Suzanne grew up in rural Maine and small-town Pennsylvania and now stalks the wilds of the Boston suburbs. She has worked as a museum docent, special education aide, nanny, customer service rep, paralegal, and librarian, and is now a photo archivist. This is her first publication anywhere and the first time she has won a contest.

 

Misplaced

By Suzanne Ketchum Adams

 

When Casey’s alarm goes off, she cannot recall at once where she is. The dim suburban music of birds in backyard feeders remind her that she is far from her childhood home. She lies in a narrow single bed. As she rolls onto her side, an upholstered arm of the pull-out loveseat comes into focus, a geometric print in bold primary colors. Escher prints in plain black frames cover one yellow wall, thumbtacked drawings and watercolors cover the adjacent one. Now Casey remembers. Artwork by Andrea, the dead wife and mother. Fortune has landed Casey here, strange as that is, with this good but grieving family. This room, Casey supposes, was Andrea’s office or studio—though neither Paul nor the boys have volunteered this information.

Casey’s home and employment are now one. She pulls on jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, fastens her brass locket around her neck. Without the locket she does not feel dressed.

*

In the kitchen, sixteen-year old Jake scrapes the last corn flakes from a bowl.

“You’re up early,” Casey says, scooping coffee into a filter. “Tim up?”

“He’s in the shower,” Paul says as he comes through the door. He’s not dressed or shaved yet; Casey remembers he’s flying to Chicago later this morning on business, his second out of town trip since she began here six weeks ago.

“So.” Paul sets down a cereal bowl. “You two have a driving lesson today?”

Jake shrugs. “I got soccer practice.”

“Maybe after that,” says Casey, looking at Jake encouragingly. Paul had expressed so much frustration over Jake’s driving that Casey has offered to teach him, and Paul has gratefully agreed. Casey wonders why Jake shows so much reluctance about the lessons in front of his father. When Paul is absent, Jake seems eager to go.

Paul says his good-byes to the boys as they leave for school. After he is showered and dressed, he comes back into the kitchen while Casey cleans up.

“I just want to say again how much I appreciate all that you’re doing here,” Paul says. “It’s a hard time, of course, but…” his voice cracks, and he drums his fingers on the counter. “Well, the boys like you, and…” he swallows. “The driving… I mean… Jake.” A pause. “Thank you.”

Casey gives him a sad smile. “I’m glad I can help.” She isn’t sure that Tim likes her at all.

She watches through the kitchen window as Paul rides away in a cab. Then she hangs up the dishtowel and walks down the carpeted hallway to Paul’s bedroom.

She wonders, as she takes in the rumpled, unmade bed, if Andrea used to make it each morning. Paul has told Casey expressly that she is not to clean his room or the boys’; that they need help only with cooking, laundry, shopping, and driving.

With the valid excuse of dropping off Paul’s clean laundry, Casey has visited this room before. She picks up the silver-framed photograph on Andrea’s dresser. This picture of the young, happy family caught Casey’s eye on her first day here six weeks ago. Paul, with a full head of hair, holds little Jake, a chubby-cheeked toddler. Andrea, looking athletic and confident in her green V-neck sweater, cradles the pastel blue bundle that is baby Tim. Andrea’s wedding band shows on her hand curved around the baby; she wears no diamond.

Pancreatic cancer had taken Andrea just three months ago. Casey knows how tragic this is for Paul and the boys. But they’d had this. This moment of perfection, of togetherness. Casey wants to live her way into this photograph, this Kodak moment that she’s never had. Had there ever been a little pink blanket that she’d been wrapped in? Casey likes to think there was. Maybe her mother took it with her as a keepsake. But why would she take a blanket when she could have taken me?

Next to the photograph is a jewelry box of embossed leather. Casey glances toward the hallway, then opens the latch on the box.

A plain gold band—the same one, Casey is sure, that Andrea wears in the photograph. Casey pictures Andrea in the throes of illness, losing so much weight that the ring begins to slip from her finger. Andrea must have asked Paul to put it back there in her jewelry box when she’d known she would never wear it again. Casey picks up the wedding band and squints to read the engraving inside. Paul & Andrea, June 3, 1978. Seventeen years ago. She puts it on her own finger, turning her hand in the light to admire it, wincing at her bitten nails. It is a snug fit. I’m not taking it, she tells herself. I am just borrowing it until Paul gets home tomorrow night. She takes it back to her room, pulls it off, and places it in her own jewelry box.

*

Later that afternoon, Casey rolls out pizza dough while a garlicky tomato sauce simmers on the back of the stove. Jake arrives home from soccer practice, flushed and smiling. An out-of-town band concert means Tim won’t be home until late.

Casey looks up and returns his smile. “Your Dad isn’t too crazy about pizza, so I thought we’d have it while he’s away. I don’t know if the band stops for dinner, but we ought to save some for Tim.”

“Don’t know if I can hold back,” Jake jokes. “I could eat that whole thing myself.”

Casey spoons sauce over the dough and gestures towards the assortment of vegetables, cheese, and pepperoni. “Come put on the toppings you like,” she tells Jake. She is suddenly aware they are alone in the house, and something flutters deep in her stomach.

Jake takes a step toward the vegetables, and closer to her. He smells vibrant and strong. Casey takes a step back and stares out the window.

He picks up an olive and brings it up to her lips. Casey grows still, but a giggle erupts from her throat. The sunlight comes in low through the window, illuminating motes of dust. Roscoe, the aging golden retriever, laps water from his bowl.

“Jake, what are you doing?”

He slips one hand under her dark hair and rests it on the back of her neck, brings his face close to hers. “Casey. I like you. We…” His eyes are huge and pleading, like Roscoe’s.

“Jake.” Casey steps back, shaking her head. “We can’t do this.”

“But you want to, don’t you?” He swallows hard, but does not take his eyes from her. “I can tell.”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head slowly from side to side. “Pick out some toppings, Jake, and we’ll put this thing in the oven.” She tries to look stern.

“It’s Dad, isn’t it?” Jake lifts his chin. “You…got a thing for him.”

Casey lets out her breath slowly, studying the pattern on the kitchen floor.

“Jake. This is all wrong. You’re…underage. I’m 28 years old, and. I’m not here to…I’m here to help…take care of you and Tim.” Casey’s voice quavers, but she crosses her arms and looks Jake straight in the eye.

Jake stares at her a long time, then turns and leaves the kitchen. The door to his room slams shut.

Casey shoves the pizza aside, grabs Roscoe’s collar, and takes him for a walk around the block. She doesn’t think she’s done a thing to encourage Jake. She’s just tried to be friendly, just like with Tim. But none of it’s turned out right. And Jake isn’t Tim.

The phone rings as Casey steps back into hallway and removes Roscoe’s collar. It will be Paul, checking in. What if he asks to talk to Jake? She doesn’t want them talking to each other right now.

It’s not Paul.

“Casey!” a low voice grates in her ear, “I’ll be damned.”

“Dad.” Casey groans between clenched teeth. “How’d you get my number?”

He lets out a long, mean laugh. “Think you can hide? Leaving here the way you done? You little ingrate.”

“You’ve been drinking. I don’t have to listen to this.”

“Oh, it’s always me, ain’t it, Miss High and Mighty? Lemme tell you something… you gone and got yourself educated, but yous just like your mother at heart. Snotty little whore.” His rattling, mucous-filled cough starts up, and from the sound, he is not bothering to turn his head away from the phone. “Look at yous! Up and gone, just like her.”

Casey slams down the phone, and leads Roscoe to her room. She lies on the bed and cries, Roscoe whimpering beside her. Blindly, Casey strokes his silky coat.

A soft knock on the door. Jake pushes it open, stands there gawky and red-eyed.

“Casey?” he approaches the bed. She looks up. His eyes are as sad as hers.

Sobs shake her whole body. No words come. Jake lowers himself to the bed and pulls her close. Casey does not resist him now. She cradles his head to her breast, letting her tears fall on his hair. He turns his face up to hers and kisses away each tears as it falls. His lips follow the tear-tracks down her chin and throat.

Roscoe slinks away. Casey lets Jake hold her, lets him undress her, lets him touch her everywhere. There is nothing now but sadness, comfort, bad feelings, good ones.

After the swirl of sobbing, the moaning, the release, they drift off to sleep in the tiny bed. Hours later Casey awakes. Jake’s arm is draped across her; his face, asleep, looks astonishingly young. Casey is hungry; she remembers now that the pizza never made it to the oven, or to their stomachs.

“Jake,” she whispers.

“Wha-what?”

“Please go back to your own room.”

“Why? There’s no one else here…”

“Tim might be home, or will be soon. Please just go.”

He hesitates.

“I’m going to put the pizza in the oven. You can come have some later, but go to your room first. Don’t let Tim see you coming from here.”

Jake looks, suddenly, like a little boy in trouble. But after a moment, his face breaks into a grin. He gives Casey a playful pat on the ass, and quietly leaves the room.

*

Casey has just taken the pizza from the oven when Tim comes in the back door. His face registers surprise when he sees the pizza; it is after ten o’clock. But he accepts a piece, then another.

“Late night,” Casey ventures. “How was the concert?” She pushes away the memory of early evening. She will get things back on track.

“Good,” Tim says. He’s already on his feet, stuffing the last bite of crust in his mouth, and rinsing the plate. “Good-night,” he says, over his shoulder, as he picks up his oboe case and heads down the hall.

He is a boy of few words. Only once has she heard him speak in more than monosyllables. That was when Casey asked about his tropical fish, which he keeps in a tank in his room. He named them all after famous oboists. They were all silver and black Zebrafish, and when she had asked why he didn’t get more variety, he’d shrugged. Zebrafish made him think of oboes and flutes, and anyway, he said, different kinds of fish couldn’t always live together in the same tank. Any new fish might upset the balance of the whole thing.

*

“This can’t happen again.” Casey raises her chin and holds up a hand to Jake, who has come up to put his arms around her while she makes the morning coffee.

Jake’s mouth goes slack. He turns and stalks out of the kitchen. Casey doesn’t see him again that morning. She hears him talking to Tim as they both leave the house; she can only hope Jake doesn’t tell him what happened while he was away.

After the boys leave, Casey showers and returns to her room to dress. She reaches for her locket, only to find it missing. Casey searches under the covers, in the space between mattress and love seat, all in vain. With both shame and longing she recalls Jake undressing her, and a vague memory of her locket sliding down over one breast.

After frantically checking under the bed and in every dresser drawer, Casey heads to Jake’s room. It must be there, and she needs it. She’d purchased it herself in high school. It wasn’t expensive, but it held a photograph of her mother as a young woman. Only this photograph had survived her mother’s abandonment of her home and family. Casey guards it jealously and shows it to no one, fearing that the little bit of her mother she still has would disappear if someone else sees her picture.

Casey looks into each of Jake’s dresser drawers, through the chaos of his desk. She searches the pockets of his jeans and turns up nothing. Nothing under the pillow of his unmade bed. Could he have it with him at school? Is he showing it—her precious locket, her beloved mother—to callous teenage boys as some kind of trophy of his conquest? She feels sick suddenly. Why would Jake want her locket so much? And what will he do with it now that’s she refused him?

Casey can’t think anymore. She gets in the car and drives, not knowing where she is going. She’d once seen a bumper sticker: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. She pulls into the parking lot of a nearby department store.

*

Back at the house, Casey clips the tags from the green V-neck sweater and pastel blue receiving blanket. It had been easy enough to slip the sweater into her extra shopping bag when the saleswoman wasn’t looking. Then Casey had moved on to the children’s department, where she’d slipped the little blanket into her oversized handbag. A uniformed security guard had given her a curt nod as she left the store, but did not ask to check her bags.

Now Casey lays out these items on her neatly made bed. Green sweater, blue blanket. Just like the picture on Andrea’s dresser. Casey slips the green sweater over her head, wraps a small pillow in the pastel blanket, and cradles it in her right arm. She stands before the mirror, studying the results. She wants to rush into Paul’s room to have another peek at the picture, but Tim—or Jake—could arrive home any minute.

She opens her jewelry box and slips Andrea’s wedding band on her finger, but the missing locket nags at her again. She will have to confront Jake when he gets home. It will be hard to talk to him without Tim noticing, and without making Jake any angrier.

The blue blanket, as it brushes against her chin, feels stiff and starchy, much too rough for an infant’s delicate skin. Casey puts the ring and sweater away, and heads to the basement to wash the blanket. They won’t look there, will they? She doubts it. She’s been hired to do the laundry. But who knows? Jake might start doing his own laundry, just for spite. Regret surges through her. Last night Jake comforted her when she needed comfort. She can’t tell what he might do now.

On her way up from the basement, Casey almost runs into Tim, home from school and heading straight for his room. “Hello, Tim!” she calls after him, and he mutters something, but does not look back.

Blanket. Jake. Locket. Supper to make. Tim. Casey can’t think what to do next. Jake not home. Six o’clock already. The phone rings, loud and urgent.

Jake. Paul. Her father. She doesn’t want to talk to any of them. But if it is Paul calling, she doesn’t want him to think anything is amiss. She picks up the receiver.

“My flight gets in at 9:36.” Paul’s voice reassures her with his schedule, his precision, his predictability. “So I should be home around 10:15. Everything okay? Boys around?”

Casey nods absently. He is a good man. She loves him.

“Casey? You still there?”

She gives herself a little shake. “Oh. Yes. Tim’s home. Shall I get him? Jake’s…not back from practice yet—he’s getting a ride.”

Paul chuckles, and she can picture him shaking his head, his eyelids at half-mast. “Don’t bother Tim, unless he’s right there… I’m sure he wouldn’t have much to say. If he’s still up, I’ll see him when I get home. How’re the driving lessons going with Jake?”

Casey leans back against the counter, exhaling as if from a cigarette, wishing, in fact, that she had one. “Oh, a few setbacks,” she manages to say, “but I’m sure he’ll bounce back. I think he needs a little break from it right now.”

“You know best,” Paul says, and remorse shoots through Casey like an electric shock. He trusts her so.

*

Casey hangs up and runs to the basement. She lifts the twisted, wet little blanket from the washing machine and places it with several fabric softening sheets in the dryer. Paul has been good to her, and she’s tried so hard to be good to him, to be of use to this family in their grieving time. But now—she sighs as she turns on the dryer—this business with Jake. She regrets every minute of it. No. That is not true. Not really. She had been hurting, and Jake had been impossible to resist. He was like a cross between a grown man and one of the stray puppies she’d secretly fed from the woodshed back home. Huge brown eyes and that way he looks at her, like she’s the answer to everything.

Supper. Back in the kitchen, Casey throws open the refrigerator door to see what’s there. Ground beef and potatoes. Meatloaf. Comfort food. Yes. Toenails click on the vinyl floor, and Casey looks down to see Roscoe panting, his nose near the deli drawer. She reaches out a hand and absent-mindedly pets him. She’d been thrilled when accepting this position to find they had a dog. Her childhood fantasy of a happy family. But he’s not my dog, Casey thinks now, as she closes the refrigerator door and rolls potatoes onto the counter. He’s not my dog. She turns on the oven. It’s not my house. They aren’t my boys. A hard lump forms in Casey’s throat. He isn’t my husband. The refrain in her head won’t quit. It’s not my kitchen. She tears the plastic off the ground beef, dumps it into a bowl, and cracks two eggs violently against the rim. Not mine. Not mine.

Casey thinks of the wedding band and the green sweater, and something twists in her stomach. She thinks of the little pastel blanket, being tossed in the warm heat of the dryer below her, and a fierce sense of possession fills her. My blanket. Mine. Something like calm comes over her.

Casey slides the pan of meatloaf into the oven along with the potatoes, and runs down the steps to the basement laundry. She glances behind her before opening the dryer. The blanket’s still damp. Casey folds a few of Paul’s polo shirts at the laundry table, puts them in a basket, and takes it to Paul’s bedroom. She has to see the picture again. She pushes the door open with her hip, both hands occupied with the basket, and puts it down in front of the photograph. Her eyes fill with tears. Even with the green sweater, she looks nothing like Andrea. She will never be Andrea. And Jake is no little boy.

