In the Present

Submitted into Contest #103 in response to: Write about a character looking for a sign.... view prompt

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Suspense

Recommended reading: "The Pig"


Four days before Beth’s seventh birthday, Selene walked sheepishly into her father’s home office, head bowed. He had been holding the door open for her. Once she was midway into the room, he closed it and then walked around her, back to his desk. He leaned back against it and folded his arms over his chest. “Why did you do it?” he asked.


Selene tugged anxiously at the hem of her wrinkled summer dress. “Because…because I wanted to see what you got Beth,” she said in a very quiet voice, her eyes welling with tears. Mama had already yelled at her. Now Papa was going to, too. And that was somehow much worse.


“Selene,” he said, “look at me.”


Selene looked up. The motion made a tear fall and streak across her cheek.


Her father didn’t look too mad. He was frowning, but not in an angry way.


“If you lie to me again then you’ll really be in trouble,” he said. But again, not in an angry way. “You understand?”


“I’m not,” Selene opened her mouth to say but then quickly closed it again. She wiped at her face and nodded hurriedly. “Yes, sir.”


“Alright,” her father said. “So when your mother found that someone had snuck into our closet and gone through the presents early, you, right away, jumped in and said you did it.” He leaned in just a little. “But that’s not true. Is it?”


Selene really didn’t want to, but she had no choice but to shake her head.


“Did Beth ask you to say you did it so that she wouldn’t get in trouble?”


“No!” Selene said at once. “No, she didn’t! I promise!”


Her father tilted his head.


“Then why did you do it?”


“Because…because…” She looked down at her scabby knees. “I don’t know…I just didn’t want her to get into trouble, I guess.”


The sound of footsteps made her look up. By then her father had already walked over and hunkered down so that they were almost at eyelevel. He still didn’t look angry. More sad. He gently reached over and wiped the tearstain from her face with his thumb, and then sighed. “You can’t be doing that, baby girl. Your sister needs to learn that she’s accountable for her actions.”


“Accounstable?” Selene asked.


Remembering that he was talking to a four-year-old, her father considered his next words carefully before then saying, “Bad people prosper when good people just let them get whatever they want.”


“Beth’s a bad person?”


“Bethany’s…too impulsive. And you’re too defensive.”


Selene cocked her head, confused. “Defensive?”


“Defensive, but different then other people, Selene.” He took both of her hands in his. His were twice the size of hers, and rough and warm. “Your first instinct is to jump in and help people. To protect them. Just like you protected Beth from being chewed out by your mama. And I love that about you, Selene. But you have to learn who you should save and…and who’s beyond saving.”


“Bad people?” Selene guessed.

“Bad people,” her father agreed.


“But…but how do I know if they’re bad?”


“That’s just something you’ve gotta learn,” her father answered, looking suddenly very tired as he did so. “Learn and get good at. Because bad guys, the really bad guys, usually get real good at pretending to be, well, good. You understand?”


Selene shrugged. “Kinda,” she said. She then asked, “Am I still grounded?”


Her father’s expression lightened. He playfully ruffled her hair. “Hey, you tell your mama you did the crime, you do the time. Live and learn, baby girl. Live and learn.”

#

After twenty-two more years of living and learning, Selene walked out of the bathroom and into another birthday party. Music and the sound of children laughing and screaming echoed through the house from the backyard. The house was two stories, with safety gates placed across the stairs to keep the kids from running up and down and accidently hurting themselves. The whole building was similarly child proofed. It was a miracle that Beth let Wyatt go out at all. She was currently distracted, exchanging hot gossip with her teacher friends. Her husband, Chadwick, worked the grill while making small talk with the other dads who had been roped by their wives into coming.


It was all so…civilian.


Selene ducked her head through the glass door separating the back patio from the living room. Beth had strongarmed her into wearing a dress, heels, and makeup. Selene would not have felt as uncomfortable as she did if she had not being doing this party solo. She had invited (practically begged) a few of her coworkers to come with her, but they had all been called in or busy working a case. That left Selene on her own, trying to wade through the suffocating sea that was elementary-school-hot-gossip.


Taking a deep breath, she slipped out into the yard. The smell of cooking meat wafted her in the face, yet after three plates she wasn’t very hungry. She had eaten more out of an excuse to not have to talk. She glanced over at the kids.


A small party of six-year-old boys and girls were running back and forth, playing a game that only they knew the rules to. They were all being led by a dark boy wearing the birthday crown that Beth had made for him. Watt took after his father, only inheriting Beth’s narrowed eyes and thin lips.


“Selene!” Beth called over. “We thought you’d fallen in.”


Sighing inwardly, Selene shoved her hands in her coat’s front pockets and ventured over to the circle of chairs the women were all sitting at. The only empty chair was to Beth’s left. Feeling like anchors had been suddenly hooked to her ankles, she plopped down into it.


Sitting side by side, the Sachs sisters’ similarities and differences were never more apparent. After her pregnancy, Beth had settled into being comfortably overweight. She had a round and pleasant face framed by frizzy auburn hair that she inherited from their mother. She also always wore dressed and jewelry when in public. A girly girl to her core.


