Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice:
Title: Got a Secret . . . Can You Keep It? (Part Twenty-Nine)
Janice slouched against the wall inside her closet with the hood of her sweatshirt obscuring her face, ignoring Step-monster.
Lara Strohm tapped on the door for the third or thousandth time. “Jan? Are you hungry?” Voice sweet as candy.
Janice ignored Lara and rolled her eyes. And they wondered why she sequestered herself in the closet, refusing to talk to anyone. Lara kept trying different ways to wheedle information out of Janice, ranging from a cajoling, understanding tone full of concern to bleating, raging threats and accusations.
Janice recalled the last round of lambasting, and her face flushed scarlet. How could Janice do this to their family? Didn't she realize her father couldn't hold his head up around his colleagues? Would she, for the love of God, give up the diary and/or press charges against “that filthy pedophile”?
That last remark had roused Janice from her hidey-hole. She'd slammed the bedroom door open and proceeded to back Lara against the wall of the hallway with a hand pressed to her chubby neck. Janice had smiled for the first time since she'd come home—if you could call stretching her lips wide over gritted teeth a smile—and leaned in close until their gazes locked. Janice's eyes were dead and cold; Lara's bulged.
“Never speak of him again. Don't ask me to talk to the pigs, and quit looking for my diary. I fucking ate it, Step-monster.” Janice stepped back, leaving Lara coughing and gasping. “Go ahead and tell Dad—it's what you do best, isn't it? You're so self-righteous.”
Janice stalked back into her room and slammed the door. Lara bumped up against it a few seconds later. “I won't tell him, Jan.” Her voice was soft and raspy. “I'm not the enemy.”
“You're not my mother! You'll never take her place!” Janice had torn at her own hair and kicked the door so hard a hairline crack zigged its way over the lower panel.
That was several hours ago. Obviously, Lara was trying to ply her with food now. And did she actually believe she could score points by not telling Janice's dad how she really got that bruise across her windpipe? Not likely. Janice knew Lara would turn Paul in if she found any evidence.
She waited Lara out. Once Step-monster laid the tray in the hall by the door and walked away, Janice crept over to her window, slid it open carefully, and shimmied down the trellis.
* * *
Paul Jeffries stood in the middle of his half-packed office, staring at his wedding photo. He'd been at this for hours, and he still wondered how he would find the courage to pluck it off the shelf and wrap it. He'd already removed the rest of his books and knickknacks, leaving the photo of him and Melinda lingering like a stark accusation.
The school board hadn't fired him—yet. Their decision was pending investigation. It seemed Janice wasn't talking and, in fact, had gone so far as to deny their affair. That didn't stem the rumors, whispers, or death threats. He'd received ugly letters from horrified mothers, from angry fathers, and from anonymous vigilantes threatening to string up “the big bad wolf” by his balls if he didn't leave town.
Paul decided to cut his losses and resign his position. The police were allowing him to leave town because the Strohms had agreed to it—with the stipulations that he wouldn't fight a restraining order placed against him for Janice and would disclose his location to Detective Hoffstra. With Melinda being held for psychiatric evaluation—almost certain to plead temporary insanity or face doing hard time—he knew the chances of her being released anytime soon were slim to none. Why stick it out in a small town where he was sure to encounter hatred and violence?
Although they were all compelling reasons to leave town, the real reason was sixteen with intense blue eyes, alabaster skin, and a sardonic smile. She was smart and beautiful and came across older than her sixteen years. Paul had fallen hard, all attempts to do the right thing slipping from his grasp like gossamer threads.
He continued packing, lost in thoughts of the three women he'd loved, lost, and destroyed—all pale of skin with raven curls. A scuff by the office door caught his attention.
There stood Janice, lost inside a black hoodie and baggy jeans, her mouth agape.
Paul raked a hand through his hair. “Ja--What are you doing here? The restraining order.” His heart sped, but it wasn't his fear of the police that caused it.
Thunder gathered behind Janice's eyes. “You can't even say my name? I've been protecting you.”
Paul sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I know, Janice, and I know I don't deserve it, but thank you.”
“What's going on here? Why are you packing?” She still hovered at the entrance of the room gripping the doorjamb.
“I've resigned my position. I'm . . . moving.”
Paul shook his head, running a hand through his hair again. “We shouldn't be having this discussion. I . . . can't tell you where I'm going.”
Janice crossed her arms and glared. “Can't or won't?”
“Both.” Paul held his hands out in supplication. “Please, sweetheart, don't you understand what we did was wrong? I made a mistake, and I'm so, so sorry.”
“Sorry?” Janice coughed out a short laugh. “I'm a mistake? We were a mistake?”
Janice strode into the room, making Paul thankful his cherry wood desk offered a barrier between them. From the desk, she snatched a paperweight he intended to leave behind and hefted it in her palm. Paul wondered if she intended to aim it at his head and how much damage it might do.
“You said you loved me.”
“Was it true, or was I just a substitute for Aunt MJ or my mother?”
Paul swallowed. “I had no idea who you were. It was an unfortunate coincidence. I wish I could undo the damage.”
“You don't . . . love me?”
Paul considered his answer for a moment, his palms braced on the desk. “I care about you, about your future.”
“Do you love me?”
“Bastard!” Janice turned and fled.
Paul stood watching the door long after she'd gone. Janice would hate him as she should. It was possible she would testify against him now, but it was worth the risk.
He did love her. Sometimes love meant letting go.
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook