Kimberly examined herself in the full-length mirror by the dresser. The dark, cranberry cocktail dress she’d bought a few years ago still hugged her body sensuously, bringing out her natural curves.
Paired with ¾ inch heels and matching teardrop earrings, the outfit was nearly complete. She pulled her long blond hair up and swept it off her face, then let it drop to her shoulders, trying to settle on a way to wear it.
After several more experiments, she decided on a simple upsweep before putting the finishing touches on her makeup. As she applied a second coat of mascara, she tried desperately to ignore the crow's feet around her eyes.
Were there actually more since the last time she’d checked?
Checking her thoughts, she focused on readjusting her bra, only to realize that in the back of her mind she was wondering if her boobs were beginning to sag.
She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Great Kimberly, next you’ll be thinking about Botox.”
She grabbed her small black purse and headed out of the bedroom, making her pace deliberate and elegant as she descended the stairs.
Upon seeing her, Gary let out a low wolf-whistle, and with that North Carolina drawl that dripped like melted butter, he said, “Honey, I’ve changed my mind. I think we should stay in tonight.”
The evening started off perfectly. Gary had opened doors, pulled out chairs and had even ordered her favorite red wine.
The restaurant was impressive down to the gorgeous aquarium that took up one entire wall by the back patio area. The clear water was filled with exotic creatures, all pinks, blues and purples that flitted this way and that as diners languished over expensive meals.
The staff was nearly as eye-catching as the décor. Everybody from the waiter down to the bus boy wore matching red uniforms with black ties, and they flitted around the room with almost the same amount of elegant grace as the colorful inhabitants of the aquarium.
After a sumptuous lobster bisque, Kimberly lingered over her tiramisu and light coffee with relish. This was just the retreat from the world she and Gary had needed.
She smiled at him from across the table and he took her hand in his.
He looked different in a jacket and tie, his normally tousled hair combed back and tamed by a subtle application of gel or mousse.
The hint of a five-o-clock shadow, which might have looked in poor taste on another man, seemed to add a touch of virility to his otherwise subdued ensemble.
There was something in his eyes. Was it the wine?
A slow smile spread across his face, accentuating the dimple on his left cheek. He leaned closer to her, lips parting as though he were about to speak.
The sound of a scream from behind them caused Kimberly to turn so suddenly, her hand brushed the crystal glass beside her, and she nearly sent it and the cabernet it contained crashing to the floor.
An attractive, dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties was crying and shaking as her boyfriend, down on one knee presented her with a ring. The couple embraced and the flustered girl wept as he slipped the shining diamond onto her trembling finger.
“She said 'yes'!” the young man announced to the dinner crowd.
A grin broke out onto Kimberly’s face, and she clapped along with the rest of the patrons, but when a solo violinist came up and serenaded the couple, she felt an odd sensation in her throat. Suddenly, she was struck with an unexplainable and overwhelming urge to cry.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she turned back to Gary.
He was leaning back in his seat now, the casual smile he usually wore playing on his lips.
The intensity in his eyes was gone, as though something had passed.
Or had it never been there to begin with?
Kimberly’s hands were turning to ice.
Am I having a panic attack?
The thought only made her feel more light-headed.
“Kimberly, you just went real pale,” Gary observed, frowning. “Are you alright?”
Kimberly nodded and picked up her wine glass. She drained its remaining contents in a single gulp.
“Yeah,” Kimberly replied breathlessly, putting the glass down. “I’m okay.”
Gary motioned for the waiter to bring the check, and they were in the car in under fifteen minutes. Gary turned on the AC.
“Damn, it was hot in there,” Kimberly offered by way of explanation. Her hands were shaking. She buckled her seat belt and settled back into the seat, closing her eyes.
Gary took hold of her hand.
Kimberly went over the scene in her mind and tried to figure out why she’d had that sudden reaction.
The sudden scream? Too much wine and rich dessert?
Smiling over at Gary, she leaned closer to him, trying to recapture the earlier mood.
He put his arm around her.
As they wound through the back roads, Kimberly tuned the radio to a station playing a string of what the DJ called “Romantic Favorites”, and Gary suggested a long soak together in the hot tub.
Kimberly was just beginning to feel playful again when a vibration against her leg yanked her back to reality.
Gary looked at her quizzically and turned down the music when he saw her pick up her cell phone.
“Kimberly.” It was Cheryl.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, straightening quickly, Gary's arm slipping off her shoulder.
“Yes, honey,” said Cheryl. “It’s not an emergency. That's why I waited until I thought you two would be on your way home or at least done with dinner.”
“What’s going on?” Kimberly asked.
Gary glanced over again.
“Nothing terrible,” Cheryl told her. “It’s just something I thought you should know. When I was getting the girls ready for bed, I touched Lynn on the back and she said, “Ouch,” so I asked her what was wrong. Well, she didn’t seem to know but said her back hurt when I touched it. So, I looked at it and…”
“And?” Kimberly prompted, panic rising from her belly to her throat like a cold, wet hand.
“Well, she has got one huge bruise across her back, Kim,” Cheryl explained, “By the color of it, it looks like it happened a few days ago. Did something happen in school? Did she fall?”
Kimberly pictured her daughter’s small back marred by a multi-colored bruise.
“Not that she’s told me at any rate. What did she tell you?”
“Well, that’s just it. She didn’t say anything. She seemed more confused about it than I was. She assured me she hasn’t had a fall, and she says nobody at school did it.”
“Lynn isn’t picked on at school,” Kimberly insisted, her voice coming out shriller than she’d intended. She cleared her throat, which now felt like it was packed with sun-baked sand. “I mean nobody would hit her on purpose.”
“I understand. I didn’t call to frighten you. It’s just a really large bruise, and it’s shaped kind of like…”
Cheryl’s voice was cut off by a crackle of static.
“Shaped like what?” Kimberly asked, straightening. “Cheryl, I can’t hear you.”
“Don’t worry about it. She probably just got it on the playground and forgot about it. I just knew if I didn’t tell you now, you’d see it on her later and worry.”
“Thanks,” Kimberly sighed. “Is there something weird about the bruise?”
“Weird?” Cheryl asked. “No. It’s just shaped funny.” She paused for a moment as if searching for a better way to describe it. “It’s as though she fell on something. It’s more a line in the middle of her back that goes straight across. I’m sorry I worried you, but I just wanted you to know.”
Kimberly forced herself to smile. It made her face hurt. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
The phone crackled again, and the line went dead.
“What’s wrong?” Gary asked her.
Kimberly relayed the story while she waited for her phone to pick up a signal.
“Hmmm,” Gary said. “Well, I don’t know why she called you about a bruise. Kids get bruises and scrapes all the time.”
“She just wanted me to know.”
Kimberly dialed Cheryl’s number again.
“She said it was shaped oddly. Like she didn’t get it by falling, but it looked as though somebody had hit her.”
“Hit her?” Gary asked, frowning. “I hope not.”
“Yeah, me either,” Kimberly said, sliding sweat-slicked fingers across the keys of her phone. Still no signal. What the hell? “But if somebody had laid a hand on her, a bully or something, she would have told me right away.”
Kimberly slumped back in her seat and sighed.
Cheryl had said there was a line of bruises down her back. Or was it just one long bruise? Kimberly had a half-crazed idea to have Gary drive over there so she could pick up her daughter and see it for herself.
The phone rang again.
“And you don’t have to bother coming over here, both girls have been asleep for hours,” Cheryl said by way of greeting.
“What are you, a mind reader?” Kimberly asked with a nervous laugh.
They talked for a few more minutes, Cheryl spending most of that time convincing Kimberly not to worry.
As the car pulled into the drive and she and Gary climbed out, she suddenly felt drained and the lobster bisque she’d relished earlier was now churning dangerously in her gut. When she conveyed this to Gary, he looked disappointed but not surprised. After stripping out of her dress and makeup, she slipped into her most well-worn cotton nightshirt and was asleep within minutes.
Throughout the night, she was plagued by disjointed and eerie dreams.
One dream was an almost exact replay of the scene from the night when she’d been in Lynn’s room, observing Claire from across the street.
Only this time, it was Lynn who was standing in the Bellevue’s window where Claire had been a week before.
Lynn was opening and closing her mouth over and over again, a sense of urgency etched across delicate features but no matter how close she got, Kimberly could still not make out her words.
Lynn was desperately trying to tell her mother something, but, for some reason, the message just wasn't getting through.