Louisa saw her girls off to school in the bus and came back home. She had a couple of chores to finish before heading to work. Her boss was out of town so she could afford to delay her arrival at work today.
She came back inside and headed to the kitchen. Half way through the dishes, her phone rang. She closed the tap, took off the gloves and wiping her damp hands on her track pants hurried to pick up her mobile.
It was an unknown number.
I hope it is the new baby sitter Susan was talking about.
The network was fine, she knew. She could feel someone on the other side.
“Who is it?”
The person hung up. It felt weird. As if someone couldn’t find the words to say to her. She glanced at the clock. There was still time to spare, but if she hurried up, she could take a detour to Café Morazza for her favourite Ice Latte before heading to work.
She finished the dishes, took a bath and got ready to leave.
Just when she was about to enter the car, she felt a pair of eyes on her back. She turned around, there was no one.
She looked around. Mr Singh was mowing the lawn. She waved at him and sat in the car.
I am just thinking too much.
As always, the Ice Latte worked wonders. The nagging thoughts in her head cooled off for a while. She pulled out of the café towards her car.
And a pair of eyes were on her back again.
She turned around but couldn’t put a finger on which pair was watching her. There were hundreds around her hustling to get to their destination. She too was now getting delayed for work so she made a move.
When she returned in the evening, her sister-in-law, Rachel, was home babysitting her kids. She parked her car in the garage and came out to shut its door.
And the feeling of being watched came rushing back.
There was no one around this time. Not even Mr Singh.
She quickly went inside her home and Sonia, her elder daughter welcomed her with a warm embrace, making her forget everything for a while.
When the kids got busy with their homework, Louisa pulled Rachel aside.
“Something weird happened today. I had a nagging feeling that someone was watching me everywhere I went.”
“What? Did you see who?”
“No, every time I tried to look around, I couldn’t see anyone specific.”
“Maybe you were imagining it? I am sure if someone wanted to contact you, they will call you. After all, your mobile number is published everywhere. You are Louisa, the real estate agent.”
Her remark made Louisa realise something. The blank call she received that morning.
“Are you sure there was someone on the other side? I mean, what if you couldn’t hear due to poor network?”
“No, Rachel. I am sure. I heard someone breathing mildly on the phone. It was as if that person couldn’t figure out what to say.”
“Umm…that's weird. Maybe I should stay with you for a couple of days. I can do my work from here. I will get my laptop here tonight.”
“That….will be great. If not too much of an issue for you.”
“Not at all. Sonia, Tiffany and I had made plans for the weekend. We can execute them right away!”
They grinned at each other and Louisa felt herself calming down.
“I have a friend in the police. I will alert him and see if he can help.”
“Rach, that will be great. I am worried more about the girls.”
Rachel quickly went home, which was just five blocks away, and brought her laptop. While she was gone, Louisa prepared risotto.
The dish was a tradition for all those days when Louisa felt low, or worried. Although it was her mother’s recipe, she had more fond memories of her father making it for her as a child.
The father she had long forgotten after he went to prison.
Rachel came home just in time for dinner. Later, she took girls upstairs to tuck them in their beds.
Louisa cleared the kitchen and the dining area. She picked up the trash and brought it out to dump it.
But there it was. That feeling, again.
Her stupor was broken by a voice, which wasn’t unknown to her. Just long forgotten.
“Smells like you made our dish, Louisi girrll”
Listening to that version of her own name froze her. It had been three decades that she listened to that voice.
She didn’t realise when she turned around.
The shrivelled face brought back a zillion memories. Her father had grown old and weak.
She was staring at him speechless. Recognising fear and anger in her damp eyes, he stepped forward.
“I am sorry to have caused you trouble today. You were the first person I thought of on coming out of prison. Just that, I couldn’t form the words when I called you, or muster the courage to face you earlier. Until now, when I saw my grandkids from the window. The elder one looks just like your mom..”