And then she senses someone standing in the doorway, and looks up to see Tim’s shocked face.

“Sorry,” he says, “I thought Dad was home. I…”

Casey can see his wheels turning, wondering what she’s doing in his father’s bedroom. She’s glad she’s brought the laundry basket.

“Oh, Tim, I was just putting away your father’s laundry,” she says, patting the basket and placing a small pile of Paul’s folded shirts on top of his dresser. “He called, you know—he’ll be home around 10:15. He sounded like he was hoping you’d still be up.” Casey ventures a smile in his direction. Tim doesn’t say a word, just stands there, almost nodding, Casey thinks, but not quite. Casey tilts her chin towards the photograph on Andrea’s dresser. “I was just looking at this picture,” she says. “It’s so… so sweet.” Casey swallows, trying to call forth the right words. “You must miss her,” she almost whispers.

Tim’s eyes are fixed on the carpet, and Casey can see him swallow, too. He turns and leaves the room without a word. Casey knows better than to stop him. She promises herself that the next time Paul and the boys are all out of the house, she will return Andrea’s ring to its rightful place. She crosses her fingers that in the meantime, Tim will not arouse Paul’s suspicion by mentioning her presence in his room.

She bends down to pick up the empty laundry basket. When she looks up, Jake is standing there, jaw tight, staring at her aggressively as he holds out the receiving blanket with one hand. With the other, he pushes the door closed behind him.

“What’s this?” he demands, whipping the blanket around the way boys brandish towels in a locker room. “Are you—are you… pregnant?”

Casey gasps. “No! It’s for a friend of mine,” she lies, “a friend who just had a baby boy.”

Jake looks doubtful—Casey had said she was new to the area. “A friend… around here?”

“No, back home. Look, Jake,” she recovers her balance, pulls herself up straighter, “I’m sorry you’re hurt. It never should have happened, any of it.”

Jake says nothing, breath comes out hard through his nostrils.

“But, Jake. I need my locket back. Please.”

A flicker of a smile plays across his lips. “Who is she?”

The picture of her mother. That he had seen it felt like more of a violation than anything that had happened between them.

“Your mother?” he prods her.

“Yes,” she whispers, her eyes on the carpet.

“Did she die too? Is that why you came here?” He is angry, and suddenly suspicious.

“No. Yes.” Her chin shakes in confusion. “I…”

“And what are you doing in here?” He watches her, and she knows there is no right answer. “You took my mother’s ring.” His chin wags in bewilderment. “Who do you think you are?”

Casey’s eyes grow wide. He’s found out; it can only grow worse now. She closes her eyes. All she wants now is her locket; she knows she will not have a home here much longer.

“Jake.” Her voice is desperate, tired. “I’ve made a mistake. A lot of mistakes. Please. I’m putting the ring back. I’ve… that’s been my plan all along.” Casey, for the first time, feels very old. “But please. I want my locket back. I need it. You must know… to have something… it’s all I’ve got.” She closes her eyes. Maybe when she opens them he will be holding out the locket.

“You can’t just—” a ragged sob escapes from Jake’s throat, “come here like this and then—oh, man. Casey, what are you?”

She charges past him in the doorway, runs down the hall. Slams and locks the door. In the narrow bed she slaps a pillow over her head, yanks up a quilt. No one must hear her cry. None of that. Bound to fall apart. Everything. Her head throbs. She turns on her side, facing the wall of Escher prints. Stairs lead nowhere, faceless knights march in formation and end up back where they started. While she stares unblinking at one staircase, it suddenly shifts direction. Casey turns and faces the door.

*

She awakens to voices shouting and the shrill, recurrent beep of the smoke alarm. Amidst the shouting, a door opens and shuts. Paul’s alarmed voice reaches her, as he asks the boys what the hell is going on, and where on earth has Casey gone?

She rolls out of bed, checks her face in the mirror (no red eyes) and slips into her clogs. Pull yourself together. She runs to the kitchen. An acrid smell, a fog of smoke. Charred meatloaf and scorched spuds.

