Jenna Mason jogs across the Washington Middle School parking lot, racing the morning bell. She absently waves at the parents huddled beside Beth Hopkin’s white BMW X5. Snippets of their conversation reach her—aggressive reporter, chasing a lead—that would have alarmed her a few years ago. She would have asked what the reporter was chasing. She would have wondered if she needed to run.
Their chattering abruptly stops. They stare at her. Then Beth whispers to Leigh Duffy. Shock paints Leigh’s expression, and Jenna wonders if they’re talking about her. She’s an enigma, newer to the close-knit community, who for the most part keeps to herself. Once, she might have felt a prickle of unease across her shoulders. Jenna is sure she’s a curiosity. But right now she’s rushed and irritated. Josh left his homework binder behind again.
She’s enabling her son, she knows that. A sensible parent would let him face the consequences from not turning in his homework on time. Tough love would teach him to pack his book bag before bed and have it ready by the door come morning. She could drop his binder off at the front office, but then she’d have to talk to people. Socialize. Interact. Leave an impression. Things ingrained in her to avoid. Habits she hasn’t quite shaken since she and Josh settled in Oceanside, California.
Some days, she envies how easily her son has made friends.
But he doesn’t have a past he needs to hide from. People he’s running from.
Jenna cuts through the schoolyard. Kids congregate in their cliques like dolphin pods. They fuss with their phones, snapping and tiktokking or whatever it is kids do these days. Josh has tried to explain, but since she won’t buy him a smartphone or allow him online unsupervised, she hasn’t gone out of her way to learn more about social media. She avoids it and intends to keep Josh off if possible. She can’t risk him posting something to his profile that could lead her past to their front door.
Josh has given her an earful about his flip phone. He prefers to not use it over getting mocked for having one, which she could guess is why he didn’t answer when she called him about the binder a few minutes after he left the house to walk to school.
At least she hopes that’s why. Her heart beats furiously as she reins in her panic that something happened on his way to school and that’s why he couldn’t answer his phone. A constant fear she’ll never get over, not with her past.
She beelines to the lunch tables under the green-and-gold canopy, the school’s colors, where she knows Josh sits with his friend Anson before class starts. She’s watched him some mornings through the chain-link fence that borders the school grounds when he thought she already left for home. He’s growing up fast. Hard to believe he’ll be thirteen. Even harder to accept she’s been living a lie just as long.
Anson sees her before Josh does and waves. Relief floods her when she spots her son next to him. He’s here. He’s safe.
“Hello, Ms. Mason.”
Josh swivels on the bench. “Mom!” His eyes dart to see who’s watching, and his shoulders drop as he curls into himself, trying to look smaller in an effort to go unnoticed, embarrassed she’s here.
“Hi, Anson. Josh.” She drops the white binder covered in vibrant shades of permanent marker on the table. Josh is a doodler, though his artwork is more realistic than her quirky characters. She still can’t believe her YouTube cartoon went viral several years back. Now she has a four-book contract and a movie deal. Tabby’s Squirrel is everywhere.
Some days she wishes it weren’t. It makes her a target, too visible despite her almost manic efforts at privacy. But it pays the bills and then some. She can buy Josh Vans at the Shoppes at Carlsbad rather than worn sneakers with stained soles at the Salvation Army. They can eat out at restaurants with linen napkins, like the ones her parents took her to when she was young, rather than the reheated leftovers of canned food she bought at the grocery outlet.
Thanks to her unexpected success, they have been living like real people, not transients moving from home to home within Murielle’s network of angels, like they’d been doing up until eighteen months ago.
She often wishes they hadn’t come out of hiding. She fears being discovered for who she really is. It’s a constant struggle, fighting the urge to look over her shoulder versus just living.
Josh drags the binder toward him and stuffs it in his backpack. “What are you doing here?”
“You didn’t answer my call.” She clenches her hands, nails biting into her palms. Lately Josh has ignored their rules, tested her patience, and pushed the boundaries she’s set to keep him safe.
He grimaces. “My phone’s dead.”
“You didn’t charge it last night?” That’s a hard, fast rule between them.
The school bell rings, the noise jarring. She can hear that darn bell from their house five blocks away.
“No, I didn’t,” he grumbles, standing.
“I forgot.” He shoulders his backpack. Anson does the same, looking guilty he’s been caught in the middle of their squabble. Josh starts to back away. “Can I go now?”
“If you’d remembered to charge your phone and answered it, I wouldn’t have had to grace you with my presence.”
Josh’s face reddens. “Mom, stop.” He backs away faster. She gives him a warning look he knows too well. She’ll ground him after school if his attitude continues. “Fine. Sorry. I’ll charge my phone tonight.”
“Have a good day, Ms. Mason.”
“You too, Anson.” She smiles at Josh’s friend.
Anson jogs to catch up with Josh. They bump shoulders, laughing, and she feels a pang of jealousy with a brutal stab of remorse. She hasn’t had a friend like Anson since she was sixteen. Her friend died the night she ran away from home.
And whose fault is that?
Bile coats her mouth like soured cream, foul and rotten. She shoves the thought aside, visualizes it dissipating. But it’ll be back. Always reminding her what she’s done. Always proving she’s no better than her mother.
Heading home, Jenna makes it halfway across the parking lot before Leigh steps in her way. The move is sudden, and Jenna slams into her.
“I was hoping to bump into you on your way back,” Leigh says.
Jenna squints at the parents’ club secretary, wondering what she could want with her. Then she remembers the bits of conversation she picked up earlier and the way she and Beth had been watching her. Aggressive reporter. Chasing a lead. A nervous flutter behind her ribs takes flight.
Leigh’s swimming pool–blue eyes are bright and her smile wickedly wide. The tip of her tongue touches the end of her incisor as her Flashdance-inspired sweatshirt slips off her right shoulder. She crosses her arms over her chest, pressing up her breasts, and wiggles her shoulders as if she can’t contain her news. Leigh always thinks she has something delicious to share.
“Is it true?” she asks, trimmed brows lifting high.
Jenna frowns, searching for an escape route, the desire to flee fiercely beating the back of her neck. “Is what true?”
Leigh tilts her head, giving Jenna a look as if Jenna should know exactly what Leigh is talking about.
“Word on the street is that you murdered a sixteen-year-old kid.”
(c) 2022 by Kerry Lonsdale Inc.