The mention of her kids from his mouth brought her blood to boil. She stepped froward in a hurried motion and halted a few inches from his face.
“Don’t you dare talk about my kids. You know nothing about being a family. I was six when you left me. Did you know how other kids treat the daughter of a criminal? I spent my childhood without any friends, being humiliated every now and then at school…at college…at work... I even came close to thinking that it was my fault. You killing your business partner and embezzling all the money. It ruined my life. It destroyed all our lives!”
She was panting after blurting it out, not ready to listen to anything. Tears fogged her view.
“No, honey. It could never have been your fault. It wasn’t mine either. It was your mom’s doing.”
“How dare you!” Tears were streaming down her burning face. She felt her head about to explode at the accusation.
“Do you have any idea how difficult it was for mom? Being left behind with a six year old. She had to start from scratch. Build her career from nothing just to take care of me. A criminal like you can never imagine.”
“Oh I can imagine, sweetheart. Where do you think the money came from?”
Her eyebrows creased at the question.
“What do you mean? If it hadn’t been for her parents, we wouldn’t have been able to survive. You had left nothing for us!”
“Your grandfather did not have any money, Louisi girrll." he smiled at her.
"He was broke long before you were born. It was the money I was accused of stealing that took care of you and your mother.”
Her head was spinning now. She could hear someone calling her name. Rachel had to raise her volume to pull Louisa out of the trance she had slipped into.
“Loui, are you okay?” Rachel was standing at the doorway unsure if she was welcome to be a part of this conversation between her sister-in-law and the old man.
Louisa looked at her and managed a nod. “I...I’ll be with you soon, Rach. Just...just give me some time.”
Louisa struggled at framing a question. Ultimately, all she could muster was “What are you saying?”
“I was having an affair with my business partner, Veronica.”
The confession disgusted her. Her face crinkled to let the tears out. She held her temple, which was about to explode, unsure if she wanted to listen more. Noticing her pain, her father paused a little, but then continued.
“A few months later I realised that she was using our affair to steal from me and the business. I confronted her and she retaliated. She had pulled out a gun and if I hadn’t shot her first, she would have killed me. But I guess that would have been better...Her death triggered a series of things… events she had put in place to put me away for long.”
“If she was the one who deceived you, why did you say it was my mom’s doing?”
“Because after Veronica’s death, your mom got to know about my affair. I think she received some proof that the accusation was true. Enraged, she and her cousin, your uncle Marwin, pulled some strings to twist the story and put all the blame on me.”
“I don’t have any uncle Marwin..” saying the words out loud made her realise the disbelief growing in her own voice. What shocked her was that disbelief wasn’t totally against this man standing in front of her.
Listening to her remark, her father smiled that conveyed pain and pity. But Louisa had a new question in her mind.
Had her mom lied to her all these years?
Her father continued his confession. “Marwin even shoved away the money in some offshore bank account that could not be traced thirty years ago. No one believed me.”
“I might have, but you never thought of telling me..”
“Sweetheart, that option was taken away from me. I was never given a chance of explaining myself to you. Why do you think you never came to see me in prison? What story did your mom conjure to prevent that from happening?”
She recalled all those times when her mom said her father was put away in solitary confinement and no one was allowed to visit him.
For thirty years.
Her world was crashing down around her and she didn’t know how to save it. She didn’t know whom to believe. In either case, she was not going to disbelieve her mother to put faith in a man whom she hadn’t seen in over three decades.
It didn’t matter if she lied to her. She must have had her reasons. Everything a mother does is to protect her child. Moreover, it was her father who had started the web of lies and deception with his affair.
Watching her struggle to believe, her father gave her a suggestion.
“Why don’t you visit your mom tomorrow and ask her about uncle Marwin? I am certain her reaction will give you a bunch of answers.”
“I am not sure what answers I am looking out for…You cheated on mom! You started the deception!”
