounter. The woman was shrewd, ill-tempered and often spiteful. The only reason Rachel tolerated her and even humoured her was that she was certain one day the stupid bitch would prove to be useful. And she had been right.
“I called an ambulance and they were here within ten minutes,” said Rachel, sniffling. “But it was too late.”
“We’re so grateful for all that you did for Mum,” said Susan, leaning forward and patting Rachel’s hand.
A thumping sound on the staircase shook the chandelier. A moment later, a thin, bespectacled ten-year-old boy burst into the room with a dusty blue and white toy airplane in his hand.
“Mom, look what I found! Can I keep it? Please. Please.”
“Don’t you have an airplane at home, Luke?” said Hannah, exasperated.
“Yeah, but this one’s so cool.”
“Ask your uncle. It belonged to him.”
As the boy disappeared into the hallway leading to the backyard, Hannah called after him. “And stay away from Granny’s things!”
The silence in the room was punctuated by the ticking of the wall clock. Rachel realized bitterly she’d have to do it with Hannah present. It was her last opportunity as they would all leave tomorrow.
“So, did Mrs. Jones tell you about the holiday in Santa Monica?” she asked.
“What holiday?” said Tommy, entering the room and sinking into the sofa next to Hannah.
“It was one of the TV shows. She kept entering into contests. She told me it was as simple as pressing a number on the phone,” said Rachel, her heart thumping in her chest.
“She won?” said Susan.
“She did!” said Rachel, beaming.
Susan’s face fell. “When was this? Mum never told me. Did you know?” she asked her siblings.
“It was two days before the accident,” said Rachel. “And Mrs. Jones was down with the flu and with her arthritis, she didn’t think she’d be able to travel.”
“Huh,” said Hannah.
“So,” said Rachel, gathering her courage, “being the kind woman she was, she gave me the tickets. I refused, absolutely refused to take them, but she was adamant. I told her to give the holiday tickets to one of you, her children. But she said that...”
“What did she say?” said Hannah, staring at Rachel.
“Well, she said that each of you can afford your own holidays,” said Rachel in a small voice.
It was true, thought Rachel. Tommy and Lily posted photos on Instagram from their overseas holidays at least twice a year. Susan and her late husband, John, had spent a good part of the past decade travelling across Europe for work. Hannah and Frank owned a multi-million dollar home in Los Angeles where they spent every summer.
Rachel wiped her eyes. “Mrs. Jones was such a kind and sweet woman. She wanted, really wanted me to go on the holiday. She said I never went anywhere. But now, with what’s happened, my heart is too heavy with grief to go anywhere.”
“You should go,” said Susan as Rachel had expected. “Mum would’ve wanted that.” She looked at her siblings.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Tommy. “You should go, Rachel.”
Hannah looked at Rachel for what seemed like an eternity and then nodded.
Fireworks were bursting in Rachel’s head. She wanted to cry tears of joy. Tomorrow, she’d be on her way to a perfect, sunny beach. It made everything she did worth it, even throwing her weight against the fat cow to push her down the stairs.
Yes, Carla had won the holiday. But no, she hadn’t offered to give it to Rachel. The stupid bitch was totally happy with letting the holiday go to waste, but she wouldn’t give the tickets to her neighbour. So Rachel had slid into Carla’s bedroom on the pretence of using the bathroom and pinched the tickets. The idea of murder hadn’t crossed Rachel’s mind at first, but the shrewd hag had suspected her. She was asking questions, too many questions and Rachel was afraid she might tell someone about the missing tickets.
The chandelier shook again with the thumping sound.
Luke burst into the room holding a tiny black device. “Look what I found, Mom! The recorder we gave Grandma last Christmas. To record her thoughts because she kept forgetting stuff.”
“Not now, Luke,” said Hannah.
The croaky voice of Carla Jones, seventy-two, filled the room as the boy pressed ‘Play.’
“What are you doing up here?”
With snowballing dread, Rachel heard her own voice on the tape recorder, unctuous and conciliatory.
“Mrs. Jones, I brought you some soup for your cold.”
Rachel shot up. She knew what was coming on the tape recorder in just a few seconds. The stupid bitch must have pressed the record button on seeing Rachel’s reflection in the mirror where she stood fiddling with a device on the dresser.
“Argh... I... I left milk on the stove. Sorry, gotta go.” With these words, Rachel hurried towards the front door as Hannah, Susan and Tommy looked at her in surprise.
“I don’t want your soup. I told you not to come here anymore, you thief!”
Rachel broke into a run as she descended the porch stairs and crossed the lawn. She looked over her should just as she was crossing the road and saw Tommy running towards her with a fury on his face she’d never seen before. Hannah was right on his heels, barking into a mobile, calling the cops for sure. Susan stood at the porch, crying copiously, Luke’s arms wrapped around her round waist.
Because she was looking over her shoulder, Rachel did not see it coming. As the speeding lorry slammed into her body, Rachel flew into the air fifteen feet before landing face-down with a thud on the road, all the while cursing her luck.