Meanwhile, if Selene had been able to get away with it, she would have shown up in jeans, a basic t-shirt, and running shoes. Also, the stress of being a detective often made her forget to eat. Tonight was the most that she had eaten in one single meal in months. Because of that, she had lost nearly ten pounds in the last year. What was left of her was mostly lithe muscle and coffee for blood. It gave her face a hungry-look that Beth constantly got on her for.


“So, Selene,” Beth’s friend, Tracy, called over, “how’s the dating pool where you work?”


Again? Selene thought. Nearly every conversation with these people had to do with romance or having and raising kids.


Yet, feeling her sister’s eyes on her, Selene played nice. “Some of them are studs. But they’re usually being brought into the precinct in the handcuffs so-”


Beth kicked her shin.


“-I usually keep my head down, waiting for Mr. Right to come along. Can’t be too eager, y’know?”


Selene shot her sister a side-eye that asked, Happy?


Beth pretended not to see it. “To be fair, most of the cops still working there are still too scared of Daddy to make a move.” She sighed. “Made dating growing up tough. Everybody’s scared of him-”


“Not Joe,” Selene thought aloud without meaning to.


The space to her right immediately went ice cold.


Damn, she thought.


There was one rule: Never talk about Joe with Chadwick around.


Luckily, he didn’t seem to have overheard, but that did not matter. Beth’s eyes became slits aimed Selene’s way. One of the other women quickly spoke up, changing the subject to lack of funding, and the others jumped on board. Beth’s offered her two cents, her voice pleasant, but her posture remained frigid. Once the party was over and the guests went home, she was going to let Selene have it. No doubt about that.


Suddenly famished, Selene stood and started across the yard, towards the small table of cooked food and condiments.


Only to be intercepted by the birthday boy and his loyal followers.


“Aunt Selene,” Wyatt called up, tugging on her coat.


“What’s up, Your Highness,” she said, hunkering down.


Wyatt glanced anxiously over at his mother and then whispered, “Listen.”


Arching an amused eyebrow at her nephew, Selene did.


And heard the playful jingle from an ice-cream truck rolling their way.


Wyatt and the other kids stared at Selene with hopeful expressions, and she could not blame them. Each and every one of their moms was a health nut. All the candy, and even the cake, was sugar free. How do you even make a sugar-free cake? Seleen didn’t know and would take a bullet to the mouth before she took even one bite of that abomination to nature.


“But Wyatt, you know you’re not supposed to have sugar,” she told him sternly while reaching into her coat and pulling a fifty out of her wallet. “So if you happen to find any money lying around,” she slipped it into his hand, “invest it towards college or running for president or something.” She winked. “Understand?”


Grinning, Wyatt gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, exclaimed, “Yes, ma’am!” and ran off with the others towards the music.


Smiling herself, Selene stood up.


Yet the anchors around her feet tightened their grip as she found herself standing alone between the two groups of adults. I should just go, she thought. Let Beth yell at her over the phone instead…Too bad Dad’s out of town…


Her father had left town to go consult on a case over in Chicago, taking her mother with him. “Workcation,” Lou had called it, chuckling. “And your old man’s always eager to serve his wife-Er, I mean, nation.”


“Gross, Dad,” Selene had laughed, punching him playfully on the arm.


She wished more people saw that that side of him. Everyone was always so focused on Lou Sachs the Cop. Sure, he hadn’t been able to catch the Pig, but that had been one strike out on an otherwise legendary career. But beneath the legend was a broad-shouldered, grizzled goofball who spouted just as many dad jokes as he did words of wisdom.


Selene saw plenty to respect, but nothing to fear.


And neither had Joe.


Selene frowned deeply to herself.


Where’d you go, Joe?


The man had packed up his office and left town not too long after Beth had broken his heart. No one had seen him in years. Selene had tried to do some digging, see if he was working with another precinct or had set up an agency elsewhere. Nothing. The man had walked out into the rain and become a ghost. One that Beth liked to pretend never existed.


Selene touched thoughtfully at her bottom lip, recalling her and Joe’s last dinner. The food had been great, even if the topic of conversation had left plenty to be desired. More than once, she wished that she would have gone after him…


She shook her head.


“Happy hunting, Joe,” she whispered, feeling as if the anchors had snaked their way up to wrap around her heart. If only the universe would give her a sign that he was still out there. That he was still fighting the good fight...


But for now, she could only sigh and say, “Give that bastard hell.”


“Mom!”


Wyatt and the kids ran back into the yard. Selene tilted her head, confused. There was no sign of ice-cream. Instead Wyatt was carrying a large, pink and blue box. Slightly out of breath, he ran over to the circle and pushed the box in his mother’s face.


“I told you to wait until after cake,” Beth snapped, snatching the present from him. The motion nearly knocked the boy onto his butt, but he recovered fast.


“But it’s not for me,” he exclaimed. He touched a note stuck to the box’s lid. “It’s got a picture of you on it!”


“Oh…” Beth held up a photo taped to the side of the box. “So it does.”


A cold shiver shot up Selene’s spine, making her start towards her sister. “Beth!” she exclaimed. “Wait!”


Too late. Beth opened the box.


She screamed and flung herself away from the box. Its contents rolled across the lawn, making the other women scream and begin running for their children. Selene stopped dead in her tracks as the guests all panicked. She watched Beth’s present keep on rolling. It rolled towards her and eventually stopped.


Leaving Joe McGuinness’ head staring up at her with lifeless eyes.


July 18, 2021 03:15

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