“And I couldn’t be more sorry for it, honey. I apologised to your mom so much just before my conviction. She wasn’t ready to listen. She wanted revenge. But the one thing that I feel most apologetic about is being drawn away from you…for ruining your childhood. I am sorry.”
The pain in the middle of her chest was too much to handle. She needed to process everything that had come crashing down around her. She put some words together to pull out of the situation.
“I need time. I need you to give me space and time now that you are out of prison. And you need to stop following me everywhere.”
“Sure, sweetie. I am sorry if I scared you. The truth is…I was scared myself. But please, for God’s sake, speak to your mom. I don’t know if I deserve to be in your life again, but I will be able to live the remainder of my life peacefully knowing that my li'l girl is aware of the complete truth.”
She looked at him and saw the scars on his forehead.
Prison must have been tough.
Shoving the thought away, she gave a little nod. He turned around and walked away.
Something within her twisted and she blurted out
“Where are you staying, da..”
she stopped mid-sentence, and so did he in his path.
He turned around, smiled and said “Don’t worry about me, Louisi girrll. I will be here when you wish to talk.”
The night crawled away painfully slow. She got up at 5 in the morning and went for a run. This time, she kept waiting for that feeling to return. Her eyes kept drifting away to street corners looking for him.
Where would he be staying? How will I contact him?
She wondered what had changed. How could she forget everything that she and her mother had gone through on the basis of one conversation with a criminal?
What if he is lying?
She needed answers now more than ever.
She came back home and went about the chores just like any other day. She cooked up some story to answer Rachel’s questions about the old man who visited her last night.
She needed answers herself.
Once kids left, she sat in her car and drove straight to her mom’s place 15 miles away. She had called in sick today, which was unusual for the star employee of Knight Realty Corp.
Her mom opened the door, all dressed up. Louisa ignored her pretty pink floral outfit and dashed inside.
“Hey sweetie, what a pleasant surprise! How come you are here now? No work today?”
She chose to answer her questions as succinctly as possible.
“Yeah, mom. No work, wanted to meet you.”
“I am expecting some friends for brunch today hence the dress.”
But Louisa was in no mood for small talk. Anyhow, her mother continued her endeavour.
“So, how are my girls doing?”
“Mom, who’s Uncle Marwin?”
Louisa saw the pink and the flowers suddenly wilt away from her dress and face. Her mother froze where she stood as if the light suddenly left her.
“How…ummm…I am not sure what do you mean..”
Louisa didn’t like how the conversation started so she tried to regain her calm. I am sure there will be a decent explanation for the secret. If it is true at all.
She reframed the question. “It’s a simple question, mom. Who is Uncle Marwin? Why haven’t I heard of him ever?”
Her mother couldn’t meet her eyes now. Louisa kept ignoring the sinking feeling rising within her. The feeling of a plausible truth she wasn't ready to confront.
“Err…where did you hear his name?”
“Dad got out of prison and followed me home yesterday. He told me his side of the story. I wanted to know if it is true.”
It was like every word, every syllable hit her mother hard. Her face contorted at every word. By the end of Louisa’s disclosure, her mother was in tears. She had to take support from the tale next to her.
Understanding that there was no other option but to let the truth out, her mother broke.
“It started as a revenge…I was broken when I got to know of his deceit…did he tell you he cheated on me…on us?”
Holding back her own tears, Louisa replied. “Yes mom, he started his story with that confession. So it is true…” it wasn’t a question anymore. Louisa had an answer to the biggest question.
Her mother continued “I did it to protect you, my girl. It was better that he was out of our lives forever.”
“Yeah mom, maybe I understand your drive to protect your little girl from her father who had deceived you, who had turned a criminal…but…I am not sure if he should stay out of our lives forever anymore.”
Her mother’s face went blank, but a certain look in her eyes told Louisa that she was expecting this day to come.
Without saying another word, Louisa left the house.
The weight of truth making every step difficult, but certain.