“I am so sorry,” she says, skidding past Paul, who is disabling the smoke alarm. “I fell asleep… I thought I’d set my alarm…” flustered, she grabs two potholders, turns the oven off, and hurries the pan of meatloaf out to the deck. Jake follows, carrying four blackened potatoes in a kitchen towel.

“You trying to burn the house down now?” He shakes his head in disgust. “There’s no end to your little tricks.”

Casey turns away, her eyes smarting. Paul will think it’s because of the smoke.

She finds him in the kitchen with Tim. They open more windows, turn on the exhaust fan.

“Oh, Paul,” she croaks, “Some welcome home! Guess I won’t lie down again while anything is cooking. Even something as forgiving as meatloaf and potatoes.

Paul gives her an odd look. “Well.” He clears his throat. “That’s why we have smoke alarms. So,” he says, glancing around the kitchen and finally opening the refrigerator door, “I take it you haven’t eaten?”

She wishes this were his attempt at humor, but a glance at his face tells her that it’s not.

“No. The boys and I haven’t had supper. Did you… did you eat?”

He shrugs. “I’ll have some… cereal.” Tim is already pouring himself a bowl. Jake was nowhere to be seen. Not, she hoped, fetching that blanket from her room. Or the ring, either.

Casey can think of nothing but escaping from the kitchen. But she busies herself washing the pots and bowls she’d left in the sink earlier, then unloads the dishwasher.

“Is there anything I can get you, Paul, before I turn in?” she asks. “It’s been a long day—for all of us, I think.”

He finishes a mouthful. “No, we’re fine,” he says, inclining his head to include Tim. “But I would like to speak with you in the morning, before I leave for work. There are several things we need to discuss.”

Casey can only nod, murmur her good-night, and walk down the hall. Not until morning will she be confronted. No doubt Tim has told Paul of her lingering in his room, and who knew what Jake has revealed. And being absent and asleep while supper filled the house with smoke really doesn’t help Casey’s case.

But she has to get that locket back before she is fired. She will have no leverage then. Jake has disappeared, but the door to his room is closed tight. She thinks he is in there, but he might have left the house in the midst of the commotion. Casey ponders what to do, her desperation mounting. She returns to her room and writes a note.

Dear Jake,

I am sorry about all our misunderstandings. I know we are both hurt. But I must have my locket back. I will do anything you “want.” It can be a win-win. Please come see me after you read this.

Casey

Casey puts the note in a small pink envelope, seals it, and waits until she’s heard Paul and Tim go to bed. Then she tiptoes down the hall and slips the note under Jake’s door, and knocks as softly as she can. She listens, ear to the door, and hears the padding of feet, the rustle of paper. She sidles away from his room and stands flush against the wall near her own door.

Jake opens his door, looks right, then left. His eyes widen and his nostrils flare as he sees Casey. His long stride carries him down the hall in seconds.

“You whore!” he rasps. “I’m not what you think I am.” He gulps back tears.

Casey is struck speechless.

“Here, take it.” Jake stuffs the locket into her right hand. “I wouldn’t deprive you of your mother.” His eyes narrow. “Or try to take her place, either.”

Casey’s mouth drops open and her free hand reaches up to cover it. Slowly she backs into her room. “I am so sorry,” she says, lowering her eyes just before she closes the door, shutting him out.

In her room Casey pulls out her cheap faux-leather suitcase. She packs the little blanket first, followed by the green sweater, but suddenly they mean nothing to her. Tokens of something that she had not been quite a part of. But leaving them behind will only raise more questions.

Andrea’s ring she leaves on the dresser. Let Paul think what he will. Casey had thought she would write a note to Paul, but she can’t. Not when she thinks of her note to Jake and the reaction it brought.

Casey gets her winter coat from the closet and puts it on. There is a little chill in the air. She picks up her locket, opens it, and kisses her mother’s picture. The woman looking back at her is younger than Casey is now. Wounded and wild.

“We were both made for leaving, I guess,” Casey whispers. Hoisting the little bag that holds all she owns, she walks through the door.

 

Copyright 2014 by Suzanne Ketchum Adams